Satan Unabashed

This is such a sad story, even though no one was killed: ISIS destroys Al Nuri Mosque

Those in my congregation love our church building, but imagine a much grander version that had been around for 1000 years, blown to bits.  No one needs to be convinced that ISIS is evil; I could cite another story this morning that they are shooting families with children who are fleeing the battle, trying to frighten people into remaining so they will be human shields.

Many of us are so embarrassed by the idea of Satan, the devil.  I read Silas a version of the temptation of Jesus by the devil the other night, and in response to his questions found myself offering a clever metaphorical explanation of the devil, assuring him that an actual devil doesn’t exist like a person.  And I believe that, of course.  It goes with our Christian faith that Christ has conquered Satan, and also that in Christ grace has been extended to all, even the fiends of ISIS.  That’s why we pray for enemies.  We’ve also seen invocations of a real Satan used to great harm, by Christians and others.  Perhaps too conveniently, my disbelief in the devil also go along nicely with modern, Enlightenment, and liberal values in the inherent goodness and rationality of each person. True enough also.  No baby is destined to become an ISIS thug.

But then people fall into a path that leads them to love death and destruction.  We’ve seen recent examples of this by white and sometimes Christian terrorists, too.  Happily, they act alone.  ISIS manages to embody this same evil spirit on a grand scale, pushing a love of death beyond all bounds. Despite our sincerest hopes for them and our optimism that is embarrassed by words like “evil”–not to mention all the words that no longer ring with gravity, like “nefarious,” “villainous,” “dastardly,” words that only call to mind clownish images like Snidely Whiplash– these people continue to demand our belief in Satan.

We do not need to dwell on them to excess, but I can’t help think of how somewhere, ISIS commanders are admiring a sight like I am now admiring–tall trees set against a blue sky.  Somewhere they are feeling with delight the sun on their face, as I am now feeling delight.  And somewhere a little deeper than that, Satan is ruling within them.  And not in me, thanks be to God.

 

 

June 18, 2017: “Trinity Time”

Since our Children’s Sunday was last week, I moved Trinity Sunday to the 18th,  I felt like the sermon was a bit too busy.  The main point I set out to make is that the Trinity reconfigures our experience of time.  But based on the reading from 2 Cor., I went off on an interesting digression about grace as distinct from love.  I used the Genesis 1 reading as an enacted call to worship, connecting it to the elements of light, water, and flowers in our worship space.   

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

 

We are celebrating Trinity Sunday today. Immersing ourselves in the mystery of the Trinity will be quite a leap from the “Life for Others” sermon series during the seven weeks of Easter. There I emphasized that the essence of the Christian faith is simple and practical. If you can live for others, you can be a Christian; there are no great leaps of intellectual comprehension or belief required. That’s still true. But while I want to continue to emphasize that we welcome a flexible and diverse approach to belief in this church, this is an appropriate time to revel in the richness of traditional Christian faith. For on this Sunday we have just reached a milestone in our church year. Over the last six months our liturgical year has celebrated the presence and work of God in our own likeness as Jesus the Christ, and two weeks ago we celebrated the continuing work of Jesus Christ among the disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit, all according to the plan and all to the glory of God the source of all, the one we call Father. So after these six months, we are now in the position to survey and admire the totality of God’s works as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in what have been called three persons, but we might also call these three dimensions of God’s one being. This is the Trinity, and already it sounds superfluously abstract and intellectually vain—a delight for theological nerds that is lacking in any practical importance. I think it’s a shame, but we are used to thinking about the Trinity as mostly pointless speculation about God’s eternal being, far removed from our everyday life in the here and now of time.

But I noticed that in each one of our readings today, words evocative of the Trinity show up in relation to time. The Trinity is hinted at in the very beginning of creation in Gen 1. It appears again at the very end of Paul’s contentious letter to the Second Corinthians. And the Trinity is invoked as Jesus sends his disciples out on their mission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, along with the promise that Jesus will be with us until the end of “the age.” So it seems that the Trinity is not just about the arcane truths of God in heaven; the Trinity ought to frame our whole relation to time, which means that the Trinity is all about here and now.

Now, I have labored hard to understand the Trinity; I’ve read many explanations of the Trinity; and I wrote one myself in an academic journal, which I think holds its own against the many others out there. [Story] This labor has helped me understand God, but also what we do here in church and what really matters about what we do. And it has even affected my understanding of the world all around me. And not just understand, but love God and the world better.

I’m pretty sure that clarifying the Trinity is not going to solve all our problems. But it is just possible that some of our confusion, lack of unity, lack of direction; some of our hesitance to really live into the Christian faith, comes from this dark cloud that forms in our mind whenever we hear the word, Trinity. “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to know about that, and I’m supposed to believe in it. But I don’t know how, so I’m just going to pretend it’s not too important for right now.” We can’t be sure how much that dark cloud is affecting us until we dispel it with the beautiful luminosity of God as a one in three.

That will take some time. It’s not a matter of a quick and easy formula. A good explanation of the Trinity leads you to the brink of what lies beyond comprehension. I can’t just define the Trinity for you, and you have it. Along the way to really understanding it, you also have to understand everything else afresh, now seeing it in light of the Trinity. After all, everything is created by God, right? And if God is three-in-one, then that will leave some kind of stamp on everything God made, including time—which we fancy can be adequately understood by a watch and a calendar app. But already in the very beginning of time, as Genesis 1 describes it, we see the Trinity present, or at least alluded to. The triune God is already there in the beginning of all things. We see this first when Genesis tells us that “a spirit from God swept over the face of the waters,” although the word “spirit” can also be translated as wind or breath. We never hear anything else about this spirit in chapter one. It’s mysterious. You get the sense that this windy Spirit is perhaps stirring up the water, “making waves,” quietly bringing about momentous change. But the Spirit is invisible; like the wind, you only feel and see it by its effects. And surely, God is also invisible, and we never see or completely understand God.

But God doesn’t just silently move and blow, God also speaks. “Let there be…” In most of the world’s creation stories, the gods form and shape something (that goes for Genesis 2 also), and sometimes the gods have to kill a beast in order to create. It’s so unusual in Genesis 1 that God creates so calmly and peacefully by speaking the Word. As it happens, the word, “Word,” is one of the key words that Christians use for the second person of the Trinity, also called the Son. John begins his Gospel by evoking Genesis 1: “In the beginning / was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The language is simple but the idea is very difficult: the Word was with God and was God. How’s that work? Welcome to the Trinity.

Now, what does it mean that part of the reality of God can be described as “Word?” A Word is simply anything God does or says, typically through a spokesman, that unlike the invisible movement of the Spirit, becomes a permanent marker by which we can recognize God, or identify an action as typical of God. A Word of God is repeatable, visible, and intelligible. A Word can take the form of a command, or a promise. It can be a saying of the prophets or a parable of Jesus. The Word can also be a song, or a ritual like our sacraments, which we repeat in order to better understand God and our relation to God.

But here in Genesis the primary Word is, “Let there be.” God is letting all this non-divine stuff come into being, all organized by the fundamental differences that make up our world, as between day and night, land and sea, and the great diversity of living creatures. God isn’t engineering all this stuff. Genesis doesn’t describe how God lets it all be. There shouldn’t be any problem saying that God lets the universe be by way of the scientific theory of the Big Bang, or that God lets the diverse array of creatures be / by way of evolution. God isn’t portrayed as a micromanager In Genesis. Just as one who lets be. And God doesn’t say so, but we are told that God saw that all of this diversity was good.

Now, what does it mean to let something be by pronouncement, while silently judging to oneself that it is good?   I think we call this “grace.” As in the reading we had from Second Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In his closing Trinitarian benediction, Paul doesn’t start with the first person of the Trinity, the “Father,” but with the second person, “the Son,” the Word, whom he identifies as Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul associates grace with Jesus Christ, just as he associates love with the Father and communion or fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Now why, you might ask, does Paul associate grace with Jesus Christ and love with God the Father? Well, let’s keep in mind that all of these qualities belong to God. But Paul’s way of assigning a particular divine trait to each person of the Trinity can help us understand why there is a three-ness to God.   And the most visible and identifiable and repeatable characteristic of God, made known to us by the Word of Jesus Christ, is grace.

Grace, charis in Greek, means having favor toward someone or having a good disposition toward someone. In Paul’s use of the word especially in Romans, grace is something unearned from God, the result of a free gift. God’s good favor is something we don’t earn or deserve, something that isn’t obviously and self-evidently our right or our property. Paul mentions the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then “The Love of God.” These are not quite the same. Parents know that they love their children. Spouses know of their own love for the other. But we all get angry and dismayed with even our dearest loved ones. And we all feel guilt and shame at what we do, or at least at our strange and uncontrollable inner thoughts. It isn’t always obvious in our anger and dismay that we love those most dear, and it isn’t always obvious that we should be loved by those most dear. That’s why it needs to be said. We need to say, and to hear, the words, “I love you.” Love needs to be a stated commitment, because what you are committing to is not yet mutually firm and fully in place. As true as this is in human relationships, it is much more true for God’s relationship to humanity. God tells the Israelites through Moses, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Neither part of that commitment was obvious; neither part could be taken for granted. Words both affirm what is not yet obvious, and make it possible for us to aim at fulfilling that commitment.

It is not obvious that the Israelites were God’s people; they never really fulfilled that promise, just as we, the New Israel, have yet to fulfill that promise. It is not obvious that human beings are created in the image of God, nor that we have a justifiable dominion over a planet that we are placing in peril. It is not obvious that we have some special favor or grace from God, a special calling or honor, when you consider the awful things we do or let happen. We need Jesus Christ to reveal this far-from-obvious grace to us. We need a Word of grace that we can perceive outside of us to this effect, assuring us of our favor with God. It needs to be objective and to come from outside of us, because we do not usually feel worthy of God’s favor; true enough. But also, in a way, we really are not worthy. We really are sinful, our world is a mess and all of us are tainted by and implicated in our messed up world, especially when we consider the absolute holiness and perfection of God. And Jesus Christ is this perfected Word of Grace from God, both assuring of God’s forgiveness and also embodying in himself a humanity that is truly faithful and just and loving, like we all should be. Jesus is the pride and joy of all humanity, which otherwise often has little to show for itself.

That is why Jesus is also our judge, the one who will come to judge the world. We’ve told ourselves “God is love” until those words barely have meaning any more, or at least they have long since ceased to pack a punch. That’s why, first of all, Jesus Christ is the grace of God, because through him we realize that God’s love is not our right or entitlement. Jesus Christ is grace, because he brings both the good news of God’s mercy as well as the awakening to our need for repentance. Christ Jesus remains ours and yet is distinct from us, one standing apart from us and taking our place.

Only through him and the grace Christ represents do we properly arrive at what Paul calls “the love of God,” or we might say, the love of the Father, the first person of the Trinity, the source and destiny of all. This deepest dimension of God’s being is, whether we realize it or not, invisible and incomprehensible to us. This is the God who told Moses, “You cannot see me face to face and live.” If we arrogantly assume we know exactly who and what God is, we will quickly end up with an idol, a little god of our own making who is indeed a false god, a golden calf. The God of love can also become our idol, a god created according to our need, an idol we make to give us assurance, rather than to be our Lord. Only when we know this incomprehensible God through the Word, through Jesus the Christ, crucified for the sin of the world and risen to bring the world reconciliation, can we know the love of God, without making that loving God into our idol—as if all if right with us and the world, it only needs a heavenly sheen of blessing. No. The world is God’s creation but it has all gone wrong; the Kingdom of God comes to turn our world upside down, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the world. And yet: God has offered us peace and reconciliation in the midst of this quagmire, a world where children die unnecessarily every day and the world shrugs. This is a troubling paradox, this grace amidst our fallen world. Only a paradoxically triune God can hold together grace and love with a world so unworthy.

We are now in ordinary time, which covers the six months or so from Pentecost until the new liturgical year that begins with Advent. We’ve just finished hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension as our own story, the story that tells us the most important truths about ourselves and all humanity. And that time concluded with the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, giving them the power to be the community that continues to testify to God in Jesus and that acts as the continuing presence of Christ and of his kingdom here on earth, while awaiting what is to come (that’s who we really are, folks). This has been Trinity story time, a story about the Son and the Spirit granting the world a participation in the glory of God the Source and End of all, beyond all time.   This is what time is for us: it comes from a past of timeless truth with the Word, continues into an open presence with the Spirit, and leads us into union with the Eternal God.

It is an open-ended story. 2000 years later, despite some fresh challenges, we still have everything in this room to be the Spirit-filled Kingdom in Christ’s name, participating in God’s eternal life here and now. The Bible is still our extraordinary window onto divine truths, even if we have to work a little to interpret its truths. Our sacraments are still effective in connecting us to our origin in Jesus as our Word of God. We don’t have to live one day after another, same old same old, until our allotted years come to an end. We can instead live each day in the drama of Trinity Time. Each day can begin with God the creator as its ultimate origin; each day can be made possible by the grace of Jesus the Christ, who has revived human life so that it can experience mercy and love amidst terror and heartache; and each day can bring us the feeling of the Spirit rippling across our depths, moving us by a power we don’t own but that we cannot deny. What a shame that we just got all the pieces of the Trinity in place for Trinity Time, right as summer is starting and most of us are about to scatter (including me). Don’t forget about the Trinity this summer. Repeat Paul’s nice benediction in your prayers every day. Let it sink in to you, let take you over, and it will bear you up and sweep you along like the perfect wave at the beach. Come summer’s end, I want Trinity Time to start here in earnest.

There is neither Red nor Blue in Christ Jesus, part 1

In the fall I am planning on a sermon series addressing the intersection of political attitudes and the church.  This article is precisely on point for that topic.  Partisanship in America is becoming more and more hostile, as this NYT piece documents: Partisanship worsening-NYT.  I think the import of this for the church is clear.  The church needs to be a place where people can come together across the political spectrum, just as it was from the start a place where Jew and Greek, slave and free, and men and women could come together as one.  The UCC and other churches have rightly focused on racism; but as the above article purports to show, prejudice is now worse across partisan lines than across racial lines.  (Prejudice, it should be noted, is only one part of racism; the economic factor has no corollary in the partisan divide.)

Just bringing people together will do some good for our social cohesion.  But it will not by itself help us mend our political vision to find commonality.   Besides, it is not the church’s God-given mission to promote social cohesion.  Jesus hardly did that!  (“I come not to bring peace but a sword…”)  So for both reasons, our coming-together needs to have some political content; we need to work toward crafting a shared political vision.  (“Political vision” here just means ideas about how to live together in a society.)

I am thinking carefully about how we can do that as a church.  I am highly critical of how churches typically do this, whether on the right or the left.  Both sides have thoughtlessly promoted and even called down divine sanction on our growing partisan divide.  Those on the right have done so more forcefully and therefore with more harm, I think, but those on the left have dominated small, old line denominations like ours (the UCC); so I feel a keen responsibility to challenge those nearest to me.

Here’s some guidelines I have come up with so far.  Please comment on these and give me your thoughts and advice!

  1. It should be made clear from the outset that a pastor in the pulpit does little good by advocating particular government policies.  I have no government officials in my congregation.  The most I could do is sway some votes, which would almost certainly have no effect anyway.  The real point of pronouncements on public policy seems to be to make the preacher feel like he or she is making a stand.  But such a mostly ineffectual stand would cause political division for no purpose, unless the proper understanding of the gospel is at stake.  As I’ve written about elsewhere, political advocacy from the pulpit should focus on local political issues that can actually be affected by our involvement.
  2. That also means that ‘hot button’ political topics should be avoided.  Our political-media machine has effectively used polarizing topics to organize our political discourse into polarizing issues (abortion, gay rights, social programs).  A dialogue on politics in the church will be refreshing if it looks at fundamental political ideas: what is the meaning of freedom? What is the nature of a human being?  What is our highest good?  These are topics that the Gospel can shed real light on.
  3. That the Gospel is the source of light here will be all the more evident and convincing if the preacher contrasts the gospel message with political views of both the left and the right.  The worst offense is cherry-picking biblical passages to match one’s pre-determined political bias.  A politics based on the gospel will not be nationalistic, nor will it be secularist; it will not defend tradition and our ways, nor will it defend individual rights as such; it will not justify economic disparities, nor will it take purely economic equality as the chief goal; it will not be libertarian in either a conservative or liberal way.  I am convinced that partisan thinking and the polarized structure of our political discourse has resulted in simplistic and false thinking for us all.
  4. Because a gospel politics will provide little support for libertarian or nationalist views and will tend to be critical of economic disparity, a gospel politics will tend toward the left on these matters. (It is hard to square the Bible with the conservative side of these views.  On the other hand, the personal moral relativism that crops up on the left will find little support in the gospel.)  What needs to be made clear, then, is that this “gospel politics” applies first and foremost to the political values that the church considers as a body politic.  The question of how they apply beyond the church to our national political institutions should be left quite open.  For instance, it is impossible for the church as a church to subscribe to libertarianism, but one could still argue that libertarianism is the best ideology for governing our national political policy.  In any event, public policy should be crafted by paying careful attention to social scientific research, which is not the domain of the preacher.  But for the church’s political action, social science is not as relevant.

My thinking about how to talk about politics in church continues to evolve.  It helps a lot to listen to people in my congregation as full-bodied, complicated human beings who also express political views!  Again, please click on “comment” to share your thoughts.

I know most people–nearly everyone–is uncomfortable with the topic of faith and politics.  But avoiding it, or dealing with it as we have done, is not really working.  And the crisis in our society around politics is undeniable.  If the church can’t find a way to bring us meaningfully together, we will be failing in our calling.  And already the church has been horribly scarred by politics; the wound is already inflicted and we need to find a way to heal.  Look at Protestantism: we are almost perfectly divided along ideological lines between the old-line denominations and the evangelical denominations and movements.  Christ’s body is already rent asunder.  Is this a peace worth preserving?

7th in Easter: “Life for Others: The Church of Mutual Love”

I was away at Jessica’s 20th college reunion last week, but I hear the confirmand class did a beautiful job leading worship. Today is Memorial Day; I just offered upon request a prayer at the Granby Memorial Day parade, a lovely event, that probably came off a little odd.  I remain unsure as a pastor in this patriotic small town how to connect the Gospel to a desire among some in the community for the church to offer a kind of general blessing upon civic life.  

On this seventh Sunday in Easter, we only brought Memorial Day into the liturgy by including veterans in our prayers; someone also decided to make “America the Beautiful” into our recessional music.  But with this Sunday being the last in our regular Easter season (the pinnacle of the Christian sacred year), and with this also being the Sunday after Ascension, and the last Sunday in my “Life for Others” series, I had plenty to deal with in the liturgy.   

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 ; John 17:1-11

I am at week seven of my series on “Life for Others.” It’s not easy spinning out a seven-week series on three little words, especially when I’m using as much of the set lectionary Scripture readings as I can. Perhaps it has not been easy for you, either. In seven weeks, I think I’ve exhausted all the possible wordplays on “life for others,” except that at times this phrase has felt like a “life sentence” for us all.

But I have no regrets about having so much to say about “life for others.” The idea has been that this phrase conveniently distills the simple essence of Christian life. It really is that simple: being a Christian requires no elaborate mental gymnastics, no belief in arcane and mystical realities. Being a Christian is not primarily about mental belief. It is about your life taking on a certain shape: being for others. For those of you who are new to church, I hope it is helpful to see that at heart, being a Christian is at its most basic about how you live your life. That basic insight can also be a helpful reminder for us long-time Christians, too. In essence, what we are about here is very simple, and anyone is able to join us. There’s no great expertise required.

But to be sure, I also made the phrase “life for others” into a window into the deeper mysteries at the center of our worship. I do not think Christianity would be the same if we got rid of worship and our special, sometimes obscure language about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and if we left off the sacraments. I don’t think the sermon for every week could just be reduced to: “Go live for others!” (Although I can feel the lovers of short services begin to fantasize: “with no communion and a four-word sermon, we could be in and out of here in five minutes!”) So I made the case, at some length and requiring a good deal of patience on your part, that the phrase “life for others” implies and perhaps requires us to believe that Jesus Christ is life for others, even and especially in his death on a cross. It is mysterious but true, that because Jesus gave his life all to God for all, we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to God and give away our lives for others, because first off, God wanted to give us life to live and enjoy and share. But we in the church are also called, to various extents, to give ourselves to others in imitation of Jesus. This is not just a nice but idealistic gesture; it is a participation in the supernatural life of Christ that constitutes our eternal life. This is why 1st Peter tells us to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, [and notice that means that we do not have to share fully in his sufferings] so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”

So even while we enjoy for ourselves the goodness of creation, we are called as a church to take on the self-giving life for others that Jesus perfected; and I’ll say more later about how this life for others is grounded eternally in God. It is because life for others rests on God’s own life that we really welcome all here, and why we continually try to reach out to the whole world, if only through small efforts of prayer and support for our denomination’s ministry to the far corners of the world.

But today, on this last Sunday before Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church, I want to talk about life for others as the unique shape of our community. For there is something particularly beautiful and inspiring about what we are called to be as a church community. And that is a community of mutual love. Because that is what you get when “life for others” becomes the shape of a stable, local community: mutual love. I live for you, and you live for me, and we all live for each other.

And isn’t that the kind of community you want to live in, deep down in your created nature? Isn’t that what everyone wants, deep down? At least, my faith tells me that this is what we all want. But I suppose that is only obvious to the eyes of faith. You know why? Because we’ve all been conditioned to think that what we actually want is that I live for me, and you should just mind your own damn business. That’s the gist of all our deserted island fantasies and our suburban utopia dreams. I’ll do whatever I want to do here, and you can do whatever you want over there, and if I decide I need anything from you, I’ll call your people and we’ll negotiate a deal.

This is not life for others, it is capitalism. It is business, it is commerce. And that’s ok. Once people no longer feel like they belong to each other, once we no longer love and implicitly trust one another, if we ever really did, capitalism can successfully step into the breach as a successful system for negotiating relationships of mutual benefit. And “mutual benefit” sounds almost like life for others, which I just described in the church as “mutual love.” But the difference is crucial. God in Christ has not offered us a mutually beneficial deal, even if in 1st Peter it almost sounds like we suffer so that God will pay us back; but in reality God has given himself to us so that we can give ourselves to God and to the world. We need to attend carefully to the difference, and insist upon it, because capitalism has been if anything too successful, so that it wants to imagine itself as the only system, the only way to be a community. Capitalism wants to recreate the whole world, including the church, in its image.

I was just talking to an acquaintance—a good guy—who is very successful at finance, and he is quick to talk as if everything we are or we do is a product, and everyone is in competition to make and acquire the best product. It’s a useful way to talk, in some contexts; maybe even the church can talk about our “product”—but in doing so we run the risk of losing our soul. Because at heart we are about loving and giving, not competition over products. Even the most ardent capitalist knows—God help him if he doesn’t—that our own families are not about products and competition. I am not offering Silas the product of fatherhood which he, being a child, is in the market for. That does sound absurd, right? I am his father; he is my son; we love each other, we give ourselves to one another, we belong to one another. The shape of our relationship is not producer and consumer; it is life for one another or mutual love. No one is foolish enough to let one’s relationship to a lover or to family become a commodity, although capitalism has no doubt encouraged us to see even love as something I choose to do because it benefits me. But any parent can see that this is false.

Capitalism has been an effective system, but it robs us of our deep belonging to one another; it cannot do love. When it tries, it ends up with prostitution. We don’t want that; we want real, authentic love. And so the community of mutual love that we are as a church is something that people will realize they really do want, eventually. We could call it our sure-fire “product;” but it is not a product, because you don’t own love, love owns you. And love is our deepest desire because God created us for love.

The Gospel of John develops this idea of love with a particular profundity. Our reading this week comes from the four chapters of the gospel in which Jesus is having a long, last talk with his disciples after the last supper. In chapter 13 he announces the great commandment that we celebrate at Maundy Thursday: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That is the theme for the next four chapters of John.

In our reading today, Jesus is wrapping up his talk with a final prayer, that grounds this new commandment in God’s love. First he prays to God above, the Father: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” At the origin of everything Jesus does is a mutual love and mutual giving between the Son and the Father. As later theologians thinking about the Trinity would realize more deeply, this mutual glorifying goes well beyond the human Jesus, all the way back to a mutual relationship in God’s eternal being. Jesus prays, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” That’s mysterious language. Let’s translate it like this: Jesus began as an intention or plan of God from before all time, called “the Word,” and then he was born in time according to that intention (“and the Word was made flesh”). He proclaims now that he has fulfilled God’s intention, for he sees the cross and resurrection right around the corner; and we rightly read this speech after Easter because it is as if Jesus is summing up his whole ministry in retrospect. Now he wishes to return to the eternal presence of God. But we should realize that he’s not literally talking about going back to some place in the universe whence he came. No: he’s talking about ascending into God’s power and presence to all times and places. God is everywhere and in all times. Now Christ is about to be everywhere and in all times.

And therefore, this eternal presence of God in Christ is available here and now to us. We get used to thinking of “eternal life” as some heavenly realm far away. And the allusions to “eternal life” in the Gospel of John allow for several different interpretations of what eternal life is; just read the end of chapter 17. But in this passage Jesus explicitly defines it as simply understanding this relationship of mutual love between God and Jesus: “And this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life does not refer here to a place, or even a time. It is just knowing the mutual love that lies at the very heart of God, at the heart of the Trinity. I’ve written an academic essay about the Trinity, but don’t ask me to explain what this eternal love between the Father and Son at the heart of the Trinity looks like. But like I said last time, it means that for us, God really is love. God doesn’t just intend to love or desire to love. God’s very being involves an eternal love between the Father and Son, even though we can’t picture how that works.

Only after he prays to God above, the Father or Mother, does Jesus turn to praying for his disciples. This gets to the central insight of John’s gospel: our life for others as a mutual love here in the church is based on the reality of God as mutual love within the Trinity. In our acts and attitudes of loving one another, we are participating in God’s eternal life, this eternal love on which all things have been founded and created.

When Jesus finally gets around to praying to God for something on our behalf, the request is simple: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Do you see how he connects our love to his own love within God’s being? We, Jesus’ disciples, are part of the mutual giving between the Father and Son. “You [God] gave them to me,” says Jesus. And then Jesus taught us who God is: “The words that you have given to me, I have given to them.” So by sharing with us his intimate knowledge with God, we disciples are led from the Jesus we came to know in person, and the words and stories in scripture, to the inner reality of God that defines who Jesus most truly is. And so Jesus wasn’t really making us his disciples. He was showing us God the Father, and making us to participate in the eternal loving and mutual giving between God and the Son. It’s not so important that we memorize all of Jesus’ words, or preserve every fact about him: how he dressed, how he ate, remarkable things he said or did. Muslims have the delightful hadith about Mohammed, which are the stories collected about him outside of the Qur’an. We Christians have nothing like this about Jesus. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is living this life for others that Jesus showed us, this mutual love of giving ourselves to one another, for in doing so, we are participating in the shape of God’s own life, the mutual giving and glorifying between Father and Son. So we are not just followers of Jesus, we are participants in God’s eternal life. He prays to the Father: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” We are the glory of Christ. And because we are Jesus’, we are God’s.

This participating in God’s own life is not ours as individuals. It’s is not a divine spark that is found within each one of us individually. (That’s an inside joke with Connie Brown, whom I am shamelessly teasing because I am a rascal. Connie deserves a better pastor.) God is not in me and then again in you. I am told that the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” means something like, “The god in me greets the god in you.” That’s lovely, but it’s not what John’s Gospel is talking about. It is not as if we each individually are God or each have our own piece of God. We only participate in God by loving one another. Jesus prays to God that his disciples “may be one, as we are one.” The ultimate reality of God is one. Not as we sometimes picture God, a grand paternalistic old man sitting alone on a throne in heaven. The oneness of God is an act of loving. If we could see this oneness of God, it wouldn’t look like a single person or thing; we would only see something like a Mother or Father, a source or origin, and a Son, or expression of that invisible origin. There is not one person in God, one entity, as we often think. There is ultimately a oneness but it is itself love: the mutual giving and receiving, the sharing of these two. This is what God finally is for John’s gospel, and we have to think of this love that is God as existing before any distinction of Father and Son—but now we are into deep and mind-blowing mysteries.

Because we inevitably think love comes second. First there’s me. And I meet some attractive girl and then we decide to get married. And then from the two of us come some children, and then I love them. But that’s not the truth./ You may think that you visited this church one day, and you liked the people and the reverent but informal worship. The sermon was long and ponderous, but you endured it, and finally you decided you love this place. Maybe you even thought you had found a bargain: you’ll pledge some money, maybe volunteer here and there, and in return you’ll get that communal good-feeling and a place for your child to learn some wholesome values. But that’s not the truth. That’s not what is really happening, according to John. The love that we enact here is a participation in God’s eternal life that has preceded us and our decisions. That’s why Jesus can talk about “those you [God] gave to me.” The love we participate in here stands at the origin of all things, and that love is more real and enduring than your calculations and decisions about how to spend your time and where to raise your kids. That love has created all the mutual giving in our cosmos: the mutual attraction of neutron and proton in each little atom of your body, the mutual attraction between sun and earth that makes all life possible, the explosive giving forth of the Big Bang as it continues to fan out in loving encounters across the universe. It’s all love, because the eternal loving trinity has created it all. And what we do here when we love each other, in our life for others, is to further show forth that eternal love, here and now. We know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Next week we’ll add the Spirit, and then we got the whole shebang.

5th in Easter-Life for Others: By God’s Eternal Life

Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14

“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.

But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.

When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.

And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?

So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.

Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.

In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.

Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.

And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)

So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.

And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know.   Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.

And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.

 

4th in Easter (May 7): Meditations on the Sacraments

A service featuring two baptisms and two first communions for our young folk provided the occasion for an informal meditation on baptism (“for all ages”) and a brief sermon on communion. 

On Baptism:

Jesus told his disciples make disciples of all peoples or nations, baptizing them. But he didn’t explain what baptism is and why we do it. Baptism looks kind of like a rite of initiation. Ever join a secret club? Or the scouts? Secret groups love to have special initiations to distinguish the members from those who are outside, in the dark.

Well, baptism isn’t quite like that. Baptism doesn’t distinguish us from those outside. You know why? Because Christ Jesus came for all. And all are saved in Jesus whether they know it or not. Baptism doesn’t unite you with us into some private club. It is for you and for us to recognize that we, and even everyone, are united with Christ and with God. Baptism unites us with Jesus Christ, it makes his life our life, but in Jesus Christ God united with all of humanity.

In fact, do you know when you were baptized? Well, in a weird way, you were baptized about 2000 years ago when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, because he was baptized for us and for all humanity. We sprinkled some water on you a few years ago, or we will in a few years, but you are baptized into Christ’s baptism. So baptism isn’t something that makes you different; it just shows you that you belong to Jesus, but so does everyone.

Baptism is weird, because when God acts, it is once and forever and always. (Can you say that with me: always, once, and forever.) So Liam and Isaac will be baptized today, but that baptism won’t happen just today. They may or may not feel changed today. And you might not remember the day of your own baptism, but that doesn’t matter. But because it’s by God, our baptism is always happening. You may find it means something different to you next week than it means today. It may feel different in 20 years.

Baptism and communion are our two sacraments. One uses water, the other uses bread and juice; both these sacraments unite us to God. God loves to take some good created stuff, add the Words esp. of Jesus, and then add the Spirit or power of God right now. God mixed all those together like a recipe, and what God makes is a people of God’s own—us. That’s what happened at Jesus’ baptism: God took water, added the Spirit who came down like a dove, and added a word: “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And why water? … I think God uses created stuff that means more than words can possibly say. Otherwise God would just use words and Spirit. But for all the reasons you suggest: water washes and purifies, it nourishes and refreshes, it can be calm or bubbly and splashing, we are born from water, and we can drown in water—it means both life and death; God created from water, God saved the Israelites by bringing them through the water of the Red Sea. Water holds all of that meaning, and so your baptism can mean all of that to you. So may your baptism never stop speaking to you. It is as deep as the ocean.

•••••

Sermon: “Life for Others: A Service of Baptism and First Communion”

Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-35

This is a truly blessed Sunday in Easter, blessed by baptism and communion, by the fullness of the two sacraments that we recognize as a denomination, blessed by milestones of grace in the lives of three children—let me take advantage of the fact that Silas and Jessica are away this weekend—three of the most wonderful children we could ever ask for. And two of them we’ve only been blessed to know for a few months, but already they have changed us and blessed us. And this Sunday is blessed yet in one other way, for both me and you, by having a shortened sermon.

We are puzzled by these sacraments, aren’t we? We like them, I think; we like the symbol and the ritual of them. You realize very quickly as a parent that children just naturally love symbol and ritual. And that means human beings naturally love symbol and ritual; archeological evidence of our earliest human ancestors, some 40,000 years ago, shows that they buried the dead, at least, with symbol and ritual. And hardly anyone in the intervening 40,000 years ever thought twice about having symbol and ritual, although many people reinterpreted and reimagined symbols and rituals, perhaps none did this as remarkably and with such impact as Jesus and his first disciples. But something has happened to some of us adults in just the last several hundred years to turn symbol and ritual into something alien, odd, perplexing. And so over several centuries, we’ve made worship into a time during which you don’t do much of anything. You sit. You don’t move. You don’t say much. Singing is ok. But you mostly sit and listen, and you get a message. And it better be a clear message, one that you can understand and that is useful. We—not us here but mostly our ancestors—have worked hard to suck all the ritual and symbol out of worship—all the elements that imply we are up against a great mystery. God, apparently, is a being easily and concisely grasped.

Granted, not without good reason were our ancestors suspicious of ritual and symbol. Our longer church tradition bears responsibility here for abusing the power of its symbol and ritual. Communion or the Eucharist came to be understood as the church’s to dispense as it saw fit; and if the church withheld communion—the meaning of “excommunicate”—then you were no longer receiving God’s grace and your salvation was in peril. As if God’s grace is a literal substance to be dispensed; and as if God’s grace really belonged to the church. I’m not just talking about medieval Catholicism, unfortunately; our forefather Jonathan Edwards was in favor of withholding communion until churchgoers could demonstrate that they had had a proper conversion experience. If you demonstrated this, you received a token—maybe you’ve seen these in local museums—and you presented this token at the time of communion.

Well, even we have a kind of mandated class for our young people to go through for first communion. And it was a beautiful thing to see every Sunday, as I rushed up to my office, passing Liam and Lydia, and often some parents or friends sitting in too, sitting around the table in the “upper room” of the parish hall, being guided by Marion Mason who has led this first communion class with joy and sincerity over many years. It was a beautiful thing.

Now, we started a discussion last year about how to state our requirements for communion, a discussion I look forward to getting back to—sorry Dennis that I got distracted from it. I learned in my UCC Polity and History course recently that we take seriously the Reformation slogan: Reformed and Always Reforming! Thoughts have changed about communion since our last official statement on it, and so we should revisit the issue. But no one here really believes that this first communion class is about fulfilling requirements to receive communion. Communion is about God’s grace, which in essence is always freely given to all. And we’ve never denied anyone communion here. No tokens required. But that doesn’t mean we can’t designate opportunities to deepen our understanding of what we are doing and what our symbols mean when we take communion, and how receiving the bread and juice as the body and blood of Jesus should change our lives.

Unfortunately, as Paul knew, Law has its perils. Whenever we set up an age at which you can properly do something with official approval, we often fall into the delusion that once you have that approval, you are done. You’re good. You’ve learned it all. Once you turn 18 and graduate from high school, you are an adult. / Those of us who have continued to suffer serious lapses of judgment into our 20s, our 30s, our 40s (that’s as far as I can go, I don’t know about you), we “adults” realize how artificial our markers of maturity are. We come to realize that whatever the law says, we never stop being sinners and fools. I don’t know if you make fewer mistakes as you ‘mature,’ or if you just have fewer excuses to make for them. And who is going to claim that once you reach 21, you are not fully competent to responsibly consume alcohol.

So I hate to break it to Liam and Lydia, but in fact you are not done understanding the meaning of communion, and how your lives should change in response to this gift. But that’s not because you didn’t do well in class. It’s because none of us understands communion fully. If we did, we wouldn’t have to do it. Jesus said, “Do this.” He didn’t say, make sure you understand this. Kind of like the old Nike ad, “Just do it,” (in other words, don’t overthink it). Communion is not exhausted by our mental understanding of it, no more than you can replace a meal with just thinking about food. On the other hand, ( because I cannot preach a gospel of Nike, who is a pagan goddess after all), Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me.” It is something we do towards remembering Jesus, towards understanding Jesus anew and keeping him as a part of our lives—a part as essential as food and drink. But we will never be done with the doing. And we will never be done with the symbol, the poetry, of: “This is my body”–certainly not by taking it literally. We will never be able to fully flatten out the poetry of communion into a message, so that we can finally say: it means this. This meal that is food at the same time as it is a covenant, the bread of presence, the blood of the Passover, the blood sprinkled on the people to ratify the covenant, the body broken for us—death, the blood spilled, yet still food and nourishment for life; the body that makes us into the body, we gathered as Christ’s continuing presence even as it was on the night he was betrayed—and are we not also betrayers? You have to learn to love the poetry, the symbol in all its ambiguity and disown the desire to flatten it out into something you can grasp and hold.

And is that not the message of the Road to Emmaus story in Luke? Jesus did teach his disciples on the road and made everything clear, although we aren’t given the details of that part, and the disciples do not recognize Jesus in his stunningly clear and useful—but still not short!—sermon. They recognize him not by what he says but by what he does. “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” And then he vanishes from their midst, leaving them with the bread. Recall that the risen Christ told Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It is not for us to hold on to the Jesus who walked and talked with his disciples. It is not for us to grasp Jesus and have him in our minds, with nice clear words. Even his own disciples understood him only poorly. / In Bible study Tuesday, we had a fascinating conversation about whether it would be good if we had Jesus’ own writings, the way Muslims have the mostly reliable words of Mohammed, for instance. I thought no. Jesus is a living presence who cannot be grasped and fixed mentally in word by any fundamentalist. We must always actively—“do this”—seek him through the poetry of symbol as the created, limited bodies that we are. So even if this is your 500th communion—as it may indeed be for our 50 year members—it is still something we can all do as our first communion.

 

 

 

 

 

3rd in Easter (4/30): “Life for Others: Life Also for Me”

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:17-23

In this Easter series, I am speaking of “Life for others” as the shape of Christian life. Now, I don’t think normally that we live too much for others; I don’t think  we are usually too selfless. It is easy in our culture to focus on yourself and to ignore others. But a total life for others sounds a little frightening. As a Christian, do I no longer have a life to myself anymore? Is life all for others? Our reading in Acts might make us wonder. It describes the heady days of the community among the first Christians. “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. they broke bread at home [which suggests that they were eating together in each other’s houses] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? We should all desire to have that kind of closeness as a community—and indeed, in some respects we do. But I skipped a line: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Hmm. That’s really lovely too. Imagine if we all sold our possessions and goods and shared the proceeds. Yeah. Still with me? This practice of sharing is picked up again in chapter four: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”—that’s nice—“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (I thought I just heard purses being clutched a little more tightly.) It goes on to say that they sold everything and then laid the money at the Apostles’ feet. Yikes. And in chapter 5 we get the infamous story of Ananias and Saphira, a believing husband and wife who sell their property but keep back “some of the proceeds for themselves.” Do you know what supposedly happened to them? They fell dead at Peter’s feet.

No, this is not a stewardship lesson. This is horrifying. According to Act’s description of the early church, they practiced a kind of communism, abolishing private property. Acts has the first church really practicing what we’ve been calling life for others. And the beauty of it is, we are told, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s really great; we could do more to emulate them in this regard. We could expand our use of the Deacons’ fund, for instance. But I don’t think we want God slaying some of us for holding back a little private property. (Maybe I’m wrong—are you ready to give up all your property?)

But why not? What could be more “life-for-others” than what Acts describes?  If we owe everything to God, as we say, why should we expect to have private property? Why shouldn’t we give it all up?

And let’s not talk just about property. The apostles and others in the community were sent out to preach the good news. It became their life. Paul worked a little on the side to support his ministry, which he did for free; and he could do this because he had no family or anything else going on. How much ministry are we doing? Like I said last week, a few of you put in incredible amounts of work for this church and in others forms of ministry. Most of us don’t. I don’t do my ministry here for free by working a little on the side. And unlike Paul I enjoy being married—fortunately to someone making more than I do. But none of us, I imagine, are avidly pursuing ministry the way Paul and the early disciples did. Well, why not? Is our Christian life not a life for others? Did the apostles not exemplify life for others? You know, we wouldn’t be here if they had not done this ministry; the church would not have expanded so rapidly and become a worldwide body of faith, extending well beyond its local Jewish roots, without this selfless work of apostles like Paul.

There is a genuine dilemma for us here that we need to dwell on. I believe it is a dilemma that helps us make sense of the cross—the suffering and death of Jesus. Now, usually we think of the cross as God’s answer to our personal sinfulness. Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive me. You will hear in our closing hymn a line to that effect. There may still be some insight in this way of thinking about the cross, but nowadays we pretty much assume that God is loving and merciful, and our sin is not so grave. Our need for forgiveness no longer poses the kind of great dilemma to which the cross is the clear answer.

In fact, for many UCC-type Christians, sin is no longer in our vocabulary. (A mistake, I think; but we need to think about sin in fresh ways.) Without sin, the cross is no longer very important. What matters is trying to inspire people to do more good works and to support the church—which is good. But I worry about losing the cross, and about perhaps getting so wrapped up in good works and social justice that we no longer can understand why we gather to worship—shouldn’t we just be out doing good things?

I think the dilemma that our Acts reading poses for us might help us get a better perspective on the cross. Again it was this: Why aren’t we sharing all our property? Why aren’t we subordinating everything else about our lives—our career and family and friends—to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, like the first apostles did? It’s not impossible for us to do this, and I hope and pray that some of us will. But let’s face it, we don’t, and that’s our dilemma. If a Christian life is life for others, why do we get anything for ourselves? Jesus told his disciples: take up your cross and follow me. We’re not doing that, mostly. Sure, we obey the ten commandments, mostly. But why aren’t we sacrificing ourselves to others they way Jesus did? What gives us permission to disobey Jesus, and not take up our cross?

The simple answer is, God’s grace. God gives us permission to not sacrifice ourselves. Remember that before we are life for others, God is life for others, and Jesus is life for others—and that means life for me. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that it is helpful to understand that much of our life is not horribly sinful, but just, for want of a better word, “natural.” Living for myself and those close to me is not so much sinful as natural. This is the created life we share with God’s creatures: be fruitful, and multiply. It’s not completely selfish, although of course it includes tending to my bodily and psychological needs. But almost no one devotes himself solely to himself. We enter into all kinds of relationships—with friends, lovers, parents, children—by which we yoke our own interests and desires with those of others, often giving up some our desires for the sake of others. And we enter or are born into communities and institutions that, if basic justice prevails, provide mutual benefit. I pay taxes and participate in our democratic governance, and the United States protects me and makes my peaceful and productive life possible. I work for my employer (that’s you, actually), and my employer pays me and gives me benefits. Sometimes these relationships are more just than others; sometimes individuals are selfish, and sometimes institutions are oppressive. But the basic principle is mutual benefit. That’s natural, and we see relationships like that among creatures in nature as well. /

What Jesus did on the cross was not natural. To give one’s life to God on behalf not of just your friends or your own children but on behalf of everyone—including those who are crucifying you—is not natural. It is supernatural. We usually think that supernatural stuff entails magical powers or defying the laws of physics; but with Jesus supernatural means above all that he goes above and beyond the law of human nature—that I’ll do something for you with the expectation that you will pay me back. I’ll live for others if others also live for me. But Jesus goes above and beyond that rule—infinitely. He gives up his life for all others, in all times, in all places, no matter what they have done for him. / We won’t get to the bottom of how Jesus does this today. Our reading in First Peter tells us that we were ransomed from our futile ways by the blood of Christ. It tells us that “through him you have come to trust in God…so that your faith and hope are set on God.”   But it doesn’t explain how that works very clearly.

Here’s one clue: It compares Jesus to a “lamb without defect or blemish.” The supernatural work of Jesus is his perfect self-giving for others, like a sacrificial Passover lamb by whose blood the Israelites were delivered. This self-giving of Jesus destines him for sharing in God: We are told that God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” which for us is the origin of our Easter faith. But the real origin of Jesus’ self-giving goes back to God’s eternal plan: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” Jesus’ perfect, supernatural self-giving has its source in God. God didn’t have to create the world. God wasn’t lonely or incomplete without creation. God is always, even now, absolute fulfillment and perfection, dwelling in eternity beyond all need and suffering. God is perfect, but sacrifices perfection to give life for others. God is infinite, but sacrifices infinity to give life to a finite world. God blesses a world that is chaotic and finite, where death and life are inseparably joined, so that life—even the imperfect variety, the kind that would inevitably sin—can be abundant. So God is the ultimate source of Jesus’ selflessness and sacrifice.

Now, we could all imitate Jesus, take up our cross, and give our lives completely away to others. We could give away all our property and devote our time completely to ministry. The perfection of God might even seem to demand this of us. But in this regard I believe the cross gives us this message: only Jesus Christ, because he was God in the flesh, was required to give himself up like this. We are not God. It is ok for us to be natural, not supernatural. It’s ok to be just creation—taking pleasure in fulfilling our needs, receiving our daily bread, enjoying friendship and family and lovers, being fruitful and multiplying. God created us for this. We human beings are still natural creatures. Jesus Christ took our human form to the limit, beyond the natural, so that we don’t have to; he took the cross so that we don’t have to.

But at the same time, Jesus shows us that it is possible for our human form to be supernatural. It is possible and beautiful and divine for us to be life for others without restriction or qualification. We do not need to do this in a self-sacrificing way; no one need ever literally give up his life to God for others again. We can participate in the supernatural life of Jesus while still living our natural lives.

Now, the natural response at this point is: how much? How much do I have to give up to God’s supernatural life for others, and how much do I get to keep to myself? I urge you not to rush to that question. It is easy for us to think that there must be some minimum requirement, something we must do to get our reward, rather than leaving everything to God’s grace. Our Christian traditional has unfortunately encouraged us to see salvation as an all-or-nothing game: if you do enough, you get it all—heaven—and if you do too little, you get worse than nothing. This way of thinking about salvation—which after all is a mystery that we do not understand—encourages us to return to what is in it for me. We end up always thinking in the back of our mind: am I doing enough to get into heaven?

Try this instead: God has by grace given you your natural life. God through Christ has not made you sacrifice this life; it is yours. God asks two things of us natural creatures: we should not sin, but treat each other justly, honoring our commitments to mutual benefit. And we should receive this natural life as a gift from God. God could demand our life of us, but does not, by grace through Christ. And of course we live our natural life on borrowed time. But as long as we have it, and if no one is oppressing us, it is ours.

All of us live this natural life. But it is, in the words of First Peter, ultimately futile. It is finite and limited. The good it achieves is limited and ending. The justice it achieves is partial and local. It is not bad, but futile. First Peter does not say Christ ransomed us from sin; it says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” In other words, Christ has liberated us and called us, the church, to participate in his supernatural life, a life for others without qualification. We are all living this supernatural life, all sharing in it. This is God’s life, and by sharing in it we are living eternal life. None of us is giving up our natural life completely, but all of us are living it, even just by acknowledging God’s grace in Christ and by praying for others. And we live this supernatural life in many other small ways, like giving to our denomination and supporting its worldwide ministry of peace and justice. We do not each have our own individual portion of this eternal life. That’s how we sometimes think: am I saved? Are you saved? No: our eternal life is in Christ, and we the body of Christ all share in it together. And that makes sense. Life for others can’t be mine exclusively; it means always going out of myself. It has to be shared.

So salvation or eternal life is not all or nothing. Only Christ’s life was all for others; we share in that life by the work we do together, by worship, and by uniting ourselves to Christ through baptism and communion. On the other hand, none of us has nothing; we all have our natural life as a gift from God, and we participate in this supernatural life through the church as much as we feel called.

And that’s the key. You shouldn’t have to anxiously deciding how much of your life to devote to God and to the church. This isn’t some bill you have to pay, some sacrifice you have to make until it hurts. Sometimes we do suffer when we live life for others, but that’s because of the sin of the world. But our participation in Christ’s eternal life, life for others without price, is itself a gift from God, not a tough decision you have to make. If it isn’t inspired and joyful—although joyful does not mean painless—then it isn’t life for others without qualification, it is life for yourself in disguise, masquerading as charity or duty or obligation to your community or whatever. Don’t confuse genuine, supernatural life for others with natural life consisting of exchanges and contracts. The love that we have in our Christian life for others is far above the love that we have in our exclusive, mutual agreements, even if there are some similarities. First Peter tells us that keeping this supernatural life for others pure and holy is the key to real Christian love: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Let it be so.