This sermon makes an important point about the way Christians understand time and how that prepares us to the work of spiritual growth. Still, it felt clunky to me. (That’s a word my drum teacher likes to use when I am playing correctly but not truly “swinging.”) Next week we will look very concretely at spiritual practices.
Ezekiel 33:10-16 ; Romans 13:8-14
“But now you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” If I just woke you up, church isn’t over yet, it’s only 10:30. Please stay in your seat. I suppose you may go back to sleep, since the sermon is just beginning. But it’s clear Paul isn’t talking about waking from literal sleep here. In fact, he’s not talking about literal time. Well, what is he talking about? I want to deal with that question at length, before we get to the Spiritual Inventory that we are beginning today. Paul acts like we (2000 years later) are already in on his secret: “You know what time it is.” “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” But do we know what time it is? “The night is far gone; the day is near.” Do we know what he’s talking about?
Well, Paul’s talk of time is what our scholars call apocalyptic or eschatological talk. Paul is saying that the world has been trapped in a kind of nighttime of evil and corruption. The world has been under the dominion of powers of wickedness, powers aligned against God. Many of Paul’s fellow Jews believed something similar. They believed a good God could not long allow the world to continue in its wicked ways, so God will eventually step in to end the current world and remake it the way it should be. This will be the “Day of the Lord,” the eschaton or end of the world; the dead will rise, God will judge the world, and a new, everlasting era will begin. Check out the Book of Daniel.
Now since we are approaching the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I want to work in some fun Reformation facts, whenever relevant. So Martin Luther famously said that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree. Now I think that sums it up my whole sermon, and yet I have nothing more to say about Luther’s puzzling words.
Jesus arrived amid the Jewish expectation of an imminent end that we were just talking about. Some thought the Messiah would destroy all the evil in the world and institute God’s kingdom. That’s not the script that Jesus followed. Instead, he allowed the corrupt powers to take his own life. In doing so, he exposed sin for what it was. He exposed the ugly underbelly of the Roman Empire and their collaborators among the Jewish leaders; he exposed the godless lust for power cloaked behind Roman regalia and temple piety. But if you caught anything from the Ezekiel reading, it’s that there is not always a clear and steady line between righteousness and wickedness. So it is that Jesus also exposed the weak faith of the disciples when they abandoned him. So it is that God did not destroy the wicked, but received all of this sin with mercy. Just like Paul said in last week’s reading, God did not overcome evil with evil, but overcame evil with good. God did this in one mighty act at the resurrection; and that resurrection unleashed a triumph over sin and evil through the power of love.
And so love becomes the guiding principle for the new community that gathers in Christ’s name. Paul tells us, a little coyly, I think, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” We are not to be operate like a typical organization, where some achieve distinction or claw their way to power and the rest owe them honor and allegiance. We are not to feel indebted to one another at all. But what we do owe each other is, paradoxically, everything, our very hearts, love. And it’s mutual love we owe; he says that we owe it to “love one another.” That’s interesting. Suppose instead Paul told us simply to love everyone; then if you didn’t show me love, maybe I’d just have to say, “Oh well, I love you anyway.” But if we owe it to each other to “love one another,” if we owe mutual love, then if you don’t show me love, I owe it to you to call you out on it. In other words, Paul is not a calling us to be doormats to one another. This is love that is also justice. I owe it to you that you love me, too, that you love me back.
Anyway, I love to talk about love, but it’s time to get back to time. Jesus both exposed the sin and evil of the world, he called it out, but he also allowed it to be. So those who believed Jesus was the Messiah had to revise their expectations that when the Messiah came, God would judge and condemn the wicked. But the early Christians continued to assume that God was still going to destroy evil; they thought Jesus is coming again soon to judge the world. It’s pretty clear from his writings that Paul thought something like this. Most of the New Testament expresses the same opinion. And what can we say? It didn’t happen. Anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously has to wrestle with this uncomfortable fact. I just don’t think those who say, 2000 years later, “Any day now, he’s coming back—I mean, look at these hurricanes,” I don’t think they are honestly wrestling with this uncomfortable fact. How many ‘signs’ have to come and go?
So it’s our turn to ask: what time is it, Paul? Is it the end time—still? Do you know what time it is? What are we to say to Paul? We have a hard time accepting this biblical time in which the world is soon going to end. So we say, “No Paul, I don’t know what time it is, this time you talk about.” And we are left consigning ourselves to time as everybody else sees it; secular time rather than biblical time.
But that’s not so great either. In our secular world of commerce and business, we treat time like a commodity, something we have and spend. Only rarely are we reminded that we don’t own time. Time inevitably owns us. I’m reminded of this sometimes when I sit watch over someone who is dying, when “our time has come,” as we say. But mostly we are expected to manage time as if it were ours. I was just listening to a public lecture by my teacher, Kathryn Tanner. She described how, in our modern economy, we put a premium on working toward the future. The young are expected to use their time to make something of themselves, to make something valuable of their gifts and abilities. And they feel that pressure: soon it will be time to get a job. Hopefully, the job we have been preparing for and training for will still be around. We also put a premium on spending toward the future. We are encouraged to commit ourselves to long-term debts: student loans, credit cards, mortgages. And so we find ourselves on a pretty merciless timetable to pay them back. Far from owing no one nothing, as Paul says, we owe our working years to faceless, loveless banks. In exchange, we get the kind of lifestyle that we have come to see as owed to us. This is what time is for us. We sell a good chunk of our future for what we can obtain in the present. Time can feel oppressive, with our endless schedule of payments, although somehow we’re left with no one else to blame but ourselves.
No wonder we are inclined to escape from this oppressive, indebted orientation to the future. So either we live for retirement, when at last we will own our own home and all our time will be ours, until of course our time comes. Or we declare “carpe diem,” and try to live only for the present moment. We might do this carnally, taking pleasure in the moment as if there is no tomorrow; reveling and drunkenness, as Paul puts it. Maybe we enjoy material indulgences, or perhaps we are led to addictive substances. Perhaps we lose ourselves in the moment by pointless entertainment that is fun while it lasts, but goes nowhere. Perhaps, more spiritually, we dwell in the present mindfully, freeing ourselves from the future by a Zen-like attention to the present. I find this last option the healthiest and most attractive of the ways to dwell in the present, although I have tried them all; by the grace of God, I did not fall into addictions and did minimal harm to myself and others. But wouldn’t it be good if we, people of the church, had some alternative time to dwell in, besides the debt-spending future that oppresses us and the present that can only be an escape, a futureless present. Wouldn’t it be good if we could grasp this time that Paul is sure we indeed do know about when he says, “You know what time it is.”
Perhaps we can. Don’t we say that temporally odd phrase during communion: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?” I think we can get back to that Biblical sense of time, but I’m going to have to simplify some things. Let’s, for the time being, say we’re not going to worry about the Second Coming; let’s take the end of time off the table for ‘a time.’ Then we can say this: Jesus came to show us the future. Not a prediction of what is going to happen and when, but he showed us the only future that really has a future. The only future that is not just more of the same: the corruption which breeds selfishness, the selfishness that breeds corruption, with all of it working together to destroy the vulnerable. We are all perpetually caught up in that mess, in one way or another. Jesus exposed it for what it is, and showed us the alternative to it, showed us our real future. He showed us that love conquers selfishness. The worst that the corrupt powers can do to us is death; they can rob us only of the false future that they already own. But if we live in God then death has no ultimacy; death has lost its sting. Notice that Jesus has already showed us this, past tense. Our future has already appeared in the past. The true shape of human life has already been perfected in Jesus. The new way of life already began with Jesus and his disciples.
Whenever we believe in this new human life, this new human possibility found in Jesus, however far away it seems from us and our world; whenever we believe in it and confess it here in worship, we already have salvation. In chapter 10 Paul says: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified; and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Worship may seem like lip service—get it? a little pun—but to confess that we have a future because of what God did in the eternal past of Jesus Christ, a past that lives for all time, is a mighty act. It defies the corruption. It even glorifies God. I remind you of this because I’m not sure we always appreciate just what an amazing thing it is to worship in church. So if we just pay attention—wake up!—to what we are saying and doing here, we’ll see that confessing our faith is much more than lip service. It frees us from the false future that shackles us, in which we have to make good on our debts. We are not indebted to God. We don’t have to succeed or else. And if that’s how you feel about the future of this church—if the ‘success’ of this church feels only like a burden and source of anxiety to you, then you are shackled to the future of this church, and that’s not the same as freely embracing the promise of the future in God.
Confessing our faith, we already have our salvation, the promise of new life in Christ Jesus. But just as importantly, we also have a future. Notice what Paul says: “Salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers,” when we confessed our faith in Christ. Salvation is also a future for all humanity that we are getting nearer to. So we don’t have to live this new life perfectly, and we will of course continue to fail and fall back into the old life. Paul doesn’t say, “You must live perfectly!” He says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are invited and encouraged to live that future now, to wear it now, “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and not put our future in the flesh, as Paul puts it—and do you remember how I translate that word “the flesh?” Paul doesn’t mean sins of the body, like lust and gluttony. “The flesh” means living for your self, living for your ego. We are to make no provision for the flesh, for our egos—there’s no future in that. All of this is to say, that we the church, if we truly put on Christ, are the vanguard of the future of humanity; we are living in the only way that really overcomes anguish and corruption. We are truly living the future.
So it was a long detour, but maybe now we know what time it is; that is, we can understand what Paul means by time in a way that we can really believe in and in a way that changes our whole outlook on life. Now we are ready for the Spiritual Inventory. Because this inventory is all about looking to the future. Being a Christian is about living for the future, not anxiously, not in debt or under the gun, but with the confidence that our future lies in way already shown to us in Jesus Christ. That way means that we do live for our egos. (And don’t you want to be a part of a community where egos are not always getting in the way? That’s how things should be.) So when we do our inventory, we can take stock of where we are—honestly and without pride or defensiveness. And then we can picture what our future can be, what we want to become, and how we can start to go there. This makes for spiritual growth.
Now I will help you look to Scripture as a guide, but I cannot dictate to you what’s keeping you stuck in the present, nor how you can live for the future. Only you can discern what can do now to live for the future; only you can give yourself to God’s future. So do not hand in the first part of the Spiritual Inventory that is there each week to guide your self-reflections. This week gives you an overview of the four dimensions of our spiritual life in our church, as I see it: spiritual practices, beliefs, fellowship, and mission. As Paul would say, “Let us” think about our whole spiritual life in these dimensions, and begin to think about where we might want to grow. Read it now, quietly; and take it home and write some thoughts on the back.
I’ll ask you to hand the second, short form in to me, either today or in the future. There is a box in the narthex. You may keep it anonymous if you like. The first question on that form asks for your thoughts about what you mean by a rich and full involvement in our church, or spiritual growth more generally. If you have thoughts, please share them with me. The second question pertains to a process I am leading for the whole church and especially the leaders of our church. I want us to think carefully together and discuss who we want to become as a church; and every week I want to get your feedback. I’m starting this week with a very general statement of our goal as a church: to become spiritually more vibrant. I hope that sounds fair. No one wants us to be financially healthy but spiritually less vibrant, right? So what does a “more spiritually vibrant” future for this church look like to you? What would you like to see us become? Please share your thoughts with me by answering the second question on that short form. I pray that these forms will be for us a way to put on Christ and bring our salvation nearer, together.