Gen 1:1-5 ; Mark 1:4-11
I promised a series on the Love of God during Advent. Nothing so encapsulates who we are and what we are about as a church as the Love of God. So the Love of God gives us a point to rally around and in which to find our unity; this is just what we need as we approach our annual meeting. And yet the mystery that underlies the love of God is bottomless. (So I haven’t figured out how long this series will go!)
Most of us agree that love is central to who God is, and also that Jesus has something important to do with God’s love. But we might not be sure or agree about what that is. So I want to take this sermon series to rethink God’s love through Jesus. Today I want to explore how Jesus holds together God’s love with God’s justice.
That point is important to make, for when we hear the “Love of God,” many of us will hear in that phrase a contrast to the justice of God. Love and justice are opposite, we might think. Love forgives, justice punishes. There’s some truth to that. But then we end up with a God who is two-faced. As if sometimes God is loving, other times God judges and punishes. How then can we sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with its line, “There is no shadow of turning in thee?” I think we’ve made a mistake. I think that the deeper into God’s love you penetrate, the more you find it united to God’s judgment; and vice versa.
Now, part of the reason we think love and justice are different is that we assume love means affirming someone as she is. (We believe this: “Wherever you are…” We are open and affirming.) Well that’s good; giving affirmation to others is for us a vital and important component of love. Now, we also happen to live in an era in which many believe self-affirmation and high self-esteem are the surest ticket to human goodness. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” (No, that’s not in the Bible. That’s secular wisdom, and we should be wary of it.)
On the other hand, we assume judgment means disapproving of someone as he is. And we try to avoid judging people; we associate judging with being judgmental, and truly that is a bad quality, in part because being judgmental means we are assuming the authority to sum up everything someone is and pronounce approval or disapproval. To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place. But God reminds us: vengeance is mine. So for us, we rightly love and affirm a lot, but judge and disapprove a little or never (I hope). Love and judging are very different.
But are they so different in God? Are love and judgment in God mutually exclusive like this? Or have we taken our human idea of love and justice and projected them onto God; God who said, “My ways are not your ways.” Have we said, well, if loving for me means affirming people as they are, then when God loves us, God must affirm us as we are? And God wouldn’t judge us, right? After all, the least God can do is to live up to our standards of good behavior.
Well, we should ask ourselves whether God’s love must have this same quality of affirmation and self-esteem building that has become popular in the last 40 years. Perhaps we’ve concluded that God must love us by making us feel good about who we are. And then we’ve concluded that since God loves like that, like a good parent who never says anything negative, then God can’t possibly be a judging God. And so we’ve ended up with the idea that love and judgment are simply opposed, and God can’t both be loving and just, in the sense of condemning what is wrong in us, or even just showing us that our glory lies still in our future.
And then we become very puzzled by Scripture. The Bible just doesn’t say that God loves us by affirming who we are. So we resort to dividing the Bible up between the good parts and the bad parts. (Now I am the first to admit that there are some bad parts of the Bible, at least parts that are very troubling and don’t seem useful.) And so doesn’t just about everyone say, The God of the Old Testament is a judging God, but the God of the NT is loving. I hear that all the time. It’s a little dangerous because it can go in an anti-Jewish direction, recalling my sermons from last August, as if the Jewish God is the bad, judging God. But it’s also just patently false. God is loving in both testaments; and God justly judges in both testaments. Even a quick reading of the Gospels will show you a Jesus who is very critical of his society’s religious leaders, even of “this whole generation;” and he is also quick to rebuke his disciples. Our idea of a meek and mild Jesus who just wants to make everyone feel good is a myth—an idol.
So it seems we have placed our limited and faulty idea of /what love is/ upon God; we’ve remade God in our image. And that is how God’s people from the very first have so easily found themselves worshipping an idol instead of the true God. The true God is not divided; God is never forced to choose between being loving and just. God is one, even if God looks one way rather than another to our fallen little minds. But the more we immerse ourselves in God’s wholeness, or the more we ascend into God’s infinite and eternal being, the more we can perceive the oneness of God, the sameness of God’s love and justice. Of course, none of us ever rises to perfectly see God in this way.
So thank God we have Jesus our Christ to guide our weak powers of perception, and to protect us from our tendency toward recasting God into our limited image of God. As I said last week, by the incarnation in Jesus the Christ, God showed God’s own infinite being to us in a way we could grasp and live with. If God hadn’t shrunk himself to our size in a way that still contained God’s whole and infinite being, then we would inevitably do so for ourselves, shrinking God into a idol that we can handle, thereby losing the God who is truly our Lord, and never the other way around.
It is Jesus the Christ who holds together all that God is, including both love and justice, in a way that brings us life. In Christ we are loved and forgiven by God, yes; but also in him we are truly judged and our flaws and sin are made known and purged away.
I want try to be very clear on this difficult point about Jesus. He is not just a delivery person for the good gifts of God. He doesn’t show up at our door and drop off good things from God, certainly not things like wealth and success, as some Christians persist in believing, but not even the gifts that are unquestionably good, like our Advent virtues of hope, love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t present these to us like a passage which then becomes our property, receiving our thanks and perhaps a tip, and then we add these goods to our other valued items like family, prosperity, meaningful careers, and so on. Neither is baptism a conveyer of gifts which we then own, whether we think of the gifts as salvation, forgiveness, or even meaningful ‘spiritual experiences.’ Of course we do experience tangible benefits from faith in Christ, although if we lived in a different time or place we might just as easily experience persecution and suffering for our faith. If Jesus just delivered the goods to us as our property, and if baptism in his name just magically conveyed some powers or benefits to us, we wouldn’t need to read and ponder so much about his life, about the things he did and said. We could just talk about our own experiences of God’s benefits, with a nod to Jesus our delivery man.
Here’s the way it really is: the blessings we have from Jesus all come second to, and indeed grow out of, the blessing we have in Jesus. That is, the greatest blessing we receive, and the principle blessing of baptism, is that we die to ourselves and now live our life in Jesus the Christ. Now, this is where you might say to yourself, “there goes the pastor again, being obscure, sounding like an academic, instead of preaching about things that are meaningful to my life.” Now, I have been known to do that, fair enough. But not this time. I am simply preaching the great mystery of the gospel, the great mystery of baptism, and maybe you have a hard time understanding it because you’d rather focus on the blessings that you get to call your own. I like those things too. But those blessings might just be good luck, or our vain wishes. So we need to listen to the mystery of baptism as Paul describes it (and I’m just explaining what he says in Romans):
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Let me try to make this clear: the greatest blessing and gift we get from Christ and from baptism is to have my ego taken away, my ME, my entrapment within my own cares, my own way of seeing things, and especially my own hang-ups and problems; but also the ME that people have put down, and all my insecurities that come from that. Jesus doesn’t give you a whole bunch of good things, so much as he takes away your life. We like to say, we’re saved! But it is truer to say that you lose your life. And if you are really attached to your ego, to having things my way, to the world revolving around me, or if you accept that you are low as your harassers have been saying you are, baptism is going to feel like you are drowning. But once you realize how wonderful it is to be freed from the prison of Me and Mine, and to be raised into being Christ’s and God’s, you will really feel the gift of salvation; then you will know peace and joy and love and hope like you never have; then shall suffering becoming bearable and all your fears will be conquered. This is the love of God that is also justice; the love that slays our old self in a way that might feel like a punishing fire, until we realize it is really the warmth and light of love.
Jesus holds together God’s love and justice. We see this in his baptism. Jesus wasn’t baptized so he could receive gifts from God. He did not need to be saved from sin. Instead, his baptism was first of all a submission of himself to God and to humanity. It is already a laying down of his life to God, and it is a perfect human act of humility to accept baptism, an act of repentance, not for himself but for all humanity. Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of righteousness; it is exactly the right self-giving act that the messiah of God should do. And then by doing this act, Jesus sees the heavens open up to earth, and the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” No one else has ever heard those words, so far as we know. Jesus alone receives them, but for us all, so that when we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we also hear those words of love as our own; and then we begin to share in that same Holy Spirit, in the power to participate in God’s justice on earth.
God knows we will not unite love and justice as Jesus did. We do not easily give up our egos; we want to hold on to our lives as at least a little bit our own. That’s ok. We are not called to literally lay down our lives for God. God in goodness and mercy gives us the grace of creation with its pleasures and delights, while also opening us up to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as much as we are called to do. The waters of baptism are the perfect symbol here. They signify to us the death to ourselves and rebirth into God’s life; but because those waters carry the echo from creation in Genesis, baptism also conveys the continuing blessing upon the creation in distinction from God. God also says it is good that we continue as created beings doing our own thing, living our own life. God loves us also like that, even in our sinfulness. But in Jesus we find the love of God that unites us also to God’s justice. And so we will watch and listen as Jesus’ life of loving justice unfolds, showing us a godly humanity that we also can participate in. That story will continue all the way until Holy Week, when we shall see the union of God’s love and justice is all its mystery and splendor.
A sparse crowd on Sunday, so I’m glad to be able to post the sermon, which wasn’t a bad one–and it stayed within my new shorter format.
Isaiah 64:1-9 ; Mark 13:24-37
Words of Assurance: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Our lives are so complicated, and even incomprehensible. Each one of us is a puzzle made of almost infinite pieces. In my house, the holidays were always a time to put together jigsaw puzzles—we always said “fixing a puzzle” in our local dialect; I have never liked jigsaw puzzles, but Jessica and now Silas are getting sucked into this family tradition. No thanks. Each of you, and me too, is enough of a puzzle for me. And so we try to ‘fix’ ourselves. We put together stories about ourselves that explain where we came from, where we are going, and why we are the way we are. Our stories about ourselves are insightful and mostly true, but incomplete. They pick out a few pieces of us that make a fairly clear picture. But there are still so many loose pieces that we can’t fit in or can’t even perceive. What is your story about yourself? First, do you have one? You should: writing your own story is a really good exercise for discerning your spiritual life.
But say you’ve got a story about who you are. What else would God see that you don’t? Plenty, I suspect, at least for myself (and I’m almost obsessively self-reflective). God alone sees the whole puzzle, how all the pieces of us fit together. We get glimpses of the loose pieces in our lives that only God sees, whenever we come up against things we do but don’t know why. Why does it annoy me so much when he clears his throat like that? Why do I like what that one commentator has to say, but I dislike the other one even though she seems equally smart and well informed? Why did I let my child become so distant? Why do I just sit here when I know what I should be doing? We could bring in a whole team of pyschologists and therapists to evaluate each one of you; and you would learn something about yourself, although you would feel very exposed, having lost control of your story. In their flawed way, they would tell a different but insightful story about who you are, and they would add some of the puzzle pieces that you had left out, too. That would give us some hint of what else God sees in us.
And God sees that our puzzles are both individual, but also all connected. We are also one big puzzle (now my sisters would be getting really excited—imagine a 7.6 billion piece puzzle!). None of us can see how the whole thing fits together, nor how to fix it. And so we find ourselves asking questions about the larger reality in which we are immersed: why is the world so out of control? Why can’t we come together and solve our problems? How did we get stuck in these collective ruts? Well, we could also invite in the historians, the sociologists, the gender theorists, the economists, the religion scholars, and let’s not forget the literature scholars; and they would first bicker amongst themselves a whole lot, because I know these folks and that’s what they do; but then they would start to show how each of our personal puzzles connects with those of others, and with scattered puzzles all over the world and back through time. And in their own flawed way, they would bring us a little closer to seeing us as God sees us: the whole world, in its naked truth, like an infinitely large and infinitely detailed puzzle.
God sees the good in this puzzle, and God sees the bad. And much that just is what it is. And were we to see what God sees, we would feel humbled, because we thought we knew who we were, but we don’t. And were we to turn our focus on the bad in this great puzzle, we would feel horrified and ashamed, for ourselves and for the whole world. That’s why our faith is so important, because when our eyes catch a glimpse of the bad—even when it’s ‘out there,’ because we deep down know that what’s out there is a part of me too—when we see the bad for what it is, as God sees it, we need to believe that God is merciful and loving, or else we will be undone. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
We are all one, infinitely complex puzzle which we barely can make out and hardly understand, even the little section of the puzzle that is framed by my body. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy, for God created us, as Isaiah says: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We remember and confess that our origin and our future are in God’s hands. We are clay.
But by the light of Christ, Paul, in our Words of Assurance, sees something greater in us than just clay. God in Christ has called us to a much higher confidence:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We might not always feel like we have been enriched in Christ Jesus, with speech and knowledge of every kind. We may not feel so strengthened in Christ “that we may be blameless.” We might instead feel like a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces, out of which I have forced a few ill-fitting pieces together to make sense of myself, at least. How do we get to the cheery gratitude that Paul expresses for us, so that we really feel like those “called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord?” That’s what we want to be feeling come Christmas Eve.
Well, I don’t think we just pretend everything is dandy. We can’t ignore this massive, broken puzzle that God sees. We know God sees with love and mercy, but we can’t imagine how God does it, when absolutely everything in the world is laid bare before God’s infinite vision. How do we deal with the infinite complexity that is the puzzle of our world and ourselves?
Here’s where we need a variety of seasons in the church year to help us deal with our own complexity. We need Lent to celebrate Easter truly. We all need Christmas and Epiphany, certainly, to reassure us that God has seen our world for what it is and has nonetheless entered it and joined with it by being born in Bethlehem. But we need another season, set apart, to deal with that “nonetheless.” It is no small thing for God to enter the world, to become in God’s very being one piece of our puzzle, but just so, the one piece in this puzzle that makes sense, and that promises to make sense of the whole thing and to reassemble it into the beautiful picture of the realm of God that was intended all along, before it all got so scattered. It’s easy for us to appreciate the beauty of this one piece which re-centers and re-orients the whole puzzle, placed just so, as when we place the baby Jesus figurine in the manger on Christmas Eve. But we only truly appreciate the beauty of that night when we take a hard look in these four weeks at this mess of a puzzle without Jesus in it. Otherwise Christmas becomes just a Kodak moment, a lovely season of make-believe which is like a dream (or nowadays, a shopping and logistical nightmare) from which we wake up on December 26 and go back to our hopeless world. Advent helps us connect our workaday world, the world of fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery, to the extraordinary time of God, the day of the Lord. It may be helpful to emphasize the contrast. And Advent is indeed a good time to confess that we and our world are not yet full of God; we are still awaiting our salvation. But that’s also the hope—we know what God has in store for us, and we can see signs of hope all around us, even amid the fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery.
So let us keep the fast of Advent. We don’t have to literally fast. But it is a season to keep watch, as our strange reading from the Gospel of Mark has it. Our lectionary brings us this weird reading in Advent, which is echoed by the longing in Isaiah –“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” I think I get it. Remember there is the first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also a second coming, the return of Christ to judge the world and bring the Kingdom in its completeness. (We don’t talk about it much but it’s in Scripture.) Our lectionary connects the time of waiting to celebrate Christmas with the waiting for that Second Coming.
This is meant to disorient us a little. We are used to thinking about the star over Bethlehem, not “the stars will be falling from heaven, ” as Mark puts it. We think about that dark, silent, Holy Night, but not because “the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” and so the stars, sun, and moon will all fail to give their light. It’s all kind of ominous and unsettling. And we are used to watching for Santa on Christmas Eve, but Jesus is talking about watching for this mysterious Son of Man to come, who seems to be the Jesus we know, but we’re not sure. We know exactly when Christmas comes, but about this the hour when this Son of Man will return, no one knows—neither the angels, nor the son, but only the Father, who apparently is a God of secrets.
All of this is meant to be disorienting, so that we will open ourselves, amid all the dear old sentimental, child-centered traditions of Christmas, to receiving Jesus anew, as a stranger, as if for the first time. So we keep alert, and watch. This is part of the Advent fast—fasting from the easy familiarity that Christmas can breed. We fast by confessing our need, confessing that our salvation is not yet complete, our knowledge of God is still only fragmentary, that we still don’t know what Jesus means for us.
Our particular focus during Advent and then after will be on love. Jesus reveals the love of God, we all know that. What could be more obvious? We’ve heard so often that God loves us, that it passes right over us. We don’t have to think twice about it. Now’s the time to think twice. And then we can rediscover what the love of God is.
When we learn to watch for Jesus’ coming as if for the first time, Advent can both open us to the need of our world for Jesus and his love, and also prepare us for a new disclosure of what God’s love is by this Emmanuel. We learn a little more about this jigsaw puzzle that is us, about the holes in the puzzle where love should be, and so Jesus begins to put it all back together again. And then, after Epiphany, Jesus will call us as his disciples, and we will be ready to follow him and put ourselves and our world back together again.
Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christ the King of the Universe Sunday is the final Sunday in our liturgical year. This is our New Year’s Eve, liturgically speaking. Next Sunday our new liturgical year begins with Advent, and our whole sanctuary will be transformed into a festive scene of expectation and hope for the coming One, Jesus the Christ born in Bethlehem. /So how is it that we go from celebrating Christ as our king one Sunday, to waiting for him to arrive the next?
Well, we should note that celebrating the Reign of Christ on the final Sunday of the liturgical year is not an ancient tradition at all; the festival began in 1925 and only later was moved to the current Sunday. But it makes sense to me. Recall that we’ve been in ordinary time since June 4, Pentecost. For these five months we’ve been trying to be the living presence of Christ and Christ’s kingdom here and now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the three slaves from last week’s parable, we have been entrusted with the possessions of the master. And we have been working hard to benefit God’s estate until the master returns. We are not laboring in vain. Our work as a church is not a pointless gesture, a Quixotic effort that we know will never succeed (“To Dream the Impossible Dream”). The world may think that our efforts are dreamy at best, pointless at worst. Reality is cold and brutal, they say; goodness shall never reign in human hearts. People are selfish. The reality is, is things will never change (That’s what people say, with their double ises). You Christians are just living a pipe dream.
Today we respond with a resounding: No! Our work is real work that we expect with real hope is going somewhere. Our work is based on God and God’s own power will complete and perfect our work. Capping off our efforts, including our recent commitment to another year of good stewardship, by lifting high the Reign of Christ is our way of saying: Christ will be King of all! Peace and justice shall reign on the earth. Indeed, today we recognize that already this is so. Christ reigns here and now!
Our reading from Ephesians speaks this truth beautifully. As always, Paul begins his letter by being thankful for the church at Ephesus. We also should begin by being thankful for the church at Granby. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…” But Paul’s being thankful doesn’t at all mean the Ephesians were perfect and complete Christians (nor are we). He goes on to pray for God to give them a spirit of “wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” You see, they don’t know all of that yet. They have faith in Jesus and love for the saints, but there is still a lot for these Ephesians to learn.
Paul points that out so positively and without a trace of shaming them or taking back his great thankfulness for them. And likewise, you know what I love so much about this place is our ability to admit freely our puzzlement over and disagreement with some beliefs in the Christian faith. We don’t feel the need to piously pretend to be all orthodox. I was talking recently with two people here that I have always admired for the way they live such spiritually centered lives—indeed, models that I strive to follow. And they were both agreeing that they had come a long way in their spiritual journeys and were thankful for that, despite challenges that remain. And then one said: “But this Jesus, I don’t get what the big deal is.” And the other said, “Yeah, me neither.” I love it. A more uptight church and pastor would be scandalized. But obviously, like with the Ephesians, faith and love have become vessels of God’s power for us, even if some details remain hazy.
What shocked me (for real) was when I told this story to a friend who is an expert in Christianity and he said, Yeah, “I guess Jesus had to die for our sins, but I don’t really get it.” <Palm to forehead> Do you see what terrible straits the Christian faith is in? But I especially have to sigh a sigh of world weariness. <sigh> Because I really see, now—it took me a long time—and I appreciate (at least I’m beginning to) the glorious treasure we have in our faith in Jesus the Christ. With Paul I can say, “Blessed be the God and Father (or Mother) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Ephesians 1:3). I can’t claim with confidence that I’m a better person in any way for it, sadly, but I get what having faith in Jesus the Christ is all about. You won’t hear me say this often, but I have been given something precious. I did nothing to earn this gift, but it inspired the work I have done. And I give thanks. / It is perfectly understandable that most people struggle and fail to grasp the meaning of the reign of Christ. The Bible is far from easy to read; the church has done a pretty poor job grasping and passing on this faith, and we’ve often been distracted from, and maybe a little slothful about, pursuing it. But I get it. And I thought you should know, because I would love to be a resource for you. (Maybe you’ll think about that adult confirmation class.)
What faith in Christ is all about is simple in essence, but like a ray of light it can refract through the crystal of life into the most complex and multicolored patterns. Still the essence is still there. With all due respect to my friend to so many of our old hymns, forgiveness of sins is only one of those refracted colors and beams, it is not the essence. And you might say “love” but I don’t think that’s the essence either; love doesn’t require a king. The essence is this: Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple. That’s what the whole Bible is about. That’s what everything we do here is about, most simply at Christmas. Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple, and yet humanity is both so near and so far from that union that we need the crystal of Jesus to illuminate the messy complexity of our many paths and challenges to that union with God.
Christ contains many facets. He is said to be a prophet; he is said to be a priest, and even our spouse. But another facet concerns the power of God which we have access to as human beings, and for this Christ is our king. Paul prays that the Ephesians will understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Now the rules of power and authority in our world are generally very clear. Be loyal to friends; hate (or at least ignore) your enemy. The one who is on top is entitled to feel high and mighty; the one on the bottom is expected to feel small and resentful. If you are powerful you might be able to get away with stealing or trickery, but the closest we expect you to come to goodness is a square deal: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. All of that is what usually passes for power and its trappings—for reigning.
Jesus upended all of that. Our king turned kingship on its head. And because of that, the (powers that be) lifted him in mockery on a cross and called him “King of the Jews.” But God raised him from the dead, for our sakes, so we could know that his way was the true way of power. Paul continues: “And God made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We the church are his body, the fullness of Christ—that word in Greek does not mean the way you felt after Thanksgiving, but “completeness.” We are the completeness of Christ, which might sound odd, as if Christ weren’t complete by himself. But Christ exists for others. He exists for his body, for his way of turning power on its head to become the way of life for a people, even for all people, for “all in all.” And so we as fullness of the Christ reign do not hate our enemies. We still love our friends, but we don’t affirm them when they do wrong; we desire for them what we desire for ourselves: to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. People among us who are powerful are to be servants to others; the one being served loves in turn and serves others. We would never think of trickery or selfish gain, but nor would we intone: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. No, we look out for the good of each other, rather than me thinking about your good only as a way to get mine.
Now, we’re not really that church yet, that fullness of Christ—right? The sinful marks of fallen and corrupt power are still to be found within us. But what I’ve described is what we are called to be, every time we invoke the one who is above every name that is named, the one who is the reality of God’s union with humanity. And we become the fullness of this one whenever we, in our way of life and our practice as a community, truly love one another.
But even then, would we really be the fullness of Christ? Or would we then just become a kind of self-enclosed love fest? Our parable from Matthew reminds us that faithfulness to Christ our King means than just loving one another. Perhaps the most amazing beam of color and light to come out of this gem we know as Jesus is his particular identification with the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering, and the neglected. In this way, Jesus is God’s justice, God’s setting right of the most egregious inhumanity that people commit on one another—often by naively innocent neglect. So Jesus, at the coming of his kingdom in fullness, mounts the throne of his glory, as the parable has it. And he, Christ the King of the Universe, judges all the nations of the world. This is the perfect image of absolute power. But what no one is able to see, even the righteous, is that this one seated on the throne in absolute power is really to be found in the face of lowliest need: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison. And in this parable, each of us is judged according not to whether I did harm or not, it’s whether I went out of my way to help these poor ones, or ignored them. So if we’re saying and singing and praying: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I love my Jesus, and we think we’ve got it all covered, we are going to surprised like the goats in this parable. Because Jesus went to the cross not just so our sins could be forgiven and we can go to heaven despite being sinners—if that is even true—he went to the cross to be truly united with human beings who suffer, who are cast out, who are oppressed. And if we are going to come to know Jesus, as Paul wants us to, in the immeasurable greatness of his power (to be all those who suffer), then we’d better do more than make a joyful noise. We’d better go feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, and take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner. We’d better do some serious, hands-dirty, face to face mission work. We’d better get to know the reality of suffering in those most afflicted, and also in ourselves, for all of us know suffering. Otherwise we might find we don’t recognize this Jesus at all.
And perhaps that is why we go from acknowledging Christ as our King today, to waiting for him to come again next week. Because measured by our actions, maybe we’re not yet living up to the proclamation of Christ as our king. We do fine greeting Christ on the throne here in church, but are we more often neglecting the Christ in the lowly and the least, rather than coming to their aid? If so, then Paul’s desire that we come to know Christ better is still in our future, and perhaps it is time for us to once again admit that this Christ is a stranger to us. Or that we are strangers to him; and we shudder to imagine hearing those words: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Or we shudder to imagine hearing Christ’s answer to the foolish bridesmaids knocking at the door: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” To that shudder, the fast of Advent, by which we take the humble posture of waiting for Christ to come, is the appropriate response. May Christ reign among you, and may he come.
Romans 3:21-26 ; Matthew 22:34-46
500 years ago this week, Martin Luther began to attain clarity about what was wrong with his whole world. By reading our Romans passage for today in light of his own personal spiritual struggles, he was able to see that the church of his day was woefully misguided, dominated by a kind of spiritual economy in which you earn your salvation by works. Luther saw in Paul’s phrase “justification by grace” the opposite economy: salvation is a gift. It is about giving and receiving, not earning and deserving. With this clarity, Luther was able to reinterpret the Christian faith in a way that completely changed everything—not just religion. Though he didn’t set out to do this, his ideas also reshaped the politics and economics of his day. Not since Jesus and Paul had any Christian so reshaped his world through a religious principle.
It gives me hope. Today, reasonable, non-authoritarian faith like ours is shrinking. What is growing is, on one hand, those who have dropped out of religion. And on the other hand, those who insist people of other faiths are wrong, sometimes so wrong that they no longer deserve to live. Now, if these are the options, I have no doubt that we are on the true path. And Luther’s example gives me hope that just on the power of the truth alone, religious faith can reshape our world. Wouldn’t it be good to obtain a clarity like Luther’s? That’s what I’m looking for today. I started to write a complicated evaluation of the church today; I abandoned that in order to look for the power of clarity, in imitation of Luther.
Today, Lutherans and Catholics largely agree on this issue of justification by faith (book). The fact that Protestants and Catholics are today much closer on the issue that divided them suggests that maybe Luther wasn’t fair to Catholicism. But neither were the bishops fair to him. All Luther wanted was a debate, and instead they silenced and threatened him, forcing him into a tragically dogged position. So we won’t exactly celebrate Luther today. His clarity got complicated by the bad ideas and powers of his day. But I think what Luther really sought was as clear as the words of Jesus from our Matthew reading: Love of God, and love of neighbor.
1500 years before Luther, Jesus’ message was essentially just this simple, but Jesus also had his complex side. In today’s gospel reading, we get both sides of Jesus, simple and subtle, as he skillfully disarms his opponents, who were, we should recall, seeking his life. First, the Pharisees send an expert in Torah or Law to test Jesus. And Jesus confounds his tester with a wisdom that was utterly simple and unoriginal: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus doesn’t mention himself at all or claim any special authority here. He goes back to the living root of Judaism.
In the next passage, Jesus goes on the offensive, now asking the Pharisees a question about the Messiah. It would be complicated to explain. His throws them a crafty and subtle riddle about scriptural interpretation that stumps the Pharisees. Jesus wasn’t only a teacher of simple truths. Because humans are not simple, life isn’t simple; sin especially is murky. Why Jesus was sent to be the messiah, why he had to die, how he proclaimed and fulfilled the ancient hope for the kingdom of God—all these questions are deliciously complex. Jesus left plenty of questions for us theologians to work on and ponder, from within our own complexities and perplexities.
But what God wants is essentially very simple, even today. Let’s leave out love of God for the moment, although Jesus called it the “greatest commandment,” because while it was simple for Jesus, loving God gets intellectually complicated for us. (Even Silas has repeatedly ask me to talk in my children’s sermon about what is God and what does God look like.) But what is most prominent in Jesus’ ministry is not his worship of God, but fulfilling the second commandment, which he said is “like the first”—meaning perhaps it is also the greatest? Jesus loved his neighbors by teaching, healing, listening to, forgiving, and touching them, and sometimes he had to oppose their falsehoods about God. (Again, that’s where things get complicated.)
We believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves, do we not? On that we certainly can have clarity. When we do that and do it right, as we do here in so many ways through our fellowship and our work in mission, we live the Kingdom of God. As theologian Michael Welker puts it, the Kingdom of God is about “the correlative nexus of self-withdrawal with others.” [shrug] He’s a German intellectual. And you thought I make things complicated!) What he means is that the Kingdom of God, that which we seek in our faith, is about freely giving to one another, and freely receiving from one another. This is why, Welker suggests, Jesus made his home among the poor, and counseled his disciples to sell their possessions. The poor are not more “moral” but they are often more comfortable sharing what little they have, and they certainly are more willing to receive from others, as compared with the rich and proud. Accepting help is not a weakness; it’s part of living the Kingdom in neighbor love. We’ve seen wonderful caring in this congregation just recently for Jeannie and for Eleanor.
We all know the simple beauty of sharing, of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We shouldn’t need a divine revelation for this. Some will scoff: O! life is cruel, and people are selfish. Not so fast. Where did you learn this great cynical truth about human nature? On your mother’s knee? Or did you model selfishness to your own child? With a few tragic exceptions, we learn and practice the beauty of mutual love very well in our families. Being a father has restored my faith in human love, and in my own capacity to love. There’s just nothing more wonderful, more mutually pleasurable, nothing money can buy that is better than cuddling your child. Can you deny it? Isn’t that why the Christians say God from all eternity is like the love between a parent and child? The Trinity is like one unending family cuddle.
Christianity is just about enlarging our scope of family love. It’s that simple. And you can’t argue that love like that, the love of a neighbor like family, is only possible within ‘blood ties.’ Adopted parents feel exactly the same love, our “selfish genes” be damned. Welker points out that we experience the warm feelings of neighbor love when we care for any child, or anyone who is sick. And this ideal of care for others is at the heart of some of our central public institutions: education, health care, public service. Anyone with integrity who works in these institutions knows that at the heart of each, surrounded by a whole lot of corrupting influences, is an act of love and service to a neighbor: love for the student, loving care for the sick, and love for the public.
The church doesn’t need to claim a monopoly on neighbor love. It only makes sense to share the ideal of sharing, to share it with other religions and walks of life. We are one body among many that are simply trying to create a big family, one that opens out and embraces more and more people in this one family. Or as Penny says, so rightly, we should just be nice to one another, including strangers. Simple. Beautiful. Compelling. Why is it so difficult? Why does this love for neighbor keep failing and ending up on the cross, rejected by the world, betrayed even by the church? Why are we, the Church of Christ, with this as our ideal, so easily ignored or dismissed? We deserve a clear answer.
Mostly I think it’s because of all the other ideas out there that we are so steeped in and the forces that empower these ideas. Think about this: the most basic idea in our society and most every society is the difference between me and my neighbor. There’s what is mine, and what is yours. My property, your property. My opinion, your opinion. My faith, your religion. Consider this: Most of our legal code is dedicated not to fostering love of neighbor, with the exception of a few deductions in our tax code, but to protecting the difference between mine and yours. Now “mine” includes my family and so having a family earns you a tax deduction. But we have managed to segment and isolate most families into a single unit of housing, surrounded by a safe barrier of lawn and hedge, within suburban neighborhoods with no common space except the roads. It’s not even efficient, is it? I have to buy my own expensive equipment: lawnmower, snow blower, power tools—even if I use them only a few times a year. (Poor me, I know. My point isn’t that you should come snowblow my driveway.) We’ve made sure there is a clear difference and separation between my family, and your family; we have to go out of our way to share something; there’s no place for love to happen except awkwardly, through or around a hedge. And once you get accustomed to that life, it is very difficult, very complicated, to go back to sharing and loving; although many of you find ways in your neighborhoods.
Right now, Silas’ kindergarten education is still sweetly concerned with how to be friends, how to share and be caring; his teacher is like a cross between a big brother and a surrogate father. But inevitably just about all of that will drop out, and his education will center on competing with his peers and distinguishing himself from them. Ultimately his education will come down to a GPA and a class ranking, to building his resume and making a name for himself. At the center is competition: in school, in sports, and on the job. Teaching and nurturing a love for one another has even less of a role in professional education. My training as a professor included absolutely nothing, formally, about loving my students. Are doctors trained to love their patients? No, because professional boundaries and the value they secure are more important than loving your neighbor. It’s almost a stretch for ministers to be trained to love their congregations.
Capitalism didn’t start all this emphasis on me versus you; selfishness is an ancient impulse founded perhaps on our very body. But can I just say it? Capitalism presents the church with a very clear challenge. It is very bent on private property, on competition, on pitting me against someone else, on securing my own value. Everything in life starts to look like an opportunity for profit; even the church and God becomes something you invest in to make a profit—and are we now back to earning our salvation? Do we still understand it is a gift? Is there still a place for service out of love?
I say this with great respect for capitalism. Please don’t accuse me of being political here. I’m not advocating overthrowing capitalism. Capitalism is doing fine; even North Korea and Cuba are getting out from the death grip of state controlled economies. The achievements of capitalism are undeniable: growth, production, technology. I’m not even arguing for more regulation. I’m just looking for clarity and insight into the big-picture challenges all churches, including ours, face today. Capitalism is not able to foster a real love of neighbor, nor love of God, from within its own resources. Being aware of the drawbacks of capitalism will bring clarity to our church’s vision. Capitalism is good at me and mine; but it seems to be making a world that is on the verge of losing any sense of shared neighborhoods, shared peoplehoods, and a shared humanity. Like Luther, I’m just offering a thesis and looking for a conversation. If in my quest for clarity you think I’m not being fair, tell me why.
Capitalism is in one sense nothing like Medieval Christendom, which tried to stamp out Luther. There is no religious authoritarianism like that in a capitalist world. Thankfully, we are free to worship; although we are just as freely ignored. But what justification by grace was for Luther in his day, so can love of neighbor be for us in our very capitalist world. What is so urgently needed in this world is the particular command Jesus gives his disciples still today, the same particular command Moses and the prophets gave the people Israel: To love our neighbor as ourselves. In one simple command, Jesus dissolves the fundamental distinction on which our whole system is based: the difference between me and my neighbor. We need this church to be the place, the public space (because our neighborhoods are no longer designed for this) where neighbor love can be preserved, practiced, and extended. Today, our reformation is that simple.
Wow, this series is running long. It’s been good and all, but it just feels like time to move on. But this was well received.
Heads up! The 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation is next week!
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matt 18: 15-22
You try to take care of your body, right? Sure, we all could do better. We care for our bodies so that we can accomplish our purposes, live our life. Our body makes possible our spirit, small “s,” our vibrant interaction with the world. For that reason we care for our bodies; but we wouldn’t want to spend so much time focusing on diet and exercise that we forget to live.
We are a social body. Our muscles and ligaments and circulatory system are our relationships with one another. We follow some rules, but mostly it is our personal relationships, our fellowship, that hold us together as a body, that make us move and act as one. We have to take care of this body. It can atrophy from lack of use; our muscles, our relationships, can become flabby when our fellowship is underused. This body can also become diseased; wounds of hurt relationships and anger can fester when not cleansed and allowed to heal. I’ll say more on that later. We need to tend to the health and wellbeing of this body, especially if we intend to grow, to get bigger and stronger.
But if that’s all we were—a social body, a collection of people in fellowship—we would be just a club. We would spend all our time just meeting and talking, and our talk would mostly be gossip. We would do nothing but fundraise to enable our social club to continue. If we were just a social club, we would attend to nothing else as much as our building, because we need a place to fellowship in, as well as our staff, because they coordinate our club meetings. That isn’t us, is it?
Because we are more than a fellowship, a body, for its own sake. We are not and could never be just a social club. In First Corinthians, Paul says to the church: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” That means we all share a single Spirit: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” So let’s put it all together: we need to develop, heal, and nurture our fellowship life, our relationships with one another—our ‘body’—so that we can sustain Christ as our head and give God’s Spirit a place to dwell in power. We exist as a body so people will see our head, see the face of Christ over us.
And what does that mean, to recognize Christ as our head? Briefly, that Christ is our head means we represent a community that practices a godly ideal, namely, we’d rather risk our life, on a cross if necessary, practicing love toward all others, than to settle for putting myself above others, or loving and benefitting only those who I think are worthy or admirable, or only liking and honoring ‘our own kind.’ If that was how God loved us, God would have kicked us to the curb long ago. So, if we want Christ as our head and Spirit of our body, we need to be a community where compassion and forgiveness rule among us instead of ego and bearing grudges (more on that later), and we need to be constantly reaching out beyond ourselves to really welcome and embrace people we might otherwise ignore or even disdain. A healthy, Christian fellowship will do all this.
So to begin, it is vital that we have a vibrant social life. That’s what our body is made of. We should be a place where people find fun within committed and trusted friendship. Look at the first question on your inventory: What kinds of activities can we do to boost our fellowship and deepen our faith at the same time. What would you commit to? Take a moment to jot down any thoughts.
But if we just do more fellowship, more activities, even with more Spiritual upbuilding and dedication, we will not necessarily be a completely healthy body that shows forth the Spirit or the face of Christ. Now we have a lot to celebrate here, a lot to be thankful to God for, as a social body. I regularly hear people talk about what a friendly place this is, and there are strong friendships here. It’s not on the inventory, so take a moment to acknowledge and give thanks for what God has made of our body …
But: Question two. How bad a problem do we have with bearing grudges? Rate us from 1 for no problem to 10 for a serious and pervasive problem. I expect we have a wide variety of perceptions on this. Question Three: Do you bear a grudge against someone in the church? Keep in mind that if you think you are innocent but find yourself constantly blaming someone else for holding a grudge against you, I have news for you: you are holding a grudge! Whenever you see someone and think: “Fault! Blame!”—that’s a grudge.
And we have two excellent Scriptures today on grudges and how to be free of them. Because I bet you think the “Christian” answer to grudges is “Forgive, forgive, forgive!” Keep forgiving until you hit 77 times. We’ve all heard that text many times. Forgiveness is absolutely vital, but it is possible to overemphasize forgiveness. God forgives us indeed, but God also calls us into holiness and transforms us (through Word and Spirit, remember?).
Our reading from Leviticus (from next week’s lectionary) picks it up there: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And then this commandment: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Yes, we know all about that: we’re supposed to love each other, think nice thoughts about each other, always assume the best. We’re supposed to be all <Smiles>. Actually, no, not really. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” Not fakey smiles. Reprove, which means correct, admonish, set right. Go to that person directly—not to others; that’s slander and it’s forbidden—and confront him or her with what you perceive, emphasis on perceive, to be the problem. You are not allowed to simply bottle up the offense you feel, thinking that’s the loving thing to do; no, then “You will incur guilt yourself.” To keep the hard feelings inside is to cut yourself off from a honest and true relationship with your sister or brother. And in the secret recesses of your heart, maybe you want to hold on to that grudge. Maybe you have grown to like the unnatural, secret, private heat that hatred brings the heart. Obviously, lots of people do in our world. If everyone knows “All you need is love,” why is hate so persistent? It holds it’s own seductive form of self-gratifying power.
Leviticus continues: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” When someone does wrong to us, especially here in the church, we either want to lash out in response or bury it inside of us and nurse it as a grudge. Fight or flight. Instead, we are commanded to do the more difficult but more loving thing: communicate our grievance directly. (And you can try this outside the church too.) This is difficult because it can so easily turn into taking vengeance. Jesus’s instructions add wisdom here. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Don’t use the occasion to humiliate the wrongdoer in front of others. That will only make her or him defensive. (Now, by the way, the guidelines might differ if there has been an abuse of power or certainly any kind of assault or harassment. Let’s stick with ordinary wrongdoing in word and deed.)
Pointing out a fault in private takes a great deal of courage, and also spiritual discernment. You have to ask yourself: Am I doing this to make myself feel superior? Am I trying to bring this person down a peg? What is your heart set on as you go to confront one who sinned against you? If the Spirit is moving you, your heart should be set on lifting up this other one. It should be set on restoring your relationship. Love should be streaming out of you to this other, precisely while you are explaining what you think she or he did wrong. Being filled with Christ’s Spirit of love is what will guide you right and make a potentially uncomfortable occasion into a beautiful and rewarding one for you. And use that technique I talked about in the Message for All Ages.
But be prepared for things to get complicated. Be ready for the other person to see things differently. What someone said or did might have meant something to you which that person could not have anticipated. It might all be a matter of miscommunication—praise God! Or be prepared for your own faults to be a part of the problem. This honest dealing with grievances will work best if we are all prepared spiritually to have our faults pointed out to us, and if those doing so are prepared to accept that the fault was more in your perception than in the person’s act. It all begins with God’s command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
But we are not holy, not completely. That’s why Jesus allows that dealing with a fault one on one won’t always work. So then you bring in one or two others (are you ready for this, Deacons?). And finally you bring it before the whole church, and see if the offender will listen. We welcome everyone to this church, wherever you are coming from. But if someone persists in abusive, cruel behavior and refuses to repent, we must be prepared to let that person go, for the good of the body of Christ.
But I can hardly imagine that happening. We can rest assured that our grievances will almost always resolve in clarifying a miscommunication, or in admission of wrongdoing, an apology, and a willingness to do better. That’s when you forgive, and not seven but seventy seven times. Phew!
We need to work creatively at building a more satisfying and fun social life here, for the sake of our body. And then we need appreciate and take seriously how we are called by Christians to practice justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness with each other. The everyday ins-and-outs of Christian fellowship carry an absolute purpose for us, for there is so much at stake in doing Christian fellowship right. ‘Be Holy for I the Lord am Holy.’ And as Jesus said: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What we do and how we live are bound up with God own doing and living. We are the body of the living Christ, the Son of God. It might all sound intimidating. It’s not, because God is a merciful God. Instead, it is glorious. Even in the seemingly small ways that we treat each other when two or three are gathered become serious occasions for living as God’s very presence and power. Let’s glory in our Christian fellowship as a friendship charged with the divine, and let’s treat it with the utmost care as the holy thing it is.
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.