“A Messiah Nobody Expected”

A sermon on Luke 1:68-79 and Isaiah 11:1-5, 10-12 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Our New Testament reading today is known as the “Song of Zechariah.” Luke introduces this as a prophetic word spoken by Zechariah, uttered as he was moved by the Holy Spirit.  It is a deeply poetic expression of hope for what was happening in Israel as a result of God’s activity in Zechariah’s own family.  You may recall Zechariah’s story.  He was a priest in Judea, and his wife Elizabeth was also born from a priestly family.  They were getting on in years, and Elizabeth had not been able to have any children – not until, that is, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, while Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple, and told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to conceive and bear a son in nine months, whom they would name “John,” which in Hebrew means “God has shown favor.”  Zechariah said, essentially, “Yeah, right.  Why should I believe that?”  Gabriel replied, “I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you a sign.  You will be mute, unable to speak another word for nine months until what I have foretold comes about.”  This, in turn, prompted the “Song of Elizabeth,” an exuberant hymn of praise to God that has not been recorded in Scripture.

Zechariah now knows that his own son is going to be special, having been announced by an angel as very few babies had been announced in Israel’s history.  Six months later, cousin Mary comes to visit the pregnant Elizabeth with surprising news of her own – she, too, is to bear a son, about whom the same angel, Gabriel, said even more amazing things:

“He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever – there will not be an end to his kingdom!” (Luke 1:32-33). 

Zechariah has three more months to ponder these things until Elizabeth comes to full term and gives birth to their son.  At the baby’s circumcision, with all the family gathered around, Elizabeth announces that the child will be named “John,” as the angel had instructed. The extended family has trouble with this, since it’s not a name in the family, so they go to Zechariah and make signs to him to find out what he wants to name the baby.  He reaches for his writing tablet and wrote down, “His name is John.”  Actually, the first thing he wrote down was, “Really? Sign language? I’m mute, not deaf, you idiots!”  Nevertheless, when he fulfills the angel’s word by naming his son “John,” he is able once again to speak, at which point he shouts the hymn of praise that we heard read today.

In this song, Zechariah says that God is doing great things for Israel, raising up a “horn of salvation” for God’s people.  This is an image that has long since ceased to communicate, but in the literature of ancient Israel a “horn” was a symbol of strength and ascendancy.  In a number of texts, it is specifically connected with the Davidic king and with God’s restoration of David’s line of kings:

“The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10 ESV).

“There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed” (Ps. 132:17 ESV).

This seems to be Zechariah’s expectation as well: “He raised up a horn of deliverance for us in the house of David, his servant, just as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Luke 1:69-70).

But what was Zechariah really expecting? What was Zechariah looking for in a Messiah, God’s “anointed one”?  I dare say that he had no expectation of seeing Mary’s child nailed up to and dying on a Roman cross; he had no expectation that his own son, as the forerunner and herald of this Messiah, would end up imprisoned and beheaded by a king not from David’s line – Herod Antipas, a Jewish puppet king propped up by Rome, whom Jesus would leave on the throne of Galilee alongside the Roman governor ruling Judea.

We have the benefit of looking back on Jesus and his Messiahship from a vantage point almost two thousand years after his resurrection from the dead.  We have the benefit of centuries and centuries of re-reading the Old Testament and seeing from beginning to end what we now think of as “prophecies” about Jesus, about the kind of deliverance that Jesus accomplished for humanity, and about the shape that his Messiahship would take – a process that, according to Luke, started with Jesus himself as he walked with two of his clueless disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection:

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27 NRSV)

I have frequently heard people remark, “How could the Jewish people not recognize their Messiah when Jesus lined up with so many prophecies in their own Scriptures?” What is clear in hindsight – and from the position of having experienced being accepted and adopted by God in Jesus, of having experienced the resurrected Lord and being enlightened by the Holy Spirit – was so far from clear for those in Zechariah’s day looking ahead to God’s deliverance that no single Jewish author prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and no single Jewish author outside of the Jesus movement that formed after Jesus’ death and resurrection, gave expression to this kind of Messiah. He was truly a Messiah that no one expected, at least, no one that’s left us anything in writing from the period – and that’s a lot of writing.  I’ve been through almost all surviving Jewish literature between the Old Testament and the second century AD – the Apocrypha, the collection known by the horrible title “Pseudepigrapha,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo and Josephus, and the earliest rabbinic texts – and not one, I repeat, not one Jewish author talks about a Messiah who would teach, heal, lead a peaceful resistance movement, die a condemned criminal, rise from the dead, and ascend to God’s right hand until some future coming in judgment.

Now, the Jewish people were not all expecting the same kind of Messiah.  Hopes for what the Messiah would do and who the Messiah would be depended in large measure on what particular Jews thought was most wrong in the world as they were experiencing it.  There was a great deal of consensus about a few things that were wrong, however.  Gentiles, whom God had not chosen, were in charge of the land and the people that God had chosen.  The majority of the people that God had chosen were scattered across the Mediterranean and Middle East outside of the land that God had given to them as a result of centuries of Gentile conquest and domination. The Jewish rulers who had enjoyed authority prior to Rome’s intervention, and the Jewish rulers who now enjoyed authority in cooperation with Rome, were not the people to whom God had promised such authority, which belonged to the family of David.

This rather broadly shared sense of what was wrong in the world, given God’s historic promises to the people of Israel, gave rise to a broadly shared set of convictions about what God’s Messiah would do when God chose to send deliverance to God’s people. We can listen to one Jew from about fifty years before Jesus’ birth give expression to these expectations for a Messiah:

Look, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, … that he may reign over Israel your servant. Endow him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers and that he may purge Jerusalem of the Gentile nations that trample her down to destruction. In the wisdom of righteousness he will thrust out sinners from the inheritance; … he will destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth….  And he will gather together a holy people, whom he will lead in righteousness…. And he will divide them according to their tribes upon the land. And neither sojourner nor alien will live among them anymore…. And he will have the people of the Gentiles to serve him under has yoke…. Blessed are they that will be in those days, in that they will see the good fortune of Israel, in the gathering together of the tribes, which God will accomplish. (Psalms of Solomon 17, selections)

According to this profile, our hymn “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” is inaccurate.  A Messiah may have been “long expected,” but not the Messiah that Jesus turned out to be.  Where did the Jews get their expectations?  If we were to be completely honest, we’d have to admit that they have deep scriptural roots.  We have to be very selective when reading Old Testament “prophecies” in Advent.  Consider our lesson from Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [David’s father], and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” a promised ruler upon whom God’s Spirit will rest, who will judge in righteousness, who will bring peace to the land.  But what didn’t we read from Isaiah 11.  “They shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west, together they shall plunder the people of the east. They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites will serve them” (Is 11:14) – a vision of a restored Kingdom of Israel, specifically, violently subjugating the non-Jewish nations all around Israel’s territory.

Zechariah likely expected his son John, who would become known as John “the Baptizer,” to be the forerunner and herald of such a nationalistic Messiah – a Messiah who would restore the monarchy and kingdom of the house of David; a Messiah through whom God’s promises to Abraham and Abraham’s legitimate offspring, the people of Israel, would be reaffirmed – a numerous people enjoying self-governance in their own land; a Messiah who would gather the dispersed Jews throughout the world back to their ancestral land, which would be redistributed to the twelve tribes just as it had been in the days of Joshua, Jesus’ namesake.  Jesus’ own disciples did not want to give up this same set of expectations.  Recall how, after Jesus forewarned his disciples about what would happen to him in Jerusalem, Peter took Jesus aside to give him a lesson in true Messiahship (Mk 8:31-33): “No, Lord; that’s not what’s going to happen here!” Recall how, after Jesus forewarned his disciples the third time about his death at Gentile hands, James and John came to him, jockeying to become his wingmen when Jesus took over Israel (Mk 10:35-40).  Recall how, after the crucifixion, those two disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed their disappointment in Jesus: “we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).  Recall how, even after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples still asked: “So will you now restore political independence to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  It wasn’t till after Jesus was gone again that his own disciples began to realize that the Messiah God had sent was not the Messiah they had expected.

If we think about where Jesus’ Messiahship took the “Jesus people,” we might get a sense of all the hopes and expectations that Jesus’ Jewish followers had to give up in order to say “Yes” to him.  He took them away from the hope for a renewed Jewish monarchy in Israel; away from the hope for the subjugation of the Gentile nations; away from the hope that God’s future meant a return to the “good old days” after Israel’s conquest of Canaan and division of the spoils of the land among them. Jesus inaugurated a kingdom of a very different kind, one that did not privilege one ethnic group to the exclusion of others, one that was not built on political power and military might, one that broke down the dividing walls between people rather than reinforcing them (see esp. Eph 2:11-22).  His Messiahship answered the universal problem of what had gone wrong for all humanity, not merely the problems of local and ethnic interest to Israel.

All of this begs the question: do we understand what kind of Messiah has come in Jesus, or do we impose upon him expectations and hopes that are foreign to his mission as God’s Anointed?  Have we spent enough time with him, have we meditated long and hard enough on his word, that we also have discarded our false expectations for him and yielded to the kind of Messiah that he really is and, therefore, what it means to experience his deliverance – his salvation – and follow him as God’s Anointed One?

Do we expect a Messiah who will put his power behind our nation and its interests, who will adopt our nation’s agenda in this world as his own?  Jesus didn’t advance his own nation’s interests in the world.

Do we expect a Messiah who will save us from life’s pains and unpleasantries, make everything work out comfortably for us, make things go our way, or keep us flush with funds?  Jesus told anyone who wanted to follow him that it would mean denying themselves, taking up the cross that he bore, serving as he came to serve, and enduring any hardship or embarrassment that came their way for his sake.

Do we expect a Messiah who will give us the unfathomable riches of his spiritual blessings while we give to him the leftovers, the most token offerings, of our time, energies, and resources?  Jesus called his disciples to a radical reinvestment of themselves – to leave everything else behind then and there and to follow him, giving all their time, energy, and resources to advancing God’s kingdom thenceforth.

Do we expect a Messiah who will be our “personal Savior” without also being our Lord?  Jesus, as many of you will recall, asked his disciples: “What’s the value of calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ if you’re not going to do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:36)

In all probability, Zechariah died long before he ever came to understand the Messiahship of the One whom his son John would announce to the people, and thus long before his life could be transformed by the encounter with, and by the tutelage of, such a Messiah.  I pray that the same will not be true for any one of us.

 

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Advent: Our Wake-Up Call

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent on Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Today marks the beginning of another season of Advent, that period of watchfulness, of renewed waiting, that begins the church year.  This Sunday’s readings – the readings appointed for the first Sunday of Advent – remind us that the season of Advent is not just about, nor even chiefly about, getting ready for Christmas.  Indeed, I’ve long felt that it was rather artificial, Advent after Advent, to act as if we were looking “forward” to Christ’s first coming in humility as a baby born in Bethlehem.  Putting ourselves in the position of those who, more than 2,000 years ago, were anticipating the coming of a Messiah and acting as if we were yearning for the baby yet to be born has long seemed to me to be a kind of play-acting, of holy “make believe.”

The readings appointed for this Sunday, starting off this Advent, however, remind us of that for which we are indeed still waiting, that for which we need very much to get ready – Christ’s coming again in glory.

“O that You would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at Your presence!” (Isa 64:1)

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (Mk 13:26)

“What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mk 13:37)

If we find that Christmas is upon us this year and we’re not altogether ready for it, it won’t be the end of the world.  But if Christ’s coming again finds us unprepared, living as people who haven’t been looking for it, well … that’s another story, isn’t it?  Advent is our wake-up call to what is coming, to Who is coming, rousing us to shake off our sleep and restore our souls to vigilance.  And we cannot afford to keep hitting the snooze button on this alarm.

Preparations for Christmas tend to overwhelm Advent, to bury beneath an avalanche of gift-buying, travel-planning, cantata-preparing, menu-mapping, and home-decorating what Advent, as a gift of the liturgical year, seeks to give to us – a chance to examine ourselves and to realign our lives, both as individual disciples and as a church family, so that we will move this year toward greater readiness to meet our Lord at his coming in glory to judge the living and the dead.  So let’s pause together and unwrap these two texts, and see if, perhaps, they might help us to receive this gift of Advent and make the best use possible of it, rather than set it aside in favor of our Christmas preparations.

The passage we heard from Isaiah 64 really begins in the previous chapter.  The prophet tells once again the familiar story of Israel.  God showed them great favor, leading them out of Egypt and into the land of promise.  Rather than keep faith with God by living as he commanded in his covenant, they rebelled against God and God’s Law, so that God brought upon them the punishments that God had promised – destruction and exile.  And now things are simply not the way they were meant to be.  God’s chosen people are not walking in God’s ways and relishing God’s presence; Israel is not experiencing the promises that had been extended to it.  It’s all just wrong.  How can God stand it, Isaiah asks?  How can he not simply “tear open the heavens and come down” and set everything right, the way it ought to be?

And, indeed, we might ask the same questions – perhaps not on our own behalf (though we, too, have no doubt had our moments), but on behalf of the many who have suffered significantly due to the evil or callousness of others.  And we can be sure that the blood of the innocent cries out with these words before the throne of God day and night – “O that You would tear open the heavens and come down!” – the blood of a young family killed during a house robbery; the blood of countless children dead or maimed by the violence of mercenaries in Africa or land mines in abandoned war zones; the blood of a young woman raped and killed; the blood of generations who died as slaves; the blood of thousands who disappeared as a totalitarian regime protected its interests against potential dissenters; the blood of those who died simply because others refused to share with them the gifts that God intended for all.  Iraqi Christians, refugees from the Islamic State, are crying out this prayer today; a Nigerian Christian woman and her children, whose husband and father was lynched in the street, are crying out this prayer today; Christians in the wake of the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, are crying out this prayer today.   How can it be that Christ will not come, that a God whose heart is justice itself should not bring all to account before Him?

Now I’m not one to ignore elephants in the room.  It’s been about 1,987 years since Jesus uttered the words we heard read from Mark’s Gospel today, and he still hasn’t come back.  This raises some difficult, but legitimate questions.  First, if God is going to tear open the heavens, if the Son of Man is going to descend upon the clouds surrounded by the hosts of heaven, why hasn’t he?  Second, if he hasn’t in the last 1,987 years or so, why should we be concerned this year or next or the year after that, that he will? How important a compass point for us can this “coming again” still be?  Of all the things for which we might spend our lives getting ready, why should we say that this one is still so important that it should be placed at the top of our list of priority events for which to be prepared?

We all need to solve these questions for ourselves.  My own solution to the second question is not theologically profound, but one of simple math.  I figure that, at the absolute maximum, I have forty or forty-five years of life left (and that’s, in all probability, high-balling the figure).  If Jesus hasn’t returned within that time frame, I shall certainly go to him before the end of it.  And the next thing I expect to see after death closes my eyes is the scene portrayed for us at the beginning of today’s reading from Mark 13:

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

And it won’t much matter to me how much time elapses between death closing my eyes and the last trumpet opening them again.  Jesus’ coming again is, for me, at most the rest of my lifetime away.

As for the first question, it seems to me that God will only tear open the heavens and come down when one of a few possible conditions has been reached.  One condition would be that God has seen positively accomplished on this earth and in the human story all that God has wanted to see accomplished, such that there is no longer any good left to come from delaying.  Another condition would be that God has given up hope on humanity in general and sees that his church has exhausted its ability or its willingness to mediate his deliverance further to the people of this world, such that there is no longer any good left to come from delaying. The day on which God chooses to “tear open the heavens and come down,” when “the Son of Man” will be seen “coming in the clouds,” will indeed at last mean justice for every soul, bringing to each either vindication or condemnation.  But: every day on which God does not tear open the heavens means opportunity for every soul.

I’m not speaking here just of an opportunity to “get saved” or “accept Jesus” or any such pale shadow of what God seeks from each one of us.  I mean here an opportunity to do the work that our Lord has entrusted to us – to each one of us as a disciple, to all of us as a congregation, and to all congregations together as the global Body of Christ.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  (Mark 13:32-37 NRSV)

This last sentence is one point in Mark’s Gospel where we find Jesus himself thinking beyond his immediate circle of hearers, namely his disciples who have gathered around him on the Mount of Olives for this teaching, and thinking about the many who will hear him through them.  We can almost see and hear Jesus at this point speaking to us, looking past his disciples and directly into the camera, as it were, at us to deliver this admonition: “Keep awake!”

The question for us in this interim is not “how long will it be?” or, heaven forbid, “can we figure out exactly when it will be?”  It is also not “Why isn’t God doing anything to help? To make things better? To make it easier for us to believe and to invest ourselves in his work?”  The question for us is, are we doing the work that Jesus has entrusted to us like servants who hope to be found faithfully and diligently doing that work when he returns?  Or are we doing our own work, attending to our own agendas, seeking our own interests, making up our own list of things to do each day that have little or nothing to do with the work that God has laid upon us to do?  Servants cannot afford to act that way: servants must attend first and foremost to the work the master has given them, and then to their own interests only as time permits – not the reverse.

When Christ comes, he will encounter each one of us as either part of the problem or part of the solution in regard to the ills that beset this world.  There will be no middle ground – and those who stand on the sidelines watching the ills that beset the world, shaking their heads, and complaining that God isn’t doing anything about it are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

What, then, is the work that the master has laid upon us, to occupy us in this interim?  This church’s mission statement actually captures this pretty well.  God wants for us to know him, to live fully in relationship with him and in response to him.  God wants for us to grow into the person that he is re-creating us to be through the working of God’s Holy Spirit in our midst – to be changed from self-centered and self-driven people into other-centered and Spirit-driven people whose joy it is to do what pleases God.  God wants for us to go out to bear witness to and extend his kingdom, his hope, his love, his provision, his justice everywhere that there is need.  We can say so much about the work generally; each one of us has to discern our particular tasks toward attaining these ends.  Scripture is an indispensable and inexhaustible resource for us in this process of discernment.  Every page reveals something about the character, the heart, the driving passions of the God we serve. Every page reveals something to us about the character, heart, and driving passions of the people that Jesus died to empower us to become. Every page has something to say about how to invest ourselves in real-world actions that will advance what God wants to accomplish through us.

Jesus’ word to us this Advent, Jesus’ word to us today, is that those who wake up to understand and pursue these things, who refuse to be as one asleep to God or to God’s purposes for us any longer, are indeed favored.  He invites us to renewed attentiveness – to watchfulness – in regard to this work of knowing, growing, and going as he desires and directs day by day by day.  He invites us to put at the top of our list of things to do: his list of things to do.

The question that his coming again will pose to each one us when we lay eyes upon him is this: Did your life show my death to be worthwhile? Did you devote your individual lives and your common life together to everything that my death opened up for you, and did you diligently discharge the responsibility that my death placed upon you – to live no longer for yourself, but for the one who died and was raised on your behalf?

The first gift of Christmas is this gift of Advent – the gift of an opportunity to ask ourselves these questions and work to realign ourselves such that we will be better able to answer “yes” in the coming year than we were in the year that is now past.  And when we can answer “yes,” then we will be living as people who are fully awake, rather than still asleep to what’s really important in this world, for this life.

As we close our service after communion today singing the familiar hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I would invite you not to sing it as we might imagine the people of ancient Judea singing out their prayers for a Messiah who would come to deliver them, nor as if the object of this hymn – this prayer – was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus so long ago.  I would invite you, instead, to sing it to the Christ who sits enthroned at God’s right hand, whose coming again in glory we confess as a pillar of our faith, and whose future interventions we count on for the fulfillment of our hope.  I would invite you to sing it as people who are newly committed so to live and invest yourselves that you will have no cause for shame, and he no cause for disappointment, when he does come in fulfillment of his word.

 

Just Remember Who’s Boss

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday on Colossians 1:9-20 and Luke 6:46-49, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, the climax and end of the liturgical calendar that starts afresh next week with Advent.  We Americans, however, don’t have the best history with kings and with being part of a kingdom. Remember King George III? The “Revolutionary War,” also called “the War for Independence”? We prize self-determination, self-direction, autonomy in as many areas of life as we can get it.  We prize the freedom to do our own thing, to live as we want, to follow our own desires, and pursue our own dreams and goals. Unlike Christmas, for which Target, Wal-Mart, the Port Charlotte Mall, and the crazy neighbor behind me have already decorated, “Christ the King” Sunday is a fairly un-American event in the liturgical calendar. In John’s story of Jesus’ trial, the Judeans could cry out against him, “We have no king but Caesar.” We, however, would simply shout out “We have no king! Period!” Our ideal is to be able to say: “I’m my own boss!”

Paul’s political context, however, was “empire,” essentially a single kingdom built out of a dozen originally independent kingdoms that had been absorbed or otherwise subdued. At the center of this mega-kingdom was the Roman emperor, a son of deified emperors dead and gone. There was no representative democracy. What this one man decided, generally in consultation with about six hundred of the richest of the richest men in Rome, was what happened.

Paul makes a pretty radical statement, then, both about life under the Roman emperors and about the political significance of conversion to Christianity when he says: “God has rescued us from the authority of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). First, Paul makes an assertion here that the age of the emperor Augustus and his successors is not some return to a “golden age,” as the Roman court poets and propagandists trumpeted throughout the empire. It’s not an expression of the loving care of beneficent deities.  No, says Paul, this was the time when the power of darkness held sway — when God’s enemies were in the driver’s seat. Paul also asserts that conversion to Christ means joining a new political entity with new allegiances, even while still living in the middle of the kingdom of darkness and its rulers, who still demand the converts’ allegiance. Who, Paul asks, is your king now – Nero, the son of the dead-but-deified emperor Claudius, or Jesus, the son of the ever-living God? Are you going to fit what you can of Jesus’ commands into the life that Nero expects of you, and no more? Or are you going to fit what you can of what Nero and this world’s order expects of you into the life that Jesus calls you to lead, and no more?

Paul sees only two options: a person lives under the authority of darkness or under the kingship of God’s Son. In this regard, he challenges our notions — perhaps, better, our illusions — about freedom and about not having any king. If you’re not living under Christ’s lordship, Paul would tell us, you’re still not your own boss. You’re living under the dominion of darkness (Col 1:13). Your own flesh, with its impulses and cravings, is your boss. It drives you; you’re not free. The society around you is your boss, telling you what to value, what to chase after, keeping you running in exactly the ruts it has carved out for you. And deep down underneath your consciousness, Death is your boss. As you keep trying to run away from it, it, too, has you running exactly as and where it wants you to run.

The good news in Colossians is that God has invaded and overpowered the kingdom of the flesh, the world, and death. God has brought about the time anticipated in Daniel, when the kingdoms of this world would be handed over to “one like a son of man,” and that “Son of Man” is Jesus. To all of us who had lived under — and, indeed, been faithful subjects of — the flesh, the world, and death, God grants “amnesty”:

“In Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 1:14)

“Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20)

He says in Christ, “Look! Bygones are bygones. Everything you’ve done to resist my reign up to this point is forgiven. The slate is wiped clean. I’ve won the battle for your liberation; I’m reigning now through my son, Jesus. He’s your king now, so give him the same allegiance and obedience you used to give to his enemies, your former masters.”

This Sunday reminds us year after year that Jesus is not only our Savior, born to give us a life of freedom from sin, death, and judgment. He’s also our King, risen to exercise his rule through us who are his people, his subjects. We naturally gravitate to the part of the “good news” that highlights freedom from the dominion of darkness, but we tend to chafe against the part of the “good news” about living under a new King, a new Master, a new Lord. But without this second part, we never actually experience freedom from the power of darkness.

The “dominion of darkness” has personal, spiritual, and political dimensions. The challenge for us is to recognize these dimensions in the midst of a society that has shaped us to think that many aspects of the “dominion of darkness” are alright, even good, even our God-given right.  We come to recognize this more and more, and quite naturally, as we submit ourselves more and more fully to the rule of the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. What this “submission” looks like is quite simple: we do what he says, more and more.

Jesus seemed to have been into reality checks. His reality check for “Christ the King” Sunday comes from Luke 6:46, today’s Gospel reading: “Why are you calling me ‘Lord’ when you’re not doing what I tell you?” Inherent in calling Jesus “Lord” is the acknowledgment of his authority specifically as authority over me, the authority to direct my actions. It may not be accidental that the very next paragraph in Luke’s Gospel that follows the one we heard this morning is the story of the centurion’s exchange with Jesus while the centurion was seeking healing for his favorite domestic slave. The centurion told Jesus that he didn’t have to trouble himself to come all the way to his house; if he would just speak the word from a distance, the centurion said, I know my servant will be healed. The officer explained, and I paraphrase: “I understand authority and how authority works, because I’m under authority myself and I’ve got people under my authority. I tell one soldier to jump and he jumps; I tell another to drop and give me twenty, and he drops and gives me twenty.” The centurion understood that Jesus had authority to command, and it would be so.

The question for us on this Christ the King Sunday is, do we understand authority? Do we understand what it means to live under Jesus’ authority – to call him “Lord” and live like we mean it because he says to do something and we do it? Do we make his kingship real in the little spheres of our lives, allowing him fully to annex us for his empire? Do we trust Jesus enough to believe that building our lives upon his instructions makes for the securest existence we can enjoy?

“I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (Luke 6:47-49 NRSV)

You don’t have to be a spiritual mystic to hear Jesus’s words; you just have to be able to read. And an obvious place to start reading is the four Gospels. Many modern publishers make our task even easier by printing Jesus’ words in red. They practically jump off the page at us. I’m going to leave aside the whole somewhat bloated scholarly debate about how many such words actually go back to the historical Jesus. The important point is that we know a lot about what our king wants without having to wait for a special revelation from him.

Christ’s Kingship is inherent in God’s plan for creation: “All things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).  We get the first preposition: “All things have been created through him.”  As John wrote in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” and “all things came into being through him,” and so forth.  Do we really get the second: “All things were created for him”? People often seem to enjoy speculating: Why am I here? Why was I made? What is the purpose of this life? Paul thinks that he knows the answer, and that it’s embarrassingly simple. We were made through Christ, for Christ. We were made to bear witness to the rule of our King in this life by doing what he says. There is a purpose for our lives — it is to live as he tells us, to allow Christ to accomplish his purposes through us, to establish his kingdom in the space of what used to be our little fiefdoms.

God’s purpose for the Son was “that he might come to have first place in all things” (Col 1:18). In all things?! Does Jesus even have first place here? Does he have first place in your life? In mine? Does he have first place in this church? If we want to be genuine Christ-followers, and if we want this congregation truly to be a witness to Christ in this community, Paul raises these simple questions for us to keep before our eyes and in our conversations as a check on our plans, investments, and activities. Stop yourself every now and then throughout the day and develop the habit of asking yourself, “Is what I am doing, what I am speaking, what I am thinking reflecting Christ’s being in first place in my life?” Let’s stop ourselves every now and then when we’re gathered in committee meetings, in church activities, in other events together, and ask each other, “Is this conversation, is the heart that each of us is bringing to this conversation, are the questions that we’re asking and the plans that we’re forming reflecting that Christ has pre-eminence — first place — in our gathering?”

Paul uses the image of the “head” and the “body” to put Christ in his proper place, and us in ours: “He is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18). What do we think about parts of a body that are non-responsive — or even disobedient — to the directions coming from the head? We consider such parts spasmodic, diseased, malfunctioning, even dead. Think about your own body, over which you are the “head,” the great “I,” the “ego” that indwells and commands and moves your limbs in (ideally) whatever way you wish so as to accomplish what you wish. This is Paul’s image for the universal Church, except that no one of us is an “I” anymore. Christ is the “I,” the ego, that defines and directs the motions of the whole body and each of its parts so as to accomplish what he wants.  What Paul says of his own experience, he hopes all disciples will come to say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; the life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20-21). I know I’ve quoted that verse here before, but I keep returning to it because it is so splendid an expression of the disciple who has “arrived” at God’s goal for him or her.

There is a splendid reciprocity involved here. Paul only has to hint at it, because everyone living around the Mediterranean understands the importance of reciprocity, of responding appropriately to gifts or assistance given. “Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). We give ourselves to be the Body of the one who “reconciled us in the body of his flesh,” giving up his body on our behalf when we were still estranged from God. Is the part of the Body that you represent as a disciple responsive to Jesus? Is the part of the Body that we represent together as a community of disciples responsive?

Christ the King Sunday signals that we’re approaching Advent. Like Lent, Advent is a wonderful time to increase our attention to our spiritual formation and maturation.  For one thing, we’re all kind of in a religious mood anyway, because it’s almost the Christmas season and there are visual and auditory reminders of God and his Son everywhere.  Advent is also an easier time than Lent for ramping up old spiritual disciplines or trying out new formational practices, since it’s really short — just four weeks, three weeks shorter than Lent. So it’s not as heavy a commitment.

If I hear from Jesus, I don’t want it to be “Why are you calling me ‘Lord, Lord’, but not doing what I say?” I imagine that none of us wants to be in a position to hear this. So I might suggest an Advent discipline such as the following.  I know what you’re thinking – “O merciful heavens, he’s assigning homework again this Sunday!” The terrible truth about discipleship is that it’s like exercise: if you only attend to it once each week, you’re not going to get anywhere with it. A sermon can’t change you; only what you do with a sermon can move you on toward maturity in Christ.

So this is what I am suggesting for each of us this Advent. Spend some time each day reading and praying through the words of Jesus as collected either in Matthew or Luke.  As you read and reflect on a single passage, paragraph, or even a single saying, ask yourself two simple questions: (1) What is Jesus really after when he says this or teaches that? and (2) How closely have I been lining up in my thoughts, words, and actions with what Jesus seems to be looking for? Ask Jesus for clear insight into your life and for clear direction about how to live out what he says more fully. Get yourself a little notebook for this exercise, and write down what you learn from the exercise each and every day. And if you’re really up for a challenge, do this exercise with two or three other Christians with whom you can be open, and to whom you can speak honestly. Another unfortunate rule of our culture is that we should keep religion a private matter; in the kingdom of God’s Son, however, it is not so. Religion and our growth as disciples are very much collectives matter.  And it’s the cyber age – you can do this through e-mail or group messaging or “Facetime” to make it easier.

And if, by the time Christmas rolls around, this exercise hasn’t made a noticeable difference in your discipleship and witness, by all means stop. Most of us are very familiar with the Great Commission that closes Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of every nation, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  How many of us know what comes next?  “And by teaching them to observe all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.” As we keep inviting people into a life of discipleship, let’s be sure that we, too, keep becoming disciples. May it be so.

 

 

“The Least Valued, the Most Honored”

A Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17; Mark 10:28-31

Preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church for the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church”

Revelation is a book to which Christians either give way too much or way too little attention.  But even those mainline churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary – Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, many United Methodist congregations – will hear this passage read in their churches, generally on All Saints Day, optionally at funerals or memorial services.

I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”… 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? … These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. (Rev 7:9-10, 13-15 NRSV)

John the Seer gives us a beautiful vision of the Church Triumphant, that innumerable company of those whom Jesus has ransomed out from every nation, every people group, every language, every tribe, who now stand confident and victorious before God and God’s Messiah, to whom they were faithful and obedient in life, and who now honor and care for these saints on the other side of death.

Now I know how those popular “Bible prophecy experts” whose books flood our bookstores, whose interpretations flood our cable channels (I think you have to surf all the way up into the 300s or 400s, but they’re there), whose failed predictions never seem to convince them or their audiences to give it a rest – I know how they talk about the people in this picture.  They latch on to the clause “these are the ones who have come out of the Great Tribulation.”  Now the NRSV translates this as “out of the great ordeal,” but it could be rendered “the Great Tribulation,” and this phrase is very important in the end-times schemes of these “prophecy experts.”  The most common view, greatly popularized by the Left Behind! series, is that genuine Christians will be “raptured” – caught up to heaven – at the start of the end times, and will be rescued thereby from the troubles to come.  Those nominal Christians who did not get raptured (and many prophecy experts would probably point to us as candidates), along with others who will only become Christian during the end times, will have to face “the Great Tribulation,” the global persecution of Christians by the machine of the Antichrist that will break forth in that last grim countdown to Armageddon.

Now, while I have many reservations about this popular approach to interpreting Revelation, my greatest reservation today is that it entirely ignores – and draws Christians’ attention away from – the Great Tribulation happening right now to genuine, faithful Christians across the globe while it promises some “rapture” that, while it might get us out of costly faithfulness, will be far too late to spare them their strenuous contest to remain faithful under the stress and distress of the hostile forces of their societies and families.  Many millions of Christians live under conditions of hostile persecution; tens of thousands are killed each year as a direct result of being identified or acting out their calling as Christians.

Often it is the immediate family of a convert to Christianity that expresses the greatest hostility and exerts the most pressure.  One member’s defection to an alien religion (ours) brings shame upon the entire family, which regains its honor only by expelling – frequently in Afghanistan, by murdering – the offending family member.

Often it is the authorities representing the dominant (or would-be dominant) religion from which the Christians have converted.  We have heard a great deal about the brutality of radical Islamists as they murdered, execution-style and on video, Christians in Iraq and Syria who would not renounce their faith in favor of Islam and ISIS’s vision of a pure Islamic State.  Muslims who convert to Christianity face the harshest persecution and, not infrequently, martyrdom across the belt of Islamic lands.  Christians in the villages of India increasingly face physical violence, sometimes resulting in death, at the hands of radical Hindus who crusade for a Hindu India.  Most surprisingly, given the teachings of the Buddha, Buddhist monks have been at the heads of angry mobs that come to break up church meetings, threaten and beat pastors, and sometimes even burn churches in the rural areas of Sri Lanka.  The monks fear their own loss of influence as individuals and families convert, while they and many of their villagers are driven by the conviction that Buddhism is the only proper faith for their island nation.

Sometimes the persecution of Christians is systematically pursued by the State itself.  North Korea, where the worship of the ruling family as divine is mandatory, is an extreme example.  Christians must hide their faith completely or risk being informed against, even by members of their own household.  Many die of exhaustion in labor camps or of torture in prison.  Some are able to escape through South Korea, sharing their stories and those of the dead and imprisoned.

The message of persecution is simple and straightforward: We strongly disapprove of what you’ve become.  You used to be an honorable member of our family, our village, our nation.  We used to look at you as someone that we could count on to do the right thing, to affirm the same values that we hold dear, to be a valuable person.  That’s all changed now.  Persecution aims first to reclaim the deviants, to bring converts to Christianity back to an acceptable way of living, the way the vast majority of the people in that area live.  If that aim fails, persecution aims to eliminate an undesirable element and strongly discourage anyone thinking about becoming Christian from following through.

Some of John’s churches were trying to live out their faith in the midst of significant pressures to cease and desist; others of John’s churches were trying to adapt their faith enough so as to accommodate their neighbors’ expectations of them as “good citizens.” From beginning to end in Revelation, John seeks to drive home a critically important message to both kinds of Christian, encouraging all of them together to live out an uncompromised witness to the One God and his Messiah.  That message is also simple:  Your neighbors, your family, your associates – those to whom you used to look for affirmation and support – may think of you now as among the least valuable, even valueless, people around them.  God, however, holds you in the highest esteem.  You are the ones who have kept faith with Jesus, who have put obedience to God’s commandments above everything else, including your personal comfort, safety, even life itself.  In God’s eternity, that esteem will be forever manifested to all.

If you were to read through the New Testament from start to finish with our globally persecuted sisters and brothers firmly fixed in your mind, you would probably be astonished to discover just how much of the New Testament speaks today specifically to them, how much its authors were concerned with the kinds of situations and challenges that they face (in large measure because their situation is often similar to – and in a great many cases substantially worse than – the situation of the early church under the Roman empire, which our New Testament authors were directly addressing in the first century).  It speaks to them of their honor in God’s sight.  It speaks of their suffering as an opportunity with which God has graced them, such that they have the chance to show Jesus the same commitment and investment that Jesus showed toward us all. It speaks of the eternal rewards such commitment will win for them, with Jesus testifying as character witness on their behalf at the Last Judgment itself.

In quite a few places, the New Testament speaks to Christians who are free from such unwanted negative attention about those who suffer such persecution.  I snuck one such passage into today’s service, tucked in at the top of the order of service as our “meditation.”

Keep loving one another with the fervency of brothers and sisters.  Don’t neglect opportunities to show hospitality, for some have entertained angels in this way without knowing it.  Be as mindful of those in prison as you would be if you were in the cell with them; be as mindful of those who are being physically abused as you would be if you were in their very bodies. (Heb 13:3, DST)

That’s admittedly an expanded translation, but I think it captures the sense of the original.  Why would the author of the Letter to the Hebrews want to focus “free” Christians so strongly on reaching out to those Christians whom society has most marginalized, has most targeted?  The obvious answer is probably the correct one – the latter are those in the direst need of help, encouragement, reminders that they are loved and that they are not alone or forgotten.  They need more than ever to know that their Christian family is a real family that will stand by them, which will also encourage them that the head of this Christian family is real, will stand by them, and will deliver on the rest of his promises to them.

I say, “the rest of his promises,” because the promise of a new family, whose love and encouragement would be unfailing, is one of Jesus’ promises to his followers, and one that will either prove true or prove false within the span of this earthly life.  This brings us at last to the Gospel reading for today.  After the familiar episode of the rich young man who could not leave his possessions behind to follow Jesus,

Peter began to say to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mk. 10:28-31 NRSV)

Many early Christians knew the pain of being rejected by their families for their new faith and practice, but they found a new family with each other.  They embraced and held on to one another as fully and as firmly as brothers and sisters related by blood would be expected to do.  When some were in special need, others would share their resources with them, just like brothers and sisters related by blood would be expected to do.  When they forgot to love one another, hold on to one another, and support one another in this way, we’d get another letter or other writing of what would become our New Testament telling them that they needed to love and support and come to one another’s aid just like brothers and sisters related by blood would be expected to do.  Jesus’ promise to his followers had to prove true, and it would only prove true if Jesus’ followers obeyed his command: “love one another as I have loved you.”

Is Jesus’ promise still proving true in our setting? More to the point, is it going to prove true for Christians facing significant persecution in other settings? Will our sisters and brothers who have had to “let goods and kindred go,” will the families of the martyrs who gave up “this mortal life also,” find Jesus’ promise in this paragraph to prove true?

Think for a moment how you would race about to rally both national and international attention and pressure were your natural brother or sister or child or parent hauled off to a North Korean labor camp or imprisoned for “blasphemy” in Pakistan; how you would find your speediest way to comfort a natural brother or sister or child or parent dispossessed of home and goods and discovered living in a makeshift refugee camp just across a border in a safe zone; how you would put yourself out to rescue a family member from imminent danger or, if that proved impossible, to stand by him or her in that danger and bring whatever relief in the midst of it that you could.  Now think about the degree to which you’ve exerted yourself for brothers and sisters and children and parents whom the Lord Jesus has united to you as your family, those who will be your family forever.  Have you placed more or less value, by comparison, on the bond that Christ’s blood creates than you would on the bond that ordinary blood creates?  To what degree have you prioritized proving Jesus’ promise to Christians who have left family, home, all to follow him – to proving his word to them to be trustworthy?

The author of Hebrews wrote to his congregations: “Keep loving one another with the fervency of brothers and sisters.”  Make this new family joined together by Christ prove more durable, more valuable, more reliable than the human families that have rejected individual converts to Christianity.  Make it more real not only for them, but for you as well, as you step out in faith toward them, as you invest yourself in them, as you connect with them.

I want to affirm Jonathan Carlsen [a member of the church here] for diligently keeping our persecuted sisters and brothers around the world in front of this congregation’s eyes for over ten years now, particularly urging us annually to lift them up in prayer as part of the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.”  But now I’m asking each one of you to give the situation of your brothers and sisters across the world such regular attention that an annual reminder will become superfluous. I’m asking you to take certain action steps as a result of being a part of this morning’s worship service – a public gathering with fellow Christians loudly praising the name of Christ that will have no negative repercussions for you, your goods, or your family.  Spend some time yet this week connecting with the members of our family in Christ whose profession of Jesus and whose attempts to obey him cost them dearly.  No, you’re not imagining things: I’m actually assigning homework.

Jonathan and I have prepared a bulletin insert to get you started.  First off, take an hour or two off from Facebook this week and spend some time exploring the websites of each of the three organizations that have made the relief and resourcing of the persecuted church their mission.  Go to the “Open Doors” site and read their overview of the situation of Christians in each of the fifty countries most oppressive or least hospitable toward Christians.  Go to the “Voice of the Martyrs” and “Barnabas Fund” sites and read their news feeds of recent developments in the situation of particular Christian communities or even particular Christian families in repressive countries; read the testimonies of Christian workers and disciples who have survived – or whose faith, at least, had survived – violent persecution.  Learn about the many avenues these organizations give you to come to the aid of our blood-brothers-and-sisters in Christ.

Pray.  There are excellent suggestions for how to pray on the back of this insert; as you learn more about the plight of Christians in one or another country, that will also help guide you as you pray.  Educate yourselves and one another, and keep learning.  Get involved with at least one of these organizations, or find your own way to reach out and show the quality of love and degree of assistance that suits a brother or sister to some sector of the persecuted church.  God has put it into our hands to bring significant relief to our family members in significant trouble and need.  Raise awareness; rally support for those suffering the most extreme persecution by every venue available.  Keep doing this homework that I’m assigning until you find yourself measuring up to the Scripture’s benchmark for us: “Be as mindful of those in prison as you would be if you were in the same cell with them; be as mindful of those who are being physically abused as you would be if you were in their very bodies.” Amen.

*           *           *

Note: The following text appeared on an insert in the Sunday bulletin:

Get Involved! There are a number of organizations dedicated to connecting persecuted Christians with the spiritual, material, and sometimes even legal assistance that they need to persevere in their faith and witness, and to know that the global family of God stands by them in their trials.  These groups also do a great deal of work educating Christians in the West about the plight of their sisters and brothers in restricted nations.

Open Doors USA

https://www.opendoorsusa.org

Voice of the Martyrs

https://www.persecution.com

Barnabas Fund (a.k.a. Barnabas Aid)

https://barnabasfund.org

Take an hour just to browse these three websites and begin to get a sense both of the scope and nature of persecution of your fellow Christians and of the many ways in which you can stand alongside them — from regular prayer to financial support to signing petitions and raising awareness.

What Should We Pray For?

  • For the imprisoned, that God will strengthen, protect, and encourage them.
  • For God to protect pastors, evangelists, and other front-line workers sharing the Gospel in hostile lands.
  • For the families of those killed because of their faith in Jesus.
  • For government officials in hostile lands, that they will encounter the living Christ and become his followers.
  • For Christian converts from Islam witnessing to family and friends.
  • For radio, TV, and Internet ministries witnessing across “closed” borders to witness effectively.
  • For persecuted believers to receive Bibles and be grounded in the faith.
  • For the witness of the persecuted, even to their persecutors.
  • For free Christians to stand with their persecuted brothers and sisters.

(Source: Voice of the Martyrs, Prayer Points)

 

 

 

“From ‘Consumers’ to ‘Producers’”

A Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church on November 12, 2017.

 

 

You need only open your Sunday newspaper to know that we live in a consumer economy.  Drop it on the floor and sixteen flyers for various stores touting their sales, or packets of coupons and special offers, go flying out across the tiles. In fact, we’re so much a consumer economy that I would bet that a lot of you like to get the Sunday paper specifically for those inserts (and the comics, of course).  I’ll admit that we used to do just that.  Our consumer culture has trained us pretty well, and it generally has all of Sunday afternoon through the following Saturday night to train and re-train us to be consumers of goods and services.  It keeps trying to get us to look at everything in terms of what we can get out of it, what it will do for us, such that we should give it our attention and our business.

We believe that we should be able to get just about anything we want, whenever we want it, at the lowest prices out there – and we generally can, which only reinforces these convictions.  We expect to walk into a store or into a restaurant and to be given a high level of courteous, friendly service (whether or not the salesperson or the server has a sick child at home who’s been vomiting all night, is preoccupied with a parent with dementia, or sees the handwriting on the wall that his or her marriage is over).  We expect the restaurant to look just the way it did when we were last there – because we liked it that way – and to be playing the music that we expect to hear there – because we like it that way.  If the server forgot to have the chef hold the onions in the salad, we’re disappointed and might put less into the tip.  And let’s not even get into the whole entertainment industry and its pandering to every taste and preference.

The single best representation for the mindset that our consumer economy and culture deliberately seeks to nurture in us is probably Burger King’s famous marketing slogan:  “Have it your way.”  This is the motto that has shaped our consumerist credo: “I believe that I should be able to have it, whatever ‘it’ is, and to have it my way, just the way I like it.”

And, you know, that creed is generally appropriate out there.  I choose to frequent certain restaurants because I know that I’ll be able to carry on a conversation without having to shout and strain over the music.  If those restaurants change the ambiance, I will eat somewhere else.  If the breadsticks come out cold and a bit hard, I’m going to ask for fresh ones instead.  The restaurant owner and I have a shared vision and set of values out there, one in which satisfying customer expectations within reason is a core value.  The problem arises – and indeed, this problem has become epidemic – when we bring this mindset back with us into the Church of Christ.

We bump into this mindset whenever we evaluate our experience at church on the basis of our own satisfaction or dissatisfaction, whether our assessment is positive (“I get a lot out of that service”; “That class really meets my needs”) or negative (“I don’t get much out of his sermons”; “I don’t like it when they serve communion that way”; “I wish they’d do the hymns I like”).  We bump into this mindset when we find ourselves expecting the paid staff to always give us “service with a smile,” when we’re impatient with changes to the décor (because it’s not the way I like it), or when we didn’t get the goods or services we felt entitled to receive (“I was in the hospital for a colonoscopy and the pastor didn’t come to see me”).

Brothers and sisters, the Church of Jesus Christ is not Burger King.  If you come here to “have it your way,” you’re largely missing the point of coming here in the first place, which is to learn how to deny ourselves, shoulder up the cross that Jesus shouldered, and follow him who prayed in Gethsemane, “I don’t have to have it my way; let it be done your way.”

So what alternative vision does God hold out for his church?  Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, from beginning to end, provides a virtual manifesto of this alternative vision, and I commend the reading of the whole letter to all of you at some point yet today.  (If you find my sermons unappealing, I invite you to start reading Ephesians from the beginning now. You’ll never get in trouble in church for reading the Bible.)  The passage before us today in particular lays out this vision for our life and work together as a congregation.

Producers of unity

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

If you track down almost everyone who has grumbled in the church, everyone who has led a covert crusade against someone else in the church, everyone who has left a church, in the majority of cases it comes down to this: “I didn’t have it my way.”  That consumerist mentality works well to keep stores competitive and service adequate, but it is corrosive to the Body of Christ.  Now please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not talking about disagreement and discussion – the first is unavoidable and the second is necessary.  I’m talking about the disgruntlement, the discord, and the dislike that all too often follow when the discussion of disagreement doesn’t go out way.

We have been called to a different mindset and a different goal: to commit ourselves to one another and to make it our highest priority to maintain that uniting bond by adopting a humble and gentle spirit toward one another, by showing patience toward one another, by putting up with one another because we are all a part of each other.  We have, all of us, been immersed into one baptism that made all of us together the one Body that Christ has pervaded with the one Holy Spirit.  We all stand together before one Lord, united by one hope – to become citizens forever (and, for the record, stuck with one another forever) in the kingdom of God.  We are united by one faith into a single family by virtue of calling upon one God as the Father of us all.  Is there not enough in all these “ones” to motivate us to hold onto one another in love? Are these “ones” of less value than the superficial details over which we feed dissatisfaction and eventually division?  If we come with the consumer mentality, disunity and division will be inevitable, because the details will not all ever be to everyone’s preferences and tastes; we simply cannot here all have it our way.  In sum, then, we are called by God to stop being consumers focused on getting what we want the way we want it, and to commit ourselves fully to being producers of unity within this portion of the Body of Christ.  Only if we do that are we living in a manner “worthy” of Christians, “worthy” of our calling.

Producers of ministry

The second challenge of Paul’s vision for the church to us is for each one of us to move away from being simply a consumer of what ministries provide toward becoming a producer of ministry.  It is not for the parishioner to ask the church, “What have you done for me lately?”  It is for Christ to ask each one of us and all of us together, “What have you done for me lately?” And it is perfectly just for him to ask this of us, for he gave his body to be nailed up on the cross in order to bring us into this Body together; he supplies us with his Spirit to empower us in ministry and with his pastors and teachers to equip us for ministry.

“But grace was given to each of us according to Christ’s measuring out of his gift. 8 Therefore it says, “Ascending on high, he took captivity itself captive; he gave gifts to people”…. 11 He himself gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the oneness that comes from the faith and from knowing the Son of God – until we all attain to maturity, to measuring up to Christ’s stature in all his fullness.”

Paul indirectly, but not too subtly, calls himself God’s gift to the church.  He is an apostle, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher.  But he also identifies that the primary purpose of Christ’s giving such figures is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry – to equip the saints for the building up of the Body of Christ.”

I know that some Christians have a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the preacher try to lay the burden of “the work of ministry” upon the congregation.  I can see a few thought bubbles, in fact: “That’s what we’re paying you for!  You want me to do your job for you?”  And I do have to admit that our church structures are different from Paul’s.  Among the thirty or so Christians that gathered in one of the more spacious houses of one of the wealthier Christians in Ephesus, there were not paid staff.  If any work of ministry was going to happen, it was going to be because the Christians all took it upon themselves to do it.  Paul’s churches’ situation was a far cry from what we have here – full time pastor (sort of), church administrator, and custodian; part-time youth and children’s ministry personnel, part-time communications and finance personnel, part-time music personnel; missionaries supported by our church financially.  There is certainly a sense in which the majority of you are behind all the ministry that happens here insofar as you have committed to support a few particular Christians, enabling us to devote more of their our to advancing the mission of the Church.

This does not, however, fundamentally alter the Scriptural vision for the Church; it does not rob you of the privilege nor relieve you of the responsibility of God’s call to you to have a share in “the work of ministry, the building up of the Body of Christ.” Nor does it alter the primary Scriptural mandate for the apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers that God raises up – “to equip you, the saints, for the work of ministry.”

I imagine that you’re all accustomed to hearing the phrase “the building up of the Body of Christ” and to thinking about it in one of its two key aspects, namely the aspect of making one another’s faith stronger, encouraging one another in times of difficulty, sharpening one another’s understanding of discipleship, and the like.  We might think of this as the “Planet Fitness” aspect of Body building – our work together making those of us who are already here in the Body stronger, more fit for living as disciples.  This is indeed an important aspect, one that I would never wish to underplay.

But there is another key aspect of “building up the Body of Christ.”  Paul is actually using a construction site metaphor, not an exercise metaphor.  His audience in Ephesus would also hear “the building up of the Body of Christ” as “the ongoing construction of the Body of Christ.”  It’s admittedly a mixed metaphor, for we do not typically construct a living organism out of constituent parts, but it calls attention to all the blocks of stone out there that are still being fitted into a building under construction.  The Body of Christ itself is not yet complete; it is still “under construction” not merely in the sense that you and I have some distance to go until we are complete in our individual or corporate discipleship, but also in the sense that there are yet parts of Christ’s Body out there, not yet fitted in to the Body.  Christ has not yet come to his fullness in this world, because he has not yet filled those people yet to be joined to his Body, the Church.

I would not choose between these key aspects, but would rather see us throw ourselves into the work of both.  We must put ourselves at God’s disposal to use us to build one another up in the faith until we all reach maturity in Christ; we must put ourselves at God’s disposal to use us to continue to construct and complete the as-yet incomplete Body of Christ, some of whose members are still out there, not yet incorporated into Christ’s Body, until the Church has become “the complete Person” (which is another way to translate the Greek that the NRSV renders “to maturity” in 4:13), the “complete person” that is the Body of which Christ is the head.  And, incidentally, I consider it to be my primary responsibility to call you to, and prepare you for, the work of both kinds.

Now, while Paul talks specifically about apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as Christ’s “gifts” to the Church for the sake of equipping her to fulfill her calling, he first spoke more generally of “each one of us” as people to whom “grace was given according to the measure Christ set for his giving.”  He also speaks of each Christian as “gifted” in some way by God for the good of the whole Body of Christ.  God longs for each one of us to cease coming here with the mindset of looking to get something, which inevitably leads to becoming disgruntled when we don’t get what we want or enough of what we want, and to come here consistently with the mindset of looking to be a gift to the other people here with us, to become consistently a medium through which God can touch the other person’s life for growth, healing, restoration, encouragement.  You are the means that God has chosen by which the Spirit will produce good for the whole.

Producers of Maturity

The Spirit’s goal is that we would all arrive together at maturity in Christ, that we would all live and speak and want and relate from that mind of Christ that was so full of God and the doing of God’s good will that there will be no room left over for our being full of ourselves.

“… in order that we should no longer be children, tossed this way and that and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by the wiles of their deceitful scheming. 15 But, speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Now, we are not much shaken and tossed about here by new winds of doctrine or by the wiles of deceivers, but many of us are shaken and tossed about – and thus the church experiences the turmoil of such tossing about – by frustrations and conflicts born of the consumerist mindset among churchgoers.  As Seneca, a philosopher who was Paul’s contemporary, said, “there are many whose childishness persists long after their hair has turned gray,” and I would not have that be true for anyone here.  We are called to be producers of maturity – in ourselves, by growing in our connection to the living Jesus and habituating ourselves to putting ourselves out for the other person, serving Christ’s agenda for our church rather than clamoring for what we want; we are called to be producers of maturity in others by speaking to them, lovingly, the truth that they need to hear and keeping their eyes fixed on the real reasons we’re all here together.

God’s vision for the Church is beautiful and amazing – a community of love so unlike the self-centered, self-gratifying, self-serving society around us that it shines like the brightest star in the blackest night.  If we give ourselves fully over to this vision — and this admittedly requires an act of faith — not one of us will actually be disappointed with the outcome.  So let it be; Amen.

 

Who’s Watching You Run?

A Sermon on Hebrews 12:1-3

Preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, Port Charlotte, Florida

Today we celebrate the “Feast of All Saints.” Protestant Christians, I have observed, tend to be uncomfortable when it comes to “saints.”  “Saints” belong to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, or to our Anglican and Episcopalian sisters and brothers who like to think they’re Protestant but really aren’t.  🙂  Their churches are named after saints.  Their churches are adorned with images of saints.  Their liturgies speak of living worshipers joining their prayers with the prayers of “all the saints” who have gone before, who make intercession for us who still struggle in faith on this nearer side of death.  This, in turn, only increases Protestant discomfort around “saints,” since there are still some pretty strong boundary issues between many Protestant and Catholic Christians

Besides (as I’ve often heard Protestants claim when they object to singling out certain persons as saints), aren’t we all saints?  Don’t the New Testament Scriptures consistently speak of all the redeemed together as God’s saints (e.g., Rom 1:7; 15:26; 16:15; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1, 15; 5:3; etc.), God’s “holy ones”?  Doesn’t the practice of singling out certain people as “saints” more especially worthy of remembrance and attention violate the democratic ideal of the people of God?  Perhaps, but let’s face it: Christ shines through some saints far more clearly and brightly than through others.  In this life in which we are constantly searching for reliable models of what Christ looks like when he takes on flesh afresh in his servants – of what it looks like when it is no longer a particular person who is living, but Christ who is living through that person (Gal 2:19-20) – identifying those people through whom Christ shines through most brightly, most transparently, is of great value (2 Cor 4:7).

I think it’s also very important that such saints be dead.  While we live, it is always possible for the light of Christ shining within us to be shrouded by some failure in the face of temptation, to be all but extinguished by some suddenly manifested sin or act that all at once calls into question the integrity of our witness.  How dangerous it is to allow oneself to be inspired by a mortal who, tomorrow, can become a witness to worldliness, the power of sin, the play-acting of hypocrisy.  But those “whom the faithful seal of death has perfected” (4 Macc 7:15), who have lived and died in the faith and with the radiance of Christ undiminished in their lives, who show us that the race can be run well to the end – these can light our way reliably rather than suddenly leaving us in the dark and liable to stumble ourselves.

So what are we, good Protestants that we are, to do with saints?  Nothing more and nothing less, really, than the author of the Letter to the Hebrews did with his saints.  What he did – in that chapter with which we may be familiar as “the faith chapter,” Hebrews 11 – was to decorate the walls of the audience’s minds with poster after poster of their saints, the exemplary figures of the Jewish Scriptures who had received God’s promises and kept walking toward them, even if they tripped up a bit here and there, without allowing anything to turn them aside from obedient faith.  If the author of Hebrews had had a video projector and multiple screens, he would have flashed up pictures of Noah, Abraham, Moses, the great prophets, the Maccabean-era martyrs, and all the other familiar saints who showed what faith looks like in action – how “faith” thinks, how “faith” weighs decisions, how “faith” assesses temporal situations, how “faith” prioritizes, how “faith” behaves.  If we are to be people of faith, he tells his hearers, we need to become more like those who lived as people of faith, so here’s what they looked like and what we need to learn in order to embody the same virtue and arrive at the same goal God intends for them and for us.

Noah teaches us that, when God announces his intention to hold the world accountable, the smartest thing to do is to leave off living “life as usual” and invest fully in a plan to survive that accounting.  Abraham teaches us that attaining what God has promised is well worth leaving behind everything familiar, everything comfortable, everything that gives us our “place” in this world.  Moses teaches us that solidarity with God’s oppressed people is of greater value and honor than the enjoyment of the palaces of the oppressor.  The prophets teach us that God’s word of promise and of warning to this generation must be boldly spoken, whatever the consequences to the messengers.

And so, with his audience’s mind freshly populated with these and two dozen other examples, the author writes:

Therefore, since we indeed have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us put every burden off to the side and strip off the sin that hampers our movements like a close-fitting garment, and let us run with endurance the race course that has been laid out in front us.  And let us do this with our eyes fixed ahead on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  For the sake of the joy set out in front of him, he endured a cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.  Consider him who endured such great opposition against himself from sinful people, so that you may not lose heart or grow weary in your souls.  (Heb 12:1-3, my translation)

The author sets us down on the field of a stadium, and the stands are filled with the saints who have gone before – now not only the Old Testament worthies, but almost two millennia of Christian saints who have devoted their lives to seeking out the prize of Christ’s heavenward call.  We are not competing here in our wrestling matches against sin or in the race for the heavenly prize (which often no doubt feels more like jumping hurdles than a straight run!) – we are not competing in front of crowds of flaccid spectators, but in front of crowds of successful, retired athletes, Olympic winners, every one of them.  We are accustomed to thinking of the “witnesses” in this cloud (12:1) as people who testify to something, mostly to the value of God’s promises and therefore of the value of walking in line with faith even though it costs one’s life.  Indeed, the heroes of faith celebrated in Hebrews 11, along with a great number of Christian saints, do bear this testimony – that living faithfully before God, that investing ourselves first and fully in responding to God’s call, is always advantageous for us, no matter what its temporal costs.  But here the author of Hebrews has arrayed these saints as “witnesses” of a different sort: they are spectators witnessing how well we are engaging the same challenges and the same pursuit that they have completed engaging and in which they have triumphed.

People standing in this pulpit have spoken about it being a daunting thing to preach in front of a professor of the New Testament.  That’s nothing compared to the image of living life as a Christian that the author of Hebrews draws for us.

The confessors of the Church – those who suffered everything short of death for their testimony to Jesus – watch us when we are unwilling to suffer even a moment’s awkwardness in order to testify to God’s goodness and Jesus’ deliverance.

The martyrs who died for their devotion to remaining faithful and obedient to their Savior watch us when we are reluctant even to suffer inconvenience for the sake of obeying and claiming our Lord.

The apostles watch us as we water down their challenge and adulterate their vision for the church and for committed Christian discipleship, all in the hope of appealing to our audiences by making “being a Christian” less intrusive and demanding upon our everyday lives.

Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa watch us as we turn away from a poor person.

Augustine watches us as we fail to search our minds and hearts for the ways in which our desires have led us astray from God.

John Wesley and Martin Luther King, Jr. watch us as we fail to make social justice and social holiness an integral part of our life’s work and the work of our congregation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer watches us as we peddle the cheap grace that makes salvation another commodity rather than a demand for a life of radical obedience.

And so on.

The author of Hebrews wants three things for us as we stand in the stadium his words have erected around us.  The first is a healthy sense of shame before the generations of the faithful-in-Christ who have gone before.  Those who have run the race of faith successfully are watching us, how well we run.  Shouldn’t we be more concerned to run our course well so as to be applauded by them, to live up to their expectations and example, than to live within the expectations of those around us, many of whom remain oblivious to God’s call?  This is one of the central features of the author’s climactic example of faith-in-action, the one whom we see in the most prominent box seat overhanging rows of other seats – Jesus.

And here I have to “geek out” on you all for a moment.  Hebrews 12:2 is a verse that some major translations, starting with the King James Version, have simply gotten wrong.  The New Revised Standard Version, which I generally love, presents Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (so also the ESV, NLT, and older versions of the NIV).  But there’s no “our” in the Greek text and the usual signals for understanding an “our” to be implied are simply not there.  The 2011 revision of the New International Version and the Common English Bible get it right: Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” itself.  We can look to Noah, Abraham, and Moses for great examples of faith-in-action, but no one has gone further into the territory of living faithfully toward God and faithfully investing in God’s promises than Jesus – hence he is faith’s “pioneer.”  He is also the one in whom faith-in-action shows itself most completely – hence he is faith’s “perfecter,” our best and fullest example of faith-in-action.

If Jesus was to arrive at the honor set before him, an honor to be enjoyed forever before God’s court of opinion, it was necessary for him to despise shame with respect to the human court of opinion, that court that regarded him worthy of execution as a criminal and subjected him to the greatest degradation then available on account of his obedience to God’s call.  The author of Hebrews wants us to have a sense of shame lest we fail to go the distance for Jesus that he was willing to go for us.  And so he writes as he wraps up his own sermon: “Jesus, in order to make the people holy by means of his own blood, also suffered outside of the city gate; so now let us keep moving out of the camp and out toward him, bearing the reproach that he bore.  For our lasting city isn’t here, but we are looking expectantly for the one that is coming” (Heb 13:12-14).

But the second thing the author of Hebrews wants for us is to see these saints cheering us on – by their words and examples, by their hearts that, in life, fervently wished for other disciples to run as well, if not better, than they themselves had done, and perhaps now even from beyond death so wish for us as well.  We are connected to these saints.  The Body of Christ spans time just as surely as it spans place.  It is not cut in two by death, over which Christ has surely triumphed. And we can and should look regularly into the stands and be inspired in our race as we remember the victories won by this or that particular saint, who ran the race well to the end and received the victor’s crown.

Christ’s work is not restricted to the pages of the Gospels or the New Testament as a whole.  For a little less than 2,000 years, Christ has continued working, and the testimony to this work is to be read in the lives and seen in the demeanor and practices of the saints.  The saints are witnesses that transformation can in fact happen, and are examples drawn in flesh and blood of how to recognize transformation and how to seek transformation.  For those of you who like to read stories about people, there is a whole genre out there devoted to “Lives of the Saints.”  Learn about any number of hundreds of Christians who had discovered how to live out God’s calling in their lives, who had overcome challenges similar to our own, who had discerned and made their contribution to the ongoing work of building God’s kingdom.  Let their stories and their discoveries inspire and guide your own.

And finally, let us bear in mind that the event taking place in the stadium of faith is also a kind of relay race.  The saints of yesterday have run well and now have taken their places in the winners’ circles that simultaneously surround us.  But the event itself is not over. Rather, the contest has been entrusted by these saints to us in our generation.  We have a faith on the basis of which to run only because of the witness and nurture of saints who have gone before us, who were faithful to their own calling in their generation.  The day will come when we, hopefully, will be gathered into that cloud of witnesses.  Will we be able to watch people running whose place on the field we have helped to secure?  Will we be able to watch saints competing whom we have recruited for the Lord’s events?  The activity that continues on this field after our passing will happen because saints in our generation have recruited and trained saints for a new generation, to recruit and train, in their turn, saints for yet another generation, and so on until the Master of the Games returns to the field.  So I would venture to suggest that a third thing that the author of Hebrews wants for us to feel is weight – the weight first of the wholehearted investment of themselves that two millennia of Christian saints have given to the proclamation and living of the Gospel of Christ’s lordship and, therefore, the weight of responsibility for the ongoing proclamation and living of the same that has fallen upon the Church of this present generation.  For they were not running only for themselves, but for us, who are gathered in churches throughout the world this day because of their witness and work; their torch has been passed now to us, together with all our sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world, to run now not only for ourselves (as we also must) but also for the next generation of saints whom we must diligently summon and train for Christ’s Kingdom, so that Christ will continue to have a body in this world that will continue his redeeming work for generations to come.

“Therefore, since we indeed have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us put every burden off to the side and strip off the sin that hampers our movements like a close-fitting garment, and let us run with endurance the race course that has been laid out in front us.  And let us do this with our eyes fixed ahead on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” Amen.

Jesus Christ, Investment Planner

A sermon on Luke 12:13-21, 32-34; 2 Cor 9:6-15, delivered at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

David deSilva

 

We’re looking at a crowded restaurant, listening to the din of conversations rising up from every table.  We happen to catch one distinct line from one of the tables: “well, my broker is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says….” And suddenly the room falls into complete silence as no one is interested in their own conversations any more so much as interested to hear what tip will be reported as having fallen from the lips of E. F. Hutton.

What about when Jesus speaks about investment strategies?  Do we believe that we’re about to hear a profoundly profitable tip from him?

“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father is very happy to give you the Kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to those in need; provide money-bags for yourself that won’t wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in the heavens where a thief doesn’t encroach and a moth-worm doesn’t devour.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

The investment strategies of our commercial banking industry and our capitalist economy are all about laying up for ourselves treasure on earth.  Every investment planner with a shingle out there will help you lay up your treasure on earth wisely, to diversify your portfolio so as to achieve the right balance of risk and return for your stage of life with a view to preserving capital while gaining sufficient dividends and income to keep you in the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed.  Of course we need “enough” to raise our families and get our children launched; of course we need “enough” to remain self-sufficient to the extent possible.  But let’s be honest.  We – especially here in America – have a problem defining “enough.”  There are strong forces at work all around us trying to make an excess seem insufficient and leave us wanting even more.

That’s where we find the “hero” of Jesus’ parable.  He’s a landowner who has apparently managed his estate well and whose crops have done well over the years.  He gets to the point where the storage facilities that he once built, anticipating that they would be big enough, aren’t big enough any more for all his assets.  His response is to build even bigger storage bins to store the excess, and to think only of how great the rest of his life is going to be with all those assets upon which to draw.  It actually sounds enviable.  Heck, it could have the makings for a good slogan for an investment company – “Gulf Shores Capital Investments.  You’re going to need bigger barns.”  But then God shows up, and the man’s real poverty is exposed.  “You did very well for yourself.  You were living the dream.  But now that’s all over and you’re standing before me.  What do you have now?”

A lot of Christians hear Scriptures like these (and perhaps sermons like this one) begrudgingly as if Jesus is trying to make us make ourselves poorer.  But that’s not the case at all. Jesus is trying to teach us how to make ourselves richer, and to make ourselves richer forever.  There is wealth that we can take with us.  The trick is that we have to make this kind of wealth before we go.  We have to believe enough in “forever” to invest for “forever.”

There is a wonderfully edifying second-century Christian text that almost nobody reads anymore.  It’s called the Shepherd of Hermas and, among other things, it contains what is perhaps our earliest surviving homily on the Gospel lesson we heard read today.

“You know that you who are servants of God are living in a foreign country, for your city is far from this city.  If, then, you know in what city you are destined to live, why are you furnishing for yourselves plots of land and piles of stuff and buildings and empty rooms here? … So exercise prudence.  As a person residing in a foreign country, do not furnish yourself with one thing more than is necessary to be self-sufficient.  Instead of buying acreage here, ransom lives that are in distress; look after the vulnerable and don’t neglect them.  Spend your wealth and possessions, which you’ve received from God anyway, on goods of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it…. Don’t practice the same kind of extravagant spending as the unbelievers, but practice your distinctive kind of extravagance, which will bring you joy forever.” (Similitude 1, my paraphrase)

The people whose lives we have touched for the better, personally or from a great distance, constitute our treasure in heaven.  The people whose lives we have rescued from or supported in the midst of distress, whose hearts have been opened to God and God’s salvation by our outreach, whose needs we have shouldered as our own so as to help them carry their burdens – we will find these people again on the other side of death, and the love that we expressed for them here, the relief that we brought them here, the spiritual nurture and growth that we facilitated for them here will make of them our treasure in heaven forever.

So Jesus is calling us in to his brokerage office this morning and wants to ask of us: Do you need to diversify your investment portfolio?  Are you positioned too strongly in short-term investments, that is to say, investments that will pay off on this side of death?  Have you taken adequate thought for your long-term needs and invested accordingly, so that you can enjoy a rich lifestyle for the eternity on the other side of death?  Is some reallocation of assets in order?

Jesus keeps calling our attention to good investment opportunities, inviting us to invest in the kingdom of God, to get behind ventures that seek to facilitate the kingdom’s breaking in and becoming real here in this world, so that when we leave this country in which we are merely sojourners and resident aliens, and enter our eternal homeland, we will find and enjoy the fruits of those assets we have invested into the kingdom, the rewards of the time and labor we have committed to the kingdom, the well-deserved rest that follows the energies we have expended for the kingdom.

So, of course, I’m talking, in part at least, about the ministries of this church and our support of the same with, as our membership vows put it, “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.”  And I’m, without embarrassment, talking this morning chiefly about our gifts.  Supporting the ministries of this church is one instrument in a solid investment strategy for eternity.  We offer a somewhat diversified portfolio here – we’re a kind of “balanced assets” mutual fund for the kingdom.

You’re investing in your own growth as a disciple and in the growth that we are all potentially experiencing here together.  What you give makes it possible also for others to experience (hopefully) well-crafted and impactful worship, education in the faith, meaningful connections with other Christians that create a network of holy and loving support for your own perseverance in faith to the end.  You invest in the faith formation of our children and youth, whose lives have the potential to be set on a strong foundation for this life and for eternity because of this work.  You invest in the work of missionaries in foreign lands, in the kingdom fruit of whose missions you have a share.  You engage in missions and relief efforts yourself and support the mission and relief work of others.  You invest in the much larger mission of the United Methodist Church globally through our church’s apportionments, which, while of course supporting the administrative structures of the UMC, also support the positive kingdom work of those structures as well as a variety of denominational outreach and relief efforts. And we do need to make sure that everything given to support this church is responsibly used to create kingdom dividends.  And when we’re not, we expect you, the shareholders, to point out those areas where an audit is in order with a view to maximizing kingdom impact.

But I’m not just talking about investing here.  As I said, we’re a good “balanced assets” kingdom fund. But you might also need some good kingdom “growth funds” in your ERA – your “eternal retirement account.” Are there front-line ministries toward which God would direct your attention and some part of the resources that he’s entrusted to you?  Perhaps those specialized organizations that seek to bring resources and aid to persecuted Christians and the surviving families of martyrs throughout Asia and Africa, so that they know the support, love, and encouragement of the global family of God and can persevere in their costly witness?  Perhaps those organizations dedicated to making the Scriptures freely available to people throughout the world in their own languages, so that the Holy Spirit can do in their lives what the Spirit does in ours when we engage God’s word?  Perhaps those relief agencies that work diligently and responsibly to secure a sustainable life for entire villages, or to provide timely relief from starvation or disease? Perhaps those ministries that work with at-risk youth in our cities, or nurture faith and discipleship on college campuses?  Perhaps scholarship funds that support the training of a new generation of pastors, missionaries, and theological educators?

You might also consider if you should invest in some individual kingdom stocks for your portfolio as well.  Is there a single-parent family that could stand to be informally adopted, both for the relief of a working parent and for the care, nurture, and sound guidance of his or her children?  Is there a particular Christian family or community in an under-resourced or even hostile area of the globe, with which you are called to partner?

Our second-century pastor urges us: “Spend your wealth and possessions, which you’ve received from God anyway, on goods of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it…. Don’t practice the same kind of extravagant spending as the unbelievers, but practice your distinctive kind of extravagance, which will bring you joy forever.” Rightly interpreting Jesus’s advice, he calls us to invest adequately in people, with whom our relationships will therefore outlast our deaths, whom we will enjoy forever in the communion of saints.  Ultimately, we are talking about genuinely and fully loving our neighbors as ourselves, and doing so with a view to accomplishing in their lives what God deeply wishes to see accomplished – or even to accomplishing in God’s name what they themselves are praying to God to accomplish for them.

As we leave Jesus’ brokerage firm, his receptionist Paul throws two good words our way.  First, he says, remember this: “The one who throws only a little into these investments will only enjoy a small return, but the one who invests heavily in these ventures will have a whopping return” (you can probably tell that I’m taking some liberties with the translation).  “But you can invest whatever you decide to invest – it’s up to you; no one’s putting a gun to your head.  For God loves the cheerful investor” (2 Cor 9:6-7).  In some stewardship campaigns, I’ve heard people talk about tithing, asserting that, according to the Scriptures, ten percent of our income belongs to God, pushing the congregation to keep bumping up their giving closer to ten percent.  It would be fabulous to see this congregation tithe.  This church would be flush with funds and would have to begin seriously considering what new outreaches and ministries we would need to add, what new missionaries we would need to support, what new relief efforts we would need to undertake in order to spend the income.  The expenses of running this place would not increase; only our ability to have a kingdom impact would increase.

But … I don’t see Jesus or Paul in these texts we’ve heard today pushing us to tithe.  I’ve simply heard both, in different ways, asking us if we’re using our temporary wealth intelligently with a view to what will make us rich before God, what will accrue eternal dividends because those dividends will be with us forever.  I see both of them simply holding out an investment opportunity before us, urging us to make the most of it.  (The unavoidable flip side of this is that, if we don’t seriously consider these investment opportunities, we will, in some fashion that we simply cannot envision precisely but that should nevertheless give us pause, be without those dividends forever.)  I personally trust the Holy Spirit and each one of you to work out the right level of investment and how the whole portfolio needs to be put together to maximize your kingdom impact.

A second thing Paul shoots at us on our way out is this: “God is able to make all favor abound to you in order that, having enough for your needs, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8).  Paul makes us ask: Does God bring resources our way to bless us (so that we enjoy its temporary benefits), or to empower us to bless others (so that we enjoy its eternal benefits)?  And there’s yet another layer to this.  The financial resources that we’re talking about have value to us only as long as we are alive or this world lasts, but God has made it possible for us to use this money now, before it becomes valueless, to purchase what will be of eternal value to us.  If you know that a particular government is going down, does it make better sense to hold onto its currency or work out some exchange before it’s too late?  We’ve all heard the exclamation, “Hold onto your confederate money! The South will rise again!” No, I think those people who started exchanging their confederate money in 1863 or 1864 for commodities that would still have value on the other side of the Confederacy’s fall were the wise ones.  And Jesus doesn’t want us to find ourselves standing before him at the Last Judgment essentially holding bags of confederate money.  He wants us surrounded by the commodities of eternal value for which we’ve exchanged the currency of this world and its kingdoms.

When you get to heaven – and I’m not talking about buying or earning your way in, but Jesus’s language should make us think about what it’s going to be like for us on the other side of getting in – do you want to be surrounded by all the good you haven’t done?  For eternity? Or will you want to be surrounded by all the good to which you have contributed – in which you have invested – as fully as possible?  Maybe, when Jesus, our investment planner, speaks, maybe we should listen.

“God’s Bottom-Line Performance Metrics”

A sermon on Galatians 5:16-25 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, October 8, 2017.

16Make it a habit to walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not fulfill what the flesh desires. 17For the flesh yearns against what the Spirit desires, and the Spirit against what the flesh desires, for these stand opposed to one another in order that you may not do whatever you might want. 18But if you are being led by Spirit, you are not under Torah. 19And the works born of the flesh are clearly evident: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, 20idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, 21acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these. Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: Those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23forbearance, self-control. Against such things there is no law.24 And those who are Christ’s own crucified the flesh along with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep falling in step with the Spirit. (my translation)

 

Metrics.  Every organization, it seems, has them now.  No, I’m not talking about kilometers, kilograms, liters, and degrees centigrade.  We tried all that here in America in the late 70’s and it never really caught on.  I’m talking about the numbers that fill in the blanks of reports, the numbers that are used to assess performance, effectiveness, profitability, and other indicators of corporate functioning.  Even Ashland Theological Seminary, in compliance with the Department of Education, has gone far in the direction of creating metrics.  We come up with percentages of students attaining this or that learning outcome, with measurements of student satisfaction, with measurements of graduation and employment rates, all for the sake of giving a snapshot of our performance to accrediting agencies and to prove that we are doing some kind of assessment to ensure the quality and effectiveness of our educational programs.

October is the month in which many United Methodist churches, including our own, hold their “charge conferences,” and those who prepare the reports for these meetings, which are then submitted to the district office and eventually trickle into the annual conference database, know how important metrics are in our denomination.  We list average attendances, annual giving, percentages of apportionments met, numbers of new members, numbers of baptisms, average weekly participation in a variety of ministries, and so forth.  These measurements, these metrics, provide some hard data for assessing the performance and effectiveness of a given congregation.

But they don’t touch on (in any direct way at least) another set of measurements, of metrics, that seem to matter even more for how God would assess the performance and effectiveness of a congregation and of each of that congregation’s individual disciples.  Paul gives us one expression of these divine metrics in the reading we heard this morning:

“The works born of the flesh are immediately obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.” (Gal 5:19-21)

“The fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)

What is of paramount importance to God – so Paul seems to think – is whether our behavior, whether in private or in public, in our homes or congregations or work places, shows that the “flesh” is driving us or that the “Spirit” is driving us, that we are giving mastery of ourselves over to the “flesh” or to the “Spirit.”

I suggest that these metrics are more important than the numerical ones that we will fixate upon in preparation for charge conference, because the United Methodist Book of Discipline announces no penalties or promises for congregations that fall on one or the other side of the conference’s measurements like the ones we hear about from Paul in Galatians: with regard to the outcomes of flesh-driven behavior, “Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: Those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21); or, with regard to both flesh-driven and Spirit-driven practice, “The harvest for those who continue to sow to their flesh will be the rottenness of the grave, but for those who continue to sow to the Spirit, the harvest will be eternal life.” (Gal 6:8).

Now, by “flesh” Paul does not mean the meat that clings to our bones.  Paul uses this word to name the bundle of self-centered, self-serving impulses and drives that keep us falling short of God’s vision for us as God’s new creation – God’s vision for us as individuals and as a community of faith.  The “flesh” is the “old person,” the person we once were, from whom Christ died to save us, reasserting itself, trying to stop the new creation from coming about in us because that new creation means the death of the old creature.  It is the Ego with a capital “E,” trying to establish itself again on the throne of our lives, because it doesn’t want to be denied and it doesn’t want to die.  And Paul gives us clear metrics here.  We know that the “flesh” is driving us – and that we are sowing to the “flesh,” when we see its works in us and among us.  And these works are, as Paul says, obvious indeed when they show up: “sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.”

Now I’ve been a part of this congregation long enough to know that not many of you are “party animals,” such that we tend not to manifest “drunken bouts” or “gluttonous parties.”  But we are hardly free from strife, dissension, angry outbursts, trying to get our own way and getting in a tiff when we don’t.  We’re not entirely free of sexual immorality and, statistics alone would tell us, of an array of addictions.  These – and all such like things – are warning signs to us, whether in our lives individually or in our life together, that we are sowing to the “flesh” – and are making ourselves once again liable to its harvest, the rottenness of the grave.  Because if we’re going to keep choosing to live the life of the old person, the unredeemed person, that’s where we will end up and where all that is us will end.

The alternative to dredging up these flesh-driven works is to yield ourselves over to the Spirit, to become soil that is continuously cultivated by the Spirit such that the Spirit can produce its fruit in and among us.  By “Spirit,” Paul is not talking about our rational or better self, but the Holy Other who is wholly other – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God’s Son, who has invaded us in our baptism and seeks to pervade us in every situation, so that we are both driven and empowered by this Spirit to do and to become what is righteous and beautiful in God’s sight.

The Spirit is too often treated as the third wheel in the Trinity.  When we say the Apostles’ Creed together, we recite four lines about the Father, nine or ten lines about the Son, and one line about the Spirit.  This doesn’t begin to reflect the Holy Spirit’s importance.  Let’s just consider what Paul has to say about the Spirit in the one short letter from which today’s reading comes.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse pronounced by the Law by becoming accursed on our behalf … in order that the promise God made to Abraham might come to the nations in Christ Jesus, that is, in order that we might receive the promised Spirit by faith.” (3:13-14)

“Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’  The result is that you’re no longer a slave, but a child.” (4:6-7)

“By means of the Spirit and on the basis of trusting, we are eagerly looking for the righteousness for which we hope.” (5:5)

Paul seems to think that Christ died, among other goals, specifically to secure for us this promised gift – the Holy Spirit – to dwell within and among us.  Paul seems to think that, if we have any sense at all that God has loved us and taken us into God’s own family, this is the work of that same Spirit within us, assuring us and allowing us to call upon God as Father.  Paul also seems to think that this gift of the Spirit is intended to get us from where we started out in our self-centered, self-serving unirghteousness to that place of being righteous, that place in which we hope to be found at the end of this journey when we stand before the God and Judge of all. And if I have one prayer for this congregation and each person in it, it is this: that each one of us, and all of us together, will grow in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – the sensitivity to being aware of the Spirit’s presence, the ability to know the Spirit’s restraint and the Spirit’s incitement, the discipline to get in step with the Spirit more and more.

Paul introduces today’s reading with a marvelous promise: “Keep walking in line with and in the power of the Spirit, and there’s no way that you’ll bring what the flesh craves into being” (Gal 5:16).  Christ did not die on our behalf to leave us caught between two opposite but equal powers, to be torn and vacillating between the two.  Christ died on our behalf to gain for us that divine power that could break the hold of the flesh over us and over our interactions together.  God has put it within our grasp to live out there – and to live with one another in here, even in our committee meetings! – in such a manner as consistently manifests the fruit of the Spirit, such that we continue to allow God to clothe us with love, joy, peaceful relationships, patience, generosity towards others, goodness, steadfast reliability, forbearance, and self-control.  If we all together seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for whatever ministry, committee, or group of which we are a part here – the leading of the Holy Spirit, not the leading of our own inner sense of what needs to happen and our frustration, then impatience, then anger with the other people here who get in our way – the outcome must be that we will proceed in all things together harmoniously.

What is required of us to attain this?  First, I suppose, we have to buy into Paul’s metrics and into his claim that God cares, perhaps first and foremost, whether we are taking hold of the new life his Spirit makes possible or continuing to indulge our old person in spite of Christ’s death to save us from that person and its destiny.  Second, we need to commit ourselves – daily, even hourly – to “keep walking in line with the Spirit,” to maintain vigilance over our own impulses so that, when we recognize the impulses of the “flesh,” we can turn immediately to the Spirit for timely help and power to squelch those impulses and fall in step instead with the Spirit’s better direction.  In this manner, it requires diligent and disciplined dying – identifying, denying, and dying to those self-centered drives, those self-protective impulses, those flesh-feeding urges that keep churning up the mucky works of the flesh.  Conversely, it requires regularly re-orienting ourselves so that we seek the Spirit’s leading in situation after situation until the Spirit-born impulses become our first impulses.

Epictetus was born around the same time that Paul wrote Galatians.  He was born a slave but became one of the most influential Stoic philosophers of the Roman period. He taught those who wanted to attain the Stoic ideal for themselves – that inner freedom from external stimuli that allowed them to remain in control of themselves, possessed of virtue, and unperturbed in mind – that this was possible if they would just train themselves to keep that goal ever before them.

“When you go into the market, don’t think only that you want to get the good fish or vegetables before they’re gone, but also that you want to remain possessed of virtue.  When you go into the council chamber, don’t think only that you want to persuade the council to vote one way or another, but also that you want to maintain your self-control.  When you go to the public baths, don’t think only that you want to enjoy a restful time and get a good massage, but also that you want to remain unperturbed in mind.  That way, when you get to the market and rude people push in ahead of you or grab the choice fish out from under you, you will not be dragged into becoming rude yourself, but will remember – ‘I didn’t just come here to get fish or vegetables, but to keep my virtue intact.’  When you get into the council chamber and angry men oppose your proposal and call you foolish, you won’t get riled up to respond in kind, but will remember – ‘I didn’t just come here to win a debate, but also to maintain my self-control.’ When you get to the bathhouse and a more rowdy bunch spoils your rest with splashing and raucous banter, you will remember, ‘I didn’t just come here for a restful massage, but also to remain unperturbed in mind.’  The first of each pair of goals is always vulnerable to being foiled; the second goal of each pair, is in no one’s power to foil but your own.”

We can learn a lot from Epictetus’s advice, with this important change: our second goal, really our underlying and indispensable goal, in every situation is this – that we will keep in step with the Spirit in every situation, and not give ourselves over to what the “flesh” might impel us to do.  I would urge us to be especially attentive to this in our work, our activities, our ministries together as a congregation.  The ugly stereotype of a church these days is that it is a place marked by “displays of enmity, strife, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions” – all flesh-driven works.   Let’s be vigilant to banish all of these from every corner of our church by giving none of them so much as a corner within ourselves.  The beauty of the alternative is irresistible – a community characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control” – a Spirit-shaped culture.   These are God’s metrics, and he has supplied us, in his Spirit, with all that we need to measure up.

 

 

 

Address at Graduation Dinner, Colombo Theological Seminary

I forgot that I had a blog.  Truly.  Slipped my mind completely for like a year.  I was cleaning out some old files on my computer and came across this address I gave back in July 2013.  As I love CTS and its faculty/administration, and as other graduation events are coming up such that this might serve someone’s reflections on that milestone, I post it here.

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Your graduation from Colombo Theological Seminary is a milestone. We certainly deserve, and need, to celebrate this milestone.  It has been reached only with great effort, investment, and commitment.

And this graduation is not just about you. I think of the extraordinary commitment shown to your formation, and investment made in your lives, by the faculty, administration, and staff of CTS. In so many ways they have poured themselves into you, and poured themselves out for you. And I know their ministry on your behalf is an acceptable libation poured over your own offering of yourselves to God during your time here. They have such love for you, such passion for equipping you, such responsiveness to God in doing what they do here to fulfill the mission of CTS.

But, of course, the seed they have sown would have come to nothing if you yourselves were not such fruitful soil, if you were not ready to embrace what your instructors have taught, to wrestle with them about its implications for your lives and ministries, and to wrestle with God in prayer as he used your time here to shape and equip you for his kingdom work. So tonight and, even more so this coming Saturday, you justifiably celebrate the foundation that the work you and your instructors have undertaken here together have given you for the remainder of the journey.

This is an important milestone, certainly, but not a finish line – and the Christian life is one of always looking ahead, and not looking behind. It is always about what God is doing in us and through us, not about what God has done, or what we have achieved that has brought us to this point. So I thought it would be good for us to think tonight about your successful completion of your program at CTS in light of Paul’s comments about his own orientation to the Christian journey: “I count everything a ‘loss’ in order that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by conforming myself to the likeness of his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not as if I had already taken hold of this or arrived at the goal, but I press on, if only I might grasp that for which Christ Jesus grasped me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have grasped this yet.  One thing, though – forgetting the things that lie behind me and reaching forward to what lies in front of me, I press on unto the prize of the upward invitation that God extended in Christ Jesus.  Let as many of us as have come to a mature mindset think in this way – and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal this to him or her as well.  Only let us walk in line with whatever we have attained” (Philippians 3:8, 10-16).

Even while we celebrate the milestone, Paul would have us turn our minds to pressing on to the finish line. I do hope that the phrase “forgetting what lies behind” will not actually apply in this particular case. You and your instructors have put far too much into your experience at CTS for you to allow that to happen. But Paul’s approach reminds us that we are not done learning as of tonight, or as of Saturday. Paul himself continued to learn more and more of the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love shown in Christ; he continued to learn more and more of the connections between the revelation of God in Christ and the witness of the Scriptures; he continued to learn new missionary and pastoral strategies as he encountered new opportunities and new challenges in his ministry. So he would urge you to press on, learning throughout a lifetime.

As you have carved out significant time for your studies at CTS up to this point, continue to carve out time in the future for refreshment in learning, for going beyond even what you have attained to this point. As your equipping expands, so will your effectiveness in ministry. Your experience at CTS has also shaped you as a disciple, touching not just your mind but also your heart and your spirit.

Whatever intentionality your time at CTS has brought to your formation as a disciple, Paul would urge you to continue to show the same and even greater intentionality in your ongoing formational journey. Christ is taking shape in you; it is vitally important that this process not stop short of the goal – that we should indeed be transformed fully such that we can say, with Paul, “it is no longer me living, but Christ is living in me.”

The words that we heard from Paul were spoken in the midst of a fruitful ministry as well. If anyone had reason to sit on his laurels, it was Paul – first as an advanced disciple of the Torah before his conversion, then as one of the most successful missionaries the world has ever seen after his conversion. But even after he had planted churches from Syria to Asia Minor to Macedonia to Greece, he kept his eyes fixed on what God called him to do next, so that he might fully run his course. So Paul would urge you also to keep your eyes looking forward to the “good works” that God has yet prepared for each of you to walk in – running the course of your ministry, your service for the kingdom.

It seems appropriate to say a word about “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” and “the power of Christ’s resurrection.” First, notice how Paul actually lists the power of Christ’s resurrection first, setting the sufferings in the context of Christ’s triumph over the power of death and all that opposes God’s good purposes for God’s creation. Here in Sri Lanka, walking in line with God’s call may lead to the experience of hardship and hostility. It may take you into places of disappointment and discouragement. When this happens, remember whom you serve. Remember how he has triumphed and promises triumph to those who also know the fellowship of his sufferings. Let this embolden you just as it emboldened Paul to move forward in obedience to God, whether you enjoy favor with your neighbors and see your work bearing fruit, or whether the opposite is the case.

When writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul compared his own discipline in making progress in Christian formation to the discipline of athletes training for sporting competitions:  “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath” – a wreath woven from the branches of certain trees – “but we an imperishable one” – the crown of eternal life.

We could easily adapt his analogy to our own training in preparation for ministry. You have put forth as much effort here as anyone in any academic program across the country.  They do it to receive a paper diploma and worldly credentials. But we do it to be better equipped to serve our Lord, to be formed more fully after his likeness, to enjoy a far greater graduation dinner – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, and to walk in a far greater “graduation” ceremony.

It is my prayer for every one of us gathered here that we will be able to say, at the end of our course, what Paul said: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” You have not invested yourself here only to be greeted by our principal with a warm smile and the right hand of fellowship and to receive a diploma. Rather, your work here is part of your training for the whole course you will run for the sake of being greeted by Christ’s smile of approval and warm embrace, and for the sake of hearing the words “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into your Master’s joy.”

But we are not here only to look forward. We do need to return to celebrate what we have attained, which brings me to the final point in Paul’s words to us: “Only let us walk in line with what we have attained.” You’ve learned so much while you were here. What a shame to let any of it fail to take root in your lives! What a shame to let any of it be as seed that falls on the dry pathway or among the thorns and thistles! What you have learned, put into action; make it a part of yourselves. James warns against looking into the Law of God, as into a mirror, and failing to do it, becoming thus like a person who walks away forgetting what he or she looks like. Our Lord urges us to build our lives around the teachings we have received from him, since only that means building on a rock-solid foundation. What God has given you and shown you during your time at CTS, safeguard in your memory and put into action in your lives and ministries.

Your graduation is a time for thinking about how the program at CTS has been working its way into and through your own formation in Christ and the service you have been offering in his name. It has changed the way you encountered Scripture and thought about how to listen for God’s word to you through Scripture. It has broadened your vision for God’s work in the Church Universal and for ministry on this fair island. It has brought you into contact with Christians of other theological traditions whose positions have expanded your own sense of how God is at work in the world, and how rich and varied are the ways in which his Church has perceived him. It has deepened your own prayer life, your vision for the transformation God is working in us individually and as communities of faith. Only that it might do so more and more till the whole lump has been leavened!

Allow your education and experiences at CTS to act like leaven, spreading into and giving growth to every facet of your discipleship. Take time to reflect in the days, weeks, and months ahead on what you have attained through your program here, on what you have learned and in what directions it could continue to goad you and guide you. Your work and achievements here position you to enjoy such affirmation there, to the extent that you live in line with what you have attained and to the extent that you continue to press on from here in your formational and ministry-forming journey toward the prize.

 

Desire, the Dhamma, and the Gospel

An excerpt from my 2011 book, Global Readings: A Sri Lankan Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock).

Paul’s diagnosis of the human problem has an important point of contact with the Buddha’s assessment of the same. Both locate the essential source of suffering and distress in the “passions of the flesh,” to use Paul’s language, or the “desires” or “cravings,” to use the Buddha’s. According to the Buddha, “the entangling and embroiling craving” is the thing most to be eliminated (Dhammapada 180) and “desire is the bane of humankind” (Dhammapada 359). Paul is more specific about the class of “desires” or “cravings” that lead to suffering among humankind in the present and in the future, speaking more narrowly about “the desires that spring from the ‘flesh’,” which, when acted upon, produce the vices listed as “works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19-21. The Buddha would have read Paul’s list with approval, identifying as “fetters” to be renounced or uprooted many of the same inner-personal and inter-personal manifestations of self-centered desire, including anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit, hatred, lust, and hypocrisy (Dhammapada 221, 262-263, 407): “Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower those who live for the pursuit of pleasures, who are uncontrolled in their senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated” (Dhammapada 7).

The Buddha nourished both the commitment and the discipline required to destroy the “cankers,” so that the individual “whose senses are subdued like horses well trained by a charioteer” might become “pure as a deep pool free from mud” (Dhammapada 93-95), a person characterized by patience, freedom from anger, and self-control, which are the marks of the true “holy person” (Dhammapada 399-400). Paul also identifies “cankers,” calling for ethical purification by cultivating the fruit of the Spirit while checking the works of the flesh (Gal 5:13-25). The person who is fully formed in the Spirit would manifest many of the characteristics prized in the Buddha’s vision of the arahat.

One of the most significant differences between Paul’s vision and the Buddha’s, and hence between Christianity and other religions, is that Paul proclaims that God provides us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to perform God’s will. Christianity presents the Holy Spirit as a means by which to be free from cycle of sin and from the power of desire (as well as anger and delusion) so as to love fully and in a truly other-centered way. Other religions leave us at the mercy of our own effort and power, teaching that God will accept us in proportion to how we overcome sin or evil. The cross of Jesus Christ presents a “stumbling block” to Buddhism in regard to its rejection of self-reliance and relying on the power and guidance of God’s Spirit instead. In this, however, Paul’s doctrine of crucifying one’s self along with its desires in union with Christ’s crucifixion is in a way more faithful to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta. Buddhists rely on their own efforts for deliverance from the wheel of samsara while, ostensibly, there is no “self” on which to rely. Christians understand a “self” to exist, but deny that it is sufficiently stable or powerful to effect deliverance from the power of desire, anger, and delusion.

While compassionate love for others is a central focus of both Christian and Buddhist ethics, as it is, indeed, an essential teaching of most every religion, there are some noticeable differences in the conceptualization of the ideals of agapē and metta. Both are other-centered ideals, but the Buddha cautioned against allowing compassion to turn into endearment and connection: “From endearment springs grief, from endearment springs fear. For him who is wholly free from endearment, there is no grief, whence then fear?” (Dhammapada 212). Metta is quite different from Christian love in that Christians can risk love and endearment because hope in the resurrection answers grief and fear, and takes away the sting (the dukkha) inherent in and brought by death. Metta remains detached, “universal” compassion expressed now towards this individual, now towards that. Agapē is very much an “attached” compassion and love felt toward the “particular” human being toward whom one shows compassion.

Agapē is the focal point of the Spirit-led ethic, and Paul depends upon the power of the Spirit to nurture this love. Following the Spirit, the Christians will be transformed into a community of mutual investment, care, and support, rather than one characterized by mutual hostility and detraction (Gal 5:15), where members are poised against one another in pride, envy, and provocation (Gal 5:26). It leads to the quality of relationships between people that leads outsiders – even those who are hostile to the presence of Christianity in their midst – “Look how they love each other, … and how they are prepared to die one for the other” (Tertullian, Apology 39.7).