Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sermon: The Politics of Baptism (4 Pentecost/ 24 June 2007)

4 Pentecost: 24 June 2007
(1 Kings 19:1-15a/Psalm 42/Galatians 3:23-29/Luke 8:26-39)
The Politics of Baptism

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In a bit over a week our country will celebrate the 231st anniversary of its independence. On this July 4th we are engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan – a war lacking a definition of victory and a strategy for exit. Governmental approval ratings are amongst the lowest ever; we have lost confidence in our elected leaders from both parties. The majority of citizens recently polled are convinced that America is headed in the wrong direction, though I doubt that same majority could agree on what the right direction would be. Still, on July 4th there will be flags and bunting, parades and picnics, fireworks and the National Anthem, and speeches – many speeches. And for a time – albeit brief – we will feel better about ourselves, about this enterprise of freedom and democracy. Though we fail to reach it, the American ideal still beckons, and many – not least those against whom we erect fences both concrete and political – strain toward it, long for it as did our ancestors.

In some churches next Sunday the American flag will lead the cross in the processional and dominate the sanctuaries. The National Anthem and God Bless America will be interspersed with The Old Rugged Cross and To God Be the Glory. The Pledge of Allegiance will supplement or supplant the Creed. The blood of fallen soldiers will be mingled with the blood of the Lamb. In a paroxysm of patriotism the dividing wall between Church and State will be leveled. Religious language will be co-opted for patriotic purposes: America will become the light of the world, the city on a hill, the New Jerusalem. Go into all the world making disciples will become go into all the world spreading democracy. Independence Day will eclipse Easter in its power to thrill and motivate and identify a people.

On Independence Day there are no Democrats or Republicans, no Conservatives or Liberals, no Hawks or Doves; all are one, all are Americans. Such is the power of a national celebration to unify a people. Independence Day not only celebrates the political act of our forebears, it is a political act – as much, or perhaps more so, than voting. The most basic meaning of polis, the Greek root of politics, is city or town. But it connotes much more: the building of a city, the formation of a people to inhabit the city, and the governance of that people. Politics is the creation of a distinctive people: calling them, forming them, uniting them, and governing them. So, on Independence Day we call our people together – the 4th of July is a collective celebration with events designed to appeal to groups of people. We tell the distinctive American story and extol the formative values of our country as expressed in our founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We display our national symbols and offer all citizens ample opportunities to pledge their allegiance to our flag, a unifying act reminding us that we are one nation under God. We listen as our elected officials assure us of the superiority of our government and our way of life, assure us that all people everywhere aspire to them. Political activities all, for politics is the creation of a distinctive people: calling them, forming them, uniting them, and governing them. And that’s why it’s impossible to separate faith and politics – at least impossible to separate the Christian faith and politics. The story we tell, the story we live, is inescapably political, for it too is about the creation of a distinctive people: calling them, forming them, uniting them, and governing them.

Our national government currently is divided over an immigration bill, a political issue in every sense of the word. It’s all about who gets to be counted among our people, about who gets the benefits of citizenship. Those blessed to be “in” through accident of birth debate membership requirements. Who’s more useful, someone to pick our vegetables, slaughter our chickens, and do our day labor, or someone with a college degree – a doctor or a computer engineer? Is reuniting families important or is utilitarian value the sole criterion? What about those illegal aliens – let’s not humanize them by calling them neighbors and friends – those illegal aliens already among us? Do we deport them? Do we give them amnesty? Do we create for them a hopelessly complex legal path to citizenship? Those of us who were never on the outside looking in get to decide these issues, those of us who received citizenship as a gift from our parents, those of us who never were aliens. Such is American politics.

But it’s not God’s politics. No one is among God’s people by accident of birth. No one receives citizenship as a parental gift. All of us who are now citizens were once aliens – illegal aliens – for we had broken God’s law. We were insurgents in rebellion against him. We were, by human standards, of no value at all, with no hope of inclusion among God’s people.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be (1 Cor 6:9-11a, NRSV).

Paul actually understates the case, here, when he says “some of you.” All of you. All of you, it should be, for every person apart from God is an idolater, every person worships some god, even if it’s the god of the atheists.

How from this mass of illegal aliens did God ever form a people?

And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11, NRSV).

Some cross the Rio Grande, some cross the Atlantic, some cross the Pacific to become citizens of the United States. But all of us, without exception, cross through the waters of baptism to become citizens of the household of God. And in those waters we are washed – we cease to be among the great unwashed masses of humanity. In those waters we are sanctified – made holy and set aside for sacred use. In those waters we are justified – declared by God to be in the right before God, declared to be among his people. All in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. All through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Through the gospel of Christ God calls a people. Through baptism he forms them and unites them.

For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV).

Whatever else baptism is – and it is always more than we can say at any given moment – it is initiation into the distinctive people of God, naturalization – or, more appropriately, “super-naturalization,” since it is an act of God. Baptism is always political because it is always about forming a people for God. The old distinctions that used to matter – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female – are subsumed by the only distinctive that now matters, being one new people, those in Christ Jesus. This makes baptism a profoundly political and profoundly subversive act, so much so that if our government ever really got the implications of Christian baptism we might all be taken dripping wet directly from the font and thrown into solitary confinement in Guantanamo. I’m not really trying to be dramatic. Rome got it and they exiled the baptized, or crucified them, or immolated them, or otherwise eliminated them as troublers of the empire. The Communist Russia of recent past – no different. China, Indonesia – they get it and they persecute the baptized who will not compromise the gospel of Christ. We like to think that couldn’t happen here, that America is different, that it is a Christian nation, for God’s sake. But it’s not, it never has been, and it never can be. The evangelical moral majority who were, or are, on a quest to win back America for God are simply deluded. America never was God’s and so can’t be won back for him or to him. God has no country. God has a people – all those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus and unified in the one Spirit.

This new Christian political reality challenges all other political realities; that’s what makes it subversive and threatening to the status quo. It’s an issue of loyalty, really. Is our allegiance to the flag or to our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Constitution or to Scripture? And if we don’t see the inherent conflicts it may be because we have closed our eyes.

The United States has the right to secure and protect its borders, to keep out the undesirable aliens. I wonder, are there borders in the kingdom of God – fences and patrols?

The United States has the right to defend itself from aggression, from all enemies foreign and domestic. I wonder, is the sword drawn in the kingdom of God, is the Prince of Peace served by acts of war?

The United States has the right to enact and enforce law. I wonder, are the laws of the land always compatible with the will of God?

We could go on but it would belabor the point. Baptism is a profoundly political act because it forms the distinctive people of God in Christ Jesus. Baptism is a profoundly subversive act because it creates a new set of loyalties that challenge the status quo. What a scandal Jesus presented on that day when

his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35, NRSV).

What a scandal Paul presented when he insisted that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; all are welcomed around the same table.

What a scandal we will present when we say, “Come Sunni, come Shiite. Come Hutu, come Tootsie. Come white Afrikaner, come black South African. Come Hindu, come Muslim. Come Republican, come Democrat. Come liberal, come conservative. Come citizen, come illegal alien. Come death row inmate, come innocent victim. Come to the water of baptism. Come to Christ. Come to the one, holy people of God – a kingdom of priests from every tribe and tongue and nation. Reject the old politics of race and religion and nationality and division and embrace the new politics of God. Relinquish the old loyalties of flag and family and embrace the new loyalties of cross and church.”

William Willimon tells this story.

Last fall we had a panel discussion on “Homosexuality and the Church.” (Who told us to call people “homosexual”? A nineteenth-century Viennese psychotherapist who wrote a book arguing that there were males, females, and a third sex, homosexuals. What on earth are we talking about when we talk this way? Why should the church be interested in such labeling of people?) After the discussion, a young man came up to me saying that he was “a baptized Episcopalian” and “none of you have a right to tell me who I am. I define myself.”
I noted that if this first declaration were true (“I am a baptized Episcopalian”) his second was false. In baptizing this young man the church was quite clear, or at least should have been clear (false advertising is so wrong), that we were telling him who he was, namely a cherished child of God who was washed, gifted, chosen, called, and named

Whatever else Willimon intends by this story, it must mean that nothing is more constituative of our identity than baptism. Sexuality, gender, race, nationality: all subverted by and subsumed under baptism. If we primarily define ourselves by anything other than our baptism, we have forgotten who we are. It is our baptism that defines us, and not we ourselves. Our identity is baptismal identity. Our loyalties are baptismal loyalties. Our politics are baptismal politics.

Somewhere along the way – and you can blame Augustine or the Protestant Reformers or modern evangelicals, we are all complicit – the church lost the political nature of baptism. It became a private transaction between God and the individual and not a matter of calling and forming a distinctive people. But once when people came to the water, once they were required to relinquish old loyalties and accept the new political realities of the people of God. Once, in the 3rd-century, the politics of baptism were clear. Once the presbyter Hippolytus could write:

2If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. 3If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. 4If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 5If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted. 6A charioteer, likewise, or one who takes part in the games, or one who goes to the games, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 7If someone is a gladiator, or one who teaches those among the gladiators how to fight, or a hunter who is in the wild beast shows in the arena, or a public official who is concerned with gladiator shows, either he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. 8If someone is a priest of idols, or an attendant of idols, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 9A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. 10If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 11The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. 12The prostitute, the wanton man, the one who castrates himself, or one who does that which may not be mentioned, are to be rejected, for they are impure. 13A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration. 14An enchanter, or astrologer, or diviner, or interpreter of dreams, or a charlatan, or one who makes amulets, either they shall cease or they shall be rejected. 15If someone's concubine is a slave, as long as she has raised her children and has clung only to him, let her hear. Otherwise, she shall be rejected. 16The man who has a concubine must cease and take a wife according to the law. If he will not, he shall be rejected.[2]

Hippolytus knew – following Jesus and Paul – that human existence is inherently political, that we are always being formed into a people, always developing and exercising loyalties. The only question is, Which politics will govern? We find the answer in the waters of baptism.


[1] William Willimon, Peculiar Speech (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992) p. 7.
[2] Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, 16:2-16.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sermon: Crucified With Christ (3 Pentecost/17 June 2007)

3 Pentecost: 17 June 2007
(1 Samuel 17:1-10/Psalm 32/Galatians 2:15-21/Luke 7:36-50)
Crucified with Christ

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming (Luke 3:1-3a)…a baptism of enlightenment.

“Awake to the divine within you,” he called. “You are children of God. Look within for the truth that will guide you into peace and perfection. You are whole. You are good. You are divine. But you are asleep. And from your sleep you need only be awakened to transcend your self-imposed boundaries, to cast off the chains of the world’s dogma and ignorance, to seize your destiny and create your universe. Yours is the power. What do you want? Believe in yourself, believe in your power to materialize your dreams and it shall be unto you as you will. Then you will fill every valley, level every mountain and hill, make the crooked paths straight and every rough way smooth. Then you will walk this world as you truly are, a manifestation of the divine, shining with the eternal light of the cosmos.”

Had John only preached this message he would have been a regular guest on Orpah, a weekly commentator on The Scribes and Pharisees News Hour. He would have topped the New Jerusalem Times bestsellers list for weeks on end. He would have had access to the halls of power and been welcomed as counselor and spiritual advisor to governors and kings – perhaps even to emperors. But no.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:7-9). Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand “(Mt 3:2, marginal reading).

That, of course, is the real John – the John of history, the John of truth, the John of Scripture. These two messages – one fictional and one real – point to the vast chasm between the pleasant lie our culture tells us about ourselves and the hard truths of Scripture.

One of the most subtle and powerful [of the difficulties in serving God] is the …presupposition that the consciousness of the “common man” (or woman) is innately valuable regardless of its formation or lack thereof. Through “self-evident” truths and “inalienable rights”…people are presumed to be born good rather than in need of conversion.[1]

But Scripture will have none of that drivel – nor will the daily paper or nightly news, if we but look and listen. Innately good people do not wage genocide or abduct and murder children or raid employees’ retirement accounts or allow countless men and women and children to die daily from lack of food or water or medical care or love. But we do: men and women just like you and me. How, with a straight face, psychologists and counselors and gurus and even preachers can say we need only look within and release our true selves – the light of love and perfection within us – I will never, for the life of me, understand. God save the world from what is inside of me, inside of us! For we are whitewashed tombs, pleasant on the outside, but filled with dead men’s bones and all manner of corruption. We are God’s good creation despoiled by sin, turned inward upon ourselves, in rebellion against our Creator. Not just some of us, but all of us.

As it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).

When a London daily newspaper ran an editorial asking rhetorically, What is wrong with the world? noted author and Christian G. K. Chesterton replied, “I am.” There was a man formed by the truths of Scripture. There was a man who understood.

So despite the persistent – though verifiably false – claims of innate human goodness, we know better. We know ourselves to be deeply flawed. Moreover, Pelagius notwithstanding, we know we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and achieve moral goodness, moral perfection – righteousness. So what is to be done? What, if any hope have we – all of us together: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman?

Paul addresses words to the Galatian Christians, and through the Holy Spirit to us, words which offer an answer and a hope.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is reckoned as righteous not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:15-21, marginal reading).

As with much of Paul’s writing, this is a dense, theological thicket; we need a sharp machete to hack our way through. We find it in an apparently unrelated text from 1 Samuel, the record of David’s defeat of the giant Goliath. You recall that the armies of the Philistines and the armies of the Israelites are in a standoff, massed in the mountains on opposite sides of a valley. Neither moves against the other. Then one man comes forward, a giant of a man, from the camp of the Philistines. Striding into the valley of decision he stands and shouts to the ranks of Israel,

“Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us” (1 Sam 17:8b-9).

What Goliath calls for – with the odds heavily stacked in his favor, of course – is a battle of champions: one warrior from each side to represent his people. The underlying principle of a battle of champions is simple: What is true for the champion is true for the people he represents. If the champion is victorious, his army obtains victory. If he is defeated, his army suffers the loss.

While this idea might seem strange to us, it is assumed throughout the biblical text. In the New Testament it appears in Hebrews where the author contends that the mystical, Melchizedekan priesthood of Christ is superior to the Levitical priesthood of Israel. Remember Abraham’s victory of Chedorlaomer and the rescue of Lot? the author asks. Upon returning from battle Abraham was greeted by Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the most high God. Though Abraham kept none of the spoils of battle for himself, he gave a tenth – a tithe – to Melchizedek and Melchizedek blessed him. From this account the writer of Hebrews notes,

It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives the tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him (Heb 7:7-10).

What does all this mean? Simply that Melchizedek is a greater priest than all the Levitical priests to follow, because Abraham, the great-grandfather of the Levitical priests paid tithes to Melchizedek and received from him a blessing; thus Levi, still within the seed of Abraham, also paid tithes to Melchizedek. Further then, in that one act of Abraham all the Levitical priests to come paid tithes to Melchizedek thereby acknowledging his superiority. There’s the principle at work again: What is true for the father is true for his children for generations to come – true for Abraham, true for his great-grandson Levi and for all generations of Levitical priests. This type of thinking may stretch us a bit, enthralled as we are with the cult of the individual, but not so those from tribal cultures. The idea of a champion, a representative, makes perfect sense. What is true of the representative is true for those he represents. Now we can return to Galatians and hack our way through that text.

We are in a mess, you recall, in bondage to sin, turned in upon ourselves, in rebellion against God, and unable to do and to be otherwise. This is true, Paul insists, for Jews and Gentiles alike. But, for all of us – Jews and Gentiles alike – there is a champion, a representative, Jesus Christ the righteous one: What is true for him is true for us.

Jews cannot be justified by the law because they have not been – and cannot be – faithful to it. Yet, Paul says, Jesus was the faithful Jew who fulfilled the law in all its requirements, so that Jews might be justified not by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus, their champion: what is true for him is true for those he represents. Likewise for the Gentiles. Sabbaths and holy days? Dietary restrictions? Circumcision? Torah observance? No, none of this is necessary and none will be sufficient. If the Jews to whom the law was given could not observe it, what possible chance have the Gentiles? None whatsoever. Nor is it required, for Jesus is the Gentile champion as well; it is his faithfulness that matters. What is true for him is true for those he represents. And – this is central to Paul’s argument – what is true for Jews is also true for Gentiles. All are justified by the faithfulness of Christ our champion.

So Jesus as champion, Jesus as representative, is the way out of the insurmountable problem we find ourselves in. We are not innately good or holy, but Jesus our champion is. We are not faithful and righteous, but Jesus our representative was and is and ever shall be. And, by God’s grace, what is true for him is true for us. If, of course, he is our champion, our representative.

Is he? And, if so, how did he come to be that? These questions brings us near the very heart of Pauline theology. And, at the heart is death – actually two deaths, Jesus’ and our own.

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:19-20, marginal reading).

The just penalty for my transgression of the law is death. Yours, too. But here Jesus stepped in as champion, as representative, and died for me so that the righteous demands of the law might be fulfilled. He died according to the law as my representative so that what was true for him might be true for me. Jesus died and I died with him; the penalty has been paid. Hold on – now it gets good. Not only did Jesus die as my representative, he also rose again, not just for himself but as my representative. He rose justified before God for his faithfulness. And I rose with him. You, too. The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, our champion, our representative. What is true for him is true for us. He was faithful and through him we are faithful. He died to satisfy and fulfill the law and through him we died to the law. He rose justified before God and through him we are declared righteous by God. What is true for him is true for us.

But how? In what way does Jesus become our champion? I mentioned earlier there were two deaths in the story. It’s time for the second. I have been crucified with Christ, Paul says. It is through our crucifixion in union with Jesus’ crucifixion that we come to be in Christ, that he comes to be our champion. It is our death in union with Christ’s death that makes this possible. And here is a great mystery, a sacrament. Our baptism is our death that joins us to Christ and makes him our champion.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom 6:3-6).

Baptism is the act, in the present, that unites us with Christ’s crucifixion in the past and places us in him; that is, baptism is the act which makes Christ our champion, our representative. It is through baptism that what is true for Christ becomes true for us. And so this mess, this bondage, this rebellion…well, they’re all undone. Moreover, through Christ our representative God seals us in the present with the Holy Spirit in promise of the full redemption to come. Not only seals us, but empowers us, transforms us for a holy life.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Rom 6:12-14).

And this reminds us that baptism is more than an event; it is a covenant, a way of life in Christ.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

These are among the questions and vows of our baptismal covenant. It is the water, the word spoken over it and in our hearts, and the Spirit-filled life that follows that recreate us as baptismal people, uniting us with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, making him our champion. Neither our innate human goodness nor the works of the law will do. And so, echoing Paul’s word to the Galatians we can say,

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.


[1] William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans, 1992), p. 40.

All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sermon: 2 Pentecost (10 June 2007)

2 Pentecost: 10 June 2007
(1 Kings 17:8-24/Psalm 146/Galatians 1:11-24/Luke 7:11-17)
Y’in? Y’out?

In the name of the Father who calls us,
of the Son who redeems us,
and of the Holy Spirit who makes us one.

Our standard calendar divides the year into four seasons, twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days – a rather complicated time scheme really. My personal calendar is much simpler. There are only two divisions: School and Summer. The larger division, School, is punctuated by foretastes of Summer – Fall Break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break – much as autumn is punctuated by sultry reminders of summer and crisp previews of winter. But Summer – oh, there is a sacred sameness, a blessed blurring to Summer. In Summer I live “off the calendar” with no bells or meetings to mark time or circumscribe my days. Each day is ordinary – in the best sense of the word – through its extraordinary grace.

The church has a calendar also – or really several calendars. There is the two-year cycle of the Daily Office and the three-year cycle of the Eucharistic Lectionary. Each of these years is divided further into weeks, with Sunday, the first day, marking the primary moment of worship when the church gathers to praise God in Word and Sacrament. The remaining six days are divided into mornings and evenings, the times of prayer. Superimposed on all this is the annual cycle of seasons and feasts and fasts: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, All Saints – much more complex than our “secular” calendars with their seasons, months, weeks and days.

If you come to this liturgical calendar from outside such a tradition – as I did – it takes some time to become accustomed to it and to become proficient with it. I still consult the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer and check the internet from time-to-time to make certain I’m on the right calendar page. So, I have developed a personal liturgical calendar – much simpler – with only two seasons in each year: Christ and the Church. In this simplified scheme, the Christ Season extends from Advent to Ascension. It focuses on the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of our Lord Jesus Christ and is punctuated by the majority of the feasts and fasts of the church year; it is extraordinary time. The Church Season begins with Pentecost and concludes with Christ the King, right before the year begins anew. It contains few “special days;” in church parlance, it is ordinary time. Of course, there is nothing ordinary about it; if there is a sameness to the days it is sacred, if a blurring it is blessed. Nor is there any true theological distinction between the Christ Season and the Church Season; as promised, Christ lives in the church through the Holy Spirit and continues his ministry of reconciliation and renewal – new people and new creation. All calendar divisions are arbitrary but they help us redeem the days.

I mention all this because we now have entered Ordinary Time – the Church Season, as I think of it – when the focus shifts from the historical, incarnational ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, to the historical, incarnational ministry of his church. What does it mean for us to live the life of Christ in the world; to implement his work of reconciliation, redemption, and re-creation; to live in and as the kingdom of God in these last days, in anticipation of that great and wonderful Last Day of our Lord’s appearing? These are among the questions of the Church Season.

With this day’s epistle reading we start with even more basic church questions: “Y’in? Y’out?” as my friend Warren might ask. Who are the members of God’s covenant people in Christ? With whom may we worship, with whom share Table fellowship? What parameters define the boundaries of the community? How do we decide this – and who gets to decide?

Historically, these questions arose with the introduction of the Gentiles into the Jewish-dominated church, primarily through the apostolate of Paul. Until his cross-cultural work – begun actually by Peter but apparently soon abandoned – the issue of ethnicity and the church was a non-issue. Who belongs in the church? Any faithful ethnic Jew or Gentile proselyte who acknowledges Jesus as messiah, submits to baptism, and joins the worshipping life of the church. What marks someone out as a member of the covenant community centered on Jesus? How do you know who’s in? Torah observance – Sabbath, kosher diet, circumcision – and faithful obedience to Jesus.

Life was so easy then; everything was clear. Then came the sudden expansion of the church in Jerusalem and the introduction of the Hellenists – ethnically Jewish but culturally Greek. Not such a problem in itself, but once you let the camel’s nose under the tent flap, soon he’s in there with you humps and all. It was Samaritans next. Philip went to the Samaritans, another step down the slippery slope. And Barnabas and his crew up north in Antioch? Gentiles! Gentiles and Jews eating together and worshipping together as if nothing could be more natural. Well, from there things really got out of hand as Paul and Barnabas – later Paul and Silas and other companions – traipsed all over the Mediterranean winning Gentile converts and forming predominately Gentile churches. Now, who belongs in the church? Now what marks someone out as a member of the covenant community centered on Jesus? It’s hard to say. The answer depends very much on whom you ask. What parameters define the boundaries of the community? How do we decide this – and who gets to decide? Important questions, controversial questions, divisive questions.

All this came to a head in the churches of Galatia province – in Paul’s churches. Very often, due to Paul’s relentless drive to press onward with the Gospel – and to stay one step ahead of the persecution that followed in his wake – he founded a small congregation, ministered and taught there for a brief period, committed it to the nurture and care of the Holy Spirit and moved on. He stayed in contact through news carried by other traveling Christians, often his own companions, through written correspondence – for which we thank God! – and through occasional return visits. Much could happen, for good or ill, between Paul’s founding of a church and his next contact with it. In Galatia, it was for ill.

In Paul’s absence, Judaizers – those who wanted to return to the ease and purity of the early days when only Jews and proselytes were admitted to the faith – had infiltrated the Galatian churches. To the Gentiles there their message was simple:

When Paul preached to you he bungled the gospel: he got it wrong. Whether through ignorance or a misguided attempt to please you and win you as another notch in his evangelistic belt, we don’t know, but he got it wrong. You have been given a false gospel. The true Gospel of Jesus the Messiah is for God’s chosen people, the Jews, and is a continuation of the law of Moses. So, to be included you must convert first to Judaism – submit to circumcision, keep Sabbath and kosher – and then you may become faithful followers of Christ.

These Judaizers probably came from Jerusalem and spoke with the implied authority of the original apostles headquartered there. So underlying this dispute is the question of authority: Who really has the authority to speak for the church on this, or any, issue – the original apostles and James the brother of the Lord, or Paul, the self-styled apostle and former persecutor of the church? Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his answer to these charges and questions.

Before tackling the problem of Gentile freedom and Jewish law – the circumcision issue – Paul first addresses head-on this matter of authority. The salutation of his letter is the opening salvo of the pitched battle to follow.

Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia (Gal 1:1-2, NRSV).

The issue of apostolic validity dogged Paul throughout his ministry. What gave him the right to call himself an apostle and to speak and act on par with the original twelve? The apostles – by common agreement – were those who had been with Jesus from the baptism of John to the ascension, had witnessed his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22), and had been called by God to that ministry. Paul fails on most counts. No matter; he insists on the validity of his apostolate anyway. On what basis? By what authority? Paul’s answer is simple and blunt: I am an apostle not based on human commission or authority, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead. Trump that, Judaizers! Later he will tell a bit about his conversion and his relationship with the so-called church authorities in Jerusalem, but for now this is enough. I am an apostle. I was appointed by Jesus Christ and God the Father.

Having reasserted his credentials, Paul now moves quickly to the charge that he bungled the gospel, that he either failed to understand it completely or watered it down to make it appeal to a gentile audience – tailored it to please men. His anger and frustration show through in his writing, as does his gift for sarcasm.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:6-10, NRSV).

I’m not the one confused here, Paul says, you are – and I am amazed that you are -- those of you who are being led astray by these Judaizers. What is wrong with you? And I’m not the one who has misrepresented the gospel, Paul insists, they are, the Judaizers who are perverting the one true Gospel of Jesus Christ that I delivered to you. May they rot in hell! I say again, may they rot in hell for falsifying the gospel of grace! Now, how’s that? Do these sound like the words of a people-pleasing religious huckster or like someone in the grip of God, a servant of Jesus Christ?

Now we take a breath. Now that Paul has gotten this off his chest and has expended a bit of his anger and frustration he starts again, back at the beginning with the issue of his authority and his relationship with the perceived powers-that-be in Jerusalem. Here is the essence of his argument.

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12, NRSV).

Paul wants his brothers and sisters in Galatia – note the conciliatory, familial tone now – wants them to know that his gospel, the one he preached to them, is not second-hand or hearsay, is not subject to human misunderstanding or miscommunication, but rather came directly to Paul from Jesus himself. And because this Gospel was not mediated by human authority, Paul feels no special obligation to the human authorities in Jerusalem, to those called apostles before him.

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus (Gal 1:15-17, NRSV).

Paul goes on to recount his relationship with Jerusalem – how it developed historically and what it means theologically – in some detail. Since the lectionary stays with Galatians for several weeks we’ll see that in due time. But for now this is enough – enough to answer some of the basic church questions.

Who are the members of God’s covenant people in Christ? With whom may we worship, with whom share Table fellowship? All those called by God through the one gospel of Christ – irrespective of cultural or ethnic background – all who respond with faithful obedience to Christ are members of the one, new covenant people. In the Body of Christ, around the Table of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. It is no longer the works of the law – the keeping of holy days, dietary restrictions, and circumcision – that marks one out as a member of the covenant people, but faith in Christ.

What parameters define the boundaries of the community? Only one – grace. And grace is freely offered to all, just as it was offered to that persecutor of the church, Paul himself. Grace – accepted and lived out in faithful obedience – transforms sinners to saints, aliens to brothers, hostility to love. Grace makes of us all, in all our diversity, one kingdom of priests to the glory of God our Father.

How do we decide all this – and who gets to decide? We don’t. God does. We do not initiate, we respond to God’s initiative. We do not decide, we submit. Any authority we have is not our own, but is delegated by God, and we are accountable to God for how we exercise it.

It is interesting to me that the lectionary readings bracket this epistle lesson with two stories of resurrection. In the first Elijah, hiding from Ahab, the idolatrous king of Israel, takes refuge with a widow and her son in Zarephath, a town in the gentile province of Phoenicia. Through God’s power Elijah feeds this family in time of terrible drought and famine and raises the son from the dead. Years later, Jesus stands in the synagogue of Nazareth his hometown, almost within sight of Nain, where he will soon raise a Jewish widow’s son, and he comments on Elijah.

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow of Zarephath in Sidon (Luke 4:25-26, NRSV).

The people who heard Jesus that day were scandalized by his implication that his message – his grace – would be more acceptable to strangers and gentiles than to those in his own hometown. So it has ever been. God’s grace is a scandal, a stumbling block. Yet it is this very grace that gives new life – resurrection – to Jew and gentile alike.

We prefer the clean, the simple: Y’in? Y’out? God opts for the messy, the complex, the rich, the varied. And life in the church does get messy. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Free-Church Christians all grapple with these y’in-y’out issues of membership, fellowship, and authority. So do individual churches within each of these communions. So, undoubtedly, will we. What is of overriding importance in such times is precisely what Paul insists on to the Galatians and also to the Ephesians.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6, NRSV).

You don’t get to choose your family members – flesh or spirit. God chooses. God calls. God welcomes. Our task is to stay around the Table together, to be faithful to Christ together, to submit to the authority of God our Father together, and to make this messy thing that is church work – together.