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.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Simple church - not!