6 Pentecost: 8 July 2007
(2 Kings 5:1-14/Psalm 30/Galatians 6:1-16/Luke 10:1-11, 16-20)
A Long Obedience In the Same Direction
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
People’s concepts of God are always and everywhere on display in countless fascinating ways. It was so in 1st century Athens where Paul was “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16) and noted, in his speech before the Areopagus how very religious the Athenians were, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). What they worshiped in ignorance Paul hoped to reveal to them in truth – “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17 23-24).
For me, pulling into the parking lot at a local Border’s bookstore is not so different in kind from Paul walking into Athens. People’s concepts of God are openly on display – people are still very religious and there are still many unknown gods in evidence. Start with the bumper stickers, with an assortment of ones I’ve seen recently.
Goddess on board.
Coexist (with the word comprised of symbols of Judaism,
Christianity and Islam).
Dirt worshipping tree hugger.
God is too large for any religion.
“Fish” emblems ranging from Jesus to Darwin.
My other car is a broom.
People are still very religious – though they often describe it now as spiritual – and they still proclaim the fact openly.
Entering the store I’m invited by the placement of a bookstand to browse the new releases. There are always religious books among them, though typically of the new age variety (The Secret) or the neo-gnostic ilk (The Lost Gospel of … or yet another book on Mary Magdalene – wife of Jesus, mother of the grandson of God, super-apostle, and true founder of the faith).
I usually make my way to the café then – there is coffee there, after all. It often resembles a United Nations meeting or an ecumenical conference if dress and choice of reading material are reliable indicators. Often there are Sikhs and Muslims there. The books on Zen hint at a smattering of Buddhists just as the books on tarot and witchcraft point to pagans and Wiccans. Of course there are Bibles on some tables; I’ve even heard that middle-aged ministers work on sermons in the café – there is coffee there, after all.
Eventually I make my way to the religion section. Many are represented: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, New Age, Wiccan, and atheism. I gravitate toward the Christian section. Even the way the books are arranged there speaks volumes about Border’s concept of God – our God. There are two major divisions in their Christian book section: Christian Living and Theology. Each is subdivided: Christian Living into Spiritual Growth and Prayer, Relationship and Family Life, Practical Life, and Devotional and Motivational, and Theology into Classics, Popular, Protestant, and Catholic and Orthodox. Recently when I perused this section I jotted down some book titles. I’ll bet you can place them in the proper division – Christian Living or Theology – with no more information than the title.
Fall In Love, Stay In Love (Christian Living)
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Theology)
Jesus, Life Coach (Christian Living)
Thin Within (Christian Living)
The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Theology)
The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Theology)
The Secrets Men Keep (Christian Living)
Do you see the concept of our God – of our faith – behind these divisions? How we think about and worship God (Theology) is distinct from the practical matters of life (Christian Living). The two may be disintegrated and considered separately.
Now, here’s a question for you; it’s a trick question so be forewarned. I have another book I want you to place in either Christian Living or Theology: The Holy Bible. Where does it go? Border’s clearly couldn’t decide so they created yet another major division: Bibles. (That’s why it was a trick question, of course.) The Bible joins in marriage Theology and Christian Living and adamantly refuses to allow any man to separate what God has joined together. The same is true of any of the books or letters in the Bible – Galatians, for example. It simple does not recognize our arbitrary and false distinctions of Theology and Christian Living. For the people of God – of the God worshipped as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – theology is not merely what we think about God. Theology is not simply an academic exercise performed in studies and libraries and academies by highly educated professionals. As the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted, “Theology is done on the knees.” Theology is prayer and worship and yes, even Christian living. We are theologians, Christian theologians, all – all of us who bend the knee in prayer, who lift hearts and voices in worship, who gather at the Table, who go in peace to love and serve the Lord in our Christian living. Cedar Springs Christian Stores gets it just right in their motto: What goes in a mind comes out a life. Border’s notwithstanding, Christian living is Christian theology with hands and feet. Our concept of God is always and everywhere on display in countless ways – not just in what we think and say, but in how we live.
So, in Galatians Paul moves seamlessly between the theological doctrine of the formation of God’s one new people in Christ and the theological practice of how that new people is to live out its identity.
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads (Gal 6:1-5, NRSV).
Isn’t it interesting that Paul starts with the assumption of sin present in the Christian community? Yes, he insists, we are in Christ. Yes, we have been crucified with Christ, we have risen with Christ, we have been justified by the faithfulness of Christ, and now Christ lives in us. Yes,
when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal 4:4-7, NRSV).
Yes, all of this theological doctrine is beyond dispute. Also beyond dispute – We see it all the time, don’t we? – is the continued presence of sin in the Christian community. So what do we do about it? How do we work out Christian doctrine in the practice of Christian living in the presence of sin?
The resolution of sin in the Christian community is a pastoral matter for the pneumatikoi, the word Paul uses for those who are spiritual – not in the sense the word is typically used today, but in the very specific sense of acting under the direction and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a polemic against the legalists of his day and that attitude must prevail here, as well. The resolution of sin is far too important to be relinquished to the legalists among us: to the finger-pointers and name-callers. It is the task of those who live by the Spirit, of those who are guided by the Spirit, of those who exhibit the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. None others can be entrusted with the reconciliation of Christian brothers and sisters to Christ and to the church. There is no role for those governed by the flesh, for those who exhibit enmity, strife, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions – though these are often the very ones most eager to address sin aggressively, publicly, and punitively. Paul insists, instead, on a spirit of gentleness. And not just a spirit of gentleness but also of self-knowledge, humility, and fear, lest the pneumatikoi likewise fall prey to temptation and fall into sin. Only those simultaneously aware of their own frailty and of the Spirit’s abundant grace and power can safely embrace the fallen and raise them up. “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (Gal 6:1), Paul cautions and implies that pride is one of those temptations.
Though sin is always present in the Christian community it is often subtle, often hidden, often ignored. Though I intensely dislike the language, we, too, are comprised of the dysfunctional and the enablers. It is not easy to see or admit our own sin. Though we must continually test our own work, examine our own lives, sin may well first be detected by others in the body. How hard it is for those who notice, for those who are gifted and charged and burdened with the care of souls. How much easier it is to look away, to hope that “all shall be well.” But Paul knows better and so do we. We dare not ignore the presence of sin in the Christian community; it has great power to destroy us individually and collectively. We must react to sin – better still we must be proactive to teach and empower and support our brothers and sisters in recognizing and resisting temptation – we must react to sin without being reactionary, without treating our brothers and sisters as enemies of the faith, as hell-bent reprobates. Sin is a burden under which we all struggle and sometimes fall. The spiritual ones among us – and we all aim to be such – are those who, without stumbling themselves, help bear the burden of others, and so fulfil the law of Christ, the law of love.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Mt 11:28-30, NRSV).
The Christian community must never be a place where the burdens of sin are hidden and ignored but rather where they are confessed and acknowledged – and not just in the corporate, liturgical confession but in an appropriately intimate Christian relationship with spiritual mentors, pastors, the pneumatikoi – with those who, in the Spirit of Christ can ease the burden, can share the load. And all in a spirit of gentleness and humility.
What if we begin to envision the Christian experience not in separate categories of theology and Christian living, but as an apprenticeship where we both learn and practice? We do not expect an apprentice to demonstrate the understanding and expertise of the master. In fact, we expect the apprentice to fail, sometimes spectacularly and repeatedly. What is needed in the face of such failures is not condemnation but correction, not diatribe but diagnosis. “What went wrong?” the master asks the apprentice. A lesson was not fully grasped or the apprentice tackled something beyond the apprentice’s fledgling ability or, most likely, the apprentice lapsed back into old habits – prior modes of thinking and acting – that are no longer appropriate to the new life-craft of the faith. And so the master – the pneumatikos – reteaches, retrains, retraces the steps that went wrong and makes the necessary corrections. What we really expect from the apprentice then – the one thing that is truly essential – is that the apprentice will continue to strive for mastery, to fall not quite so low the next time and to rise to a new height, to grow. Not perfection, but growth. Otherwise, the apprentice ceases to be an apprentice at all. And – God forbid! – then there is the real potential for great loss.
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Gal 6:7-10, NRSV).
Eugene Peterson rightly describes Christian discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.” That captures Paul’s thought perfectly. To the Galatians, to those who are being enticed by the Law, Paul says, “Binding yourselves to the flesh – to feasts and fasts, to kosher foods, to circumcision – brings you under the Law and the corruption that follows from it. Sow instead to the Spirit – bind yourselves to the faithfulness of Christ – and you will reap eternal life.” Few, if any of us, are tempted by the Law. But we are tempted by the flesh, by every self-serving impulse and thought and behavior that wars against the Spirit of God. Do not plant this seed in this field, for the harvest is death. Sow the long row of faith, of obedience, in the same direction. Do not grow weary. Let others bear the burden alongside you. Do not give up. The harvest will come in proper season.
Those who sow in tears
[will] reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves (Ps 126:5-6, NRSV).
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
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