Friday, November 23, 2007

Sermon: Christ the King (25 November 2007)

Christ the King: 25 November 2007
(Jeremiah 23:1-6/Psalm 46/Colossians 1:11-20/Luke 23:33-43)
Jesus for President

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

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson won a hotly contested presidential election, made more contentious by issues of religion. His opponents accused Jefferson of being an atheist and stirred fears that, if elected, he might abolish the free expression of religion, close churches, and confiscate Bibles. The Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut was also concerned about religious freedom, but for another reason altogether. Congregationalism was the officially recognized state religion of Connecticut and the Baptists there had apparently heard rumors that Jefferson intended to make that federal policy, thus establishing the Congregationalist Church as the national church. This would, of course, marginalize the Baptists on a grand and official scale. They wrote to Jefferson congratulating him on his recent victory and seeking assurances that he would respect their rights as a religious minority. His response has profoundly affected the way we think of, and even speak of, the relationship between church and government to this day. In part he wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Here, Jefferson appeals directly to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But Jefferson went farther than the strict language of the Constitution by advocating the erection of a wall of separation between church and State. It is Jefferson’s concept and language that often dominate discussions of the relationship between religion and politics.

How solid is the wall of separation between Church and State? Has the state any role in the regulation of religious practice? Well, yes, but only to the extent that religious practice would otherwise violate state or national law: no religious group could defend human sacrifice for example – or even the sacramental use of marijuana – on the basis of the First Amendment because these activities are outlawed, not for religious reasons, but for societal ones. But the State cannot establish a national religion or interfere with the legal practice of any religion. The wall is pretty solid from that direction.

But what about the other direction: has the church any role in the political process? (And here I narrowly restrict myself to a discussion of the Christian church; I have neither the right, the knowledge, nor the desire to speak more broadly – for mosque, temple, or other worshipping community.) There really is no consensus among Christians on this issue; rather, there is a continuum of thought. At one extreme of this continuum lies absolute withdrawal of the church from the political process: no holding political office, no voting, no military service, and the like. At the other extreme lies active engagement with the political process, engagement intended to influence and utilize the legislative process for Christian purposes: ban abortion, return prayer and the Ten Commandments to schools and all public life, feed the poor, and the like. The wall is more porous from this direction: too porous for some, not nearly enough for others.

Regardless of where you fall along this continuum – or perhaps even if you hover somewhere above it – it’s difficult not to recognize Christianity as an essentially political endeavor. Our faith is about creating a people, a kingdom and priests for our God (Rev 5:10) drawn from every language and nation, and that is political. Our God is the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim 6:15), and that is political. Our Savior, Jesus is Lord (1 Cor 12:3) – so we believe and so we proclaim – and Caesar is not, and that is political. Jesus, the King of the Jews, is born in a manger and Herod, puppet king and vassal of Rome, trembles with fear in his palace, and that is political. John the Baptist heralds the advent of the Messiah and condemns the immorality of Herod the tetrarch, and this Herod imprisons John and beheads him, and that is political. This Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey hailed by the people as the Savior, the son of David, and that is political. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and the priests openly oppose Jesus and secretly plot to murder him and that is political. Pilate, the Roman procurator, flogs Jesus and crucifies him with a sign atop the cross announcing to all: King of the Jews. And that is political. This same Jesus harrows hell and burst asunder its gates, for death could not hold him – so proclaims Peter at Pentecost:

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:23-24, 36, ESV).

And that is political. Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding, Jesus destroyed once and for all the wall of separation between Church and state long before our founding fathers even sought to erect it. Our faith – the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – is necessarily political because it is the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand in and through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Since all this is political, then on this Christ the King Sunday, I say let’s start a grassroots movement to elect Jesus for President. Can you imagine the campaign? Just picture Jesus on stage at a debate among all potential candidates. The moderator begins.

Moderator: Mr. Christ, the first question is for you. Where do you stand on family values?

Jesus: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26, ESV). 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:35-39, ESV).

OK. That didn’t go so well. Jesus’s handlers will need to work on that one before the next debate. Let’s move on, put that topic behind us, and try to recover.

Moderator: Mr. Nazareth (Let me interrupt to say we’ve got to work on this name recognition thing a bit – the moderator doesn’t even know what to call our candidate!) – Mr. Nazareth, immigration is a divisive issue in our country just now. How would you address immigration?

Jesus: "A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.' 19And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.' 20And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' 21So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' 22And the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' 23And the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet,'" (Luke 14:16-24, ESV).

Oh no! Didn’t we talk about this? Sound bites, sound bites, not more stories! What works on a hillside in Galilee doesn’t necessarily translate to the debating stage. Well we can’t worry about that now; the Moderator is starting again.

Moderator: Mr. Galilee, the Social Security system is headed toward bankruptcy in just a few years. How would your administration assure that our senior citizens receive adequate provision?

Jesus: "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
32"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” (Luke 12:22-34, ESV).

Moderator: I’m not certain I understand your answer, Mr. Messiah. Are you telling everyone that, even though the Social Security fund will shortly be empty, they should not worry? Is that your plan?

Jesus: "The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' 18And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God," (Luke 12:16-21, ESV).

Well, the other candidates are loving this. All they have to do to score points is keep their mouths closed, shake their heads, and roll their eyes. The Moderator again.

Moderator: As a result of the 911 attacks, we are presently engaged in wars on two separate fronts: Afghanistan and Iraq. National security and the war on terror are perhaps the two most important and challenging issues of our time. As Commander-in-Chief how will you exercise your responsibility to defend our country from all aggression, both foreign and domestic?

38"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,”(Matthew 5:38-41, ESV).

Well, let’s end our fictional debate here. It’s really already over, isn’t it, at least for candidate Jesus? There never was any real hope of election. I’ve listened to snippets of recent presidential debates and speeches and not one of the candidates – though we have Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, and Church of Christ represented – not one of these men or women who claim to follow Jesus as Lord has espoused even one of his ideas on how to live in this world. Oh, they all have ideas about how either to prosecute the war or extricated our troops from it, but none of them advocates a strict stance of peace: none says, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Oh, they all have ideas about immigration – building fences, widening the Rio Grande, granting limited amnesty – but not a one of them says, “Go and compel the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to come in that our nation may be filled.” Oh they have ideas about our economic issues – taxes, social security, the stock market, trickle-down or bottom-up economies – but not one of them talks about laying up treasures in heaven and being rich before God. Every single one of them acts publicly as if the Kingdom of God simply doesn’t exist or else doesn’t matter. And so generally does the Church. I mean, it’s just not practical or possible to live like Jesus said, is it? Surely he intends these principles to apply in the future when the Kingdom of God is fully realized? Yeah, we tell ourselves this and we’d like to believe it, but we know better. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said repeatedly over 2000 years ago – not just in the future, but already at hand. And he closed the Sermon on the Mount, his kingdom manifesto, with these sobering words:

15"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,'” (Mt 7:15-23, ESV).

As Christians, as resident aliens here, we simply cannot live among the nations of the world as if the Kingdom of God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. To do so is to deny our King. It is to erect a wall of separation of Church and state that Jesus died and rose again to abolish. We celebrate Christ the King Sunday. It’s past time that the Church begins to live Christ the King Monday. It’s past time that the Church lives up to its name – ekklesia – the “called out ones,” those called out from among the peoples of the world to be holy unto God; those called out for mission – to return to the world announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in word and deed, in faith and practice. It’s past time to take Christ the King seriously.

Is such a life practical? No, not as the world might understand practical. But it is filled with promise.

24"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock,” (Mt 7:24-25, ESV).

And now, to him who is the image of the invisible of God; the firstborn of all creation; the creator of all things seen and unseen, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; the firstborn from the dead; the King of kings and Lord of lords; to Christ the King be glory and honor and power and dominion now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sermon: Thanksgiving Eve (21 November 2007)

Thanksgiving: 22 November 2007
(Deuteronomy 26:1-11/Psalm 100/Philippians 4:4-9/John 6:25-33)
Local Exception

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

The Eastern Orthodox churches are in the midst of their Advent fast: from November 15 through December 25 these Christians prepare themselves for the nativity of our Lord through fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, and almsgiving, much like our Western Lenten disciplines. So what about Thanksgiving, which falls near the beginning of the fast? No ham, no turkey and cranberry sauce? No dressing and broccoli casserole? No homemade bread and pumpkin pie? Well, let’s not grieve too much for our Orthodox brothers and sisters; they’ve worked this all out. Orthodox Christians in America are granted a local exception to the fast to allow for Thanksgiving observance; the fast is put on hold for the day, in the United States, to allow for local, American custom[1].

This solution, which might initially seem “hokey” to us, is actually quite elegant – and I think theologically sound – on so many levels. First there is the notion that for Christians, feasting takes precedent over fasting. While we should and do mourn our sins, we also celebrate the great redemption that is ours in Christ. While we fast from the things of earth for a time, we do so to build our appetites for the things of heaven so that we may feast all the more joyously on them. Fasting, rightly understood, is the prerequisite to all true feasting. Even in the midst of fasting periods – at least in the Western church – every Sunday is a feast day celebrating the resurrection of our Lord. Feasting takes precedence over fasting.

Then there is the notion that local custom – at least in some cases – takes precedence over universal practice. I just love this. It really follows St Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian Christians that the stronger brother ought to give way to the weaker so as not to damage his faith. If the Americans feel a need to celebrate a local holiday with feasting, well the universal church will give way and relax the fast so as not to tempt the Americans to break it. This is an act of grace to “weaker” brothers. What I love about this is the humility implied in the decision. And I’m not thinking primarily of the humble graciousness of the universal church. No, I’m thinking about the humility with which the American church must receive this kindness as the weaker brother in the body of Christ. And then there is the designation of Thanksgiving as a local custom. We are usually so jingoistic – so wrapped up in ourselves and convinced of our central place in the universe – that we can’t conceive of anything related to the United States as merely local. Surely the rest of the world observes our holidays! Sorry, no. So, the church makes a way for us to be who we are in the universal body of Christ without letting us forget that we no more or less important than any other member of that body. All this is a beautiful outworking of 1 Corinthians 8 – Paul’s instruction about eating meat offered to idols – a section many people skip, thinking it hopelessly outdated. It is refreshing and life-giving to see the church take that Word – take all the Word of God – seriously.

All of this has me thinking about Thanksgiving as a local, American custom. It seems only good and right that we should have such an observance; if ever a nation had cause for Thanksgiving, it is surely ours: this is not ethnocentrism – not national self-centeredness – but rather a humble acknowledgment of God’s many blessings to us. I feel personally and nationally as David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, did when he penned these words:

5The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage (Ps 16:5-6, NRSV).

I understand why so many foreigners seek to enter the U.S. either legally or illegally: our boundary lines, our borders, do indeed enclose pleasant places; we do have a goodly heritage. So Thanksgiving ought to be a local, American custom; it’s only fitting and right. Oh, we have our problems, too, of course: homelessness, poverty, lingering racism, cultural disintegration, consumerism. But we have the means and resources to solve these problems; all we lack are the will and wisdom to do so. Pleasant places. Goodly heritage.

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7, NRSV).

Paul’s words to the Philippian Christians ring true here in the United States, here on the eve of our local observance of Thanksgiving. It is easy to rejoice when your boundary lines enclose pleasant places, when your real worries on Thanksgiving Day revolve around overeating or your favorite football team losing its game.

There is another world, though, other locales with other customs. In this other world more than 1.5 billion people live on less than a $1 a day. In this other world a child dies every three seconds from AIDS and extreme poverty, many before their fifth birthday. In this other world more than one billion people do not have access to clean water. In this other world more than 50 percent of Africans suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhea. In this other world nore than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day, 300 million of them children. In this other world only eight percent of these 300 million children are victims of famine or other emergency situations. More than 90 percent are suffering long-term malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency. In this other world four out of every ten people don't have access even to a simple latrine. In this other world, in sub-Saharan Africa a woman has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy, compareed with a 1 in 3,700 risk for a woman from North America.[2]

Yes, our boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places, but not so for this other world. I wonder if they have a local exception from the church to break their fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with feasting? Would it make any difference if they did? I wonder how they hear the text?

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7, NRSV).

The world into which Jesus came looked a lot like this other world: poverty, homelessness, hunger, brutality. His boundaries encompassed a manger and a cross. He knew all these harsh realities personally. He came to offer an exception: not a local one, but a universal exception. He came to be that exception.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you
on account of the Son of Man. 2323Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets (Luke 6:20-23, NRSV).

Break the fast. It is time for a new local custom that will be for all people. Feast on the bread of heaven. Drink living water from the springs of salvation. Raise the cup of the covenant. Come you poor. Come you hungry. Come you sorrowful. Come you persecuted. Come break your fast and join in the feast, for in Jesus the Kingdom of God is at hand. And that kingdom can be yours.

This is just another of the great paradoxes of our faith: that heirs of the Kingdom of God may be found living in abject poverty, that the hungry have life-giving bread of which the world knows nothing, that the homeless have an eternal dwelling with God, that those in deepest sorrow may yet rejoice in the Lord, that those burdened and crushed by the world may rise to walk in newness of life everlasting. Of course none of this releases us from our obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the orphans and widows and prisoners in their distress. But it gives us good news – gospel – to bring along with our turkey and dressing or peanut butter sandwiches and Vienna sausages or bags of rice and beans, our warm blankets, our socks and shoes and gloves, our rides to the shelter, our embrace. It gives us a feast to share with those who have known too much of fasting.

Orthodox or not, let us enjoy the local custom of Thanksgiving tomorrow. Eat. Drink. Rejoice in the Lord. And let us share the feast – the blessings of our table and the Lord’s Table – with the world.

[1] Ancient Faith Radio podcast of Frederica Mathews-Green, Frederic Here and Now, 11 November 2007, From Mennonite to Orthodox, available through i-Tunes.
[2] Taken from the Wikipedia article on extreme poverty.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sermon: 25 Pentecost (18 November 2007)

25 Pentecost: 18 November 2007
(Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6/Psalm 72/Jude 20-25/John 14:1-14)

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

In prior centuries, when scholars were more broadly literate than today, mathematicians concluded their formal proofs with a Latin flourish: Q.E.D. you would see written at the end – quod erat demonstrandum, that which was to be proved. Now mainly you just see little rectangular boxes – some blackened in, some mere outlines – like you often find at the end of magazine articles: No need to turn the page, the article’s over, these boxes announce.

The Creed also comes to us from another time, from prior centuries when theologians seemingly were more broadly immersed in the full life of Christ’s costly gospel than today. Many of the framers of the creeds – certainly it’s the case with the Nicene Creed – still bore on their bodies the marks of Jesus Christ, marks branded on them in times of intense persecution, marks like medals of honor and faithfulness. Αμην, these heroes of the faith wrote at the end of the Creed in their Greek language – amen.

I would like to think that Q.E.D. was more than a grammatical stop sign in the earlier proofs. I would like to think it sounded a note of triumph, that it served as a bold affirmation of the truth of all that went before, that it challenged the student to make the proof his own and to explore – perhaps for a lifetime – the implications of that proof. For some, it was only an ending: no need to turn the page, the proof’s over. For others though, it was a beginning. I’ve completed the work I was given, says the author. Now what will you do with it? asks the Q.E.D.

I would like to think that Amen is more than a theological stop sign in the Creed. I would like to think that it, too, sounds a note of triumph, that it serves as a bold affirmation of the truth of all that goes before, and that it challenges the church to make the creed its own and to explore – for a lifetime and beyond – the implications of that creed. For some, amen is only an ending. The Creed’s over. Now we can hurry through the next part of the service and maybe beat the Baptists to Calhoun’s. For others though, it might just be a beginning. We’ve completed the work we’ve been given, the great saints say. Now what will you do with it? asks the amen.

Is there a sermon here, in this single word amen? I think so. I think there’s a whole life to be lived inside this single word. It just may be that amen is as close as we can come to a distillation of the whole Christian experience into a single word. Amen is a proclamation of truth, a shout of praise, an agreement of faith, and an acceptance of God’s will: all in a single word.

The sound of the amen was never far from Jesus’ lips, particularly in the Gospel of John. Three times in his short discourse with Nicodemus we hear it, doubled for emphasis: Αμην, αμην, λεγω σοι – Truly, truly, I say to you. Truly, truly: Amen is a proclamation of truth. Of course, that’s problematic in our present, Western culture which apparently values tolerance over truth, political correctness over truth, “spin” over truth – a culture in which truth is in diminishingly short supply. We say we want the truth but then we run kicking and screaming from it. “I want the truth,” says LTJG Kaffe in the film A Few Good Men. “You can’t handle the truth!” replies Col. Jessup. That could be the script of our times. Politicians routinely lie to us for power because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that citizens are often little more to them than votes and contributions in their quest for election. Businesses and advertisers routinely lie to us for profit because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that humans are little more to them than consumers and sources of revenue. Academic institutions routinely lie to us for pride and prominence because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that man is not the measure of man, the truth that there is a God and that we are not that God. Worst of all, peddlers of God’s word – men who preach the prosperity gospel of health, wealth, and success, and practice it by living in opulence from the contributions of their flock– routinely lie to us because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that discipleship means taking up your cross and laying down your life.

In the midst of all this deception comes Jesus with his bold proclamation: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me. Αμην, αμην, λεγω σοι – Truly, truly, I say to you. Amen is a proclamation of truth. And so, the final word in the Creed is amen. By that single word we proclaim the truth of all that has gone before: that God is, that he created the heavens and the earth, that Jesus Christ is his Son and our Lord, that he was born of a virgin, that he suffered and died for our sins and rose again for our salvation, that he ascended into heaven, that he will come again, that we are his in the church and through the Holy Spirit, that we will one day stand before Christ the Judge, that our resurrected bodies will live forever in his presence. Amen. Truly it is so. We want the truth, the world says. This is it, we reply. Amen.

The sound of the amen was never far from Paul’s lips; it’s there in all his letters.

33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! 34‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’ 35‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ 36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen (Rom 11:33-36, NRSV).

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen (Gal 1:3-5, NRSV).

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Eph 3:20-21, NRSV).

20To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Phil 4:20, NRSV).

17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.
Amen (1 Tim 1:17).

On and on they flow from his heart and pen, these doxologies, these words of glory. Amen. Amen. If there is a natural language of humankind, a tongue heard in Eden before the fall, it is the language of praise. Amen. Amen. And when all is said and done, when Christ has trampled all enemies under his feet, when God is all and in all, it will be the language of praise that echoes throughout all space and time unto the ages of ages. Amen. Amen.

13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lambbe blessing and honour and glory and mightfor ever and ever!’ 14And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped (Rev 5:13-14, NRSV).

When we stand together and pronounce our faith before one another and the world in the words of the Creed we give voice to the praise of all creation. Amen! we say with the four living creatures and with the elders we fall down and worship. Amen is a proclamation of truth. Amen is a shout of praise.

The sound of the amen was often far from the lips of the Corinthian church. Instead, some spoke in unintelligible tongues, spiritual language – a gift of the Holy Spirit apparently abused by the Corinthians. And still others were silent. Paul wrote them, in part, to restore the amen to its rightful and essential place in their worship.

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. 15What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. 16Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? 17For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. 18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; 19nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:13-19, NRSV).

The amen is an agreement of faith, a voice of unity and solidarity. The amen is the voice of we and not merely the voice of me. The amen is the common voice of the common faith and prayer of the church. Through the years of my experience with the church I have heard many lousy prayers: prayers dripping with personal agenda, prayers founded on terrible theology, self-serving and self-promoting prayers. And these always leave me feeling cheated and sometimes angry. And why? Because the one praying should be voicing the common faith of the church. Because I should be able to add my amen – So be it! – to the prayer. Because prayer and worship may be private but never personal; it is always corporate. When we pray, even in our closet as Jesus advised, we pray with and for the church. When we worship, even with only two or three present, we worship with angels and archangels, with all the company of heaven, with martyrs and with the communion of saints in heaven and on earth. And all these long to cry out Amen! in their voice of agreement, of unity, of solidarity. However you may feel about liturgical prayer, those prayers voiced and preserved by the church through the centuries, those prayers endorsed by the church as expressions of our common faith, allow us to voice the amen. And that is worth something.

So, too, with the Creed. It has been voiced and preserved by the church through the centuries and endorsed by the church as an expression of our common faith. It protects me from idolatry – self-worship – and from heresy – misdirected worship. The creed allows me to say amen to the faith, and not me alone, but all the faithful in every time and place. This amen binds us together through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and brings glory and honor to God the Father. Amen! Amen is a proclamation of truth, a shout of praise, an agreement of faith.

The sound of the amen was never far from Mary’s lips, never far from her heart.

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:26-38, NRSV).

Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel voiced the perfect amen: “Let it be with me according to your word.” This may well be the most basic meaning of amen: “let it be,” or “may it be so.” And is this not the essence of the Christian life – a willingness to commit oneself fully into the hands of the Lord, to live in obedience to his will, to humbly submit to his word? We seek to understand the word and will of God. But it is more important to stand under the word and will of God. And here, Mary’s son Jesus is our greatest example.

42‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42, NRSV).

Your will be done. Let it be. May it be so. Amen.

When we voice the amen at the conclusion of the Creed we do so in an act of trust and submission and we commit ourselves to a life founded upon those words. Let it be to me according to these words. May it be so. Amen. Amen is a proclamation of truth, a shout of praise, an agreement of faith, and an acceptance of God’s will: all in a single word.

Is there a sermon here, in this single word amen? Or, as they might ask in Africa, “Will this preach?” Will a life lived inside this word preach to the world? Will it proclaim truth and shout praise? Will it witness to the solidarity and unity of a common faith lived in submission to God’s will? I think so.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (11 November 2007)

24 Pentecost: 11 November 2007
(Ezekiel 37:1-14/Psalm 27/1Corinthians 15:12-26/John 11:17-27)
I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

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

I like the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel in some Bible translations much better than in others; here, I prefer traditional over contemporary language. There’s real poetry in the opening lines.

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:2 Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. 3 Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. 4 Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. 5 Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, 6 and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. 7 Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. 8 Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. 9 Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. 10 Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. 11 Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. 13 Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. 14 Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. 15 Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. 16 And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, NKJV).

At least one thing is obvious from this passage: there was a whole lot of “begotting” going on in the story of Jesus. And “begotting” is a messy process. A marriage is arranged – there are some exceptions to that in this story, but it generally is the case. The husband and wife have sex, sometimes over the course of many years before conception occurs and sometimes only once; either way the conception is something of an ordinary miracle. The mother carries the child for nine months and worries the entire time about its safety and hers; delivery was risky business and many mothers and children simply didn’t survive it. The baby is born amidst water and blood and sweat and tears and screams of pain and joy. This whole “begotting” business is just messy stuff from start to finish. It’s messier still when you consider some of the shady characters in the genealogy. There are Judah and Tamar. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She pretended to be a prostitute to seduce Judah and bear his child. And she was the “good” one in this story found in Genesis 38; Judah was the sleaze. There was Salmon’s wife, Rahab, the mother of Boaz who later married Ruth. Rahab’s “full name” was Rahab the Prostitute. You can read about her in Joshua 2. Solomon’s mother is described as “she who had been the wife of Uriah.” We know her better as Bathsheba, the woman with whom David committed adultery. Messy business this “begotting” stuff. And this whole messy process leads us to Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.

I like all this mess. It looks like my life and connects me to the story. I like it when the Bible refuses to “pretty” up certain aspects of the story, when instead it shows God’s people warts-and-all as the very real, very flawed human beings we all know ourselves to be. It makes the Bible even more credible. Fiction can be tidy; not so truth. I like it that God has not bypassed our earthy humanity in favor of some idealized spirituality. God loves humans. He went to extraordinary lengths to save us as humans by becoming a human himself. What greater love could there be?

Not every early Christian group appreciated the messy way in which God works, though. The Docetists, very early on, denied that Jesus had a physical body at all; it was mere illusion. In reality he was pure spirit: incorporeal (not embodied) and eternal. The Gnostics, while not necessarily denying the humanity of Jesus, considered the physical body an obstacle to be transcended. Trapped within this prison of the body lives the spark of God – pure spirit – whose sole purpose is to escape the body and be reunited to God. It takes special, hidden, mystical knowledge – gnosis – to effect this escape. These early Christian heretics were dualists and saw an inherent conflict between the flesh – degraded and sinful they considered it – and the pure, uncorrupted spirit. God’s way seemed too messy for them, too earthy, too human; so, they created their own “better” way. And the church soundly rejected their version of the gospel. That’s why John writes

1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world (1 John 4:1-3, NIV).

The church adamantly rejected the dualists – “bad” body, “good” spirit is just bad theology – but they have remained with us to this day. They thrive both outside the church and inside the church. I suspect that most of us even have some latent, Gnostic tendencies. Want to do a little self-test? Picture the afterlife – life eternal in the presence of God. (Pause right now to visualize it. Where are you? What are you? What are you doing?) For many Christians, I suspect the image of the afterlife has been formed more by Hollywood than by scripture, more by commercials than by commentaries. To the extent that Hollywood even considers the afterlife, the dead are often portrayed as distressed spirits trying desperately to make contact with those remaining on earth. Commercials are even worse: spirits with wings floating on clouds and extolling the virtues of a particular brand of toilet tissue or cream cheese spread. These images parody and trivialize our faith but probably do it no real harm since they are so obviously foolish. Notions of those outside the church don’t concern me nearly as much as those inside the church. So, how did you do? How did you picture the afterlife?

The Creed says simply, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Now I don’t want to crush any hopes – well, yes, I do: you are not going to be an angel. Ever. No wings despite the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Sorry Clarence. No floating on clouds; that’s a misreading of scripture. No. You are going to be … well, you are going to be you – body and all. Have you ever been to funerals – I know you have – where people have said the “comforting” words, “He’s not here, dear. That’s just his body. He’s gone to heaven to be with the Lord.” Bless these saints; it’s right for them to offer comfort. But there’s more than a smidgen of gnosticism hidden in their assurances. Despite what they may think or say, human beings are not just spirits. Humans are bodies and spirits united as one. The New Testament never pictures the afterlife as an eternal realm of disembodied spirits praising God. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Nor does the New Testament picture us all going to live in heaven. No. It pictures a new heaven and a new earth. It pictures New Jerusalem, the city of God, descending out of heaven to the new earth to become the dwelling place of God and his people (Rev 21). The life everlasting will be messy no more – no “begotting,” no sorrow or pain or sickness or death or sin – but it will still be earthy and human. Our humanity is not something shoddy to be transcended, but something fallen to be glorified. God created us as humans. God loves us as humans. God redeems us as humans. And humans we shall be throughout eternity in his presence.

If you’re curious about the body you will be throughout eternity, read the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus in the gospels. Read 1 Corinthians 15. I can add nothing to those accounts really; that’s all we know – everything else is pure speculation. We will have bodies. They will be like Jesus’s resurrection body. They will be our very own bodies – I’ll never be other than John Roop – yet somehow transformed and glorified. It’s a transformation I’m looking forward to. Who wouldn’t when reading Paul’s words?

41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is
from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15:41-49, NRSV).

Paul is not being at all dualistic in this passage when he contrasts the spiritual body with the physical body. The physical body is our present state. The spiritual body is our glorified state when we join in the resurrection: imperishable, glorious, powerful – a body fully bearing the image of the man of heaven, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Humanity which has been enslaved to sin and corruption will finally be set free, not from the body, but from the fallen state of the body, at the resurrection from the dead, on the last day, when the last trumpet sounds,

For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:52b-58, NIV).

So we believe in the resurrection of the body. Now, here’s the question: Except for the sake of theological orthodoxy, is that really important? Does it really matter whether in the life everlasting we will be disembodied spirits or glorified human bodies? Perhaps we should frame the questions a little differently: Are bodies important, or does only the spirit have value? More generally: Is matter important, or does only the spiritual have value? The answers seem obvious from a biblical standpoint, don’t they? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – matter – and pronounced his creation good. Yes, matter matters. It is of value in God’s eyes. The entire creation – rocks and trees and sky and rivers and air and snowy egrets and slugs and all created things – the entire creation has value in God’s eyes and must therefore have value in our eyes. And that includes bodies. Watch Jesus in action in the gospels. What is he doing? Healing broken bodies. Feeding hungry bodies. Raising to life again dead bodies. Feasting with sinful bodies. Dying for no-bodies, nobodies loved with a love more powerful than sin and death and hell.

The great danger in discounting the importance of the body is precisely that we will devalue bodies – that we will fail to heal and feed and clothe and shelter and visit and feast with those bodies around us, in short that we will fail to act like Jesus. A spiritualized faith – one that discounts the body – is no faith at all.

14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17, NIV).

When a Christian brother or sister tells you that we need not concern ourselves with poverty, homelessness, universal health care, HIV/AIDS, justice, genocide, and other global humanitarian crises – with the general state of humanity – because “Jesus came to save our souls,” there is a gnostic Christian who neither truly understands nor believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The great danger in discounting the importance of matter is precisely that we will devalue the material world – that we will rape our planet, hoard or squander our natural resource, pollute our air and water, exercise dominion but not stewardship, and generally turn the garden God created and pronounced good into a wasteland filled with the remains of a humanity that has ceased to bear God’s image. When a Christian brother or sister tells you that we need not concern ourselves with sustainable living, with pollution, with global warming – with the general state of our material world – because “this old world is temporary and our eternal home is in heaven,” there is a Gnostic Christian who neither truly understands nor believe in the resurrection of the body.

Do bodies matter? Does this world matter? Look again at Jesus. Look at the kingdom of God that existed wherever he was, and that will exist wherever he is.

1After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
4Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (Matthew 11:1-6, NIV).

Tell John what you see and hear. And what were the signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God? Physical blessing of broken bodies. Jesus seemed to think that was important. I suspect that wherever we see Jesus today – in the person of his disciple and his church – wherever the kingdom breaks into this fallen world, we will see the same. Bodies matter. This glorious creation of God matters. Now and unto the ages of ages.

We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


Saturday, November 3, 2007

23 Pentecost: 4 November 2007

23 Pentecost: 4 November 2007
(Amos 5:18-24/Psalm 103/1 Thessalonians 5:12-28/Luke 18:9-14)
I believe…in the forgiveness of sins.

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God,
have mercy on me a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew me and all the world. Amen.

By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back, and in my breast-pocket a Bible. And that is all.

On the 24th Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the Liturgy. The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among other words I heard these – “Pray without ceasing.” It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it as possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living. I looked at my Bible, and with my own eyes read the words which I had heard, i.e., that we ought always, at all times and in all places, to pray with uplifted hands. I thought and thought, but knew not what to make of it. “What ought I to do?” I thought. “Where shall I find someone to explain it to me? I shall go to the churches where famous preachers are to be heard; perhaps there I shall hear something which will throw light on it for me.”

So begins The Way of the Pilgrim, the spiritual autobiography of an anonymous 19th century Russian peasant who wanders across Russia searching for a way to obey St Paul’s charge to pray without ceasing. He looks for the secret first in the churches but finds no answers there. Next he travels from village to village looking for holy men – spiritual guides – who might instruct him.

For a long time I wandered through many places. I read my Bible always, and everywhere I asked whether there was not in the neighborhood a spiritual teacher, a devout and experienced guide, to be found…At last toward evening [one day] I was overtaken by an old man who looked like a cleric of some sort. In answer to my question he told me that he was a monk belonging to a monastery some six miles off the main road. He asked me to go there with him. “We take in pilgrims,” said he, “and give them rest and food with devout persons in the guest house.” I did not feel like going. So in reply I said that my peace of mind in no way depended upon my finding a resting-place, but upon finding spiritual teaching. Neither was I running after food, for I had plenty of dried bread in my knapsack. “What sort of spiritual teaching are you wanting to get?” he asked me. “What is it puzzling you?”

The Pilgrim relates the nature of his quest to the old monk, who then crosses himself and gives thanks to God. This monk is the one for whom the Pilgrim has been searching, the one who can reveal the secret of unceasing prayer. Over the next several days he instructs the Pilgrim in the use of the prayer of the heart – the Jesus Prayer – developed by the first generations of desert monks in the 4th century. Based upon the prayer of the tax collector in the gospel reading, one calls upon the name of Jesus in the words “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or, in its fuller form, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer is repeated frequently throughout the day – “in all occupations, at all times, in all places,” until the prayer is internalized in the heart and begins to pray itself.

The Jesus Prayer is a prayer of relationship and supplication. Jesus, the son of God, is Lord, I am sinner; that’s the relationship. Have mercy on me – that’s the supplication. Precisely because of the relationship – because Jesus is Lord – we can approach confidently seeking mercy: precisely because we believe in the forgiveness of sins as we proclaim in the creed.

Tom Wright has expanded on the Jesus Prayer a bit in what he calls the Trinity Prayer.

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.

This prayer captures an enormous amount of theology in very few words and takes some unpacking.

The God to whom we pray is the Almighty maker of heaven and earth; and, he is our Father. Because we are still sitting and not lying prostrate on the floor or kneeling crying “Thanks be to God!” I suspect we have heard this astounding truth so often that it’s lost it impact. The creator of heaven and earth, the one who speaks worlds into being, the almighty and eternal one, has condescended to become my father and yours. Further, he has a plan to restore his fallen creation, to put it to rights again, to heal it and us. The shorthand for that plan is the kingdom. So we pray for God himself, our Father, to set up his kingdom in our midst: right here, right now. Justice, righteousness, mercy, grace, love, peace, life: that’s the kingdom. Evil, abuse, hatred, war, sorrow, sickness, death, sin: all gone when the kingdom appears in our midst. “Let grace come and this world pass away,” says the post-Communion prayer of the Didache.

Kingdom-come depends completely on the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the unique son of the living God, the son who is one in essence with the Father. “Have mercy on us sinners,” we pray because we know ourselves to be as much part of the problem with creation as we are part of the solution for creation. We are sinners in the broadest sense of the term – decent people, maybe, but sinners definitely. And this prayer helps us understand that by expanding our notion of sin. If we call upon God to set up his kingdom in our midst then anything that opposes kingdom-come is sin. In this sense there really are no neutral acts. What opposes God’s kingdom – even more, what does not promote God’s kingdom – is sin. The problem goes far beyond intentional, personal evil; it is failure to actively promote the coming of the kingdom of God. So, we very rightly pray: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.

The mercy and forgiveness that we pray for are also clarified and expanded by this prayer. The forgiveness that I seek – that I need – is far more than just a forensic (legal) declaration of not guilty. Of course I want to be declared by God not guilty. Who doesn’t? Of course I want to stand before him in Christ and hear him say that, for the sake of his only-begotten son, he will not count my sins against me. Who doesn’t? But I need more than just a declaration that still leaves me mired in sin and only relieves me of its penalty. I need to be relieved of sin itself. Sin is a disease for which I need a cure. I need the Holy Spirit to re-create me, to renew me in the image of God so that sin ceases to dominate me. I need forgiveness that is health and renewal and recreation. I need forgiveness that empowers me to conquer sin in the name of Jesus. So I pray: Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.

These prayers – the Jesus Prayer, the Trinity Prayer, even the Lord’s Prayer – make sense only if, as the creed says, we believe in the forgiveness of sins. We believe that sin is anything that opposes or fails to promote the coming of God’s kingdom in our midst. We believe that the forgiveness that is ours in Christ is more than a legal fiction; it is the restoration to health and wholeness and relationship with God and man – a renewal by the Holy Spirit. We believe in the forgiveness of sins.

As grand as all this is, it is still too small a notion of forgiveness – much too narrowly focused. In fact, it’s focused laser-like on me and on you. But to say in the creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins means more; it means that we believe in forgiveness, that we accept forgiveness, not just as a gift to us but also as a vocation for us. We believe in forgiveness both personally and instrumentally. We believe that as God’s forgiven people we are to be God’s instruments of forgiveness in the world. In his biography of St Francis, G. K. Chesterton captured the essence of this instrumentality:

St. Francis walked the world like the Pardon of God. I mean that his appearance marked the moment when men could be reconciled not only to God but to nature and, most difficult of all, to themselves.

Having received forgiveness, Francis was compelled to proclaim forgiveness to the world, to be a troubadour for the Lord singing songs of pardon and mercy. That, too, is our calling, our vocation. And note the expansive view of forgiveness – not merely a crossing-off of debts owed, but healing and reconciliation. This is what we have received and what we are to offer.

What does this look like? It looks like Jubilee. You know about the Jubilee, the Hebrew celebration of the kingdom of God made manifest in the midst of his people. In a real way the Jubilee was God’s answer to the first part of Wright’s Trinity Prayer: Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your kingdom in our midst. God declared every fiftieth year a year of Jubilee when all debts were canceled and all family property returned, when slaves were set free, and when the land lay fallow. Do you see it? The Jubilee is forgiveness writ large: pardon of debts, reconciliation of slaves, healing of the land and the nation: kingdom-come, God’s kingdom set up in our midst. That’s how we are to live our belief in the forgiveness of sins, by declaring Jubilee in Jesus’s name, by being the Jubilee people of God.

Right now much of the third world staggers under the burden of foreign debt. Having received loans from the member nations of the International Monetary Fund – money which was often stolen and squandered by corrupt third world leaders – these nations are now saddled with enormous interest payments which cripple their economies. Health care, education, sanitation, infrastructure – all these suffer because the very limited available funds must be used to service foreign debt. People suffer. In many cases our Christian brothers and sisters suffer. In all cases God’s people suffer. What does it mean to these people when Christians in the developed world stand shoulder to shoulder each Sunday and say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What would Jubilee look like for these people?

Thousands in our own country lack health care, quality education, adequate housing, and sufficient nutrition. What does it mean to these people when their Christian neighbors stand shoulder to shoulder each Sunday and say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What would Jubilee look like for these people?

Families lie in shambles all around us: in our communities, among our friends, in our churches – the victims of selfishness, abuse, neglect. What does it mean to these people when those who ignore or even cause their suffering stand shoulder to shoulder each Sunday and say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What would Jubilee look like for these people?

AIDS ravages Africa and Haiti. Wars rage in Iraq and Afghanistan. Genocide proceeds unabated in Darfur. Inhumane treatment is common in the Palestinian territories and bombings are not infrequent in Israel. Teachers and priests prey sexually on the most vulnerable among us. Video games, films, and music celebrate murder and torture. Consumerism is rampant as are hunger and homelessness. “We believe in the forgiveness of sins. We believe in grace and mercy and pardon and reconciliation and healing.” What does it mean when we stand shoulder to should each Sunday morning and proclaim this? Where is Jubilee? What would it look like for God to set up his kingdom in our midst – set it up using you and me as his instruments? It would look like Jubilee. I don’t know what to do about this, at least not on the large scale where the problems seem too massive for me even to dent. But I do know that I am part of the problem: that I benefit from structures that damage others, that I use resources in unsustainable ways, that I squander goods that might provide necessities for others, that I turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the sins of my world. I am ready to accept God’s forgiveness, but much less willing to bring it to others – to work for their pardon, healing, and reconciliation. And so I pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” because I desperately need his mercy and because I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

The weight of the sin of the world is too heavy for me to bear. Thanks be to God I don’t have to bear it. Jesus did that when he bore the weight of the cross. He is the source of forgiveness. But, he did tell me to take up my cross daily and follow him – to be his instrument of forgiveness in my small piece of the world. Yes, there is crushing poverty in the third world, but there are also homeless and hungry people on many street corners and under many bridges right here in our community who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are children in Knoxville with lousy parents, with absent parents, with no significant adult presence in their lives who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are widows and orphans and prisoners who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are the old, the sick, the lonely, the frightened, the forgotten in hospitals and nursing homes who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are the addicted, the prostitutes, the abused and the abusers who need a declaration of Jubilee. All right here in our midst. All waiting for the kingdom of God to be set up in our midst. All waiting for Jubilee. All waiting for the forgiveness of sins. So the creed poses us some questions. Do we really believe in the forgiveness of sins? Are we really willing to be God’s instruments of forgiveness? Will we really pray for and work for the establishment of God’s kingdom in our midst? Will we declare Jubilee to our small piece of the world?

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart’ (Mt 18:21-35, NRSV).

The word of the Lord.