Saturday, May 9, 2009

Sermon: 5 Pascha/5 Easter (10 May 2009)

Sermon: 5 Pascha/ 5 Easter (10 May 2009)
(Acts 8:26-40/Psalm 22:25-31/1 John 4:7-21/John 15:1-8)
The Abiding Life

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

This is among the greatest tragedies of the human condition: that we were made for so much and that we settle for so little. It is both consequence and symptom of the fall of man, and it all began in the Garden. Examples abound and their effects ripple outward creating a modern tsunami.

18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman, ' for she was taken out of man."
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh Gen 2:18, 21-24, NIV).

Man – male and female – was made for human love and intimacy, for the union of body and soul, for the joining of a man and a woman into a new person greater than either individual. But we often settle for much less: for casual, sexual hook-ups, for extra-marital affairs, for lust instead of love and encounters instead of intimacy. Frankly, both the culture and the church often make too big an issue of sex – though often on different ends of the spectrum. It’s not that sex is so big; it’s that sex is much too small. We were created for so much, yet we settle for so little.

Man was placed in a garden of God’s making, a place of abundance and harmony and beauty, a place pronounced good and very good by God himself. Man was made to dwell in such a world in which God is everywhere present and fillest all things, in which God’s beauty permeates all creation. But we settle for a world filled with strip malls and strip mines and strip clubs. We settle for creation stripped clean of God until only nature remains, and then we use that nature as a tool, despoiling it and poisoning it and ourselves in the process. It’s not that environmental impact is such a big concern; in fact, it’s too small. Even a pristine, verdant world absent God can never be a place of true abundance and harmony and beauty. We were created for so much, yet we settle for so little.

Man was created and invited to walk in the wisdom of holy obedience and to eat from the tree of life. Man was made to commune with God and to live forever. But, we settled for less – much less – trading the wisdom of holy obedience for the knowledge of good and evil, and we have mistaken knowledge for wisdom ever since. Our knowledge now allows us to argue God out of existence, to create weapons of mass destruction, to discover the genetic code and to plumb the mysteries of life all the while destroying life through abortion and execution and war and simple neglect, through pride and willfulness instead of humility and holy obedience. Knowledge is not such a big deal. Without the wisdom of holy obedience, knowledge is far too small. We were created for so much, yet we settle for so little.

Created for glory, we settle for reality television. Created for purpose, we settle for distraction. Created for life, we settle for existence. Created for the transcendent, we settle for the ordinary. This is among the greatest tragedies of the human condition: that we were made for so much and that we settle for so little. We have traded down as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome – an accurate and scathing indictment of the fallen human condition.

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen (Rom 1:18-25, NIV).

We are made for so much and we settle for so little. And the church is not immune from such compromise; our faith is not exempt from such settling for less. The modern, Western church – and I am not qualified to speak of anything else – often contents itself with forgiveness of past sins and plasters “I’m not perfect – just forgiven!” bumper stickers on cars and lives. But what about holiness and righteousness and, yes, perfection (Mt 5:48), which was Jesus’ command? What about victory over the passions which wage war within and against us, which lead us away from God and not toward him? Why settle for less? The modern, Western church – and I suspect most other expressions of the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic church, as well – often contents itself with a hope for everlasting life in heaven in some far distant future – life after death. But what about life before death and life after life-after-death[1]? What about the abundant life Jesus promised (John 10:10)? What about the peace that passes understanding, the joy amid trials, the faith that sustains, the hope that assures, the love that is greatest of all? Surely these are not reserved for a distant, disembodied, future afterlife? Why settle for less? The modern, Western church – and I speak as a child of that Mother Church whom I love with all my heart – often contents itself with producing nice people; good citizens; champions of at least 7 of the 10 Commandments; family folk; hardworking, stable, and respectable individuals who contribute to their communities and – hopefully – tithe to their churches. And, in the main, there is nothing wrong with any of this – nothing wrong unless that is all there is, unless that is the highest aspiration the church has for its children, unless the church settles and teaches us all to settle for less than we are intended to be and to have and to do.

We are called to more than all this. All of us as disciples of Christ and sons and daughters of God are called to more than all this. We are called to nothing less than perfect union with Christ our Lord, to such total mutuality that with Paul we can say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20, NIV). We are called to share the very life of Christ in the organic way that branches share the life of the vine. We are called to the abiding life.

15:1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
15:2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
15:3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
15:4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
15:6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
15:8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples (John 15:1-8, NRSV).

To have the very life of Jesus flowing through us, giving us life, cleansing us, healing us, transforming us, making us fruitful to the glory of God: this is the abiding life and this is what we are meant for and called to – this and nothing less. The abiding life is salvation – not the distant hope of heaven when you die, but the complete healing of body, mind, and spirit; the full restoration of the image of God to fallen man; the progression toward the full likeness of God – all begun here and now (I’m certain) and all continued there and then (I suspect). The abiding life is gift and struggle, grace and works: for “by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8, NIV). Now, “therefore, my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13, NIV). There is no dichotomy here, just the simple truth that “the artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”[2]

You received this gift of grace at your baptism when you were washed clean and sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever. As Jesus told Nicodemus he must be, you were born again – born anew, born from above – born of water and the Spirit, and in that instant of grace you began the abiding life – filled with the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, Christ’s own life coursing through you. What you do with that life, whether you continue in it, is largely up to you. If with Paul you want to say, and say truly, for me to live is Christ (Phil 1:21), there is much work to be done, moment-by-moment throughout life. Abiding life is decision and commitment and work. It is a high, and sometimes hard calling; but it is the only one worthy of you.

Jesus says that if we abide in him and his words abide in us we can ask for whatever we wish and it will be done for us (John 15:7). If you want to see what that looks like in a human life – Jesus’ words abiding in a man and that man living the abiding life, working out his salvation with fear and trembling – you could do worse than look to Francesco di Bernardone – Francis of Assisi. This man, who stood to inherit so much at the beginning of his life, owned practically nothing at its end: a tattered, brown robe distinctive of his order and a Gospel book. Even then, he did not so much own the Gospel book as it owned him; Jesus’ words were his life.

Francis took a most simplistic approach to Scripture; he obeyed. He took Scripture not as a document to be studied but as a script to be acted. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” Jesus told the rich man (Mt 19:21, NIV). Francis did just that. Sending out the Twelve to preach the good news and herald his coming, Jesus instructed them, “Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff” (Mt 10:9, NIV). Francis traveled in precisely this way: penniless, unshod, and “carefree in the care of God” (Lk 12:22, MSG). “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12a, NIV), Francis read and for the sake of the Gospel endured the mockery of Assisi, the anger and persecution of his father, and the betrayal of brothers in Christ – all with rejoicing. Perhaps the greatest commentary ever written on the Gospel – and certainly on the Sermon on the Mount – was written not in words, but in the life of St. Francis.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” Jesus promised. And what did Francis wish?

Most High Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. And give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom, and perception that I may always do what is truly your most holy will.

This was Francis’ wish; this was Francis’ prayer.

We look at Francis and see what he gave up. Francis saw only what he gained by abiding in Christ. We look at Francis and see extreme poverty. Francis saw only great riches acquired through a most laudable exchange: the things for earth for the things of heaven, the things of time for the things of eternity[3]. We look at Francis and see radical extremism. Francis saw only the abiding life – the call of every disciple of Christ. How can we live like that? we ask Francis. How can you not? he asks us in return.

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Zusya once said, “In the world to come, I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?” I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?”[4] Surely, we will never be asked, “Why did you not live as Francis lived?” I pray we may never be asked instead, “Why did you never live when I came that you might have life – abundant life, abiding life?”

To have the very life of Jesus flowing through us, giving us life, cleansing us, healing us, transforming us, making us fruitful to the glory of God: this is the abiding life and this is what we are meant for and called to – this and nothing less.


[1] Life after life-after-death is a phrase used frequently by Bishop N. T. Wright to emphasize the bodily resurrection of the believer and his eternal life in the new heavens and new earth, cf. Rev 21. He distinguishes this from the more prevalent misconception of a disembodied existence in heaven.
[2] Emile Zola, French novelist and critic.
[3] From Laudable Exchange, John Michael Talbot.

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