Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sermon: 7 Pentecost 2009

Sermon: 7 Pentecost (19 July 2009)
(2 Sam 7:1-14a/Ps 89:20-37/Eph 1:3-14, 2:11-22/Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)
Being “In”

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Being “in” makes all the difference. We are in America, not in Iraq or Iran or North Korea or Haiti, and that simple geographical fact has immense religious, political, and economic implications. While I am often ambivalent about our government and its policies, I am never ambivalent about being in the United States; it is blessing upon blessing. As in local real estate, so too with geopolitical: it’s location, location, location that truly matters.

Being “in” makes all the difference: in this family – my family – and not some other. Mine is an unspectacular genealogy: Appalachian sharecroppers, a moonshiner or two, railroad men, and flint-hard women who worked harder than any of them. Unspectacular, perhaps, but their lives and choices and stories have formed me – for better and for worse – and I would not trade being in this family, and its present incarnation in my wife and daughter, for being in any other. And I suspect that most of those other families feel the same.

Being “in” makes all the difference: in this school, in this profession, in this state of health or stage of life. We can multiply examples almost without number, but it is clear enough isn’t it? Being “in” makes all the difference.

Being “in” is often more a matter of being chosen than of choosing. Somewhere and somewhen along the way my ancestors made their way to a new land called America. Perhaps they were driven out of their native land by religious persecution, or famine, or for being horse thieves. Perhaps they were drawn here by the promise – or at the least the hope – of opportunity and prosperity. I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: their relocation chose for me the identity American. I did not choose it; I was chosen to be in America. Being “in” is often more a matter of being chosen than of choosing: “being” at all is that way. Haven’t we all – in the petulant way of American teenagers – hurled in our parents’ faces that most obvious truth: I didn’t ask to be born, you know? Well, of course you didn’t; your birth – your being in the world – was chosen for you by your parents or by human biology or by God. Being in the world, being in this family: these were chosen for you. Your school was chosen for you either by local zoning laws or by concerned parents who paid large sums of money to opt out of those laws. Your profession – not completely, but to some large extent – was chosen for you by a mysterious synergy of aptitude, interest, and opportunity. As a demotivational poster from reminds us: Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up. You may choose to be an astronaut, but it is not going to happen unless you’ve been chosen by aptitude, interest, and opportunity.

Exactly where being chosen ends and choosing begins in something as complex as a human life is impossible to say. But this is clear: much of our identity – which means much of our lives – is chosen for us. Being in is often more a matter of being chosen than of choosing. Or perhaps it would be better to say it this way: the secondary act of choosing depends on the primary act of being chosen. At the risk of being thought sexist, I offer this example, only half-humorously. A man may choose to propose to a woman, but if she has not already chosen to accept, no marriage will happen. You may argue that the woman chooses to accept the proposal once it’s made, but I won’t be persuaded. I suspect – women being demonstrably much smarter than men in such matters – that a man generally proposes only when a woman has already decided to marry him and has set up the conditions conducive to his proposal. A man chooses a woman only because he has been chosen by the woman to do so. I say this not cynically, but thankfully.

It is true that our lives are determined by being “in” and that being “in” is very often a matter, not first of choosing, but of being chosen.

But what if you are not in? What if you are on the outside, looking in, longing to be in, but not chosen? Life provides many painful examples and reminders: not being chosen for any side during games at recess, or being chosen last every time; not being chosen for cheerleader or chorus or band or a host of other school activities; not being chosen by the “in group” at school and so having to sit at that table during lunch with those bunch of losers – you know what and who I mean; not being chosen to receive admission to the school of your dreams or to receive the scholarship that would make the school a financial possibility; not receiving the job offer you hoped for or maybe any job offer at all; not getting the promotion you so obviously deserved; not getting the girl or the guy – not being chosen, not being in. We all know how it feels to be on the outside looking in because we have not been chosen.

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe,” wrote Carl Sagan in Cosmos. Likewise, if you want to understand all this talk of being in and being chosen, you must first hear the Story: the Story of God choosing to create the universe from scratch – good and very good; the Story of God choosing to make man – male and female – in his own image and to place man in God’s creation with a vocation to bear that image and to steward that creation; the Story of man choosing to rebel against his Creator, to reject his vocation, and to be in creation on his own terms; the Story of the fall, of the image of God in man disfigured, of man subjected to death, and of all of creation subjected to futility, spiraling downward toward nonbeing. But you must also hear the Story of redemption – of God choosing to be in the world to put that world to rights, to restore his image in man, and to free creation from its bondage. You must hear the Story of Abram – of God choosing one man and creating, through him, one people, one nation, to receive blessing and to be blessing to all people, to all nations. You must hear the Story of that people, Israel – blessed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with covenant, law, land, word – the Story of Israel chosen by God to be the instrument through whom he would destroy sin and curse and restore righteousness and blessing to all creation, the Story of God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world (N. T. Wright, Justification). And you must hear the Story of Israel’s faithlessness to that plan; of Israel choosing to hoard for itself the covenant, law, land, and word; of Israel reveling in being “in” rather than revealing God to those who were outside.

Our ancestors were those who were outside, those who were not yet chosen, those called the gentiles, the nations, by the one nation chosen by God; those called the uncircumcision by the Jews who counted circumcision as the badge of identity, the physical sign of being in the covenant and purpose of God.

11 Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— 12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:11-12, NKJV).

There was a wall in the Temple complex to separate our ancestors the gentiles from Israel: this far you may come, but no farther. Trespassers were subject to death. Beyond the wall lie the covenant and the blessings; beyond the wall lie promise and hope; beyond the wall lies God. This physical wall was merely the incarnation of a spiritual wall, the Law – the commandments and ordinances of Moses – that served to mark out the Jews as God’s chosen and to separate them from the nations.

And so, our ancestors found themselves on the outside of the covenants looking in on all that really matters: hope, promise, salvation, life, God – outside due not to the will and plan of God but to the faithlessness of those chosen to bless all the nations of the world, outside and separated by the Law, separated as if by a wall. In the midst of this desperate state of exclusion comes good news, the good news: “But now in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13, NKJV). Jesus Christ is the end (telos) of the Law with its wall of separation, the end of faithlessness to the ancient covenants. In short, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan to use one chosen people – one chosen Person we now see – to bless all nations and to bring all these nations together into one new people: the Body of Christ, the church.

19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:19-22, NKJV).

For Paul this meant that all the distinctions that used to matter, all the distinctions that kept some in and others out, all the distinctions that separated Jews and gentiles, mattered no longer.

26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29, NKJV).

This was at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel: the creation of one holy people of God in Christ, through the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant – a holy people marked out in the present not by circumcision or by the keeping of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ and by the seal of the Holy Spirit.

Much of the New Testament – Acts and the Pauline epistles especially – is focused on this issue of gentile inclusion and the difficulties inherent in it: Peter and Cornelius, Paul’s appointment as apostle to the gentiles, the Jerusalem Council, the conflict between Peter and Paul in Antioch, the Judaizers’ infiltration into the churches in Galatia; stories of conflict abound throughout the apostolic era. But, the church debates over gentile inclusion, which occupied so much of Paul’s thought and energy in the middle of the first century, were largely settled by the end of that century with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. and the consequent shift in locus of church identity from Jew to gentile and from Hebrew to Greek thought. Do these ancient debates still have anything important to offer us? Are the hard-won truths that emerged from them still important? Yes, in many ways.

First, these truths remind us that our lives are determined by being “in” and that being “in” is very often a matter, not first of choosing, but of being chosen. These truths liberate us from the despair of the outsider on one hand – We are in! – and from the arrogance of entitlement on the other hand – We are in because we have been chosen! These truths remind us never to take our chosenness for granted, but rather, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, to press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (cf Phil 3:13-14). Being in is not static; it is dynamic, ever moving either inward toward the center or outward toward the periphery.

Second, these truths remind us of the unimaginable, eternal blessings of being chosen to be in, blessings predestined/planned for us – Jew and gentile alike – from before the foundations of the world, blessings initiated solely by the will of God. (As you hear, or read, Paul’s introductory doxology in his letter to the Ephesians, note the initiative of God – He chooses and we respond – and the blessings that accrue to us, the chosen.)

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. 7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. 13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory (Eph 1:3-14, NKJV).

We have been accepted, redeemed, forgiven, adopted, sealed by the Holy Spirit, blessed now with all spiritual blessings, guaranteed a future inheritance, called to holiness – and all because God has chosen us to be in.

Third, these truths remind us that many are still on the outside looking in; though they have been chosen by God, they have not yet responded to his initiative. Some have not heard the good news of their chosenness. Some have heard, but the love of the world or the things of the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of this life (cf 1 John 2:15-16) – keep them chained and bound on the outside, subject to the ruler of this present dark age. Some have heard and have embraced their chosenness only to reject it later in the face of hardship or persecution (cf Mt 13:18-23). These truths remind us to proclaim the good news – in season and out of season – to convince, rebuke, exhort (2 Tim 4:2), to pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory may give to all the spirit of wisdom and of revelation that they may perceive the hope of his calling, the riches of His inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of His power toward those who believe in Christ Jesus (cf Eph 1:15-23).

Being in, being chosen makes all the difference. To the One who chose us, to the One who made us one with all the saints, to the One who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or imagine, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (cf Eph 3:20-21).

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