Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sermon: 2 Lent (28 February 2010)


The following sermon is a reprint from 2007 -- not previously published to this site -- based on the same texts as 2 Lent 2010.


Sermon: Lent 2
(Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18/Psalm 27/Philippians 3:17-4:1/Luke 13:31-35)
Life In The Colony

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

The year is 42 B.C. and there is civil war in Rome. Two years earlier Brutus and Cassius and several co-conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar in an attempt to preserve the republic and to prevent Julius from attaining imperial power. Now, driven perhaps by personal ambition and perhaps by desire to avenge Julius, Antony and Octavian draw up for battle against Brutus and Cassius. The battlefield is the Greek city of Philippi in Macedonia. There are two battles fought there. Casualties are high. At the end Brutus and Cassius both lie dead, both from suicide, knowing that their cause is lost. Antony and Octavian are victorious and Rome is transformed from republic to empire. Soon, this Octavian will take the name Augustus Caesar and seize control of the empire. Nearly forty years in the future he will issue a decree that all the world should be registered. In response Joseph, a craftsman from Nazareth in Galilee, will journey to Bethlehem, the City of David, with Mary, his expectant wife.

But, at the moment, following his victory in Philippi, Octavian has other, more pressing concerns. His troops are too numerous to return to a Rome in turmoil; the fragile economy won’t support them. So, Octavian decides to retire many of his soldiers from service and to give them land in Philippi. He turns this formerly Greek city into a Roman colony. It’s the task of these soldiers and the families they will father to transform Philippi into an outpost of Rome, complete with Rome’s language, culture, and values. By the time Paul arrives here, some hundred years later, the transformation is well under way: the city is a mix of Greek and Roman cultures. Many of the benefits of Rome are present and the colonists – the descendants of Octavian’s soldiers – are proud of their Roman heritage, citizenship, and accomplishments in Philippi. And certainly there are still native Greeks residents in the city, many of whom likely resent this Roman intrusion. A certain clash of cultures is inevitable during any occupation – as our recent experience shows.

What were the major functions of a Roman colony such as Philippi? To represent Rome in the midst of other cultures, to bear Rome’s image. But not to represent Rome only: to bring Rome’s presence into the midst of these other cultures with the intent of transforming them, of claiming them for Rome, of claiming them for Lord Caesar – with the intent of having Philippi’s residents claim Caesar as Lord. For that’s what Rome was now requiring in the time of Paul: worship of the emperor as Lord and God. The colonists in Philippi were citizens of Rome, yes, but they had no particular intent of returning there. No, they planned to bring Rome to Philippi. They planned to bring the good news – the gospel – of the saving power and grace of Rome and its emperor to the colony. That’s what colonists do.

Sometime around 51 A.D., in the midst of his second missionary journey, Paul first comes to Philippi (see Acts 16). His start there is inauspicious. He doesn’t go to the synagogue as is his custom; the Jewish population in Philippi may be so small that there isn’t a synagogue. Instead, he goes to the river; he’s heard there’s a place of prayer there, and he does find a few women gathered for Sabbath worship. One of them, a business woman named Lydia, is moved by what Paul says – well, she is moved by the Holy Spirit working through Paul’s words – and she embraces the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul makes her home his headquarters in Philippi and the gathering place for a fledgling church.

Before too long Paul runs afoul of the law. A slave girl is possessed by a spirit – a demon – of divination; she makes money for her owners by telling fortunes. When Paul exorcises the demon, setting this poor girl free from her spiritual enslavement, she loses her skills and the owners have Paul arrested. The local magistrates have Paul and his companion Silas severely beaten and thrown into jail. Here, with the help of an earthquake sent by God, Paul wins yet another convert in Philippi, the very jailer assigned to guard him. That night Paul baptizes not only the jailer, but his entire household. The next morning, after a coerced apology from the magistrates for their unlawful treatment of a Roman citizen – to see how serious this is, remember that Philippi is a Roman colony under Roman law, answerable to Roman justice – well, after their apology, Paul bids farewell to Lydia and the church in her house and the mission in Philippi comes to an end. In Philippi, this colony of Rome where Caesar is hailed as Lord, Paul has established the church, a colony of heaven, where Jesus is hailed as Lord. And what are these colonists to do? They are to bring Christ’s presence into the midst of this Roman colony, with the intent of transforming it, of claiming it for heaven, of claiming it for the Lord Jesus Christ, until all its citizens claim Jesus Christ – and not Caesar – as Lord and God. These few, these sisters and brothers in the church, were citizens of heaven, yes, but their immediate intent was not to go there; no, they intended to bring the kingdom of heaven to Philippi. That’s what colonists do.

Now, roughly ten years have gone by. Paul is in prison, perhaps in Caesarea, perhaps in Rome. The little colony of heaven in Philippi has not forgotten him, though. They send him a gift – something to meet his needs in prison – carried by one of their own, Epaphroditis. And Paul sends them a gift in return – a precious gift that has transcended time and come to us: a letter.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,
with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 1:1-2, NRSV).

So much joy in this letter, so much thanksgiving, so much encouragement: despite his present circumstances, despite some discord and even division in the church in Philippi, Paul knows the colony of heaven he established survives. Jesus is still acclaimed as Lord in that stronghold of Caesar. The colony of heaven within the colony of Rome is on the move, bringing Christ’s presence to the city, transforming it, claiming it for heaven, claiming it for the Lord Jesus Christ.

And so, Paul writes about life in the colony – about two ways of life, really: the life the colonists are called to, and the life they have been saved from.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved (Phil 3:17-4:1, NRSV).

Have you ever watched a great musician play? It all seems so effortless. Unexpected chords come from nowhere but fit perfectly. Themes intertwine, separate, and blend again in perfect harmony. The musician seems to create music spontaneously – on the fly. But that’s not how it all started. What you don’t see is the countless hours spent practicing scales and chords and melody and rhythm – the countless hours of imitating the masters gone before, of following their examples. Before creativity comes imitation. That’s what Paul is telling the colonists. Their task is not to create a new way of life in the Lord, but to follow the examples set for them by Paul and by those who themselves imitate him. What Paul has in mind for the colonists is not so hard to understand – hard to do, yes – but not so hard to understand. Whatever their old sources of identity, whatever their old badges of pride, whatever their former hopes and dreams and glories – lay all these aside, count them as garbage, and cling solely to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. That’s what Paul did and what he calls them to imitate.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet, whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him (Phil 3:4b-9a, NRSV).

Once Paul took pride in the outward signs of the covenant, depended upon them for his right standing before God. But no more. He has emptied himself of all these things to be filled with Christ Jesus – to know him as Lord. Imitate me in this self-emptying, he tells the colonists. For in doing so, you will be imitating Christ Jesus himself,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8, NRSV).

Imitate the life of the cross, Paul tells them. Lay aside all things to gain Christ. Let nothing have hold of you except Jesus and claim no Lord but him. Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.

In Baghdad there is a heavily fortified compound called the Green Zone where coalition authorities live and work. It may well be the only relatively safe place in the city. In a way it is a colony of hope, the center of the international vision for what just might be possible in Iraq.

The Green Zone -- also called "The Bubble" - is the hub of the vision for the New Iraq. It is almost self-sufficient, and staff working there can be treated in the compound's hospital or run safely in its grounds. When they leave, it is by armored car with an armed military escort (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iraq/baghdad-green-zone.htm).

Life inside the Green Zone and life outside are very different. There are real enemies outside – people with different and hostile agendas, with the goal of crushing the vision and presence of the international community in The Bubble. Who will win is still very much up in the air.

It was much the same in Philippi: inside the colony was hope; inside the colony was vision for what was possible in Philippi and in the world. But outside,

many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things (Phil 3:18-19, NRSV).

Yes, there are real enemies outside – people with different and hostile agendas, with the goal of crushing the vision and presence of the colony and of its Lord. Sometimes it must have seemed to the colonists that their position was precarious, that they might be overwhelmed and destroyed, that they might just be too weak to transform the hostile culture. And so Paul reminds them,

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself (Phil 3:20-21, NRSV).

Yes, their citizenship is in heaven. But Paul is not saying, Hold on, you’ll be out of here soon and escape to heaven. Not at all. Paul is reminding the colonists that, because they are citizens of heaven, they have all the resources of heaven at their disposal to fulfill their mission to claim Philippi for their Lord Jesus Christ. And one day Jesus Christ himself will come from heaven to Philippi to vindicate his colonists, to crush the opposition, and to reign supreme in their midst. He has the power to subject all things to himself and to glorify and transform the colonists into his likeness.

In this knowledge and assurance, the colonists – the joy and crown of the apostle – are to stand firm in the Lord.

Well, you see where all this is going, don’t you? All we have to do – and in fact we need to do it – is to change the salutation of Paul’s letter a bit.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Knoxville,
with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Knoxville is a domain of the powers and principalities of the present evil age where money, sex, and power are hailed as lords. But, in this city, God has established the church, a colony of heaven, where Jesus is hailed as Lord. And what are we colonists to do? We are to bring Christ’s presence into the midst of this dark realm. We are to transform it. We are to claim it for heaven, claim it for the Lord Jesus Christ, until all its citizens claim Jesus Christ – and not any modern Caesar – as Lord and God. We few, we sisters and brothers in the church, are citizens of heaven, yes, and we pray and work not that we might escape this world and go to heaven, but that heaven might come here among us. As our Savior Christ has taught us we are bold to say:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

In this little outpost of heaven on earth, we are not called to innovate, but to imitate the cross-shaped life of our Lord. We are called to empty ourselves of self for the glory of being filled with Christ. We are called to leave the “Green Zone” of the sanctuary and enter the hostile environment where the enemies of the cross need desperately to hear the good news of the cross – where they need to see it lived out by the church. We are called to proclaim in every way possible that Jesus is Lord. And we are called to live in expectation of the arrival of our Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth. Of course, we have to work all of this out, to see what it means for us in this place in this time. This place isn’t Philippi. This time isn’t 50 A.D. But not so much has changed, really. And so Paul’s closing words to Philippi might just as well be to us – they are to us.

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

Amen.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sermon: 1 Lent (21 Feb 2010)


Following is a reprint -- not previously posted to this site -- of the sermon for 1 Lent 2007, based upon the same texts as 1 Lent 2010.


Lent 1: 25 February 2007
(Deuteronomy 26:1-11/Psalm 91/Romans 10:8b-13/Luke 4:1-13)
But By Every Word

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

On this first Sunday in Lent, the gospel lesson provides us with a host of obvious Lenten themes from which to choose. There is the forty-day temptation of Jesus, which provides the basis for our forty-day observance of Lent. We could talk about the significance of that number forty: Moses spending forty-days before Yahweh on Sinai receiving the first set of stone tablets and another forty days when receiving the second set, or the twelve spies scouting out the promised land forty days, or Israel wandering in the wilderness forty years. Then there is the issue of the wilderness itself. We could talk about the wilderness experiences of God’s people – not just the forty years following the failure to trust God, but the captivity and deportation to Assyria and Babylonia and the continued wilderness experience of pagan domination under Syria and Greece and Rome. There is also the theme of fasting and its companion, prayer. We could investigate the significance of fasting under both covenants and consider both Jewish and early Christian practices. There is the temptation itself. We could think about Lent as the time for struggling against those temptations that plague and often defeat us, as the time for strengthening ourselves with spiritual disciplines to overcome those temptations, and as the time for self-examination and sincere repentance over the times we have failed. Time, wilderness, fasting and prayer, self-examination, spiritual disciplines, repentance: all these Lenten themes are suggested by the gospel lesson.

But this event in Jesus’s life – the temptation experience – occurred long before Lent was an observance of the church. The writing of the Gospels occurred long before. So, while we may now look on this passage as a Lenten text, it certainly wasn’t that when it happened or when it was recorded. No, there’s something much deeper, much more significant in this event – and still something that captures important Lenten themes.

Imagine having tickets to a new Broadway play – a mystery in three acts. On the way to the theater your taxi gets caught in a hopelessly snarled traffic jam. You’re now late – very late. In fact you arrive just as the second act begins. You take your seat, and, while you might enjoy the wonderful acting and staging and just the excitement of the theater itself, you are lost in the story line, confused about the significance of certain events. You don’t have the background of the first act to make sense of the play. The temptation is just this – the second act of a three-act play. Unless we understand the first act we’ll be lost during the second, and the third act won’t have its intended impact on us either. So, we must put the temptation of Jesus in its proper context. How does it fit in the play?

The title of the play is Identity and the three acts are Baptism, Temptation, and Mission. I’ll give a synopsis of the play here and then we’ll flesh it out in more detail as we go.

Act I: Baptism
In Act I the identity of the protagonist – Jesus – is established.

Act II: Temptation
In Act II the identity of the protagonist is questioned and confirmed.

Act III: Mission
In Act III the identity of the protagonist is proclaimed and lived out in mission.

Now, in more detail.

Act I: Baptism
It is the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, Herod the ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas the Jewish high priests. The word of the Lord comes to John, son of Zechariah:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Fill every valley and level every mountain.
Straighten the crooked way and make the rough way smooth.
Point all flesh to the salvation of God.

In response, John emerges from the wilderness and comes to the Jordan preaching repentance and baptizing in acknowledgement of it. His cousin comes to him – Jesus from the town of Nazareth – comes to be baptized. By the power of the Holy Spirit John recognizes that there is more to Jesus than it seems – that he is the Holy One of Israel, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Reluctantly, John baptizes Jesus. And then it happens. The heavens are opened, the Holy Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove on this Jesus, and the voice of God from heaven shatters the noise of the crowds to proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In Act I the identity of the protagonist is established – not created, just revealed to us and to the world. From before time, Jesus is the Son, the Beloved, and beyond time will remain the Son. But now we know it! And now Jesus has heard God verify and honor his identity before the watching world. God has spoken the word of identity over him. God has spoken and has established his identity.

Act II: Temptation
A moment passes, or a day – the time is unclear. But soon enough the Holy Spirit leads – throws – Jesus into the wilderness. There he dedicates himself to God and to his will with prayer and fasting as many have done before. Forty days he remains. Then comes the tempter: If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Surely, the Son of God does not go hungry. Surely, the Son of God has power to provide for his basic needs. Surely, it is a small thing for the Son of God to change a stone to bread. Do it. Change this stone to bread. Prove that you are the Son of God, the Beloved. In Act II the identity of the protagonist is questioned. And it is confirmed. Jesus answers the tempter: ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone”’ (Luke 4:4, NRSV). This is the Son’s response according to Luke; but, Matthew, in a more complete telling adds, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4b, NRSV).

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4, NRSV).

And what is the most recent word that has come from the mouth of God, the word that sustains Jesus in the wilderness, the word by which he vanquishes the tempter? Both Luke and Matthew tell us: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” It is that word of God spoken by God over Jesus at his baptism, that word which established Jesus’s identity. If you are the Son of God, the tempter hisses in the wilderness. You are my Son, the Beloved, God thunders from heaven. One does not live by bread alone, but by every word – by this word of identity – that comes from the mouth of God. In Act II the identity of the protagonist is questioned. And it is confirmed by the very word of God.

Act III: Mission
Then Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit returns to Galilee and begins to teach in their synagogues. Soon he comes to Nazareth, his hometown, where he is invited to speak on the Sabbath day. Standing before his family and friends, he takes the scroll – the scroll of the prophet Isaiah – finds the passage he wants, and reads.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV).

He rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and sits down to teach: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Who could dare say this, who could dare claim the filling of the Spirit, who could dare pronounce himself the anointed, other than the one over whom God has spoken the word of identity? You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased. In Act III the identity of the protagonist is proclaimed and lived out. The mission begins – and all on the basis of the word spoken over him, the word validated by him, the word of identity. All in all, a very good play.

But there’s a twist to the play analogy: we are not in the audience, we are on the stage – as many of us as have been baptized into Christ are actors. We are in our own three-act play, the same three acts: Baptism, Temptation, Mission. In Lent we may focus on Act II, Temptation, and, in our case, repentance. But this act only makes sense in context of Act I, Baptism, and it must lead to Act III, Mission.

Act I: Baptism
You come to the water, perhaps as an adult, perhaps carried as an infant. Little matter – what happens next is all gift, all grace anyway and eight days or eighty years you must receive it as gift and grace. You are immersed or sprinkled or in some other way washed in this water of regeneration and a word is spoken over you by the church: Servant of God – and here your name is called – you are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But the church is not the only one who speaks a word over you. God himself breaks the silence to proclaim: You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well pleased. And as difficult as that may be to understand, to embrace in heart and mind, it is nevertheless true, attested time and again in Scripture.

For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV).

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8:14-17a, NRSV).

To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13, NRSV).

In Act I God speaks and establishes your identity; by his very word – a word that has power to create what it speaks – you are created anew as his beloved child in whom he is well pleased. No matter who or what you were before, you are that no longer.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9-11, NRSV).

You were washed, your were sanctified, you were justified as God spoke over you the word: You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well pleased. This is who you are. In baptism, through the washing and the word, God established your identity as his child – established it by the word that proceeds from his mouth.

But, there is an Act II: Temptation. In Act II your new identity is questioned, challenged by the tempter. If you are God’s child…these words are the leitmotif – the repeated refrain – of Act II. The tempter’s goal is clear: to get you to doubt your identity as a child of God. The next step is to doubt God himself.

If you are God’s child, the tempter hisses, why do you feel so ordinary?
If you are God’s child, why does God seem so distant?
If you are God’s child, why do you struggle so with sin and why does it so easily defeat you?
If you are God’s child why is your heart so downcast within you?
If you are God’s child why is your marriage not more blissful?
If you are God’s child why are your children so hard to manage?
If you are God’s child…
If you are God’s child…

It is an easy step – so hopes the tempter – from If you are God’s child, to You can’t be God’s child.

You can’t be God’s child when you’re so ordinary.
You can’t be God’s child when you struggle so with sin and when it so easily defeats you.
You can’t be God’s child when your marriage is troubled and your children are rebellious.
You can’t be God’s child…
You can’t be God’s child…

And so on, the voice whispers. It is then more than ever that we must remember the word spoken over us by God in our baptism. You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased. We do not – we dare not – live by bread alone, by our feelings, our understanding, our circumstances, our failures alone. No. We live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God – the very word of truth, the very word with power to create what it speaks. We are the children of God because God has spoken his word over us. We are the children of God because God in his grace chose us and made us his own. We are the children of God because God has the power to make it so. Yes, our identity will be questioned in Act II. But it can also be confirmed by remembering the word spoken, by listening in the Spirit for the word continually spoken: You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased. The Lenten experience is one of listening for this word in the midst of temptation.

In Act II the tempter challenges Jesus’s identity and offers him an agenda by which to prove it. If you are the Son of God change this stone to bread, jump from this pinnacle, bow down and worship me. It is no different with us. The tempter would like nothing better than to set the agenda for the church – for God’s children. Even better than destroying the church is making it inconsequential, making it simply one social club or civic group among many. Let it do its good deeds. Let it play at worship. Just never let it seize upon its true agenda, its true mission. That’s why there must be an Act III: Mission. It is not the tempter, it is not the world, it is not even the children of God who defines our mission. No. Our mission is spoken over us by God in our baptism, in our temptation: You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.

My Spirit is upon you.
I have anointed you to bring good news –Gospel! – to the poor.
I have sent you to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

We are the image bearers of Christ. We are the heralds of the kingdom. We are the firstfruits of his victory and we are his continuing presence in this world. Our mission is nothing more or less than to live into the reality of our identity as the children of God and to proclaim the glory of our Father, to whom be praise now and for ever. Amen.

So, rather than just the Lenten themes of prayer and fasting, almsgiving, scriptural reflection – as fitting and important as they are -- let’s seek even more fundamental themes: our identity as the beloved children of God through the power of God’s word spoken over us in our baptism; the power of that word to confirm our identity even in the midst of temptation; and the kingdom agenda that flows from our identity.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. But remember also that you are God’s child, his beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

Amen.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Homily: Ash Wednesday (17 Feb 2010)


Homily: Ash Wednesday (17 Feb 2010)
(Isaiah 58:1-12/Psalm 51:1-17/2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10/Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
[1]
The Grand Joke

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:
Come, let us adore him.

The older I get, the less I need reminding: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I know this. I reckon it in the calendar: fewer years ahead than behind. I see it in the mirror: more wrinkles around the eyes, less hair but more gray in what little remains. I feel it in my bones: a certain stiffness in the mornings and aches on rainy days. No, I need no further reminder of human entropy – the winding down and wearing out of mortality – than what I experience each day; I’m reminded of my dusty origin and end already in far too many ways.

What I really need – and perhaps you do, too, regardless of your age – is a reminder that dust isn’t truly the end, that “you are dust and to dust you shall return” will not be the final word spoken to me or over me. What I really need is a reminder that “though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16, NKJV). And Ash Wednesday with its imposition of ashes provides just that needed reminder.

There is a grand joke built right into the solemn ritual of Ash Wednesday; if you “get it” – really get it – it’s hard to keep from laughing with joy during service, or perhaps it’s hard to keep from weeping with gratitude. As all kneel in preparation for the imposition of ashes the minister’s prayer recalls how Almighty God created man out of the dust of the earth and asks God, in part, that the “ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence” (BCP 265). A bit later, the minister signs each member on the forehead with those ashes saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words and the action they narrate ought to be accompanied by a sly wink and a little grin; taken together they are the grand joke of Ash Wednesday. Yes, the ashes may be – and should be – a sign of our mortality and penitence and a reminder of the dust from whence we came and to which we will return. But, they are traced on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. And that is the punch line of the grand joke: a joke at the expense of death and mortality, of sin and destruction. Death tries its best to return humankind to dust and ashes, but Jesus stoops down and traces in our dust and ashes the sign of the cross, and the Creator once again forms man from the dust of the earth and breaths into him the breath of life – the Spirit of Life – and he rises in newness of life unto the ages of ages, bearing on his forehead the seal of the cross. St. Paul got the joke and – I suspect – laughed and wept his way through his great resurrection doxology:

54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “ O Death, where is your sting?

O Hades, where is your victory?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:54-57, NKJV).

I know that Ash Wednesday is the portal to Lent, a time of intense penitence and ascesis/discipline. I will fast with the Church. I will pray with the Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” knowing that my sin is responsible for the evil and death in the world in ways I cannot even imagine. I will repent with the Church and beg God to reveal to me just as much of my sin as I am able to bear, and to grant me true repentance and amendment of life. I will immerse myself in the Word with the Church and give alms with the Church. I will, as God gives me grace, keep a holy Lent with the Church, as will you. But as serious as all this is, as solemn as is the season, from time to time I think I will break out in laughter, because I know the grand joke of Ash Wednesday. The dust and ashes of my mortality – and yours – is sealed with the life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are the son or daughter of God – sealed with the cross of our Lord Jesus – and that to God and to life you shall return.

St. John tells the story of a woman taken in adultery and accused publicly before Jesus. (St. John’s gospel is the only one to record this episode and there are textual issues which lead many scholars to question its authenticity and many to reject it outright. It doesn’t appear in some modern translations of the Bible and, where it does, it is often bracketed and footnoted as of questionable origin. But it is vintage Jesus, and I refuse to part with it.)

The scribes and Pharisees drag this woman – who is really, to them, only bait for their latest “Jesus trap” – right into the precincts of the temple where Jesus is teaching. As I visualize it they shove her down dismissively onto the dusty courtyard where she huddles in fear and shame while they turn to Jesus.

“Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him (John 8:4b-6a, NKJV).

But Jesus pretended not even to hear them: would that we could more often turn a deaf ear to the sins of others! He stooped down and wrote on the ground, in the dust and ashes of that courtyard. When the scribes and Pharisees pressed him further for a judgment he gave it: He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone (cf John 8:7). And then he stooped down and wrote again in the dust and ashes. It’s all a great mystery, of course, just what Jesus wrote. But, whatever it was, it replaced condemnation with forgiveness and death with new life. Whatever he wrote, this much is true: Jesus stooped down to the dust and ashes of that poor woman’s life and with his finger traced in them the sign of his life-giving cross and she was born again. I wonder how often after that day she laughed with joy or wept with gratitude at the grand joke played on death that day.

In a moment I will say to each of you, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” as I trace in ashes upon your forehead the sign of the cross. It’s all very solemn. But, I’ll understand if you grin a little or shed a tear of grace. It is, after all, a grand joke. Amen.


[1] While we will read the appointed lections, I plan to address them only tangentially and to focus, instead, on a different aspect of Ash Wednesday using St. John’s account of the woman taken in adultery.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord (14 Feb 2010)


Sermon: Transfiguration (14 Feb 2010)
(Exodus 34:29-35/Psalm 99/2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2/Luke 9:28-43a)
From Glory To Glory

The Lord has shown forth His glory.
Come, let us adore Him.

Note: The Revised Common Lectionary places the Feast of the Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany and not on 6 August as do Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican lectionaries.

St. Jude, the brother of our Lord, was deeply concerned for the purity of the faith. Just a few decades after the events of our salvation he writes:

Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 4For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4, NRSV).

There are those in every age – Jude’s and ours – who, through active disobedience or passive ignorance distort the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Some merely wander away from the truth themselves; some, tragically, draw others away with them. And so Jude reminds us, the church must be ever vigilant and uncompromising in defending its faith in our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

So how do we know, some two millennia after St. Jude’s time, that we have received and now hold the true faith? How has the faith once for all delivered to the saints been preserved for us? The compact answer – which itself takes great care and time and effort to unpack – is this: the ancient and true faith of the Church is preserved in the Tradition of the Church. As Paul writes to Timothy, the church of the living God is the pillar and ground of the truth (cf 1 Tim 3:15). The Tradition of the Church is multifaceted, consisting of scripture, creeds, ecumenical councils, hymns, prayers, liturgy, and the communion of the saints – all of whom lived for and many of whom died for the faith. We read the truth in the Scripture and we proclaim the truth in the creeds. We sing the truth in ancient hymns and we pray the truth in our common prayers. We worship the Truth, in truth, through sacred liturgical word and sacred sacramental action and we embody the truth as we take our place in the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us as we do these things. All these repositories of the faith work in synergy to teach and preserve and pass on the faith – the whole faith and nothing but the faith – each supporting and supplementing the other. The faith once for all delivered to the saints is “that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all,” as St. Vincent of LĂ©rins expresses it.

This faith is not of human origin or devising; it is the stuff of revelation and experience. Peter writes:

16 For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” 18 And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 2:16-18, NKJV).

Peter describes the Transfiguration of the Lord, clearly a pivotal moment in his faith and a testimony to all who follow. We have the Transfiguration in Scripture, in the records of eyewitness testimony – here and in all the synoptic Gospels. But we have it, too, in other repositories of the Tradition: in hymns and prayers which serve as the Church’s commentary on Scripture. These offer great insight into the significance of the event for those who witnessed it and for all who have received the Tradition.

From the East there are two hymns: the Troparion and the Kontakion of the Transfiguration.

Troparion of the Transfiguration
You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, revealing as much of your glory to your disciples as they could behold. Through the prayers of the Mother of God, let your everlasting light also shine upon us sinners. O Giver of Light, glory be to You!

Troparia are musical collects; they collect or summarize the theme or themes of the liturgical celebration. The Troparion of the Transfiguration is sung at Vespers on the eve of the Transfiguration and again at Matins the following morning. What themes does it express?

First, it proclaims that the man Jesus transfigured on the mountain was Christ our God, that the glory seen there was the glory of God in the face of man: You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God. Paul says it this way:

15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.
19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col 1:15-20, NKJV).


Jesus is the image, the exact likeness, of God – God in his fullness in flesh and blood; that’s what was revealed on Mt. Tabor that day. But this God, Creator of all things, was also revealed as the Christ/Messiah, the Redeemer of all things, who through the cross would reconcile to Himself all things on earth and in heaven. This was Jesus the man the disciples knew, and this was Jesus their Savior and God – one Person, truly man and truly God. Jesus’ humanity was not a disguise he wore and laid aside at the moment of Transfiguration, nor was his divinity something foreign and added at the moment of Transfiguration. Jesus was revealed as he is and ever shall be: one Person, fully God and fully man – Christ our God.

Second, the troparion says that Christ our God revealed only as much of his glory as the disciples could behold. Did you ever wonder why only Peter, James, and John were selected to witness the Transfiguration? The troparion suggests – and the church fathers agree – that only these three were ready and able to behold the glory of God, to see the uncreated light. There is biblical precedence for such a notion. In the Beatitudes Jesus says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” These three had the purity of heart to see the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus on the mountain. Of course this challenges us: if we would see God – and the Tradition maintains that we can – then we must pursue the purity of heart acquired only through a disciplined life of love and obedience, of prayer and fasting and repentance.

Let us pray.

Grant us, O God, to behold your light and your glory as we are able and, through your mercy, purify our hearts that we may be worthy to behold you ever more clearly and fully, through Jesus Christ our God, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Amen.

Kontakion of the Transfiguration

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, and your disciples beheld as much as they could of your glory, so that when they would see you crucified, they would understand that You suffered willingly; and they would preach to the world that You are truly the reflection of the Father.

Kontakia are long, theologically rich songs; typically only a short portion of each is sung in worship. The Kontakion of the Transfiguration echoes the same themes as the Troparion but adds an important element; it connects the Transfiguration to the crucifixion. The Transfiguration reveals ahead of time that the crucifixion is not a defeat but a victory. The Transfiguration reveals ahead of time that the glory and power present on the mountain are also seen – and perhaps best seen – in the shame and weakness of the cross. Jesus is compelled to die only by his love for man and his obedience to the Father, not by the cunning of the priests or the abusive power of Rome. His life is not taken from him, but offered up by him. Jesus himself says as much.

17 “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18, NKJV).

The Transfiguration reveals the cross as a thing of glory amidst shame and power amidst weakness. As Paul writes,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18, NKJV).

Of course this challenges us: to embrace shame and weakness as the true Christian expressions of glory and power. If we would be transfigured with Jesus on Tabor, we must be crucified with him on Calvary through a life of dying to self.

Let us pray.

Let us see, O God, as much glory in the shame of the cross of our Lord as in his Transfiguration, as much power in the weakness of the cross of our Lord as in his Transfiguration, and let us ever hold fast to that life-giving cross that, joined to his death, we might know also the victory of his resurrection, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We have heard from the East in these two great hymns. Now, from the West there is a prayer, the Collect for the Transfiguration.

Collect of the Transfiguration
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This collect explicitly links Jesus’ transfiguration to our own: Grant to us that we…[may] be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. These words reference St. Paul: 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3:18, NKJV). To look upon the glory of the Lord – to look upon it in Spirit and truth and worship – is to be transformed into that same image, transformed into like glory. We become what we gaze upon; we become what we worship. This is the hope and promise of theosis: the purification, illumination, and glorification of man – union with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We do not know or see this fully yet, be we are granted a glimpse of glorified humanity in the Tranfiguration of our Lord; what he is in his humanity, we shall also be. About this, St. John writes:

2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3, NKJV).

But this collect also explicitly links the glory of our transfiguration to the burden of our cross: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. So many in the communion of saints have known – and still know – what we often prefer to forget: that suffering is the womb of glory, death the seed of resurrection. St. Paul writes:

10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

There is a fearful and wonderful symmetry here[1]. We see Christ transfigured and then take up his cross. Thus strengthened, we take up our cross and are transfigured.

Of course this challenges us: to see the way of the cross as the way of glory, to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus Christ our Lord, to die with him – moment by moment, that we may live with him unto the ages of ages.

These two great hymns and this one great prayer are sure repositories of the Tradition of the Church, the faith once for all delivered to the saints: that Jesus transfigured is Christ our God; that Jesus transfigured willingly sacrificed himself on the cross for us and for our salvation; that Jesus transfigured, crucified, and risen again, bids us take up our own cross; that Jesus transfigured transfigures those who bear the cross into his glorious likeness – from glory into glory. Amen.


[1] The symmetry of the collect is chiastic (from the Greek chi, X) and has the form ABBA:
A – Jesus’ transfiguration
B – Jesus’ cross
B – Our cross
A – Our Transfiguration
It is interesting in this context – though purely incidental – that X is the first letter of Christos/Christ. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiastic_structure.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sermon: 5 Epiphany (7 Feb 2010)


Sermon: 5 Epiphany (7 Feb 2010)
(Isaiah 6:1-13/Psalm 138/1 Corinthians 15:1-11/Luke 5:1-11)
Of First Importance

The Lord has shown forth his glory:
Come, let us adore him.

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor 15:3-8, NRSV).

These words are the heart of the gospel Paul preached; these words are of first importance: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again – death, burial, and resurrection, the drama of atonement. These words are the heart of the Creed we profess:

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures (Nicene Creed/Symbol of Faith).

These words are the heart of our worship, in one form or another found in all our Eucharist Prayers:

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

These words are the heart of our most joyous proclamation: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

Paul says that he received these words from others – likely Peter and James, and certainly Jesus himself – and then passed them on intact to the Corinthians. The language used is that of tradition; Paul received the great tradition of the church – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – and now he hands that sacred tradition off, as a treasure to be cherished and guarded, to the next generation of the faithful. In like manner we have received the tradition and in like manner we will pass it on.

Paul is clear that it doesn’t belong to him and that it didn’t originate with him. Nor do the Corinthians need to take his word alone for these truths. There were witnesses of the events – many still living as Paul writes– who would attest to the truth of his words. And there was scripture. Everything that happened in this drama of atonement – death, burial, and resurrection – happened according to scripture. It’s all right there – look it up. It’s there in the Psalms; Psalm 22 comes to mind: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It’s there in the Prophets, as in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: All we like sheep have gone astray…and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. It’s there in Jonah who spends three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish before his rather messy resurrection. It’s there in the Torah when our father Abraham offers up his son – the son of the covenant whom he loves – binding him and placing him on the altar, praying for a resurrection and receiving it when an angel stays his hand. It’s there in the experience of Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph who found himself dead in pharaoh’s prison, only to be raised up to again and seated at the right hand of the great king. Yes, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. Because the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are of first importance, the scriptures are full to overflowing with atonement stories writ large and small in the lives of God’s people, stories like this one.

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle … 2Saul and the Israelites gathered and encamped in the valley of Elah, and formed ranks against the Philistines. 3The Philistines stood on the mountain on one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. 4And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six* cubits and a span … 58He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, ‘Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.’ 10And the Philistine said, ‘Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.’ 11When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

The story now turns its attention to David, a young shepherd – too young to go to war – who just happens to be in Israel’s camp bringing provision to his brothers when Goliath starts his standard taunt. And David heard him.

Through some twists and turns and sibling rivalry David was finally brought to King Saul, who sat cowering in his tent. 2432David said to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ 33Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’ 34But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’ 37David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’

At Saul’s insistence, David tried on the king’s armor but found it too constricting. Instead he took his shepherd’s staff, his sling, and five smooth stones – that’s all – and he drew near to the Philistine.

41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ 45But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’

48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. 51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. 52The troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. 53The Israelites came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. 54David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent.[1]

This is a story of Jesus in the life of David: death, burial, and resurrection in accordance with the scriptures. All Israel is bound over captive to the fear of death in the person of Goliath, a giant who defies the living God. None in Israel’s army dares face him until David, an obscure peasant from Bethlehem of all places – a good shepherd but apparently little more – comes forward and volunteers for battle. David becomes Israel’s champion, the one man on whom rests the hopes, the future, the lives of all the people. He becomes Israel incarnate and enters the valley of the shadow of death, to face death alone on behalf of all Israel. Surely, there is here, in this story of David, a foreshadowing of Jesus. All mankind is bound over captive to death through sin. None can face and conquer these foes. But Jesus, the logos/Word of God takes our humanity upon himself, emptying himself to become an obscure peasant from Bethlehem of all places – a good carpenter but apparently little more. He comes forward and enters the battle, becoming our Champion, the Champion of all men, taking upon himself the sin and fear, the hope and future, the very lives of all. He steps into the valley of the shadow of death, to face death alone on behalf of all men.

Let’s interrupt the story here – David’s story and Jesus’ story – to consider an alternate ending. Just suppose that, as David approaches the giant, Goliath takes aims and lets fly his spear; it finds it mark and David is killed instantly. How would the rest of the story play out? The Philistine champion is victorious, Israel’s army is routed, and all Israel remains in captivity and bondage to the enemies of God and God’s people. It is just not enough for David to take upon himself the mantle of his people, to become Israel incarnate. It is just not enough for him to die. For the story to reach the only climax that matters, David must rise again. He must defeat Goliath and walk out of the valley of the shadow of death victorious, holding the severed head of his people’s great enemy. Only then are they free from death and from the terror of death. No alternate ending will do for David’s story or for Jesus’ story or for our story. Resurrection matters. It truly is of first importance. So Paul writes, in accordance with the scripture.

Even now, it’s not quite time to leave the story; there is one more important feature to come. Seeing David their champion emerge victorious from the battle, the troops of Israel and Judah rise up with a shout and pursue the Philistines, striking them down and plundering their camp. Their champion has set them free and has empowered them to live victoriously, fearlessly; he has transformed them into people like himself. And this, too, is at the heart of the story. David took upon himself the burdens of his people, took them into the valley of the shadow of death, defeated death and emerged victorious, so that he could share his victory with his people and so that they might be free from the power and the fear of death. This is why the story is so important to us and why it resonates so deeply with us.

This is the story of Jesus in the life of David: death, burial, and resurrection in accordance with the scriptures. Jesus took upon himself our humanity and ultimately our sin and died for us in accordance with the scripture. He was buried. He rose again on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, to free us from the power of sin and death, to transform us into his likeness, and to empower us to live victoriously, fearlessly. The resurrection of Jesus is our resurrection – and so it is of first importance: if we rise up with the shout of victory in the name of our Champion Lord; if we pursue the already-defeated enemies of sin and fear and death, and plunder their camp of those still held captive; if we live in accordance with the scripture.

And so, St. Paul reminds us of what he received and passed on, these truths of first importance: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, so that we might hold fast to these truths and live victorious, resurrection lives. Amen.


[1] Sections in italics are from 1 Samuel 17, NRSV.