SOMETHING’S HAPPENING HERE
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
September 4, 2016 Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity
Lections: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Today’s scripture readings challenge our understanding of what a Christian life looks like, so before we turn to their ‘hard sayings,’ I will briefly discuss what makes the assembly or congregation of believers – what we usually think of as a local church–a suitable context for Christian life, and how pastor and congregation work together to promulgate, embody and preserve the apostolic tradition.
A person belonging to the same ecclesia over a lifetime of ‘attendance’ hears various interpretations, understandings, and visions of our sacred writings preached from the pulpit. This variety of expression can be helpful. For one, different people are drawn to different expressions, so from some they will hear and learn, while from others, not so well; for another, the originality of any preacher’s expression at some point becomes familiar, and the hearing of Scripture becomes dull. Also, as we mentioned last month, our spiritual life advances through different stages, roughly corresponding to our chronological development, so we need our attention to be focused on a variety of scriptural topics, depending on where we are in our years and stage of growth. In the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, we catch an occasional view of evangelists, preachers, and priests moving among the assemblies of different cities and towns.
Two conditions need to be satisfied for this type of connectional community to work. First, there is an underlying assumption that the different interpretations, understandings, and visions of sacred writings preached from the pulpit will not conflict in their essentials; that is, the variety of expressions will all communicate the unique truth taught by Jesus. Therefore, ministers are subject to discipline with regard to doctrine and the interpretation of Scripture. Second, there is an assumption that congregations will meet their responsibilities to their members and to their connection with other congregations in a consistent manner. Therefore, congregations are subject to discipline with regard to polity. When the disciplines of doctrine, interpretation, and polity are correctly applied, the distinctive life of each assembly of believers will mature: 1) believers will be perfected through a lifetime of sanctification, and 2) the truth taught by Jesus will be preserved and passed on from one generation to the next. In an assembly of believers, nothing should hinder these two achievements.
Christians take their name not from the person Jesus, whom they worship, but from the public position of authority he assumed during his incarnation. We are followers of a teacher who was, we believe, the promised liberator of a nation, Israel. ‘Christ’ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messias, or Messiah, the deliverer. Christians assemble for worship and live together in community so that they may become enlightened and liberated. Had we read one more line in the text from Jeremiah last week, we would have heard God ask, “Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant? Why then has he become a prey?”[i] The good news Jesus taught his disciples to proclaim to the world is this: every nation and every person can be freed from slavery. The prophetic word, however, says this: the people who take their name from the deliverer have themselves become a prey; like the Israel of old, Christians, where they have lost the sense of their scripture, doctrine, and polity, are enslaved by the world. The Christian life has lost its distinctiveness.
Paul’s brief letter to Philemon is tender and persuasive; in it, Paul makes a personal appeal for a Christian slaveholder to free a Christian slave. Here we gather from inference what is elsewhere said directly: the standards of the world do not apply to the Christian community. For Paul, who writes while a political prisoner of the Roman government, the way of life of a Christian cannot be reconciled with the way of life of the world. People are made slaves in the world; in the Christian community, slaves are freed. Does this mean that the Christian has no care for the world? Absolutely not! The lifestyle of Christian community is a proclamation addressed to the world, because within the Christian community, outposts persist. In these, pastor and congregation are still working together to promulgate, embody and preserve the apostolic tradition of love for God and neighbor; the Jesus Way of Enlightenment, the Way of Liberation, indeed has the power to overcome the injustice and violence of the world, as long as the local church and Christian communities don’t lose their unique identity. The world is simply too treacherous a place for anything as fragile and good as love to survive when exposed to the powers that be.
Wherever we come across references in our readings to words such as “flesh” and “lusts,” we should understand these are often used not only to mean the desires of the body but as synonyms for the allure of world. Christians, following the example of their teacher, are not intended to seek worldly power; instead, Christians are intended to live out their alternative lifestyle and ‘witness’ to the world from its margins. Perhaps Christianity is best viewed as a demonstration project. Jesus delivered his followers from an occupation force without lifting a sword, changing a law, or overturning a government; his revolutionary teaching and praxis are meant to be embodied in Christian life, and where this life thrives, the world can see for itself how it might be otherwise than it is and change its ways.
The question, then, is where do Christian communities thrive? The answer, I would venture, is here and there, but they are far more scarce than local churches. The encounter of the world with true Christian life proclaims “the burning fire” of God’s love, “the fellowship of the Gospel,” steadfastness in faith and activity of service;[ii] but the way of Christian liberation –its perfection of love – is a hard road. Consider, for example, the conditions Jesus lays out in today’s reading from Luke. First, his followers must “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,” for as we have remarked, the standards of the world – even those governing its family relationships – do not apply to Christian community. Second, his followers must “carry the cross,” that is, the contrivance the powers of the world will use to torture, silence, and kill them, when Christians resist – with pacifism – the world’s authorities. And third, his followers must give up all their possessions and commit themselves to trusting one another.
Let’s step back for a moment. Is this radical vision of the Christian life one we are familiar with? Do we hear this vision expressed from the pulpits in our assemblies? When and where we do, we know, “something’s happening here.” The radical vision is a countercultural vision that strengthens itself by training for the long run.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, likens the Christian to an athlete. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things,” he writes; “they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”[iii] And Matthew Henry comments, “There is the greatest encouragement, therefore, to persevere with all our strength, in this course.” He goes on to list some of the hardships Christians and athletes shared in the Roman world: “those who ran … were kept to a spare diet. They used themselves to hardships. They practiced the exercises. And those who pursue the interests of their souls, must combat hard with fleshly lusts. The body must not be suffered to rule.”[iv] As we have said, this is as true of our public body – our radical, Christian body – as it is of our individual body, which we exercise spiritually. So in his second letter to Timothy, Paul adds to his previous thought: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”[v] Jesus enlists his followers not in civil or military concerns, but in a Way of Liberation and ecclesia, which we can now define as ‘a community of love.’ Matthew Henry again comments on Paul’s likening of the Christian to an athlete: “As our trials increase, we need to grow stronger in that which is good; our faith stronger, our resolution stronger, our love to God and Christ stronger… The great care of a Christian must be to please Christ. We are to strive to get the mastery of our lusts and corruptions, but we cannot expect the prize unless we observe the laws.” The Christian life has laws, to “take care that we do good in a right manner, that our good may not be spoken evil of,”[vi] and in the Christian life, the ultimate law is the Eucharist.[vii] So we see why Jesus put conditions on his followers: our proclamation to the world cannot be compromised.
In the ‘Parable at the Potter’s House’ we hear the prophetic word of Jeremiah emphasize the sovereignty of God. Christian doctrine tells us that God’s being does not change, but as we hear, this is not meant to say that God doesn’t change his mind with respect to his followers. In the parable, God likens himself to a potter; if his creation is marred, he will reform it, shaping it as seems best to him. God speaks particularly about Israel, and generally about all nations or kingdoms: when a nation fails to live righteously, it is subject to judgment and must repent to avoid destruction. Evil ways and actions must be reformed. This is true also for ecclesia and its connection throughout creation with all the assemblies of Jesus’ followers, which we call New Israel: the counter-cultural nation that thrives on the margins of the world.
Can we reconcile the private, devotional life of the ordinary Christian in his and her household with their public witness? Our readings suggest we can, when we remember that devotion is practiced fruitfully only within a community. Our conception of the church must be big enough to see that an assembly of believers is a community event, and the community is not dissolved when the assembly disperses. Additionally, we must see that each assembly of believers is connected to every assembly of believers, as dispersed and distant as these may be. This is the context in which individual believers are through a lifetime of sanctification liberated from the world and the truth taught by Jesus is preserved and passed on from one generation to the next.
To re-iterate, nothing should hinder these two achievements. Our proclamation to the world is this: every nation and every person can be freed from slavery. Our challenge is to maintain the distinctive lifestyle Jesus instructed us to live and not to be enslaved by the world, whose standards are irreconcilable with Christian life. The alternative lifestyle of love demonstrated by authentic Christian community corrects for the injustice and violence of the world and proclaims that it is indeed possible to live a good life. The realization of Jesus’ vision for the world, seemingly impossible, will be, nevertheless, forever rewarding. Amen.
[ii] The Collect of the Day: “God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
Upon your Church in the burning fire of your love: Grant that your people may be fervent
In the fellowship of the gospel
That, always abiding in you, They may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
Through Jesus Christ your son our Lord, Who is alive and reigns with you,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 9:25, ibid
[iv] Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible by Matthew Henry, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
[v] 2 Timothy 2:4, ibid
[vi] Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible by Matthew Henry, 2 Timothy 2:1-7
[vii] Robert Barron, Exploring Catholic Theology, 132