Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'In any man be in Christ, he is a new creature', Trinitytide Sermon

Epistle Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Gospel Lesson: St. Mark 4:35-41 / St. Mark 5:1-20

The Gospel lesson begins with the rather ordinary phrase, “let us pass over unto the other side.” There is no foreshadowing of what is about to come upon their ship. It is as if he said, let’s grab a bite to eat or let’s go for a walk. Our lives too are characterized by the mundane, the ordinary, the quotidian details of life. But, of course, our lives also are seemingly interrupted by accidents and catastrophes. We never know what sort of wind, what sort of driving rain will come upon us unexpectedly. The disciples’ reaction to an accident of nature is fear. They believe their lives to be in jeopardy by a storm. Fear makes sense in a world of freak accidents and blind justice. In such a view, storms—both literal and figurative—are the playthings of chance, and we are all victims of a god who is more like a capricious child than a loving father. But God of the Bible is a loving Father. In the opening chapter of Genesis, God’s Spirit broods over the waters, transforming the chaos of the unformed world into an ordered and good creation. The Book of Psalms says—and this is unsettling for an Oklahoman—“Praise the LORD from the earth. . . Fire and hail, snow and vapours, * wind and storm, fulfilling his word” (148.7-8). Jesus teaches that his Father sends rain on the just and on the unjust; he makes his sun to rise on the good and on the evil. From the standpoint of faith there are no accidents. God is not asleep at the wheel in the storms of this life. Jesus chastens his disciples for their lack of faith. Now, what Jesus does not say is that we will always in all situations know and understand why something has befallen us. Or why we have come into the heart of a storm with our master seemingly asleep? As a man, I would like to know why hail hit our church and my home, but as a Christian, I have to trust that God is working everything together for his purposes, mysterious as they may seem to us. I can assure you that this view is much better than the alternative of seeing ourselves in a chaotic and purposeless world. My favorite image of God’s providence is that in this world, God’s good providence appears to us like the back of tapestry with unsightly knots and a rather chaotic pattern, but in the world to come, it will be as if that tapestry were turned around and we will understand how even the unexpected worked together in God’s great design. From the standpoint of this faith, we can trust that Jesus is in the storm with us, and he has power to deliver us because he is God. This passage puts before us one of the most compelling images of our Lord’s divine nature, as he calms the water and the storm in a way reminiscent of God as Creator in the book of Genesis. From the standpoint of faith, we can move from being victims of life’s storms to realizing that in Christ, we are children of God, children who know that nothing of this life—not even death—can separate them from his love. 

But we can see more about our lives. Yes, our outward lives are often assailed by storms. In fact, we seem to move from one storm to the next, and are in a relatively constant state of chaos. We know storms and catastrophes but there is also another power working in this world: the power of sin and spiritual evil. While outwardly we are assailed by storms, inwardly we are assaulted by our own inner demons: addiction, self-hatred, anger, greed, malice towards others. All these kill us and others. Notice in the second part of the Gospel lesson what the swine do when the demons from the possessed man are cast into their midst: “the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea. . . and [they were drowned] in the sea.” The demonic is self-destructive, as is sin. We think sin will make us happy or at least will not harm us, but on another cognitive level we are usually aware of how unhappy sin makes us and how sin robs us of spiritual joy. Clinging to that rage will kill you. Ask any doctor, and he will tell you that the stress of anger increases blood pressure and the rates of heart attack and stroke. Ask any Christian, and you will be told that anger roots out joy and peace. And yet in a kind of insanity we cling to that rage and anger. Addiction to alcohol or pornography will do the same thing: driving one to self-destruction. Part of the nature of sin is that it causes self-destruction. St. Augustine makes a profound statement on this point. In explaining what it means to love yourself in the command to love your neighbor as yourself, he says that to love yourself is to have compassion on yourself; to have compassion on yourself is simply not to sin because sin is that which kills us. Our Lord saves the disciples from storms, but he also delivers those who are afflicted by inner demons. In this miracle, the kingdom of God breaks into human existence. In the kingdom of God, there is liberation for the captive, freedom for the possessed, joy for those who are cast down by sorrow and despair. Listen to this beautiful succession of actions attributed to God in the Psalms: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”  Our Lord’s ministry is the manifestation of these works of God, exemplified in this miracle. Our Lord reveals God’s dominion over every spiritual evil in his coming kingdom. If our Lord delivers the man who cuts himself with stones, he will deliver you too from your self-destructive behavior. Your deliverance may not come overnight—the implication is that the man has been possessed for years—but seek the Lord in prayer of the heart, gather together in Christian fellowship, study in the Bible to hear God’s word to you—and your deliverance will come. As a young man out of university, I went through a period of debilitating depression; in a situation like this, it is so easy not to see beyond the present feelings, and to let the despair become the only thing that seems real. The God whom we worship, revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, wants to deliver us from every demon, addiction and sin. We are his children, and our self-destructive behavior grieves him as much as a young person’s self-destructive behavior grieves his parents. 

Here is the good news. In the epistle lesson, Paul writes—in one of the most profound statements in any of his letters—that, “we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Jesus died. He died in an ignoble, humiliating way. But remembering his death is not simply a recitation of a profound and moving tragedy. Rather, we believe and confess that he died as our representative and as the representative of all mankind. When he died, he took away the sting of death, and as our representative, we are freed from the fear of death. “one died; therefore all are dead.” Why is this so profound? Because the whole complex by which the world defines and divides humanity—male, female, white, black, rich, poor—has come crashing down in our Lord. Henceforth we know no man after the flesh, that is, we don’t think primary in terms of man, woman, white, African, or Jew. He is not saying that there are not real differences between men and women, Jews and gentiles, but that differences are of a secondary order when compared with the fact that all humans are those for whom Jesus died; in him, those distinctions that are the source of prejudice, oppression, violence and war are undone. The biggest difference between people is that there are those who know Jesus died for them and those who do not yet know this. All are brothers for whom Christ died. “If one died for all, then all are dead.” In that we have died with him, Paul can make the profound assertion—which words might have echoed the man delivered from a legion of demons: “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” As a new creature, we do not need to fear the literal or figurative storms of this life because we trust that in the words of the Bible, “all things work together for the good of them who love God”. As a new creature, we are delivered from every spiritual and oppressive evil and have died to self-destroying sin to live a new life of spiritual joy and love. As a new creature, we know the gathering of Jesus Christ crosses political, ethnic and economic lines; in the kingdom of God, there can be, there is no “us and them,” only the brothers and sister of the one who died for all. 

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