Sunday, August 31, 2014

12th Sunday after Pentecost

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 

This morning's Gospel lesson can really only be adequately appreciated in the wider context in which it is placed in Matthew's Gospel. By the very ordering of the passages in this chapter, there are important but subtle points being made. It might be easy to think of passages in the Bible like a long train on which various cars are coupled at random with no real relation to one another. Jesus goes here, and then he says that, and then gets in that confrontation. However, the Gospels are thoughtfully arranged, and a careful consideration of surrounding passages shows how they are like interlocking pieces in a great structure. Consider for a moment the parable of the prodigal son. It's not found in any other Gospel but Luke's. There it is preceded by two parables: one about a man who loses a sheep and leaves his flock to find him, and who rejoices when he does find him. A similar parable tells of a woman who loses a coin and searches diligently for it and then rejoices in finding it. All three parables are about finding that which is lost and the ensuing joy. The introduction to all three parables is a note that publicans and sinners drew near to hear him, but the scribes and Pharisees murmured against him. With these parables Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees and his disciples that God greatly values those who have been spiritually lost but are now found, like the publicans and the sinners for whom Jesus searched. Jesus did not come to found a church whose membership would consist solely of moral supermen or perfect saints. His church is a society of prodigals; it is a gathering of those who have squandered the manifold gifts of God and who know they are not worthy to be called God's children, and yet have been received home by their heavenly Father.

Such a careful reading of Scripture in concert with itself is the basis for a sound reading of the whole Bible. When we say that we are Catholic Christians, part of what we mean by this is that we do not take isolated verses and rip them out of their context in order to support esoteric doctrine. That is a hallmark of Christian sects and schisms that always seem to have a scriptural proof for their perplexing doctrines. The Catholic and Reformed way of reading the Bible is to read it in harmony with itself and further, to read it in partnership with those who have read it throughout the church's history, like the church father's.

Keeping all this in mind, it would be impossible fully to appreciate today's Gospel without recalling last week's Gospel in which Peter makes his great confession. Briefly summarized, Jesus asks his disciples whom they say he was. Peter replies, thou art the Christ, the son of the living God. In response, Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church upon his leadership and authority. In the lesson today Peter is found rebuking Jesus. There is a kind dissonance between the climax of Peter's confession and his confusion in our passage about the true mission of the messiah. When Peter hears our Lord's disclosure that he must be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again the third day, he rebukes Jesus. Peter cannot believe that such a thing could befall the messiah, the christ. He was the king to redeem all Israel and draw in the nations. How could he possibly do this if he were dead? Peter of course misses the point, and our Lord's addressing him as Satan is in sharp contrast to the statement a few verses earlier that he would build his church on this rock. Our Lord would restore Israel. He would draw in the nations into the fear and worship of the one true God. However, he would bring this renewal not by the gradual conquering of nations, like a religious Alexander the Great. Rather, this renewal would come about through death and resurrection. His universal invitation would not be, come, be happy, do what pleases yourself. Rather, his invitation was and will always be a call to come and die, to come and die to sin and self and to be born again for love and service. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. He is a king, but his power is not exercised in control and in might. He is a king born to serve and save. He is a messiah, but he is not anointed to conquer the nations with a sword; rather, he is anointed for a death and a burial. It now becomes evident why the church cannot be akin to the state in power or authority because her Lord is not a tyrant but a king who exercises a power of service; nor can the kingdom of God be built on earth because the reign of God cannot be compared with earthly states and thrones.

All this suggests that Peter got the words right in his confession: Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God, but he did not really understand the true meaning of what he said. It is easy today for both those inside the church and those outside to do the same. It is easy to think that Christianity consists of a set of moral precepts, perhaps among the world's best and most abiding. It is easy to think that Christianity consists of a set of doctrinal propositions to which you must give your intellectual assent. When we think of Christianity is these simplistic ways, we are like Peter making a great confession, but not really understanding the true meaning and mission of the messiah. Christianity consists at root in a call to complete spiritual transformation through trust and surrender. It is, as I said before, a call to come and die. This is an uncomfortable message for the settled, and that is why in the history of the church, its preachers and teachers and ministers have often lapsed into preaching morality or self-help or social issues. Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the Cost of Discipleship, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. Have you received this call? Have you decided to hand your life over to God in surrender and trust? It is and always will be difficult and scary to hand over control of our lives to God, but ask yourself the simple question, without God where has your life gone while you were in control? For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

9th Sunday after Pentecost

         Romans 10:5-15

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

When we look at the world it is easy to look at it through the narrow lens of good people and bad people. Particularly if you become passionate about a political, social, or religious cause, you will often lapse into thinking in terms of friends and foes. All of this is a way of either approving or disapproving individuals. In the words of the Bible, this is called justification. In a similar way, we can be justified , accepted before God.

But what makes a person acceptable to God? Now a common answer to this question is that we gain God's acceptance by what we do. If we do enough good things, God will finally be pleased with us. Such a view pictures the moral life as a long road stretching ahead, perhaps up a mountain. Only by tremendous exertion could one ever arrive at the destination of being loved and accepted by God. The phrase that Paul uses to describe this view of religion is the righteousness of the law. The righteousness of the law teaches that by the right things we do we are accepted by God. Paul, however, contends that there is a new type of righteousness that has been revealed in our Lord Jesus. It is actually not new—Abraham had this type of righteousness—but it is new in the sense that it has been made evident to all people. The righteousness of faith states that we could never be justified by works of the law because we can never do enough good things to make up for the gravity and seriousness of our sins. Imagine if a parent decided to love his children only after they were entirely perfect. God too does not wait to love us until we are perfect or even good. He knows that we are weak, both physically and morally. The Bible says that God remembers that we but dust. God also knows our wandering, our rebellion against his leading. Recall the scene in the garden with Adam and Eve. Up to that point in the narrative of Genesis, God has been calling things good: “And God said let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” The serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, now Adam and Eve are going to be deciding what is good and what is evil. And this is the path of sin. When we decide to usurp God's power and authority—in the case of Adam and Eve the power to say what is good and what is evil—we fall into the destructive ways of sin, and there is no amount of good-doing that can dig us out this hole that we have dug for ourselves.

God however does not just cancel or ignore the weight of our sin. He does not just say, oh that, don't worry about that. No, sin hurts ourselves and it hurts others. Think of the record of human history: tyranny, murder, genocide, slavery, oppression. The awful weight of these sins and of the sins of the whole world, God places on the willing Lord Jesus. He, in the words of our liturgy, is the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation is a technical term to describe how his sacrifice pays the debt of our sins. And now we have acceptance with God, not based on what we have done, but by what Jesus has done on our behalf. This the righteousness of faith, and Paul describes it with these words, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. You will be saved, my friends, from sin and death, and raised up to new life with the risen Lord Jesus.

You can now see how to receive this righteousness—indeed it is not something that we can earn or achieve—we just have to open our hands to receive it as a gift. No long journeys are required. You don't have to do arduous and dramatic feats of penitence, like certain well-intentioned but misguided Roman Catholics in Mexico who walk up hills on their knees and practice self-flagellation. In fact, this righteousness of faith is on hand for you and for me today. This is, I believe, what Paul means when he writes rather cryptically in our Lesson, what does the righteousness of faith say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart. Another way of saying this is, in the words of Jesus, the kingdom of God is within you. You don't, in other words, have to go looking for it, like some secret, esoteric knowledge. The righteousness of faith, justification with God, being accepted by him is on hand right here and right now. No matter where your life has taken you in the past, wherever you have been, whatever you have done, God has shown his good will towards all in the Lord Jesus. He has shown that he wants to live in fellowship with humans redeemed by the Lord Jesus.

Even though we do not need to go anywhere to find this acceptance in God, nevertheless, there is a need to go on a journey. It is not the journey to find God, but it is the journey to share this good news of God's loving acceptance of sinners in our Lord Jesus. The latter part of the Epistle lesson describes this work, this journey. Paul asks the question how are people going to hear this message of love and forgiveness if they have never heard of Jesus and his great love for all. And how will they ever hear if no one goes to tell them? This is precisely the basis of Christian outreach. As a Christian community, we go outside the walls of this church, to show people the love and generosity of God. It is what our young people did in Portland a few weeks ago. It is what our fledgling outreach committee is attempting to do. This morning you will find in the bulletin an insert about their work.  St. Francis famously said, preach the Gospel always and if necessary, use words. Much of the work proposed by the committee is preaching the Gospel without explicit words, but we pray that the Lord will give us opportunities thoughtfully to share our faith in the context of relationships outside these walls. We reach out to others because we know we have been fully loved and accepted in our Lord Jesus not based on an accounting of our merits. Now we can, we must reach out to others with this message of hope and new life. If we have no desire to share this news, to see lives saved and transformed, it probably means that we have only been superficially touched by this message of grace. If you have discovered the abounding grace and love of God, the key to all human existence, then why would you keep this a secret? It worth sharing lovingly with others in the context of a relationship. May the Lord give his blessing to all the outreach which we undertake in his name, and may each of us as Christians have a sense of reaching out to others in the love of our Lord Jesus.