Sunday, October 9, 2016

21st Sunday after Pentecost

But the word of God is not fettered

The lessons this morning tie together the theme of the power of God's word. In the first lesson and the Gospel it is the power of the prophet's word to bring cleansing for the lepers Naaman and the Samaritan, both foreigners. The power of the word is illustrated in these readings, and it is asserted in the profound words of St. Paul in the Epistle, “the word of God is not fettered.” Paul wrote these words while he himself was fettered in prison, but he states that the word, the truth of God, cannot be fettered. Towards the end of his life, St. Paul spent considerable time in prison for being what we would call today a disturber of the peace. The Christian Gospel is a faith that demands the transformation of every aspect of life, whether it be private, political, or social. As such, true Christian faith will never be welcome in a society which tries to relegate religion to the realm of private opinion and private devotion. Roman society was open to every type of belief, but the Apostles preached a man who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. Caesar could still be king, but the Christians had the audacity to say that there was a greater lord than the Caesar. It is not surprising that such talk was unpopular to the powers of the Roman State. This is why Paul was in prison and would ultimately be killed for his proclamation. Among the thirteen letters of Paul in the New Testament there are a handful that were written while Paul was in prison. They are moving letters. Here is a man enduring trial and persecution and yet confident of the one in whom he trusts. This morning's Epistle comes from one of these prison letters, addressed to a young leader in the church.
One wonders what Timothy felt having his spiritual father in prison. I don't think any of us would fault him if he felt a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the church. After all, the early Christians were facing a seemingly all-powerful State which could tolerate Christianity as long as it marched in step with the rest of the Roman Empire, which of course it couldn't. Amongst the doubt and uncertainty that Timothy and the church must have been feeling, Paul exhorts Timothy to "Remember Jesus Christ" in the opening words to our lesson. The form of the verb used here for remember contains the idea of repeated or habitual action. Paul is saying that Timothy should have Jesus in mind and keep him there. Paul is not just exhorting him to be pious. He is reminding of Timothy of the great story of our redemption. Our Lord Jesus was crucified and died. It seemed like the end for Jesus and his followers. In the days after his crucifixion, the Gospel accounts relate that the disciples were in fear, uncertainty and sorrow. In the account in Luke of our Lord appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we're told that the disciples did not even recognize the Lord. I think most of their blindness was due to the fact that they did not expect to see him: Jesus was dead; end of story. In our Lord's crucifixion, corrupt religion, power without principle and even death all seem to win the day. But in our Lord's resurrection, it is demonstrated that nothing is impossible with God. Not all the powers of State, Religion, or even Hell can negate God's purposes. In the grim circumstances Paul and the church are facing, he reminds Timothy that we must follow the Lord who shows by his death and resurrection that nothing is impossible for God: Remember Jesus Christ. Paul may be in prison, but this will not thwart the preaching of the Gospel. Paul reminds Timothy that the word of God is not fettered. I may be in prison, but the word can not. The word of the Lord cannot fail because it is true.
As I was writing composing this sermon, I couldn't help but think of those familiar opening words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the great hymn of the Union during the Civil War:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
My friends, the truth will always march on from the perspective of eternity. The truth cannot be silenced. This was evident when Socrates was condemned for being an atheist and disturber of the peace. No one remembers the names of the judges who gave sentence on him or the citizens of Athens who agitated for his arrest and execution. But his name and the pursuit of truth which he inspired live on. In the same way, injustice that is codified into law can not stand forever, as the history of slavery in England and America shows.
What God has done and declared in our Lord Jesus cannot be undone, repealed, silenced or rebutted. In our Lord Jesus, our elder brother, the new Adam, has died on our behalf, canceling the debt of our sins and drawing us to himself and to his Father. In Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself that he may be all in all (2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 Corinthians 15:28). Christianity is not like a secret society in which a central mystery is passed from person to person and where you might run the risk of the last member dying and the mystery being lost. Rather, the word of the Lord cannot be bound; it is not a light hidden under a basket. This means that we do not need to worry about the ultimate fate of the world or of the church. That which is true will ultimately triumph and be manifest. The Word which God sends, like the rain upon the mown grass and the snow from heaven, shall not return to him void, but will accomplish that for which he has sent it. That Word, our Lord Jesus, is recreating you and me in the image of himself, that we might be a new humanity that lives by humility and grace and love.

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