Monday, February 17, 2014

A Tale of Fire and Water

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on February 16, 2014.  The texts were Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37.


In a rare move, I'm offering a bit of commentary on the front end in an attempt to elucidate some of what guided my thinking as I wrote this sermon.  In the prologue to Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes...we're dealing with the Apocrypha here) the author writes, "Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom.  Now, those who read the scriptures must not only themselves understand them, but must also as lovers of learning be able through the spoken and written word to help the outsiders." The writer sets that stage, before the content of the book is given, that the purpose of reading scripture is twofold: 1) For the well being of the life of the believer; 2) For the building up of the life of the world.

He further writes, "That by becoming familiar also with his book (Ecclesiasticus) those who love learning might make even greater progress in living according to the law." So, from the starting line, we ought not assume that hearing the word is enough.  We must, in good Anglican terminology, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the Scriptures so we might live a more godly, sober, and righteous life.

The undercurrent of this sermon, though not explicitly spoken, is the old maxim from St. Athanasius: "God became human that humans might become gods." That is to say, I believe the conviction of the Christian faith is that, through the Incarnation, God has given humanity a redeemed nature with the potential to become more than 'merely human', to become divinized, to become more fully partakers of the divine nature.  To quote 2 Peter 1:3-7: "His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.  For this very reason you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.  For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."

It has remained the conviction of the Christian East that humans can truly become participants in the divine nature in the here and now, today, in the very lives we live on earth.  This does not have to wait until the Eschaton, although we will more fully participate in God when all things are put to rights.  Still, we are given the potential to move beyond a death-determined reality and become transformed, divinized, made more like the God revealed in the flesh of Jesus Christ.

In some way, this conviction has permeated into the Episcopal Church.  For example, this collect on the Incarnation: "O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
I attempted, in some way, to communicate this truth in my sermon...


The Good News of God in Christ comes to us this morning as an affront, a challenge to every thought we might have concerning our own holiness or our mastery of righteousness. It offends us, and that, my friends, is precisely why it is good news. We’re often too settled, too comfortable, too certain of the choices we make and the paths we take. And this comfort, this certainty, this resoluteness may in fact prevent us from hearing the Gospel as exactly what it is: an overturning of this present reality and a ‘breaking-in’ of the reign of God…an establishment of a different way of living, a different way of being ‘human’ in this often inhuman world. It is Good News because here, this morning, we are given an opportunity to choose fire or water, life or death…to choose between living in a world conditioned by jealousy, anger, unfaithfulness, and chaos, or living in a world overflowing with peace, humility, integrity, and love.

It’s clear from the Apostle’s letter what kind of world the people of Corinth chose to inhabit. What may seem, on the surface, to be an ‘in-house’ argument about which pastor the Corinthian church owed her allegiance to is actually about just how destructive, absolutely destructive it is to willingly harbor anger, jealousy, and dissension towards fellow Christians. Even the witness of one such as Paul, who endured abuse and violence on account of Christ, could not sway the Corinthian church from her destructive tendencies. But it wasn’t simply about a community unable to live at peace and prosperity in the Lord: “Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?

‘Are you not merely human?’ A question that perhaps could be asked of all of us here. Paul’s frustration with the community is not only about their behavior, but what their behavior has done to them…how it has stunted their growth in Christ…how it has impeded their ability to grow as disciples…how it has prevented them from discerning the deeper mysteries of Christ. Their behavior, their willingness to descend into condescension and anger, caused them to remain spiritual infants. In an ancient commentary on this letter, a father of the Church named Ambrosiaster remarked, “Although they had been born again in Christ, they were not yet fit to receive spiritual things. Although they had received the faith which is the seed of the Spirit, they had produced no fruit worthy of God, but like babies, they were eager for the sensations of imperfection.” These were not outsiders, observing the rituals of the Church with an eye of suspicion. These were women and men who had come into the household of God, who had tasted of the life-giving body and blood of Christ, but yet continued to choose death in the face of life, producing nothing worthy of emulation, remaining content with the ‘sensations of imperfection.’ John Chrysostom, another father of the Church, has an observation that cuts straight to the heart of this issue: “It was the factionalism of the Corinthians that produced jealousy, and that in turn made them carnal. Once they were carnal, they were no longer free to hear truths of a more spiritual kind.”

‘No longer free.’ Like a jagged rock in a stream, smoothed out over time by the constant flow of water, the people of Corinth were shaped and formed by their choices into a people no longer free to hear the deeper truths of Christ, unable to take hold of what was their spiritual birthright, that is, the solid food of Christ that produces true righteousness and causes people to become more than ‘merely human.’ It’s clear from earlier portions of the letter that Paul hadn’t descended into hopelessness and completely written off the Corinthians. In his opening address Paul says, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” and immediately before the section we have before us, Paul makes a sweeping declaration: “We have the mind of Christ.” Paul is quite clear that the potential is there for the people of Corinth to walk in holiness, to live as a sanctified and holy people, and to embrace the title “Saint.” His sweeping claim of ‘having the mind of Christ’ suggests that Christ is constantly revealing truth to humanity, a grace that allows people to move beyond their passions and their sinfulness. But this revelation can only be discerned if we choose to listen, if we choose to open our ears, if we choose to strive against those things that would keep us as spiritual infants. The Corinthians were not willing to do so. Thus, they remained infants, subsisting on the milk of immature wisdom, unable to really become all that Christ was calling them to be.

When preaching to a church some 300 years after Paul wrote his letter, John Chrysostom remarked, “If jealousy makes people carnal, every one of us ought to be crying out because of our sin and covering ourselves in sackcloth and ashes. Who is not tainted with this? I say this of others only because I know how true it is of me.” That same sentiment carries over to the present age. Like Chrysostom, I know how true it is of me that I choose to sin. Rather than embracing the life, grace, and sanctification set before me, I often choose to remain ‘merely human’, to be eaten up with anger and frustration, to allow sin to cloud my judgment. Thankfully, though, Jesus’ hard words in the Sermon on the Mount offer a counterpoint to a life of death, and a way to un-cloud our judgment. He sets before us a vision of what it means to be a disciple, a vision that “finds its inspiration, its goal and its delight in the perfection of divine goodness”, to use the words of interpreter Stephen Westerholm. “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable for judgment…But I say to you that everyone who looks at a women with lust has already committed adultery…But I say to you, Do not swear at all…let your word be ‘Yes,Yes’ or ‘No, No.”

Jesus shifts the wisdom of the day from adhering to the letter of the law and plants the focus firmly on the intentions and choices of our hearts. So, think with me for a moment. When was the last time you have consciously thought, “I desire to be holier than I was yesterday”? Jesus is saying to those who would listen, including us, that to be a disciple means we must take seriously the desires and impulses of our hearts…that we must examine who we are at the deepest level. So forgetting what has come in the past and what you may have done, are you truly embracing God’s call to be holy? Have I truly embraced God’s call to be holier than I was even yesterday? What’s difficult about Jesus’ language, and Paul’s as well, is that these sermons and writings don’t spell out exactly what we must do to be holy. This isn’t trading one law code for another. Rather, Jesus is conveying a vision, is painting a picture of what it means to live a life of holiness. And this vision can only be embraced by being brutally honest with ourselves. “Do I desire to be holy?”

Yes, the righteousness and holiness of Christ is gifted to us. It isn't something we earn. Even still, we must make the choice to embrace this righteousness. We must choose those things that build us up, that edify our souls, that can open our hearts and minds to the wisdom of Christ that is constantly being showered upon us, yet it remains elusive because we cannot discern its beauty. “If you choose, you can keep the commandments,” says the writer of Ecclesiasticus.” To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whatever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” Indeed we can become something more than ‘merely human’, for the Father has graciously accepted us as living members of his Son our Savior Jesus Christ. We can bear the image of a loving and redeeming God to a broken and bleeding world. But it all begins with a choice to be holy. “Before each person are life and death.” Which will you choose?

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