Archive for July, 2004

Sins: Nailed to the Cross

Sunday, July 25th, 2004
Psalm 85

Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)

Luke 11:1-13

Last Sunday’s sermon was about a very difficult text in Colossians whose point was that the death of Christ Jesus on the cross means that human beings, individually and in our communities, are reconciled to God. The early Christians symbolized this in the imagery of animal and human sacrifice. I apologize for the complexity and far-fetched imagery in that text, and in my sermon. If your eyes glazed over for a bit last week, that is perfectly understandable. A preacher has the duty to deal with the hard texts and you might be comforted to know that I do my duty only rarely.

The texts for today from Colossians and also from Luke follow up on those from last week and are not difficult at all, you will be pleased to know. They have extreme and unusual imagery, but the point is brilliantly clear. Although life has many obstacles and problems, the only thing of ultimate importance that holds us back is our sin. But Jesus Christ has taken away our sin and we are free. Free! Free! And therefore we should ask the most of life, live it to the fullest, and rejoice that because we are related to Jesus the fullness of God is all around us.

Today’s text from Colossians begins by enjoining us to live with devoted thanksgiving in the Christian faith. It warns us not to be taken captive by the deceitful philosophies of the pagan religions devoted to what the author calls “the elemental spirits of the universe.” In the first century people believed that the universe was populated not only by the different kinds of angels I mentioned last week, the “thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers,” but also by many other kinds of spiritual forces, some of which are demonic. The early Christians interpreted the pagan religions to worship one or more of these forces, and rejected all such paganism in favor of the worship of the High God, the Creator of all the universe including invisible spirits, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was revealed in Christ.

We twenty first century people who worship in a university church are not likely to be tempted by first-century paganism, although we should not forget that many of our sisters and brothers in other lands do live very much in a world they see to be populated by spirits of all sorts. Our own brand of false worship is more likely to be devoted to what contemporary cynics say are elemental spirits.

The cynics among us say that power is our greatest desire, however we try hypocritically to be humble: so go after power honestly and ruthlessly. The cynics among us say that political dominance is the real goal of international politics, however we try hypocritically to represent ourselves as peacemakers, so go after dominance honestly and with all the might at our disposal. The cynics among us say that greed is the real underlying motive of all action, however we try hypocritically to represent ourselves as generous, so go after all we can get by any means we can get away with. These and other elemental forces in human society can become objects of worship, and the cynical people say to be honest about that. The Christian gospel says, No. Like the spirits created by God according to the first century belief, power, political strength, and enjoyment of possessions are good things in their places, even necessary; but they cannot be worshipped without displacing worship of the true God. Give them up, says Colossians, and don’t be deceived by the cynical philosophies.

Of course, giving up worship of such idols of our age is not easy. Part of the meaning of original sin is that we are committed to them and to the social structures that they rule, whether we consciously want to be or not. But Hallelujah! We are freed from bondage to sin. As Colossians put it in a striking metaphor, we are spiritually circumcised with Christ and have put on his spiritual flesh. Circumcision, you know, was the symbolic rite given to Abraham and his descendents that made them God’s people and the heirs of God’s promise to make them flourish. Spiritual circumcision makes us God’s people and heirs to God’s promise to bring us close to him. Spiritual circumcision means that all of us, Gentiles and Jews, are God’s people. Christians carry the flesh of Christ on their bones.

Then Colossians has an even more powerful image. It says that Jesus’ baptism was like his dying. To go down into the water is to die. When we Christians are baptized, as young Naomi Fassil will be this morning, this is like dying to our sins. We lose the flesh of sin. When Jesus rose up out of the baptismal water, this was like his rising from the dead. And so with us: when we rise from baptism we are already resurrected from sin and living with God. This is a different theology of baptism from that which says it is a bath that cleanses us from sins. It is more than being just an initiation rite into the Christian community. Rather, Colossians says that baptism is the rite of death and resurrection. The third chapter goes on to say that we, or at least the Christians in Colossae, have already died, spiritually, and are already raised with Christ in heaven. We are also living here in history, even while we “have been raised with Christ,” and therefore we should “set our minds on things that are above.” We should get our act together, put to death the practice of earthly evils. Colossians says

But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Colossians 3:8-11)

Baptism gives us a whole new self, and we have to learn how to live with that self in holy ways. What about the sins of our old self? They are “nailed to the cross!” We still have all the problems of life, of course, and we will sin in the future; but we are enjoying our true identity in heaven already, right now, we do not stumble on those problems because of our sins. They are nailed to the cross. Our old sinful habits of addiction to power, dominance, greed, deceit and countless other things might still be strong, but they do not control us because our sins are nailed to the cross. Colossians tells us that in baptism we have already undergone death, and with that our sins and their due punishment are nailed to the cross. We have already undergone resurrection with Christ, and so we should live as already resurrected people. What strange and yet powerful good news!

This theology of salvation is different from St. Paul’s, which says that we struggle through this life until we are saved at the end of it in a future resurrection when Jesus comes again. The problem with Paul’s theology of salvation is that Jesus did not come soon as he expected, and despite Paul’s claim that we have grace to live new lives now he is easily interpreted to mean that present life is just a holding action until some future time. Paul’s phrase is that we are “walking between the times.” Justification by faith alone, one of Paul’s famous doctrines, has been interpreted to mean that if we just believe, God will take care of us later. Colossians’ theology says that we are already raised and live in the presence of God with Christ, and that life on earth is the very important task of sanctification, living in holy ways. Sanctification, for Colossians, is not earning salvation: we already have salvation in the baptismal form of death to our sins and resurrection to new life. S
anctification is the perfection of how to live in this world as holy people. The injustices of this world are a hundred times more horrific to us now, because we see them as infections of a world that should be sanctified. Addressing them cannot be put off until some future salvation. The Letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel and Letters of John agree with Colossians, as does the Methodist tradition on which this university and its chapel are based.

How should we live as holy people, already enjoying God’s salvation and learning to live worthy of it in our daily lives? How should we live the life of renewal of the new self? Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer quotes Jesus saying that we should pray regularly to God as the hallowed or holy one whose holiness we approach. We should pray that Earthly life be made like God’s perfect kingdom. From this comes our commitment to justice. We should pray for continued forgiveness of sins we might commit as we too forgive those who sin against us. We should pray that we not fall into special trials or temptations, as these shall surely arise in daily life. Moreover, Jesus goes on to say, in Luke’s account, that we should demand of the world the resources to be generous, like the man who pounded on his neighbor’s door to borrow bread to entertain his visitors. Be persistent, said Jesus, in working for the resources to be generous. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Of course this does not happen every time, as the crucified One came to know from personal experience. Sometimes our parents, or our communities, do give us snakes instead of fish, scorpions instead of eggs. But by and large God is generous and we should look for grace in abundance as resurrected members of God’s household. According to Luke, Jesus did not say that God will give us fish and eggs. Rather he said that God would “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” The Holy Spirit is far more precious than food.

How should we live our daily lives as people who have gone down to death with Christ and risen with him? We should live in the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit that surrounds us and is available for the asking. The Spirit is in the hands of friends who help us. The Spirit is in the face of strangers who wake us to our new selves and to new duties. The Spirit is in the arms of Christians gathered to comfort and strengthen one another. The Spirit is in the words of scripture, in literature that penetrates the ambiguities of life, in poetry that takes us to the heights and depths. The Spirit takes some form in every case of our need when we attempt to sanctify the lives we lead.

We are about to sing a wonderful old hymn about being in the resurrected state right now: “It Is Well with My Soul.” When sorrows in this life roll like billows of the sea, the Spirit is peace like a river that carries us through. When temptations come, as surely they will, when it seems as if the evil and injustice against which we contend has Satanic force, the Spirit assures us that Jesus has come through it all before us. Remember the great line, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”

My friends, as we are about to baptize Naomi Fassil and welcome her into the household of faith, let us be reminded that this is not only a rite of initiation. Nor is it only a symbolic washing away of personal sins—Naomi is far to young to need that kind of bath, and many of us were baptized long before we were old enough to have mastered the art of sinning boldly. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, he went down into the waters of the primal creation, the voice of God spoke his approval, and the spirit of God descended, just as at the original creation. Jesus rose from his baptism a new person, like a second creation. Let us be reminded today that baptism means that we also have conquered death and come into resurrection. Let us welcome Naomi and live with her the lives of resurrected and holy people. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Christ the Image of the Invisible God

Sunday, July 18th, 2004
Colossians 1:15-28

Luke 10:38-42

We Christians relate to God by relating to Jesus Christ. Of course, Christians share many things with people of other religions, for instance a commitment to ethical life, a love of justice and peace, a reverence for holy people and places, and awe at the majesty of what is most ultimate, known as God in the language of monotheisms but going by other names in other religions. What makes Christians different, and what distinctly shapes our approach to ethics, justice and peace, reverence, and awe, is our relation to Jesus Christ. According to St. Paul, Christians are supposed to be “in Christ,” although he had difficulty saying what that meant.

Our two texts today present very different images of Jesus Christ. The Gospel from Luke shows Jesus as a teacher in the intimate setting of a dinner party. The texts from Luke for the last several weeks have presented various other settings for Jesus as the herald of the kingdom of God and the healer. Last week’s text showed Jesus talking with a lawyer about eternal life, with Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan. This text is set in the home of Mary and Martha. We know them much more fully from the Gospel of John in which they are shown as having a long and intimate friendship with Jesus. They were a well-to-do family in Bethany, near Jerusalem, where Jesus spent a lot of time. John tells of Jesus raising their brother Lazarus from the dead, which was both Jesus’ most important miracle, according to John, and also the reason why the authorities became concerned about Jesus and resolved to put him to death. The household of Mary and Martha was very important for Jesus.

The incident in our text contrasts their characters in ways that have become almost clichés in Christian preaching: Mary is spiritual while Martha is practical. It was Martha who issued the dinner invitation and prepared the banquet, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as a disciple. You doubtless have heard sermons about these two personality types for Christian women, the pillar of the church who cooks the meals and the devotee who reads spiritual books all day. Both are approved, although Jesus was a bit annoyed that Martha was making such a fuss, possibly because she wanted more attention. She also seemed a bit jealous of the attention Mary was getting as a Jesus-freak. Jesus’ response was to say that one dish would be plenty for the dinner and that she did not have to serve up a banquet.

What is important about this story is not anything that Jesus was teaching; his remarks are not recorded, although Luke does quote Jesus’ teachings in many other passages. What is important is his personality, the way he handled the touchy relations between the sisters. He had great affection for them both and was able to give Martha credit as his senior hostess and cook while also saying that she did not have to work so hard. He did not say that doe-eyed discipleship is more important than hospitality, only that hospitality can be kept in due proportion. He comforted Martha about her excessive worries and distractions. This is not Jesus the charismatic teacher or magical healer. This is Jesus the very human and hungry friend who adjusts and perfects the way people around him exercise love.

Compare this presentation of Jesus—it’s not even fitting to attach the title “Christ” to him in this vignette—with the text from Colossians. Colossians is what theologians call “high Christology,” focusing on the divinity of Christ. Our passage does not use the personal name “Jesus,” although Colossians elsewhere uses the phrase “Christ Jesus.” The first thing our passage does is to call attention to the distinction between the invisible God and Christ as its image. “Invisible” as applied to God in the first century does not mean only that God cannot be seen because of being an immaterial spirit. It means rather that God is so high above human comprehension and categories that nothing can describe God directly. John says (1:18) that no one has ever seen God, which is a change from claims in Exodus that Moses and others saw God; by Jesus’ time, people understood God as so high as to be the creator of everything that can be imagined at all. As our Colossians text puts it, God created all things visible and invisible in the sense of being spiritual, and therefore is above them. To say that Christ is the image of this High God is to say that he is the first thing that can be known and described about the unimaginable God. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, and the author of Hebrews, in the first chapter, also say that Christ is the image of God in this sense.

Colossians says that Christ provides an image by which we can grasp the unimaginable God, because Christ is the firstborn of all creation. Christ is the first creature who then becomes the means by which all other creatures come to be. “[F]or in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.” “ Thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers” are various ranks of angels, invisible spirits, according to the first century belief. The idea of Christ as the one who is “before all things” and in whom “all things hold together,” is like the idea of Logos at the beginning of the Gospel of John, a primordial structure and power by means of which all the world is created. In John, the suggestion is that the Logos is a companion to God the creator. Colossians is plain that Christ is the first creature, subordinate to God yet prior to all else.

Later theologians in Western Christianity would side with John, interpreting him to mean that the Logos is equal to God, and is fully a part of Trinitarian divinity. Theologians in Easter Orthodox Christianity would keep the emphasis on subordination in Colossians, emphasizing that the Son is begotten by the Father and that this is not a reciprocal relation. However we line up with that later dispute, Colossians says that we understand the incomprehensible God by understanding Christ.

What is it that we understand of Christ? First, as mentioned, that Christ is the structure through which all other things are created. Second, Colossians says that Christ is the head of the Church and likens the Church to the body of Christ. Because the Church is supposed to be the body that properly worships God, Christ is the Head that directs that worship: we should worship God as Christ says to worship and comport ourselves ethically in God’s kingdom according to the model of Christ our Head. Third, Colossians says that Christ is not only the firstborn of all creation but the firstborn of the dead, the first to be raised. Here the text is clearly talking about Christ Jesus, the man, whom the Christians knew to have been crucified and raised from the dead. Thus, as image of God, we understand Christ Jesus to reveal God as not only creator but as redeemer. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” which is to say that everything divine that can fit into a human being fit into Jesus, and by relating to the person of Jesus we find the redeeming Creator.

Now I know this high Christology is complicated, working with symbols that seem strange and unintelligible in our culture. But please bear with the argument in Colossians for a few more minutes. The text characterizes the ordinary state of human beings as estranged from God and hostile in mind: this is the human predicament from which salvation must rescue us. We are estranged and hostile. God reconciles us to himself, says Colossians, “by making peace through the blood of [Christ’s] cross.” The reference here is to the institution of ritual sacrifice in Israelite religion. According to Leviticus as well as Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, Israel was a holy nation that could present
itself blameless and irreproachable to God so long as it kept the covenant. But when the covenant was broken in any way, large or small, the people had to sacrifice something to God, grain or an animal, in order to repair their holiness and ability to approach God. God in the Torah instituted the sacrifice rituals as means to repair the covenant, because God knew the covenant would be impossible for people. God’s mercy provided a ready remedy.

Christians interpreted human sin as so great as not to be repairable by any sacrifice of grain or animals. So just as God had earlier provided the rituals for sacrificial repair of the covenant, now God provides Christ the firstborn of all creation as himself the sacrifice that once again reconciles human beings to God.

The idea that a sacrifice can reconcile estranged and hostile parties is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. We are very far from the Levitical sensibilities of the ancient world. Yet we do understand something of Colossians’ argument: it was human beings who were estranged from and hostile to God—God was not estranged and hostile, according to our text. So God sent that which is most precious, the firstborn of creation, as a sacrifice to call us back from estrangement and hostility, and that in the form of the man Jesus who had to be crucified. Because of that sacrifice we have a fresh start, and never again does the sacrifice have to be made no matter what evil we do.

You might ask how we can tolerate these images of blood sacrifice. They were commonplace for first century Christians but are gross for us. Yet there is something in human evil, something in the evil of natural suffering and the deep injustice of the institutions on which we have built our society that is even more gross. The blood guilt we bear for what it costs the Earth for us to live, for the harm we do one another, for the repressions built into civilization even at its best, calls for blood sacrifice. This is only a symbol, a symbol used by the early Christians to understand the crucifixion of Jesus. But we cannot do with a less powerful symbol. Christ the symbol of God reveals God as the creator whose love accepts blood guilt and reconciles us even when we are estranged and hostile. That symbol cleanses our hearts and directs our faith even when we cannot take it literally.

The practical question for contemporary Christians is how we can relate to Jesus Christ whose blood bought us redemption, knowing how alien these symbols are. I believe we need to understand first that wise and loving Jesus who traveled about teaching that we always live in the sight of God, that we are in God’s kingdom whether we know it or not, and that what counts in God’s kingdom is our practice of love. The teaching is important, but the person who taught it is the more important to know, the friend so kind as to straighten out Martha and Mary. The Bible gives us much to work around in our imagination as we think about this Jesus who would be our friend too. Can we imagine Jesus gently correcting our faults as he did Martha’s? To be related to Jesus as his friends, and to him as our friend, is the first step in relation.

The second is to see God in Jesus, who is his primary image. God is humble, like Jesus, condescending to heal our little estrangements and hostilities as Jesus healed Martha’s. Yet the savagery of nature’s indifference to suffering, the outrage of death, the depths of greed, and the perverse human pleasure in causing pain constitute an evil strain in creation so profound that a simple teacher’s love cannot heal it. We need to symbolize the extremity of God’s love with the savagery of the crucifixion’s blood sacrifice if we are to recognize what needs healing. So it is Christ Jesus crucified that lets us engage the High God whose redeeming power is equal to creation’s need. And it is Christ Jesus the firstborn of the dead who leads us to live before God as redeemed and renewed persons.

Only through such powerful symbols can we admit the problem and embrace the cosmic power of the answer. These symbols allow us to engage the problem honestly and to engage God as imaged by Christ Jesus. Even if the symbol of blood sacrifice cannot be tolerated as a literal explanation of redemptive history, only that image can engage us with the unimaginable God so that we see the seriousness of creation’s redemption of which we are a part. Only when we live in Christ Jesus, firstborn of all creation and friend of Mary and Martha, can we let God’s cosmic love seep into our bones and sinews to heal estrangement and hostility, and finally make us lovers. Only then can we envision the invisible God in the person of Christ Jesus, our lover and beloved, pioneer of our faith. We are grateful for people who can accept these symbols naively. We praise God that we can see the symbols broken and yet also live by them to engage our Creator and redeemer. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Samaritans and Other Aliens

Sunday, July 11th, 2004
Amos 7:7-17

Luke 10:25-37

In one of the most arresting images in biblical literature, Amos says that God stands in the midst of the people with a plumb line. Builders use a string with a weight on the bottom, a plumb line, to determine whether a wall is vertical and straight. Less subjective than eyeballing the wall, and governed by the cosmic force of gravity, a plumb line is an absolute measure. God stands in the midst of the people with an absolute measure for their deeds, and Amos quotes God saying that because of this measure he would destroy both the religious and political establishment of Israel. Amos does not say God is thinking about destroying Israel—he is going to do this. God is not into tough love, for Amos. Justice is the order of the day.

We do not like this harsh “Old Testament” God, believing as most of us do that God is loving, rather the way we dream our mothers were loving. Often we think, or hope, that divine judgment is nothing but God’s efforts to get us to do better. Yet there is something very important in the plumb line image. Who and what we are before God is our absolute identity. No excuses. No extenuating circumstances. No promises of doing better tomorrow. Moreover, divine judgment is not something to come later, postponed by a long life. As Amos says, God is even now holding the plumb line in the midst of the people. We live before God absolutely every day of our lives, whether we know it or not. One of the earliest heresies in Christianity, call Marcionism after its founder Marcion, said that the harsh God of the Old Testament was evil and that Christian should believe only in the SuperLoving HighGod. Marcionism was quickly condemned, however difficult it was for Christians to reconcile the God of judgment with the God of Love.

A profound reason exists to pay attention to the God with the plumb line. Unless we are held responsible in an absolute sense for who and what we are, we have no self, as our colleague Peter Berger would say. If we relativize ourselves with excuses from the past, or promises for the future, we ourselves turn out to be personally absent. Our moral self reduces to the conditions within which we live, the influences of others upon us, and the limitations of our bodies. Although of course, we live within such conditions, influences, and limitations, our moral selves consist in what we make of them. Our moral selves develop through time, maturing from childhood, with many starts and stops, with repentance and promise of doing better. Yet who we are at any time, indeed who we are over our lifetime, is what we make of ourselves within the conditions, influences, and limitations given us. This is our true self, our true identity, our soul, and we comprehend this only when we imagine standing in absolute perspective before God, who is in our midst with the plumb line.

The Christian gospel is that divine judgment is not the whole of the story, and it is not the whole story for Amos and Judaism: the God of justice is also the God of mercy. Among the most important elements in the development of a moral self are the occasions in which we respond with repentance before God and with gratitude for mercy. Sometimes we imagine God to be in time because our true selves develop in interaction with the ultimate divine perspective. Yet imagining God to be temporal, to be a being within time, always runs the risk of domesticating the eternal majesty of the God who creates time itself. The true absolutely ultimate God before whom we become our true selves is the eternal God within whose plenitude we live as temporal beings with eternal life.

Jesus was asked, according to Luke, what one must do to inherit eternal life. He did not answer with a metaphysical discourse on the eternal God, which you were afraid I was about to inflict upon you. Rather, Jesus turned the question: What does it say in the Bible? The questioner, a lawyer, answered by citing the line from Deuteronomy 4 that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, combining this with the line from Leviticus 19 that you should love your neighbor as your self. “Right,” said Jesus. When Matthew and Mark tell this story, they put the lines from scripture in Jesus’ mouth, not that of the lawyer. It must have been Jesus’ central teaching about the law and justice.

According to Luke, the lawyer did not let the matter lie, but questioned Jesus about who his neighbor was. Commentators suggest that he meant to limit his liability by circumscribing those who counted as neighbors. Jesus responded with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. A man was badly mugged while traveling to Jericho and was left by the side of the road. Two religious people came by, a priest and a Levite, who had religious responsibilities to all the people of Israel. They did not want to get involved and passed by on the other side of the road. A Samaritan came by who pitied the man, took him to a hotel, tended his wounds, and said he would pay for the man’s recovery. The lawyer, when questioned, said it was the Samaritan who had been the neighbor, and Jesus “said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

Jesus’ point, of course, was that the people with the ethnic and religious obligation to the victim were not real neighbors. The real neighbor was the Samaritan who was ethnically as well as religiously alien. In fact, relations between Jews and Samaritans were worse than alienated, they were hostile. Athough he was himself an observant Jew, Jesus had little patience with ethnic or religious differences. As Luke pointed out in the text for last week, Jesus took his mission to Samaritan as well as Jewish towns. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman, which was forbidden, offered her the water of life, and told her that religious differences make no difference when God is worshipped in spirit and in truth. Jesus healed Canaanites and Romans also. Although he was slow to come to this conclusion, ethnic and religious identities did not count.

What counted for Jesus is loving people. St. Paul in Romans 13 and again in Galatians 5 says that loving neighbor as self sums up all the law. The epistle of James says the same thing. The Gospel of John does not cite the line about loving neighbors from Leviticus, but it argues even more forcefully that Jesus’ work and identity was to teach people to love one another despite difference that would justify indifference or hate. Love is the very center of the Christian gospel, and it was recognized as such from Jesus’ time down to today.

With respect to divine judgment, then, the inference seems clear. What is the plumb line by which we are judged? For Amos, it was the law, and for Jesus and the Christians it was love as the summary of the law. In fact, where law means social and religious patterns that distinguish one group from another, as was clearly the case in much of the Torah, love trumps those differences. Jesus relativized the law, in the sense of religious patterns, to faithfulness to love.

Who are we before God? We essentially are lovers, good lovers or bad lovers. People who do not make lovers of themselves in the midst of the conditions, influences, and limitations of life have no self. No soul. Actually, that cannot be quite right. Everyone is held responsible in ultimate perspective, even if people utterly fail at responsibility. So we should say that everyone has a self or soul: the worry is whether it is happily loving or wretched, blessed or damned. Our eternal life depends on how we are lovers, said Jesus.

To love our own kind is easy, especially when they love us back. The Samaritans and other aliens teach us to love in the hard cases. Like the Good Samaritan, truly responsible lovers are those whose love extends to thos
e who are alien to them, especially those whom others have failed to love. We learn the hard lessons of love when aliens, from whom we should expect indifference or hate, love us instead. Thank God for aliens!

Now according to Jesus, we are to love God, as well as neighbors, with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Who, for us, is more alien than God? How can we love the eternal creator whose plumb line holds us in judgment? How can we love the creator who gives us conditions of life filled with war and poverty, influences from people who would warp the soul, limitations of disease and death, all the ambiguities of the sometimes fell environment from which we present ourselves to God?

Some people say we love in trade. Because God loves us, we love God. Yet God’s ordinary treatment of human kind is very mixed, loving benefits yes, but also indifference and sometimes hateful punishment. We can no more liken God’s true love as creator to a human lover, such as the Good Samaritan, than we can think of God’s eternity as the time of a dialogue partner. How hard it is for us to appreciate that even the hardships, suffering, and death of life, especially innocent life, are the creatures of a loving creator! Yet there is some sublime loveliness in the Creator that transfigures all these considerations. The one who holds the plumb line and calls us to account can become our beloved. We do not love God by willing to do so. What we will is that God help us. Yet by learning to love the unlovely among our neighbors, we can attain that integrity of self, that maturity of soul, which lets us take God as our lover.

Charles Albert Tindley, the great African-American hymn-writer, understood this subtle transformation: we begin by crying to God for help and end up becoming God’s lover when help fails. We’ll shortly sing his extraordinary hymn, Stand by Me. It starts with nature’s brute forces: “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.” It moves to human struggle: “In the midst of tribulation, stand by me. In the midst of tribulation, stand by me. When the host of hell assail, and my strength begins to fail, thou who never lost a battle, stand by me.” Then to personal failings: “In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I’ve done the best I can, and my friends misunderstand, thou who knowest all about me, stand by me.” Then oppression and enmity: “In the midst of persecution, stand by me. In the midst of persecution, stand by me. When my foes in war array undertake to stop my way, thou who saved Paul and Silas, stand by me.” Tindley knew that God does not calm all seas, protect us from all defeat, reverse our failures, or give us all victories. The most fortunate among us just get old. Verse five says: “When I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me; when I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me. When my life becomes a burden, and I’m nearing chilly Jordan, O thou Lily of the Valley, stand by me.” Readers of the Song of Solomon know that the Lily of the Valley is the beloved, not a champion, but the beloved. Somehow Tindley moved from demanding that God behave like a Good Samaritan to singing that God, his Beloved, receive his love. To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength is to be able to take God as our lover. As we come closer to the Lily of the Valley, we also embrace the plumb line in our midst. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

God Is Not Mocked

Sunday, July 4th, 2004
2 Kings 5:1-14

Galatians 6:7-16

Luke 10:1-12

For Americans the Fourth of July is a quasi-religious holiday, something scholars call a function of our “civil religion.” Civil religion is the set of practices that articulate the basic values of our national life that derive from religious sources. Thanksgiving is the other great American civil religious holiday, and it celebrates gratitude. Memorial Day is a lesser civil holiday celebrating military sacrifice, and Labor Day, also a lesser civil religious holiday, celebrating working class people in democracy.

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom in two senses, first, independence from foreign domination and, second, self-determination of national life so as to foster individual freedom and to welcome of all kinds of people into citizenship. The Fourth of July is the most important of our civil religious holidays in that it rehearses those ideals in America’s mythic self-understanding by virtue of which we think America is an exception to the usual course of nations. American exceptionalism is much justified in that this was the first modern democracy to be successful, the most pluralistic of cultures that still is united under the rule of law, the most vigorous and inventive economy in the world to have grown through a century of turmoil, and the safest place for preachers such as myself to point out the religious improbity of the government without fear of retribution. To take St. Paul’s line, that you reap what you sow, the successes of American exceptionalism reap the good seed sown by the Revolutionary Patriots.

My question for the day is, What is the Christian Gospel, not the civil gospel, relative to this Fourth of July? The question is complicated by the fact that for many people, here and abroad, the United States currently plays a role more like the British in our revolution than like the colonists. It is our troops and mercenaries that occupy nations that did not attack us, our troops who are ambushed in out of the way places like Lexington and Concord, our troops who will be remembered for bombing wedding parties and killing women and children, our troops who are opposed by guerillas fighting for God and country. Like the British in the late eighteenth century our motives for foreign wars seem to be a combination of righteous desire to advance proper democracy, as opposed to the French kind (if I may make a bad joke about the revolutionary conflict), and an imperial desire to establish a world economic order that works to the benefit of our economic elites.

Of course our current situation is much more complicated than this, and events can be read many ways. Nevertheless, like the British in the eighteenth century, our policies now seem to be driven by the thinking of Empire, with both benevolent and malevolent motives. The benevolent motives have to do with imposing the grand values defining American exceptionalism on other peoples regardless of their own cultures of conflicting values. The malevolent ones have to do with reducing freedom to the freedom to pursue avarice. To much of the Muslim world, American freedom and democracy mean only those social forms that foster greed, with no transcendent moral principles whatsoever. However ignorant that view might be of the complexities of religious values in American history, it does point out that for a great many American colonists other than the Founding Fathers in July, 1776, economic promise was the most important motive for seeking independence from Britain and a representative government. The avarice sown in the American dream of independence is being reaped today in the enormous human and financial costs required to sustain empire. It seems that only the oligarchs are getting rich.

So what is the Christian Gospel for Americans on this holiday? Luke tells of Jesus sending seventy of his disciples to all the towns he himself intended to visit. They were to be something like advance teams, of two people each, who would heal the sick and say that God was near and Jesus was coming, which might be the same thing. In the previous chapter Jesus had sent his intimate group of twelve disciples on a similar mission, promising them the power to heal and cast out demons. He did not promise the same power to the seventy, but they received and exercised it anyway. We Christians, like the seventy, are commissioned to go out into the world to heal, which means also peacemaking, and to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, that is, that we live and are judged in the perspective of God. This is a crucial part of our Gospel for today.

A strange part of Jesus’ instructions to both groups of disciples was that they should go into a town and simply preach and heal. If someone accepts and hosts them, fine; if not, they should shake the dust of that town off their feet and go on to the next. Evangelistic success is not the point: presenting God’s word and power is the point. Behind this, however, is the fact that the villages included Samaritan and Canaanite communities as well as Jewish ones. Last week’s gospel told of Jesus leaving a Samaritan community in a hurry because they objected to his orientation to Jerusalem—the Samaritans rejected worship at the Temple in Jerusalem in favor of worship on their mountain. The point is that Jesus sent his disciples to all the villages, not just the Jewish ones where they had a religious connection; this was in contrast to Jesus’ earlier stance that he was sent only to the House of Israel. I take this to mean that in our own Christian mission of healing, including peacemaking, and preaching the presence of God, we should be true first to the message and mission, not to taking care of our own people first.

This is a hard lesson, that we Christians should be in solidarity with Christians all over the world who heal and preach the presence of God before we are in solidarity with our national identity as Americans. Surely American Christians have great resources for healing and should deploy these all over the world, especially in poorer countries. Moreover, American Christians have an extraordinary peacemaking role in Iraq and Afghanistan. In no way does this mean that American Christians should interfere with the Iraqis’ and Afghans’ own efforts to establish a self-determining and efficient government—indeed peacemaking means getting out of their way, and supporting their efforts as they see fit. Our prayers today should be long and fervent for the new Iraqi government. As to preaching the proximity of the kingdom of God, I do not suggest that we or Christians anywhere try to convert Muslims to Christianity. Jesus had no conception of supporting one religion against others. He told the Samaritan woman at the well that the worship of God in spirit and in truth would transcend religious differences. Nevertheless Christians can testify to the critical presence of God by honoring the devotion of Muslims and by silently witnessing to the contradiction between God’s peace on the one hand and the slaughter of innocents in terrorism and the beheading of kidnapped people for propaganda gain. The most powerful Christian testimony for the Muslim world would be a direct criticism of the contradiction between Christian values and the brutality of empire.

This might be the hardest part of Jesus’ commission to us, his disciples: to shake the dust off our feet when our own American towns and institutions reject the humility of healing and peace, and the testimony that we stand in God’s presence. How hard it must have been for the seventy abruptly to leave their own hometowns when they were not honored as prophets within it!

Jesus’ instructions make the Gospel particularly difficult for American Christians today. It is tempting in our purist moments t
o identify only with Christians around the world and forsake any special identification with America. Some of our more radical brothers and sisters do just this. Nevertheless, Christians who are Americans have special responsibilities for their democratic participation in American politics. We should insist that the Christian commitments to peace, justice, and kindness trump every other political motive in laws and policies where these are at stake. But political matters are devilishly complicated. Rarely are things as they seem. Ideological simplifications are the work of the devil. Political sound-bites are Satan’s syllables. Christians ought not abstract themselves from politics for the sake of a pure gospel; we should immerse ourselves in politics so as to think through the political ambiguities and complexities to how the Gospel can be embodied.

Nothing in politics is of ultimate significance. Nothing political is a divine call. This is why civil religion is only a quasi-religion: sometimes it goes sour to give ultimate sanctions to non-ultimate projects, which is demonic. To identify patriotism with religion is idolatry. Nevertheless, how we immerse ourselves in public life, including politics, is of very ultimate significance for our identity and service. It is how we present ourselves to God. Or as Jesus put it, God is coming and so get ready.

Paul noted in the text from Galatians that God is not mocked. We mock God when we claim divine sanction for some political purpose. We mock God just as much when we withdraw from politics in the name of religious transcendence of conflict. Although Jesus announced that God’s kingdom was at hand, he sent the disciples, and went himself, to witness to that. American Christians can celebrate the Fourth of July, 2004, by committing our political lives to discerning what to do to embody peace, justice, and kindness as ways to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. I commend to you that political engagement, which makes love of country a function of love of God.

As a final point, you all must have noticed that Jesus instructed his disciples to take no provisions, extra clothes, or money. They were to rely on the chance hospitality of the world to which they ministered. Jesus’ point, I believe, was to warn the disciples not to think that making elaborate preparations would guarantee success. No matter how well we provision ourselves for ministry, the world will take what it will take and reject the rest. The surprise of the disciples was that, even though they had no expectations and were ready to move on if things did not go well, the demons fell before them. May we live in hope that peace, justice, and kindness are possible for our world. But let us also know that such worldly success is not the last word: Jesus’ orientation to Jerusalem got him killed.

The ascetic approach to ministry Jesus advocated sometimes might put us in the position of hungry beggars. Not everyone is lucky in hospitality. Nevertheless Jesus provided the disciples, and us, with a meal that is all-sustaining. Here is the water of life and the cup of salvation. Here is the body of Christ that becomes our body. I invite you to join in the patriotic celebration of God’s kingdom. I invite you to the table for the only provision that counts for the Christian journey. Come, let us give thanks and enter into the presence of Jesus. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville