Sermon delivered on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church’s annual dedication festival.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, strongly encouraged in this case and usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 1 Chronicles 29.6-19; Psalm 122.1-9; Ephesians 2.19-22; Matthew 21.12-16.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the founding of our parish. We’ve chosen today because while we officially launched on Easter Sunday, 2012, we transferred our dedication festival to the Sunday closest to August 28, the Feast Day of Augustine of Hippo, our patron saint. Given that our focus is on our parish, I want to remind us what we are all about.
I hope all of you know our mission statement is, “Changed by God to make a difference for God.” But what does that mean? What does that look like for us on the ground? To be changed by God means that first and foremost we realize the hopeless and bleak situation we as fallen human beings are in without God’s help. As David reminds us in our OT lesson this morning, left to our own devices we are aliens and transients before God who are utterly alienated and at war with God because of our unwillingness to act like his image-bearing human creatures. Instead we want to act like gods in our own right and as a result we cut ourselves off from our one and only Source of life. This means, of course, that death is our common destiny. Or as David observes, our days on earth are like a shadow and there is no hope because we are utterly and thoroughly infected with sin-sickness and there is no human remedy for it.
We don’t like to talk about this, in part, because in our human pride and arrogance we like to think we really aren’t part of the problem or that we have the ability to fix ourselves. But it is the consistent testimony of Scripture, confirmed by real life experience, that this kind of thinking is both delusional and a lie. Our sin-sickness and God’s awful judgment on it has brought all kinds of disaster to God’s good and beautiful creation as well as terrible suffering to humans and animals alike. This is why we can look around God’s world and see simultaneously breathtaking beauty in nature and human relationships and gut-wrenching ugliness in the same arenas. So being made ready to be changed by God means that we must be willing to call a spade a spade and acknowledge where the real problem lies—in us and our sin-sickness, not in God’s goodness or in his reaction to our sin-sickness, and this takes humility on our part.
When we have the God-given humility (and wisdom) to acknowledge that we are the problem and the good sense to listen to our restless hearts as they cry out for us to reconnect with God the Father who created us in his image to be faithful stewards of his good creation, this makes us ready to hear the Good News of God’s rescue plan in Jesus. And God in his mercy will grant our deepest desires to be restored to him.
This plan, of course, entailed God calling a people to be his own to offer God’s blessing and healing to the rest of his good world gone bad. This people came to be known as Israel and as God’s rescue plan unfolded, God revealed to us that the true Israel would be the ones who gave their ultimate loyalty and lives to the only true Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, imitating him in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Paul proclaims boldly in our epistle lesson, it is because of Jesus of Nazareth that we are no longer strangers and aliens before God as David had rightly observed. We no longer labor under that status because of the cross of Christ. As Paul and the other NT writers state elsewhere, on the cross God the Son brought healing and reconciliation between God the Father and his rebellious human creatures. In Jesus’ blood shed for us, God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son so that there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. This means that while we all must die a mortal death because we all still live under God’s curse, our final destiny is not death but life.
We know this to be true because we believe that God really did raise Jesus from the dead to conquer death and to give us a foretaste of our future as citizens in God’s promised new creation, the time when God will bring to completion his promises to us to heal and restore his good creation gone bad. Only then will we be fully healed, but O what a healing it will be! So the curse has been broken by God himself on the cross of Jesus (thus the promised new creation) and our future life living directly in God’s presence as God’s fully healed and redeemed creatures has been revealed to us in Jesus’ resurrection, at least in part.
This is the Good News that our restless hearts have been yearning for because without the cross, for God to break the power of evil and finally destroy it, God would have to destroy each one of us because each one of us has good and evil in us. The life-saving power of the cross is a radical act of love on God’s part as well as his free gift offered to us precisely because God loves each of us radically and wants us to share in his life. When we fully embrace this gift and appropriate it into our lives, we cannot help but be changed by it, and for the good. Without the cross we are ruined and without hope. With the cross we are healed and find our ultimate hope.
This is what Paul meant when he talked about Jesus being the cornerstone of the Church. Paul saw that our new life in Christ is meant to be lived together as a community of believers who live radically different lifestyles from the rest of the world. We are living stones, part of an organic church, and not a building. As both Paul and Jesus indicate in our epistle and gospel lessons, we don’t need to go to a Temple to find or worship God because we can find and worship God in Jesus and enjoy new life in him when we gather together as his people. And because we are called to live and work and have our being in Jesus, we are the new Israel, grafted into the old Israel as followers of Jesus the Messiah whom God will use to help heal and rescue his world. And here we turn our attention to what it means to make a difference for God.
As we have seen, we have been rescued from evil, sin, and death by Jesus’ costly act on the cross. But this begs the question: rescued for what? We are saved (healed) so that our Lord can use us to be his kingdom workers who build on the foundation of his rescue of us and God’s world in and through his death and resurrection. As our Lord made clear in many of his parables, the kingdom comes gradually and inconspicuously, at least until he returns in great power and glory to finish the work he started in his mortal days. Until then we are to learn how to imitate our Lord so that he can use us to help build his kingdom. We do that best when we are filled with his Spirit and equipped to embody his love to all, even our enemies, and to proclaim his gospel to all, whether they want to hear it or not. And we do this work together as Christ’s body, the Church, because God calls us to live our healed and redeemed lives together as his reconstituted family living under the authority of King Jesus our Lord and Savior.
To live our lives in this manner means we must be intimately familiar with the story of God’s rescue plan and to trust its authority as God’s word to us today. We can only do that if we learn how to read the book for what it tells us, not what we think it says or should say. For example, how many of you recognized that Jesus quoted Psalm 8.2 in our gospel lesson today? Psalm 8 is a classic Messianic psalm and in telling us Jesus quoted it, Matthew clearly wants us to see that Jesus is proclaiming he is indeed the promised Messiah, not that he is uttering some weird gobbledegook that we can safely ignore. We won’t pick that up in the text unless we first recognize the text to be from a specific psalm written for a specific purpose and understand that because many Jews actively expected God’s promised Messiah to appear they would have recognized this kind of use of the Scriptures by folks like Jesus as a way of identifying himself as the Messiah. Our understanding of this will also help us recognize as caca the claim made by some today that Jesus didn’t have any Messianic awareness or calling, which would change our understanding of him quite radically. As we learn to read the Bible like this, we will learn to better plumb the depths and richness of God’s word to us as well as appreciate the truth it proclaims, at least if my experience with reading the Bible is any indication. Don’t misunderstand. I am not advocating that we all must become Bible scholars. I am advocating, however, that we need to become biblically literate and actively engage God’s Word on a regular basis. That means we have to read and study the Bible regularly and together in small groups.
Becoming more biblically literate also makes us less vulnerable to false teachings because we learn to recognize the authoritative voices in Scripture, voices like the apostles. In our epistle lesson, Paul is not telling us that the Christian faith consists of a set of principles we need to memorize. Instead, he is reminding us that our faith revolves around developing a real and dynamic relationship with the risen Christ and we have to learn how to recognize his voice. We are helped in that by listening to the apostles, those who knew Jesus in the days when he walked on this earth and who witnessed both his death and resurrection. Paul is therefore reminding us that not everything taught about Jesus is true and there are certain core things every Christian must believe (like Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection and the coming of the Spirit to live in his people, both individually and corporately) so that our faith can grow and help sustain us as we work to imitate Jesus in our lives. If we don’t know these teachings, we can never know who is telling the truth or even if there is truth, a claim that many make regularly in our day. And if you don’t think this is important, think about how badly the Church has been damaged by many of its recent teachers who have abandoned the apostolic belief and testimony that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and that God’s new creation is our awaited future.
This is what it means to be changed by God to make a difference for God. It means we must put our faith to work in the manner God intends for us. This means, of course, that each one of us in this parish needs to have a ministry, whether it is formally sponsored by our parish or not. We are called individually and as a congregation to proclaim boldly God’s rescue plan to the world and to embody the same love to others that God has shown us in Jesus. This is hard work and we can get discouraged quite quickly. But we take heart because we realize we are not doing the work by ourselves or in our own strength or power. We are doing the Lord’s work together and in his power. And because we know the life-giving and transforming power we embrace by faith, we know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.