Sermon delivered on Trinity 9B, Sunday, August 2, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a; Psalm 51.1-13; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35.
What does it mean to grow to the full stature of Christ? Why is it important? Is this just another rule we are supposed to try and follow? These are some of the questions I want us to look at briefly this morning.
Last week we looked at the heart-breaking story of David’s affair with Bathsheba, a classic case study on the human condition. We saw that David’s clever attempt to cover his tracks failed so that he was forced to have Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, murdered in the line of duty. The story ended with David thinking he had literally gotten away with murder. In his cleverness, he was apparently trying to deceive not only himself, but God. The story, shocking in itself, is even more shocking when we remember that David was the Lord’s anointed King whom God had chosen to rule his people Israel. We might expect this kind of behavior from a street thug. But from David, the Lord’s anointed king, the man after God’s own heart?
Now in today’s story the chickens have come home to roost. The Lord confronts his wayward king as God typically confronted his people: through one of his prophets. In this case the prophet Nathan confronts David on God’s behalf (notice God’s use of human agency to achieve God’s purposes once again) and gets David to pronounce righteous judgment on the bad guy in the story. But then comes the punchline from Nathan. You are that man, David! Nathan’s words cut right through us because we are convicted along with David. God’s word of judgment on David’s sin is pronounced on our sin as well, along with all our clever attempts to cover our tracks and deflect responsibility for our own actions. The words of the prophet Jeremiah cut right to the chase. The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt. Who can understand it (Jeremiah 17.9)? We too are that person!
And we notice David’s reaction to God’s judgment on his sin. He does not try to deflect responsibility for his own actions like his predecessor Saul had done when God confronted him through the prophet Samuel. He accepts responsibility and confesses his sin, later producing the psalm we read this morning, a model of confessional and penitential prayer. Once David stopped being delusional and living in denial, he did the right thing, just as we are called to do in the wake of our sin, because nothing is hidden from God. Nothing. And the Lord, being gracious and merciful, forgave David, just as he forgives us when we confess our sins in penitence and faith.
But God’s forgiveness isn’t the end of the story as the writer makes clear. While David’s sin was forgiven, the consequences of his behavior remained. Just as he had brought the sword to Uriah’s family, so would David’s family be afflicted by the sword. Just as David had committed adultery with another man’s wife, so would David’s wives be violated by other men (and while we are on this subject, let us put to rest the silly and false notion that Scripture approves of men having multiple wives as some have disingenuously argued. Nowhere does Scripture approve of this practice. It simply reports it in the context of the broader narrative and usually where there are multiple wives involved, as in this case, serious trouble either ensues or precedes the living arrangement). So what’s going on here? Is David forgiven or not?
David is indeed forgiven because as Nathan told him, he would not die immediately for his sin. But forgiven sin does not mean that consequences are removed. Every time we sin it cheapens and dehumanizes us. Is it any wonder, then, why God would utterly hate our sin and perhaps use its lingering consequences to help prevent us from sinning further? After all, if God loves us (and indeed he does because he became human for us), why would he want to encourage us to to engage in patterns of activity and thinking that continue to dehumanize us and mar God’s image in us so that we slowly and inevitably become sub-human creatures? Does not compute!
In the case of David, among other things, this affair apparently left him with the inability to discipline his sons properly, most notably Absalom, so that Absalom would eventually rebel against David and seek to usurp his throne. Here we see the turning point in David’s reign as king. Prior to the affair, David had enjoyed the Lord’s abundant blessings on his kingship as Nathan had reminded him. Now, not so much. The writer surely wants us to see that this is the cost of sin. Forgiveness is possible, protection from sin’s consequences is not always possible.
And a moment’s thought about this based on our own experience confirms the wisdom behind this warning. For example, should a priest have an affair with a parishioner, the priest’s authority would be destroyed permanently and the parish would likely be ripped apart. Forgiveness is possible, but not removal of the aftermath of the behavior. When one member of Christ’s body cannot control his or her own bodily passions, the whole body suffers. Anyone who has ever suffered a hangover will understand how this works! This confirms the wisdom of Paul, who after telling the Romans about the grace and forgiveness of God available to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, asked rhetorically if we should keep on sinning so that God’s grace should abound more in our lives? Of course not, the apostle thundered! Not only are we new creations in Christ, buried and raised with him in baptism so that we are given power to control our bodies, but we are also members of the same body and our job is to build each other up, not tear each other down (Romans 5.1-6.6; Ephesians 4.14-16).
And now we can see what our OT lesson has to do with our epistle lesson. As with David, if we let sin rule our lives as members of Christ’s body here at St. Augustine’s, we cannot possibly build each other up in mutual Christian love and affection. As we have seen, sin cheapens and dehumanizes us. It also deceives us so that we try to rationalize our sin away. When we persist in following our own bodily passions, we become used to living that way and like David, we think only of ourselves and our desires. Our sin not only makes us dead people walking, it deadens our sensibilities so we are gradually but increasingly willing to tolerate more behavior that is not only bad for us, but bad for Christ’s body.
Now if Paul’s teaching and exhortation about mutually building each other up were dependent on our own strength and effort, it would be ludicrous and laughable. As we saw with David, if even the best of us is capable of committing the kind of evil David committed, there is little chance that we as Christ’s body can ever hope to be functional in the manner Paul talks about. But thanks be to God, we are not called to be God’s people on the basis of our own strength and power. As we saw last week, we are Jesus’ people who are connected to him intimately in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and transforms us ever so gradually into new creations in Christ. This is the basis for Paul’s writing in our epistle lesson this morning. When we are Jesus’ people in the power of the Spirit, God blesses us with Christian unity (not uniformity, unity—one Lord, one faith, one baptism) so that we look out for each other and are there for each other. And a moment’s thought about the life and spirit of our own parish should provide us with an example of what this looks like because we are indeed Spirit-filled and led people. Look how we love each other and seek to serve others on behalf of our Lord!
This is why Paul tells us we must grow up to the full stature of Christ. To be the kind of people God calls us to be, to embody and bring God’s healing love to his hurting and broken world, we must learn how to imitate Christ in all his human fullness. But we cannot do that if we do not know God’s true character as revealed in the biblical story of God’s rescue of his sin-sick world in and through his people Israel and made ultimately known in and though Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s why God raises up for us pastors and teachers, not because some of us are better or more special than others, but because God uses all of us to help edify and teach his people so that we will not fall prey to trickeration and treachery that can take us off course.
And we all know this is a real danger. For example, there are those who deny that on the cross Jesus atoned for our sins and brought peace and reconciliation between God and his rebellious human creatures. If we do not believe in the atonement, it is virtually impossible for us to really believe our sins are forgiven and that we really have been reconciled to God so that we can live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power. Without the cross, enmity and alienation between God and his image-bearing creatures remain and we are without any real hope.
Likewise, there are those who deny the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, or who claim that it was simply a spiritual experience. Doing so denies the goodness of God’s creation and God’s intent to fully redeem and restore his good but broken world and its creatures. Denying the bodily resurrection of Christ also denies the foundation of all Christian hope: the new creation and Scripture’s promise that one day we will receive new bodies and get to live forever in God’s direct presence in the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21.1-7).
There are those who deny the destructive power of sin and who want us to believe that because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, our sin does not matter to God nor will there ever be any real or eternal consequences for a life lived against God. But as the story of David’s sin powerfully attests, nothing could be further from the truth. There are things that are not pleasing to God and if we continue to act and live as if our lives don’t matter to God, we put ourselves in mortal danger. As we have seen, sin dehumanizes us and slowly destroys God’s image in us, and God loves us too much to want that to happen to us. He therefore gives us his Spirit and other Christians to help bring healing and encouragement to us so that we can indeed overcome our sin and do the work God calls us to do—to embody God’s healing love in Christ to others. As Israel discovered, we cannot do that if we remain as profoundly broken as those to which we are called to minister. I am not talking about leading a sin-free life. That is impossible this side of the grave. I am talking about living a life that is not characterized by a pattern of sin and rebellion against God, but rather tries to imitate Jesus our Lord in the context of our daily lives. Sin kills, but the Spirit brings life!
These examples remind us that Paul and the other NT writers were wise to tell us that we need to grow up in Christ so that we can become like him in the power of his Spirit. But we who live in our individualistic society often ignore that the whole of Scripture calls us to grow up in Christ together. As we saw last week, Christ calls us to be his body so that together we announce the gospel to the nations as well as to the powers and principalities, and together we do God’s kingdom work because God has created us to live life together, not alone.
And because this life of mutual Christian love, upbuilding, and service does not come naturally to us, we must remain yoked to Christ, who is our resurrection and life. Otherwise, we are just as likely to become “spiritual” rather than “religious,” whatever that means, instead of becoming part of Christ’s body as God always intended. Jesus our Lord loves us with a deep and costly love. He has given himself on the cross so that we might find healing and forgiveness as well as power and purpose for living. That is why he is our bread of life, our only bread of life, and that is why we must stay connected to him. But we must stay connected to him together. As we saw last week, we can do this through regular reading of the Scriptures and through prayer. As we are reminded this week in our gospel lesson, we are to stay connected to him physically by feeding on him together each week in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving as we come to the communion Table to literally consume our risen Lord’s body and blood so that he lives in us and communes with us in ways that transform us into his very image over time. This, BTW, is why Anglican worship is always centered around word and sacrament.
Here then is the power we need to be his people and do his work. And this is vitally important to the life of our parish because as our mission statement reminds us, we are changed by God to make a difference for God. As we have seen, this task is never easy—in fact, it is hopeless if we try to do it in our own strength—and we have many enemies, human and spiritual, who hate and oppose us, and want desperately for us to fail. But we are not to be afraid or get discouraged because we live in Christ and have a life-giving relationship with the Lord of this cosmos, who rules at the Father’s right hand and who equips us with all we need to be faithful agents and stewards of his healing love, both collectively and individually. And that, folks, is not only an awesome privilege, it is also 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.