The Church: It’s Not Just Any Old Body

Sermon delivered on Trinity 10B, August 9, 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 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130.1-7; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Over the last several weeks we have looked at the astonishing claims Paul has made about the body of Christ, the Church. We have seen that in Christ, the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been broken down so that we as his body are given the task of promoting the gospel to not only the world but to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, both good and bad (Ephesians 2.11-22, 3.10). This morning I want us to look at the basis for that unity and power, as well as how the power of Jesus should be properly manifested in us as his body.

We find the basis for the Church’s life and existence in our gospel lesson this morning. Last week we heard Jesus proclaim that he is the bread of life so that anyone who comes to him will neither hunger nor thirst. This provoked quite an uproar in the crowd so that they challenge the basis of his claim in today’s lesson. You are not someone special, they tell our Lord. We know whence you come. We know your family. How can you claim to come from heaven? Familiarity sometimes does breed contempt. As we listen to the crowd’s complaints (the same crowd, BTW, that had made a great effort to follow Jesus after he fed the five thousand and wanted to make him king), we can’t help but recall Nathaniel’s caustic rejoinder when hearing that Jesus came from Nazareth: Can anything good come from there (John 1.46)? No wonder Jesus would tell his hometown folks that a prophet is never welcomed by his own (Mark 6.4)!

But Jesus goes on to make an even more astonishing claim. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, i.e., who has read Scripture and submitted themselves to its authority, will know that I come from the Father because I have seen the Father and the Father has sent me. In other words, Jesus is telling us that he is the living embodiment of God himself. People who know God’s true character, his righteous and merciful heart, will recognize that in Jesus, they are indeed seeing the embodiment of the living God. But no one does this except if the Father wills it (I see Fr. Bowser twitching nervously at this point). Here we are confronted with one of the most perplexing enigmas in all the Bible. On the one hand, Scripture makes clear that there is an element of human responsibility in faith. We have the freedom to choose (or not) to seek after God. On the other hand, Scripture makes clear that we are only drawn to Jesus by the will of the Father. Nowhere does Scripture attempt to resolve this enigma. It simply insists that the two apparently contradictory positions can and do coexist, and this is a place where we must humbly submit to Scripture’s authority and acknowledge it is true, even when we do not fully understand or comprehend it. Yet at the same time, Jesus’ claim should be tremendously comforting to us because it reminds us that no one who is truly open to God will be left out. They will find Jesus if they are willing to listen to and learn from God because Jesus is God.

All this is the basis for the mind-boggling claim our Lord makes next. Because I am the very embodiment of God, he says, the source and author of all life, anyone who believes in me has eternal life because I am the bread of life who came down from heaven, i.e., who is the living embodiment of God. You have this life because I will give my body to be broken on the cross for you. I will bear your just punishment so that you do not have to bear it. And after I have gone back to heaven to assume my rightful place as Lord of all creation, I am available to you whenever you eat my flesh (and drink his blood as we shall see next week) so that you will never die (cf. John 11.25-26). As John has pointed out to us in his wonderful prologue, the Word that became flesh is now promising to give himself so that those who believe in him may find radical healing, complete forgiveness, and new life, life that never, ever ends.

This is why eternal life is available to us right now, because Jesus is available to us right now in the power of the Spirit and every time we partake in the eucharistic feast. We don’t have to wait to die to inherit eternal life. We are given it freely, if we firmly believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has overcome evil, sin, and death. Here is the logic behind Jesus’ promise to us in this passage. Jesus is the embodiment of God, life himself, who has borne our sins on the cross and who was raised to new bodily life in the resurrection. And because God is the source and author behind the act and subsequent invitation, that new life, that eternal life, is available to anyone who attaches himself or herself to Jesus. And even though Jesus is currently hidden from us, he is available to us, among others, in the power of the Spirit and in the eucharist. This is a free gift from God because God is a lover and uniter, not a hater and divider.

Here then is the only remedy to our guilt and fears. How many of you have worried or wondered at times if God really does love you and/or has forgiven your sins? How many of you have feared (or fear) the awful judgment of God? I know I have. Like David in our psalm last week, I know my transgressions and my sins are ever before me, and I hate it. I sometimes have trouble forgiving myself and if I cannot forgive myself, I wonder how God can ever forgive me. Like the psalmist in our lesson today, many of us cry out in despair and despondency over our sins and the damage we have done, and fear that God really cannot or will not forgive us.

If you are like that, then spend some time with John 6 in the coming days and weeks. Read and learn from God because here we are promised by the Lord himself that we are so loved by God that on the cross God took care of all that separates and alienates us from him. He didn’t do that because we are particularly lovable. God did that because God is the ultimate lover who wants us to enjoy life with him forever, starting right now. And so Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world. Or as Paul put it, in Jesus, God condemned our sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us (Romans 8.3-4). And in doing so, Jesus would ironically fulfill his ancestor David’s desire to die in place of his son, except that Jesus died for all of us, not just a select few. That is why Paul would proclaim with joy and thanksgiving that there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1)! Paul could make that astonishing claim because he knew the heart of the Father as revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. He knew he was certainly unworthy of such forgiveness and rescue, primarily because he had persecuted Jesus’ body, the Church. But Paul had listened and learned from the Father so that by faith he recognized he was well-loved and forgiven in Jesus Christ our Lord. That same love and forgiveness is available to each of us, along with the promise of no condemnation, because we too put our whole hope and trust in Jesus. We too have listened to the Scriptures and learned from them. And we too feed on our Lord each week when we come to Table to receive his body and blood broken and shed for us. Despite all that we might have done, despite all that we may be (or not be), despite us not deserving such love and forgiveness from God, we have it anyhow through faith. If we really believe this, we are released from the crushing guilt of our transgressions and have real hope along with a thankful heart because we know our present and future are secure in God’s love. And yes, we are truly humbled by it all because we know in our heart of hearts we did nothing to deserve God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

This is the basis for Paul’s astonishing claims about the Church. He’s not talking about our old fallen self that is full of envy, strife, anger, quarrels, factions, sexual immorality, idolatry, and the like (Galatians 5.19-21). These things do not produce unity. They divide and hurt and cause conflict. That is why Paul, in the passage preceding our lesson this morning, had urged us to put away our old character and put on Christ’s character that is always available to us through faith and in the power of the Spirit. We do so, not with teeth clenched and out of some misguided sense that our relationship with God depends ultimately on how well we follow the rules, but rather out of a profound sense of thanksgiving and humility for the gift of life that is given us by virtue of our relationship with Jesus, the bread of life. We realize that in his body, the Church, God has assembled all kinds of misfits to form a new family under Christ our head, from Jew to Gentile, sinner to saint, and everyone in between. God himself has broken down the walls that caused our former hostility and alienation between humans and God and between God’s human creatures. He has done that in and through the body and blood of Jesus our Lord, and has called us together as Jesus’ body to do the work God gives us to do.

And for us to do that work, we have to realize that because we are all one in Christ, we are all equally forgiven in the blood of the Lamb shed for us and all equally undeserving of this gift of life. So our job is to imitate our Lord in the power of the Spirit, and that starts at home in Jesus’ own body despite our different personalities, outlooks, and dispositions. As we saw last week, we enjoy unity of Spirit, which helps us to grow up in his power so that we become more and more like Jesus, the very embodiment of God. Becoming mature Christians is certainly not easy, but it is also not impossible, precisely because we have the Spirit of the living God living in us, transforming us, and giving us power to be the kind of people God calls us to be. This means we have to consciously work at developing a new and second nature that is patterned after the character of God revealed supremely in Jesus until it replaces our first and old nature. But we sometimes balk at this. We want to feel sorry for ourselves and whine about how hard this is to do. But this comes from our fallen nature and the devil, not from the Spirit. We can become like Jesus if we work consciously to develop his habits. Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting we will always get it right and never sin again. I am talking instead about developing a pattern of living so that when we act out of character, people notice, e.g., Oh. Sarah honey is not her usual self today. She’s actually not making it all about herself. What’s up with that? Stuff like that.

And so in the power of the Spirit who makes our living Lord available to us each and every day, we learn to treat each other as Jesus treats us. We learn to speak and act kindly toward each other, to put aside our own interests for the sake of the rest of the body, even when it is costly, to stop gossiping and slandering when we disagree with one another (and we will disagree, folks). It means we learn to forgive each other, not by brushing it under the rug and pretending like the hurt didn’t occur, but by acknowledging the hurt and then choosing not to act in retaliation. We do this because we know we have been forgiven by God while being wholly undeserving of such forgiveness. It means we learn to speak truthfully to each other because speaking truthfully simplifies things (we don’t have to keep track of the lies we tell so that we can continue to perpetuate the lie) and shows that we trust and respect each other. This is what builds up unity and gives us power to proclaim the gospel to the powers as God commands us.

Contrast this pattern of living with the ways of the world. When someone is wronged, revenge inevitably follows. People allow pride, selfish ambition, and greed to rule their lives so that other people become pawns and objects to them. This means that as long as things are going well, they are willing to associate with those whom they perceive can help and benefit them. But when it hits the fan, well, not so much. When the world can look at Christ’s body, the Church, and see human business being conducted in a fundamentally different way, it must take notice, even if it rejects our style of living. Our call is not to judge others because they either accept or reject the gospel. Our call is to live our lives as faithfully to Jesus as we know how, trusting that our Lord is firmly active and in charge of our affairs, and will sort it out according to his good will and purposes for us and the rest of creation. When we act in this manner, we do not grieve the Spirit who lives in us and seals us for the day of redemption, a promise made possible only because of the love of God spilled out for us supremely in the blood of the Lamb.

In other words, our faith must be lived out so that inevitably, if not slowly and sometimes painfully, it turns us into faithful imitations of our Lord Jesus Christ. Think on these things. Examine your own life and give thanks where you see evidence of Jesus at work in you in the power of the Spirit. This happens every time your behavior is loving, kind, and generous, among others (cf. Galatians 5.22-25). Examine too that which needs to die in you, the selfishness, anger, enmity, jealousy, pride, etc., and resolve to put those things to death by learning new habits of living. We do this by searching the Scriptures and learning from the Father who gave them to us. We do this by asking the Spirit to give us the power to overcome and to develop new, healthy habits. We do this by asking others in Christ’s body to hold us accountable. We do this by feeding on our Lord each week and imitating others who imitate Jesus well. As we grow slowly but surely to be more like Jesus, we announce not only to ourselves, but to the world, that we really do believe 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.