Sermon delivered on Trinity 10B, Sunday, August 8, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; St. John 6.35-51.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What are we to make of St. Paul’s exhortation in our epistle lesson to be a different kind of people, a people who live the good life—good life defined as conforming our lives and ourselves, our thinking, speaking, and doing, to the created order and will of God our Father—especially in light of our OT and gospel lessons that showcase the ugliness of the human condition? Is St. Paul simply being delusional and exhorting us to be likewise? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
Scripture is crystal clear in its assessment of the human condition. Our first ancestors’ sin got the human race expelled from paradise and created a terrible chasm between God and humans and between humans ourselves. We see the fruit of our rebellion all the time: death, illnesses of all sorts, broken relationships, anger, alienation, and mutual hostility and distrust. We search vainly for all kinds of remedies for our loneliness and alienation by pursuing various idols (sex, power, and security being the most common), remedies that are sure to fail because they are grounded in unreality. I don’t have time to rehearse all the weirdness but if you are old enough, you can quickly list the crazy thinking and behaviors in our culture today. We are so alienated and hostile to God that we are willing to do almost anything to avoid being reconciled to him, despite the deep yearning in our hearts to the contrary. We see the human condition on full display in our OT lesson in the death of David’s son, Absalom. The whole sordid story is itself a grim reminder of the consequences of David’s terrible sins of adultery and murder that we looked at a couple weeks ago. Forgiveness there had been, but God had allowed the consequences of David’s sins to remain, consequences that were deeply painful and divisive for David’s house: Here is his beloved son Absalom in open rebellion against his father. Here is Absalom’s father seeking to save his rebellious son from the consequences of treachery and treason. And here is a bloodthirsty commander and relative of David’s, a relative with a history of treachery and violence, all purportedly in the name of the king he serves, who satisfies his bloodlust by disobeying the David’s direct orders and effectively murdering his son.
Then there are the crowds resisting Christ’s teaching on a baffling scale. Did you notice the repetition in our gospel lesson? To drive his point home, Christ repeated multiple times that he is the bread of life who will raise to life those whom the Father gives him on the last day, yet the crowd hears but doesn’t understand or believe. Think about it. Christ is God become human speaking to his image-bearing creatures, the very people God the Father had called out to bring God’s healing love and reconciliation to bear on his sin-sick and evil-infested world. If there ever was anyone who could be classified as a master teacher who knew how to reach his pupils, surely Christ would be that person. But inexplicably the people do not have ears to hear, eyes to see, or minds to comprehend. Instead, after hearing the breathtaking promise of Christ to heal and reconcile them to God, and to raise them up on the last day to enjoy life fully as God created them to live it and desired for them (and us) to have, they complained about him rather than accepting the most precious gift they could ever receive! Remarkable. And if we are honest with ourselves, things haven’t changed much from Christ’s day to ours. Many of us still don’t want to accept Christ’s gift of eternal life by giving ourselves to him in faith and obedience. We, like them, are a profoundly broken and hopeless people because we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that alien and hostile power that has enslaved us and compels us to continue our ongoing rebellion and hostility toward God. There is no such thing as self-help and self-improvement. People do not come to know Christ through their own effort as Christ himself repeatedly reminds us in our gospel lesson. If this is true—and our own experience affirms the awful reality of the human condition—how can we ever hope to be the people St. Paul exhorts us to be in his epistle? How can we put away all the bitterness and rancor that plagues the human race? How can we control our anger and truly love God and neighbors when our hearts (wills) are naturally at war against them? How can we proclaim the love of Christ if no one will listen? How can we work consistently to build each other up and love each other here in our parish family with a love that encourages each other to conform to the Father’s created order rather than to cave to our own disordered desires? Answer? On our own it is impossible and if we try to be the people St. Paul calls us to be and do the things he calls us to do on our own power, we will be danger of falling into despair and/or becoming neurotic because self-help and self-improvement are a lie and a delusion. We only come to Christ by the grace and power of God. Period. Those who are enslaved to the power of Sin (that would be all of us) cannot simply be told to stop sinning. It won’t happen. We must be freed from our slavery to Sin. Those who cannot hear or see the Truth of the gospel cannot be helped by assigning blame to them or offering advice, no matter how good the advice is. They have to be healed, and only Christ has the power to heal us from our sin-sickness and free us from the steely grip of Sin’s enslavement. Putting on Christ, feeding on him through holy communion, regular Scripture reading and study, prayer, Christian fellowship, and service are ordinary ways we put on Christ, i.e., ways we submit to Christ and allow him to heal and transform us, all fueled by our faith in the efficacy of his healing and saving power, a faith that is itself a gift from our Father’s generous and loving heart.
We can never hope to be the people St. Paul (and through him Christ himself) exhorts us to be unless we strive in the power of Christ available to us in and through the Holy Spirit to imitate Christ, who loves us and has claimed us from all eternity. Putting on Christ (or imitating him) is not effortless, but neither is it futile because it is rooted in Christ’s power, not our own efforts. Setbacks there will be. We are all too profoundly broken and alienated for that not to happen and Christ doesn’t manipulate us like puppets. But if we willingly seek to imitate Christ and to feed on him in the ways I’ve just outlined, we will find that our new selves, the new creation about which the NT speaks, will slowly but surely allow us to be the kind of people God calls us to be and St. Paul exhorts us to be in our epistle lesson. Why? Because we rely on Christ’s power that he willingly and gladly gives us. We do not worship a God who is a tyrant and a bully, bent on punishing or even destroying us. We worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who became human and who promises to love us despite our sins and to free and heal us from our slavery to Sin’s power and our own incurable sin-sickness. And when we worship this God, the one and only true God, and are humble enough to submit ourselves to his will, believing all the time that he is busy working in and through us in the power of the Holy Spirit even when we don’t perceive that power at work, we will see growth and healing and freedom. None of it will be perfect in this life. We live in a cursed world that can never be the entirely good created order God intended it to be. But we are not people of this world. We are people of God’s new creation because we belong to Christ and Christ has promised to raise us from the dead to complete our healing process and bestow upon us perfect goodness and freedom. We will be free to love and imitate our crucified and risen Lord perfectly and in doing so we will discover fully what it means to live life abundantly, to be fully human beings.
This does not protect us from life’s hurts or the evil that we all must endure on occasion. What Christ does promise us is the power to overcome. We don’t come to faith in Christ without the Father first drawing us to him. Are you willing to relinquish control and trust God to do so with you and others? It’s a hard but necessary first step. That we are here is evidence that the Father has claimed us, no matter how poorly we live our faith, and it reminds us that we do not worship an absentee or uncaring God. There is much mystery and enigma in all this, my beloved. But part of a real and saving faith is the attendant humility to not need all our questions answered about God/faith, to be content with what God has revealed to us in Scripture and in his very own Son, Christ, the Word made flesh. He came to us in weakness and humility to destroy Sin’s power over us and call us to be his people, people who have eternal life starting here and now, despite the vicissitudes and ambiguities and sorrows of this mortal life. He came to free and heal us when we were still God’s enemies and he overcame the sting of Death by being raised to new life. The reality of Christ’s promise extends to us even in our profound weakness and sin-sickness. My beloved, believe this promise with all your being and might because it’s true; Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Wrestle with it in the power of the Spirit together as God’s people, and you will find that you are becoming the people God calls us to be. When by God’s grace you really know that the promises of God are coming true, you will also find life in abundance, even in the midst of a broken and hurting world and your own hurts and sorrows. It is a foretaste of that glorious life promised to us forever through the grace, merit, love, and power of Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.