Sermon delivered on Trinity 12C, Sunday, September 8, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 8.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In one way or another, today’s lessons confront us with the enigma of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. If God is sovereign over us and the events of his world, how can God hold us responsible for our actions? God is in charge, right? Everything is fixed. We’re just doing what God predestined us to do so why bother? Why try? What’s the point? And given that today we have blessed our various ministries, how does the enigma of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility come into play? These are some of the confusing things I want us to look at this morning (and hopefully not get you or me even more confused than we already are as we do)!
We start with our OT lesson from Jeremiah. God tells his prophet to visit his local potterer and there God schools Jeremiah (and us) about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. God likens the potterer to himself. God created us and can therefore choose to do whatever God pleases to do with us; after all, God is our Creator and sovereign. And God is good. In the context of our lesson, of course, God is referring to his upcoming judgment on his rebellious and idolatrous people who live in Judah. The Lord reminds Jeremiah that all people (the nations) are his because God created everything and everyone, and now God is going to use one of those nations to bring destruction on his people Israel living in Judah for their ongoing and stubborn rebellion against God (the northern kingdom of Israel had already suffered the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian Empire about 125 years earlier). The message? God is sovereign. He can do as he pleases, just like the potterer Jeremiah was observing. Judah’s goose was cooked. It was a done deal.
Not so fast, my friends. Don’t try to become little Calvinists quite yet because after declaring his sovereign right and power to summon a nation to enact God’s judgment on his people for their sins against him, God makes the astonishing statement that we his creatures can actually have a say in God’s sovereign decision-making. If God’s people abandon their false gods along with the false and dehumanizing practices that accompany the worship of them, the one true God, the sovereign Lord over all that is, will relent in imposing his judgment on Judah. But if they repent and then think they are in the clear and start worshiping all things false again, they will once again bring upon themselves God’s fierce judgment. God can and will change his sovereign mind depending on how his people decide to live (or die). There you have it. The enigma of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, two seemingly contradictory realities. Nowhere does Scripture try to explain how it works, just that it does. God created us in his image and gave us moral capabilities and the will to use those capabilities (or not), and God expects us to act morally to reflect his goodness, love, justice, and mercy out into his world so that the world and its peoples will come to know, worship, and praise their Creator, not get sidetracked with all things false and death-dealing.
Now of course Jeremiah was written BC—before Christ, and so things have changed a bit. In Christ God has reconciled us to himself on the cross. God did this on his own initiative while we were still God’s enemies and hostile toward God (some of us sadly remain so today). But God’s love and justice can be seen clearly in the cross of Christ. Again, Scripture does not tell us how this all works, only that it does. It’s called having faith and trusting in the veracity of God’s word contained in Scripture and in God’s Word become flesh. And if God really is God, if his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55.8), then we should expect to be confronted on occasion with enigmas and things we do not fully understand or can’t adequately explain, things like the sovereignty of God vs. human responsibility or how Christ’s blood shed for us broke Sin’s power over us and reconciled us fully to God despite our lingering sinful behavior. It’s simply above our pay grade. We are asked to accept it by faith because we believe it truly comes from God our sovereign and is grounded in history. So we believe that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15.3), i.e., we believe in the sovereign power of God to reconcile us to himself in the way he chose to do that. But we also believe that we have the power to choose, i.e., we must choose to believe in Christ and follow him (human responsibility) before God will relent in imposing his fierce and right justice on us and our sins.
We see this theology being worked out in our epistle and gospel lessons. St. Paul reminds both slave and slaveholder about the good they can do when they share their faith. They both have an incalculable debt they owe Christ. In his death they have new life and are reconciled to their Creator so they no longer need fear his judgment on them. Elsewhere St. Paul has reminded us that there is no longer any distinction for those who have a real relationship with Christ. It doesn’t matter if we are male or female, slave or free. We are Christ’s and we are to behave accordingly. For Philemon and Onesimus this meant perhaps doing the hard and detestable thing: freeing a slave and returning to a slave owner respectively. Do that, says St. Paul, and you and the world will see the good you do and how effective your faith can be. Put another way, St. Paul might have said do the hard but right thing (take responsibility for your actions) and then marvel at how the sovereign God will use your efforts to bring about further reconciliation and his kingdom on earth as in heaven. Was God going to destroy the institution of slavery whether Philemon and Onesimus did the right thing? Of course. God is sovereign. But when God’s image-bearers behave in ways that mimic God become human (Christ), how much more can God do! There is a great (and enigmatic) dynamic at work here but it should be tremendously comforting to us that God is in charge and that God actually invites us to work with him as he heals his good creation and creatures gone bad. Let’s be clear about this. Only God can bring about the final healing (salvation) of the world and its peoples, but God honors us by inviting us to cooperate with his sovereign rule. This means we aren’t so concerned about the results as we are about cooperating with our Creator and Sovereign.
In our gospel lesson, we see our Lord telling his followers the same thing. Do you want to follow me? You’d better consider the costs and benefits before taking the plunge. If you decide to follow me, you must make me your number one priority. Christ’s use of the word hate is startling here and needs some clarification. In this context, hate can (and probably does) mean a lesser secondary attachment, and there is biblical precedence for this meaning. We are told, e.g., that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. This didn’t mean God detested Esau; it means Jacob held priority over Esau by virtue of having secured the Lord’s blessing through Isaac’s blessing. Moreover, given Christ’s high view of marriage and family and his stern condemnation of adultery, he surely doesn’t call us to detest our family and love only him. Why would he tell us to love the one who beats us and despise the ones who nurtured us? St. Matthew probably convey’s Christ’s intentions better when he tells us that Jesus said whoever loves family more than him couldn’t be his disciple. Here again we are confronted with human responsibility. If we expect to enjoy the saving benefits of Christ won for us in his death and resurrection, we have to make him the top priority in our lives, even over those whom we love. This notion of God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility also argues against universal salvation. God is willing to relent or change his mind about his fierce judgment on human sin and has acted on our behalf to do so because he knows we are powerless to break our slavery to Sin without the cross and help and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But God gives us the freedom to choose to follow Christ and honors our choices. Some will choose badly, others will choose wisely. God is still sovereign but requires that we have skin in the game.
So how does this apply to the blessing of our ministries today? When we believe in God’s sovereignty we can engage in those ministries with great joy and perseverance because we know that when we do the work God calls us to do, both inside and outside our church family, God will bless that work, no matter how meager or average or dysfunctional our work might be. Having said that, God calls each of us to ministry and gives us a choice. If we engage in ministry, we are doing what God calls us to do. If we refuse, then we effectively thumb our nose at God and tell him we have other priorities in life greater than God. Each decision has consequences. Statistics, e.g., tell us that about 20% of members do the work of the parish. For those who do the work, they get tired and resentful and God is not glorified in this. But the minority need to remember that God is sovereign and will bless their work no matter how tired or incomplete they and their work are. For the 80% who choose to let others do the work, while Christ died for you to reconcile you to God the Father, the notion of human responsibility suggests that Christ will be questioning your faith and discipleship. How does your refusal to have skin in the game proclaim your faith in Christ? How does your non-commitment increase the perception that the gospel has the transformative power to do good as St. Paul proclaimed in our epistle lesson? It is God who saves and it is God who expects a thankful response to his free gift, not to earn our salvation but to acknowledge his love, mercy, grace, and sovereignty displayed in Christ crucified. God never calls us to do that which we are incapable of doing, but God gives us gifts and expects us to use them in his service and the service of others, no matter how great or small.
Likewise with our homelessness. As I spoke two weeks ago, this has become an intolerable burden for me and I pray God will make it an intolerable burden for you. God will find us a home (think Exodus) and God wants us to have a home (think the New Jerusalem). But God is waiting to hear our collective cry. It won’t do for any of us to sit on the sideline on this and so starting next Sunday, I am calling us to a 40 day period of prayer and fasting. I will be sending out a letter to the parish this week that includes a prayer for you to use if you don’t know how to pray thusly. I have charged the vestry with taking leadership in this effort and to interact with you during this 40 day period. To be sure, a parish is more than a building. But we need a home that we can turn into our own sacred space to worship God. We need a home so that new ministries can be birthed and new educational and fellowship opportunities can be offered. Homelessness is never a good thing, especially for God’s people, and we are a homeless people right now. I thank God for the love and graciousness of CCPC. But this is not our home and we dare not be content to see our participation in God’s family here at St. Augustine’s as a Sunday morning frozen chosen experience. As we have seen, that simply will not do. God will overcome our sloth and indifference but he will not reward or honor it, and this is not who we are as God’s people at St. Augustine’s Anglican.
Let me be clear. I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on you, nor am I being judgmental. We all fall short of the prize and when I preach a sermon like this, which is not often, the first person I look at is the one in the mirror. I simply want us to work through together some of the ramifications of the enigma of God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility. I therefore encourage you to view this sermon as an invitation for you to do some deep self-reflection about your theology and discipleship. We worship a great loving and merciful God who honors us as his image-bearers and who has given himself to us to rescue us from his judgment and eternal death. Let us show God and the world that we are a thankful and energetic people who answer God’s call to us to do the work God calls us to do, confident that God will use our work to help achieve his purposes for us and for the people whom we love and serve on his behalf. We need a home to best answer that call, so let’s ask God to show us his sovereign power on our behalf. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.