1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“…I am the Lord, there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and I create woe; I am the Lord who do all these things.”
“…And you became imitators of us and of the Lord….”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Given that today is Pledge Sunday, you may think that I, or the Staff, or the Council, or the Administration/Finance Committee, or the IRS chose today’s readings. They didn’t; nor did I. They’re simply appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary—the tri-annual series of readings appointed for seven participating Christian traditions. Nor did we (as we probably should have) choose this day as Pledge Sunday based upon the appointed readings; to my knowledge we didn’t even look at the Lectionary. It had more to do with the Fall schedule: Pig Roast, Confirmation Retreat, Reformation, All Saints, and the like. The Badger’s Football schedule may have come into it and, for that matter, the Packers as well. They usually do. So, miracle of miracles: here we have Jesus—on the Day we ritualize our Fall Stewardship emphasis—here we have Jesus saying, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
I suppose stranger things have happened. For instance, last Thursday morning at 8:46 as I was driving to work on Dayton, approaching the intersection at Park, just as I was cresting the rise with Gordon Commons to my right, I saw a male student pick up a piece of trash, take a few steps, stoop, pick up a second larger piece of trash (an empty Natural Light case?), walk deliberately to the trash bin at the corner of Park and Dayton, place both items in the bin, and then continue down Park toward Johnson. I was stunned. It was the first time in six years at Luther Memorial that I could remember seeing a student pick up trash and not one pieces but two! I said out loud to myself, “Mark this day: a student put some trash in a garbage bin!” As I rolled to a stop at Park, pondering what I had just witnessed—another male student walked through the crosswalk taking the last bite from an apple. Baseball cap in reverse, ear buds pounding entertainment, Badger shirt- flip-flops flapping, he proceeded through the crossing, went out of his way, and (as though in routine) calmly dropped the apple core into a trash bin at the corner!
I was astonished. For the second time in less than a minute, I had observed two events I thought impossible. Two thoughts entered my mind. The first, and more obvious, was that I’m stupid: if all 43,000 students on this campus behave as I routinely imagine, there’d be so much garbage on the ground we couldn’t see streets, crosswalks or sidewalks. Judging by the trash room in the bottom floor of where I live, students behave no worse than people my age, and probably better.
As I reviewed the course of events, a second thought appeared: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord….” That’s Paul writing to the Thessalonians. Imitators. Was the second student imitating the first? Was the first imitating somebody else? A teacher? A parent? A custodian? A city employee? Another student? Of course, I realized he probably wasn’t imitating me, as I had (only a few yards back) tossed a used piece of chewing gum out the window of my ancient Volvo, the car I proudly drive as a not so subtle sign of my faux humility and pseudo environmental concern. The car probably gets fewer miles to the gallon than the late-model Audi for which I lust—the silver one past which I drive on my way to my parking place on the third floor of our condo garage.
Lest you think this is all about the latest issue of Car and Driver or merely an old man’s simplistic view of a complex world, I should probably come out of the closet and admit it’s all about stewardship—everything from the moment we are baptized until our funereal ashes are safely tucked away in the columbarium—is all about stewardship, our care (or lack thereof) for that which belongs to another.
And who is the “Other” to which all things belong? Isaiah the Prophet reminds us as he tells the ancient Persian emperor, Cyrus: “From the rising of the sun and from the west… there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”
The LORD is the owner, and whether we put our trash in the bin or toss it from a moving car, we are his stewards—managers of that which belongs to another. We are answerable to him as we are to none other. Oh, the campus police might rightly cite me as the lazy slob I am, and some day they probably will, even as I look down my nose at the younger members of our community who occasionally either in a fit of youthful joy or drunken despair toss their cookies or an empty pizza container on the ground for someone else to clean up. But the truth is, like it or not, we are all stewards; whether faithful or unfaithful remains to be seen. Even Cyrus, the pagan emperor, is called to serve the one LORD, even though he does not know the God of Israel! Stewards do not choose their master, but their master chooses them.
“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.” In the age of Ebola, and ISIS, drone strikes, starvation, global warming, droughts, earthquakes, and storms, this word of the LORD is a terrifying message. As it is now, so it was in the age of the Plague, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and countless crucifixions—of which our Lord’s was but one brief example. “I am the LORD, and there is no other.” What can it mean? Is it possible the LORD does all things? And, if so, why?
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Is anything not God’s? As Isaiah indicates, even the emperor belongs to God. Giving to the emperor is giving to God. Generosity’s the point—not ours, but God’s, the unmerited generosity of the God who gives his only Son for the salvation of the whole world. And generosity comes, of all things, not merely through information and knowledge, but by imitating the God of all who gives without end. Like a student who gives a little time picking up trash on the way to class. In such a world, even a pledge card imitates the one God who creates out of nothing. After all, there is none other, and we are his—everything is. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
“On this mountain the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever…”
“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
It strikes me as extraordinarily fitting that these readings should be appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, a day when we gather as a parish for the Holy Communion and a pig roast— the Feast followed by a festive meal. Of course, in biblical terms, a pig epitomizes uncleanness— pigs embody all things unclean, koinonos, or common—the very term St. Paul employs to describe the Bread and Cup of the Holy Eucharist. We rejoice in the image of Christ the Lamb. But what about an unclean Christ who rules Sabbath law from below, his incarnation via the body of an unmarried woman, his birth in an animal’s feedbox—visited by shepherds, eating with outcasts, his crucified-criminal death, his life laid down for sinners, himself made common in bread and wine. The unclean Christ is our holiness, our life, our hope, the most intimate encounter we shall ever have—an intimacy exceeding all things sexual, emotional, and personal. His unclean identity is the holiness we bear for all eternity: Christ, the Pig of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has the ring of offense. It bears the grace God, our life, our hope, and our salvation.
Isaiah 25 and Matthew 22 each foresee a feast. Isaiah tells of rich food and well-aged wines—Israel dines like royals; but at this feast, the LORD devours a universal shroud—God swallows death forever. Matthew’s banquet is a royal wedding feast the invited guests refuse to attend. They choose instead to snub their king by going to work, or visiting a farm. So, the king invites others. We hear echoes of last Sunday’s parable: would-be guests seize the king’s messengers, mistreat and kill them. Less deranged, perhaps, than last week’s tenants who kill that they might gain an inheritance, this week’s characters are nonetheless crazy: they snub a king, abuse and kill his servants, thinking to avoid his wrath. But they’re wrong: [The king did what angry kings do…] “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”
The parable twice displays God’s wrath: here in the destruction of murderous guests, and next when a man appears in the banquet without proper dress. The text says, “But when the king noticed the man not wearing a wedding robe he asked, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. So the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
It’s a bizarre tale. In the first place, who refuses a royal wedding banquet? Are you kidding? I know countless people (myself among them) who have failed to attend a wedding, but almost none who refuse a feast, and especially one given by a king. People stand in line to attend a banquet like that, the sort of party people scheme to crash. Anyone who’s ever seen the movie Wedding Crashers knows what I mean: two juvenile men crash countless weddings and wedding receptions in order to enjoy both the “fabulous finger food” and the women. Nobody, I know would turn down a royal banquet to visit a farm or work—not when crab cakes and romance are on the line.
There’s something fishy about this story. It just doesn’t smell right. And nothing smells more suspicious than the improperly dressed guy among the last batch of guests—“Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noted a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe….” He’s the one bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. Because he wasn’t wearing a wedding robe? Are you joking? According to the experts, at that time and in that culture, wedding robes were given out for free—as a gift—to all the guests. You didn’t have to buy a tuxedo or rent an evening gown, you got one for free. So why doesn’t this guy have one? It can’t be a moral issue: the text says the guests were both good and bad.
Robert Farrar Capon says it’s a case of perverse silence: in refusing to answer, the man snubs a king who prepared a banquet for him, gave him a tuxedo, and let him come to the feast even though he has bad manners. Who would possibly behave in such perverse fashion?
When was the last time we heard of someone in the New Testament (in Matthew’s own gospel!) who refused to speak when addressed by authority? Who else could have got themselves off the hook by saying a little “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I made a mistake. Give me a second chance. I won’t do it again. I promise.”? It happens in Matthew 27: “Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly….”
Who is the guy without a wedding garment? Who refuses to say a single word? Who makes no effort to defend himself? Who, even when they bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, refuses to struggle or complain? Of course, it’s our Lord himself—it’s Christ Jesus common as a criminal, unclean as a pig, all the holiness of God, the very of Life of life, he who swallows up our death in order that we might live his life—the life from below, the life of service, the life of generosity, the life of mercy, the life for others. He’s the Bridegroom tossed out of his own party so that all the riffraff might come in.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise….” Well, of course, there is. The unclean Christ is all these things. He appears as the opposite of purity: unclean, ugly, godless, and deadly. He comes a pig roasted to perfection—goodness itself—the crucified and risen Lord. He is tossed out in silence that we might be brought in—singing—Arise, my soul, arise! In his silence, we sing forgiven, and we live!
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“Turn, then, and live.”
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
There’s a reason Jesus tells religious people that tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God ahead of them: the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John the Baptist—they repented and were baptized, confessing their sins. They turned, but the religious people did not. They didn’t believe John, didn’t repent, and refused John’s baptism. Religion’s a curious thing: it often exposes in itself the very sin it opposes in others. The corollary is also true: public sinners often display more genuine piety than religious folk who live within the bounds of decency and respectability. It may be trite to say, but it’s nonetheless true that I hear more of God outside the homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church than I ever hear within the precincts of Luther Memorial or, for that matter, within Grace. There’s something about public sin that invites personal faith; conversely, there’s something about public righteousness that stimulates personal hypocrisy.
Before joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Junior had never been in a church. However, it must be said that, on account of alcoholic blackouts, he couldn’t honestly say for certain. The only thing he was sure of was that he couldn’t remember having been in a church before attending AA at St. Paul’s. But, even then, they met in the church basement, and always entered through the “red doors,” just off the parking lot on the building’s back side, about as far from the “nave” as you could get. So while technically Junior had been in a church, he had never “been to church.” That is to say, though he had been to Lambeau and other religious sites, he had never worshipped in a Christian liturgical space. Good though they are, brats and beer do not a Eucharist make.
Junior attended weekly 12-step meetings at St. Paul’s as required by court order. Not that he had to go to St. Paul’s, but he was required to participate in an AA group following prison; it was part of his parole, and the St. Paul’s meeting was nearest his apartment. As he was prohibited from driving, St. Paul’s was easiest to reach on foot.Truth is, Junior had probably driven drunk since God was a child. So far as he knew, he’d been born drunk and his drunken behavior was merely the working out of his DNA—his family inheritance, you might say. His father and grandfather before him had been alcoholic, as well as some uncles and an aunt. One of his cousins, Milton, had died drunk in a car crash, killing not one, but two women into the bargain. It was only sheer luck Junior hadn’t inflicted the same pain and suffered the same fate.It’s not like he hadn’t tried. The fact is, he’d probably lived a harder life than, Milton, his dead cousin. At 47 he’d run through more women, insurance policies, citations, lost jobs, junked cars, and ruined marriages than Sherman’s army burning its way to the sea. It’s not so much that Junior’s luck ran out, as he simply spiraled down to a drunk hermit’s existence; he almost never drove anyone anywhere; least of all a woman. When he finally hit a bridge abutment at two in the morning on his way home from the bar, there was no one around but the State Patrol to document his near demise: driving without a license, with no insurance, no sobriety, and no seatbelt. His only companions were an empty bottle of Jim Beam and a crushed carton of Camel studs. Of all the car crash cost him (including three years of freedom), he most lamented the lost Camels.
Prison’s certainly no picnic. But, if you manage to keep your nose clean, tend to business, and fly beneath the radar of inmate violence and guard retaliation, you can make a decent life out of an intolerably indecent situation. And Junior did: his small job in the kitchen enabled him to buy cigarettes, and that was about all he either wanted or needed. He had no one to write to, so paper, envelopes, and stamps were of no value; and he’d never seen the purpose of toiletries beyond a toothbrush. Shampoo and soap he thought silly, to say nothing of deodorant.
Junior wasn’t dumb. He saw instinctively that cooperation with authority was his ticket out. And so he cooperated: he did his job, joined a twelve step group, volunteered in the chapel, and even began going to Bible study. He hated it. But the more he hated it, the more he pretended to love it. The chaplain was an easy mark—well meant, but readily taken in by sentiment, pretentious weakness, and emotional manipulation—the kind of stuff Junior lived, breathed, and thrived on. Junior did his three, and was paroled early for good behavior.
That’s when St. Paul’s entered the picture. He’d gone to meetings for nearly a year when, one night, the group took a smoke break and, after cigarettes and conversation in the parking lot, they couldn’t get back in. The door had locked behind them. Junior volunteered to walk round to the office door and ring the bell. After a while, a rumpled woman in a pink clergy shirt, jeans, and Birkenstocks came to the door. She listened to Junior’s story while they walked through the building and downstairs to unlock the door. She asked him to come back the next day and check out a key in case it ever happened again. The next day, he went, got the key, and saw a sign saying “Sunday service, 11:00. Coffee following.” He asked the woman what that was about. Her name was Roberta, and she told him in a way he found strangely moving.
It was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to him, and it played on his mind: “Our church needs you. You should come. You would be good for us.” The words stuck in his mind and would not leave. They addressed him over, and over again: “Our church needs you. You should come. You would be good for us.” He didn’t go that Sunday; but, the following one, he did. It was there he heard a sentence he couldn’t forget. It said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He also heard, “Turn, then, and live.” Never having been there before, Junior returned—he lived. Roberta had been right. It was good for them. But they didn’t like it. Being last, Junior got there first—ahead of them. There’s nothing worse for self-righteous religion than sinners who truly repent: Jonah all over again. The public sinners are going in ahead of us. But, then, it may be a greater gift that we’re getting in at all!
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind….”
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Roberta was a self-described “change agent.” It was her way of letting you know she was a pain. As a “change agent,” Roberta could be rude, and you were supposed to take it. For instance, she liked to schedule meetings for 7:00 and then show up at 7:20—just to irritate people like George who compulsively arrived a half hour early just to shame Roberta’s disorganized delinquence.
George lived behind a mahogany desk ten feet long, four feet wide, and polished brighter than Titanic brass: you could see your reflection floating in the glossy finish. It would be a severe understatement to say George liked his executive playing field neat: he liked it hyper neat. There hadn’t been a stray paper clip, redundant memo, or untended envelope on George’s desk since Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York.
George despised all things tardy, disorderly, and uncivil. Anyone who arrived at a meeting fewer than fifteen minutes early was a slacker who couldn’t be trusted—and wasn’t. Anyone who came wearing an unkempt shirt was no more respected than someone who came to worship without a proper jacket and tie or (in the case of women) without an appropriate hat. Incivility! In George’s mind, proper decorum knew no bounds: grammar, subject/verb agreement, adverbial modification, modest superlative use, prepositional propriety—civilization depends on these things!
It was not a good day when George met Junior, though it did count for something that they met in a V.A. hospital. George was known to cut some slack on account of military service, though the exact character of Junior’s service remained uncertain: he had undertaken training as an Air Force pilot, but (due to motion sickness) had failed to qualify, and had thereby been discharged before noon on the 90th day of his service—which technically meant he did not qualify as a veteran—though on occasion he nonetheless found himself in the V.A. Whether by dint of bureaucratic blunder, medical necessity, or both, we were never sure.
In any case, Junior was dying—critically ill from a lifetime of alcohol, firearms, and tobacco—he chased women too, though that doesn’t come into this account. Now, near the end of his life, Junior’s emphysema and liver failure had converged to number his days on two hands at most—more likely on one. Having no family to speak of—at least none who would acknowledge him—Junior had asked Roberta if she might find an attorney to assist in the disposal of his modest estate: a two room shack on the edge of town, a ’69 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (with vinyl top and an 8-track player!), and an ancient Harley-Davidson motorcycle Peter Fonda would have found quaint.
Roberta was Junior’s pastor. George was also a parishioner, though that modest statement hardly tells the tale. George had been born into the parish, the only child of the congregation’s single wealthy family, a lawyer who had inherited significant (if not vast) wealth, a (three-time) past president of the parish, lifetime chair of the congregation’s foundation, and an acknowledged benefactor to the wider community. To say the least, George was respected.
Junior was not. He had joined St. Paul’s as a participant in the AA group that met Monday nights in the church basement. It’s not that Junior was particularly spiritual, but his addictions had somehow led to religion, though not in any conventional sense. Like his pastor, he was chronically late, disheveled, unkempt, and poor. In fact, Roberta had got the Twelve Step group going, and it was Roberta who had welcomed Junior to the church, baptized him, and visited him in the hospital.
Figuring he’d likely be out of the office for lunch anyway, Roberta had asked George to come by the hospital at noon, saying: “A poorer member of the parish is near death and could use some legal advice. Would you be willing to help?” How could he say “No”?
George arrived at 11:30. Roberta got there about 12:20. George looked as though he’d stepped directly out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue, Roberta from the aisles of Goodwill. Her pink clergy shirt bore signs of a hasty breakfast; her Levis were none too large, and her Birkenstocks had seen better days. When Roberta came tripping into the hospital room without so much as an “I’m sorry,” it was all George could do to control his fabulously wicked tongue, an effort he had been making since arriving at Junior’s room only to find it empty. Junior was evidently out for some sort of procedure, and would be back “shortly.”
Roberta didn’t appear to mind. Generally oblivious to time, she sat and made irritating small talk, while George paced the tiny room, asking occasional questions about Junior’s state of mind, what preparations had (or had not) been made, names of kinfolk, and the like.
At length, they wheeled in Junior, his jaundiced body emaciated, oxygen tubes askew, eyes glassy, and wandering. George bent immediately to his task, asking precise, earnest questions: “Do you now desire to record your will? To whom do you wish to bequeath? Have you any documentation?” But the more George inquired, the more obdurate Junior became. His pulse was irregular, his blood pressure dangerously low, and his breathing erratic: he was plainly dying, and more than a little confused. In response to George’s questions, Junior mumbled, “He don’t talk English good,” and turned his face away.
Roberta touched water, laid her hand on Junior’s forehead, and asked George to do the same. He did. She made the sign of the cross and recalled Junior’s baptism into Christ, his death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
George was stunned. “He don’t talk English good.” “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Pink-clad and jumbled, Roberta had prayed and nothing much had happened. Yet, George felt he’d witnessed a miracle. Maybe for the first time, George had changed his mind. He was suddenly glad to have been stood up by a dying man. He was gladder still to have stayed late, seeing that in staying late he was finally on time. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Change agent, indeed. “He don’t talk English good.” It no longer mattered.
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
“Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
“Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
According to Cardinal Newman, Incarnation (God in human flesh) is the most unique of all Christian teachings, and today we see why: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands off the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Incarnation (and for that matter resurrection!) inescapably involves suffering and death.
Matthew introduces the prediction of Jesus’ death with these word: “From that time on….” But, from what time? In the previous verse, Jesus sternly commands his disciples to keep his identity secret. He didn’t want his identity as “the Christ” known.
We know from what Matthew says that the disclosure of Jesus’ impending death was unwelcomed. In fact Peter publically rebuked (dishonored?) Jesus for saying such things. In words rich with ironic tension, Peter admonishes Jesus and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But, of course, in speaking this way, Peter is addressing both God and Lord, demanding (in a sense) that God forbid God from doing what God must do.
As such, Peter speaks for us when we command God to damn this or that, as though the Lord of the universe were at our beck and call. Peter speaks for us when we swear an oath, use the Lord’s Name in careless fashion, and thereby imply that God serves us, and not the other way round.
Peter rebukes Jesus, and an argument ensues in which Jesus famously utters his ad hominem attack: “Get behind me Satan! You are not on the side of God, but of men.” Here more gently translated, “You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
But who wouldn’t? I mean, what human being wouldn’t set their mind on things human? How could they do otherwise? Who wouldn’t try to prevent their friend from suffering and death? And especially if that friend had just been revealed as “the Messiah,” the Christ? It seems reasonable to assume that “Messiah” means privilege and protection from the kind of atrocity Jesus foretells. Why wouldn’t Peter and God protect the Messiah? Wouldn’t it be a “divine thing” to preserve the life of Christ? Why does Jesus attack Peter as “Satan” when Peter simply warns Jesus against suffering and death?
Satan, of course, is another name for “the Devil,” the Tempter, the fallen angel who at least biblically works to thwart the will of God. When Jesus says he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be put to death, and be raised, it’s the must that troubles; it indicates divine volition—the will of God. In other words, Jesus foretells God’s intention and, from what little we know of God, at least we know that what God intends comes to pass. The creation is, therefore, no accident—but the direct consequence and manifestation of God’s will. So also, our own presence: we, too, may be viewed as direct manifestations of God’s mind, God’s will, God’s intention worked out in created stuff. The same may be said of the whole creation: the earth, seas, sky, planets, sun, moon, and stars in their orbits. This is all well and good.
And yet….Something’s not right. In fact, a lot seems wrong. And I don’t refer merely to public wrongs like Assad’s Syria and ISSIS, and murder by drone, and murder by beheading, and murder by inaction, and murder by starvation, and murder in Fitchburg. Why is it generally so much easier to see public wrongs than private ones? Why is it so much easier for me to see your wrongs than it is for me to see my own?
The problem seems more subtle than the obvious wrongs of murder, and rape, and violence in every shade of gray. Why, after all, did Jesus prohibit his friends from telling people he was the Christ? Then, too, why did there even need to be a Christ? And why must there be secrets? Never mind a messianic secret. More to the point, why do I have secrets? And, here things may begin to get a bit uncomfortable, why do you have secrets? And why do we feel the need to keep secret things about ourselves—certain uncomfortable things—things that are only too human and probably not divine? Or are they? Incarnation muddies the waters. Now that God has become human flesh, exactly what things are human and what things divine?
But, of course, at least in part Incarnation means God knows our secrets—all of them, and not only the things we do, but the things we don’t do; and the things we imagine and the things we refuse to imagine. Hence, Jeremiah’s laments—complaints to God. This is the surest sign of Jeremiah’s fidelity as a prophet: he complains to God, tells God off, accuses God of being fickle, and false, and untrue. When, all along, God is true, but hidden as false; revealed, but under opposites; merciful, but just; loving, but hard—the Rock, the Mighty Fortress, the Powerful weakness. The God who forbids murder yet saves the world by the murder of his Son. The God who rules the world in timeless order, yet enters the world in disorder. The God who is good, yet suffers our evil. The God who is powerful, but comes to us in the weakness of a child, a rejected and crucified Jew; comes to us not in condemnation only, but as the Condemned, as the Damned, and the Dead in order to deliver us from the very condemnation, damnation, and death we inflict upon him.
After all, the story does not end with “Get behind me Satan,” but with the crucified Christ raised on the third day; not with the resurrection of the condemned Christ only, but with the promise of our resurrection as well. Sermons end. Our sin ends. Our lives end. But resurrection is the end-beginning that has no end. Resurrection is where the story both ends and begins. Therefore, in light of Christ’s risen flesh, we are free to deny our flesh, take up the cross, and follow him. All that we might both die and live in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:27-21a
“Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
“But strive for the greater gifts…..”
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Christ’s incarnation informed Last Sunday’s sermon—and especially some of incarnation’s more troubling dimensions: like, for instance, Nazareth. Today’s Gospel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, yes: Jesus Nazareth, the crucified and risen Jew. But his goodness is not the whole story. A first century Jew, he bears some (if not all) the marks of racial, gender, and religious bias toward gentiles, women, and Pharisees. Last week, we heard that the incarnation of Christ involves everything human—even the ugly stuff. You may recall the Canaanite woman and Jesus referring to her and her people as “dogs” with whom it would be unfair to share the children (of Israel’s) bread; you may recall the woman’s subversive response to Christ’s offensive language; how she parries Jesus’ slur to reveal divine subversion in surprising terms: “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” God’s grace abounds even in ugliness.
The readings for St. Bartholomew’s Day advance the incarnation argument: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members.” Not only has God entered history as a human person, a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, says St. Paul, the baptized assembly of believers is the incarnate body of Christ. In other words, Christ’s incarnation is not diminished by death, but by his resurrection, is now extended in the Eucharistic assembly: “You are the body of Christ, and individual members.”
What does this have to do with St. Bartholomew? Last Wednesday’s Bible Study observed that none of today’s readings mention Bartholomew. Though unmentioned in John’s Gospel, Bartholomew is listed among the apostles in the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, and usually next to Philip. Why, then, not read from those citations? Moreover, in St. John’s Gospel, the person Philip found and told of Jesus is not named “Bartholomew,” but “Nathanael.” What gives?
Throughout the centuries, many have suspected that John’s Nathanael is Bartholomew in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. Be that as it may, as Professor Barrett might have said, whether named Bartholomew or Nathanael, the person in question was known to Jesus and associated with him.
Moreover, at least in John’s Gospel (as “Nathanael”), he exhibits a kind of brash courage. As he approaches, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” At this, (we shall call him “Bartholomew”) he inquires, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In astonished reply, Bartholomew says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus apparently finds such assertions surprising. He asks, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” He then promises, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
At least since St. Augustine, commentators have noted parallels between this saying and Genesis 28.12, “the angels of God ascending and descending” on Jacob’s ladder. That is, Augustine and others have noted the parallel between angels ascending and descending both in Jesus’ promise to Bartholomew and in Jacob’s dream. But it’s also remarkable that the Genesis dream includes these words, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants.” In addition to angels ascending and descending, both passages bear divine identity: in Genesis, the Lord (“I am” the God of your fathers) identifies himself to Jacob; and in John Bartholomew identifies Jesus as “Son of God” and “King of Israel,” that is, as “Messiah.” In other words, John seems to use the Genesis reference to confirm Bartholomew’s confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and “Messiah.” Moreover, the citation may argue that the God of all creation enters human life and history at precarious times, and by unlikely means: Jacob, fleeing his brother’s wrath; Jesus of Nazareth suffering rejection and crucifixion.
Bartholomew was apparently well acquainted with Christ’s precarious life. Some traditions hold that he was martyred in Armenia; flayed alive, and crucified upside down (some say he may have been beheaded). In any case, by his suffering, and death, Bartholomew bore witness to Jesus of Nazareth: “the Son of God,” and “Messiah of Israel.” Tradition also says that Bartholomew made it all the way to India and there preached Christ before suffering martyrdom. Over the centuries, various relics of Bartholomew’s mutilated body found their way into the faith and devotion of the medieval church. So that, whether in Canterbury (an arm), or in Frankfurt (fragments of skull), or Rome (remaining members) Christians have venerated Bartholomew as an example of faithful courage and witness to the crucified Jesus of (unlikely!) Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Astonishingly, yes: the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, at length, the church.
What does it mean to be the church? What does it mean to be an apostle? What does it mean to be a Christian? If Jesus of Nazareth is both “Son of God,” “King of Israel” (Messiah), it means the church is the body of Christ enfleshed in us for the sake of the world. If Jesus of Nazareth is the crucified and risen “Son of God” and Messiah, Paul says the church is more than a club, more than a religious organization. If Jesus of Nazareth is “the Son of God” and the “Messiah of Israel,” then the Church is not only the collective body of Christ; the Apostle says we—you and I—are individual members of Christ—we—you and I—are members of Christ’s crucified and risen body. By means of our flesh, our witness, our action, our behavior, our prayers, our service, our song, our kneeling and receiving bread and wine that Jesus Christ is incarnate for the life of the whole inhabited world. Something good can come out of Nazareth! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.