The Sunday Sermon: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – July 29, 2018
Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-23
What is the Role of Faith in the 21st Century?
What a month it’s been. Quick question: How many of you have been here every Sunday this month? Five of them, counting today. Five Sundays on which we have explored only a few of the deep questions, of the provocative mysteries, of our faith. This is the fifth Sunday, the “bonus Sunday” of the month, and with the past four week’s explorations behind us, we have in a real sense responded already to this morning’s sermon question.
On the first Sunday of this month, we faced a harsh reality. That reality is, we’re all going to die. So is everyone we love. That couldn’t be more obvious, of course, yet we rarely, if ever, say it out loud. But there it was four weeks ago. There it is, still. There are many ways that death can happen and we have experienced all of them in the history of the world, from the most peaceful to the most horrific deaths imaginable. But in one way or another, sooner or later, we are all going to die – you, me, every one of us.
That is sad, harsh news, indeed, except … for faith, our faith. Our Christian faith says that death is not the last word. That affirmation itself has been trivialized over two millennia of Christianity. With it, we too often have been encouraged to pretend death is less than it is because “we are believers.” We shouldn’t do that. Death is loss and it is sorrow. But it is not annihilation. We believe, we give our hearts to, a “life” after death, to a power greater than death, to a Love that conquers death. Mysterious as it is, we say “Yes” to what happens to us after we die. That’s one role faith plays in the 21st century. It gives us a certainty that if life cannot separate from the reality and Love of God, then neither will death.
On the second Sunday of this month, we faced another harsh reality. That reality is that bad things are going to happen to us “good” people. I know, we can argue about whether or not we’re “good people,” but … regardless, bad things will happen to us, have happened to us. And that too, is sad news, news made even sadder if we didn’t have our faith. Given that understanding, given the experience of bad things happening to us even when we are faithful, through our faith we discover, experience and express a “God” that is not the cause of that pain, but is in the midst of it with us. We affirm God not apart from, but deep within this community, this particular Body of Christ, and the thousands of bodies around the world like this one. We believe in, we give our hearts to, a community that we allow to hold us when those bad things happen, and to help us when we are ready. (Incidentally, this same community holds and helps us when good things happen, too, we just may not experience it as compellingly, but it’s here. We’re here.) So, that’s another role faith plays in the 21st century. Mysterious as it is, our response to why bad things happen to us is “community.”
On the third and fourth Sundays we talked just a bit about a few of our traditions, prayer and Sabbath; we talked about one of our doctrines, justification; and, we talked about two of our most special revelations of “God,” the Bible and Jesus, himself. That’s yet another role that our faith plays for us in this century. Our Christian faith gives us a traction in history, a past that we can learn from. Our Christian faith gives us practices and disciplines and teachings, a present that keeps us close to Love, to “God.” And our Christian faith reveals for us a “more perfect way,” a hope for the future.
So, it’s on that foundation – explored, expounded upon, and explained however imperfectly this past month – that we engage our final question of the month’s journey and discover the most urgent role our faith must play in our lives, in this century or any other century that Christians have or will live.
First, let’s pray together … And now, listen – really try to listen for the Word of God. The first five verses of our reading from Ephesians, verses fifteen to nineteen of chapter one. Read Ephesians 1:15-19 … How profoundly beautiful. The Word of the Lord … Thanks be to God.
Beautiful, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? We hear passages like his one, many times from Paul’s letters to the early church communities, and we feel something – if we’re really paying attention, we feel something. “God” in the biggest, broadest, deepest ways is “at work.” We hear God acting “for us” and “upon us” and before we think too much about it, we feel God at work as we read these “cosmic” scriptures: spirits of wisdom and revelation, eyes of enlightened hearts, riches of glorious inheritances, and immeasurable greatness. We feel it.
But, I think, we don’t get it. Do you?
This passage and almost all like it are not ultimately about God. Even though we begin “theologically” (Yes?!) and God is powerfully present, this passage is about us, about God acting not simply “for us and upon us,” but “with us and through us.” Paul’s prayer is that we get busy doing what Jesus did in his lifetime and what God, in Christ, never stops doing: bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. That, I believe with all my heart, is the “role of Faith in the 21st century:”
Buttressed with the certainty of eternal life (however we may imagine it), equipped by and with a community that sustains us in our living, supplied with practices and teachings that constantly remind us of and reconnect us to the source of our power, and provided with scripture and with a human life that reveal to us “the Way,” our faith must be used to transform the world. Otherwise it remains passive, and comfortable, and ultimately self-serving.
In verse fifteen, Paul speaks of “love for all the saints.” He begins this letter, and most of his letters, writing “to the saints (who are in Ephesus).” In the New Testament the most commonly used title for Christians is “saints.” It literally means “holy ones.” We may, and we do, protest that we are not up to the tasks of sainthood, that we lack the courage and strength to live faithfully in such tumultuous times as ours, that the “Saints” are those in the past who have “ones much holier” than we will ever be. But, Paul isn’t asking us if we want to be saints, or suggesting we may such one day. Our “sainthood” here is not up for discussion. If we profess Jesus as our Lord, and we do, then it’s not matter of becoming a saint, it’s a matter of being one. We are “holy ones.” Paul writes to us to inform us that we have been appointed. This morning’s prayer, Paul’s prayer and the prayer of the world is that we will realize that and live into it.
I think we do that every day in some small way. Let’s not be too harsh on ourselves. We share our lives together. We laugh. We love. We learn. We get involved with making the world a better place through raising our children to love their neighbor, by loving those neighbors ourselves, by living our lives in the direction of something “More,” something sacred and divine and Holy, that we can’t escape. We educate and empower ourselves to live and love as God in Christ calls us to live and love. And then we do it … some. But we need to do it more. The role of Faith in this day and time calls us to do more. Not just to live righteous and just lives ourselves, but to offer such life to others: to the parentless child, the defenseless parent, and the terrified refugee, yes, but also to the spoiled, overindulged children, the impervious and entitled adults, and the obstinate and unmoved residents of this, or any other, country. Our faith calls us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
That’s difficult to do in our time and in our lives. We are the comfortable. We profess ultimate “allegiance” to God whenever we gather, yes – but then later in the day that allegiance interferes with what we perceive to be our own well-being. Better take care of me and mine first. We profess ultimate allegiance to God whenever we gather here, yes – but then later in the week that allegiance interferes with the political processes of the world. Better kept them separate.
That’s not new. The bible is pretty much all about Israel struggling with the call of their emerging faith in God, and the early church, too. It’s nothing new, but maybe it’s a bit more difficult given our own faith’s relationship with the “empire” of this world since the fourth century. We easily identify the “obvious evils” in our world, in our country, in others, and maybe in ourselves, but not the more subtle ones.
South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey challenged American preachers, and through us all people of faith, years ago when he noted that, unlike what he termed the “obvious evils” of, say, German Nazism or South African apartheid, we have to “unwrap” our religion – our Christian faith – from the not-so-obvious nationalism we have embraced. He says that the kindness, compassion, and caring of most of us in this country on a personal, individual level, is disconnected from the way that American power as a whole is experienced by the rest of the world, especially by “the poor of the earth.” We embrace and even engage a personal piety, he suggests, and “let our institutions do the sinning for us.” Andre Faul, Sr., shared those observations with me a few weeks ago and they have haunted me as I prepared this sermon message for us this last Sunday in July.
The church is one of the institutions that Bishop Storey calls out, at least it is when we it don’t call out the disconnect between our personal professions and our institutional practices. There was an article in the New York Times just yesterday that described how the National Prayer Breakfast, held in Washington D.C. annually since 1953, is becoming, more and more, a hub for special interests. Similar to the World Economic Forum, some are saying, except with Jesus as the organizing principle. That’s been happening for years, the article notes, but has become even more prevalent in these past years. Now that doesn’t have to be conspiratorial, but it should give us pause. Are we claiming the moral high ground on more personal levels but allowing our institutions, government and religion in this case, to carry out policies and make professions of faith we wouldn’t be comfortable with in our own households? That’s a problem.
Our Faith – the radical trust in and fidelity to the Kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of this world, American or otherwise – challenges us to be better people and challenges the world to be a better place. That is terrifying to a Church and to those who call themselves members of it who are concerned mainly with personal salvation and getting through life on our own. But that cannot be any part of the role of faith in this century, anymore than it should have been in any century before us. The central point of Paul’s prayer and the primary focus of our faith in the 21st century is as old as faith, itself: The reality we call God, and the Way we follow in Jesus as our Christ, is above every other power or authority and better than any other way offered in our lives. God and Christ call us to full life and our faith in both calls us to offer that full life to all.
The early church faced the same dilemma. But Paul didn’t wring his hands over the current state of his world, equivocating about his role in it and wondering what to do, as we too often do in our world. Paul declares a better way, a more perfect way, both here already and to come in the Way of Jesus Christ. And he prays today that we all may work for a better tomorrow.
As Christians, we are shaped by more than our experiences of the present. We are shaped by our hopes, by the future of God into which we are living. And that is the power of Christian faith, or any faith so conceived and so believed – to transform the world through hope and action. God put this power to work in Christ … (back to our scripture) Read Ephesians 1:20-23.
Now, as it always has been, it’s our turn. May it be so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 22, 2018