Tuesday, May 2, 2017

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

May 2, 2017 - Feast of St. Athanasius
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The question for followers of Jesus isn't whether things will be difficult. They will. Jesus makes that clear to us over and over and over. The question is whether we will endure the hardships that come our way as a result of our decision to follow Jesus as Lord. In Matthew 10, Jesus says to his disciples, "You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." But I don't think he is speaking only to the twelve. The world we live in and the faith that we proclaim make it clear to us that his words are spoken as much to twenty-first-century disciples as to those who followed him in ancient times.
"A disciple is not above his teacher," Jesus explains, "nor the slave above his master. Instead, it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher and the slave like the master." It is enough for us who follow Jesus to be like him. Why would we expect to escape the same hardships he faced? Why would we expect to be above the rejection that he endured? Because we live in a Christian country? Because Christianity has become the religio populi? To follow Jesus--to claim him as Lord--is to confront the powers of this world even (and perhaps especially) if those powers are manifest in individuals and groups that claim allegiance to Jesus while working against the kingdom of God. Do you think that you can avoid the same criticism, betrayal, and rejection that Jesus endured when you speak the truth of the gospel to those who use the name of Jesus to justify their own power-grabbing agenda?
Today is the feast of St. Athanasius, one of the great teachers and defenders of the faith. Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicaea, the great ecumenical meeting of the church at which Trinitarian orthodoxy began to be enshrined as the faith of the followers of Jesus. At issue was the divinity of the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. Arius and those followed him taught that the Son could not be of the same full divinity as the Father. They made a good point. How can we proclaim the full divinity of the Son (or the Spirit) and still proclaim that God is One? How can God himself suffer and die as Jesus the Incarnate One so clearly did? Jesus, they concluded, must be a son of God whose nature was similar to that of God the Father but not the same. After all, who would want to worship a crucified God?
Athanasius rejected their claims. He went to Nicaea as a deacon and secretary of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. His skillful arguments won the day, and the church acclaimed the Son as being of the same substance (homoousious) as the Father and not merely of like or similar substance (homoiousious). The Nicene Creed that we say, although not quite the same as the creed enshrined at the Council of Nicaea, does still contain that important and controversial clarification: God the Son, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, is of the same, identical substance, nature, godhead as God the Father. Although the church adopted that as its belief, the powers that be were not satisfied.
As Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us, Athanasius "fearlessly defended Nicene Christology against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians." For this belief and the petulant attitude with which he defended it, Athanasius was sent into exile five times. The world did not want to accept a God who would die shamefully for the sake of the people, but Athanasius would have it no other way. To him, following Jesus the Crucified One is to follow God the Incarnate One. They are the same. As followers of Jesus, we cannot know God except as the one who became incarnate, suffered as one of us, and died. That is the fullest expression of God's glory--not the concentration of power in an omnipotent, omniscient divinity but in the emptying of power in the rejected, betrayed, and crucified one who is God among us.
Think you can follow Jesus and stay out of trouble? Think you can proclaim the truth of the gospel to the powers of this world and avoid conflict? Think you can stand up with the one who emptied himself and suffered in the ultimate repudiation of earthly power and not feel the heat of that power's fury?
"Have no fear of them," Jesus tells us. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." The powers of this world may seek to destroy your earthly life, but they have no power over you. "Even all the hairs of your head are counted." Not one of you will be lost. "Those who endure to the end will be saved."
The way of God is always in conflict with the powers of this world. That is what the cross means. But do not fear. The cross is the way of God. It is the way to true life. We cannot be followers of Jesus if we are not in conflict with the powers of the earth. We cannot claim to have a share in the life that Jesus gives us if we are not standing with him in opposition to those who seek to concentrate power and wealth and authority. No, the way of Jesus is not easy. The way of the cross is hard. But it is the way that leads to abundant life--for you, for me, and for all people. May we die alongside Christ at the hands of the powers of this world so that we, like him, may be raised to the new life of grace.

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