Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Have Blessed Feet
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Have you ever noticed that some Christians talk about God, about Jesus, and about the Bible differently than you do? How is it that we can read the same book, belong to the same Lord, and worship the same God and still end up believing such different things about what it means to be a Christian? Sometimes that's a good thing. I like it that people in a Bible study or Sunday school class see the meaning of passages differently from me. But other times I find it difficult or even repulsive, like when I hear a preacher say something about God using the fear of damnation to scare us into believing in him. That's not the gospel. That's not love. That's psychological torture that's certain to lure someone into a false understanding of what it means to belong to the Good Shepherd. What are we to do when most of the Christian ideas you hear on television or on the radio or in casual conversation are heresies? What are you to do?
It turns out that St. Dominic had an answer. In the late twelfth century, Catharism was becoming popular in southern Europe. It was a splinter from Christianity that emphasized dualism. They believed in two different but overlapping realities--one good and one bad--and two separate but competing gods--the good God of the New Testament and the bad god of the Old Testament. The good God created our souls, but the bad god created the physical realm, which is tainted by sin and the effects of sin. The purpose of life, therefore, is to leave this limited physical realm and return to the spiritual state that our souls were created to inhabit.
Sure, that sounds a little strange, but really it's a pretty attractive system. Cathars had an answer for why people who had been baptized into new life were still stuck as sinners. It was the bad body competing with the good soul. They had an answer for where evil came from--not from the God who saves us in Jesus but the god who created the mortal bodies and physical world that has ensnared our immortal angelic spirits. They believed in Jesus and called themselves Christians, and they understood that Jesus' resurrection was the return of his incarnate spirit to its natural glorified state.
But there were problems, of course. For starters, we don't believe in two gods, and we believe that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. We might not have a good answer for where evil comes from, but we do know that the story of salvation that God has been writing in all of creation history is the same story from the same author. But how do you convince a heretic whose system seems to have such good answers for such terrible problems that he or she is wrong?
Dominic was convinced that even though the Catholic Church was pretty good at chasing down heretics, capturing them, convicting them, and executing them, the better way to win them over was good preaching from good preachers. In his estimation, that was something the Church was lacking. He understood that force wouldn't work. Instead, humility was crucial. He sold all of his possessions and founded a new religious community that accepted the absolute poverty of the Franciscans but that focused exclusively on study and preaching. He attracted a handful of followers, who became known as the Ordo Praedicatorum, or Order of Preachers, which is why Dominicans still have "O.P." after their name to this day. Their plan for converting the Cathars didn't work very well. It turns out that the Cathars were more interested in fighting than listening to good, humble preachers. But the real success of Dominic's mission is the transformation of preaching that took place throughout the church as his order began to grow and spread.
"How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" the prophet Isaiah tells us. The apostle Paul picks up this line in his letter to the Romans, when he defines the focus of his ministry as bringing the good news of salvation to all people--Jews and Gentiles. In his day, it was heresy to believe that the xenos (or other-ones, foreigners, aliens) had as much access to Israel's God as the children of Israel. But Paul had received a message directly from Jesus himself, and that message was that God's love belongs to all people. The Way of Jesus, which he had worked so hard to extinguish, became his own path. And Paul desired earnestly for all people to know the saving Way of Jesus.
"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved," he wrote, "but how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?" Paul knew that the good news of Jesus Christ--the real gospel of salvation for all people through God's grace and love--needs preachers like you and me.
The world is desperate for something to believe in, and that desperation is being filled by those who claim to follow Jesus. As far as I can tell, most of the "Christians" filling that vacuum are preaching a message that isn't the gospel. It's "believe what we tell you to believe" or "be a good person" or "love your neighbor." All of those things can be good. It's right for us to love our neighbor and strive for a holy life, but those things don't get you to heaven. That's not what it means to participate in God's kingdom, but that's what people are hearing. And it's leading to heresies like "God loves good people more than bad people" or "only people who agree with us can go to heaven" or "your salvation is dependent on how you live your life." All of those things undermine the good news that God's love isn't dependent on us, that our salvation isn't a product of our own doing, that we go to heaven not by our choosing of God but by God's choosing of us.
But how will the world know the true saving love and grace of God in Jesus Christ if no one tell them about it? How will people know to cry out for Jesus to save them if they don't understand what it means to trust in him instead of themselves? How will people know that Jesus shows us that God is worth trusting in unless someone tells them about the transformation that faith provides? How? We have work to do--not just me and preachers like me, all of us.
Be humble. Read the Bible every day. Study scripture and what thoughtful and faithful people have written about it. Pray for the grace to share good news with those in your own circle. Just because someone claims to follow Jesus does not know that that person understands the liberating, life-giving love that he brings to the world. You have good news to share. Blessed be your feet as one who comes to share it.