Monday, September 20, 2021

Wisdom From Above


September 19, 2021 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:00.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?” When James wrote those words, it seems he had a particular criticism in mind, but for a moment, let’s take him at face value. Who are the wise and understanding people in your life? Who is the wisest person you have ever known? Think about it. Think about who that person is. Picture them in your mind. Who is it? What is it that makes that person so wise? What is it about them that you admire most? What part of them would you most hope to emulate?

I wonder. If we all took time to share stories about the wisest person we have ever known and describe what it was about them that we admire so much, I wonder how many of our answers would sound the same and how many would highlight different sorts of wisdom. What is wisdom? In almost every circumstance, the answer is contextual. A wise boss has different skills than a wise grandparent. A wise physician is praised for different things than a wise soldier. A wise hedge fund manager can probably make you a lot of money, but a wise friend is the one who can help you spend it well. 

If you were putting together a team of people to lead a church—a vestry, perhaps—what kind of wisdom would you look for? Financial wisdom? Legal wisdom? Creative wisdom? Strategic wisdom? Conventional wisdom suggests that a balanced approach might be best—picking the wisest people from a number of disciplines, all of whom would work together to lead a church into its full potential. That sounds like a winning team. But how could you be sure that such a diverse pool of talent would come together and set aside their individual egos in order to accomplish the common good? How would the brightest and best ever figure out how to work together? Whose particular wisdom would be subjected to the wisdom of others in order to get anything done?

When James wrote to the Jewish-Christian community, he recognized that there were two competing wisdoms at work within the church and that they threatened to rip the Body of Christ apart. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he asked. But, more than asking them to identify the people who they considered to be wise, he asked them to consider what kind of wisdom belongs in the church. In every generation, there are many people who are wise and who have gifts and talents to offer the Christian community, but, as James explained, there is only one wisdom that leads to the building up of Christ’s body.

If someone is truly wise, James wrote, that person must show by their good life that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. That is what wisdom from above looks like—wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That kind of godly wisdom produces a harvest of righteousness—a bounty of deep and abiding goodness that resonates throughout the community and beyond. Because we belong to God in Jesus Christ, the one who gave himself up to death for the sake of the world, we measure fruitfulness and the wisdom that produces it in ways that don’t compute in earthly terms.

So often, though, the church forgets how to look for and rely on the wisdom that comes from above and falls into the trap of celebrating the sort of wisdom that carries weight in the boardroom and in the courtroom, in the state house and in the White House. It is to that kind of wisdom, James writes, that those who have “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in their hearts have revealed their true allegiance. Their wisdom is nothing less than earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic, and it always produces disorder and wickedness of every kind. 

The word James uses to convey what is translated for us as “selfish ambition” is an important word in this passage. It’s a peculiar word that the apostle Paul also uses several times to describe the forces that tend to fracture the Christian community. It is derived from the Greek word that literally means “work for hire” or “mercenary activity.” But the best way to understand what James and Paul have in mind when they use that word is to look at the only pre-New-Testament example of its use that historians and archeologists have discovered. In his work Politics, Aristotle used that word to describe “the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day.”  Imagine that: leaders in the church, acting like greedy politicians, seeking their own interests at the expense of the community as a whole. 

I find it strangely comforting to know that the church has struggled with these forces since its very beginning. As Benedict de Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher wrote, “I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.”  

What is the readiest criterion of our faith in the twenty-first century? As you read the news, look at social media, and listen to popular culture, what behaviors do you think most readily describe contemporary Christianity? In a healthy, balanced, peaceable congregation like ours, we like to pretend that we are immune from such rancor and hatred—that what fringe radicals do in the name of Jesus has nothing to do with us—but no branch of the Jesus Movement is isolated completely from all of the rest. And, as far as I can tell, the Christians who are getting the most attention—the ones with the microphones—are sowing the exact opposite of peace. As members of the Body of Christ, as participants in the wider Christian community, that isn’t someone else’s issue to address. It’s ours.

I find the church’s continual struggle with selfish ambition and worldly wisdom strangely comforting because that means the remedy for us is more or less the same as it was in James’ day. “Those conflicts and disputes among you,” James wrote, “where do they come from?” Not from the hearts of other people but even from within us. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James asked. Each of us—all of us—are subject within our hearts to that conflict between the wisdom from above and the wisdom of the world. As long as we are in this life, that war will take place within us. But God working through us has the power to put to death that selfish ambition that is as natural and familiar as every breath we take.

In the end, the answer is beautifully familiar to us. “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” James wrote. Subject yourselves, realign yourselves, reorient yourselves to your proper relationship with God. That is the principal act of worship. We worship God in order to situate ourselves where God can get through to us and shape our lives and lead us into true blessing. To get to that place, we have to let go of our own selfish ambition and cling to the wisdom of God. When we come to worship, we do this not only with our minds and hearts but with our bodies, too, every time we kneel. 

By submitting ourselves to God—by bowing before the Almighty—we are also resisting the devil. The word translated as “resist” is a word that literally means “withstand”—as in to take our stand against the one who would deceive us. When we “draw near” to God—when we worship God—we take our stand by refusing to bow to the one whose devilish wisdom brings disorder and wickedness into this world and into the church. 

True worship, therefore, is our real hope. This is where God’s people find their egos dissolved and their selfish tendencies replaced by the will of God. That happens every time we come together as long as we come together to worship—to submit ourselves to God. I don’t know what you came here today expecting to take away with you. But, if you’ll start instead with what you can give—with letting go of that part of yourself that gets in the way of what God is doing in your life—God will take it from you and will leave you something even better in its place.

Monday, September 13, 2021

What Kind Of Messiah Is Jesus?


September 12, 2021 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:45.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Has that question ever been more important for the church to answer? Who do you say that I am? Not who am I? Not what do the scriptures say about me? But you—my followers, my disciples—who do you say that I am?

Some of us say that Jesus is the one who cares about the poor and the vulnerable. Some of us say that he is the one who welcomes outcasts and sinners back into God’s fold. Some of us say that he is the one who protects the unborn. And some of us say that he is the one who protects the women whose bodies have become a political battleground. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who promotes freedom and liberty and self-determination. And some of us say that he is the one who demands sacrifice and surrender and selflessness. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who came to make his followers rich beyond measure. And some of us say that he came to teach them to embrace a life of destitute poverty. 

Who among us gets to decide who Jesus really is? We all claim to be Christians. We claim to be his followers, his disciples. In all our various churches, we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. But we talk about Jesus in radically different ways. We make him the centerpiece of competing platforms and conflicting lifestyles. As Christians, all of us call Jesus, “Savior, Lord, Christ, Messiah,” but do any of us remember what any of that means?

By the time we get to Mark 8, we have been asking the question, “Who is Jesus really?” for a long time. The gospel writer lets us know in the very first verse of his account that this is the “good news of Jesus the Christ,” but, except for that editorial introduction, we haven’t gotten a clear answer yet. The demons in chapter 1 recognized Jesus, but he silenced them before they had a chance to tell anyone about “the holy one of God.” After Jesus stilled the storm in chapter 4, the disciples wondered aloud, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” but still no answer was given. In chapter 6, people from his hometown expressed their confusion and derision that this carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, a man whom they knew well, could teach with such unfamiliar authority and power. 

Every miracle, every teaching, every encounter up to this point had been a way to make the case for Jesus’ real identity, and, just when things were starting to become clear, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they replied, Moses or Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he turned the question back onto them and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” It’s the answer we’ve been waiting for. It’s the first time since the first verse of Mark that we’ve heard that word, Christ. It’s the first time anyone has acknowledged fully who Jesus really is, but it turns out, as our own continued disagreement over Jesus’ identity reveals, calling Jesus the Messiah is only half of the job.

The other half is deciding what Messiah means and what it means for us to give Jesus that title. We more often use the Greek version, Christ, of that Semitic word, Messiah, but they mean the same thing—anointed. To call Jesus the Messiah or Christ is to call him the anointed one of God—the one chosen and equipped by God to do whatever it is that God has entrusted him to do. To someone like Peter, it seems, the label “Messiah” evoked a connection with David, the great king, who was also described as God’s anointed. There are several first-century Jewish texts that let us know that many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected God to send a messiah to come and defeat the Romans and claim the throne of the Davidic king. When Peter called Jesus the Messiah, he was articulating his belief that Jesus was the one to come and restore the kingdom to God’s people, but, in the exchange that followed, we discover that Peter didn’t really understand what that meant.

As soon as Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Why? Perhaps we find the answer in how quickly Jesus substituted for the label Peter had given him a less familiar, less provocative, though no less consequential label, “Son of Man.” In first-century Judaism, the Son of Man was not understood as the one would come and claim the earthly throne but the one who would come at the end of time and vindicate God’s people once and for all from the earthly powers who oppressed them. Peter, it seems, wanted Jesus to reign in power here and now, but Jesus had been anointed by God to usher in the that reign which will not be complete until the last days.

And how do we know this? Because of the way Jesus described his God-appointed mission: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That didn’t sound like the messianic figure Peter and his contemporaries were hoping for, and it’s not the Messiah or Christ that we hear most Christians talking about today. Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead not so that he and his followers could seize earthly power and reign in glory here and now. He gave himself up to death and God raised him from the dead so that those who follow him through the path of sacrifice, suffering, and death might be raised with him into the new life of God’s perfect reign. Christians agree that Jesus has opened for us the way that leads to eternal life, but we forget that cannot enter that life unless we suffer and die for his sake.

When Peter heard Jesus describe his own death, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him, as if the role of master and disciple had been swapped. All too often, we Christians do the very same thing. We rebuke Jesus every time we tell him, “No, Lord, not your way but my way.” When he tells us that we must deny ourselves, that we must take up our cross, that we must lose our life in order to save it, we pull him aside and say, “Not today, Jesus. I don’t want to give up my life. I don’t want to deny myself—my wants, my needs, my freedom, my family, my body. I don’t want to carry that cross. It’s heavy and hard and frightening.” And to that Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To accept the beam of the cross upon our own shoulders and walk the heavy-laden path of self-denial and suffering is to accept for ourselves the same disgrace that was heaped upon Jesus. To be his follower costs us dearly in this life. There is no way to walk the path of Christ—of God’s anointed—and escape the shame of rejection and denial. And yet, when we avoid that path in this life, when we are ashamed of Jesus and his words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of us when he appears in glory.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. In the end, of course, Peter was right. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But, if he is our Messiah, we must accept for ourselves the pattern that he has given to us. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us strength not to win the battles ahead of us but to lose them with humility and dignity. We must ask God to put to death within us that tendency to seek our own needs instead of others’. When it comes to claiming Jesus for our side and using him as the justification for our agenda, it is those who do so who fail most profoundly to grasp the nature of Jesus’ messiahship. We must instead ask God to grant us the wisdom of setting our minds on divine things in order that we might lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel.