Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Love Worth Dying For

January 23, 2019 – The Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle (tr.)

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel and sermon beginning around 18:10.

Before sending the twelve out to do God’s work in the world, Jesus told them what success in ministry would look like: “They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; you will be dragged before governors and kings…brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Jesus’ own vision for the disciples is not one of achievement, victory, and celebration but one of suffering, betrayal, and death. The standard of success that he provides for his followers is not measured in sermons preached or miracles worked or souls saved but in whether they endure to the end—whether they stick it out. What it means for Jesus’ disciples to be faithful as vessels through which God brings God’s reign to the earth is to carry on in the face of great hardship and to persevere to the end. There is no other way for us to measure our success as followers of Jesus.

But is it worth it? In an era in which people who claim an allegiance to Jesus are, for the most part, not persecuted but promoted, should any of us have to suffer or, even worse, die for the sake of the gospel? We believe that God loves everyone regardless of what religion they practice, so why would any of us need to risk our lives in order that someone else might come to know our particular brand of faith? How good must this good news be in order for us to risk everything to share it with others?

Along the wood-paneled walls of the chapel at Ridley Hall, the theological college in Cambridge where I studied, are the names and dates of clergymen and bishops who, as alumni of the college, went overseas as missionaries and evangelists. They went to places like southern Africa and east Asia and South America, and, when they went, they never expected to come back. Those were terminal assignments. They accepted the call to leave their homes in England and go to places where the hope of the gospel had not yet been preached in order that they might spread the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. They believed that sharing the gospel was worth all the hardship that came with those assignments, even knowing that those assignments would cost them their lives.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since the gospel was propagated primarily through colonial and imperial means, but, because, since then, and in part due to those efforts, Christianity has become enmeshed with the domination systems of contemporary society, we have also lost the good and holy sense of why the gospel is worth dying for. Nowadays, a preacher’s call to embrace suffering and death for the sake of Jesus Christ is hardly ever pure. At best, such exhortations are hyperbolic claims designed to whip up religious frenzy among the faithful. Worse still are those who reject the advice of public health officials and tell their congregations that real believers are protected by the blood of Jesus and should gladly die before wearing a mask or getting a vaccine. Most heinous of all are those who, in the name of religion, urge their followers to commit suicidal acts of terrorist violence deigned to hurt or kill others in advance of their cause. There is nothing holy or righteous about such perversions of our faith or any other religion.

Yet we identify Jesus’ death as not only holy but as the central, defining moment of our faith. We don’t second guess the goodness of that. And, in the waters of baptism, all of us have claimed to die with Christ in order that we might be raised to the new life of grace. Is all of that just empty theological language, or do we really mean it? In a world in which the call to sacrifice one’s life is usually misappropriated, how do we make sense of Jesus’ teaching that those who would follow him must lay down their lives and take up their cross? How do we respond to his definition of faithful discipleship as that of enduring to the end through suffering, betrayal, and death?

The Apostle Paul, our church’s patron saint, has something to teach us about the holiness of self-sacrificing love. Paul knew what it meant to give up everything for the sake of Christ. While facing execution, Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians that his own suffering had actually served to advance the gospel and that the chains he wore during his imprisonment he wore for the sake of Christ (1:12-17). Having lost his freedom and likely soon to lose his life, Paul recognized that his own example of patient and faithful endurance was the best tool he had to teach others about the way of Jesus. But what sort of way is that?

Back when Christ met Paul on the Damascus Road, he literally stopped him in his tracks. The future apostle to the Gentiles had zealously dedicated his life to the preservation of Judaism, but Christ showed Paul that God’s love knows no ethnic bounds. Paul was on his way to arrest followers of Jesus when Christ blinded him with a heavenly vision, and, in that blindness, showed him a new way of understanding God’s relationship with the world. Because of the cross of Christ, there was no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Instead, God’s love belonged to all people without distinction. And that was something so wonderful and so radical that Paul was willing to give up the life he knew in order to share that love with the world. 

Paul did not endure beatings, imprisonment, and death to advance a narrow path to salvation but to show the world the breadth of God’s universal love. That is the gospel—the good news of God’s limitless, unconditional, non-partisan, non-sectarian love for the whole world. And, for that kind of love, Paul was willing give up everything he had, even his life. 

The call to give up our lives—whether that means literal death or the radical reorientation of all that we are—can only be holy if it is a call to extend grace and love to all people without discrimination. There can be no qualification or equivocation—no “they’re in, but they’re not”—or else that sacrifice becomes a self-serving gesture. The only belief worth dying for is the belief that no one gets left out. Only then can that death be truly selfless. And that is what God accomplishes with Jesus’ outstretch arms on the hard wood of the cross. The cross is where all people come within the reach of God’s saving embrace. And that kind of love is absolutely worth dying for.

But Paul also knew that we cannot know that love until we die to get it. As long as we approach God still clinging to our own particular identity, there will always be a part of us that cannot fully believe that God’s love is a complete and unconditional gift. Because we are human, until we die with Christ, there will always be a piece of us that thinks that God loves us because of who we are—because we’re successful, because we’re kind, because we’re holy, because we love our neighbors as ourselves, because we go to church, because we read the Bible, because we say our prayers, because we’re Episcopalians, because we’re Christians. And, if there’s even the tiniest part of us that believes that God will only love us because of who we are and not absolutely and unequivocally because of who God is, then we will never be able to trust in that love. There will always be a doubt that, when it really matters, who we are isn’t good enough. 

And it's not. We’re not. None of us is good enough for God’s love. But God’s love isn’t dependent on us—on who we are or what we do or what we believe. That's what Paul discovered on the Damascus Road. It all depends on God—the one who loves us completely and perfectly from the very beginning. In order to finally let go of our belief that God’s love belongs only to those who have earned it—in order to truly believe in God’s grace and unconditional love—we must die. And that is why our endurance to the end—even to our own death—is the only real measure of faithfulness.

We follow Jesus not by doing more but by doing less—even nothing—so that he might do more through us. We become vessels for God’s reign by emptying ourselves so that God might use us to pour out God’s love onto others. God’s love belongs to all people, and, once we get out of our own way, that love can take hold in our lives. But that kind of letting go means trusting that we aren’t in control of whether we are loved, and that can be a pretty scary thing. Sometimes it comes only with a great deal of struggle. But by enduring to the end—to the point where the only thing left is God’s love for us—we will be saved.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Dove We Don't See


January 9, 2022 – Epiphany 1C: The Baptism of Our Lord

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:00.

One thousand seven hundred eighty-six years ago tomorrow, on January 10, 236AD, the heavens opened and a different dove came down and sat on the head of a man named Fabian. You may know the legend of Pope Fabian’s election as the Bishop of Rome. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that Fabian was among many “eminent and illustrious” church leaders who travelled to Rome to choose the next successor of Peter. After thirteen days of conversation, prayer, and debate, the synod was deadlocked. No one knew who the next pope would be. And then a dove flew down from on high.

Eusebius wrote that, before that incident, Fabian was a little-known preacher from the countryside, who was not in anyone’s mind to be the next pope, but it seems God had other plans. A dove flew down and sat on Fabian’s head, and those who had gathered immediately recognized, as Eusebius wrote, that this was “a scene like that of the holy Spirit once descending upon our Saviour in the form of a dove.” Without further discussion, “the whole body exclaimed, with all eagerness and with one voice, as if moved by the one spirit of God, that he was worthy; and without delay they took and placed him upon the episcopal throne.” 

Whether it is the legend that produces results or the results that beget a legend, we should not be surprised to learn that Fabian turned out to be an excellent leader of the church. He was chosen at a time when Christians faced significant persecution, yet under his tenure things began to improve remarkably. He was a gifted administrator and skilled diplomat, who helped give the early, decentralized church an institutional structure that would help it withstand the persecutions that arose later on. In every way, Fabian fulfilled the identity that God revealed in him when that dove descended and landed on his head. I suppose that sometimes we need a dove to fly down in order to see what God is trying to tell us.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, but Luke’s retelling of that episode lets us know that the water part of what happened that day was only a small piece of the story. Matthew and Mark, the other synoptic gospel writers, both recall the moment when Jesus was plunged beneath the water by John the Baptist, but Luke seems to skip over it, preferring instead to focus on what happened next: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” By using three parallel, action-packed infinitive phrases—the heaven was opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice came—Luke helps us focus on what God made clear to the world that day—that Jesus was God’s Son, the Beloved, and that his life was God’s own delight—a manifestation of the divine will in the world.

This wasn’t an ordinary baptism. By that point, John had baptized hundreds—maybe even thousands of people—and there’s no record of any doves landing on anyone else’s head. The people had come to him from all over, seeking spiritual renewal and rejuvenation, and he had given it to them. He had invited the crowds to repent of their sins and undergo the kind of spiritual washing that represented a new start, the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. John’s message was popular, but he wasn’t able to give those people new life. He baptized them with water, but the one who was to come after him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. That successor would be the one to bring the fulness of God’s reign to the earth and give God’s people the Spirit-filled rebirth that was necessary to enter that reign. 

On the day when Jesus was baptized by John, when the heaven opened and the Spirit descended and the voice came, God made sure that we recognized that Jesus was the one whom God had chosen to bring God’s reign to the earth—that John’s baptism was giving way to Jesus’—that the time for spiritual preparation had passed and the time for spiritual fulfillment had come. When we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism, we do so as participants in that time of fulfillment. And because, in the waters of Baptism, God unites us with Christ, all those things that were true of Jesus on that day are now true for us as well.

Just as God poured out the Holy Spirit onto Jesus, so too is that same Spirit poured out onto those who are baptized. Just as the fire of divine love and power burned within God’s Son, so too it burns within those who are united to Christ through the waters of Baptism. We may not see any birds fly through the door today, but, because these baptisms forge an unbreakable bond between Christ and the baptized, we recognize the same thing taking place in them right before our eyes.

We don’t need a dove to come and land on anyone’s head in order to see that God is choosing these children of God and naming them as God’s beloveds. When we look into that font and see that water, we also see within it the death and burial of Jesus and his resurrection from the grave. And, because of our union with Christ, we also see in this water our own death and burial and our own resurrection from the grave. This, therefore, is the place where we are reborn in order that we might enter God’s reign. When we hear the minister say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we also hear God’s voice proclaiming to us, “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is where we become full children of God.

Today, the heaven opens. Today, the Spirit descends. Today, God’s voice proclaims, “You are my child; you are my beloved.” Because those things were revealed of Jesus at his baptism, today they are revealed of us—of all who are united with him. We don’t need to see a dove fly down in order to see in each other what God sees. Because we have recognized it in Christ, we recognize it within the Christ that dwells inside us all.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

All That Way


The Feast of the Epiphany

The magi, wise men from the East, came to Jerusalem and ask, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." That's a long way to travel just to meet a baby, no matter how special that baby is.

We often compress the biblical power of the Feast of the Epiphany--somewhat conveniently and unintentionally--by putting the three wise men at the nativity scene alongside the shepherds. But Epiphany comes at the end of Christmas, not at the beginning. In the church and probably in some of your homes, we start the twelve days of Christmas with the wise men on the other side of the room--in a windowsill toward the back--and they make their way, closer and closer, until they arrive on January 6.

Then again, maybe the wise men don't belong in the nativity at all. Luke is the only gospel writer to mention any shepherds coming to adore Jesus, and Matthew is the only one to mention the magi. It's as if each wanted to tell a different story of Jesus' birth being revealed to the world. Luke depicts angels breaking through into night sky to tell the humble shepherd, while Matthew has an astrology chart and a rising star declaring the king's birth to some far-away Zoroastrians. Maybe they should make two different kinds of nativity scenes--one for Luke's account and one for Matthew's. Or maybe it's up to us to see how both sides of the same event give us an even deeper insight into God's great plan of salvation.

Imagine coming all that way, from the East, to Palestine--to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem--to greet an infant whom the starts foretold would be the ruler of someone else's nation. Though there's hardly any evidence to support it, the tradition holds that the three wise men came from Arabia, Babylon, and India--three different parts of the Persian Empire. It's even more astounding to imagine how three separate astrologer-priests would make their way to this shepherd-village to see the child king. And yet, whether they travelled together or separately, for God to reach down and show the plan of salvation to these sages from afar, to draw them into a story where they did not belong, helps us know how to make sense of Jesus' birth.

God's great cosmic plan of salvation comes to bear not only in a Jewish village under Roman occupation in the days of King Herod. It shows up in the stars of heaven in a way that speaks beyond country or ethnicity or ancestry or religion. It reaches out across the continents and grabs the attention of those who have no other connection to the people of Israel, the children of Abraham. It does not ask that the magi undergo Jewish conversion before they can properly interpret the star charts, nor does it require their formation as would-be disciples in order to receive and carry with them the news of the savior's birth. Two thousand years later, God wants us to know that in the birth of Jesus God has done more than give a people their long-awaited king. In Christ, God has reached out to bring into the story of salvation those who didn't even realize that they belong. So powerful is this intention of inclusion that even the stars declare it.

How far away are you? How far away have you drifted over the last twenty-one months? How far away have you been your whole life? How far away from the people who seem always to have known that they belong at the table are you? How far away from the One who made you do you feel? 

The wise men crowd into the nativity scene. They come with their exotic gifts and strange costumes and unfamiliar skin tones and unintelligible speech. They squeeze themselves into the story of Jesus' birth in order to be sure that we know that that's where we belong, too. No matter how strange you feel, no matter how far away you are, in the birth of Jesus Christ, you become an integral part of God's salvation story. They came all that way so that you might come, too.