St. Simon’s on the Sound
September 23, 2018
Jesus is at it again…teaching his disciples. Or, at least, trying to teach them.
Passing through Galilee on his return trip from Caesarea Phillipi to Jerusalem, his disciples tagging along behind him, Jesus, begins teaching. And, for the second time, he predicts his passion and resurrection. He says to those around him, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise."And, for the second time, the disciples are bewildered and in denial by what he has to say – "…they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask."
Instead of bravely asking Jesus to explain this confusing and frightening prediction of impending death that he kept referring to, they withdrew their attention from him and retreated into self-preoccupation. They began to argue among themselves. They bickered over who was the greatest. Who was the most likely to be seen as worthy in Jesus' eyes. They were concerned with their own well-being and their own safety.
The disciples turned to worldly beliefs of how to achieve status and value in an attempt to ensure their personal well-being. They turned away from entering into conversation with Jesus – away from understanding and enriching their relationship with Jesus - with God.
Looking at all of this from a post-modern approach, I guess we could safely say that the disciples were in shock. They had given up everything to follow Jesus. They believed that he was their savior – the long awaited Messiah. Now, he tells them that very soon he will suffer and be condemned to death just like any other common criminal. They had been deceived. The person they had trusted no longer seemed trustworthly.
So, rather than face the terrifying possibility that their teacher was not the savior, the long-awaited Messiah, they turned to thoughts of self - self-protection and self-aggrandizement. They fought over childish concerns of who was greatest. Who was the one with the most status, the one who would be the most likely to succeed – the one who would most likely to be safe because of their place of social elevation in their rough and tumble relationship with the Roman Empire.
In their distress and self-absorption, they denied the Christ in their presence. They turned away from God to the perceived safety net of worldly values of success and self-aggrandizement.
Once Jesus and the disciples reached Galilee where they planned to rest for a while, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been discussing as they walked behind him. The disciples were silent, perhaps ashamed of their lack of faith in and their petty and self-centered behavior. They need not have worried about their delayed response because almost immediately, Jesus answered his own question and offered two teachings that pointed to the uselessness of the disciples' self-centeredness and lack of faith.
Jesus first proclaimed, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." An upside down way of looking at the world, even in ancient times when one's role in society and their status, was the hallmark of their worth. In Jesus' world being first, or the greatest, was a mark not for you – but against you.
Then he noticed a small child who was standing nearby. He took the child into his arms and said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
It is important to note that in Jesus' time children were considered non-persons – inconsequential beings. They were viewed as having no value whatsoever to society - their only function was to remain at home and carry out chores, or to act as servants in wealthy households. In ancient times children were the lowest of the low, they were inconsequential until they reached adolescence, and then they were then treated as adults, capable of filling adult roles in society.
Jesus reverses this ancient custom of diminishing the value of children and instead glorifies the child. The child becomes an invaluable human being whom he welcomes into his arms and then onto his lap. Jesus implies that not only this child, but by extension any child, or anyone, who in their innocence, faith, and welcoming seeks a close relationship with Jesus will then have a direct relationship with God – will be seen as God as one of his own.
"Whoever welcomes one of these little children welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
Disciples seeking glory and status beware…your importance is in your minds only. Jesus recognizes as worthy of being welcomed by God not those who concern themselves with power and status in the world, but rather, despite age or social status, those who desire a relationship with Jesus – those who seek to follow the words and the values of Jesus.
In today's reading from the Letter of James, James without mincing words, underscores Jesus' teaching. James targets Christians who are not practicing what they preach. He calls for a conversion to a "purity of heart" saying, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you."
For James, faith in Jesus means relating to God in a manner shaped by the words and the ways of Jesus, and above all by his declaration that loving the neighbor as oneself is the "royal law." He urges his audience to, "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."
For James adhering to this "royal law" is not easy. Indeed, it is a constant battle. One's conversion to seeking a close relationship with God in all matters is never complete. It is not a one-time conversion. Rather, this conversion is an ongoing process – slowly and painfully achieved through the process of many conversions. Through many battles waged within ourselves to rid ourselves of envy and selfish ambition. Through many struggles to live a "…good life filled with deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
James understood the challenges that we all face in our desire to answer Jesus’ command, “Follow me.”
Now, let's fast forward to the present.
At this triennium’s National Convention of the Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry gave several incredibly stirring sermons. One could watch each of them several times, and with each re-watching hear and learn something new. However, it was his first sermon, the sermon that he preached as an opening to the convention itself that has a most critical message for all of us Episcopalians who seek to be dynamically engaged in the Jesus Movement – to be dynamically engaged in a relationship with Jesus.
Bishop Curry's sermon has immediate and direct bearing on the direction he hopes and prays the church will move as a united body, and without delay.
In this sermon - the Way of Love - Bishop Curry outlined a way of life that is designed to bring us into a closer relationship with Jesus. A relationship that will guide and strengthen us as we follow him in our lives and in the world around us. This way, or rule of life - the Way of Love - is centered around seven basic principles - Turn; Learn; Pray; Worship; Bless; Go; Rest.
To turn - to pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus.
To learn - to learn from Jesus. To listen to and reflect on his healings and his teachings.
To pray - to commit ourselves to allowing God to be present in our lives each and every day.
To worship - to reflect on Jesus’ healings and teachings - to attend to his words as a way of drawing nearer and nearer to God.
To bless - to participate in the ministry of Jesus by sharing our faith and unselfishly giving and serving.
To go - to cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.
To rest - to receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration in order to continue to meet and overcome the temptations of worldly concerns.
It strikes me that this rule is very much what Jesus and James were speaking of over 2000 years ago. Jesus asked those whom he chose to, “Follow me.” To turn to a life centered around listening to and following Jesus. James' asked us to develop a purity of heart by submitting ourselves to God and resisting the devil.
If Jesus is our model – the one who points the way to God. Then, without question, James is both our coach and our cheerleader.
As I consider the world around me, both near and far I see, very sadly, divisiveness, poverty, anger, violence, and social isolation. I see tremendous sadness and disillusionment. I hear many stories of confusion and concern for the future of society.
However, I also see love, hope, and enormous acts of charity and love. In the most unsuspecting places and among people that in my mind I imagine have little or nothing to do with any particular church I see the most incredible acts of kindness, the most beautiful acts of love. I see a way of being that directs me to God. I see the Way of Love.
God's light still shines…
In the coming weeks St. Simon's will once again embark on a series of Sharing Faith Dinners that will focus on questions related to Bishop Curry's way of Love sermon. We, who have already experienced the conversion of seeking a closer relationship with God, will engage in the ongoing work of renewing and refreshing that relationship through intentional reflection and prayer.
Together we will strengthen our participation in the ministry of Jesus by listening deeply, sharing our faith, and being in the world as "the other way of being" – a way of being that gives witness to the love, justice, and truth of God with our lips and in our lives.
We will reinforce our participation in shining the light of God throughout our community and throughout the world.
In his last published work, Convictions, theologian Marcus Borg wrote, "What's it all about? What's the Christian life all about? It's about loving God and loving what God loves. It's about becoming passionate about God and participating in God's passion for a different kind of world, here and now."
Let us not be like the disciples who were unable to understand what Jesus had to say and too afraid to ask. Let us pay attention to Jesus, to James, to Borg, and to so many others who direct us to God. Let us strengthen our faith through sharing conversations that inform us all of how the light of God shines within each of us.
Let us strengthen our ability to be the disciples that James urges us to be, wise and understanding, living a good life in which our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. Let us heed Jesus' command "Follow me."
Let us show the world a way of being that defies the evil and darkness that lurks in every corner of our lives – just waiting, just waiting.
Let us shine God's light brightly.
Let us love God and love what God loves. AMEN