Sermon for Sunday August 24, 2014.
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
‘Church as a Chosen People – Responsibility and Gift’
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Eph 2:8-10
The poor bloody infantry
This year as we are well aware marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what we have come to know as the First World War. This has been commemorated in a rash of events and of course television programmes. One, called ‘Our World War’ has been put out by the BBC and I happened to catch the first episode the other day. Entitled ‘The First Day’, it was a dramatised reconstruction of The Battle of Mons, the first in which British troops were engaged. In keeping with much of what followed, it revealed the chaos and terror of Total War, as British troops hopelessly ill equipped and poorly informed about the forces arrayed against them were overwhelmed in a day. The focus of the action was a battle to hold a key bridge across the Canal which lay to the North of the city – in the end coming down to the actions of a Private Sidney Godley manning the only machine gun for several hours against huge odds.
Eventually the British forces were forced to withdraw, and Godley covered their backs, left alone to face almost certain death – he was critically wounded, but survived and saw out the war in a prison camp, being awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the action.
Of course one way in such acts are described is as ‘heroic’, but it was then and remains all but impossible to find a veteran of war who would accept the description. They were faced with little or no choice – as the war ground on, increasingly conscripts – fighting for their lives. To sustain the myth of war, the myth of the hero must be upheld, but of course it is sham, as attested by the continuing history of the abandonment of these heroes to homelessness, and lack of care when they return home. A form of collective shame placed on those asked to pay the highest price. Its hard not to think of them as scapegoats.
Now seeing the title for this sermon, you may be shifting a little uneasily. The myth of war and the myth of religion, at times finding themselves too close for comfort for those who are called to follow in the footsteps of The Prince of Peace, the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. But if we step back from the myth of War and its mythical heroes, to the reality, we find some significant parallels which we would do well not to ignore.
Of course it would be Very easy to say that the western church is like those poor soldiers at Mons ‘hopelessly ill equipped and poorly informed about the forces arrayed against them’ thus we are being overwhelmed in the historical equivalent of a day, and that is undoubtedly true in some respects. But another time
Chosen and not for ourselves
As the ‘poor bloody infantry’ had little choice but to fight. So it is with the people of God. They didn’t ask for this. As they complained in the wilderness, they didn’t ask to be rescued from Egypt, they didn’t ask to be put to the service of this strange God, they didn’t ask to be those who would be light to the world. But they were. And here we rub up against the difficulty of this language of Chosenness, not that it is wrong, but in terms of what it means. For Being the Chosen people of God is much more akin to the Reality of a conscript thrown into the front line of a battle which he did not desire, than of that of the myth of the happy volunteer living with dreams of a Glorious inheritance and Noble Victory.
The idea of ‘a Chosen people’ is a difficult one for us to accept, and thus it is so very far from how we perceive ourselves, in no small part because within the history of the church it has been most unhelpfully been tied to that curious and only faintly biblical concept of ‘going to heaven when you die’ , or being the unique objects of God’s love. To say the least if we consider what it means to be a chosen people in these terms, then it is little surprise that we wish to do away with the idea. God’s Love is not limited, and indeed for the first of God’s people, the Jews, the idea of a life beyond this one was at best hazy.
The Chosen One
As always, when we try and understand anything of what it means to be The Church we must look to Jesus, the Author and perfecter of our faith. To understand ‘Chosen People’ we must look to ‘The CHosen One’ When God inhabits human flesh to walk amongst His people – in his very being he is a stark reminder of this. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head – he is dependent on the hospitality of an often hostile world. Being The Chosen People does not get you a table at the finest restaurants or a room at the swankiest hotels – not even something as comfortable as the lair of a fox. The Chosen One, The Son steps into the world in humility – and in truth, the weight of the world is laid on Him. So it is not at all apparent to the human eye, trained in the world’s myths of greatness, that this itinerant preacher with his motley crew of disciples is indeed The Annointed One, The One chosen since the foundation of the world. So caught up in the myths of chosenness, His own do not recognise him in his poverty.
‘You are the Christ!’
But one of this motley band does. Peter in response to the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ responds – ‘You are the Messiah! The Son of the living God’ And Jesus replies ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ It is a Beatification, a Blessing to recognise Jesus for who he is, it is Gift. Of course there are many who in truth fail to see who he is – whilst making much of Jesus’ poverty and humility, in truth they’re still expecting God in a more splendid garb – perhaps as a fine politician who will really put the world to rights through the exercise of intelligence and power, making the world a better place. The pattern we always try to revert to. The idea of a crucified God ultimately too much of a contrast for us, as of course it threatens to be for Peter himself. But let us let Peter be for the minute, Jesus hasn’t finished with him yet.
Revelation and Responsibility
Jesus accepts this recognition – and then Reminds Peter that it was a gift from HIs Father, not anything to do with his own perception. Reminds him as it were of His Chosenness, and promptly makes the most breathtaking statement. You have been Chosen to see me for who I am – to see through the lack of worldly glory . . He renames Peter, the Rock for this confession of Jesus will be the rock on which the Church is established – The Church Of Jesus Christ – on this rock ‘I will build my church’ the One who has revealed himself as the true interpreter of the law – ‘you have heard it said, but I say to you . . .’
Jesus, The Chosen One, never shies from his responsibilities, from his identity – he takes the Law of God and acts as its true interpreter – breathtaking. And he declares that this new community is HIS church, and on the confession of himself as God’s Chosen one, the Son of the living God, he will build His church against which the gates of hell themselves will not prevail . . . but then gives then says to Peter these unbelievable words – I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
True and false humility
And at once we look at the church and say ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus! How can you put that responsibility in our hands??’ We are nothing!! I’ll come back to the keys in just a moment. But to look at this responsibility from another angle we might take Jesus’ words ‘You are the light of the world’ Recently I’ve been working on adapting a service of Night Prayer that we might all use. I’m working from an existing adaptation of the NZPB service, which includes the words ‘we are to be the light of the world’ – Well the problem with that wording, however ever so ever so ‘umble it is, is that it is in contradiction with the words of Jesus, who says to his ‘Church’ – you Are the light of the world – let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Again we look at ourselves and say ‘Don’t be ridiculous!!’ YOU do the whole light of the world thing, Jesus, we’ll tell people about you – well if we’re trying hard anyway . . . We undo the connection between Christ and his church – we evade our responsibility. Or to put it in terms of Private Sid Godley at the Nimy bridge, we abandon our post, the place we have been put, the place what is more that we were told the gates of Hell would not prevail against . . . to be called is to put our hand to the plough of inhabiting that calling – of Being in Him, the Light of the World, of binding and loosing, in heaven and on Earth
However strange it might seem to us that Jesus gives into our hands such responsibility in His name, it is I suggest far less strange than the notion that this first century wandering Jewish Preacher should in fact be the Son of the Living God, no? This truth cannot be found out for ourselves – it must be revealed to us by God the Father. We are never Christians because we worked it out for ourselves, nor can we live as Christ’ people except in that same dependence upon him. And that is the Core of it – that we can only live out this responsibility as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices – saying we have no life apart from Christ.
Responsibility . . . and Gift.
Here we have perhaps to abandon the parallel with those conscripts – for our war is not against flesh and blood. Indeed it cannot be for we are poorly equipped for that – rather it is against the powers and principalities of this dark age – not the human aggressor, but that which fires him or her, and our weapons?
Prophecy – the gift of seeing things as they are – ministry – teaching – exhortation – generosity – diligence – cheerfulness – St Paul – ‘think of yourselves in accordance with the measure of faith God has Given to you – these gifts which ‘differ according to the grace given to us. These GIfts are just that – they are not of us, but of God – most fully the life of God made present in us by the Holy Spirit. And above all forgiveness – Love which covers a multitude of sins. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound, whatever you lose will be loosed – whomsoever sins you forgive are forgiven – whomsoever sins you retain are retained – the keys of the Kingdom of heaven – which we enter through forgiveness of sins and which we offer to those around us.
Responsibilities we never sought, Gifts we were given . . . underlying it all though the sheer wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ that has Peter say ‘to whom else shall we go!’ As St Paul puts it, we are captivated, compelled by the love of Jesus Christ, revealed in costly obedience to Him. We rejoice in our calling, not because of anything to do with us, but the Glory of the one who calls us. We remain joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. because of the one who in Love has called and chosen us. Insofar as anything rests with us, insofar as anything springs from us, it arises out of a deep love for Jesus Christ, for whose sake we have left everything.
Paul expresses it thus I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Having in 11 chapters of the letter to the Romans, set forth the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – Paul encourages us to a glad sacrifice of our lives, not for national myths; not as so many are tempted to do within the church to perpetuate the World’s own story about itself; but as a cheerful and reasonable offering to the one who has given us His all, The Christ, The Son of the Living God.
As he puts it in the second chapter of the letter to the church in Ephesus It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Responsibility – and Gift