Sermon for Sunday 23rd February, 2014
Second before Lent, Year A (Ordinary Time 7)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
‘Do you not know who you are?’
Many of us, I am sure spend little or no time reading the book of Leviticus. Being in the Old Testament some of us have been led to believe that it is somewhat primitive, a heresy the church has had to combat ever since its earliest days. But listen again to these words we have just heard. As you listen hold in mind also the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we have also heard announced to us.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ – Jesus introduces no new teaching when he declares this – He is reminding his own people of their roots, of their identity. We cannot understand who we are as Christians without a profound understanding of where we have come from – our Roots, of Who we are. It is not possible to live as Children of God in the World without great confidence about that identity.
And knowing deeply who we are helps us better to grasp what seems to be the impossible teaching of Jesus. We listen to the words of the Gospel – ‘Do not resist an evil doer’ – ‘turn the other cheek’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ – and almost always, almost without fail we qualify them. We hear the words of Jesus and either, as so many do, we dismiss them as a hopelessly unrealistic counsel of perfection, that doesn’t address our lives. Or hang grimly onto them in a horribly legalistic sense, but to fully comprehend, to grasp in the deepest sense the meaning of Jesus teaching, we need to know who we are.
And when I say ‘Who We are?’ I want again to emphasise that First We are the Body of Christ, and Only Secondly, individually members of it. That our Primary identity is as the people of God – again, if we do not understand this, then these texts become oppressive to us and they are not meant to be, indeed they are words of Liberation of an unimaginable order. For this is Always the truth of the words of Jesus.
But first I’d like to turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he is profoundly concerned with this question of identity, realizing that in truth everything springs from this. When he says ‘Do you not know . . .’ he is asking ‘Do you not know who you are?’ And Paul’s concern is for the Church, and how the church is built up as a body. This of course is a concern for us – building on the foundation which has been laid, how do we in our generation continue to build the church.
Paul has laid the foundation – he has made known the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Gospel. This is a matter of literally fundamental importance. The foundation is Jesus Christ. There are churches which say ‘we stand on the Bible’; or ‘we are a church of social action’; or ‘we are a spirit led church’. All of these good things, but secondary – they are not the foundation – the only foundation for a church can be Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen. We must even be careful when we say, we are a church founded ‘on the gospel’, for even in Paul’s time, there were many ‘gospels’ doing the rounds – not particularly written ones, but messages. Even the Roman Emperor proclaimed the Gospel of his reign. So saying ‘we are a Gospel church, a Good News Church’ is problematic as it then requires someone to ask ‘what is your Gospel?’ For The Foundation is no mere message, it IS Jesus Christ, Crucified, Risen and Ascended, who sits at the right hand of God and in whom all things hold together. He is the foundation of our Life – HE is the Vine – we are the branches. Apart from Him, apart from this foundation we are not a church. And in large part that is why we come together each Sunday – to hear His words, to share with him in the Feast of the Kingdom – his very life in bread and wine.
So then – knowing that foundation we go a LONG way to knowing who we are. As we build, our reference is always to our foundations – is our work True to the Crucified and Risen Lord of Creation? Like a master builder we build in such a way as Always in reference to our foundations. If we do not, well the building will eventually collapse. Imagine if you will the leaning tower of Pisa – the building is not out of line from its foundation – it cannot stand except it is externally propped up – and indeed it may well be the case that through Christendom the church has survived in large part because it was propped up. But Society has no interest in the church now, and here and there churches fall as societies ‘support’ withers. As we look together at our common life through Lent, continually we will be asking about our foundations in Christ, and this I pray will be the focus of our ongoing work and life together.
Well of course Paul knows that not all builders are careful – some understanding the nature of the work they are involved in build with gold and silver and precious stones. They spend themselves in building in such a way that the testing of Fire will reveal its true worth – but others take little care – they cast around for whatever comes to hand – wood, straw, hay – ‘Aw, she’ll be right!’ they say . . . ‘The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”’
Why this care? Why? Paul answers this saying ‘Do you not know who you are?’ We build carelessly when we lose sight of who we are – we might say the more we lose sight of our foundations, the more the building is likely to be out of line. Paul reminds the Corinthians of something which he is concerned they may have forgotten. Do not forget, Paul is addressing folk he has spent time sharing the Good News of Jesus with, he has taught them. What he says is meant as a reminder of his teaching. ‘Do you not know that you are God’s Temple . . . and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s Temple is Holy and you are that temple.’ Even a few minutes quiet meditation upon this teaches us that carelessness in building the church is a truly terrible thing.
At the opening of the Great Thanksgiving we declare, The Lord is here, GOd’s Spirit is with us’. I recently saw someone suggest that this was terribly presumptuous – that it was safer to say ‘The Lord be with you, The Lord bless you’ But that is only ‘safe’ in the manner of the man who hid his talent out of fear of his master!! In the end it is utterly unsafe – we Must stand in the confidence of what God has done and is doing amongst us and at once in boldness and Holy Fear, declare ‘The Lord Is Here, His Spirit is with us’
Well there are of course those who dismiss all this – those who think themselves wise in this age – in Paul’s day as well as ours, but this is not the time to concern ourselves with them, indeed too often in the church we expend ourselves on such tilting at windmills.
To conclude, let us return to the words of Jesus – who is our foundation. More specifically, how do the words of Paul, reminding the Corinthian church of who they are, help US to inhabit the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, neither dismissing them as hopelessly out of touch with the realities of our lives, nor allowing them to become heavy burdens, which at first sight Jesus’ words ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ Is not this after all the Ultimate counsel of perfection???
First those verses about turning the other cheek, about not resisting an evildoer, about giving more than just your coat, about walking the second mile. Our response to this usually falls into one of three categories. Firstly we speak in the abstract ‘Well, if I gave to everyone who asked me I’d have nothing!!’ To which the only answer is – ‘I suspect you have never tried to follow this counsel . . .’ Seriously, just for a moment consider, are you constantly harangued by the needy? Are they bashing your doors down? We respond in the abstract, and indeed reveal our own lack of generosity – Oh yes, we say, We are generous, on our own terms. And for some of us this is how we see God – a reflection of our own paltry generosity, who grudgingly gives himself to us, who demands lots of things in return, who will only give you presents if you are good . . . The second response would be . . . but people are rogues and can’t be trusted . . . and of course We can??? Sometimes to hear folk talk I think we would rather let 9 genuinely hungry starve so to avoid the mistake of feeding that one who can feed himself . . . How Unlike Jesus who cleanses ten lepers even though only one shows gratitude, who feeds thousands without running a check over their deservingness, How unlike God who would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if only there were ten, or rather One righteous family within its walls. For the sake of such a few Good he would show mercy to thousands . . . and Jesus forces the point home, ‘do not resist an evildoer!!’ Even if you know them to be of bad character, see to their needs, Love them, pray for them, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous . . .
‘Ah!’ we say, trying to play a trump card over Jesus’ words ‘but this can become an abusers charter’ . . . and of course there are many who live in such abusive relationships . . . but I want to suggest that to participate in the Life of Christ, to live fully into who we are requires a daring act of renewed imagination, for in regards to abuse, and the effects of living in obedience to the words of Jesus we only ever think of these things as they relate to us as individuals. We need to change our very way of thinking about ourselves, we need a fuller and richer understanding of who we are.
What might it mean for us, understanding that we are the holy Temple of God, the we are the very dwelling place of God’s Spirit, that we are children of the one who loves and indeeds dies for his enemies, indeed who has loved and died for us whilst we ourselves were yet his enemies . . . what might it mean for us together to share with one another in living out these commands of Jesus? What might it mean for us together to understand that ‘all things are ours, either the world or life or death or the present or the future – everything belongs to us, that we belong to Christ, that Christ belongs to God and nothing can pluck us from the hand of our Father in heaven.
What might it mean for us as a people to be literally captivated by this understanding of ourselves, set free from our fear of others – set free to love as God in Christ loves us – set free to be his children in truth and Light.
As together over the coming months we explore our shared life, may God in his infinite Goodness and mercy draw us ever more deeply into the apprehension of who we are in Christ – The Home of God, and the Children of God.