Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 6B, July 15, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24.1-10; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29.
First, I want to thank Eric for coming and sharing his story with us today. If you are worried that I am going to preach a regular sermon—you know, the kind that goes on for 2-3 hours—breathe a big sigh of relief because that’s not going to happen. I’m only going to speak 50 minutes or so. 🙂 But since no self-respecting preacher can give up an opportunity to talk to a nice crowd of folks like we have here today, I would like to briefly point out how Eric’s story ties in with today’s Scripture readings, especially Paul’s doxology, or song of praise, in today’s epistle lesson.
If you want a real-life application of Paul’s prayer and St. Augustine’s mission statement, look no further than Eric and his story because here is one example of what holiness looks like in the real world. More about that in a moment. First some background. In today’s passage, which is one sentence in the original Greek, Paul lays out the overall Big Picture of God’s plan to heal and restore his good but broken world undone by human folly and sin. As Paul tells us, it has been God’s eternal plan to rescue his people and creation in and through Jesus the Messiah, God become human, and the people God calls to help him in this task. This, of course, is always what God intended for his human creatures, to be his wise stewards to watch over God’s good creation and reflect God’s glory out into his world. We see this thread begin in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, and run all the way through to the very last book of the Bible, Revelation.
But of course the problem has always been that we humans didn’t get the memo. We wanted to play by our own rules where we call the shots and play God rather than be his humble, obedient, and wise stewards. It got us kicked out of paradise and cut us off from God, our very life support system. And when the patient is disconnected from his life support system, you don’t have to be a doctor to know the inevitable outcome—death. Human pride, folly, stubbornness, and rebellion, better known as the human condition, has changed very little over the years. Whether the human condition shows its ugly head in the form of Herod Antipas abusing his political power egregiously by promising his step-daughter to have John the Baptist beheaded in a moment of drunken lust as she danced for him seductively (who needs reality TV?), or whether it was Eric in his youth flirting with a culture of death to prove his manhood to himself and others, or any of us in our less than stellar moments, humans have demonstrated consistently that we think we know better than God concerning matters of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and more often than not, the results are disastrous.
Think about your own job and/or life situation for a moment if you don’t believe me. The things that aggravate and frustrate us and beat us down and wear us out are never a result of others behaving nobly or selflessly or graciously or generously. No, it’s just the opposite. When people act foolishly or selfishly or out of pride or greed, those are things that make us want to scream and pull our hair out (or just punch them in the mouth)! Given all this, no one who cares about people or this world can be happy with our collective plight.
And of course Paul is reminding us that the human condition grieves God as well because God created us for relationship with him, not destruction. And so God has acted decisively in Christ on our behalf to reconcile us to himself by taking on his just wrath for human sin, folly, and rebellion himself so that we would not have to bear it. None of us deserve this but we are offered it anyhow because God loves us wildly and wants us to have life. This is called grace and we see it reflected all over Eric’s testimony and life. It is by God’s grace that Eric is where he is today and likewise for anyone who is in Christ. As Paul reminded the Colossians, in Christ, God has transferred us from the dominion of darkness and death and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1.13) If Paul were here today with us, he would surely say to us, “Yes indeed! That’s what I’m talking about. Here is yet another testimony of how the love of God can reach down and change a life and redeem what seemed so hopelessly lost!”
But we miss a critical point Paul is making if we just stop there and say something like, “Isn’t it nice that in Jesus God has saved Eric so that he can go to heaven and enjoy eternity there.” Instead, Paul would invite us to look closer at what he just said because heaven is not the end game but rather God’s promised new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. God does not redeem us to pull us out of the world. Just the opposite. God saves us so that he can use us as Jesus’ people to help him redeem his broken and fallen world. For you see, if we are saved only so that we can go to heaven and enjoy an eternity of bliss, it is easy for us to separate God and theology from this world and all its problems. But when we understand that God saves us to use us as his agents of new creation, then suddenly our relationship with God takes on a new and urgent meaning. It means we have work to do starting right here and now. It means that God’s world and its people are hugely important to God and that in Jesus, we are called to be agents of God’s healing love to a world that desperately needs it.
That’s what Paul was talking about when he tells us God chose us from all eternity to be a holy and blameless people and that’s what Eric’s new life in Christ represents. Being holy does not mean being some hyper-religious fanatic who engages in navel-gazing most of the day and who never speaks of anything but religion. Being holy means we dedicate ourselves to God to be the humans he created us to be, and being “in Christ” means that we do that by obeying Jesus’ command to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Once again, we see this illustrated in Eric’s story. Being holy doesn’t mean Eric is perfect. It means he has followed God’s call to abandon a lifestyle that leads to death and to eventually engage in the noble profession of law enforcement. It is not the job that counts, however. It is a life given to God following the way of Jesus so that God can use us as agents of his healing love.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not talking about saving the world. None of us has that in our power. And besides, God has already done that in Jesus. What I am talking about is bringing Christ’s love to bear on others in the context of our daily lives so that we resist the temptations to act selfishly or greedily or ambitiously or proudly or myopically. The way of the cross is never easy but it is the only way that leads to real life, both in this world and in the new creation. And it is the only way we can ever hope to live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power.
And if you are tempted to call Paul a dreamer (or worse), I would remind you that Paul wrote these soaring words while languishing in prison. Paul knew the score and was a realist. He understood sin, evil, and death had been defeated on the cross of Christ but not fully vanquished. The latter would only come with Jesus’ return and the inauguration of the new creation. But that’s a different sermon for a different day.
So what do we do with all of this? Suffice it to say that if you have reached the end of your rope and are searching for something more in life, here is the ticket. As we’ve seen, following Jesus is never easy and as both our OT and gospel lessons remind us, the powers of darkness and evil are relentless in their opposition. But all our readings this morning also remind us that God has always promised to equip those he calls and to be with us, even in the darkest hours. We see it in the OT lesson with its emphasis on the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence among his people and the successor to the pillars of cloud and fire as God led his stubborn and rebellious people out of slavery and through the wilderness. And as Paul reminds us we are guaranteed that God continues to be with us through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in and among God’s people. That doesn’t make God’s people immune to evil and disaster. Mark makes that very clear in today’s gospel lesson. That’s why following Jesus requires faith and the presence of God’s people so that we can be sustained and nourished in Spirit and by the human touch we all need as Eric reminded us so powerfully in his story. There is no such thing as an isolate Christian!
Heartache, suffering, and setbacks there will be because we live in a good but broken world and life is messy. So are we humans. But the message Paul and the other writers of Scripture is this. Don’t be afraid. God calls you and equips you to do his work. So accept God’s gracious invitation to be his and then prepare to be changed just like Eric and countless other Christians have. And of course when you take the plunge and say yes to God’s gracious invitation to be one of his people, you will discover that you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.