Sunday, June 29, 2008

He Descended

Matthew 10: 40-42

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
This passage from Matthew comes at the end of a vivid description of the reality the disciples can expect to encounter as they go out into the word spreading the Good News. Jesus, surely not in an attempt at convincing them to become disciples, but in an effort to warn them to the reality of their call, tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Honest about the magnitude of their mission, the danger and violence they can expect to encounter, he seems to arm them with absolutely nothing saying, “Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.”
You have to wonder how this group of men would stand up against the streets of Atlanta – resembling not a militia of freedom fighters, not a celebrity in a limo, resembling the homeless who line Ponce de Leon, but even then, without a shopping cart or bag filled with meager possessions.
We know that Jesus calls this twelve to drive out evil spirits, to heal disease and sickness, but we wonder how they will do it, and with what?
To think of all they were up against then, and to imagine what all they would be up against now, they seem ill equipped, truly like sheep among wolves.
Then they were up against a great challenge going out into Ancient Jerusalem, armed with nothing much more than a will to make a difference, and thinking about it in our context, it’s hard to say whether they were up against a greater challenge going out into Ancient Jerusalem then they would on the streets of Atlanta.
Today, like during the Civil Rights movement, those who seek social change are often met with fire hoses rather than the flogging that Jesus warns the disciples about; and where Jesus warns the disciples of arrest, we can be sure that the modern jail surely has more to offer her inmates than the ancient jail. But as for the people themselves, we know that the disciples expected to encounter a culture that had hardly heard of Jesus. While most have heard of Jesus in our culture, so many have forgotten, and while they may know where the church is, should they walk through the doors, worship in the sanctuary, how many could remember the words of the Apostles Creed, much less know what the words mean?
Most of us here today know the words, but the meaning can be something different. I have struggled, as I know others have struggled with the words, “he descended into hell,” that we say each Sunday. A couple weeks ago someone asked me if we really mean that Jesus went to hell, a question I didn’t know the answer to exactly, but fortunately I knew the right book to look in. The line, “he descended into hell,” wasn’t added to the Creed officially until the 9th Century, though it was included unofficially beginning in the 4th. Those translations were most likely in Latin, and translating the word “infernus” into English adds another layer of complication.
A great Historian of Christianity, Justo Gonzalez writes that whether we say Jesus descended into “hell” or if we say, as many do, that he descended “to the place of the dead,” isn’t really the point, as “infernus” can mean either. The point, according to Gonzalez, is that, “As one reads the Creed from the declaration that Jesus was born to this point, the movement is clearly downward. The eternal Son of God descends to earth through birth, and at his death continues descending to the lower places.”[1]
This descending nature of Christ then that we affirm in our statement of faith, directly contrasts what is a given in almost every area of our lives. In the Apostles’ Creed, what we declare about Jesus is that rather than climb the latter, rather than elevate himself, rather than associate himself with those who society considers great, Jesus in his life and in his death descended.
From heaven he descended to earth to be among us, we who are human, earthly, and unworthy. Then as a human being, he did not create for himself a palace that he might use to make his way in the world as what we would call a great man, he did not ride through the cities in a parade of extravagance as those Pharos who claimed divinity did on the streets of Ancient Egypt, but lived simply, associating with the poor, the prostitute, the outcast.
So he called his disciples to do the same – to go out into the world like sheep among wolves, not armed, not separating themselves from those who they served, not decorated so that the villages they approached would recognize them as great men, but penniless, without even a bag, or an extra tunic, not independent, but completely dependent on the people they met.
The challenge then became, or the question that I wonder about, is how would the village recognize these divine messengers when they saw them? If they don’t identify themselves as Ancient Israelite society would expect great men to identify themselves, if they didn’t come rolling into town with an armada and a legionaries’ escort, how would the village know what important men were approaching?
The question for us today is no different. If disciples are out there in the world today, if God is sending us messengers of the Good News right now, how will we recognize them if their greatness is not symbolized by the pomp and circumstance we are accustomed to?
We are used to human beings who try their hand at ascension, attempting to make themselves bigger than they are, but divinity as we know it in Jesus Christ is not only known through Ascending into heaven, but also descending to earth, and even to hell.
If divinity then has descended, if knowing God comes through knowing Jesus who has descended among us – and that knowing Jesus comes through knowing these disciples who he has sent, how will we recognize divinity when divinity has descended from the majesty of heaven to the streets of the city?
We know from our passage for today, that any one who receives a prophet, a righteous person, or one of Christ’s disciples will receive a reward far greater than what they deserve, but how will we receive that reward if we don’t know who to give that glass of cold water to, not being able to recognize them from the homeless on the street?
As Christ descended among us redefining our understanding of what it means to be great and important - God, taking the form of not a king, but a servant, not a rich man but a poor man, not at the center of society but on the outskirts – our hospitality, the way we interact with each other, the standards of class that divide rich from poor, black from white, upwardly mobile from downtrodden all must change.
Creation groaned with this kind of change not long ago. In this part of the country, and in so many other parts, as African-American people began to claim their equality in an unequal society, like the disciples they were like sheep thrown out to the wolves. They were met by barking dogs, angry mobs, not with a cup of cold water, but high powered hoses that attempted to beat them to the ground. Their voices were not heard over the roar of a fire hose, and so the sin of segregation that plagued all of society continued on. But imagine if instead of a fire hose, the police offered the protestors a cup of cold water.
We cannot know for sure who Jesus is among us, who he has sent to do his work, who he has empowered to take his ministry onward, but as our passage from Matthew claims, “if we only greet one of these little ones because they are his disciple, I tell you the truth, we will certainly not lose our reward”.
But… it is a reward with a price. Unlike a fire hose that attempts to keep things the way they are, the gift of a cup of cold water is an invitation to see another person in a new way, to hear the Good News of the Gospel, and so to challenge the structures of society that divide us.
By inviting a disciple to a cup of cold water Jesus was calling society to meet a poor man face to face, and to hear the lesson he had to teach.
By inviting those who marched for equality for a cup of cold water Jesus called white society to meet someone different, and to see that Christ shown in their eyes.
It is a radical thing really, a cup of cold water, because it calls us to identify with another just as God identified with us through the descending Jesus Christ, and to be changed.
So we are called to offer a cup of cold water to those who are different. To sit down with the poor, the laborer, the waitress; to quench their thirst, to listen to their dreams and their hopes, and to identify with them as Christ identifies with us.
We are called to offer a cup of cold water to the teenagers and the children of our church. To sit down with one of his own, to quench their thirst, to listen to their struggles, to identify with them as Christ identifies with us.
It is so different from what we often do – to silence those who are different and who call for change with the roaring of a fire hose, but just as Christ descended among us to quench our thirst, so we are called to sit down with each other. We are called to make their struggles our own, to know their story, and to sit down together as equals.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 49.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shall We Go On Sinning?

Romans 6: 1-14
What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, we cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

The image of baptism that this passage paints is not necessarily the one we are most used to. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death.”
When I think of baptism, death is generally far from my mind. I think of babies, I think of newness. I do think of all that is wrong with the world, but I am also filled with hope because I know that those who are baptized in this church will find their identity, not according to sin, but according to God’s love.
Many though have taken Paul’s theology of baptism literally, and one of my favorite Biblical scholars goes so far to deal with the heart of death and resurrection claimed in baptism that the sermon he wrote for his son’s baptism is titled, “A Death in the Family.” He preached on this same passage in Romans and said, “For [his mother and me], [our son’s] death today is real, not just a symbol or an abstraction. This reality is tempered only by the hope we hold for what this death means. He will cease to exist under the powers of this world, and will be transformed and transferred to a completely new and different kind of existence, with different powers and possibilities for life, with new eyes to see the world, and most important, with a new family and a new Lord. To use Paul’s words, today [my son] will be united with Christ in a death like his, he will be buried with him, and he will be crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed.”[1]
We don’t necessarily think of death when we see beautiful babies – we think of life. We also don’t think of sin – we think of innocence.
But history tells us, and indeed, Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us, that the meaning of baptism is radical, not polite or expected. And that baptism makes radical demands on our lives as faithful believers, claiming that we are not sprinkled with water, but die to sin, and do not come forth from the waters of baptism to be as cute as possible, but as new creations dead to sin and alive to Christ.
During slavery African-American slaves who lived on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia baptized, not in a church, but in the oceans or marshes just as the tide was going out to sea. These Christians descended into death, or into the water, and as the tide was swept out to sea so their sins were also.
But while these slaves were surely resurrected into a new life, they could not live this new life fully. The water did wash the sin of slavery off their bodies temporarily, but this sin could not be forgotten long – the walk back to the plantation reminded them all that while their baptism marked their hearts, their bodies were owned. While the reality of their baptism lifted their spirit, affirmed their identity as God’s children, this identity could only be partial, as their hands that worked the field belonged to another.
We look back on this time and question the morality of the slave owner, wondering how anyone could claim such dominion over another person. But these owners were not heathens, but Christians, attending church each Sunday, some even preaching the sermon, leading devotionals to their families and their slaves on plantation verandas throughout the South. We know from their letters, their church attendance, their conversions and professions of faith that these owners of slaves were Christians, baptized just as their slaves were – but their conversion it would seem was just as partial. While they honored Jesus in their heart, they honored selfish economic gain with the practice of slavery.
Another scholar of the New Testament, David Bartlett claims that this partial conversion is typical. He writes, “We think that because our hearts belong to Jesus, our bodies, our check-books, our votes, and our property values belong to us.”[2]
We all want to be known as Christians and hope that as our friends and family look at our lives they will know that our master is not sin, but God who conquers sin – that our lives will be a testimony to God’s power – that our actions will preach the gospel in a way that our words alone never could.
In Florida, and now in South Carolina there is an effort to make the reality of conversion known through license plates – that just as Georgia or Georgia Tech fans can personalize their license plates, so Christians might be able to buy plates proclaiming their conversion – but how will this statement be understood if the owner of such a license plate cuts in front of you on 285?
We look back on slave owners in this way – not recognizing the faith that they bore in their hearts, but the cruelty that they bore through their economic decisions. Today, as history is judged through the lens of our 21st Century Christian expectations, we cannot imagine how a follower of Jesus Christ could tolerate slavery, and so, like a the car that bears a Christian license plate, we judge not according to the faith that their heart espouses or the words that their mouth proclaims, but according to their actions – knowing that the license plate may not matter nearly so much as the way you drive the car; as it is according to actions that we expect to see the evidence of death, a death to sin and a resurrection to Christ.
Today, as we examine our lives through the same lens we must ask ourselves the same question – that while we honor God in part through attending church, through confessing our faith, can we “count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”? Will our lives be a true confession of our faith?
Will future generations take into account the belief our words confess to? Or will they judge us by the way we have used or abused our bodies? The way we make decisions based on selfish gain with our check-books, voting not for the good of all people but for the good of our own? Have we lived by the law of love in our hearts or according to laws of economy in our actions?
When future generations look back on our marriages, will they judge us by what we had hoped to do, or by what we actually did? Will they recognize the sacrifices we made at the office, or will they be more concerned with the empty seat we too often left at the dinner table? Will they honor us for our promotions, or judge us for not being there for the big soccer game, swim meet, or concert?
Will our children celebrate our many anniversaries, or will they always remember the slamming doors and arguments? We concentrate so often on the faith that lives in our hearts, but will this faith be known to future generations if it does not live out in our lives? Will the smiles in pictures matter, if our children and grandchildren know that these smiles hide sins of all kinds?
We are a country that claims a strong faith, but will future generations judge us by the number of churches we have built, or by the number of bombs we have dropped?
Claiming justice for all, will we be judged according to our defense of the unborn, or our torture of the accused terrorist?
Knowing that Christ calls us to defend the weak and the immigrant, to seek justice for the poor, will a vote for our business interest honor the foundation of our faith?
These are the questions for today, because these are the questions that Christianity demands. Like slave owners before us, we will be judged by future generations who will ask if we have truly died to sin, or continued to live honoring false gods. But why should we wait for their judgment? Christ did not die so that we could go on sinning, but so that we might be alive in him today.
[1] Stanly P. Saunders, The Word on the Street (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000) 42-43.
[2] David L. Bartlett, Romans (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 61.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Romans 4: 13-5, page 798.
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by the law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what was promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words, “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
We are often confronted with our own sinfulness. One of the things that we try to keep secret from ourselves and others, the fact that we aren’t perfect, we boldly confess to in the Prayer of Confession each Sunday morning.
The temptation though, or the temptation for me anyway, is that when I am faced with my sinfulness I feel uncomfortable and I am tempted to say to myself, “Well surely I’m not really that bad.” We want to know that we are OK, but rather than trusting in God’s Grace, we hope that God will be distracted by other people’s sin, or that “their” sinfulness will make our sinfulness seem small in comparison.
We say to God, “Sure I’m pretty bad, sure I’m impure, but at least I’m not as bad as that guy – right God?”
We see this logic play out in the news, as society is divided between good guys and bad guys. If morality was a softball game, and we were picked to go up against the bad guys of the world, I am sure we would be winning by a few runs, their sinfulness surely outweighing our own.
But does our faith call us to different teams, judging each other according to a set of rules? For Paul, the Law stood as society’s law book – the means by which humanity could judge one another, figuring out who was ahead and who was behind. But Paul believed God, through Jesus, was calling us to see each other in a different way.
I saw a glimpse of this different way in a video some folks sent me through email this past week.
It was a clip from ESPN, a college softball game.
In this clip steps to the plate a young woman, barely more than 5 feet tall, batting average of .153, no career homeruns in college, high school, or even before that. Her name is Sarah, and as her team trails by a run she steps to the plate with two strikes already hanging over her head. The pitch, she swings, and off it goes, over the wall. She has hit a home run for the first time in her life, giving her team the lead in this important game against rival Central Washington. The two runners score as the crowd cheers, but they turn to see Sarah on the ground, her arms wrapped around 1st base. She is not able to cherish every second of this important moment trotting from base to base, because in turning 1st her knee gave way, and Sarah found herself unable to finish rounding the bases to score for her home run. She lay there in pain, hugging first base knowing that her career in softball had just ended, and that her only home run would count as a single. Her coach asked the umpire what to do, and the umpire said that if the coach were to substitute a runner for Sarah the homerun wouldn’t count, and her hit would be scored a two RBI single, and if any of the players on her team even touched her, Sarah would be called out. These were the rules of the game.
But then Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace of the opposing team, finding they couldn’t sit by, knowing what it means to see such an important accomplishment be taken away, walked over to Sarah, picked her up in their arms, and carried her around the bases, as Sarah touched second, then third, and finally home to score the first and only homerun of her career.
Liz and Mallory’s act of compassion could have cost their team the game, as Sarah’s homerun secured a 4 to 2 lead. By the rules of the game, they could have waited as the team’s trainer bandaged Sarah’s knee and escorted her off the field, limiting her homerun to a single, leaving their team in a better position on the score board.
They would have had a better chance of winning their game, but compassion led them to do something else. Compassion broke down the wall between two softball teams, as they saw each other, not as competitors, but as something else.
For Paul it was the Jews vs. the Gentiles, the law dividing the two, standing as a means for the Jews to justify themselves in light of the non-Jewish Gentiles apparent unrighteousness.
But Paul knew that faith, like the compassion that broke through the wall dividing two softball teams, would break through the wall between Jews and Gentiles, Slave and Free, Male and Female.
As a persecutor of Christians he prided himself on knowing right and wrong, of building up a righteous life according to stringent observance of the law codes of our Bible. He rested on the Sabbath, was circumcised, he ate what he was supposed to, he said what was upstanding and clean, he gave everything he had to being righteous in God’s sight. He built up a wall against impropriety, unrighteousness, impurity, and against those he believed to be impropriates, unrighteous, and unclean.
But this wall came down as he realized it didn’t really matter when he came face to face with Jesus.
Paul’s faith in Christ was like a wrecking ball to the walls he had built up around himself.
When Paul’s opponents began claiming that those who wanted to be Christians had first become Jews - that those men who wanted to be baptized also had to be circumcised, Paul put his foot down, asking “is this blessedness only for the circumcised?” Claiming that “it was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”
The rules of the game had to be changed, and as Paul’s faith changed the way he lived, the walls he built around himself, walls of division, of race, of class, of status, came tumbling down, according to the foundation of his faith laid out in verse 25 of our scripture lesson, that Jesus, “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”
Paul began living by a new set of rules.
I have another story about people breaking down walls, though the stakes in this story are much higher than winning or losing.
A few years ago, Evan Silverstein of the Presbyterian News Service, reported that two Presbyterian participants in an important ministry at the US/Mexico border were arrested, charged with helping undocumented migrants cross the border into Arizona. In an effort to limit illegal immigration, the United States Border Patrol increased security dramatically in those areas where it was safest for people to cross. This increased security drove migrants to cross in rural areas, deserted wastelands where the sun would be hot, water scarce, and nothing in between Mexico and the US but sand and cactus.
The US Border Patrol thought that the length and the risk of crossing in these desolate areas would make desperate migrants think twice about crossing the border - that the threat of death would prevent people from trying to cross, but they underestimated a peoples’ desperation. "There is no shade or water available to the crossers," said Rob Daniels, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which takes in much of Arizona. "They're at the disposal of the elements. They really face an uphill battle of Herculean size." And there are other challenges, including snakes, scorpions and vultures, twisted ankles, dislocated knees, broken bones and severely blistered feet.
In an attempt to prevent another death, two Presbyterians drove a dying migrant to a hospital, where they were arrested for aiding an illegal immigrant. According to some statistics, in the years between 1998 and 2003, 2,600 people died attempting to cross the border. In the hopes of limiting how many immigrants come into our country, in the hopes of keeping the labels on our food, the signs on the street, and the sound on our TV in English, more than 2,600 people have died.
And as I read Paul’s letter to the Romans, as I think about the power of God’s Grace, my sinfulness, and our common heritage in Abraham, the Father of all the Faithful, I know that there is a wall that our Faith has yet to break down.
But at least for these two Presbyterians, like the two softball players, and so like Paul the Apostle, the walls that divided became nothing when they considered the bonds that united them to another.
We seem to be a world divided by walls, oceans, and hatred. We seem to be a country segmented, and distant, but truly, we are a sinful people made worthy by the bonds of faith that join us together.
Faith has torn down the walls that divide us, as it is not by building up walls around ourselves that we are saved, but like Paul, “we are saved by the one who was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”