Monday, May 7, 2012

The Sunday Sermon: The Essence of who we are

Easter 5
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan recently wrote an article which appeared in the April 9 edition of Newsweek entitled, “The Forgotten Jesus.” The subtext was “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them.” As one of those people he suggests you ignore, I ask you to at least temporarily suspend following his advice literally and rather listen to the spirit of what he’s saying.

Which actually is part of his message.

He begins the article by talking about an exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s Bibles found in the National Museum of American History in Washington. In one Bible, Jefferson carefully removed by razor, passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus and then pasted them into a “slimmer, different New Testament,” which is also on display.

This second, new and improved New Testament, at least in Jefferson’s view, got rid of what he thought were the unnecessary claims about Jesus and instead emphasized the core of his message which included among other things, we love our enemies, forgive those who harm us, give up the need to have power over others because it inevitably leads to violence, and importantly, trust in God, our “truest Father.”

Sullivan writes in the article, “Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection—and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday—Jefferson’s point is crucially important. Because it was Jesus’ point. What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?”

Now like Andrew Sullivan, I do believe in the divinity of Jesus, which for what it is worth, Jefferson did not. But for me this belief is foundational to my faith. But I also agree with Sullivan’s point that if we don’t live and act in way consistent with our faith, what we proclaim loses its meaning However, his question, specficially, what does it matter how strictly we proclaim our beliefs in various doctrines if we do not live as those doctrines demand, is deeply important in no small part because it requires us to ask an even more preliminary question, which is what do we consider to be essential, core, to our faith?

When we proclaim ourselves to be Christian, what exactly we are saying? It is easy enough to say what we are not.

But, and here’s the rub because church people are notorious for making rules, be they about doctrine, worship, proper living, or in the case of Episcopalians, the correct placement of a salad fork. We need to distinguish between what is essential in our faith, and our faith journey, from those things which not only distract us but also those which are nice, good or even Godly but not foundational in and of themselves.

So let’s start with a basic premise most of us would agree with. As Christians we are followers and disciples of Jesus. But what lies at the essence, the core of our following him? And what does it demand of us? Each of today’s readings helps shed some light on the answer to these questions. In the first reading from Acts, Philip, on his way to Gaza, comes across an Ethiopian eunuch and the two become unlikely companions as Philip “opens the scriptures” up to him.

Upon coming to some water along the road, the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to baptize him and Philip agrees. But immediately after the baptism, Philip is snatched away by the Holy Spirit and ends up in Azotus.

It is a strange story. But even if we look at just the face of it, we see how following Jesus means we need to allow for the presence of the Holy Spirit to move in us and through us. Chances are we will end up in some unexpected places and with some unusual people, but the Spirit moves as it wills, not necessarily as we expect or desire. Our job so to speak, is to remain open, expectant, and willing because it will happen.

In the second reading from the first letter of John, we are reminded how our relationship with Jesus gives us an ability to love others in ways we probably couldn’t do otherwise.

And we can do this the writer says, because since God loved us first, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear.” As Christians we are asked to engage in a type of love not based on scarcity, fear of rejection, or even mutuality. We are not to love our enemies so they will love us back. We love them to those relationships may be given fully to God. Quite simply, we are asked to engage in love with a spirit of abundance.

Finally we hear in John’s Gospel, that our relationship with Jesus should be one which bears fruit. To help, as we are gifted or the opportunity arises, to bring about the knowledge of God and God’s kingdom here on earth. Christianity is not a form of private spirituality but one which is profoundly communal beginning with the fact God abides in us. Jesus was sent to us, as Lord and Savior so we may abide in him and through him, rest in the arms of our truest Father, our Abba.

Our Christian faith is not to be nurtured inwardly only but outwardly as well—we are to make Jesus’ presence know in any way we can.

Whatever doctrines, rules, or rites we develop to help serve God’s purposes, at least as we best understand them, can be all well and good. Many, many are.

Our proclamations here at the Cathedral about our commitment to full inclusion, the environment, being good neighbors to our brothers and sisters on the border, as well as to good liturgy, music, service to others, and spirited Christian formation, are important. They speak volumes about our understanding of what it means to be Christian.

But at the same time, it is also important we remember Christianity has never been and never will be about political correctness, domination, or adhering, for their own sake, to policies, rules, or attitudes which contribute to the detriment of others.

For when proclaim ourselves as followers of Jesus, it is imperative we stay grounded in what it means to be in relationship with him. Top recall and remember we are followers and disciples of Jesus and living accordingly matters deeply.

Which means we are to have a true openness to allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us; an active willingness to love others, and ourselves, with Godly abundance; and a commitment to bring about realm of God here on earth, to the bear fruit in Jesus’ name. Without these things 0ur proclamation loses meaning.

Fortunately, and truly by the grace of God, perfection in any of them is not required. An open heart, mind, body, and soul is as good a place as any to start. God will take care of the rest.

As Andrew Sullivan says towards the end of his article, true Christianity comes from the soul. “It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment but lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of underachievement. And it is not afraid . . . this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever.”

May we all be living examples of that vitality to the glory of the one who gave up everything of worldly value so we may have all that truly matters.

 The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas 
6 May 2012

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