If we listen to the news on the radio or t.v. during the course of any given day, we will hear regular reports on the current value of the stock market. These reports are often delivered with the assumption that the Dow Jones average is the definitive gauge of the quality of our life and our hope for the future. I had an epiphany one day while driving and listening to one such report. There had been a sizable drop that day in the stock market. The report was delivered with a sense of gloom and the implication that we ought all to don sackcloth and ashes and mourn our loss of wealth until things turned around. The epiphany was the realization that these were false implications. In fact, all the things that were really important in my life were unrelated to the report.
Of course, the value of the stock market is related to the security our jobs, or the prospect of getting a job, and our ability to meet the needs of our families and plan for the future. These are all necessary things and we can’t avoid thinking about them. However, the idea that money is the measure and goal of life is the very point Jesus warns about when he says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (from the gospel, Matthew 6:24).
Jesus was not talking to rich people. The Bible gives plenty of exhortations about wealth. We should not put our trust in our money. We should be generous. We should realize that we brought nothing into this world and that we can carry nothing out of it. But here Jesus is talking to the working class of his day, to people who were being overcome with worry about “what shall we eat and what shall we drink and how shall we be clothed?” One does not have to make a lot of money to live life in service to mammon.
The alternative Jesus offers is summed up with these words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” What does this mean? At our Fullerton group last Wednesday, we discussed an article by Dorothy Sayers entitled, “Why Work?” You can find it online, and I commend it to you. Sayers highlights a problem with the way we look at work. We tend to think of work in terms of how much money we can make doing it. Sayers contends that we should, instead, pay attention to the work itself. When thinking about someone’s job we tend to ask, “How much does he make?” Sayers argues that we should focus on the more important question, “What does he do?” As the current economic crisis has revealed, it is possible to make a lot of money doing things that neither glorify God nor benefit our neighbor.
This concern is related to our gospel. When Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he means that we should be preoccupied with doing what we do for the glory of God and the good of others. Money should be seen as a by-product. Our proper focus is on the work itself, what we do and how we do it, and not on the money that comes from it. The early church actually had list of prohibited occupations. One cannot be a Christian thief or a Christian prostitute, and there are others things that a Christian ought not to do. There mere fact that some work brings a monetary reward does not mean that the work ought to be done. There is also the danger of doing something good, but doing it poorly.
This principle also applies to work for which there is no monetary reward. The assault on the vocation of motherhood is fueled by false economic valuation. If our primary concern is, What does it pay? No one will be a mother. But if our primary concern is, What is the work intrinsically worth? We will see an increase in fertility. To be sure, there are economic realities involved in child bearing. However, if the vocation is intrinsically good, we ought to view the economic sacrifice as heroic, in contrast to the world that views it as foolish.
This emphasis also has implications for the life of prayer. One thing that keeps us from a faithful life of prayer is its lack of monetary value. To the world, it is a non-productive activity. If the world sees any value in prayer, it is only in relationship to its ability to create a more productive person. Thus, we are always being pulled away from prayer by urgencies that have a clearer connection to what we shall eat, what we shall drink and what we shall wear. However, if we understand the intrinsic value of prayer as the central activity of the creature in relationship to the creator, as the fountain of grace that enables us to grow up into the image of Christ, prayer will seldom be neglected.
Prayer is related to vocation. Prayer bring us into that right relationship with God that enables us to discern our proper vocation and direct our energies toward the more important things. The closer we are to God, the more attentive we are to the nature and quality of the work we do. God made the world and said, “It is good.” Those who are made in his image and live in communion with him can never be content doing work that is not good.
Those who live in communion with God and focus on the work and not the reward are also less anxious. When we are preoccupied with what we shall eat, drink and wear, we must contend with a thousand doubts and obstacles to our security. What will I do if this or that thing happens? How can I insure against all the variables of life in a fallen and crazy world? We are tempted to compromise and take shortcuts because we are afraid of not having enough. We worry about things because we take upon ourselves the task of being God. But if attend to the kingdom, first in prayer and worship, then in our work and service to others, we learn to trust God to take care of the rest. We learn to trust God to make all things work together for good. For that is his proper work.
There is a grand paradox in all of this. When we begin to value what is done for its own sake; when good work done to the glory of God is the goal and money is the afterthought and by-product, things begin to work better. We are more fulfilled and contented as people and we do better work. We also discover that God is faithful to provide the things we need–just as he promised. Life actually works better when we live it in the manner God intended.
We live in a world in which service to mammon is deeply entrenched. Consequently, it is hard to seek first the kingdom. It takes a conscious effort. We begin with the confession that we have, in fact, served mammon and with prayer for grace to begin to live in a different way. We continue with the decision, day by day, to value people, work and time in terms of the kingdom and not in terms of the dollar value placed on them by the world. We are able to live in a new way because of faith, because we believe that God, who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, will also feed and clothe us if we concentrate on doing the things he calls us to do.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents certain challenges for us as we determine how to respond to various needs we see by the roadside. But let us first consider the primary meaning of the parable. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He asked the question with faulty motive. Having established the agreed upon morality–Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself–only one task remained for the lawyer: How to define neighbor in such a way as to excuse his failures.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tell us,
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Therein lies the problem. When the definition of neighbor is expanded to include my enemy, I will have issues when my behavior is judged. However, if I can whittle down the definition of neighbor so that includes only those I already love, then at least I can offer some defense when I am called to account on the Day of Judgement.
The parable is directed at religious people, priests and deacons–or priests and levites as they used to call them. What is not self-evident in the story is that the priest and levite both had a religious justification for not helping the wounded man. If either touched a dead body, the Torah said he would be unclean and unable to fulfill his duties in the temple. Since half dead looks a lot like dead, and may soon become dead, they could use their religion as an excuse not to love. However, as God said through Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). That is to say, God would have preferred that they help the person in need and get someone to cover for them in the temple.
The point is this. If we ask, as the lawyer asked, “What can I do to be saved?” The answer is, “Nothing.” Our attempts to achieve salvation will fail. The best we will come up with through human effort and sophistry will fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As our epistle says, “The scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Galatians 3:22). We are saved when we put our faith in Jesus, who fulfilled the Torah for us and offered himself on the cross for our sins.
However, once we put our faith in the Son of God and are renewed by the gift of the Spirit, what was impossible becomes possible. We were enemies of God, but God made us his friends through the cross. Now, we also can embrace those who were our enemies. We can rise above human limitations and love as God loves. We can pray for those who oppose us. We can pray even for the terrorist that he might be converted and saved–just as St. Paul, who terrorized the early church, was converted. In short, we can, as Jesus said, “Be perfect, as you Father in heaven in perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Perfection is not easy because loving our enemies and helping those in need not easy. In the parable, the need and the remedy were obvious. However, the needy we encounter by the roadside include the mentally ill, skilled manipulators and others who refuse to be held accountable for the actions. We see someone by the roadside with a sign that says, “Will work for food,” and we give. Then we discover that sitting by the roadside with such a sign can be a reasonably profitable endeavor. Get a young child to sit next to you and you can receive $100 or more a day tax free. Someone comes to the church office for assistance–and we give. Then someone follows that person for a block or so and watches them drive away in a late model SUV with leather seats.
And yet, there are real needs and real wounds. The fact that the needy are not always the pure of heart does not excuse us from responding–for neither are we always the pure of heart. God rewards our motives in giving even when the recipient misuses what we give. Nonetheless, it seems irresponsible to continually give in circumstances where the gift may actually provide incentives for a person not to get well. The impulse to charity in our culture often lack the biblical balance between generosity and accountability, between the command of Jesus to free give and the command of St. Paul, “If he will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The parable hints at an answer to the dilemma. The Good Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn, where he was nursed and fed until he regained his strength. The inn in the parable was understood by the church fathers to be an image of the church. This suggests that when we find people wounded by the road, half dead in sin, we should bring them to the church, the people of God. Healing is to be found, not merely in money, but in a relationship with God experienced through the life of prayer in the community of the faithful.
The unspoken truth about neediness in our culture is that it is results, not from a lack of money, but the breakdown of families and relationships. It results, in large measure, from fatherlessness. The answer is to restore people to a relationship with their heavenly father in the family of God through the church. Alienation is the problem. A new community consisting of truthful and close relationships is the answer.
When the Samaritan brought the wounded man to the inn, he enlisted the help of others. In the church, the larger body of Christ can help in the task of ministering to the wounded–“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Of course, this makes the answer harder, not easier. It is easier to write a check than it is to invest time and energy in with a wounded and difficult person. But God invests himself in us, though we are wounded and difficult, and we are called to give just as we have received.
As Jesus said, “Go and do thou likewise.”
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is hard to imagine talking about anything else, but it is also not obvious what to say about it in church. How do we understand a violent and deadly act of terrorism in terms of the kingdom of God?
There are significant points of correspondence between 9/11 and Good Friday. Both involved the unjust killing of the innocent by angry people. The terrorist tries to conquer people through fear. This is precisely why the Romans crucified people. They nailed their enemies to a cross and put them on display by the roadside so that all would see–and be afraid. History turned when the Romans nailed to a cross a particular Jewish man, who also happened to be the Son of God. Jesus seemed to be but another hapless victim among thousands–crucified, dead and buried. Yet, we are here in church precisely because “the third day he rose again from the dead.”
Good Friday and Easter are the definitive pattern for the Christian life. We are, as St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10). Easter teaches us that God can take malice, injustice and murder and turn them into the means of salvation. Easter teaches us that God can take the senseless, the brutal, the horrific and the tragic and use them as the raw material for his will and purpose. The same God who created the world in the beginning, is now bringing the order and beauty of his new creation our of the chaos and evil of this fallen world.
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus were characterized by being unafraid to die. Jesus promised, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The early Christians believed him and faced death accordingly. Rome attempted to crush the church by killing, threatening and torturing Christians. However, the threat of death caused the church to grow. The pagans were drawn to Christ because they saw that his followers were willing to die for him. The word martyr means “witness” in the Greek. Faithful death was, and is, a powerful witness to the fact the Christ is risen, and we will rise.
Martyrdom is not a thing of the past. Today, Christians around the world are being persecuted for their faith–particularly in countries where there is a militant Islamic presence. There have probably been more Christian martyrs in the last century than in all of the previous history of the church.
We tend to read stories of heroic response to persecutions as exotic tales of foreign adventure. In America, we’ve never been discouraged from believing by the threat of death. However, on 9/11, Americans were killed in America in part because they were identified with Christianity.
Christianity has been historically comfortable in American. This has changed. The terrorist, the currently accepted pubic morality and the goals and values of the consumer culture are all hostile to genuine Christian faith. This means that being a Christian in America now a challenge. This means that heroic Christian response to danger and opposition is no longer only for saints who lived long ago or far away. It is something to which each of us is increasingly called.
Heroism was one of the good things that came out of 9/11. The men who attacked the terrorists in the cockpit; the firefighters who ran back up the stairway while others were running out; the chaplain who died giving last rites to a victim. It is no surprise that many, if not most, were Christians.
The men were heroes because they were faithful to fulfill their ordinary calling in extraordinary circumstances. Men ought to band together and fight the enemy. Firefighters are called to risk their lives to save people. Priests are called to ministry. These men became heroes on 9/11 because they continued to do these ordinary and faithful things when their lives were at risk.
Christian heroism has always had this component. The Christian saint does not go out of his way to perform some dangerous stunt for its own sake or for mere glory. He does not seek martyrdom. The Christian saint simply lives out the implications of his or her faith in the ordinary circumstances of life. Sometimes sanctity is exhibited when a person faithfully fulfills ordinary but challenging duties for decades without notice or fanfare. Sometimes sanctity is shown by doing ordinary things in an extraordinary circumstance. For example, all Christians ordinarily profess that Jesus is Lord. The martyrs just continued to this ordinary thing after they were arrested and threatened with death.
Two movies recently refreshed this meditation for me. The other night I watched the closing scenes of “Titanic.” These scenes showed how, as the ship began to sink, some people acted like cowards while others acted courageously, exhibiting honor and integrity in extraordinary circumstances. I recently watched another film entitled, “Of Gods and Men,” a true story of an order monks who lived in Algeria. Militant Islamists began to operate in their region, placing them in peril of death. Their first impulse was to leave, to flee to safety. Before deciding what to do, they committed to pray about it for a time. Through prayer, they all came to the conclusion that God called them to stay and be faithful where they were. Most of them were killed as a result. The movie did not portray these men as naturally heroic. Their first impulse was to run. However, through prayer, they were given the grace they needed to continue to fulfill their ordinary duty in a new extraordinary circumstance.
The fact is that we all we live under the threat of death. Terrorism simply highlights and magnifies this aspect of the human condition. We are all going to die. We hope to live to ripe old age, but there is always some chance that death might come unexpectedly; that we might be in the wrong building or on the wrong plane. Life “in Christ” is preparation for death. The modern world wants to avoid death. The terrorist wants to scare us with the threat of death. Jesus conquered death so that we can live heroically and without fear. For we know that every death in Christ is a Good Friday that looks forward to Easter. We know that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us rom the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
As we look back on 9/11 in the light of the kingdom of God, we can remember three things. First, God continually brings his new creation out of the chaos and evil of this world. Second death can come unexpectedly so that we must always be ready. Third, we ought to live heroically for Christ in the time we have left. As Jesus said, “Blessed is that servant whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.” (Matthew 24:46).
The epistle is about “spiritual gifts,” a topic that often sounds strange to the average Christian. Those who talk most about spiritual gifts almost always talk about “speaking in tongues,” which brings to mind images of people making strange noises or rolling in the aisles of the church–not things most Christians do or want to do. Nonetheless, the New Testament teaches that every Christian possesses a spiritual gift to be used in service to others. As the epistle says, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Spiritual gifts result from baptism. First Corinthians says, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (12:13). This unity does not consist of people who are all the same. Baptismal unity results in a grand diversity. Each Christian is unique and each is called to do different things that serve the common good.
Now, just a modicum of theology floating around somewhere in our brains will cause a light to go on here–“Wait a minute! Isn’t this just like God as Trinity?” God is essentially one, but the one God consists of three persons who do different things.” Being created in the image of God, the church is essential one, but consists of many members with different gifts, ministries and activities.
The very concept of spiritual gifts teaches us that we were made to giver. We were made for ministry and service. This scares the modern narcissist, who responds, “Well, then, what about me?” We must, again, look at God to understand what this means. God is the pre-eminent giver. God has given us life. God has given us the world to enjoy. God gave his only begotten Son so that we might be saved through faith in him. God gives us spiritual gifts. Yet God is not diminished by the gifts he gives. God is whole and complete. God is a loving relationship within himself. This is precisely why he is able to give. God is literally full of love, which overflows in gifts to unworthy creatures.
We are only able to give to others because we have been made whole and complete in Christ. Because our sins have been washed away; because God has given us his Holy Spirit; because God has filled our empty sinful selves with himself, we are now full and able to give to others in the same way God gives to us.
This is what God intended in the beginning. God’s Trinitarian love overflowed into the creation of beautiful and ordered world and people made in his image. We were supposed to multiply God’s love through procreation and creative activity that reflects God’s glory. Instead, we sinned. Sin separated us from God. Instead of being full of God’s love and able to give, we became hollow, needy creatures, who attempt to fill the void created God’s absence by taking from others.
This is why spiritual gifts result from baptism and faith. They are not a natural endowment. The need to take from others for selfish purposes results from the fall. The ability to truly give to another, as God gives to us, results from our experience of redemption in Christ. If we do not know God, if we have not experienced God’s unmerited grace through the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit, we cannot exercise any spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gifts highlights the communal nature of the church. God fills us with himself but one way he does this is through the gifts of the other members of Christ’s body. For example, when we are discouraged, God may encourage us through a spiritual experience or an angelic visitation. However, it is more likely that God will encourage us through another Christian who has the gift of encouragement. Being a member of the body of Christ means being connected to other people in fulfilling relationships in which all are edified in a reciprocal pattern of giving and receiving.
Our challenge with spiritual gifts is two-fold. First, we must determine what our gifts are. What has God called me to do within the body of Christ and for the body in the world? You spiritual gifts are things that you have been given the ability and inclination to do AND which edify other people. The second part is key here. Many people have ability and inclination to complain and criticize, but these are sins, not spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts have two markers. Fulfilment for the giver and edification for the recipient.
Understanding our spiritual gifts saves us from the frustration of doing things we are not called or gifted to do. We should avoid committing to ministries or efforts for which we do not have the gifts. This ends in disaster. Knowing our gifts tells us where to say yes and also where to say no.
The second challenge is to maintain unity in the exercising of our diverse gifts. This is the main point St. Paul makes in the epistle. When there are a variety of gifts at work, there is a human tendency towards division. Division occurs when people with certain kinds of gifts do not value others who gifts are different. We must develop the spiritual vision to see and appreciate the various ways God is working through other people.
Division also occurs when motives are faulty. When people do things in order to get recognized or from a need to be needed, rather than from the fullness of their experience of God’s love, seeds of resentment and discord are sown. St. Paul’s ultimate word on spiritual gifts comes in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, where he says,
Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1Corinthians 13:2-3).
Part of growing as a Christian is having our motives purified so that we learn to give as God gives and not with strings attached. Over time, God teaches us to give from the fullness of love we experience in relationship with him and not from the need created by our sin.
For, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”
“If you live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13).
The prayer book epistles for Trinity season work their way through the letters of St. Paul from Romans to Collossians, in biblical order. Today is our third week of Romans. The focus has been on baptism and its implications. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. As we continually remember, or experience again, our baptism through the life of prayer, we live in a way that is consistent with our identity in Christ. Unfaithfulness results when we forget who we are.
There is another motivation for living faithfully. Namely, the results we experience when we live unfaithfully. There is an over used quote that says something like, “Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.” The quote is often attributed to Einstein, but there seems to be no evidence that he actually wrote or said it. It was probably attributed to him to give the line greater weight in an argument. In any event, this quote seems particularly applicable to human sin. People do the same wrong thing again and again with the crazy notion that the results will be different this time.
Many people allege that Christian morality is oppressive, out of date and unrealistic. However, when we look at the actual evidence in the lives of those who love God with all their heart, soul and mind and love their neighbor as themselves, we discover something different. It turns out that those who worship God faithfully, respect authority, honor the marriage bond, tell the truth, are honest in their dealings and are concerned for the good of their neighbor have a greater sense of peace and fulfillment than those who do not do these things.
Conversely, when we examine the actual lives of people who habitually practice some form of sin, we discover that their lives have produced various kinds of undesirable fruit. Failure to worship God leads to idolatry. Failure to love one’s neighbor by obeying commandments five through ten leads to the weaving of many a tangled web and not a few consequences and psychological problems.
However, this evidence does not always lead to repentance and change. It often leads to more of the same. Take, for example, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. It promised liberation and fulfillment by throwing off the yoke of Christian morality. In fact it produced chaos and much cultural and personal catastrophe. Yet, advertisers and media are still presenting sex, in various non-marital forms, as the fulfillment of all human longing. And, despite the evidence, people are still buying it.
Why, if the empirical evidence is in favor of faithfulness and obedience, do people routinely choose to disobey and act selfishly? Why do we sin if sin does not make sense? Because this is the nature of sin. Sin is an inclination to act in a disobedient way without regard to the long term implications.
“Long term’ is the key. The evidence in favor of obedience is gathered over time in the laboratory of human behavior. We learn the wisdom of obedience through experience. This is why God gave us the history of a nation in the Bible. We can read and observe the long term consequences of sin without having to conduct our own experiment. Of course, many of us end up learning the hard way nonetheless!
Sin does makes sense in its own short term time horizon. If all I want is a good feeling right now and I don’t really care about the consequence next week, month and year, then I will feel free to give full vent to my anger, to grab any desired pleasure, to lie or cheat or steal to get what I want now. Temptation obscures the long term implications and overstates the short term benefits. “You will not die,” the devil said, “but you will be like God.” It turns out that they did experience spiritual death, and being like God wasn’t all it was advertised to be. The world, the flesh and the devil provide an deceptive analysis of disobedience. It’s like the guy who jumped into a thorn bush, rolled around for a while and came out bloody and bruised. He was asked, “Why did you do that?” He responded, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
To be saved from sin by Jesus Christ means to be saved from this irrational and crazy pattern of continuing to expect different results from the same old patterns of sin. We are saved not only from the consequences of sin. We are also saved from the need to engage in the behavior that results in the consequences. We are no longer compelled to jump into the thorn bush.
This brings us to the epistle. “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.” If you continue to willfully follow the desires of your fallen nature, you will also inherit the long term consequences of that behavior, which include death. “But if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” To mortify means to put to death. To mortify the deeds of the body is to say no to sin, whenever the opportunity surfaces. To “mortify” brings us back to baptism. In baptism, the sinful self died. The person living in a manner that is consistent with baptism will put the old self to death again whenever it rears its ugly head.
The grace of baptism, and the grace of continually remembering our baptism through the life of prayer, is that we are able to do this. When we encounter temptation, with all its irrational and deceptive promises, we are able to say no because we recognize the deception and have the spiritual strength through the Spirit to put the impulse to death rather than follow it. Forgiveness saves us from our past sins, but mortification saves us from sin in the present moment. We won’t feel guilty, ashamed and afraid in the future if we put to death the deeds of the body right now. This is how we share the cross of Jesus and reveal that we are children of God and heirs of the kingdom.
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God: and if children, then heir; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him that we may also be gloried together (Romans 8:15-17).
Bob Dylan, in his brief Christian phase, wrote a song entitled, “You gotta serve somebody.” One line said, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” St. Paul is expressing something like this thought in the epistle, where he describes the change that takes place in baptism in terms of slavery:
As ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (Rom 6:19 KJV).
In other words, before you were baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, you were a slave of sin. You surrendered the parts of your body to your sinful desires. You “served” sin. In baptism, the sinful part of you died and the life of Christ was planted in you through the Holy Spirit. Now you are to surrender the parts of your body to the Spirit. You are to serve God.
There is a difficulty in the language St. Paul uses about baptism. In last week’s epistle, he wrote, “We are buried with [Jesus Christ] by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). St. Paul presents this death as an accomplished fact. However, the astute observer of the Christian life will ask, “If the old man, the sinful self, was buried in baptism, why does he seem to be all too alive and active in my life?” Is the old, sinful man kind of like a zombie in a cheesy horror movie? You kill him, but he just gets up and starts following you again.
The cross and resurrection of Jesus impact our lives in three time periods: past, present and future. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” Nothing more needed to be done. Yet, the finished work of the cross must be applied to human history and particular human lives in the present moment. And the work of Christ in the world in the present moment looks forward to a future consummation when the implications of the cross will be applied to the creation in a full and final way.
We were baptized into Christ at a past moment in time. We died and rose with Christ. In a sense, it is finished. Yet this finished work must then be lived out in the present moment. We must actually put the deeds of the old man to death and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit now. As we fight the good fight now, we look forward to the future resurrection, when the old man will be truly dead and buried and all things will be completely new.
Baptism, then, restores to us the ability to live in communion with God. Our sins are forgiven so that we are freed from the burden of guilt. We have the gift of the Spirit, which gives us the power we need to resist temptation do what is right. However, we must still, by acts of the will, say no to sin, surrender our selves, our souls and our bodies to God and live in a new way. We must live in the present moment according to the new identity that we were given in baptism.
In this section of Romans, St. Paul is responding the disobedient Christian who says, “Since God forgives me, it doesn’t matter how I behave.” The logic of St. Paul’s response is not what we might expect. St. Paul does not say, “You are a bad boy and ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Rather, to the disobedient Christian, St. Paul says, “You have forgotten who you are.” “You were baptized into Christ’s death. You participated in Christ’s resurrection–and you’re acting like that didn’t happen.”
Coming to Christ through baptism and faith effects a change of identity. In baptism, we pray, “Give thy Holy Spirit to this child (or this thy servant) that he may be born again.” In baptism we become a child of God, a member of the body of Christ and an heir of the kingdom of God. Our new identity leads us to behave in new ways. Who we are determines what we do. Thieves steal, liars lie and sinners sin, but children of God, members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom serve God.
It follows from this logic that if we are not doing what we should do, we have forgotten, or rejected, our baptism. Or it may be that we have not yet experienced that conversion of the heart that makes the baptismal gift effective in our lives. In any event, the problem is forgetfulness. If we are unfaithful, we have forgotten who we are. The answer is to remember.
It is not a surprise, then, that the word “remembrance” is central to Christian worship. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Why do we need to remember? Why do we need recall the presence of Christ and enter back into the experience death and resurrection that began in baptism? Because we forget. Because we drift away from union communion with God and drift back into unfaithfulness. We need to remember, to experience again who we are before we can live as we ought.
Remembrance is the foundation for the life of prayer. Sometimes it is called “recollection.” We live a life of prayer so that we will continually remember who God is, what God has done for us and who we are as a result. We live a life of prayer so that we will experience again our union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit and, as a result, bear the fruits of holy behavior that grow out of that communion.
This is why it is wrong to think of Christianity primarily in terms of behavior. There are many non-Christians whose behavior is better than some Christians. That does not make them Christians. We cannot be good enough to be accepted by God on the basis of our behavior. Holy behavior is the result, not the cause, of our Christian identity. If we examine closely, we will see that faithful Christians are known by their prayerfulness. This prayerfulness leads to new behavior, but the behavior is the fruit and not the foundation of Christian identify. There are other things that will cause people to do what is right, or not do what is wrong. Guilt, shame and fear each produce a kind of morality. Vainglory, the desire to be thought well-of by others, will also lead to people to “be good.” However, only the experience of God’s love in Christ through the Spirit will lead us to obey God from the heart, to do what is right because it is right, to love because we have been loved.
To be a Christian, then, is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. To be a faithful Christian is to live in the light of that experience and identity. To be a faithful Christian is to remember that we were buried with Christ through baptism and raised with Christ through faith. To be a faithful Christian is to live according to our new identity in the present moment, in the hope of resurrection and life in the world to come.
For, “now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness and the end everlasting life”
The miraculous catch of fish in today’s gospel was repeated by Jesus for emphasis. We recall, from evensong the Friday after Easter, how the Risen Christ appeared to certain apostles by the Sea of Gallilee (or the Lake of Genesaret) and once more told the fisherman to give it another go, with similar results (John 21:1-17). By the first miracle, Peter was called to ministry. By the second miracle, Peter was restored to ministry.
The initial version of the miracle began with Jesus preaching to the multitudes, using Peter’s boat as a pulpit. Jesus sat rather than stood. Sitting in a boat a little distance from the land gave him the best angle to address the crowd. When he finished, Jesus turned to Peter and spoke.
One gets the sense that the command to resume fishing was a practical application of what Jesus had just said to the crowd. Perhaps the sermon touched on how faith means to hear the word of God and do it. Perhaps Jesus spoke about how Moses obeyed the command to walk toward the Red Sea before it parted, or how Joshua obeyed the command to walk around Jericho the specified numbers of times before the walls fell down.
The sermon being ended, we can imagine the people, including Peter, thinking “What a fine preacher this rabbi is. Now lets go get some brunch and enjoy the afternoon.” We know that Peter was doubly anxious for that leisure, having “toiled all the night and taken nothing.” If you’ve ever finished a graveyard shift by hosing down the dirty mats or mopping the filty floor, you know how sweet the anticipated rest will be.
Jesus required activity, not rest. “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Take the nets that you’ve just cleaned and dirty them again. Take the wet clothes you just removed and put them on again. Lift your tired arms and resume your rowing.” Obedience is often inconvenient and doesn’t make sense. Obedience often requires us to do the exact opposite of what we would do.
Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow me” (Luke 18:22 ). That also didn’t make sense. His family worked hard to accumulate the wealth and he was the steward of it. Besides, didn’t Jesus know all the good and charitable works he was doing with the money? Just walk away? Just like that? The rich young ruler heard the word of God and didn’t do it. There was no miracle, no famous story of a new saint. He went away “sorrowful because he was very rich” (Luke 18:23).
However, Peter took the command as the Word of God. He said, “I don’t want to do this and it doesn’t make any sense, but because YOU say so, I will launch out and fish again.” The result was a miracle and a new vocation.
Sometimes it is hard to understand exactly what God wants us to do. More often it is not so hard to understand, it is just hard to do. The commandments are straightforward. Thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do that. Above all, “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is not hard to understand, but sometimes it is hard to actually love the particular neighbor in front of us at that particular moment.
We naturally doubt and disobey. We know what God’s word says. We just don’t always want to do it. We always have a good reason. “I can’t do that now, but I will do it later.” “My situation is different.” “We can’t expect people in the twenty-first century to do what the Bible says. I mean, come on, be realistic.” So we save ourselves the toil of launching out into the deep again. But we also fail to realize the miraculous catch.
This is the dilemma of faith and doubt. We say, “Where is God’s presence and provision? God says, “Why won’t you do what I say?” At the root of every area of life in which we feel that God is absent, there is doubt and disobedience. As St. Matthew said of Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazarath, “He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58).
The simple, child-like pattern of responding to God’s word with faith and obedience can get lost over time in the Christian life. Our love grows a little bit cold, and we begin to make compromises. We give into temptation and get stuck in habits of disobedience. Our patterns of thinking come to be formed by the world rather than by the word of God.
It happened to Peter. Full of desire to die with Jesus, Peter, instead, ended up denying three times that he even knew him. We can sympathize with Peter on Maundy Thursday as he ran away weeping. He must have wondered, “How the heck did that just happen?” The intentions were so good. We can sympathize because, we, also, have been blind-sided by temptation, fear and doubt in the heat of moment, in the midst of the trial. Faith that has never had a moment of failure has never really been tried. Our faith can never become strong until we realize how weak it really is.
Fortunately, there was a second miracle and second call to ministry. The risen Christ appeared to the cowering band that decided that perhaps fishing, and not apostleship, was their true calling after all. The risen Christ told them to let down the nets again to remind them that they were to be fishers of men, not fishermen. The risen Christ restored Peter and entrusted Peter with his own sheep.
The Second miracle teaches us that, though we may stumble, God does not abandon those he has called to faith. The second miracle teaches us that faith is not so much about our faith as it is about God’s faithfulness. Our faith may wax and wane. But God is always faithful. God will call us again and ask us to obey again. “Launch out in the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
Though we are tired, though the commandment doesn’t makes sense, though we don’t want to, nevertheless, we will do what Jesus asks us to do. For we have learned what is means to remain on the shore, rested, but with empty nets. We have learned, with Peter, that faith may be hard, but faithlessness and distance from God are unbearable. As Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hear the word and God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).