Sunday, July 5, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Disciples of Christ"

Matthew 16:13-17

13 Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” 

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 

15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you." (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Movement for Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Five

A Harvard graduate writes her first novel.  I say that sentence, and to me, and probably to you as well, the images of the writing process that come forth are of laptop computers and various sheaves of paper containing different drafts, of coffeehouses where they know your order by heart, of endless phone calls between your agent and your editor to make sure everything is set just so…

None of this, not even a bit, was the case for Annette Lu’s novel, These Three Women.  Why?  Because Lu, a Taiwanese woman who, after giving a speech demanding Taiwanese independence from the People’s Republic of China, was found guilty of violent sedition by China and served nearly six years in prison.  And while in prison, she wrote These Three Women, which was picked up into a made-for-TV movie in 2008, on her ration of toilet paper from her jail cell while incarcerated, using her washbasin as a sink so as to not attract undue attention from her guards…and knowing that China has an awful human rights track record with their prisoners and especially with their prisoners of conscience like Lu, she probably faced even greater dangers than that.

Now, Annette Lu is a two-term Vice President of Taiwan, and has survived an assassination attempt, been acquitted of politically motivated corruption charges, and is still engaging in hunger strikes and action because, in large part, of sheer force of will.

Purity of heart, Soren Kierkegaard says, is to will the one thing.  It is from that sort of faith that the world is changed, hopefully for the better.  It is the sort of faith the world, then, demands of us, and it is the sort of faith that Jesus Christ Himself demands of us, because He first demanded it from Peter, here in Matthew 16.  And in so doing, He created the sole profession of faith ever required to be a disciple of Christ, a profession that we believe easily but live out far more difficultly.  And that is what we are going to be talking about today as we wrap up our current sermon series.

This is the first of two sermon series primarily for the summer; this one took us through June and today, we wrap it up with its final installment.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and to start off with, we talked about the nature of the Lord’s table, before moving on to the theme of welcome and then wholeness and moving into wholeness.  Today, we’ll be going on to the chapter entitled “Disciples of Christ,” which isn’t about our denomination specifically, but the statement that title makes, to say “I am a disciple of Christ,” with from this excerpt from that chapter in Pastor Sharon’s book:

Jewish tradition had taught for generations about a “messiah” who would come to save the world.  In Hebrew, “messiah” literally means “anointed one.”  In most cases in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to the Davidic king who sat on the throne in Jerusalem, who was anointed with ceremonial oil upon his election as king…By the time of Jesus, many Jews thought that a messiah would rise up like David or Cyrus (the Great, the emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon) to free them from the Roman Empire.  Some thought this Savior would usher in a new age and rescue not only Israel but also the whole world…The Greek word for messiah (transliterated into its English form) was Christ.

People began to experience the resurrected Jesus as the living Christ, the one who fully represented God’s desire for a world made whole, starting with their own lives.  They experienced His promise and presence as a liberating reality, freeing them from hopelessness and from fear of death…in all this they found a saving, liberating new reality.  They began to call Him Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus Christ.  In the Syrian city of Antioch, the disciples of Jesus began to be called “Christians.”

A saving, liberating new reality that frees you from hopelessness and from your fear of death.  Can you imagine how terrific and radical such a reality would that have to be if you were in the circumstances of, say, Annette Lu, or of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island?  It doesn’t even have to be as dramatic as that—how much of a shift in your reality would that be if you had just been laid off from work, or just evicted from your home, or just been diagnosed with a terminal sickness?

Think of how much saving, how much liberating, how much freeing you would still need, and desire, and crave in the depths of your bones.

That is the sort of saving we talk about with Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ: it is meant to change our lives, turn our worlds upside-down, make everything seem new, all of it.

But it is also something that often takes us a long, long time to arrive at, because it is that big.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t mean just being converted.  Paul’s story didn’t end with his change of heart on the road to Damascus; there are nearly 20 chapters more of Acts after that moment to detail his post-conversion life, belief, and deeds, because Paul didn’t arrive at who he was right away.  It took time, lots of time.

Similarly, Peter doesn’t actually get around to what he himself believes about Jesus right away here in Matthew 16—he sort of hems and haws, saying “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, some say you’re Elijah, and still others say you’re Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  It’s like Peter just started playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and he’s blowing his ask-the-audience lifeline on the $100 question: Who do you say that Jesus is?

Which is why Jesus then repeats the question right back to Peter: “And what about you?  Who do you say that I am?”

This time, Peter has the cards: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

There’s that word again, Messiah.  In Greek, it’s “christos.”  For the first time ever in the Gospels, someone is explicitly calling Jesus not simply Jesus, or Jesus of Joseph, or Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus the Christ.  Jesus, the expected messianic heir who Jewish tradition says will save the world.  Jesus, the one who has been waited for and sought for so long we forgot what He would look like.

Because even now, I think, we forget who He really is, or was—what He really was about.  He was God made flesh, yes, but He was God made flesh for a very specific purpose: to stop us from hating and hurting one another and instead to love and trust in Him.  The wonderful, painful irony in that is that we achieved that by first hating and hurting Him and continuing to hate and hurt each other.

It’s more or less the same now, only we hate and hurt each other while claiming to still love Him.

How else do you explain a world in which we say, “I love you” to someone, but still say, “I am okay with you being treated as a second-class citizen?”

How else do you explain a world in which we say, “Blessed are the poor, but only if you’re virtuous enough to be worthy of our assistance?”

How else do you explain a world in which we allow our own faith to be so imperfect and frankly shallow—and this includes my own—as to not hold one another in the regard in which Jesus held Peter?  It is one of the things that drives me nuts about by own faith, I am always bargaining with God to let myself off the hook, when Peter is emphatically not let off the hook, not by a long shot.

We can say that we have professed a faith in Jesus Christ, but are we actually disciples of Him?  Do we actually follow His teachings, radical and unreasonable though they may be?  What on earth are we to do with this collection of His delusions, His unrealistic fantasies that the poor and meek will inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven, that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, that Jesus came not to save the righteous, but to save sinners?

What on earth are we to do with that embarrassment of a document, the New Testament?

Maybe, just maybe, we are meant to start living by it, not simply saying that we believe in it.  Belief is easy.  It’s the easiest part.  The hard part is what comes afterwards.  For Peter, after this profession of faith comes denying Jesus, enduring the crucifixion, and ultimately, being crucified to death himself some thirty years after his Lord and Savior.  Even as he stumbles to his own profession of faith initially in Matthew 16, it is everything that comes later that will really try and test that faith.

And so it is with each of us.  There is nothing about being a disciple of Christ that entails an easy life or a materially wealthy life or even a long life.  We don’t get to demand those sorts of strings to come attached with this covenant that we have made with God through Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, it will be we who must write our life’s story on toilet paper while imprisoned due to others’ hatred.

What being a disciple entails, then, is an understanding and relationship with God, for, as Jesus says to Peter in response to Peter’s belief, it is God “who is in heaven (who) has shown you” this truth.

In turn, God shows us that truth as well.  But we have to be willing to live according to that truth, not merely according to our profession of faith in the source of that truth.  Because God’s truth, that as John says we are meant to love because God first loved us, demands nothing less of us.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longivew, Washington
July 5, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment