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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Turn Together, Then, and Live

The Holy Spirit makes us into a community which shares the mind of Christ, and helps each of us turn to God for life, and in that community we find the fullness of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 26, year A; texts: Philippians 2:1-13; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21:23-32

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

The central question of the first reading, the psalm, and the Gospel for today is, as it has been for the past few weeks, the question of God’s grace and forgiveness. And there’s a fundamental problem with the first reading and the Gospel: yet again, as we’ve been hearing before, forgiveness is something we want for ourselves, individually, but which we are not very interested in applying to others.

The more I look at this (and this is informed by the readings of the past weeks as well as of today) the more it seems that the problem stems from our assumption that forgiveness is an individual thing. Each person must stand alone before God, we assume, therefore faith is primarily a question of how each person ends up standing. Whether we believe that ultimately we stand before God and are forgiven freely by God’s grace, or, as some proclaim, we need to earn God’s favor somehow, both views imply that it’s simply a question between each person and God.

Today’s readings particularly tempt us to such interpretation, and not only because our psalm is sung from a first-person-singular perspective, “show me your ways . . . lead me in your truth and teach me.” All of our hymns today problematically share the same first-person-singular perspective as well. But when we hear readings like the ones from Ezekiel and Matthew they seem to beg for individualistic interpretation. In Ezekiel, the Lord says no more will the children be punished for the parents’ sin. Each will be responsible for their own wrongdoing. And Jesus tells a parable that could be interpreted as “Each of us is individually responsible to do the will of God.” So we read these texts, and other calls to turn and live, as if they are given to single individuals who are on their own, who need to decide whether they will admit sin and seek God, or keep to themselves.

But what if that’s not how God sees us? What if God’s saving grace and gift are most fully known and experienced in community, not in our individual hearts? In other words, what if we have been created into a community of Christ, the body of Christ, not accidentally – after all, once you have more than one person you have to figure out how people relate – but intentionally, that community is fundamentally part of God’s saving of the world? That the body of Christ as Paul teaches it is central to what it means for God to save us? If that’s truly what God is about, it would mean re-thinking some of our treasured assumptions. But if Paul’s right today, it also might be the path to life God is opening up for us in our Lord Jesus.

If we push Ezekiel and Matthew hard today on that path of individual interpretation, the cracks do show more clearly.

This sense of isolation, of individualism – that salvation is just between one person and God – seems to lead to a whole lot of worrying about other people going on in Ezekiel and Matthew today. In words from the prophet Ezekiel, the people of Israel, suffering in exile, believe that they are suffering for the sins of their parents. Their complaint: God is unfair for punishing them for things their parents and grandparents did. “We’re not to blame,” they say.

Meanwhile in Matthew the religious authorities of the Jews challenge the authority of one of their own, this rabbi Jesus. They do this in part because he’s been critical of them (this happens the day after he chased the moneychangers out of the temple). But they also challenge him in part because he’s known for consorting with bad folks, sinners. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he lifts up prostitutes and tax collectors in the punch line to this parable – he knows that rankles them deeply. With these leaders, it isn’t that they feel punished for what they’ve done, and certainly not for their parents’ sins. They’re upset that Jesus apparently isn’t interested in punishing folks who, to their mind, richly deserve it.

What seems to be happening is that if our belief is that every person stands before God on their own it leads us to all sorts of resentment and fretting about others. It’s inevitable: whether we are among those who feel they are suffering for the sins of another, or those who feel some are getting off too freely when they ought to be punished, both attitudes are self-centered. Am I getting what I deserve from God, or is God unfair? Are they not getting what they deserve from God, and therefore God is unfair?

What is lost in all of this, and this is the real problem, is the forgiving grace of God. Whether we can’t forgive a sister and brother in our own church community, or an enemy who has harmed us, or we simply are angry, as in Jesus’ parable last week, that God’s grace is fully given to lots of folks who haven’t quite done as much as we, what we’re missing is that God is offering forgiveness.

Lost in the worrying and complaining and challenging of God’s authority or fairness today is God’s powerful message: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone. Turn, then, and live.” God claims to be able and willing to forgive anyone’s wickedness when they turn for forgiveness; the Son of God shows it by pointing out the prostitutes and tax collectors who have fully claimed the forgiveness God is offering. Meanwhile, in our griping, what we’re risking is missing out on all of this.

What we need is someone to help remind us of what’s really important, that God is offering love and grace. What we need is someone to be honest with us when we act as if we don’t sin as badly as other people do. What we need is someone who can help us recognize just how hungry and thirsty we truly are for God’s grace. Someone who can lovingly call us to repentance and confession, and in the same love lead us to the forgiveness Jesus offers. Someone who will stand with us before God.

In short, we need help. It turns out, we need a community.

There are many passages throughout Scripture that stress the communal nature of the Christian faith. We do not believe alone, they say. We are a Body. But let’s only look at Paul to the Philippians today.

This is a beautiful passage on the emptying of self-concern and conceit that comes with Christian faith. We are called by Paul to model ourselves after Jesus, who gave up everything to give us life, even to the point of death on the cross. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul says, “but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” And then, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” And again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

And we read this and think, “Paul is inviting me to do this. I should think about what that means for me.” But there’s only one problem with that interpretation. There is nothing addressed to “me” or “I” here. It’s all about community, about “us” and “we.”

The tip-off is verse 2: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” You can’t do verse two alone. You can’t be in full accord, and have the same love, and the same mind with yourself. And in fact, if you look in the Greek, every single “you” in this passage is plural. If we lived in the south, we’d read every one of them “Y’all.”

And when we realize this, suddenly we’re looking at a very different thing. We’re looking at Paul assuming that we as Christians are so united, so one in Christ, that he gives his directions for Christian life to the group as a whole. In fact, this powerful passage about how Christians are shaped for life cannot be understood except in our life as community.

Listen to the difference: “Let the same mind be in all of you that was in Christ Jesus.” It’s not about each of us doing it our own way – we are called to share the mind of Christ.

“Make my joy complete by all of you having the same mind, all of you having the same love, all of you being in full accord and of one mind.”

And this hard one that is so difficult for us to understand when read individually but which makes complete sense when read as an address to a community: “Work out your salvation together in fear and trembling.” Work out together what it means to be loved by God, Paul says.

For Paul, and this is consistent in his writings I might add, the life in Christ is primarily communal. We are created into a body, and not just because there happens to be more than one believer and Jesus needed to do something with more than one. We are created into a Body by our Lord because it is in the Body that we find our true life. In this Body we learn to look first to the interests of each other because without each other we haven’t got the fullness of God’s grace.

We are called to empty ourselves together, to serve others together, to be together in faith.
So I can’t think whatever I want to think about the Gospel because I belong to you – and we belong to Christ. And so we are accountable to each other, but even more to Christ. That also means I can’t live however I want to live because I belong to you – and we belong to Christ. And so we are accountable to each other, but even more to Christ. We are called to share the same mind, the same heart, together, that Jesus had.

We do not do this alone. And that’s intentional.

When it comes to God’s forgiveness, then, if we’re sharing the mind of Christ, we are together turning and living.

The community becomes that group of sisters and brothers which lovingly, gently holds each other accountable, becomes a people who share the way of Christ.

We worship together, not alone, because God has called us together, and together we stand in need of God’s grace. The profound thing that happens as we worship together is that the Spirit makes us a community. A place where we “work out our salvation together with fear and trembling.”

And so we become the place where we can safely help each other be accountable. We can call ourselves together to be what God has made us. And we can look to each other in love and help our sister or brother recognize their need for grace. Or if they are overwhelmed by their sense of that need, invite them in love to receive it.

This is the power of confessing our sins together and hearing absolution. We’re not only accountable to God, but to each other – both for our sins and for reminding each other of God’s grace. And we experience God’s forgiveness most fully, most completely, when we live it together, know it together.

And what this does is change our focus from selfishly worrying about what others are or aren’t getting, or what we might or might not be suffering, to primarily concern for others. Shaped into a community accountable to Christ and forgiven by Christ, we learn to look to the needs of others before our own.

And because we know that our experience of God’s forgiveness is fully understood in community, we don’t resent others for being forgiven, we rejoice in it as a sign of the utterly astonishing grace of God which also gives us life. And without our sisters and brothers, without the forgiveness they have received, our sense of God’s forgiveness is lessened.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s a lesson which ultimately gives life.

We are in this thing together. That’s the way our Lord Jesus has made us. And together we learn that God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone, but wants us all to turn and live. Together we remind ourselves that we have life offered in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that we all, all, are desperately in need of it.

Have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, Paul says – that’s our call. And it’s a call we live and breathe together. And in sharing that mind, focusing on the needs of each other and the grace God is giving each other, amazingly we also find ourselves filled with grace and love without all our worrying. Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind all along.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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