May 29, 2016
Second Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
Today marks a turning point in the liturgical year, with the beginning of the long series of Sundays after Pentecost. The great drama of salvation that took us through Lent to the Cross, the celebration of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit, concluded with last week with Trinity Sunday. That feast, which calls us to reflect on the Christian understanding of God as three Persons united in one Godhead, follows naturally on the feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. Within this great drama of salvation, we have experienced the love of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and giver of all life, who loves the whole world to the extent of sending Jesus into that world, the sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension of God the Son, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Now, in this second half of the church’s year, it’s time to live within and live out the consequences of that drama. It’s time to settle into the reality of our discipleship, to reflect on how we are called to live as God’s people and followers of Jesus, to share the love we have received with a world that needs it so much. In some traditions this season is called Ordinary Time, and I like that title because it reminds us that discipleship is lived day by day in the ordinary tasks and relationships of our work, our families, our neighbourhoods and the wider world, and our church.
In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittester calls her chapters on Ordinary Time “The Wisdom of Enoughness” and “The Wisdom of Routine”. She says, “Life is, by and large, more commonplace than exciting, more customary than electrifying, more usual than unusual. And so, not surprisingly, is the liturgical year...It, too, is made up of the habitual and the common coordinates of what it means to live a spiritual life. What’s more, it is precisely this routine of holiness-as-usual that is the ultimate measure of the quality of a soul...So important is this notion of shaping the interior life, of interiorizing what we commonly, even casually, declare that we believe, that two periods of the liturgical year are made up of no great earthshaking mysteries of the faith at all...It is simply the continuous, faithful, weekly attention to what it means to live out daily what we say we believe when we’re at those mountaintop moments of the spiritual life.” In other words, the weeks between now and the beginning of Advent are an annual school of Christian living, a season of deepening and maturing in the life of faith.
We also begin today a series of more or less independent, sequential readings from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospels: the first and second books of Kings, the letter of Paul to the Galatians, and continuing in the Gospel of Luke. (Just as a footnote, the Psalms are chosen to respond to the first reading, so we don’t read them in any kind of order.) It takes a much more creative person than I am to find a common theme on any one day among such disparate writings, but I suggest that the Scripture readings for today give us three hallmarks or characteristics of the life of faith for individuals and for a faith community: authentic worship, faithful proclamation of the Gospel, and service to those in need. There are others, of course, but these three are given for our consideration today. I’ll look at each one separately.
- The first reading, taken together with the Psalm, is a call to authentic worship of the one God. The prophet Elijah has confronted King Ahab for forsaking the worship of the God of Israel and following the agricultural cult of Baal, under the influence of Queen Jezebel. There has been a drought for three years and the question is: which deity withholds and sends the rain? Baal was believed to control the rain, but Elijah intends to show that the God of Israel is really the one who is in charge of all creation. Jezebel has been persecuting the prophets of God and has installed her own prophets, the prophets of Baal in their place. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel to see whose god will prevail. Despite the cries and antics of the prophets of Baal, their sacrifice remains intact on the altar, while the sacrifice prepared by Elijah is consumed by fire in a miraculous way, as evidence that God is indeed the true God of Israel. The drought comes to an end, but Elijah is forced to flee for his life before Jezebel’s wrath. Psalm 96, which comes from a different hand, is a celebration of God’s sovereignty over all creation, and calls all the nations to join in praise of God.
I think this story is not just history, but a call to all people in every age to authentic worship of the one God. What are the idols to which we turn? Who are the false prophets of this age? I can list many and so can you: a culture that values doing over being, the lust for power and control, the addiction to having more and more, bigger and bigger things and the consequent pillaging of the earth’s resources, the voices of division, the injustice of over-consumption in some places combined with crushing poverty in others. We are called to name these idols and false prophets and invite people into the vision of justice, peace and sacrificial love that is God’s dream for the world. We’re so used to our recent history in the West of being in the mainstream that we’ve forgotten – Christianity at its core is and has always been countercultural. Authentic worship can help us re-learn this truth.
- Human thinking about and understanding of God has evolved over many thousands of years. Initially God was the God of Israel, just as other nations had their gods. Notice that in the story of Elijah, the existence of Baal is acknowledged, and Elijah is calling the people of Israel back to their loyalty to the God who rescued them and made them God’s own. By the time of the Psalms, other gods are dismissed as mere idols, not gods at all. The Bible retains many signs of the growing awareness that the word of God is intended for all times, all nations and all people, and so we have stories like Ruth and Jonah. It took a long time for God’s people to realize just how inclusive a community God was calling them to be, and we are still learning. That awareness did not come without struggle, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians is right in the middle of that struggle.
It is perhaps Paul’s most autobiographical writing. Paul had founded the churches of Galatia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), but after he moved on, other teachers had arrived, saying the Gentile converts had to follow Jewish law, including the rite of circumcision, in order to be true Christians. We can still hear the steam whistling as Paul blows his top. Most of his letters follow the conventions of his day, beginning with an elaborate salutation saying things like “I thank my God always for your faith...I pray for you daily...” Not this time! After the briefest of greetings, Paul launches into a passionate defence of his authority to preach the Gospel. “I am astonished,” he says, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel!” I can’t believe you’ve been fooled so easily! Later in the letter he calls them “you stupid Galatians!” Paul sets forth his call from God to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. The Gospel he received was not from any human origin, but from Christ himself by a direct revelation. There is only one gospel, and it includes everyone. Paul will not let his message be limited by any human restrictions. He will later reveal that he and Peter had a public argument over the issue of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus sharing the same table.
Paul is convinced that the attitudes of those who want the new converts to adhere to Jewish laws and rituals will create a category of second-class Christians. He insists that salvation through Christ and full participation in the Christian community do not depend on custom, race, or as he says later, on gender or economical or political status. A new kind of communion has been created, not by human actions but by God acting in Jesus Christ. Paul minces no words. Anyone who preaches a different gospel in this regard is to be accursed – condemned to hell. The only basis for admission to the Christian community is what God has done for us in Christ. To impose any other condition is to present a different gospel, in fact one that is no gospel at all.
This is the Gospel which has been given to us, and to which we are heirs. A second hallmark of Christian life is faithful proclamation of this Gospel, the good news of God’s endless, inclusive, all-encompassing, passionate and sacrificial love for the whole cosmos, God’s longing to share that love in relationship with people. We are ourselves invited into this love and we are called to extend the invitation to others without distinction of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status or any other of the barriers we are so fond of constructing, so that they can share in and come to know that love for themselves.
- And finally, a third hallmark of the life of faith is service to those in need, illustrated for us today in the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s slave. But this is not just any person in need. Both the centurion and the slave are gentiles, and worse, the centurion is an officer in the occupying Roman army. The Romans did not move their soldiers around often. They might be stationed in the same place for many years, thus earning a reputation among the local population. Indeed, this centurion has been a friend to the Jews of Capernaum, donating his own money to build their synagogue. He has become so integrated into the local ways of doing things that he courteously uses an indirect approach to Jesus, sending to him through the elders of the synagogue and then through friends, that Jesus might be spared the ritual uncleanness of entering a Gentile’s home.
How will Jesus respond to the centurion’s plea for his servant? From our point of view, this may be a no-brainer. Of course Jesus should help! Certainly he should not refuse just because the request comes from a Gentile. Yet we should remember that, in the only other gospel story where Jesus was explicitly asked to help a Gentile, he initially refused to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter. The barriers between Jew and non-Jew were high, even for Jesus. It seems he saw his mission as directed only to the house of Israel. Luke uses the healing of the centurion’s servant as an anticipation of the Gospel’s power to reach out to Gentiles. It is Luke who indicates Jesus’ words that his followers will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Luke presents the centurion as a model of the worthy Gentile convert in the later life of the church. Jesus’ healing of the slave, without ever coming into contact with him, anticipates the fact that the salvation of the nations will be an extension of his ministry after the resurrection, rather than the result of a face-to-face relationship. This outreach began with Jesus crossing the barriers of his culture and society, and it reaches its full development in the ministries of service now carried out by his followers. We are called to continue this loving service to individuals and communities who need God’s healing touch, and not to be limited by human fears and hesitations.
These three hallmarks or characteristics of the life of faith are reflected in three of our parish Vision Statements:
- We believe that God is calling us to worship that is rooted in Scripture and the ancient teachings of the church, and creates opportunities to experience the presence of God, so that worshippers are nourished, transformed, empowered, and sent out into the world to love and serve.
- We believe that God is calling us to develop an intentional ministry that implements a sense of hospitality and welcome expressed through Scripture and that promotes a culture of inclusion and belonging.
- We believe that God is calling us to further develop active relationships and engagement within St. Peter’s and beyond as we: 1) respond to human need by loving service, 2) seek to transform unjust structures, 3) challenge and resist violence, and 4) pursue peace and reconciliation.
As we enter this season of Ordinary Time, the season of everyday holiness, may we be renewed by authentic worship of the one God, proclaim faithfully the Good News of God’s love, and respond in loving service to the needs of the people and the world around us. Amen.