The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A)
29 June 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
O Almighty God, who hast built thy Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made an holy temple acceptable unto thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today’s lessons don’t pull any punches and on this warm, summer Sunday we are faced with some hard teachings. Isaiah tells us how humans shall be brought low in the face of God’s power. In the Epistle Paul describes our baptism as a kind of death, and Matthew has Jesus telling us how he has come not to bring peace, but
a sword. And we are asked to think about what all this means, not simply on an intellectual level, but what it actually means for how we live our lives.
The frame our lectionary gives us for today’s readings is the supremacy of God. All our plans and all our schemes and all our pretensions pale in the face of God’s own project for creation and in the end, it will be God’s plan, God’s scheme for the reconciliation of the World with him, that will prevail. And it is our task to join with God in his project rather than to seek God’s approval for our projects.
In this context, Paul’s words about baptism gain some added richness. In these early days, when infant baptism was not the norm, all those who entered into the waters of baptism did so as a conscious choice to join themselves in relationship to the God who changed their lives. People entered into the waters of baptism so they may have a relationship with Jesus Christ and be changed into something, someone new. In doing so they became partners with God in his purpose. Making this imagery of new life even stronger, Paul associates this entry into new life as happening through the smothering death of the waters of baptism. In baptism we die to our old selves, die to the life oriented only towards our own self-fulfillment and our own self-seeking glory, and are reborn in new resurrection life. Like Christ we die so that death dealing ways of living may not have power over us and so we may live in the fulness of resurrection life.
Indeed, we are not baptised so that we may simply be “saved” and have eternal life in Heaven with God and the angels after we die. Baptism is not simply a ticket to heaven, but rather we are baptised so that we may live in the here-and-now and “walk in newness of life.” We are baptised so that our lives in the World may be filled with God’s purpose. We are baptised for now and not for later and the baptism into that “death like his” is what gives us the power to live, really live in the fulness of the power of the spirit.
But if you remember Jesus’ own baptism, when the voice from heaven was heard to say, “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,”God gave us a signal, familiar to the readers of Hebrew Scripture that those who are baptised become, for want of a better phrase, “marked men.” God’s “beloved” live lives fraught with danger and conflict because, as we know, telling the truth about the things that are really important—love, peace, inclusivity—are not really all that popular with people who wield the kinds of secular power that Isaiah warns will be brought to heal by God. Baptism does not make us safe, it makes each of us a minister.
So when Jesus tells his disciples as part of their commission to ministry that he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus is not telling them that he is instituting a life of violence somehow in conflict with all his other teachings. No, he is telling them simply about the reality of their mission. Jesus is telling them that their work, their ministry, their mission out in the world as ministers of the Gospel of Love, the Gospel of the Beatitudes, will be dangerous and unpopular and will cause divisions among the people that they meet. In fact, being a bearer of the cross—the cross upon which Jesus hung and told us that he loved us and that his love was stronger than the hate that put him there—is hard and perilous work and has a cost. It is risky work since relationships, even the relationships with those who are closest to us, are at stake. Jesus never said that being one of his followers was going to be easy. Indeed, he kept telling them that it was going to be tough and that they would be rejected and cast out and that they would pay a price, as he will pay a price, for being in real relationship with God.
I am certain that each of us who has worked at our ministry in the world knows that this is true. The Bishops of Zimbabwe know this is true as they struggle against oppression and tyranny. The Christians of Iraq know this is true as they seek to keep their community alive in the face of threats and intimidation. Even in New York, where our mortal lives may not be at stake, each of us who has tried to invite a friend or co-worker to church or tell them about our faith also knows this is true. Each of us, including myself, who has made an adult choice to enter into those waters of baptism and publically put our faith on the line knows that being a Christian in today’s world can be risky business.
None-the-less, all us who have been called by God to the font—whether as an adult or as an infant—and have entered into its beautiful, killing waters, have been called and invited by the God who made us and who loves us into this life of ministry, a life of cooperation with God, a life oriented towards love and reconciliation. In choosing to respond, in choosing to follow—and it is a real choice—we are placing our very bodies in a community whose purpose is aligned with the very purpose of Creation.
And it is our prayer and our hope that in our life and ministry those relationships that may be broken by our choice to follow the one who made us and who redeemed us and who loves us always, may be healed as that loving power settles and is spread abroad. We know that this may not always happen, we know that our ministry may not always be received, but Jesus reminds us that when our work and life and ministry are received and accepted, then God is being received and accepted. This is what I like to call “the transitive property of ministry.” Our ministry in Jesus’ name is Jesus ministry. Every time someone receives our love in the Name of Christ, they are receiving the love of Christ and each time we are given the gift of love, God’s love is shining upon us.
This risky business of ministry is God’s business and our privilege as baptised persons is that we have a share in this work. Our call out of the waters of baptism is not to say “whew, now I’m O.K.,” but rather is to a life of action and ministry, of inviting and loving, of sometimes (often even) being rejected, and of having faith in the one who called us that that rejection will not be the final answer. God calls us to this hard life of love and each of us who enters into it, whether we think so or not, shows real courage.
But ultimately we must remember that we never enter into this hard life alone, we never are asked to do it all ourselves. We are always held by God and those arms, by that very “transitive property of ministry,” are the arms of your brothers and sisters who are members incorporate of Christ’s Body. As Christians, you always have the community, you always have your fellow Members, and you always have the nourishing meal of the community, the sacrament in which we all share in Christ’s very body and blood and are untied to him and to each other. The community exists because at its heart the Christian life is corporate. So here, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, I hope and pray that we all may discern our individual ministries and get the support we need to do them and become the Crucifers of which our Gospel speaks.
Andrew Charles Blume+
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 29 June 2008
©2008 Andrew Charles Blume