The First Sunday in Advent (Year A)
December 1, 2019
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Scripture lessons that open Advent are prophetic texts that remind their original audiences that God is about to do something, or that something already underway will soon reach a conclusion: appearance of God’s kingdom, the second coming of Christ, judgment. The original design was to get people leaning in a particular direction. And if we are allow ourselves to enter those stories, we can possibly imagine what it felt like to live in the darkness and silence of that period of time when, as pious Jews had it, the prophetic voice of God had ceased. In Advent, we are invited to reconsider the notion of “God with us”; to rethink our identity in terms of the promise and presence of the God who crossed every boundary to come among us and live with us in human flesh; to look back and remember, to look forward and hope; and to live our lives somewhere in between these things.
St Paul translated the remembering and hoping into the Christian “now”; the conception of a present Christian existence hanging between what God had done and would soon do in Christ. He described the Christian situation as being completely different from anything that had gone before—everything is new, the old has passed away. Everything is different; everyone is unique. But we don’t “do” different very easily; and the word “unique” sounds like a clever way of saying “odd.” I wonder if we’d have gotten along with Paul—he preached a different gospel, or so it was said of him; and he was certainly unique among the apostles. A kind of mad scientist who had concocted a gospel message that included pagans, and a formula for a life of piety that did not need Jewish rites and rules. And the laboratory where he carried out this experiment in faith and ethics was the epistle—the letters he wrote to the small house churches scattered throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Greece, and Rome. In most cases, these were churches he and his team members had established. But this was not the case with Rome. He knew some of the people in the Roman house churches, a mix of Jews and Gentiles; and they had heard of his exploits and of the gospel he preached. And frankly they’d given him mixed reviews.
Now the churches in Rome were coming unglued. Jewish and Gentile believers there could agree on the big issues, but they were divided on the whole matter of what constituted an acceptable Christian experience. The language of “strong and weak” was taken up to describe the two ways: the Strong (in faith) had no use for Jewish rules of purity, but were convinced that faith in Christ was the sole requirement for membership in God’s family. Jewish believers, however, who could not let go of their former practices of piety, who felt that more than simply faith in the Messiah was needed to set God’s people apart from the godless, were called the Weak (in faith). The differences led to arguments, judgmentalism, and disunity. Paul’s “Gentile-friendly” gospel of “grace alone”—that is, just about everything said in chapters 1-12 of Romans—would be fuel poured on the fire. A more fundamental point of agreement had to be found that would allow these two groups to live and worship together in spite of these differences.
So, Paul remembers Jesus’ famous answer to the question, “What is the Greatest Commandment?”, with which we typically open our worship. Jesus answered by reciting the founding prayer of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One; You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” To this he added the equally well known formula from Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Paul, like Mister Rogers, perhaps, had assumed the first and fastened on this second great commandment— love for one’s neighbor—as the fulfillment of the whole law.
But within the Judaism of Jesus’ day and the early Christianity of Paul’s, just a couple of decades later, “neighbor” remained a fuzzy, even contested, concept. Jesus thoroughly radicalized the concept first in the Sermon on the Mount, where he introduced the command to love even one’s enemies, which we tend to forget; and second in the story of the Good Samaritan, in which the despised Samaritan demonstrated not only the lengths to which love for one’s neighbor must go, but also that “neighbor” itself was not a category to be restricted by tribal, ethnic, or religious qualification.
And now Paul, addressing a community of believers divided into Jewish and Gentile factions, radicalizes “neighbor” one step further in a move that, unfortunately, is completely missed (mistranslated) by the RSV. Where the RSV has “for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law,” Paul actually wrote, “for he who loves ‘the other’ has fulfilled the law.” That is, he holds off using the language of “neighbor” until he has enlarged the concept: because the love he is calling for (Jesus too), the love that he is instructing the diverse Roman Christians to practice, must include those who are different, and must support them in their difference. Once this wide space of love for “the other” has been opened, “neighbor” can no longer be limited in terms of proximity, or sameness. And he’ll take the next two chapters of Romans to work this out. This love that fulfills the whole Law does not say, “I’ll wait patiently for you to become like I am.” It is rather the radical love of God which cherishes difference, which is prepared to discover beauty in difference, prepared to embrace difference though it grows in intensity, and may become even stranger, the closer we come to it.
Now it comes as no surprise that most of us human beings struggle with change; we’re uncomfortable with difference; sometimes threatened by difference; and we’re more prone to think of belonging and membership in terms of sameness. We’ve experienced both being on the inside and being on the outside. This text of Paul’s sets us to leaning in a particular direction; Advent sets us to re-anticipating God’s embrace of us in Jesus Christ, who would himself experience the darkest side of difference, otherness, so that we might learn instead how to embrace it in our midst and make it a strength. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2019 Philip H. Towner