Dr. Peter Nosco
Some years ago I attended a worship service at one of the lower mainland’s largest anchor congregations, and the semi-retired pastor assigned to lead that Sunday’s prayers of the people began his prayers with the words, “Oh Lord, how can we with our puny brains ever know what you truly want for us….” My friend who was there with me, Clover’s mom, had to push me back into the pew, because she knew what I wanted to say and that it could only be disruptive. Yet more evidence that you can dress me up but you can’t always take me out!
So, what was it that I was not allowed to say? Simply this: If you’re wondering what God’s will and wishes are for you, for everyone and everywhere around you, I have some very good news for you; you need look no further than in those blue NRSV Bibles that are available alongside the hymnals. The answers are there to all of life’s greatest questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? How should we behave? What do you, Lord God our Creator, want from us? What are the meaning and purpose of life generally and our individual lives in particular? The answers to all these questions are in that blue book. Wow! Who knew? Let’s pray:
Come, Holy Spirit, come, and may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts and minds be true to who you are and to what you want. In Jesus' name: amen.
We who regularly worship in this congregation have gotten accustomed to hearing consistently excellent preaching, and so I’d ask you to tone down your expectations this morning and to settle in for a bit of Christianity 101.
Sometimes the various lessons assigned for a particular day coordinate well with one another, and sometimes they just don’t. Fortunately today’s lessons for this 11th Sunday after Pentecost coordinate marvelously and collectively point to the single question of what does our God want from us, or alternatively how are we as Christians—as the church—to behave. Even more auspiciously, the heart of the message is in the Epistle lesson, when the Epistle lessons have themselves been something of a theme for us recently both in Pastor’s sermons, and for those of us filling in as summer stock.
So, to give you the answer at the outset, St. Paul’s understanding of God’s wishes for you and me is summed up in the opening sentence of today’s Epistle lesson where Paul implores each of us—he begs us!—“to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
To start, note that Paul “begs” us but doesn’t exactly command us, by which I mean that he treats us as adults: he “asks” us in the strongest possible terms to behave in God-pleasing and God-honoring ways, and in this way to live lives worthy of our Christian calling. It’s a bit like saying that if you’re wearing a uniform that identifies you as a member of a team, then behave in a way that shows you’re a team player and that reflects well on your team. And note too that this behavior goes in two directions: for us as Christians it goes externally as we interact with that skeptical, and even at times hostile, non-Christian world that we engage most of the time; and it also goes internally as we as Christians interact with each other in this community of faith, a realm which we tend to engage mostly on Sundays and occasionally at committee meetings.
With respect to the world, like it or not, you and I are advertisements for our faith. Trust me, our neighbors know where we’re going when they see us up-and-about early on a Sunday morning; this is especially so for those of you with kids who go out the door sleep-headed but well-groomed and nicely dressed. To the extent that we’re known or will eventually be known to our neighbors by our faith and the name of Christ that we bear, we’re begged by Paul to behave with humility and gentleness and patience. You and I are told not to exhibit the righteous anger that it’s so easy for me to slip into, but rather as instruments of God’s peace, to borrow the words of St. Francis, even when we are treated in angering ways. This is not easy as I recently experienced multiple times while driving or when a vendor queried whether I speak English….
But even more, as we interact with one another here in this community of the faithful called the church, we are to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” There’s a praise song that sums this up marvelously with the refrain, “They will know we are Christian by our love, by our love,” but here the appeal is specifically for unity which is something to which we’ll return momentarily.
Let’s first briskly unpack the theme of what God wants from us in terms of the light shed by each of our assigned lessons.
In the Old Testament lesson and again in the Psalm we encounter King David at what is his darkest moment. The story of his abominable behavior with Bathsheba is well known, and God will indeed punish him dearly for it. But here in the lesson for today David’s physical sin is compounded by his utter absence of anything resembling self-awareness, a kind of ethical and moral blindness that persists until he is confronted by the court prophet Nathan—his official spiritual advisor—who holds up David’s offences in such a way that David himself for the first time recognizes the awful darkness of what he has done.
You know, friends, you’ve probably heard it said with respect to financial matters that the only good thing about hitting bottom is that the only direction is up, but this also applies to more metaphysical and psychological realms when one suddenly sees oneself with new clarity. David has this kind of “ah, ah!” moment, that moment when our false constructed self is revealed to be a fraud, and the authentic innermost soul has its moment of triumph. When is that? The moment that “David says to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan says to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
For David, just as it does for you and me, it always begins with sincere confession, with acknowledging who we are, who God is, and the abundant wrong that we have done. Second, all sin is against God even if the more proximate expression can appear more terrestrial and directed towards one’s neighbor. Confession to God is indeed the key for, if we will just confess our sins, this God who is gracious and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
There is an almost mathematical precision with which this all unfolds: self-awareness leads to remorse, which in turn leads to confession including a plea for cleansing and forgiveness. The words are hauntingly beautiful:
“For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment….
[I love this part where David acknowledges that this is his problem and not God’s problem]
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow….
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
[familiar words often used in our order of worship, as we did this morning]
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
Please note again how David begins with the acknowledgement that he knows his transgressions, and his sin is ever before him. I know the feeling. I can’t say that I began sinning significantly less once I became more serious about my faith, but I can say that it immediately became harder to pretend that my sin was inadvertent. At one level there’s much reinforcement in the world for a kind of self-righteous refusal to acknowledge when one is in the wrong—the “deny, deny, deny” syndrome—and at another there’s the painful recognition that one really has messed up, and there’s nowhere to hide from the only one whose judgement actually matters.
David recognizes that there is no way that he can cleanse himself from the stain of his wrongdoing, and so he implores God to wash and cleanse him of all that is past. Note David’s beautiful plea that God “sustain in me a “willing spirit.” Our God does not desire compulsion but rather our voluntary and joyful obedience. It is good for us to repeatedly ask God to create this clean heart inside us, and frankly I cannot imagine circumstances under which the God whom we worship would ever deny this to us.
This brings us back to where we began with the Epistle lesson which uses a plea for unity to introduce a vision of an organic (organism-like) understanding of the church. If you were in church here two Sundays ago, you may recall the passage from Ephesians chapter 2 in which Paul foreshadows this theme of unity by reminding us that we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and … we also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
From a secular perspective, this effort to maintain unity of the spirit probably sounds dogmatic and perhaps even overly so, which is why it’s essential to consider why it’s so important to our spiritual lives together. There’s always more than enough work on the ground in the church to go around, and so we should never have to expend our limited energies on addressing problems for which we ourselves are fundamentally responsible, such as the problem of division. Simply put, as an organization the church works best when we’re all pulling in the same direction, and when there is a spirit of co-operation or working together as well as broad agreement regarding the church’s core tenets and principles.
There’s also the practical problem of faith. If faith is the primary desideratum of a community such as this one, then there necessarily has to be agreement on certain core tenets or doctrines. This is where our ancient creeds become useful alongside a number of updated creeds including one from our own United Church. These creeds are curbs—like reflectors down the middle and along the sides—that keep us from straying off the road and help us to stay in our lanes; they are thus both guidelines as well as yardsticks to assist us in measuring our own progress or retrograde in the faith. Frankly, the creeds are not particularly persuasive—they weren’t organized for that purpose—but they are immensely helpful for deciding what is and is not historically Christian.
As a zealously devout Jew prior to his conversion, St. Paul was sensitive to the practical benefits of unity of faith to faith-based communities. There’s something so obvious about this that we would think it scarcely needs saying, but it does no harm to remind ourselves that we do not need to have agreement with all our brothers and sisters throughout Christendom on every little point, but we do need to agree on the basics. There’s a fascinating paradox here, regarding unity, equality and diversity. You and I are not cookie-cutter cloned replicas of one another: we are one and all unique individuals even though we share many things in common such as the name of Christ that we carry equally. In other words, unity in faith is essential, as is equality before God’s eyes, but our diversity is no less essential to our well-being as a family of the faithful.
How can this be? It is entirely owing to the different gifts that have been distributed to us. Paul mentions that some have the role of apostle, some that of prophets, some are gifted to be evangelists, some pastors and some others teachers, and why? This is the key: to equip the saints, i.e., you and me, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. This church is one big team—recall the uniform metaphor I used a few minutes ago—and we’re being trained for victory in the biggest game there is. And of course, victory, simply put, is more difficult when division stands in the way of progress.
Returning to ourselves as individuals, we’re all works in progress, and Paul leaves us with a vision of a day when all of us will come 1) to unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, 2) to full maturity, and 3) attainment of the measure of the stature of Christ. We’ve spoken about the importance of unity of faith, so now let’s focus on this part about growth and the process of maturity. In Paul’s words: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Amen. We—you and I—are called to become little Christs with distinctive individual roles such that when we are working well together, we are creating a little bit of heaven on earth. The reverse is also true, of course: When we’re not working well together, it can be hellish, and at those times we need to recognize where the problems are, and by speaking the truth to one another in love, we need to arrive at solutions.
A word of warning that this is easier said than done. Church congregations, like academic departments, have a family-like quality to them, so that internal disagreements can be especially painful. When we see one of our own behaving in a self-destructive manner or in a manner that might reflect poorly upon the rest of us, we often understandably shy away from addressing the issue with the individual, but this also means that we shy away from speaking the truth to one another in love. Now before we have an epidemic of speaking frankly, let’s pause here for a moment…. I’d invite us to think about the last time we spoke the truth to someone who we believe needed to hear it from someone they trust and respect. How did it go…? I can think of times when I gained a brother or sister for life. I can also think of times when my words definitely helped someone but I also lost a friend just because seeing me reminded them of a painful time in their past. You know, this life stuff is never simple, and church-life stuff may be the most complex of all!
Turning now finally and very briefly to our Gospel lesson for today and what it says to us about our theme of what God wishes from us, Jesus tells us that God wishes us to work not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, i.e., for Jesus himself. The promise is this: Come to Jesus and you will never be spiritually hungry; believe in him and you will never thirst for another.
In a world where so many people time-and-again look for truth, for spiritual food, in all the wrong places, you and I need never wonder about what our God wants from us. There is no mystery surrounding this point, but I need to clarify by way of conclusion this question about whether there is or is not mystery in the church. The church is about nothing if not the supernatural—in fact, miracles are part of our very being, and there is abundant mystery and wonder in the church to satisfy ten thousand lifetimes. Of course you and I with our puny minds can never wrap our mental arms fully around an omniscient God—it would be like trying to measure the Pacific Ocean with a tape measure. But if you’re wondering about what God is like, look no further than Jesus; and if you’re wondering what this God wants from us—from you and me both individually and collectively as the church—here it is one more time:
1) We start with honest self-reflection followed by recognition of where we’ve fallen short of the mark.
2) This provokes heartfelt shame and sorrow, as well as our desperate plea for forgiveness and a fresh start; remarkably our prayer is answered.
3) With God’s help, we grow in the true faith and for the good of the Kingdom, we find our individual place in this Kingdom;
4) And by doing so, we strengthen the church itself and become good representatives of the name of Christ which we bear.
5) We now live this new life sustained and refreshed daily by the Lord Jesus to whom we belong now and though all eternity.
This is good news, and if by the way you missed any part of it, none of this is secret and is all in those blue books in the back of the chancel!
Now, may the God of endurance and encouragement grant us to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen and amen.