Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Heathen Preaching to the Church

Brad Sullivan
1 Epiphany, Year C
January 10, 2015
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The Heathen Preaching to the Church

When Jesus came to be baptized by John, people had been coming in droves to be baptized by him.  It was like a lengthy mass baptism as people came who were seeking God’s kingdom, seeking a new life and a new way of life in God’s kingdom, rather than the ways of the kingdoms of the earth.  This was far more than a liturgical new years’ resolution, far more than individuals wanting to be better.  They were seeking a whole new life, a whole new way of life.  They were sloughing off the old ways of the old age and the kingdoms of the earth, and preparing for the new age of God’s kingdom. 

For us, we largely have individuals or a few people getting baptized at any one time, and over the centuries, people have begun to see baptism as being about personal salvation:  individuals choosing to “get saved” and secure entry for themselves into God’s kingdom.  From the beginning, however, baptism was not just about an individual’s salvation, but an entire people choosing to divest of the old ways and to put on the new garments of life in God’s kingdom.  Then, they devoted the rest of their lives to living out the ways of God’s kingdom, bringing it about and living God’s kingdom, even as they awaited the day when God’s kingdom would come fully.  Baptism was not about securing individual entry into God’s kingdom when a person died, but people living out God’s kingdom while alive.

Baptism as sloughing off of the old ways and allegiance to the old kingdoms and inaugurating life in God’s kingdom, that is the baptism with which Jesus was baptized.  Then, after he was, he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and proclaimed as God’s son, the beloved. 

Anointing and proclamation were essential elements of declaring leadership in ancient Israel.  The ancient kings of Israel were anointed with oil and proclaimed as God’s chosen kings.  The prophet Samuel anointed Saul and then David after him, speaking for God in proclaiming them to be God’s chosen kings of Israel.  When Jesus was anointed, however, it was not by God’s prophet, but by the Holy Spirit.  The proclamation came not from a human intermediary, but from God himself.  Jesus was the one to lead this new kingdom of God.  Jesus’ kingdom.  Jesus’ authority. 

How did he assert his authority?  Well, he prayed a lot.  He taught people about his kingdom.  He helped people.  He spoke out when he saw people in authority abusing or misusing their authority. 

Jesus did not force his kingdom.  He could have, of course.  As he told Peter, when he was being arrested, Jesus could have commanded legions of angels to fight for him, to prevent his arrest, and presumably make happen anything he wanted to happen.  Jesus’ might, his command, and his authority exceeded that of any king of the earth, and yet when it came time to fight, Jesus let the kingdoms of the earth kill him.  Jesus chose to let his kingdom be lived out by choice, not by force.  Jesus’ kingdom, the new age, is lived by people choosing to follow him and live his teachings.  One day, yes, his kingdom will come fully, but until then, he left to human choice, how much his kingdom would or would not be lived out here on earth. 

So what are some of the ways of the new age, the age of Jesus’ kingdom that he teaches, but does not force?   One is Jesus’ notion of fairness.  Remember the end of Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard?  The owner of the vineyard hired some folks at the beginning of the day and promised them a days’ wage.  Throughout the day he found other people who hadn’t found work, and he hired them too.  Then they were all paid the same. “Hey, that’s not fair,” they guys who worked all day said, “those guys earned just as much as we, and yet they didn’t work nearly as long as we did.”  “True, they didn’t work as long as y’all did,” Jesus would say, “but they still needs enough to live on, doesn’t they?”  (Matthew 20:1-16)  In the new age of Jesus’ kingdom, fairness is superseded by basic human needs and love of people.

Another way of Jesus’ kingdom is the approach to institutions and religion.  Jesus was teaching the Scribes and the Pharisees about how they keep their traditions for the sake of the institution of their religion and end up ignoring God’s ways.  “Sorry, Mom and Dad, but I can’t support you in your old age,” they would have people say.  “I’ve got the means to support you, but I have to give that money to the Synagogue.”  “No, young man,” Jesus would say, “you need to take care of your parents first.  Half the reason to give to the Synagogue is so they can care for people in need.  If you take care of your parents, then the Synagogue won’t have to.”  (Mark 7:6-13)  Our institutions are not more important that the people for whom they were made.

We live smack dab in the middle of the kingdoms of this world, the kingdoms of the old age.  Many of these kingdoms have been influenced by Jesus and his kingdom, but the kingdoms and governments of the earth are still kingdoms of the old age.  This means that even as we try to influence the kingdoms of the world, we are also influenced by the kingdoms of the world.  We hear the ways and wisdom of the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that we love (our government, our businesses, our American way of life), and we end up following the ways of these kingdoms, sometimes even when they don’t follow the way of Jesus’ kingdom.     

Our challenge is to live in both worlds, the old age of the kingdoms of the earth and the new age of Jesus’ kingdom.  Our challenge is to live Jesus’ kingdom without forcing his kingdom on others.  Like Jesus, the way for us to live his kingdom is to pray a lot, to teach about his kingdom and way, to help people, and to speak out when we see people in authority abusing or misusing their authority.  This also means that we may need to put away our swords when our teaching and speaking out angers those who hear.

A friend of mine read an article I had posted about the church’s need to invite people to join them in worship and to teach people about Jesus, no longer assuming that most people know about Jesus.  She pointed out that many people don’t want to know about Jesus and are quite frankly tired of having Christianity forced down their throats, being told that they are terrible people or being threatened with hell for not believing in Jesus.  She wrote,
Setting up missions to convert the heathens is not what the church needs. Fighting injustice, battling for the rights and dignity of the poor, helping to create a world without prejudice, these are missions Jesus would get behind. The like-minded people who join a church because it's focused not inward on their own population but outward on what good they can do in the world are people you can be proud to call brothers and sister in Christ.

My friend is, by the way, not a Christian, the heathen preaching to the church.  I agreed with her about the mission of the church, and I also wrote the following regarding evangelism and sharing our faith, beliefs, and the ways of Jesus’ kingdom:
I do assume that lots of people would benefit from hearing [about Jesus and his kingdom]. I do assume that people would benefit from hearing about and living the way of Jesus: a way of love, compassion, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, relationships chosen over being right, etc…I don't believe our faiths were ever meant to be kept quiet. We were meant to connect to each other, and sharing our deeply held beliefs is a prime way we do that. Evangelism is that offering of self, the sharing of who we are via what we believe. When shared, not forced, it can be great. Some will find it to be good news and want to believe the same. Some will simply find it interesting and know a person better.

We are to live and preach and teach Jesus’ kingdom by truly adopting his ways as ours, and then talking about his kingdom not simply as an imperative of scripture (that’s what the Scribes and Pharisees did).  We’ll live and preach and teach Jesus’ kingdom by living it and then offering what we have lived and experienced to others.  Consider Jesus and his baptism, the sloughing off of the old age and the old ways of earthly kingdoms.  Consider his anointing by the Holy Spirit and the proclamation from God that Jesus is his beloved Son and the king of the new age and life in Jesus’ kingdom.  Then, consider your baptism into his kingdom.  Remember your baptism, the sloughing off of the old ways and the desire and commitment to live and proclaim Jesus’ kingdom and the new age of his ways.  Amen.

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