Note: This is the third and final part of a sermon preached by three Brothers: Jack Crowley, n/SSJE; Sean Glenn, SSJE; and Keith Nelson, SSJE.
I want to circle back to that obscure but evocative passage in John’s first Epistle:
The Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.
The testimony is one, as the Spirit is one, but it seems the encountering of it is (at least) three-fold: in the baptism we share; in the costly self-offering we must each make; and in the speaking of the Spirit of Truth on the tongue of each believer in living witness.
Three preachers do not regularly step up to this ambo on a single occasion, but the fact that today we are three merely underscores something essential about this life: the mutuality of our common witness and the complementarity of our testimony to the Truth. We are a community of preachers because we need each other’s help to lay hold of and live in the Truth. As the nucleus of a wider fellowship we are “sustained by many energies of mutual service”: the Truth proclaimed from many mouths, moving in many hearts, and lived in many lives.
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”
The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15) Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:
God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society. Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people. His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect.
Amos 8: 4 – 6, 9 – 12; Psalm 119: 1 – 8; Matthew 9: 9 – 13
There is a saying that I am fond of quoting. You have no doubt heard me, as I use it in any number of different contexts. It goes, if you pull a string, you’ll find that the universe is attached. To be fair, it is a misquote of something the naturalist and conservationist John Muir said: when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
I feel this way a lot of the time. I especially feel it when I read Scripture, and today is no different.
On the surface we have the story of the calling of Matthew to be a disciple of Jesus. In many ways, it’s quite simple. Jesus calls. Matthew follows. End of story. But nothing in Scripture is that simple. This story is not just about the call of Matthew to be a follower of Jesus. It is a story about how God’s reign of mercy, justice, and peace breaks in upon us in unexpected ways.
Matthew, as we know, was not a good boy. He may have been a good ole boy, but he was certainly not a good boy. He was a collaborator with the oppressive imperial Roman occupation. He was on the side of the bad guys and represented everything that was wrong and evil during the dark days of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Yet it was to this man that Jesus said, follow me, and, amazingly, he got up and followed him. Luke tells us that Matthew got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
We are reminded in our Rule of Life that [the] first challenge of community life is to accept whole-heartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Clearly that was a lesson needed by those who asked why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? My hunch is, that’s a question even some of Jesus’ other followers were asking. Why on earth him, Lord? I’ll bet looking around at the other Brothers, it’s a question you ask yourself, every so often. I know I do.
When I was a student, one phrase always sent my spirit sinking, “group work.” Invariably I would be assigned a partner or two who, to my mind, were only there to drag me down or distract my self-esteem by their more finely formed intelligence and work ethic. “Couldn’t we just do these assignments on our own?” I would ask myself. I wanted to be in sole control over anything I had to surrender for the teacher’s scrutiny. So focused was I on the state of my own GPA that I dreaded the idea of having to compete with, or worse still, depend on another. “Surely,” I thought, “real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
I think it is safe to say that we live in a culture that suffers, to varying degrees, from this pivotal misunderstanding. While cooperation and mutuality are concepts routinely praised from the political podium, in classrooms, and in many an ideological platform, at the end of the day, we still notice something unsettling: individualism and individual choice, the right to be an island, and the desire for private ownership still guide so much of the world around us as goods in themselves. It is clear that we know we should temper these behaviors, but we still manage to miss the mark. We seem to be uncomfortable working beyond our own, or our community’s, assumptions. We want to be in control.
“Surely real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
1 Peter 4:7-11
It’s oftentimes quite fascinating to read the scriptures forensically, that is to search the scriptures like a good detective. If what we’re being presented in a scriptural passage is the answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, or the right way to live and act, what’s the presenting issue? Why does this need to be said, whatever we’re being told? So in the First Letter of Peter – our first lesson today – why are we being told what we are being told? If this is the solution, what’s been the problem? What’s the “back story”?
- “Maintain constant love for one another…” (What’s that about? There’s been a breakdown in love. Love has been patchy, inconsistent, unpredictable.)
- “Love covers a multitude of sins…” (“Sins,” plural. The people around you have been disappointing and disingenuous… repeatedly, which has elicited disdain, not love.)
- “Be hospitable to one another…” (To be hospitable is to be welcoming and generous to others… especially those whom you otherwise find irritating and off-putting. Have space in your heart and space in your home for those whom you could easily distance. Be hospitable.)
- Don’t be “complaining.” (The issue here is not about expressing a complaint, a dissatisfaction, a disagreement. No, the problem is not about a complaint. The issue here is about being a complainer. Having a predisposition that someone or something is always wrong and should be different. The issue here is about a state of being: being a complainer.)
- We’re to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (So what’s that about?) Peter writes we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serving one another with whatever gift each of you has received…” (So each of us is gifted, but not gifted in the same ways. Our gifts are not our possessions. Our individual gifts have been temporarily entrusted to us. We are to be “stewards” of our gifts, not possessors. If we don’t learn about our temporary stewardship of our gifts earlier in life, we will learn later in life… because our gifts are fleeting. Our gifts diminish and then go away.) We’re to be temporary “stewards” of the gifts we’ve received from God. And we’re to use our God-given gifts not to lord over one another but to “serve” one another.
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Tonight we conclude our Epiphany preaching series on following God’s call, reflecting on the Gift of Community. We are created for relationship, reflecting God’s nature. “Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”[i]
We are created to love mutually, to walk together, share, listen, teach, and encourage. In our brokenness, much can make us feel alienated, disconnected, and cut off. Choosing to turn toward each other to connect, welcome, and share heals and transforms. Life is about transformation, continual progression, ongoing conversion. God continually calls us onward into more together.
Yet we are often stuck in the past. Placed in memories, given labels and expectations. Memories of who we once jostling up against who we are now. Patterns of prior years are powerfully present though the players have changed.
Jesus sent out disciples two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. Jesus “ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” Jesus sent them out with authority and in need, with power and weakness. They needed hospitality from those to whom they were sent. They had to receive and rely on others.
Jesus revealed God not as distant and self-reliant but vulnerable and personal, coming as a baby and dwelling by growing up, living closely with us. In his longest recorded personal conversation, at a well in Samaria, Jesus began by asking for a drink. He was thirsty and had no bucket. Jesus offered good news and connection with his own need.
Hospitality, offering radical welcome, is not only for us to give but essential for us to receive. We Brothers welcome many alongside us in the monastery each week, and this is God’s house. We are all guests receiving God’s sustenance. As a frequent host, it’s hard and healing when I choose to receive hospitality. Being reliant and cared for as a guest furthers my conversion.
Feast of St Philip, Evangelist
I’m intrigued by the question the Ethiopian eunuch puts to Philip in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Philip has joined this powerful man in his chariot and beginning with the words of the prophet Isaiah, has interpreted the scriptures and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (v.38).
The answer is ‘nothing,’ it seems. And so they stop the chariot, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. I suppose Philip might have objected to the fact that this man was a foreigner or suggested that he needed further instruction and formation, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate at all.
Except that some ancient authorities add another verse following the eunuch’s question in which Philip does add a qualifier. In response to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and the eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (v.37) It’s likely that someone added that verse just to make sure that there was some agreed-upon criteria by which candidates would be admitted to the fellowship of the Church.
What makes a community “Christian”? Believing and following Jesus as Christ are of course the basic requisites. But how should a Christian community distinguish itself from other social groups in its pattern of belief and pattern of life? By reminding the church in Corinth that they “are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2), Paul evidently regarded a Christian community as one whose members are transformed by Christ and uphold the standard of “holiness” (hagiotēs), living a new way of life pleasing and honoring God. Concluding his Gospel with the great commission: “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . . and teaching . . . ” (Matt 28:19-20), Matthew was saying to the church in Antioch that a Christian community should focus its mission on “disciple-training” (mathēteia) so that its members may be committed to the Triune God and fully equipped to share Jesus’ commandments with the whole world. What about John the Evangelist? Since the major witness in the Fourth Gospel was nicknamed the “Beloved Disciple” (13:23; 21:7) and Jesus said that his disciples would be properly recognized by their mutual love (13:25), John the Evangelist obviously expected his readers in Ephesus to form a community that would embody God’s love in Christ (agapē) so genuinely that they might testify to the eternal life already granted to them by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. All such visions of community are gems of insights for our life together as a Christian community today.