Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 29 2017
Micah 6.1-8; Psalm 24; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31; Matthew 5.1-12
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Today, we come to the end of our nine-day week of prayer for Christian unity. The theme this year is reconciliation or, as Archbishop Suheil glossed it in St George’s Cathedral last Sunday, friendship and reconciliation. And the text this year is 2 Corinthians 5.14-20, with its ringing declaration that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting against us our sins, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation, and with its opening phrase: the love of Christ compels us, the love of Christ urges us on.
What does this mean today, in this land and this world?
Our reading from 1 Corinthians is full of paradox, but Paul doesn’t have a corner on that market. So let me begin with my own paradox.
This week of prayer isn’t primarily about the unity of Christians. It’s about the unity of the whole human race. It isn’t primarily about bringing Christians together. It’s about bringing together all people everywhere.
Why is this?
In the first place, in Christ we are already one. Baptism is a sacrament; but it isn’t the sacrament of membership of Christ’s church. It just is membership of the church. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament; but it isn’t the sacrament of Christian unity. It just is Christian unity. Gathered around the table of the Lord, we are one in him.
We are, of course, very good at hiding this truth from the world and from ourselves. We look divided, because down through the centuries we have been very good at coming up with questions that we choose to treat as church-dividing.
So it is true that we do need to pray and work to clear away all those things that hide from ourselves and others the reconciling truth that in Christ all Christians are one. We aren’t divided. So we shouldn’t look as though we are, and when we do that, we’re just being silly. Worse than that, we are getting in God’s way.
For the church does not exist for itself. We exist for others. We are here to show that God loves all of us and is busy reconciling all of us to God and to one another. We are here to say that we can’t have one without the other: to be reconciled to God is to be reconciled one to another. If we insist on being strangers to one another, then we are still estranged from God and from ourselves. If we insist on being enemies, we are enemies of God.
Christianity is about the world, the whole inhabited earth. God is not in Christ just to reconcile Christians to himself, but to reconcile everyone.
We see this in the story that our Bibles tell. When God chooses Abraham to be a great nation, it is so that in him all the nations of the earth may be blessed. When God chooses Abraham, it is so that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that God may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.
Likewise, in the second of Isaiah’s servant songs, God says:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49.6)
And the whole New Testament insists that Christ matters not just to the church but to the whole world. The coming of Christ to live and die among us and to be raised from death is an event of cosmic significance. It doesn’t just change you and me; it changes everything.
Come back to our sacraments.
Baptism, I want to say, is the sacrament of our membership of the human race. It shows us what it means to be human. It shows us what it means to be born. It tells us that to be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into his death, because only by dying to ourselves can we live a new life and be one with God.
The Lord’s supper, I want to say, is the sacrament of the unity of humankind, the new humanity that begins with the crucified and risen Christ, the new humanity that is God’s gift to us in Christ.
All our fumbling human attempts to form a community of love fall short and fail. But they point us to the true human community that is achieved only through the sacrificial love of Christ.
What this means is that what we do in church is not nearly as important as what we do outside it.
This is what the eighth-century prophet Micah tells us. God has a controversy with his people. God is taking his people to court, because they have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
The people ask how they are to respond appropriately to God’s acts of salvation, and they think in terms of temple offerings. Micah has a little fun at their expense: he ratchets up the possible offerings, from year-old calves, to thousands of rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil, and finally to handing over the body of our firstborn to be burnt. It is, of course, absurd.
Then Micah tells them that it’s not about what they offer, it’s about who they are. God wants us to respond to God’s salvation by walking humbly, and loving compassion, and doing justice.
In the New Testament, Paul does the same kind of thing. He tells us that it’s not about speaking in the tongues of mortals and of angels, of understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, of giving away all our possessions, or of handing over our own body to be burnt. If we do not have love, we are nothing.
What we do in church is less important than what we do outside it. And what we do anywhere is less important than what we are.
The Church of Scotland is in this land, to begin with, to stand alongside a struggling Palestinian Christian community. But Christians are in this land, or in any land, to stand alongside those who are not Christian: to love our Muslim and Jewish and other neighbours, to show compassion, and to work for justice.
Our four Gospel writers all have a different take on Jesus. Mark sees Jesus as the ultimate boundary crosser, the one who rips apart everything that separates us from God. For Luke, Jesus is the saviour of the marginalized, of those we prefer not to see. For John, Jesus is the living presence of God’s abundant grace.
Matthew sees Jesus, above all, as a teacher of righteousness, a teacher of justice.
Over the next few weeks, we shall read chunks of the Sermon on the Mount. Most of the time in this sermon, Jesus is teaching his disciples what they should be and what they should do.
But that’s not where Jesus begins. He begins by telling them that they are blessed. He begins by telling us that we are blessed. It is only when we know this that we can even think of responding to the high demands that the gospel places upon us.
We are blessed. We are saved. We are loved.
But do we hunger and thirst for righteousness or look the other way? Do we hunger and thirst for justice or assume someone else will? Do we stay silent so as not to step out of line? Do nothing because we would rather play it safe?
The other day, I came across a quote from David Wyman about how the whole world closed its door to Jewish refugees and abandoned the Jews of Europe to the tender mercies of Hitler’s Third Reich:
“Germany’s twelve-year assault on the Jews,” he writes, “brought terrible tragedy to the Jewish people. But this historical event was not only a Jewish tragedy. It was also a Christian tragedy, a tragedy for Western civilization, and a tragedy for all humankind.”
“The evil was inflicted by people, on other people, while still other people stood by. The perpetrators, where they were not actually Christian, arose from a Christian culture. The bystanders most capable of helping were Christians… Yet comparatively few… non-Jews recognized that the plight of the European Jews was their plight too. Most were unaware, did not care, or saw the European Jewish catastrophe as a Jewish problem, one for Jews to deal with.”
Wyman goes on to ask, “Would the reaction be different today?”
In view of how Europe over the last several years has reacted to the crisis of Middle East refugees, in view of what is happening in the United States this weekend, the answer, I suggest, is depressingly obvious.
Let it not be so among us. The love of Christ compels us, the love of Christ urges us on.
Come, all who look to God today (CH4 713)
The earth belongs to God alone (CH4 18 i, Psalm 24.1-6)
O God, we bear the imprint of your face (CH4 254)
Jesus calls us here to meet him (CH4 510)
“I have a dream,” a man once said (CH4 710)
Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000)
Karoline Lewis, “Righteous Living”
Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language (London and Sydney: Sheed and Ward, 1968)
David S Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 (New York: Pantheon, 1985)