Tuesday, January 28, 2014

No division, no insignificance . . . in Christ

     Last week I spoke a bit about how there are no insignificant people and no insignificant ministries in the Church.  Given that before I made that statement I had said that I found it frustrating when people give me “yeah, but . . . “ about their own insignificance, one might well have thought that everyone would avoid that phrase in light of another.  Boy was I wrong.  Those who came to argue a bit were full of “yeah, but”’s.  I get that the statement may have come out of the blue.  One minute you are reading about the calling of two Apostles, the next moment you are being reminded that you are greater than John the Baptist.  I get it.  Thankfully, so does Paul.  And so do our lectionary editors, whose selections this week help us continue that discussion.
     I want you to look at this week’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  Although he does not start with the reason for their or our significance, Paul certainly covers the ground later in the passage.  It is clear from Paul’s letter that the church in Corinth is having issues.  Let’s be honest.  The letter will reveal that the church in Corinth has subscriptions.  Paul starts off by writing that Chloe’s people that they are quarreling in the church.  Yes, even in the early church there were fights and disagreements.
     This one seems to be about the significance of the baptizer.  Apparently, the Corinthians are placing significance upon the one who baptized them.  Rome was a highly striated society, and everyone knew their place.  My guess is that those in the church in Corinth were trying to determine their place in this new organization based upon the importance of the one who initiated them into the faith.  One group is claiming they were baptized by Apollos; another is claiming to have been baptized by Cephas (Peter); yet another group is claiming to have been baptized by Paul.  It would be like you all fighting that because some of you were baptized by Richard, others were baptized by Slavin, and others were baptized by Kathleen.  It may sound silly to our ears, but we do not live in an honor bound, strictly striated society like Rome.  Or do we?
     Some among us would argue that there is class warfare afoot.  The have’s want to keep the have-not’s without, or the have-not’s want the have’s to pay for their wants--that would be the two ways that is described by those who see that as a battle being fought among us.  But even brushing that one aside, how often do we see ourselves divided among racial, educational, professional, gender, or age lines?  I see the squirms.  A bit of a spiritual wedgie, eh?  In other parts of the country, those divisions may seem even stronger.  Maybe you can think of a few more divisions that I have left unaddressed.
     Divisions are bad enough in a country that likes to consider itself a melting pot.  But in the Church?  Paul writes the Corinthians and us that we should have no divisions.  The Cross of Christ has done away with the old ways of understanding how we see ourselves and one another.  None of those who did the baptizing did anything for the baptized.  Neither Paul nor Apollos nor Peter was crucified for them.  Only Christ was crucified, and only He has the power to redeem their very lives!  In other letters, Paul will remind us that, as a consequence of our baptism, we are now adopted into the family of God.  The moment that we are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our identity is forever altered.  Our significance, our value, is found in the fact that He has saved us.  Our worth is that He loves us!  What’s worse, when we continue the divisions of the world along economic or educational or even sacramental lives, we revert to trusting the wisdom of the world instead of the foolishness of God.
     Now, the idea that those in the Church ought to be without divisions probably seems clear to all of us.  What may not be clear, given this week’s discussions, is how that same identity informs the significance of us and of our callings.  If we truly become part of His Body, and if He truly becomes a part of us, it really is His Body doing the ministry.  To put it in sacramental language, even in the Eucharist, we believe in this unity.  When I say the words “Unite us to Your Son in His sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through Him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit,” for what are you praying?  Are you not praying to be unified with Him and all others who claim Him Lord?  Are you not asking our Father to see His Son in you and you in Him?
     Now, if our Father sees you doing ministry to His honor and glory, ministry to which He calls you, can you ever imagine Him considering it inconsequential?  Can you ever imagine Him thinking any task to which He calls you is “meh?”  Taking it a step further, if He sees His Son in you, how can you ever believe that He does not value you tremendously?  Every time He rests His eyes upon you, He sees the visage of His Son.  Let that sink in for just a minute.  Actually, let yourself basque in that thought.
     And it is in the blurring of distinctions, that blurring of divisions, that we begin to see His love, His value, of us.  In fact, before the great AMEN we will pray that we will all enter the everlasting heritage of who?  His sons and daughters.  And how is that inheritance accomplished?  Through the work and person of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
     Brothers and sisters, it seems somewhat out of place to me that we should need to spend a couple weeks reminding ourselves that our ministries are valued every bit as much as we are individually loved by God.  There is much incredible work for the glory of God done around here.  It pains me to think that so many place so little a value on their contribution.  Hear this, and hear it well: the ministry that occurs at St. Alban’s requires each and every one us.  Like the wider Body of Christ, this parish requires the gifts and talents of each and every one of us to accomplish His mission.  Perhaps your contribution is financial, perhaps your contribution is an outflow of your talents or passion, maybe your big contribution is a gift of some of that time of which the world tries to convince us that we do not have enough.  It does not matter how big or how little  that ministry may seem in your eyes.  What matters is what He intends to accomplish through your efforts.  He places the value on all our ministries, just as He values each one of us.  Our baptism, brothers and sisters, gives us all the identity we need or could want.  His wisdom and His power, give all our work on His behalf the certainty of success, even in the midst of our seeming failures or our seeming insignificance.



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No insignificant ministries; no insignificant disciples . . .

     One of the most frustrating conversation with people involves the “yeah, but . . .”.  People will come into my office, share where they are in life, wonder where God is, and then wait for some sage or pithy advice on my part.  Those of you who have known me for some time realize I am not a sage and I am not very pithy.  That being said, I do try my best to help you see where God is at work in your life, especially when I believe you are seeking him.  I am often partly angered and partly shocked by your answers.  I will make an observation about what someone should be doing, about a call that seems to be on his or her life, and they will respond with “yeah, but.”  For example, for the last two months, we have been trying to get people to run for Vestry at next month’s Annual Meeting.  I might mention that I value someone’s enthusiasm or wisdom or spiritual maturity and suggest that he or she run for Vestry.  So far, every one I have asked have admitted they were thankful I saw that quality in them, but there was a problem.  And just so you know, it applies not only to long serving ministries like the Vestry and not only to parishioners.  My conversations with members of AA are remarkably the same.  Even when I am engaged in 5th step (or Rite of a Penitent for those who are so inclined), a number of them will “yeah, but” me about their forgiveness.  “Yeah, Father, I know He died for the sins of the world, but my sins, as you know, are really big.”
     There are two messages, I think, employed by the Enemy to convince us that we should not follow Christ.  We will look at the pride side in a few weeks.  In that argument, the Enemy of God convinces us that we deserved to be saved by God.  We are special.  Those other people, you know, the ones not like us, they do not deserve His love.  It is a message which strokes our ego, which makes us believe that we are somehow more worthy of grace than others.  The other message, though, tries to cut us down.  Satan grabs hold of those secret sins we try to keep from everyone and uses them to remind us that we are especially bad.  The cross may have covered most everyone’s sins, but mine are really bad.  I’m not sure I will get into heaven because, well, you know, I did this or that.  The Enemy tries hard to convince us that we are insignificant, that we do not matter to God, that we are not loved completely and totally by Him.  And our Gospel lesson from John speaks that secret belief that we are insignificant, that we do not really matter in God’s plan for salvation history.
     Our lesson today begins with the witness of John the Baptist.  Jesus tells us elsewhere that every other prophet longed to be given the ministry of John the Baptist.  They all wanted the job of proclaiming the coming of the messiah.  Jesus even tells us that of all the prophets in the Old Testament, none were greater than John the Baptist.  Not Moses.  Not Elijah.  None.  John has been given a unique position in salvation history.  His role was to proclaim that God had sent His messiah for forgiveness.  Imagine the headiness of the ministry.  God has been silent since the time of Micah.  Not only has He started speaking again, but He has decided finally to send his long-for messiah.  Can you imagine the excitement?  Can you imagine the thrill?  John was on the inside of God’s plan.  He had been given an incredible honor.  He was the herald of the Anointed.
     How did John know Jesus was the messiah?  He saw the dove descend and remain on Jesus.  John knew that his own baptism of repentance, which he offered to all who sought to repent, fell short of what God’s Anointed would do.  John baptized with water, but the One who came after would baptize with the Holy Spirit, the life giving Spirit of God.  John knew this.  John saw this.  And John began to testify about the Spirit descending and remaining with Jesus.  And look at the cost.  We do not function like this now, but John was dependent upon his disciples for his living.  In the ANE, people would pay rabbis for their sons to study with them.  It was like going off to college to study under one professor.  The more disciples one had, usually, the better life one had.  More students often translated into more prestige and more money.  But here is John telling His disciples that the Anointed has come.  He bears witness to the fact that one greater than he is now among them.  He points this out to his disciples and encourages them to follow Jesus.  Can you imagine the required humility?  Can you imagine the required faith?  Yet John bears witness, as he was called to do in the womb, and fulfills his mission.
     The other side of this equation is Andrew, formerly one of John’s disciples.  What can you all tell me about Andrew?  What marvelous works did he accomplish for God, according to Scripture?  Never thought much about him before, have you?  He is one of the Twelve, an Apostle.  Do we know much else?  I’ll save you some squirming and tell you that we know very little about him.  He is famous for two actions in Scripture.  One, he is the Apostle who tells Jesus about the little boy with bread and fish.  The other is revealed in our lesson from John today.
     Andrew does as his rabbi bids and follows Jesus.  He comes to believe that John is correct.  But before Andrew begins to follow Jesus, he engages in what you and I might call a “no biggie.”  He first goes to his brother and says “We have found the Messiah.”  That’s it.  No grand speeches.  No amazing miracles.  Those are Andrew’s big lines in the play we call salvation history.
     Now, between the two, whose witness is more important?  Put differently, whose witness is insignificant?  Our temptation would be to downplay Andrew’s witness in light of John’s.  After all, John witnessed to crowds; Andrew witnessed to one other person.  John had been anointed by God as a prophet.  Andrew was “just” a brother.  So I ask again, whose witness was more significant?
     If we fall into the trap and quickly decide on John, we forget Jesus’ own words regarding John.  All those born in the Old Testament may have longed to have John’s ministry, but even John ranks below the least of those in the kingdom of heaven.  Why?  Did John not see the Spirit descend and remain?  Was he not faithful to his calling?  Why is he lesser than those in the kingdom?
     For all the honor of his position and even for the nearness of his life to the messiah, John did not yet fully grasp the Gospel of Christ.  John calls Jesus the Lamb of God, but does he give any inclination that he knows the Crucifixion and Resurrection are coming?  No.  Hear me clearly, I am not saying that John is a failure.  I am also not saying he lacked faith.  John simply lacks the perspective of all those who come after the Cross and Resurrection.  He trusts God will vindicate him, but he does not understand the means by which his salvation will be achieved.
     Andrew, on the other hand, will live through Holy Week with his new Rabbi.  He will fall asleep on his Master when the Lord asks for prayer.  He will flee in terror when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus.  He will likely stand at a distance and watch Jesus be crucified.  He will see and hear the mourning of the women, especially Mary the Mother of Jesus.  He will hear the stories from his brother and the ladies.  And then He will see the Risen Jesus with his own eyes.  Jesus will appear in the locked room before him, will appear in the room with the door shut, and will appear to them in Galilee.  Finally, with his own eyes, he will see Jesus ascend to be with the Father.  And he will be told that Jesus will one day return.  And that experience will be life-altering.  But, for all that, what is the significance of his witness?
     John tells us that before he became a formal disciple of Jesus, Andrew first went and told his brother that they had found the messiah.  Telling your brother or sister something is usually not a big deal.  All of us gathered who have brothers and sisters can tell those who don’t that talking to siblings is not a praiseworthy act.  They may ignore us because they have a lifetime of experience of us, but our siblings are not nearly as terrifying as speaking to important people or maybe crowds.  What makes Andrew’s ministry significant is God.  God assigns value to Andrew’s witness.  That brother is named Simon.  Andrew is the one in salvation history who testified to Simon, now known as Peter, that Jesus was the messiah.  It was a simply act, other than maybe Simon could have thought Andrew was nuts . . . again.  A brother speaks to a brother about an experience.  What could be more insignificant!  Yet, from that conversation comes the rock upon which Christ will build His Church.
     Peter and Paul may get lots of credit, deservedly so, for birthing the early Church into the world.  Peter was the Apostle sent to the Jews; Paul was the Apostle sent to the Gentiles.  They get a lot of credit for the scope of their ministry.  Yet, in God’s determination, Andrew’s ministry was no less significant.  All he did was testify to a brother.  But from that testimony came the rock of the Church.  And for his willingness to bear witness, he, too, is numbered among the Twelve.  He, too, bears the title, Apostle.
     Brothers and sisters, there are no “yeah, but’s” in the life of a disciple of Jesus.  There are no, absolutely no, insignificant people in His kingdom nor insignificant tasks assigned to His followers.  In letters that will follow in that birthing process of the Church, Paul will remind us that we are all a part of the Body of Christ, a significant part of the Body of Christ in that we can accomplish amazing things in His name and to His glory!  And because we are a part of Him and He is a part of us, we can trust that anything He calls us to do has value, significant value.  Perhaps, sitting in the pew this morning, you have bought into the lie that you do not matter to God, that you have no real part to play in the growth of the kingdom.  It may well be true that you are not called to a ministry like John the Baptist or like Simon Peter, but every disciple of Jesus has a significant part to play in salvation history.  It is our witness, both collectively and individually, which impacts others to follow Christ.  It is our witness which feeds the hungry, clothes the poor, reminds battered women and abused children that their Father in Heaven has plans for them, which calls those enslaved to freedom, which drives cancer patients to their oncologists, which lends an ear or a consoling hug to those suffering, which does any number of jobs in kingdom building, and which spreads from heart to another, empowered by the life-giving Spirit which remained on Christ!
     Brothers and sisters, you may not see the significance of your testimony right now.  Maybe, like John the Baptist, you will not see it in your life.  But know this, the One who created all things from nothing and who redeemed you from all your sins has a task or more appointed for you.  It is He who assigns the value; it is He who assigns the worth.  All He asks of us, like all the Johns and Andrews who have come before us, is to trust and obey His call on our life.  The rest is up to Him!