Pentecost 13 C: Pursuing a Faith That Matters
Dear Partner in Preaching,
What does it cost us to go to Church? I’ve been wondering of late what our people would say if we asked them that. A free Sunday morning? A chance to sleep in? The ten or twenty bucks they put in the offering plate? Odds are, if we stop to think of it, it costs us very little to be a Christian today, as even in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture, going to church, if no longer quite the norm, at least occasions little comment.
Not so, of course, in Jesus’ day. As Jesus indicates in this complicated and, if truth-be-told, somewhat off-putting passage, those who followed him were regularly thrust into conflict and division, often with their own family members. To follow Jesus, you see, was to question the religious and economic and even political status quo. If you were Jewish, it meant accepting as the Messiah this itinerant rabbi who hung out with the disreputable, accepted sinners, and preached a message of love and forgiveness. It meant, that is, accepting as Messiah one who looked almost nothing like the warrior king David they had expected. If you were Gentile, it meant accepting as the Messiah this itinerant rabbi who hung out with the disreputable, accepted sinners, and preached a message of love and forgiveness. It meant, that is, accepting as Messiah one who looked almost nothing like what the culture held out as powerful or important.
Moreover, following Jesus meant not merely adopting new beliefs, but a new way of living. To be a follower of the one who accepted and even honored the disreputable meant that you needed to do the same, rejecting the easy temptation of judging others and instead inviting them into our lives. To be a follower of the one who preached love and forgiveness was to practice the same, particularly when it comes to those who differ from you even, and maybe especially, in terms of what they believe.
I began this reflection noting a major difference between Jesus’ day and our own, as naming yourself as a Christian had a much greater societal cost and even personal risk associated with it then it does now. But I wonder…. I wonder if we might also find ourselves thrust into conflict and division with those we care about if we welcomed into our homes and congregations and social circles those whom society shuns. What would be the reaction of our family and friends and co-workers if we really acted like Jesus did?
Across the Old Testament, the purifying fire Jesus seems to reference here is most often associated with the fire that burns away impure religious practices. Not impure as in “not liturgically correct,” but rather impure in that they tended to make religion a source of false comfort. Right religious practice and beliefs, too many have thought over the centuries, should exempt you from the suffering or disaster or poverty or even death all around you. In this regard, I believe little has changed. Think, for instance, of the popular Christian obsession with “accepting Jesus into your heart” as the means by which to escape eternal punishment and secure an eternal reward. But what if faith wasn’t about guaranteeing future bliss but rather was an invitation to live differently now, to see those around us neither as souls to be saved or threats to be deterred, but rather to see them – everyone! – God’s children to be loved, honored, and cared for?
Or, perhaps closer to home in this election season, think of how routine it has become for political candidates to close every speech with “God bless America.” Yet throughout the biblical witness blessing always comes with an expectation, even an obligation to extend that blessing to others. America has been blessed – richly – and from those who have been given much, much is also expected. So what would it cost a candidate to close speeches with, “God bless America so that American can be a blessing to the world!”?
Now, the temptation at this point may be to imagine a sermon that chastises people for their easy faith or acceptance of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” But what if instead we simply asked people how we could our time together on Sunday in worship, education, and fellowship to encourage each other to live like, not just believe in, Jesus? How would we imagine worship, preaching, Sunday school, even coffee hour if our goal was to equip people to enter more deeply into their faith so that it might shape more palpably their life. I am absolutely convinced that our people desperately want their faith to matter, to be useful to them, to shape the way they think about their work, their families, their money, and more.
So what if we invited a conversation this weekend that helped us see Church not as an obligation or spiritual destination, but a place to come to be encouraged, equipped, and sent to make a difference to the world. And a place to return to when living like Jesus creates division. Because it will. But it will also create joy. Because the one who sends us out was himself baptized by fire – note, it’s his own baptism Jesus talks about in these verses – and is both with us and for us as we come to church to be reminded of our identity as God’s beloved and are sent out again in mission to tell others in word and deed that God loves them as well.
This is a life that takes courage, and your sermon, aided by the power of the Holy Spirit, will help create that courage. Thank you, Dear Partner, for your faithfulness in and out of season and even and especially when our witness to Christ creates division. Blessings on your life and ministry.
Yours in Christ,