After a brief summer break we are back into the gospel of Mark. Today’s passage occurs at the mid-point of this gospel. The first half of Mark contains the stories of Jesus using his marvelous gifts. He is a teacher and a healer and a worker of miracles. These are wonderful, amazing stories. This half of the book also describes the mounting tension between Jesus and the established religious leaders of the time. Then the second half of Mark is the story of the road to Jerusalem, Jesus’ passion and resurrection. In the first part Jesus is quite public with what he does and speaks to large crowds of people. In the second, Jesus speaks primarily to his closest followers to prepare them for the time when he will no longer be with them on this earth. Today’s reading is right in the middle of the two sections; it is the hinge or turning point that connects the two parts, finishing the focus of the first and moving ahead into the focus of the second.
Specifically there are three things going on in this particular passage. First is how Jesus is perceived by others, including the famous question answered by Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” The second is Jesus predicting his future passion and the third describes the life of a disciple as a paradox: those who want to save their life must lose it and those who lose their life for Jesus will find it.
I want to take a closer look at the reading commenting briefly on three perspectives of it. The first is as one of the original disciples might have experienced it. The second is as someone in the community for which Mark wrote the gospel might have heard it and the third is as we hear it today.
I got a number of questions last Sunday about the hangings and vestments we have up now. We use this set regularly in the fall here at Emmanuel, but it made me realize it’s been a couple of years since we talked about them and about the message they were created to embody, and in any parish a couple of years is a long time. So I thought I would tell the story again.
All this fabric art that adorns the space was given as a gift to Emmanuel and commissioned from the Sarum Group, the workshop of an artist from England named Jane Lemon. She came over and lived and prayed with us to learn who we were, and out of that came this set of vestments and hangings, which are meant to be an artistic statement of our vocation as a parish, a picture of Emmanuel’s unique call from God. She also made us a purple set for Lent, but I’ve never heard of another parish that has a set like this one, a piece of liturgical art that deliberately holds in front of us who we are meant to be and how to get there.
So let me unpack it a bit. Take a look at the altar – and if it’s too far for you to see well, there are postcard images of it in all the pews today as a gift to you. I’ll say more about that later, but for now let’s look at the art. As you can see, the life of God streams down from the tabernacle where we keep the Holy Eucharist, the real presence of Jesus among us. You notice the rays of Jesus’ power coming forth, glistening with bright life. Where do they land? They land on us, the people of Emmanuel, pictured as that field of wheat below. The art reminds us every time we look at it: For us, everything flows from Jesus and his presence; we have to start by drinking in that presence; to start anywhere else is to fail before we begin.
You also notice, though, that that divine life Jesus is pouring out to us has competition. The field is studded with red poppies, which Jane Lemon intended to be symbols of passivity and indifference. Christ is trying to share his love and power with all of us, but the field also has sleepy poppies who aren’t awake to it yet. Still, slowly, as Jane Lemon wrote in her artist’s statement, “The wheat overcomes the poppies.” Jesus gradually does his work.
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rule of St. Benedict contains an entire chapter on “The Restraint of Speech” which includes the instruction that “speaking and teaching are the master’s task; the disciple is to be silent and listen.” Here, the master in question is the abbot, the head of the monastery, and the disciple is the monk, but this instruction comes straight from the original relationship between Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Jesus was the Word made Flesh, and as such, it was fitting that his life on earth would be characterized by speaking and teaching -- by words -- and those who followed him being characterized by receptive listening -- by silence.
So one of the basic ideas of Christianity is that, in a very real sense, Jesus, as the Incarnate Word of God, has said all that there is to be said, indeed, is all that there is to be said. What remains for Christians to do is as simple as it is nearly impossible: basically, we’re called to be a massive collective of people across time whose shared life together in the Church amounts to one big “what he said… no further comment.” All the introverts are like, “Yes, I have found the true religion.”
Here we are about to wrap up Ephesians! Lots of you have commented that this time we’ve spent together on this epistle has been very meaningful. A couple have even told me this series was the deciding factor in their making it to Mass on a particular Sunday. It just goes to show that when we open up Scripture and pay specific attention to what the text says, people discover how powerful and useful it is. I’m telling you, the Bible is really worth your time. We’re near the end of the Epistle today, with this famous section about what makes for spiritual strength. I do want to unpack this passage a bit, but I also want to give a quick recap of where we have been together.
You’ll remember that Ephesians is like most of Paul’s letters in that it falls into two major sections. The first is a section setting out in some way what God has done in Jesus Christ. Paul wants to get us situated up front in the truth of what has happened to us, who is the God who has done this, why he did it, and so on. What is true? What is reality? Paul starts with telling us or reminding us of things like that, because he knows all too well that most of us base the way we approach our lives on some other reality than Jesus. And when some other reality is the lens you’re using as you read, you won’t really be able to receive what the text is getting at. You’ll see it colored through some other lens and miss the point. Now, of course Paul lived 2000 years ago. The other lenses taken for granted in his day were things like the crushing power of empire, the availability of a smorgasbord of spiritual options, entrenched economic injustice, deep ethnic divisions – you know, all the usual stuff we’re still dealing with. So he starts by saying: No, remember, that’s not ultimate reality. What God has done in Christ is ultimate reality. In Ephesians, that section is chapter 1-3, and we were there for three weeks.
And after Paul has made that point very clear, only then does he go on to say: Given that what God has done in Christ is ultimate reality, here’s how it looks when that reality works itself out in your life and your church and your neighborhood and your culture. Here’s what will be different if you – and we – live as if Christianity is real. And that’s the second half of the letter, chapter 4-6, and we’ve been here for three weeks too.
There are two more weeks, counting this one, in our journey together through Ephesians, and we’re continuing in the section that Deacon Chris two weeks ago called the Therefore: the second half of the letter. Everything in the first half, Ephesians 1-3, is trying to help us grasp the extent of God’s action Jesus and to begin to receive the benefits of his work. Everything in the second half, Ephesians 4-6, assumes that we have grasped what Jesus has done for us, have received it, and are now grounded in it as the root of our identity and the meaning of our lives, and then it says, “So, given that, now what?”
There’s always room to take in more of the first half, of how what Jesus has done grounds and defines you, of course – but Paul is assuming here in the second half that his readers are in Christ already and thus already have a new force motivating them and guiding them. So none of what Paul writes is general advice that you could just follow regardless of whether you are a disciple of Jesus or not. No, all the “therefore” sections of Paul’s letters are essentially a picture of what the life of Jesus looks like as it works its way out in those who are rooted in it, those in whom he dwells. Your roots are in Christ, his life is living in you, therefore….what does it look like?
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Aristotle said that art, being the imitation of nature, represents the form and order of the world in order to get at something perfect, timeless, and beautiful. Art takes all the varied and changing experiences from life and simulates them into a single whole -- whether a painting, a poem, or a play -- and in so doing, mysteriously transcends those particular experiences. What results is not a duplicate world, but an object that unveils some deeper reality of the world we already have. At its best, art touches the sublime. It’s about the closest we get to approximating God’s original act of creation from nothing. So imitation is one of the most basic human activities because it is one of the main ways that we grasp for what is beyond us.
It makes sense that humans would do this kind of thing. Being “rational animals,” we’re unlike the living creatures that surround us on earth in that we possess the faculty of reason and imagination but we’re unlike the angels in that we possess bodies. And that makes us peculiar creatures. We’re stuck mid-way between heaven and earth, so to speak. And so we have this insatiable drive to gather our experiences of earth so as to reach a touch of heaven. We imitate the forms and rhythms of the cosmos because we have this deep intuition that doing so will put us into contact with transcendence. This is why we worship according to a liturgy, moving our bodies and shaping our words according to ancient forms. And yet it turns out that our desire to touch heaven through imitation is simultaneously what makes us human and what has made us sinful. After all...
What is sin if not the presumption to be like God?
What is salvation if not the struggle to be like God?
But what determines the quality of our imitation? What is the criterion by which we become the imitators of God as his children or the imitators of God as his impostors?
“There is one body and one Spirit,…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all”
Today we continue our sermon series on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Again, this morning’s passage is rich with poetic phrases, dense in meaning and ideas, and in general, a beautiful reading. We heard the beginning of chapter 4 which marks a transition from statements about Christ’s work to more practical, ethical implications. As we look at the portion for today I want to focus on a few words from it. You may want to take out the leaflet to find these as I talk about them.
The first word I want to highlight is actually removed from your copy and you might have missed it as it was read. That word is “therefore”. The first sentence of chapter 4 began, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord”. The word “therefore” is important as it points out something about the structure of the letter. The basic theme of Ephesians is how the Universal Church, described as the body of Jesus Christ on earth, is established to carry out and continue the work of God’s eternal purpose. The book can be divided into two parts, the first deals with what God has done, and the second is how his people, (understand, that means us) are to respond to these gifts from God. In some ways the book is like a mathematical theorem. The first half is the “if” clause and the second is the “then”. If, then. If we have received numerous blessings and gifts from God, through his son, Jesus; then we are to act in this manner. The “if clause” reminds us of the good news of the gospel and the conclusion, the “then clause”, is what we are to do and why we are to do it. As with mathematical theorems proving the theorem does not necessarily mean that the converse is true. The first clause implies the second but the reverse is not always true. In this case, the first clause forms the foundation of the second.
What did we ever do to deserve a reading as fantastic as today’s Epistle? Ephesians is a standout among Paul’s letters for its eloquence, its spiritual depth, and its sweeping vision, and we’re seeing that as we preach through it these six weeks, but this particular passage, where Paul prays for the readers, is a highlight. I suggested in this past Thursday’s Mini-Messenger that before you came to Mass today you pray through it twice, once for yourself and once for us as a church, and I hope you’ll take the lectionary insert home and do that again sometime this week. Put it on your fridge. Carry it in the car. Try to picture what would happen here if God answered this prayer fully for you and for us.
We’ll be going through this passage from beginning to end, so take a look at the text. Follow it as we go through. In fact, if you don’t want to listen to me today, please just keep reading the Ephesians lesson over and over, because I can only hit a very few highlights. Let’s go. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. Paul is telling us that for what needs to happen to happen, he has to turn to God the source of all life. Paul can’t do it. We can’t do it. Only God can do it. So what is it? Here’s the first part of what he wants God to do for you: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit…
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Beginning last Sunday, Episcopal churches started reading through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the green season, ordinary time, our lectionary gives us epistle readings that go more or less straight through the book week by week. This was designed, by the folks who put the lectionary together, to give congregations the chance to study the New Testament Epistles a bit more deeply in context. The rest of the year, in the great Easter and Christmas cycles, all three readings are connected thematically, but in the green season we step out of that pattern, and the Epistle reading is its own thing. Fr. Caleb started us out looking at Ephesians last Sunday, and your clergy have decided to preach straight through it in the way our lectionary suggests. So we’ll be in Ephesians for a few weeks.
One of the things Mark and I love about going to Europe on vacation is seeing the ancient buildings, places that may house a cell phone store now but have been in use for one thing or another for centuries. We carry a very old GPS with Europe maps on it with us for navigation, and though every once in a while there will be something like a new interstate interchange that confuses it, basically, you know, the road you’re on has been the road to Avignon since 900AD, so the maps still work. It’s the same with churches: the building we went to Mass in one Sunday dated to the mid 1300s, although the site has been a church since the 7th century, and we spent a fair amount of time in silence at Senanque Abbey, where the church was built in 1148 and the overwhelming weight of nearly 900 years of daily prayer hangs palpably in the air.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. It’s really good to be back up here after a bit of a hiatus. My son Clive was born in late May and so it’s been awhile since I’ve preached.
But here I am with stuff to say!
It always feels a bit redundant to mention the importance of attending mass every week from the pulpit, because the people who are present to hear the sermon are literally in the act of attending mass! Who exactly am I supposed to be talking to? So there is a risk of indulging in a collective exercise of self-congratulation -- isn’t great to discover that we’re the special ones already doing it right?