A living language - Mother Beth
“As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
You see the sequence there in our Colossians reading? Paul writes about Receiving Christ – then continuing to live in Christ. Rooted in Christ – then built up in Christ and established in him.
And again, just a few sentences later: “When you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.”
You see the same sequence coming back? First you’re buried with Christ in Baptism – then you’re filled with his resurrection life as you live by his power after Baptism. First you are dead, spiritually, until God makes you alive in Christ – then you are living in freedom as the record that stood against you is completely erased. In all these cases the second is a result of the first -- it only happens as we take in and process what God has done.
God acts for us, then a result develops in us as we welcome that action into our lives and start processing it. The dynamic is always God’s action – result in us; God’s action – result in us. Now I’m sure a real Scripture scholar would want to point out nuances here, but for us generalists, I think it’s fair to say that the language Paul uses in this passage is more or less different ways of describing one decisive action of God, the intervention by which he brings a human being into new life in Christ. Paul calls it receiving Christ, dying to the old self in Baptism, being raised in Christ, being rooted in Christ, and that’s just in these few sentences from one letter. If we looked at other letters, we’d find other ways he describes this decisive action of God too. I think part of what Paul is doing here in offering so many images is trying to connect with different people to help them process the breadth of what God has done for us in Christ.
I talked a little last week about how inspiring it was during my sabbatical to see so many laity and clergy in the Diocese of Paris actively receiving and processing the work of God in Christ – these flourishing, competent, committed communities of laypeople. And I mentioned that as I learned some of the history, they had discovered amidst their steadily shrinking numbers in the 70s and 80s was that what they had in their churches was a lot of people who hadn’t processed God’s action in their lives in any significant way, and who, it turned out, weren’t really even all that clear what that action was.
I used an image for that last week, the image of a big estate that had fallen to pieces and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. That’s an image which occurs in our summer book by Ben Myers, but it’s also one the Parisian Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger used in his works 40 years ago.
So I want to take a page from Paul here and share another image for the same basic thing, one that I noticed Paris Christians use more these days. That image is that for the average Westerner, Christianity has become a dead language. You know what that means – Latin’s a dead language. It has a literature and an important historical role, and certainly people who happen to find it interesting can still study it, but it’s not spoken in daily life anywhere in the contemporary world.
For a lot of churchgoers in France, Christianity had become like a dead language: something it was worth exposing yourself to, something that was a part of your family’s heritage, something that had been a source of important values, something people who happened to find it interesting might want to study -- but certainly not anything that normal people actually used in their ordinary lives. Not a language in which you just naturally function day to day, but a heritage one should give a nod to now and again. Now for by far the majority of the French, Christianity is still dead – but not for the somewhere between 4-7% who go to Mass. At least in the Diocese of Paris, they like to use the image that for them Christianity is a living language.
Now the way you speak any language involves learning vocabulary, but it also involves having the experiences the vocabulary refers to. And in a sense that’s where the living language versus dead language image breaks down, because it’s not like “Well, my living language is 21st century English, so of course I don’t speak Christian.” People from nearly every human language group have the experience of receiving what God has done and processing it in their lives, and thus speak Christian as a living language. Back to Colossians: “First you’re buried with Christ in Baptism – then filled with his resurrection life as you live by his power after Baptism.” You can say that in Korean or Arabic or French or Swahili, and people do, all the time.
What Paul describes here, and what you will find throughout the Bible, is this sequence of God doing something for us, and then us receiving it, digesting it, letting it go to work. God’s action in and for us, followed by our processing of God’s action in our own lives. You can say those things in any human language. But you won’t say them if Christianity itself is a dead language to you. You’ll only say them if you have the experience of God acting, and need the words to talk about it.
Now this morning, we have two examples of God acting that are going to happen right in front of us and that we might need words to talk about. I should say at least two, because God is free to do anything he wants, but he has given us his solemn promise that he’s going to do at least two. At both the 8am and the 10:15am, Jesus Christ is going to come among us as a living presence at that altar, when we speak his words over the bread and wine. And at the 10:15, Jesus Christ is going to implant his own resurrected life into Olivia Ann Cooper such that she is permanently and irrevocably changed from not being part of his body to being part of his body.
We may or may not receive and process those things, but that doesn’t change the fact that God is going to do them. So in other words you’re going to witness two miracles this morning. Two things no human being could ever do, God is going to do them right in front of you, and as we process and paraphrase and put to work what he has done, Christianity is changed into a living language, part of the way we naturally approach the world. Some of you have already internalized that, and you don’t need any suggestions or instructions from me. Others of you I’m sure can’t exactly picture what I’m talking about, so I want to offer one simple way to process and paraphrase and put to work what God is going to do here.
At the end of every 8am liturgy, on page 339, we give thanks to God before we leave. It’s a prayer I expect many of you have memorized, and it has a list in it of things God just did for you during the miracle he works at the altar. The list goes like this. #1 We most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ. It goes on, #2. and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; And 3, …. that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; And finally 4, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.
Four things the Prayer Book tells us that about 10 minutes from now, God is going to do for us. Whether you notice or believe it or not, he’s going to do them. Here is one very simple way to receive and process one tiny aspect of today’s miracle: after that prayer, pick one of those four things God just did for you as you experience it in your life, and put it in your own words out loud to one other person. Or, if you find you aren’t sure how to restate it, ask one other person what they think it means. Now this is not rocket science, but it’s a way to process what God is doing.
Receiving Christ – living in Christ. Rooted in Christ – built up in Christ. Baptized into Christ’s death – living out of his new resurrection life. God acts, but he doesn’t keep us at arms’ length; he invites us to take it in so we can make it all our own. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
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