As we’ve commented, this fall is a time when our lectionary readings reveal Jesus showing himself at his most challenging. Just to remind you where we’ve come from, before we talk about where we are:
Last week Jesus left his disciples “exceedingly astonished” by teaching that not even a moral pillar of society, a man who had it all economically, socially, and spiritually, had the slightest chance at entering the life of God without giving up reliance on his skills and achievements and relying on Jesus instead. When the man walked out on that offer, the disciples were not happy. (I mean, he could have been a potential big donor. An important supporter of the ministry. And Jesus won’t compromise the message to keep him happy.)
You’ll remember that Jesus commented to the disciples, “It’s so hard for people like that to enter the Kingdom.” And at this point they can’t contain themselves: “If not him, Jesus, who?” And Jesus, true to form, cheerfully replies, “Nobody. Nobody can enter the Kingdom. It’s impossible. Except with God.” What can you say? He is so confident in his Father that he just has no fear.
So as we come in today, the disciples have been trying to process this event. And their conversation eventually morphs into a hypothesis. It’s the kind of hypothesis you come up with when you try to fit Jesus and his message into your preconceptions about religion.
So here’s their hypothesis: all this security that makes Jesus so completely confident, all these resources he acts like he has, and that he seems to think so outweigh money and achievement that you could drop those in a second if you only understood -- maybe all those riches and power and security are going to show up. Maybe Jesus is going to be crowned King, and reign in glory, and they’ll be the Cabinet. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.
And so two members of his inner circle, James and John, want to call the best seats. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there is going to be glory. There are going to be infinite resources revealed. But it’s not going to happen in a way that fits their preconceptions about religion. The Son of Man is going to be glorified, all right, but glorified by being lifted up on a Cross, by showing the lengths to which God will go to give himself to us. Glorified not by collecting glory, but by giving it away, liquidating his assets and pouring them out over us in love.
Not exactly what James and John were thinking of. But you can’t blame them; we all think like that without God’s help. As Jesus says it’s impossible to enter the Kingdom for us. We have to let God bring us in. Without God, we all turn everything back to how it affects us, what we think we and others deserve, how we will benefit. We think that’s normal, because we think sin is normal. But as I said a couple weeks ago, Jesus knows what’s actually normal, what God originally intended.
Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request is gentle, but also comical in its level of understatement: “You do not know what you are asking.” They don’t know that the way they interpret Jesus, according to their preconceptions about improving yourself and managing your own resources – all of that comes from being trapped within the worldly system that Jesus came to save us from. And so Jesus tries to tell them. He tries to help them imagine how it is, in God’s system, God’s kingdom, which, remember, he has already launched and is already available.
Jesus tries to explain, as he does over and over, that the way God does things isn’t the way this fallen world does things. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. He came to give his life away, a ransom for many.” With God, the primal movement is not inward, it’s outward. It’s not about what comes to me, but about what I let go. It’s not about who respects me, but about giving honor and opportunity to others. It’s not about safeguarding our blessings, but about being a blessing to others.
This principle is all through the Bible, and it baffles me how often churches act as if it weren’t. In so many churches you would swear someone just cut all those pages out of the book. In so many churches the attitude is like, yes, that’s what’s in the Prayer Book and the Hymnal and the Bible, but once we walk out of Mass into the parish hall – never mind walking out of the parish hall into the parking lot – once we leave the service we are going to act as if God were very limited in his abilities and very narrow in his priorities, and we need to ration our resources and make sure we don’t get too involved, because apparently the Holy Spirit has been kidnapped and tied up in a closet somewhere.
But all those pages are in the Bible, and God knows what he’s doing with this infinite blessing stuff, and the most heartstoppingly beautiful example of that is Jesus. The way he emptied himself on the Cross for us is so beautiful that when we really see it, when it really connects, it opens up the opportunity to feel all those other things that have taken over our priorities being drained of the power we mistakenly thought they had. We thought we needed them, but that was just the way the world did things. The way God does things is different. Acclaim is just acclaim. Time is just time. Money is just money. In Christ, we can have them, or let them go. He is enough for us.
You don’t have to believe that, of course. Christianity is hard to believe. And the Episcopal church is, thank God, a safe place for people who aren’t yet ready to believe it, a safe place to ask questions and dip your toes in the water of Christian life. But it’s not meant to be a place that encourages you to stay in the shallows forever and never go past your toes, either. It’s meant to help you learn to swim. God the Holy Trinity is an infinite ocean of joy and creativity and love and the sooner you strike out into the depths the better your life will be. And the better the lives of others will be, because as you become secure in God’s blessing he will be able to use you to bless others.
God is always seeking to give more and more out of his infinite resources -- even to us Episcopalians, who so often hold back, lingering right on the shoreline in case some better option comes along. Who so often can’t be bothered to realize how much God is offering us because we’re far more motivated by trying to hold on to what we’ve got.
But when we do open our hands, when we do even start to look at Jesus and let go of trying to deserve and control and plan, when we swim instead of backing away from the beautiful big waves, we’re filled with blessing. And the same blessing spills out from us, and we say “Is that how Christianity works? Why did I miss this for so long?”
You don’t have to believe that. But I want to tell you, it’s worth a try.
saw in the News-Gazette recently that a local grocery chain is cutting back its hours because of staffing problems. That reality of “this is the best we can do under the circumstances” has really become part of life, hasn’t it? The MTD is having to make all kinds of service reductions, too. And you have that sentence we’re all used to now: There are supply chain issues. These have become the routine experiences of life post-Covid, where we all regularly accept that this is the best everyone can do under the circumstances.
The theological equivalent of “the best we can do under the circumstances,” probably, is something we’ve all been living longer than any of us can remember -- existence in a fallen world. That term, fallen, comes from the Christian claim that the world no longer works the way God intended it to. That nature, relationships, systems, everything around us and within us, has been distorted by what we Christians call the Fall. But in this case, we’ve gotten so used to the distortion we often treat it as normal. But it isn’t, or at least Christians believe it isn’t.
However you read the picturesque story about Adam and Eve itself, our narrative as Christians claims that the universe that originated from God mirrored his perfect justice and love. It was a world in which for example there was no racism, no sexism, no disease or decay, no lies or betrayals. That’s what originated from God. But people said “no. We don’t trust you, God. We know better than you what’s good for us.” And thus began the decay of God’s universe in favor of a universe shot through with human self-centeredness. From that rupture in love, that rupture in trust, the ripples of distortion spread. And in Christian theology, we call that the Fall.
So living in this fallen world means that we are often faced with the best everyone can do under the circumstances. The things we deal with in life often express not God’s full dream for us, not his ultimate purpose for society, not his vision of what’s normal, but the best everyone can manage amidst the abnormal distortions human sin has caused. I mean, God sees sin as abnormal, whereas we see it as normal. No wonder we miss the point.
There’s an interesting instance of that in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees come with one of their attempts to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. In this question, they are referring to an existing political controversy about King Herod’s family, but they frame it abstractly, asking whether a man can divorce his wife. Jesus starts by referring them back to the law of Moses, one of the ways God helped his people deal with the reality of a fallen world before Jesus came. What did the law of Moses say, Jesus asks.
It actually doesn’t directly say anything, but there is one passage, Deuteronomy 24, which is about remarriage after divorce. It just assumes, given the circumstances of a fallen world, that there are going to be divorces. That passage, which the Pharisees turn to because they have nowhere else to turn, takes for granted that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, that sending away a spouse is common and unremarkable, and takes for granted that the husband should write up a document testifying to the divorce for the wife’s protection.
That’s not a Biblical command, but this passage assumes that’s how it works when divorces happen. Given the circumstances of a patriarchy. Given the circumstances of broken relationships. Given the circumstances of a subsistence economy for most people. Given the circumstances, that’s the best Deuteronomy can do right now – at least provide for the poor woman economically. Our culture also assumes that there are going to be divorces in a fallen world, but we have extremely different ideas about what the process should look like. And when Jesus pushes them, the Pharisees go to that passage because they have nowhere else to go.
But the astonishing thing about Jesus is that he has somewhere else to go. He goes not to the Law that addresses life after the Fall, not to the sad realities of a broken world, but back before all that. Because he knows what God’s normal is, what the world is like without sin and shame. Yes, he says, "Moses wrote you that law because of the hardness of your hearts. To help you manage the circumstances of a fallen world. But I can let you in on my experience, the experience of a world that isn’t fallen." Jesus says to them and us, I have a cure for hardness of heart. I have a cure for the Fall.
It’s just audacious. But it’s why he came. Jesus didn’t come to assist us in muddling through as we make the best of a fallen world. Having him in your life does help with that! But God came to earth in person not to improve our muddling somewhat, but to cure the Fall. Jesus’ role is to open the door for us to share with him in living God’s original intention. To open the door to the new creation, which begins the moment he enters the world and will continue until the great last day when God’s designs are perfectly realized and the universe is set right.
So Jesus just changes the terms of the discussion. He does it here, he does it all over the place. Jesus repeatedly says things that clearly set a stricter standard than the Law. Why does he do that? Because he’s rooting his answer in God’s vision before the Fall, before sin entered the world. When things were normal. Jesus gives these shocking answers to underline the radical change he has made in the order of the universe. To underline that there is a new reality at hand, the kingdom of God, which he has launched, which makes it possible to be set free from bondage to sin. To be set free to experience something of what God intended from the beginning.
Jesus knows what it would be like if God’s infinite compassion and justice were fully manifest in every situation. Jesus knows what normal was before the Fall, what normal will be when God is all in all, and he won’t shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, given the circumstances, what do you expect. Just try and make do the best you can.” He won’t conceal from us what God’s intentions for wholeness are. He won’t dumb it down.
Moses wrote this law for you, Jesus says, because of the hardness of your hearts. But Jesus can cure hardness of heart. Jesus can bring into your life and mine experiences of new creation, just as if sin had never wreaked havoc among us. We’ve reminded ourselves over and over at Emmanuel that this new creation, launched by Jesus when he came, will run along parallel to the old creation until the end of time, when God will be all in all. But it is possible now for us to throw our arms open and welcome moments of joy and healing that give genuine tastes of the new creation.
I’ve talked often here about how I’ve experienced new creation and a cure for my hardness of heart around money since I threw my arms open at age 23 and took the risk of trusting God that he meant what he said about tithing. You’ve heard me say there is nothing, ever, that could make Mark and me stop giving away at least 10% of what we receive. For us, that’s just normal now. And doing so has proved to us that the new creation is happening, and when you take the risk of saying yes to it, you have joy. It also happens that after 35 years, a whole lot of other signs of new creation and moments of joy have been paid for in part by our giving, but that comes second for us. Trusting enough to take a step into God’s world where generosity is normal comes first.
Whenever we send out letters and ask our members to estimate what you will give to Emmanuel in the coming year, as we’ve done this week, I pray that some of you will actually change the terms of the discussion in your heads, just as Jesus does to the Pharisees today. Like Jesus’ words about divorce, his words about money are not meant to make life harder for us as we try to muddle through under the circumstances, but to remind us how beautiful and freeing and desirable God’s original intentions are. Jesus changes the terms of the discussion to help us notice that now that he has come, we have another alternative. We could trust God. We could be lavishly loving. We could throw our arms open to new creation.
Now, I’m not naïve. I know that many, many Christians do not consider changing the terms of the discussion when they start filling out their pledge cards. I know the boring, post-Fall, broken-world questions all too well: “What’s the best I can do given the circumstances?” “What did we pledge last year?” “What’s a nice round figure?” There’s nothing to stop us from thinking about giving that way. Now that Jesus has come, though, we do have another alternative.