SERVANTS OF LIFE
Homily for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost July 19, 2009
2 Samuel 7:1-14a Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
Ephesians 2:11-22 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” –a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands– remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then 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.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Playing golf recently, I inquired of one of the men playing with me about his name. He had been introduced to me as Gebre (pronounced Gaybray) and I was curious about the background and meaning of his name.
He told me he is Ethiopian and his full name is Gebre–hiwot. Gebre is the same basic name as Gabriel. He told me his name – Gebre-hiwot — means servant of life. I said to him, “What a great name!” Aware that I am a priest, he told me that hiwot is the same word for Jesus.
“So in your language, Jesus means ‘life?’” “Exactly!”
Jesus means life. What a concept!
An early Christian mystic and saint – Irenaeus – said “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” Christ means life – life is what it’s all about. Being Christian means to be fully alive. Many people today believe that to be a Christian means to be repressed, dull, boring, and moribund – disconnected from real life. They do not believe the Church is a source of life, but rather see it as a place that inhibits and frowns on life. Sadly, Christians of all sorts are suspect in our society, and most people no longer turn to the church for guidance in how to live.
The Gospel today tries to offer a picture of the multitudes who were drawn to Jesus, seeking life in his presence. People came to him seeking life, wanting to know how to get on that path, how to stay there, and how to connect to the Source of all life, with whom Jesus seemed extraordinarily familiar. There were so many people, and so many demands, that the disciples were getting burned out and needing a retreat.
Jesus is portrayed as someone who enhanced life, who caused life to happen. What he offered was life – his life certainly – but people came to believe he was opening a door to life on a much larger scale. In his teaching he clearly indicated that his life was meant as a kind of gift – a first-fruits, as it were — a way of providing freedom, release, ransom, redemption for many. A lot of his teaching focused on what life is about, and what it isn’t about.
The Pharisees carped that Jesus was too lively, too full of life, for their austere tastes – they criticised his drinking, his eating habits, his choice of associates, his religious integrity, his moral choices, his extreme claims. Ironic, really, if you happen to believe that Jesus is the Son of God! Christians too, through the centuries, have often adopted a life-denying stance, looking beyond the goodness of this life, toward something better in the future (i.e. heaven). Such a stance denies the goodness of creation and somehow invalidates (or at least insults) the Incarnation.
The Gospel of John makes the astounding statement that “in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” And he quotes Jesus as saying: “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5.26), and things like, “I am the bread of life.” Many Christians have not allowed the Christian Gospel to be as big, as broad, as inclusive as it is intended. John has grasped that, and presents the message in a way that is universal, cosmic.
A simple distinction: Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, place more focus on the day to day events, the moments, of Jesus’ ministry, as if to say, “this is what was happening …” while John (and later Gospels) takes it a huge step further and says “this is what it means” or “this is the deeper meaning in what was going on.” And ever since, we have been doing the same thing.
Sometimes we Christians need a reminder that we are supposed to be teaching the world what it means to be fully alive. The Gospels suggest to us that Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Being dead is not an option. Having a fixed, automatic and perfunctory response to the developing and evolving life around us is also not a viable option.
St. Paul reminds his audience that at one time they were strangers – ignorant and outside the experience of Christ. In other words, at one time they weren’t fully alive. Now they know a life which has overcome all the old barriers and divisions – a life that is whole, universal – “one new humanity,” as Paul calls it. For him, “knowing Christ” is not merely acquiring a few details about the man Jesus, as if knowing his name and phone number were enough to make you a Christian.
I want to be clear that I am a follower of Jesus, committed to his teaching as a way of life – convinced that he embodied the life of God in a unique way; and I believe that he lives, one with God, and his life reveals the way to the kingdom.
But when St. Paul uses the term “Christ Jesus,” he is deliberately putting the reality of the Christ (i.e. the new creation) first and the person of Jesus (or the details of his historical life) as secondary. Readers often reverse it, and say “Jesus Christ,” as though “Christ” is Jesus’ last name, or as though Paul didn’t know what he was talking about. Paul, by prioritizing the Christ, suggests that the new life was not restricted to the man Jesus, or those who knew him personally, and stresses the availability of the new life to all, “even to Gentiles,” who at that time were considered by orthodox Jews to be godless and hopeless. In his numerous letters, Paul pays virtually no attention to the details of Jesus’ life. He is interested in the new life which the life of Jesus has made accessible. It’s not that the details of Jesus’ life aren’t interesting or relevant – it’s that they are no longer central. For Paul, the Christ life is what is relevant, while the details of the life of Jesus the man are already fading into history.
The Gospel writers too really imply that Jesus the man, the person, was not the real focus – it was the life which was obviously flowing through him, and the new Spirit he seemed to bring. They don’t pay much attention to the specific details of his personal life, which can be frustrating, and makes Jesus more of an enigma than many are comfortable with. That may well have been the intention, to encourage people not to get stuck in a personality cult, on the details of what did or didn’t happen, and to focus instead on what it meant for Christians of subsequent generations and circumstances.
In our time, we have developed something like a cult around the phenomenon of celebrity, and we have been led to believe that we need to know every intimate detail of celebrities’ personal lives, as if by accumulation of information, we might know the person, and gain access to that “magic” which made them so special. Many Christians have wrongly proceeded on the basis that by knowing a few facts or doctrinal positions about Jesus, or saying his name like some magical incantation, they might connect with all that he offered, and participate in all that he was about. I seriously doubt the validity of that approach. It should be obvious that reading the catechism over and over doesn’t make you a Christian any more than wearing a white glove makes you Michael Jackson!
Paul is aware that Jesus was one of those special, unique souls, whose lives open the door to a new creation, and he proceeds to find ways to introduce people, initiate people, into that new life. St Paul made a stunning comment about that new reality when he said, “for me, to live, is Christ.” For the first Christians, finding ways to take on the character, the spirit, that was present in Jesus, was central. That is the message and agenda of the season of Pentecost – reminding the faithful that Jesus was revealing the way to life in the Spirit, a life available to all, and intended to bring all creation into one.
Christians in our time need to re-open the doors to life – to be way more open to the life around us, and to find new ways to celebrate life, rather than persisting in being tied to specific historical and cultural forms, outlooks and approaches. Certainly, let us not persist in believing that somehow we own Christ, like a franchise owner with exclusive rights to sell KFC.
How do we know we share in that life? 1 John 3.14 attempts a radical answer: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” Love is the one universal sign of the life of God. I want to suggest that the capacity to identify and connect on a universal scale – to be able to see the life of God in all things – and in all people – is another sure sign.
The Pharisees are presented as dismissing anything outside their circle of familiarity as being suspect, wrong, evil. Many Christians through the centuries have taken exactly the same approach. Jesus was witness to and sign of a vastly different orientation to life. He seems to say, how dare you dismiss and condemn anything or anyone that the Lord God has made. Everything, everyone, in some way reflects the life of the Creator.
As the Church moved beyond the first generation, the life of Jesus became generic, losing the specifics while opening up the way to something infinitely more comprehensive. All the way along Jesus is portrayed as directing attention away from himself, while glorifying God, and inspiring and encouraging the people who came to him to believe that they too were sons and daughters of God, and the light of the world, as he was. He was more than willing to share the life that was in him, and to empower the people, rather than making them dependent upon him.
We too are called to be servants of life – to be vivid, and vital, fully alive. I have often described my job as “not getting in the way,” because it’s not about me, it’s about the Spirit being allowed to work. I believe Jesus operated that way also. Life flowed through him, and rather than allowing himself to become a celebrity, he gave glory and credit to God, whom he called Father.
Like those who flocked to Jesus, we come seeking new life, or at least a new lease on life. I think there is always a hope, deeper within us than we may realize, that is listening for that summons to life – that signal that says it’s OK to be alive – to awaken – to be reborn into the fullness of life intended for us. After all, the Gospel is a summons to the Kingdom – a new life — and the Church is supposedly a local embodiment of the new creation.
In some of the final words of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation 22.17, we hear these powerful words: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” That gift already belongs to you, so for Christ’s sake, feel free to act as a servant of life in all you do, and delight in encountering the life of God, which is present everywhere.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers