Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: The One Jesus Christ

Preached at Chippewa EPC on 3/26/2017
We live in a time of growing division. When I was a child in school, we learned about being in unity with all, whether they were of a different race, or sex, or creed. But, looking back, I don’t know the official reason why this was promoted. Maybe because peace is, at heart, the hope of all people? Maybe because it was a civic good? Maybe because it felt like the right thing to do? For whatever reason, though, we seem to have lost that message: we live in a time when we are being told, in no uncertain terms, to fear our neighbors, to hate our enemies, and to pray prayers mostly of self-pity. We are beginning to live, in other words, in a state of war. But it is not necessarily the war on foreign soil, although there are those; it is not even necessarily the war of ideology between red state and blue, or liberal and conservative, although that is what looms large in our news cycles; it is the war in our own souls, between our inclination -- born of sin -- to despise those who would challenge our comfort; and our calling -- from the Holy Spirit -- to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, and to pray for those who persecute us. We are divided, first of all, within, which then leads to our divisions from others outside. As St James puts it, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” (4:1)

My brothers and sisters, these things should not be so. Rather, we need healing of our souls, which will lead to peace. If we have the peace of God, the “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Php. 4:7), we shall be able to stand strong against any winds the buffet against us. This is not the peace of the world, though; that can be enjoyed, for a time at least, without God. St Augustine, in his classic City of God, makes the case that man’s “love of self” directs us to make civic and legal peace with our neighbors, whether or not we are in the Faith. In our passage today, though, St Paul qualifies this peace, saying we should hold it “in all godliness and reverence” (v. 2). This peace can only be won and maintained by the grace of God, as our Savior Himself says, “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid” (Jn. 14:27). Our peace, first with God, then within ourselves, then with others, arises out of this grace. How shall we attain to it? Paul gives us good direction here: it is through prayer centered, not on what we feel we need, but on the Gospel itself.

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth.”

Prayers being offered for all is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,” for this love of God for all is revealed to us in the Gospel. We read our Lord’s injunction to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). We read of His enactment of this very hard saying when, being crucified, He prays, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). We find that this prayer is expanded further, to the whole world, by the Apostle Paul, who tells us, “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...for if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:8, 10). Who are the sinners? Who are the enemies? Paul says that Gentiles walked in the ways of their own hearts, in ignorance (Acts 17:30) and that the Jews had the Law but failed to keep it, so that “both Jews and Greeks...are all under sin...that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become accountable before God” (Rom. 3:9, 19). In other words, all in Adam have become estranged from the Lord and so the Lord has come to save all in Adam. Or, as St Paul puts it later in Romans, “God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (11:32). We might balk at that, wondering how these things can be so, but Paul has a different reaction: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (v. 33) God’s plan of salvation truly is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Death and sin held the whole of humanity captive, so God became a free human and subjected Himself willingly to death, which could not hold Him and “led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8) “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

It should not surprise us, then, that the content of our “supplication, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks” is the fulfillment of God’s desire that “all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God has come among us, in His Son and in His Spirit, to love His enemies and reconcile them to Himself. We should, in imitation of Him, be about the same work. As John Chrysostom observes, we find this desire directly in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Do we find the unrighteous in heaven? Do we find there enemies of God? No! So, we should pray that earth becomes the same way. Let us not forget the promise of God that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person avails much” (Jam. 5:16). Here is a great encouragement and admonition to prayerful evangelism! And not just evangelism of our family, our friends, or our neighbors, but also of our enemies.

Paul grounds this prayer, not in a general feeling of human unity, nor in civic good (even though he mentions a quiet and peaceable life), but in the Lord Jesus Christ: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the human Jesus Christ, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (vs. 5-6). It may seem strange to bring this out at this point: what does the oneness of God have to do with His desire for the salvation of all people? It would help us to return to the ancient world for a minute.

In the times before the rise of the great Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are all staunchly monotheistic, each nation had its own gods, gods that often did not cross into each other’s territories. Marduk was god of the Babylonians, head over one pantheon; Ra that of the Egyptians, head of another pantheon; Zeus, as is well known, ruled the territory surrounding Mount Olympus. Marduk’s influence over other territories could only happen through military conquest: then he would show his power over other gods -- but this wouldn’t deny their existence, just their power. Marduk may be a chief god, but he’s not the only one. And he might lose his lofty seat if Egypt chooses to rebel and wins. But then he’d still be a deity, just not the one in charge. The message that Paul, following Samuel and Isaiah and others, is that -- in the end -- all other so called gods and lords are nothing but idols and demons (1 Cor. 8:5-6), not deities, but creatures who have gone horridly astray. Instead, there is one God over all, both Jew and Gentile, the God of Israel and of Babylon and of Egypt and of the United States. As such, He is not just interested in the salvation of one small group of people, but rather He is concerned to save His whole creation. This is shown to us by the fact that the one God, the Father, has only one Mediator, the human Jesus Christ. He does not have many mediators, one for each tribe, or tongue, or people; but one, who shares fully in what it means for all people to be human, yet is without sin. It is true, and important, that Jesus was born a Jew in a particular place and time, for “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). Why is this? Because Israel was called to reclaim what Adam had lost. So, among them, rose the new Adam who would faithful undo what Adam had done. In this, He was truly man, showing that all are “from one blood” (Acts 17:26), the bloodline of Adam.

We can see through this both why Paul emphasizes that there is one God and one Mediator, and further, why the one Mediator is called here “human.” We should also pick up on a few other things in this text that are important for us today. Paul mentions, in verse 3, that God is our “Savior,” which means that if God desires the salvation of all, our prayers are essentially calling on God to be what He is -- which are the sort of prayers we see all throughout the Bible, especially the Psalms. But, it should be noted, “Savior” was a title that the Roman Caesars held for themselves: they were the ones who brought peace by subduing the barbarians, they were the ones who brought stability by making the roads and then making them safe, they were the ones that made sure the seaways allowed easy commerce, especially grain during times of famine. If anyone deserved the title of “savior,” it was Caesar. But here, “God our Savior” is the one who saves even “kings and all those in authority”: He is above Caesar, above Congress, above the President, above the UN or any other earthly bodies. That Christ is called “Mediator” has the same feel to it: for Caesar was the chief priest of the Roman religion, placating the gods, and ensuring that peace he was famous for. But here, again, Caesar is not in the picture: Christ is. He is the only Mediator between God and men, no matter what anyone in power promises or threatens.

What, friends, can we take away from this rather full passage from our brother in Christ, St Paul?

First of all, we must commit ourselves to prayer. It is no good to confess the oneness of God, or the Mediation of Jesus Christ, if we do not engage in what that belief sustains and leads to: prayer for the salvation of all. How often shall we pray? Elsewhere, St Paul says, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). This seems like a tall order, especially for those of us -- including myself -- who are used to praying, maybe, at meal times and before bed. But, as Zechariah says, “who has despised the day of small things?” (4:10) Let us learn from the earliest Christians, who prayed -- together if at all possible -- three times a day using the Lord’s Prayer. There is great power in breaking away from our daily routine, whether in work or retirement, to be quiet before God and humbly beseech His mercy for ourselves and for others.

As you pray, you will find that those whom you disagree with, those whom you may even hate, become cherished members of your heart. How can we despise those we are praying to join in God’s love? Your prayer for their salvation will, in other words, lead you deeper into your own: Christ’s love for all will become your love. This is the goal of being a Christian: to become love as Christ is love.

We must also be mindful to pray for our leaders, as Paul specifically points us to prayer for “kings and all those in authority.” Right now it seems that our national stance is to either boast about our leaders or complain about them: neither of these things are prayer. Rather, in the great words of the Book of Common Prayer, we pray that God would “lead this nation in justice and truth.” We must pray for these leaders, for without their salvation we will not be able to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” It is important, as well, to pray not only for them in our private or home prayers, but here in the gathering of God’s people. Praying for them, remembering that God is our Savior, will also remind us that they are but mere men and women: we should put no trust in them to fix the problems of the world. As the Psalmist says, “some trust in chariots, and some in horses,” weapons of war, “but we will remember the Name of the Lord our God” (20:7). It is the foolishness of the Gospel that is the power of God.

Lastly, we must put our full confidence in God, who will hear our prayers, for these prayers are “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” He will delight to hear them and to answer them, even if it at first doesn’t seem to be so, for “Christ Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” We must pray, we must trust, and we must wait: He will not delay.

As I said at the beginning, we are a divided people: divided from each other and divided within ourselves. But God is one and there is one Mediator between God and men, the human Jesus Christ. As will find ourselves in Him, through faith and deepening our union through prayer, we will find not only peace, but unity. As God has reconciled His enemies to Himself through the death of His Son, so we can be reconciled to each other and even to ourselves by that same power. And if “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10) to the glory of God the Father and for the life of the world. Amen.

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