The Context of Christianity
by The Reverend Mother Gwynne Guibord
Acts of the Holy Apostles 11:27–12:2
II Corinthians 4:7-15
St. Matthew 20:20-28
It’s been a long time since I have been at St. Thomas and I have missed it and the many friends that Lo and I have had in this congregation. As visiting clergy today, I have thought a great deal about what might be helpful to share with you as a sermon during our very brief time together. So I decided to offer a look at the world out of which the early Church arose and at what was meant in that context when Jesus asked his followers “to believe” and “have faith” and to create the Kingdom of God on Earth.
Christianity was formed in a world teeming with Roman oppression. The cruel and brutal Jewish King Herod collaborated with Rome in exchange for control over Palestine and all its people. With the help of a corrupt priesthood, he broke the laws of the temple and stole their land in order to fund huge building projects including the rebuilding of the great Temple of Jerusalem.
His complete betrayal of his own people was symbolized most clearly by the Roman Eagle placed high on one of the four entry gates into the newly rebuild Holy City of God, the very center of the heart and life of faithful Judaism.
The Jews of Palestine hated it! They were desperate for a leader to save them by over-throwing the power structure, doing so would restore justice and create peace through domination.
Given this context, no matter what Jesus had taught his disciples about caring for the poor and the marginalized, about forgiving the sins of others and being faithful to God,
Peter and the Sons of Zebedee, thought that it was all training for becoming part of his cabinet, the new administration that would be put in place when Jesus, as the long promised and hoped for Messiah, would break the back of Rome and take over.
Peter and the Sons of Thunder – as James and John, the Zebedee brothers were called – were simply speaking up to claim their rightful places in the new regime. Jesus, as the promised King, would usher in a new era of peace and justice and need them to serve in all the key positions.
That is how the world worked: someone more powerful – someone with God on their side would come along and over-power the enemy and then put his own people in their place.
But Jesus stood for something completely different and they were confused. He told them that God had sent him to teach them to love. a new, demanding kind of love that required the sacrifice of old resentments whether justified or not, that required them to push through the rules that separated people and restricted them helping one another.
He taught his disciples that God loved them and had sent Jesus to transform their lives with a new commandment to relate in a drastically different way. He also told them – though they did not understand -that God had made a path for him that led straight through Jerusalem and to the sacrifice of his very life at the hands of their hated oppressors.
It was as hard for the disciples then to understand the world Jesus espoused, as it is for us today.
Jesus came not as a warrior, but as a transformer, a redeemer. The shift in consciousness and commitment he called for was so radical that his followers could not comprehend it until after his death and resurrection.
Jesus was asking for them to transform the world not through righteous violence and domination, but by changing the nature of their relationships through a completely unexpected and uncompromising commitment to loving God and loving others.
If we are really fortunate, we have had the experience, at least once in our life, of being in love and discovering that when you truly love someone you find yourself wanting to do whatever you can to be a better person. You want to lose weight, fix things, make everything you can better for the person you love.
You find yourself thinking of them throughout the day no matter what you’re doing.
You take risks and put yourself out and make sacrifices and do things that you would never do otherwise –just because it would please the person you love.
That – THAT kind of love is exactly what Jesus asked his disciples and all of us to engage in – with God – and with each other. Imagine if you were in love with God, truly and deeply in love with God. It would impact everything you feel and do. It would change how you see yourself. It would dramatically alter how you see and treat everyone.
And, as Nelson Mandella and others have shown us, that change would, in fact, change the world.
There are moments when we experience this kind of caring, moments born out of being thrown together in a crisis, or being placed together with others to do a task or gain a skill, experiences that create camaraderie – a team experience, a summer at camp, a retreat,.. a stint in a job, in the military, in a hospital, in a crisis. There is a bond that happens in such situations between people when they begin to depend upon one another and to take care of one another and become a community that cares about all its members no matter how much or how little they contribute.
It is a time of caring that forgives and makes sacrifices for the good of the whole, for others.
It is that kind of caring that Jesus evoked: a radically inclusive and forgiving love – brotherhood and sisterhood.
The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom of conquest, it is a kingdom of the caring that emerges naturally from God’s caring for us, from Jesus’ sacrifice of his life for us.
That kind of caring takes great faith.
Richard Neibuhr is quoted speaking of two particularly enlightening meanings of faith
as understood in Jesus’ time in Marcus Borg’s latest work, Putting Away Childish Things.
One is faithfulness in terms of fidelity to a relationship. We think of fidelity in terms of not straying, but its positive aspects include: loyalty, presence, commitment, and steadfastness. Faithfulness meant our faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to us, faithfulness to the participatory relationship.
The second meaning of faith is trust. We can trust God. As Borg points out: “the opposite of trust is not doubt or skepticism or unbelief, it is anxiety.” The opposite of trust is anxiety. People who have faith feel safe.
Jesus had faith in God or he could not have journeyed to Jerusalem to lay down his life at the hands of the corrupt and violent powers of this world. If he had had no faith, he could not have sacrificed his life and if he had not sacrificed his life, there would have been no resurrection and no redemption.
There is no redemption without the willingness to sacrifice. After witnessing Jesus sacrifice, James, the Apostle, was willing to risk his own life to take food and supplies
to the people of Judea who were suffering. Though Herod murdered James, others believers stepped up and to put their own lives in jeopardy because of their love of God and of their fellows.
When Jesus asked people to believe in Him, He didn’t mean in his concepts. To believe was not an action based around a concept, it was the establishment of a relationship rooted in love. To believe meant to believe in, to “belove” – again quoting Borg:
“to engage in a relationship rooted in love and trust.” Jesus wanted his followers to engage in a relationship with him and with God that was rooted in love and trust.
When you believe deeply in someone, it changes everything in your life. Suddenly you are safe no matter what ill may befall you because you are secure in loving and being loved – no matter what.
A little over a year ago I was suddenly and unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage III Breast Cancer. My world went spinning. But just as suddenly and unexpectedly I found myself flooded with an outpouring of love and prayers from a community of people all over this globe. I cannot tell you how humbling it is to be the recipient of the love and prayers of such a community. Many of you were a part of that effort and I thank you. I have to tell you that it brought me a sense of awesome well-being and utter peace. I knew that no matter what happened, I was truly okay.
The Kingdom of God on earth is not a castle in the clouds, it is community of people who believe in and are faithful to God and to one another with a love that is courageous and kind and committed, a love stronger than fear and oppression, the love that truly, finally, transforms and redeems the world.
Posted by: The Parish