detail of Van Gogh painting of old bell tower

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

It turned out to be a big theology day.

In not-that-early Sunday school, as we were thinking about 1 Peter 1:13-25, we got all wrapped up in some of the big stories of the Bible, thanks to some concerns about blood and sacrifice (which seems coercive) vs. grace (which seems like a gift):

the story of Passover and the slaves who were “ransomed” by the blood of a lamb without spot or blemish instead of by decay-prone substances like silver and gold and how a communion table looks like a Passover meal;

and then “Who killed Jesus?? Not us …” and unpacking that … the Romans? “the Jews”? (We don’t want to say that.) PEOPLE??? Well, yes, people. Human beings. And in the same way that all the Jews say “We were all there at Mt. Sinai,” so all the Christians say “We were all there shouting ‘Crucify Him’ and before that we were all there denying him and before that we were all there deserting him and before that we were all there betraying him …” So yes, we do say, we’re responsible for this;

but then at the same time, also, this sacrificial death of Christ is the voluntary, gracious work of the Triune God;

which did come up, the Trinity, because even though we say Christ is God’s Son who died for us we do not actually believe in two or more Gods, remember;

so then that brought up that Jesus’s death is also the willing self-offering of Jesus (who lays down his life, no one takes it from him, John 10:18) … which is still the self-offering of God AND humanity, because remember our Christology, “fully human, fully divine” …;

but then we say Jesus “sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty” … so we had to remember what Calvin says about Scripture, that we are like infants, and the Word of God we have in Scripture is like the way nannies talk to infants, and so we say things like that Jesus sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and we mean it, and believe it’s true, but also not “that way” … in the same way that we mean that “Jesus is the bread of life” but not like “here’s this loaf of bread …”;

plus because of the fruit of the Spirit we got into the story of two trees, a Tree of Life and a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and sin [and what we count and don’t count as sin … ouch], and death [as the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil], and redemption, and atonement, and the Fruit of the Spirit as the fruit of the Tree of Life [which we sometimes symbolize as the cross, back to all that] and holiness and who’s an example of holiness for us? Jesus! So we know that much about holiness …

so by the time we were ready to pray ourselves out it seemed like we had all been through a hall of mirrors, one story reflecting another reflecting another, or else a couple of years of seminary, or both, and were all exhausted, but hopefully in a good way.

But that was just the beginning, because then we had a wonderful sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25, and what it means to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and what our visions of the kingdom are, and how this particular Biblical vision of the kingdom reminds us that for some people – for these impoverished returnees to Israel after the exile, but also for lots of people in the world today, even in this country – the vision of a world of food and houses is a vision of a new creation, of the kingdom come. And that this is not a vision of individual private prosperity, but of whole community well-being.

If that sermon had stopped there, it would already have been a really good sermon, but our new pastor went on and pointed out that we often wonder what we are supposed to do with this vision. What is this text calling us to do? There are things we can do, moving in the direction of that future; we can donate money to good causes, and we can volunteer our time and energies to various work in that direction, and … we can contribute to the building up and support of the church. Because that would mean making the church what it is meant to be, a community of love, wherever it is, wherever we are. And because this vision of the kingdom is a vision of a community of love. In helping to build and support a community of love, wherever we are, we are helping to live that dream, and to make it a reality.

One of the other members of the choir turned around and said “That was a great sermon!” No argument here.

And then in later Sunday school we established that this community of love thing includes not being mean and saying mean names back to that boy at school who was mean to us and called us mean names, and not telling ourselves how we are going to pound him with our fists, because when we are friends of Jesus we work at doing what Jesus taught his friends to do, which includes being kind back to the people who have been mean to us. This is really hard.

Not only when we are five years old, either.

Which is one reason we keep reviewing those big stories.

“… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23

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