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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=110


 

Proper 4 Year C (January 31, 2016)                               St James', Peace River

One of the great dividing lines between different kinds of Christianity has to do with whether we experience our faith one by one, or together. It may be no surprise to notice that in our particular culture, the “individualistic” version of Christianity tends to predominate: the focus is on what it means for a specific person to have faith, to believe in God, to follow Jesus, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We highlight individual commitment which demonstrates faith – reading your Bible, praying, being generous with your time and money, putting yourself out there to serve others and to stand up for what is right.

But there is a whole other version of Christianity, let's call it the “corporate” version, which focuses on who we are together when we're following Jesus. It is less focused on your particular fate in relationship to God, and more attentive to the transformation of the world into God's kingdom. In this way of thinking, faith is the medium in which we live, like water for fish and air for birds. And the highlights come when we are forged together into something more than we could ever be separately – the body of Christ, at work in the world, created and nourished and celebrated in the moment of communion, when we meet our God not in isolation, but alongside each other.

As with most divisions of this kind within Christianity, the problem isn't so much about figuring out which one has got it right. Both versions have some truth in them, both have some issues. And more importantly, both have deep roots in the foundation stories of God's people as we read them in both the Old and New Testaments. There are several examples of that in the readings we heard this morning, as well as in the readings many of us have followed through the week.

The past week's readings in our E100 Bible Challenge were all taken from the story of Joseph, towards the end of the book of Genesis. It might seem surprising that the people who selected 100 “Essential Bible Readings” would include five of them all from the same story, especially when that story is about someone who, though significant, isn't one of the highest-profile characters in the history of Israel. But you kind of need five readings in order to get a sense of the story of Joseph. It is one of the longest distinct narratives within the Old Testament – the first time we encounter anything like a biography, a complete life story, structured into something almost like a novella. And right away you see how this relates to the individual-versus-corporate question – because Joseph's story is very personal, and yet it emerges out of the story of his family and flows right back into the bigger story of the people of Israel.

And at the exact intersection between the individual and the community, is Joseph's relationship with God. He gets into trouble because he is a visionary, a dreamer, claiming a direct connection with God and looking forward to being part of God's unfolding purpose. What sustains him during his trials is the conviction that God will not forget him, and he will not forget God. So he serves Potiphar faithfully, he speaks hope and truth to his fellow prisoners after he lands in jail, he rises to a position under Pharaoh where he can rescue an entire nation from famine, and finally he is able to help his own family, the brothers who abandoned him for dead, and in fact to bring them to Egypt – which is such a core part of the story of the Old Testament. That is Joseph's faith in action, but it is also the faith of Israel, a faith which Joseph got from his family even if they were for a time in conflict with it; and a faith which his story kept in front of his descendants for generations afterward.

In our readings today, we encounter the same sort of intersection in the story of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is known to us as the prophet of doom – he was the one who had to speak the word of the Lord to God's people and to their king, at exactly the wrong moment, when no one was listening and the entire covenant between God and his people, temple, city, promised land and all, was about to come crashing down. It was a lonely call. And at moments like the one we read this morning, we can see Jeremiah practically inventing what we now understand prayer to be about. He comes to God with deep emotions and extreme honesty, not knowing where else to turn. Today he tells God, “I don't think I can do this”.... later on as things get worse he goes back to God and says, “You tricked me into this and I want out!” These are some of the most powerful personal encounters with God that the Bible puts in front of us, because they are so real – not spiritual superheroism, not holier-than-thou moments, but painful, honest struggling.

But just at the moment that we start to identify with Jeremiah as an individual, we discover how he is completely enmeshed in the world around him. (Just like us!) He is caught up in the fall of Jerusalem. He suffers the consequences along with all his people. Just as the end is about to come, he buys a field in his home town of Anathoth, knowing that he will never farm it, but acting out of hope that God will bring his people back to their land after exile. Jeremiah dies, ironically, in Egypt, a symbol both of God's judgment and of God's promise to his people, to bring them home again.

Finally, we have another illustration today in St Paul's famous hymn about love in I Corinthians. If you were listening carefully last week, you'll remember that the chapter immediately before this one is one of Paul's “body metaphors” - he describes how the church is the body of Christ, in which every member depends on every other member, in order for the whole body to live and to flourish. That's one image of love: the perfect community, with constant give and take and complete mutuality. But when Paul starts to speak about love explicitly, he draws on individual experience that would have been as familiar two thousand years ago as it is know. Love is the greatest gift, he says, and if you want to know what it really is, just think about how you have experienced it: when someone has been patient or kind with you; when someone has forborn to be irritable or resentful with you even though you couldn't have blamed them if they were; when someone has borne all things, hoped all things endured all things, for your sake.

You can go through that reading and replace the word “love” with the word “God”, and you realize that Paul is telling the story of the Bible all over again. This is how it played out. “God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on his own way; is not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends.” And then you can go through it again, and replace the word “love” with your own name, and listen with embarrassment as you think of how you don't live it out, but also hope and even inspiration as you realize God is making it possible for you to live this way. “I am patient and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I do not insist on his own way; am not irritable or resentful; do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. In me, love never ends.”

I think that's who we want to be. But when you hear it that way, you realize something. You realize that the division between individual and corporate doesn't work. The way that you live your faith is by love, and that involves other people. In the gospel today we see what it looks like when people think they can be faithful and have a relationship with God, but aren't ready or willing to see the ones around them who they are being called to love. They want to set upon Jesus and throw him off a cliff, for pointing that out to them. On the other hand, though, we can see how faithfulness is rooted in a kind of love that doesn't depend on the acceptance of others – Jesus was rooted in that kind of love, and it's what enabled him to let their hatred pass right over him, not to react in kind, so that in that mysterious phrase, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

The love Jesus was rooted in, is the love we have been talking about this whole time. Like Joseph and Jeremiah, Jesus starts with the love of God which has always been there, which has been there before him and will be there after his earthly life, and most of all, is there for him when he needs to know that God is there for him. And then of course, Jesus himself is that love of God for us, there before us and there after us, and right there when we need to know that he is right there. We learn that, and we feel it at the depths of who we are, as we become part of his story and of the story of God's people – identifying with Jesus sacramentally, in baptism one by one and in the eucharist all together, but also identifying with him as we live out our lives in love, costly, dangerous, but rooting us in the life of God who loves us enough to give everything in order to be always with us.

That is who we are. And if that seems hard to accept or to recognize, that's as it should be – because it is also who we are becoming. We become God's people, not carried along by others' faith but by being activated in our own faith as we accept God's love for ourselves. But we become God's people, not solo superheroes of faith, but part of a community, part of a story, part of a reality much bigger than ourselves, that new kind of life in which our relationships with the people around us both share and reflect that fundamental relationship we have with God, the love which created us and called us and still moves and shapes us.