Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Christian Manifesto

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016

When Christians are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and when we are sealed with oil in the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, a new journey has begun. The baptized person is a resurrected person, dead to separation from God and truly alive in Christ, a child of God and an inheritor of redemption and great joy.

So how is your baptism going? It’s not just an abstract idea, a social status or a nice thing that happened once. Christianity is not an app, but an operating system. Our baptism puts God to work in us in the real world—in our inner lives, and also in all our interactions with each other. Our job as baptized people is to receive God’s love and to reflect it. But how do we do this?

Right now we’re in the midst of a four-week Wednesday night class at St. Paul’s called Faith and Politics. In our first week, we outlined assumptions and ground rules to help us to safely explore the intersection of these two topics. Last Wednesday we looked at the interplay of faith and politics throughout the Bible. Our holy scriptures are chock full of politics, featuring politically powerful people from Joseph to Moses to Deborah to David to Solomon to Josiah to Belshazzar to Daniel to Cyrus to Esther to Herod to Pontius Pilate to Nero. Today’s psalm is a patriotic, if saber-rattling, ode to God as the true king above all nations. Our reading from the letter to the Ephesians places Christ “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.”

Some say that the church should stay out of politics. Others say the church belongs squarely in the realm of politics. I’d like to attempt to make peace about this by asserting that Jesus Christ is both political and beyond political—both earthly and transcendent—as we see in Luke’s Gospel. This series of sayings of Jesus we just heard are named from the Latin as the Beatitudes, because of the refrain, “Blessed are you.” Here we cannot avoid experiencing Jesus as a political figure. This is especially true the more we learn about Jesus’ political context, in which the Jews lived under Roman occupation, and different Jewish “political parties” held different assumptions about the best way to handle the occupation.

Jesus settled for none of the common party platforms. He didn’t want to overthrow the Romans in a bloody revolution, but neither would he make peace with oppression. He wouldn’t retreat into the desert to escape the Romans, but neither would he merely keep his head down and follow the rules. Jesus showed us that none of these approaches holds the path to abundant life. Instead, he started a new movement on the assumption that God is actually the ruler of the world right now. For the Jesus Movement, the Beatitudes are our Declaration of Interdependence—our Christian Manifesto.

Depending on how you look at them, the Beatitudes can seem either naïve or threatening. They point beyond our daily grind to the world as it should be, and they invite us to choose to live in that ideal world. They make clear that violence is not a virtue for us, but neither is victimhood. President Obama once referred to the Beatitudes as “a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.”[1]

Jesus did not place his faith in government to protect us from harm, but in God, who offers us joyful life in spite of any harm that may come. Christians count on God’s involvement in the world, not as a nice ideal but as an actual person who is a force for change. Jesus asks us to trust, way beyond our comfort zone, that God is in charge through death and beyond. Jesus was killed for his political nonconformity. But because of Jesus’ Resurrection, which we see as the blueprint of all creation, we pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the icon of the invisible God and a revealing of God’s very self.

It’s easy enough to understand Jesus as a political figure in his own time and place, but can you see Christ as a political figure in our time? Look beneath the Civil Rights Movement in America, Liberation Theology in Central America, and South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Look to Standing Rock, North Dakota this week, where hundreds of clergy gathered with the protesters and celebrated Holy Eucharist. You will find the Beatitudes at work. The Beatitudes stand against oppression, to be sure, but they also stand against any political system that we might place above Christ. Christianity is about freedom, yes, but not freedom for the sake of capitalism, or socialism, or libertarianism.

Among Jesus’ followers were upstanding citizens and prostitutes, blue-collar workers and wealthy benefactors, freedom fighters and blood traitors. Likewise, the Jesus Movement today aligns with no party affiliation, no economic school of thought, no political entity, and no school of conventional wisdom. It exists as a society within whatever other societies we may be a part of. This kind of talk might make us nervous—maybe it should. But if we truly follow Christ above all political figures, we need to have some understanding of what that means.

First of all, I think it means that regardless of how you choose to vote, and no matter what happens on Election Day, there is ample cause for hope. Why? Because our call as Christians is always clear. The political cause of Christians is to reflect God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness—to live generously because of these things, and to inspire others to do so as well. The political opponents of the Jesus Movement are those who work against love, mercy, and forgiveness. If that sounds sufficiently vague yet black-and-white at the same time, well, it is. We will keep learning all our lives how to love and how to live generously. We fail again and again. We experience forgiveness again and again, and we keep going.

Second, we must never attempt to stay in a black-and-white place by dividing the world into allies and enemies. We frequently act in both roles, depending on how well we are aligning ourselves with love. Our aim is not to vilify our political opponents or our sworn enemies: we love them and remain patient with them. And we strive to remain patient with those underdeveloped or unhealed parts of ourselves that make reconciliation difficult to offer or to accept.

When people see Christians as good, it should not be because we live perfectly or “correctly,” but because we live wholeheartedly. We make a perpetual practice of giving our money, our time, and our energy to help others. Our aim is to give even when our doubt begins to overwhelm our trust. We give because giving is a clear way of demonstrating God’s love at work in us.

When people see Christians as threatening, it should not be because we are violent, but because we will not yield the cause of love. It is in this spirit that Jesus parallels every “Blessed to you” with a “Woe to you.” Jesus holds us accountable! For the Christian, being rich and full and laughing and respected can never be the goal and may even reveal the ways we fall short. So we are never perfect, but we are always forgiven. We cannot redeem ourselves, but we can respond to God’s redemption of us with love, intent on becoming better people for the sake of everyone else in the world, but always standing ready to accept forgiveness yet again. This is the heart of Christian maturity.

We do take political stands in the world, not because we believe any government is our savior, but because we march under the banner of love and want to see it advance. Acting out of the Beatitudes and our Baptismal Covenant, we feed the hungry, house the homeless, teach the children, welcome the stranger, ensure people’s God-given dignity and rights. We do this work both with and without the help of our government. We understand that freedom is not an excuse for selfish living. Freedom is a condition of having real choices in life, something that isn’t possible when our basic needs are not being met. And because we want to ensure such freedom not just for ourselves, but also for those to whom freedom is routinely denied, Christians work for social justice.

The term “social justice” has taken a beating in recent years in some political circles, but I refuse to let it go. The passion for justice fueled the law, the prophets, and Jesus himself. In 1986, the United States Catholic Bishops defined social justice in this way: All people must have [at least] the minimum conditions necessary to participate in society. I think this is a good, basic definition that gives clear direction to Christians’ participation in politics. Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer gives us a prayer specifically for social justice:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[2]

Social justice means reflecting God’s love to all others in society. Now, our chosen political alignments are complicated, and I don’t care who you are—none of us benefits from seeing the full picture. So we will arrive at different conclusions about the best ways for our society to move toward social justice. But Christians trust that God will love us through it all. We pray, and then we act based on what we understand. We pursue social justice every time we stand in solidarity with—and honor the dignity of—the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the excluded, and the reviled.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. The saints are all the members of the Jesus Movement who have gone before us, and through our baptism, we began to join their vast number. So how is your baptism going? Are you moving in the direction of Christian maturity? Are you relying on others to help you? What role does your vote play in revealing and reflecting God’s love to the world?
O Canada! We're only a few minutes' drive from you
in Bellingham, but don't expect us for dinner
Wednesday night. We have plenty to do here.
(Source: Pixabay)
Remember that God and God alone is the instigator of your redemption, the giver of revelation, and that God started this process in all of us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is the ruler; no earthly rulers are worthy of our devotion. This is important just before the election. None of us needs to run away to Canada next week! Why? Because there is no place or time where Jesus is not Lord. And in response to Christ’s redeeming love, we ourselves have loving work to do. Rejoice!

[2] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 823.

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