Year B, Proper 24 October 21, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.”
A quick side note… Today we start a five-week session with the letter to the Hebrews. I’m not really preaching on it, but particularly in todays’ lection, it is so obscure and hard to relate to as to be distracting, and that is not helpful. The letter was to a Jewish community, building a case for the relevance of Jesus in a Jewish context. Today’s reading is about the priesthood of Jesus, about Him being a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the king of Salem, and a priest to El Elyon, one of the Canaanite Gods. He appears briefly in Genesis when he brings wine and bread to Abraham and El Elyon. Melchizedek is important because he established precedence for Christ’s priesthood, that’s the author of Hebrews’ point. First, Melchizedek was a king and a priest. That was a meme of Jesus Christ and that precedence was helpful in working with folks with strong Jewish identities. Unfortunately some of the supercessionists, those are folks who see the Old Testament as necessarily leading to the New Testament and only the New Testament story of the world, believed that Jesus actually was Melchizedek, that He, His spirit embodied in Melchizedek was who originally blessed Abraham. That is not so edifying or helpful. The other precedence is that Melchizedek was a priest even though he did not descend from Aaron, which according to the Law of Moses is from whence all priests descend. Jesus didn’t either, yet with the precedence of that Canaanite priest-king, He didn’t need to be for His priesthood to be sanctioned by God. It tells us that Jesus’ priesthood was valid, it was legitimate, even though it outside of the Levitical lineage. I doubt that any of you were hesitating in your acceptance of Jesus because you didn’t think His pedigree was priestly enough, but it was an historical issue, and without a bit of background, five weeks of letters would be tedious. OK? I doubt you will hear more about it this year.
Well enough with those little details. Actually we’ve had our close-up readers on for the past few weeks: the life of St. Francis, the moral state of our nation, practices of giving to this parish… applications of our religion here and now. Super important! Too many of us keep just to the broad brushstroke generalities of our story and miss the daily practice of our faith. We do live our lives as we live our days. But those specific applications, those baby steps to the Commonwealth of God will get us nowhere if they remain only single trees in the vast forest of our faith. Our readings today (at least from the Prophet Isaiah and St. Mark) are a call to pause, to pull us back from the day-to-day struggles with empire and anomie and whatever else it is that ails you in your life. It is the grand story, the totality of our faith in narrative and tradition, in our own prayer, study and contemplation, held together in the warp and weave of loving mystery… that is what will save us when the all too common unthinkable happens, when we receive the phone call in the middle of the night, when the lights go out or just when the grinding malaise of being gets to be just too much. We need to be reminded of the big picture to put the petty horrors of the day in perspective. That makes them no less horrible, but it reminds us that we can do this. Forever, people have been dealing with exactly the same problems, if not worse. That the sky is falling but that it has always been falling. That there is purpose to it all, though it can be hard to remember sometimes, hard to see with our feet of clay stuck in the mud of the day-to-day. So let’s get some perspective and pull back to the 35,000 ft. view survey the landscape of our Christian faith.
N.T. Wright is a noted English bishop and New Testament scholar. He is not everyone’s favorite as he is theologically quite orthodox, quite conservative. He is, though, very smart, and very faithful, and willing to enter conversations with all sorts of folks. He wrote a book with Marcus Borg in which they went back and forth on various Christological doctrines. On most points Borg and Wright were on polar opposite ends of the theological spectrum, and yet (and notably in our polarized times) through those differences they not only openly and honestly debated their faithful understandings of Jesus Christ, but they maintained a friendship that lasted until Borg’s death. It is like Tip O’Neil and Ronald Regan’s friendship and collegiality across vast ideological gulfs. That is something to respect.
Bishop Wright concludes one his books on St. Paul by emphasizing the importance of perspective, of finding our place in the metanarrative of our faith. The hermeneutic he applies, the lens he views the world through is highly conditioned by Biblical authority. (How that authority manifests is one of the points of disagreement he has with Borg). The idea he puts forth is that our existence is a “five-act play, still unfinished.” I think that this perspective can be helpful in locating ourselves in existence and reminding us of our place in the story.
The first act was “God’s good and unspoiled creation.” It was pristine. Ordered. The only will present was God’s will. And it was good, very good. But as James Weldon Johnson imagines in his epic poem of the creation, God’s Trombones:
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sat down —
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Besides the maleness of it, it is a fantastic poem. In any case, there was light and eventually there were humans. And it was good. End of Act One.
The creation of humans set us for Act Two: The Fall. Now the story didn’t stop at the fall. Life is not suffering. All is not lost. Sinners are not left in the hands of an angry God. However, there is suffering, great suffering in this world; much has been lost; and I don’t know about the angry God part, but unrepentant sinners abound, people distant from God and not looking to change that, and they are mucking up the whole system and have been for a long time. We humans have free will, at once our greatest strength and our most profound weakness. We can choose to do wrong, or maybe better said, we see that doing good is a choice. It’s mostly about self-interest: we have great trouble putting the needs of other ahead of our own. (“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all…” the existentially tough lesson of our Gospel today). How that all happened, how it went from perfect to fallen? The only thing I am certain of is that it had nothing to do with an apple and it wasn’t Eve’s fault (well, not just hers. It takes two to bring down a species). The second act, the Fall, accounts for the fact that it ain’t all hunky-dory, it isn’t as God intended, and that tightened the dramatic tension, because now, we need saving.
The third act is about God’s first saving covenant, it is about Israel, God’s choosing of Israel as God’s own people. The stories of the Hebrew bible, from Abram to the prophet Nehemiah are the meat of it. We share this act with our Jewish brothers and sisters, but then our paths diverge. Jewish folks understand that original covenant to still be primary. And it is, for them. As much as our story of a new covenant is for us. That is the great thing about faith, it is based on, ummm faith, not certainty. So we having faith in our story doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t have any effect or imply any superiority to anyone else’s faith in their story. Apples and bicycles – nonsensical comparisons. And it is a critical part of our story, our Jewish ancestral narrative, even though we believe that the story doesn’t end there.
The fourth act, according to the good bishop, is the life and times of Jesus Christ. In this act the players are “…walking around Palestine in the shadow of Jesus of Nazareth as he tells his subversive stories, heals cripples, feasts with outcasts, and plans a last dangerous trip to Jerusalem.” The lines and stage direction are found in the Gospels. “The church,” Wright says, “is constituted precisely as the people for whom the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus are the fourth and decisive act of the play in which we are called to act.” We lived through the fourth act through our spiritual ancestors. Our scripture today, Isaiah’s fourth servant song and Jesus’ conversation with James and John, the Sons of Thunder, about earthly glory v. holy servanthood are part of the segue from the 4th to 5th act. It is part of us, but that act ended.
This brings us to Act Five. We are in it right now. It began at Easter, and its early scenes include the empty tomb, appearances in the upper room and on the road to Emmaus, Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of God and of course Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles details the struggles of the early community to tell the Jesus story and to live lives on the Jesus way. In those early scenes, the ones occurring after the biblical record was closed, the basic setting of our life together was laid out: the scriptural canon, the creedal statements of faith, the thought and spirit of the early church fathers and mothers, revelation of the sacraments and establishment of many of the vocabulary, practices and traditions that make us, us.
And that Fifth Act continues. We are a post-Easter people. The early church called it the Parousia, literally in Greek “being present;” it is the time of our waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of Christ. We’re not to just wait around for the end, biding our time, minding our P’s and Q’s, but rather we are to walk and live on the Jesus way. We are called to live in the light of His atoning sacrifice. Atonement is an uncomfortable notion for many, but think of our Gospel today, He gave “his life a ransom for many.” Now, in Act Five, we need to live as if that were true as Christians and as Christians together as members of the Body of Christ. This act continues until the fullness of time…
Wright sees this Fifth Act as being defined by two major characteristics. First it has a beginning and an end, already written. The foundation of the act is “firm and fixed.” That kind of talk is even more uncomfortable for some than Atonement theology. But it is not so bad, actually, read poetically. Think the river of the water of life in Revelation, the birth pangs as we await our adoption in Romans, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” from 1st Corinthians. A quite beautiful, reassuring and compelling end is imagined.
The second characteristic of Act Five is that with the Holy Spirit, we are “to improvise a way through the unscripted periods between the opening scenes and the closing one.” Improvisation is a wonderful metaphor for the work of the Church and her constituent Christians. Improvisation, be it musical, theatrical or theological is not randomly working off script, just making things up as you go. There is internal coherence, patterns, cycles, and intimate relationships, there is deep communication and cooperation in improvisation. Self-knowledge is critical as well. Jazz is an improvisational form of music. John Coltrane didn’t write out “Giant Steps.” Another Jazz great, Charles Mingus, once said of his music, “I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” The dynamic of improvisation is an apt way to describe the vocation of a Christian living between Easter and the End.
So that’s us, our story and our place in it. It’s our “You are here” arrow in the soup of time-space. We know where we started, way back in the beginning when it was good, very good. We know where we’ve been, the Fall, with Israel, in the life and ministry, the wisdom and Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and in the lives of the Christian faithful over these past 2000 years. And we are right here, right now, living in the sacrament of the present moment, a Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, concerned with the suffering of the world, doing all we can to relieve it, and with our souls never forgetting hope in the love of Jesus Christ. It is good to remember where we are in the big picture. AMEN.