Proper 7, Year A
25 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:8-11, 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
✠ ✠ ✠
I had this classmate in seminary who was a bit, what we might call, motivationally challenged. He had a hard time to get to class. And more than once during exams, I looked out my third-floor window and saw him sneaking in the basement door of the college with a box of beer in one hand and a stack of Blockbuster movies in the other. Then after grades were posted, it wasn’t unusual to see him going about dressed in a suit and tie, making every class on time, asking the professors all sorts of questions and participating fully in the discussions. He’d made his mind up that he was turning over a new leaf. But after a week or so, he slipped back into his old rut. Amazingly, he didn’t flunk out of school, but his sponsoring bishop (also my bishop) on the east coast dumped him. So he went to work in a shoe store in his hometown on Lake Erie. But before long, the Bishop of Saskatchewan took him under his wing and ordained him. And he became a very good parish priest, now serving on the west coast. It’s nice little story of redemption– and transcontinental migration.
To be fair, there were lots of disincentives in the Toronto School of Theology in those days, lots of things going on in the classrooms and the chapels and elsewhere that could easily discourage students of a traditional Anglican outlook from wanting to get involved. This in addition to the way those kinds of Anglicans were viewed by the rest. But as we all got into parish ministry, and diocesan and national church affairs, we encountered bigger issues and lots of bitterness on all sides. And sometimes we just wanted to retreat back into our little country parishes and stay there. But since the Lord won’t allow any of us to suffer more than we can handle without also giving us a way out (1Cor 10:13), we learned more and more, with the help of God’s grace, when to stand our ground and when to shake the dust off our feet and walk away. And if we’ve been attentive to Jesus and the teaching of his Apostles and prophets, we’ve learned that whether we engage or walk away, we should do it with a blessing on our lips and a prayer for God to bring glory out of the messes that we create.
Well, turning over a new leaf is what St Paul is talking about in today’s second lesson. Only in his distinctly Christian way of putting it, he calls it “walking in newness of life.” And that, of course, means that what he’s talking about is a whole lot bigger, and way more important, than just trying to get back on track after you’ve bombed an exam, or a job, or a relationship, or whatever.
We hear this expression of Paul’s whenever we use Rite One which, for us, is during Advent and Lent. When we’re getting ready to confess our sins the priest says,
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith… (BCP 330)
In other words, if you’re serious about honestly repenting of your sins, about loving your neighbors better, which includes not just everybody you like, but also every person you can’t stand to be around, as well as every other person on earth; and if you fully intend to obey God’s commandments and to walk the way of holiness– all of that is how you begin to lead the new life. And if that’s what you really want to do, then you need to bow down before the Lord and ask him to free you from your sins. Then, in the full confidence that he’ll help you do all those things, come to the altar to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood, which is the way he fills you with the life of his Son, and “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done” (Garrison Keillor). That’s my paraphrase of the Prayer Book’s Invitation to Confession. But now and then we need to unpack what it means to “lead a new life” a bit more.
What does it mean when St Paul urges us to “walk in newness of life”? He pretty much spells it out in the opening lines of today’s reading. “Don’t you know,” he says, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” That’s a really strange expression– that we were baptized into Christ Jesus. Lots of people tend to say, “I was baptized Catholic/ Lutheran/ Baptist/ Episcopalian,” which isn’t really true at all. You might have been baptized in one of those churches, but that didn’t make you Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist or Episcopalian. It made you a Christian, because when you went into the water, whichever way you went into it, and however old you were at the time, you were joined to Jesus in his death. You died to sin. He died on the cross for our sins, and according to him the first step in the Christian life is to join him there in his death, in some mysterious way that we can’t fully understand in this life, in order to be freed from sin and to become inheritors with him of his eternal kingdom. And when we come up out of the water, we’re reborn to the new life of the redeemed. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St Paul says, so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” We are now somehow sharing his divine, risen life, even while we finish out our mortal days. And sometime after our bodies have given up the ghost, they’ll be pulled back together and raised up in a glorified way, just like our Lord was on Easter morning, so that we can live that new life to perfection.
Meanwhile, our main concern is to live that new life as best we can in this life as witnesses to the risen Lord and to his promise of resurrection for all of us. By the grace of baptism we’ve been set up to live the rest of this life as if he were living his life in us, which indeed he is, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. When we went down into the water, St Paul teaches, “our old man” as he calls it, the old sinful person that we were before baptism, innocent little babies that we were, yet still infected by sin, were crucified with Christ, joined with him on the cross in a wonderful mystery in order to destroy that old sinfulness and to free us from it, so that from then on we could live like Jesus, love like Jesus, forgive like Jesus and most important of all, worship like Jesus, offering the whole of our life up to the Father as a living sacrifice. Our worship of God doesn’t begin and end in the hour or so that we’re here. True worship of the Father begins at the baptismal font and never ends.
Fr Austin Farrer says that when we come together at the altar like we’re doing here this morning, and offer the bread and wine and money, those are just tokens of our total offering of ourselves to God. The real offering, he says, “is you yourselves who are laid on the altar to be consecrated, and to be made the body of Christ.” And at the moment that the priest breaks the bread on the altar, “we are all sacrificed to God in Christ’s death, dying in him to our own will, and receiving Christ our true life in communion” (The Crown of the Year, Trinity vi). Then, as we walk out of here after having received Holy Communion, each of us walks with Christ in us in a renewed way.
That’s what it means to “walk in newness of life,” as St Paul puts it in today’s reading, or to “lead a new life… walking from henceforth in [God’s] holy ways,” as the Prayer Book says. It is to go through life with the full awareness that we never walk by ourselves, knowing that wherever we go and whatever we do, Christ is with us, because he is in us through the indwelling power of his Holy Spirit. We carry him wherever we go. And when we interact with other people, Christ interacts with them through us. So every encounter we have with another person is a holy conversation, and an invitation to that other person to walk with us in newness of life, in Christ Jesus. So think about that when you’re about to yell at someone for cutting you off in traffic, or to treat a telemarketer badly, or speak rudely to a fellow parishioner. That’s not how you behave when Christ dwells in you. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+