Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 2, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.
As Christians, and those considering Christianity as a path of holiness, we have the near-impossible task of explaining to the world what cannot be explained.
Jesus, a good man by the ancient accounts of those who adored him, so transformed those peoples’ lives that they thought he was a child of God. And not like we—all humans, all mammals, all basalt rocks—are children of God, but the Son of God in the sense of being substantially made of divinity. Then instead of solving all of the world’s problems he died a most painful and ignominious death.
That should have been the end of the story. Jesus’s death should have turned the true believers into total skeptics. Instead, they became even more convicted.
Reports began to circulate that Jesus had been resurrected, that God had given a new kind of life to Jesus’s dead body, thus confirming that he was, and remains, the Christ, the anointed one of God.
Surely that was pure fantasy. Surely those were the ravings of the bereaved.
But then other people met the Christ.
Other people, like Paul, who had despised the followers of Jesus, met this presence on a road. And others met it in rooms, at the beachside, all over the place. The movement that decried barriers, and broke them, seemed to also collapse the greatest barrier of all—death.
And so the movement continued.
In its first centuries the Jesus movement continued to suffer persecution, often functioning underground in its efforts to realize earth as a heaven through free meals and burial societies and baptismal preparations that have been compared to training for the Olympics.
The movement became the church when it was adopted by a massive state and so spread even further. That spread only continued as other nations picked up this church and took it with them in their own travels, their own conquering.
And so here we are today. Here we are so far, far away from ancient Israel still studying this man, still experiencing wonder at his mystery.
But still left with a near-impossible task: How can we profess resurrection? How do we justify God letting God’s own self perish so bloodily?
We can look to our forebears, like Paul, for examples:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death [to sin]? We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we [trust] that we will also live with him. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Well that doesn’t really help. That’s no elevator speech.
In fact, it is the kind of speech that drove many of us from this faith in the first place. So without getting too far into the weeds, let me unpack Paul and his sin-talk a bit.
Paul has long been used to define sin as what we call gay sex and nonmarital heterosexual sex.
That is an incorrect use of his letters.
Considered in his own context, what Paul condemns is the sexual violence of slaveowners. The perversion he decries is the lack of consent between a male slave owner and male slave, not the nature of the sex act itself.1
And the reason Paul didn’t want people having sex of any kind—and only made a begrudging concession to married straight couples—was not because of some inherent sinfulness in sex, but because of his conviction that followers should be vigilantly preparing for the advent of Christ. Paul’s own celibacy and urgency are grounded in his belief that Jesus would be back at any moment, so there is no time to waste on kissing or hanky panky.2
Don’t be so busy gettin’ busy that you are not prepared to meet God!
So Paul’s theology of sin and resurrection are related to his belief that time was soon to come to a close, that the cataclysm of the prophets of his own Jewish faith would soon come to pass, and in that cataclysm some would be beloved and some, based on their injustice and distractedness, would not.
This does not make our work any easier.
Not only does Paul fail to provide a concise thesis about our tradition, what he does provide is easy to use to cruel, even lethal ends.
So, “What then are we to say?”
When asked, when challenged, when in a position to explain or defend this faith what are we to say?
Let’s start with nothing.
The thing about religion, is that we can practice it without actually having faith. The institution of religion can function as a kind of hobby, a comforting tradition, without making any claim on our lives, on our souls.
We can say the words of our religion without ever acknowledging the words Jeremiah says that God has tattooed on each of our hearts. So understanding our faith, and any ability to discuss it with others, starts with our hearts. Our individual hearts and their private conversations with God.
In the second chapter of this letter, Paul responds to a question the Roman ecclesia has about circumcision. Should the non-Jewish, or Gentile, men be circumcised like the Jewish ones? Paul says no. Then he quotes God during the exodus and the prophets of Israel: “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (2.7)
Though God instructed the men of Israel to physically mark their bodies in faith, God wants all of the people, all of the covenant community, to go further than skin deep, and to mark their hearts. A close Christian equivalent would be baptism, another one-time event. Baptize your skin, yes, but your heart, too.
God does not seek a surface covenant, shallow consent, but one that is deep, one that connects the core of us to the heart of God.
Yes, we have many questions about how this story “works” and how it works out. Questions of our own about how to be and how to live. Questions even about sin.
A letter from an expert on which we could rest and be assured would certainly be nice, but it would not be enough. For though we do not anticipate a second coming in the vein of Paul, we do know the outline of apocalypse already: climate change, nationalism, the 149th mass shooting since January, and no discernable response except retrenchment of personal rights.
Our truly impossible task is not explaining our faith but actually living it so that we and our fellow children of God, our planet, might continue to live at all.
Our ability to explain Easter and Christ are pointless compared to our willingness to reveal ourselves to God and so be in ourselves a revelation of God.
So pare away, beloved.
Pare away from your heart distraction, pare away lassitude, pare away fear, pare away ego, pare away doctrine.
As Jesus once did and the Christ still, somehow, invites us to do, pare away whatever surrounds your heart such that the healing, just, generative, nature of God is obvious to all the world in the healing, just, generative nature of you.
1Hanks, Thomas. “Romans.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache. London, UK: SCM Press, 2006.
2Ramasaran, Rollin A. “Resisting Imperial Domination and Influence: Paul’s Apocalyptic Rhetoric in 1 Corinthians.” In Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, edited by Richard A. Horsely. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2004.