Delivered at Claremont UCC on May 10, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought us by faith into this experience of God’s grace, in which we now live. And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God’s glory! We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance brings God’s approval, and God’s approval creates hope. This hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us.
For when we were still helpless, Christ died for the wicked at the time that God chose. It is a difficult thing for someone to die for a righteous person. It may even be that someone might dare to die for a good person. But God has shown us how much God loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! By his blood we are now put right with God; how much more, then, will we be saved by him from God’s anger! We were God’s enemies, but God made us friends through the death of his Son. Now that we are God’s friends, how much more will we be saved by Christ’s life! But that is not all; we rejoice because of what God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has now made us God’s friends.
Welcome to the Redemption of Paul: Part Two.
Last week I named my struggle with this particular faith ancestor. Paul’s letters offer challenges to those of us seeking to address contemporary issues of justice like sexism and slavery. But, Paul also speaks to real church problems. He reminds us that the question of how to do church is not a 21st century question. It was a first century question, and eleventh century question. So we must simply do as the generations before us: have faith in the gospels.
Today’s section becomes tricky again, at least for some of us. Paul is professing a theology that it is good have pain because of the gospels because in pain we get stamina, God likes stamina, and God liking things makes us hopeful.
Did you get that? Pain = stamina = God’s happiness = our hope. So our hope is in pain.
Paul goes on to describe why Jesus was killed. Paul professes a belief that Jesus was killed as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. Sin had made humans enemies of God. Now, he says, thanks to Jesus’ bloody death, humans are no longer at risk of God’s anger, but embraced as God’s friends.
Again, the formula is human sin + Jesus’s blood = God’s friendship.
Here’s why these theologies don’t work for me, personally: I cannot embrace a notion of holiness wanting our pain. I understand holiness as a creative force, that which invited newness out of the depth at the beginning of time.
Domestic violence, sexual assault, hunger, depression, and warfare don’t fit into that image. Yes, they happen, they happen all too often. But the existence of an event or experience does not, for me, mean it is pre-ordained or desired by God. I don’t explain bad things as part of a plan, even the bad thing of Good Friday.
But I get where Paul was coming from. Let’s look at what Paul was up against: Paul fell in love with God through Jesus Christ. He felt directly charged by God to go out and tell that story of Jesus.
This was a story of a nobody from nowhere, a man from a different religion and culture than Paul and most of Paul’s audience. He took care of strangers, rebelled against Rome, got himself killed, then reappeared to many.
Maybe that wasn’t such a hard sell for Paul in his time. The Jews were not the only community living under Roman rule and there were many popular uprisings against them. So maybe there were lots of people eager to hear that element of the tale.
And the resurrection and ascension were not so unusual either.
Remember, there was a contemporary story to Jesus’ about a famous teacher named Apollonius. Apollonius was an actual Roman leader who tried to reform Roman worship practices. He resurrected a child in an upper room, cast out demons, and lived very simply. Eventually Roman authorities arrested Apollonius. During his trial, Apollonius “began to ascend as in a cloud.” Apollonius then taught from the heavens.
The major distinction between Apollonius and Jesus, then, was the execution. Apollonius ascended without dying. Jesus suffered horribly and died before being known again. Whereas Apollonius sounds like a cut and dry miracle man, Jesus sounds almost like a failure, despite Easter morning. It is one thing for someone to ascend alive, another to be resurrected from the dead.
Paul had to make sense of it all. How could Jesus have been the anointed one and yet get killed? Doesn’t divinity prevent execution? Paul had to answer those questions in a way that would compel people to change their lives as he had.
SIGNS AND EVIDENCE
The other day I was driving and saw a car with two stickers: one was from the Not of This World Christian apparel line. The other had a sight, as in the sight for a rifle, with some phrase about “this is how I solve problems.”
For me, any piety the driver was demonstrating with the NOTW sticker was undermined by her or his reference to using guns against people. For people to trust a message enough to give their lives to it, that message must be consistent in its lived expression.
So I don’t think Paul’s success as an evangelist was purely in this theology. Paul couldn’t have just relied on fancy wordplay, because people always see through flim-flam men in the end. I think Paul must have truly practiced what he preached. Paul must have truly embodied his understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and Easter mystery.
We are in the same boat. We must come up with our theology of the resurrection and then we must live it out.
I can think of several of challenges to that effort:
- The resurrection now sounds like science fiction;
- Christian church history is full of corruption that has alienated masses;
- the world is interconnected enough now that we have ourselves heard holy truth in other religions; and
- in particular Claremont UCC: our campus.
Our local understanding of the resurrection results in an insistence on radical hospitality, presence for the least of these, including the sick and the poor. We want anyone who walks down our sidewalk to feel drawn in, welcome, and held in love. And we want to be sure that once inside, everyone sees themselves reflected in our leadership, our church materials, our worship, our friendships.
We don’t want to pray for beloved community, we work to be it.
But we have the appearance, based on our facilities and location in the village, of great affluence. The assets of our art and musical instruments and simple scale can give the impression that we are really Claremont United Country Club, not Claremont United Church of Christ. For some, our grandiosity contradicts Christ’s poverty and the very structure of our campus professes exclusion, not welcome.
LIVING YOUR EASTER
The good news I can share today is that we are very good at overcoming that challenge.
Since sharing that I will be leaving Claremont UCC, I have received a lot of testimonials to your embodiment of life-saving care. There are a lot of people in this room who had given up on church, if not God, only to stumble upon our web site or our banners or a friend who mentioned what Claremont UCC stands for and then, on coming here, found out that what they heard and saw was true.
We not only profess a theology that Jesus didn’t reject anyone and neither do we, we are living it. Open wounds have closed and healed because of this place. Suicide has been prevented.
The scale of our church does not signify snobbery but the beauty and vastness of God’s love and grace, which we are proving day after day in how we care for each other.
I may not agree with Paul’s conception of God as wanting pain and needing a blood sacrifice but I do honor the way he must have lived his theology.
Each of us are called to do the same: If we think there is something to this Christian story, we must be prepared to name that, to name its life-saving qualities as passionately as Paul. And then we must enact that understanding here and everywhere.
It is not just our own personal healing and redemption on the line, but that of the people next to us, and those who have not yet come through our doors.