28 February 2010
Matthew 16: 13-28
Second Sunday in Lent/ 28th February 2010
Last week we wandered with Jesus in the wilderness of Judea as he was confronted by the Tempter. The temptations, indeed the entire experience in the wilderness can be seen in a positive light because it proved to be a time of considerable growth and insight. There Jesus discovered who he was, discerned the calling and purpose of his life, and left the wilderness for the Galilee all the stronger for it. He was born to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to announce God’s revolution of love, justice, and generous grace. He came out of the wilderness on fire with God’s power preaching and teaching and healing.
Because Jesus was faithful to himself and his God, faithful to his calling, he was courageous and had the guts to confess this power in the face of the enormous power and brutality of Caesar’s armies. This is what inevitably led to his death at the hands of the Romans. It’s the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus because it could not tolerate the threat Jesus posed by preaching and embodying with his life the Empire of God.
This is how we left things last week, viewing Jesus’ cross as the consequence of being faithful to his purpose, his work, his calling, his identity. Being faithful to your God-given identity and work comes with a price. The focus of this series is Jesus’ cross, but it’s really more about our own journey of the cross. What does it means for us today to bear the cross? We know something of what it meant for Jesus. But what about us, we who seek to follow him? What does it means for us to have a cross-shaped, cruciform life? (1) For following Jesus inevitably leads to a cross of some kind. It’s right here in the text.
In Matthew 16, we find this classic exchange between Peter and Jesus and these memorable verses 24-26” “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life.”
What does this really mean? First, let’s focus on what it doesn’t mean. The cross isn’t simply a synonym for any difficult task or demanding situation that we might find ourselves in. For example, listen to how Billy Joel uses this expression in one of his songs. Here are the lyrics: “We all have our cross to bear./ We all walk in darkness sometimes./ Though I know it don’t seem fair, /We all have our cross to bear.” (2) It’s become a turn of phrase, an expression basically meaning we have all our difficulties, so grin and bear yours. We all have our challenges. Here’s another example. There is a cartoon of a manager sitting behind his desk talking with a disgruntled employee. The employee is standing in front of the desk with his hands actually nailed to a large cross on his back. To which the manager replies, “Oh come on, we all have our crosses to bear.”
To refer to the cross in this way belittles its meaning and cheapens Jesus’ journey to it. It also depoliticizes Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman Empire. His cross is not our cross. But there is something of his cross that shapes the way we live when we’re walking with him.
But it’s complicated. In this text there are at least two narratives going on. Matthew wrote his gospel to provide a theological rendering of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. From our vantage, we tend to view the gospels as a kind of history (although they’re not). We forget that Matthew is also writing as a pastor for his congregation, for his community of believers trying to follow Jesus in an increasingly hostile environment. Embedded in this gospel, in almost every chapter, is the Jewish-Gentile tension prevalent throughout the first century. Do Gentiles have to become Jews before they can worship Jesus and be welcomed into the synagogue? Can Gentiles be welcomed as Gentiles? And how does one worship Jesus as Lord within a larger society that says only Caesar is Lord? How does one serve God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire, as citizens or slaves of another Empire? So that when we read Matthew 16 and hear Jesus talk about taking up a cross, it’s confusing. Is he calling for treason against the state, because only the state crucified people? And how could verses 24-26 have made any sense to the disciples at that time, prior to the crucifixion? What do you mean we have to be crucified? Peter’s resistance to the idea makes perfect sense; Jesus’ harsh critique seems inappropriate. These verses make more sense on the tongue of a preacher writing to his congregation decades after the resurrection. Matthew the preacher is basically saying that Jesus showed us something in and with his life: that to follow him inevitably means suffering and loss for a higher purpose. Therefore, don’t be surprised when people tell you otherwise and try to divert you from your calling. Just say to them, “Get behind me Satan.”
That’s what Peter and the other disciples learned in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus intentionally takes the disciples away from familiar territory, out of their comfort zones, to the edge of the Jewish-Gentile region, to this wild, very un-Jewish place. Caesarea Philippi was settled by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) in the 3rd century BC, in 20 BC it was annexed to Herod the Great (74-4 BC), later given to Herod’s son, Philip (d. 34 AD), who renamed it in 14 AD in honor of Caesar Augustus (63 BC- 14 AD). It was a Gentile community, full of temples to many gods, including a colossal temple, an Augusteum, not far away, to the divinity of Caesar. During the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD), after Jesus’ life but before the writing of this gospel, Caesarea Philippi was used as the staging area for the Roman troops that attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70 AD. There’s an enormous cave or grotto at the center of Caesarea Philippi that is the birthplace of the god Pan. It’s called the Gate of Hades (not hell, there’s a difference), the entrance into the underworld of the Greek pantheon of deities.
That’s where Jesus takes his people to test them, to see inquire after what the people are saying about him, and to challenge them to say, honestly, with their hearts, to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” That’s the setting where Jesus wants his people to make their confession. Not in houses of worship — it doesn’t cost us anything to say “Jesus is Lord” here in a sanctuary — not in safe places, but in inhospitable places. It’s here that Peter makes his famous confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” You are Peter, you really are a rock, and upon what you said, I will build my church, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against.”
But then Peter quickly realizes what Jesus means by being a Messiah, what it means to be the Son of God – it means suffering and loss because people do not welcome the kingdom’s message. He tells his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem, to undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the their day be raised. That’s when Peter interrupts Jesus and says, “Excuse me, may I have a word with you,” whisks Jesus off to the side and says, “Jesus, I have a question for you. What are you on, DRUGS? What are you talking about? This can’t happen to you. This is not supposed to happen to you. Never. For God’s sake, Jesus, you’re the Messiah!” He turned to Peter, looked him dead in the eye, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And that’s when we hear these words about the cross. It’s easy to understand Peter’s astonishment.
But why is Jesus so harsh toward Peter? It seems cruel. To be called “Satan” by the Son of God, one doesn’t easily get over hearing that! These are words that cut. Yet, we have to remember what is at stake here: God’s Kingdom. This is serious business. It’s a matter of life and death, for Jesus and for all those who follow him. Jesus was sent to proclaim God’s Kingdom, which will mean the undoing of every other kingdom that claims to serve God and God’s people. As God’s Son, this is his calling, his purpose, his reason for being. The meaning of his life was not found in his life, per se, but his life placed in service to something, someone larger than himself. And that’s why Peter becomes Satan, literally, “Adversary.” Because Peter’s vision for Jesus’ life would take him away from the vision he knew he had to fulfill. Peter’s understanding of the Messiah, was at odds with his life-purpose. Peter’s hopes and dreams for Jesus are no more than Peter’s projections of his own hopes and dreams for himself. (3) They’re self-centered. They’re not supporting Jesus in his vision, but trying to preempt Jesus’ vision with his own self-serving ends.
Here again, as we saw last week, Jesus is tempted to be something other than himself. Jesus it tempted to fulfill a different calling. Jesus probably struggled with this on a daily basis. When we think about “temptation” (if we think or talk about it), we often view it as being tempted to do something that we either know we shouldn’t do or want to do. We say we’re tempted by chocolate or ice cream, tempted by other cravings or habits that we know are destructive. They’re often temptations of doing. “The devil made me do it.” But there are also temptations of being, which are far more serious, when we are pulled away from being something or someone we’re not. There’s plenty in this world trying to pull us away from our calling, the God-given purpose of our lives. There’s plenty within the human heart and outside it that runs hell-bent away from the glorious vision God has for us and for the world. The Spirit in love draws us into a larger life; the ego, in fear, pulls back, toward diminishment, recoils. Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke to this tendency when he defined sin as “the heart turned in upon itself (incurvatus se).” There’s plenty within us and without us that resists the difficult path, that resists the struggle, that resists the fight, that resists the hard work of God. (4) There’s plenty within us that does not want to give up control, that seeks after happiness and comfort and security, as if these were kingdom values (and they’re not!), and never tries everything of significance on behalf of God’s kingdom. To listen to the voice and will of God means not listening to the voice of our weak, fearful, narrow-minded ego. It probably means not being lured away by the call of the ego, or the tribe, or community, or the church, or even one’s family, one’s parents, or even one’s spouse. All these voices can pull us away from our calling. To be faithful to our calling means a change of mind, a change of perspective.
Peter’s understanding needs to be crucified, his assumptions about God and the ways of God need to be put to a cross, in other words, they need to die, they need to be given up, for something new, something far more profound and meaningful, something larger than the narrow perspective of the self. “Bearing one’s cross,” is more than just a figure of speech. It means a change of perspective is required, a paradigm shift. It means giving up one way of being in order to yield to something new. Peter has to relinquish his perspective, his assumptions, his life, in order to receive a new perspective, in order to receive a new life.
Peter is not willing to do that (not yet, anyway). Jesus is tempted by Peter to throw it all away, to go the easy route, to give up on the vision, to set his sights on what is reasonable and practical, go after something that has some guarantee of success, not failure. Peter has other plans. But those plans are not Jesus’ plans, not God’s plans. What do we discover here? If our cross is the consequence, the price we pay for being faithful to our God-given purpose, our work, our calling, our identity as individuals and identity as the church of Jesus Christ, then don’t be surprised if we’re faced with the temptation to run from our identity and our task, to take the easy route, to take the less-painful, less risky, less faithful course.
Is this your temptation? Our temptation? Is this the kind of temptation you struggle with? If you answer, Yes, then you’re in good company. If you answer, No. Then, why not?
This leads to a series of question we probably don’t want to answer. I’m not sure I really want to ask them. Since it’s my job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, let me end with these sobering Lenten questions. And, of course, I implicate myself in these questions. They’re direct at me as much as anyone:
• Are we more susceptible to temptation when we are being faithful to our calling?
• When we’re paying some kind of price for being faithful to our calling?
• When there is a cost?
• When there is cross-bearing occurring around us or within?
• Maybe we’re not tempted because following isn’t costing us anything.
• Has being a Christian really cost us anything?
• When has being a follower of Christ really cost us much of anything?
• Does it cost us anything at all in our age?
• Has there been a cost for you? Perhaps for some.
• For this congregation? Perhaps.
• For the church in North America and Europe? We’re too occupied with survival, with saving membership and our institutions that we don’t want to lose anything, yet in doing so lose touch with what really matters. In trying to save our lives we love, but in losing them we find them.
But some do know cost and some churches do know the cost. For those of us who know the cost, whether individually or together as a church, my guess is we’ve also received a glimpse—if only a glimpse—of the grace and beauty of God’s Kingdom. Maybe we’re willing to make the cost, when we know something of its value.
Image: The Gates of Hades, Caesarea Philippi, Israel.
1. “Cruciform” and “cruciformity” are terms used by Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).
2. Billy Joel, “Cross to Bear,” My Lives, released 2005.
3. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Murder in the Cathedral.
4. Quotation from bulletin: “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” e. e. cummings (1894-1962), "A Poet’s Advice to Students."
21 February 2010
Matthew 4: 1-11
The First Sunday in Lent/ 21st February 2010
This begins a sermon series leading us up to Palm Sunday. I’ve entitled it, Journey of the Cross, not Journey to the Cross. There’s a difference. We will focus upon Jesus’ march toward Jerusalem; we will be attentive to his life. But I want us to be attentive to our lives. During Lent we can remember Jesus’ journey, we can reflect upon what it really means for Jesus to die on a cross. I don’t want to take the focus away from Jesus, of course, but yet I want to take the focus away, to explore what it really means for us. Although Jesus might have asked his followers to take up their cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23 & Matthew 16: 24), only Jesus was really able to go to the cross, to do what he did through his death. No human being could ever have accomplished what he did. Then what does it really mean for ordinary, sin-bound-yet-redeemed children of God like us to take up a cross and follow Jesus?
This series will be grounded in scripture, but it will have a lot of my own theology and thoughts thrown in (and I welcome your response, your questions, disagreements, or assent). My theology is very incarnational, that is I not only believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection were redemptive for us, but that the entire scope of his life was salvific, from birth to death to beyond death. His entire life becomes the pattern for human life. Discerning how he lived, with an intimate relationship with his Father, we discover that Jesus demonstrated for us what it really means to be authentically human. In his journey to the cross we learn something of our journey of the cross. His journey becomes a pattern for our lives. This leads us to the question, then, what does it mean for us to live a cross-shaped life? Or, to use a term Mike Gorman, professor of New Testament at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute here in Baltimore has coined – cruciform. (1) What does it mean to live a cruciformed life? For Jesus, but not just for Jesus, for us. As the truly human one, our potential humanity is contained in his humanity. He has the power to not only show what it means to live, but equips us through his Spirit with the power to live it.
We could begin at the manger in Bethlehem, but I want to start where Jesus’ becomes conscious of himself, for knowledge is always rooted in consciousness, and that place is the wilderness of Judea. It is there we first meet Jesus the adult being baptized by John in the River Jordan. Jesus comes up out of the water and hears a voice that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As we saw several weeks ago looking at this text and as we discussed with the confirmation class here around the baptismal font on Friday evening, baptism it is less about incorporation into the church (it becomes that later) than it is first about identification, one’s identity in God. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
And then, almost immediately, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights, to the point of exhaustion. He was famished. Weak. Two things, at least, we need to note here. First, it is the Spirit of God who leads Jesus into the wilderness, not the Tempter. Second, the words of the Tempter, or the devil, are actually part of God’s larger purpose or plan for Jesus; kind of the most outward of outward bound experiences. The devil or the tempter has often been seen as personified evil that attempts to thwart God’s will. As a person or force that is at odds with God, battling with and against God. Leaving us with the question, will God win or Satan? But the Bible is never in any doubt, especially after the resurrection, that God is in control. Even Satan is at the mercy of God. We have to be careful we don’t project images of the devil that emerged much later, in the Middle Ages or from Dante Alighieri’s (c. 1265-1321) Inferno back upon this word in scripture. The Satan (literally, Ha-Satan in Hebrew) for example, in the story of Job, literally means “adversary,” and is actually part of the heavenly throne (see Job 1:6). In other words, Satan is actually on God’s payroll.
Yes, Jesus is confronted by the Tempter. We know about the temptations. But the temptations serve a purpose. Indeed, the entire setting for Jesus’ struggle and exchange with the Tempter serve a purpose. It’s in the wilderness, the desert, the wild places where the call of Yahweh is often heard. It’s the place where one is confronted with the question of identity.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is intentionally portrayed as the New Moses who will lead God’s people through the wilderness to a new promised land, to offer an-old-yet-new teaching. Where did Moses learn the name of God? On Mt. Horeb in the wilderness of Sinai. Where did Moses, the murderer, running from his life in the middle of no place, running from the law, stuck tending his father-in-law’s sheep, discover the true work and purpose of his life? In the wilderness. Actually, Exodus 3: 1-3, tells us Moses went even beyond the wilderness to the mountain of God. Once Moses and the Israelites made it out of Egypt, how did they get to the Promised Land? Through the wilderness. And how long did they wander? Forty years. In fact, God intentionally sends Israel on the long way home (see Exodus 13: 17ff). There was a direct road along the coast, built by the Egyptians. But God said go through the wilderness. For it was through the long journey through the wilderness that Israel learned to trust, absolutely, upon God to provide for their every need. (2) And, at the same time, the experience in the wilderness forged them into being a people. It forced them to a new consciousness of themselves that they would never have had apart from the wilderness. In fact, the parallel is so clear that every occasion the Israelites failed in their wilderness journey – hunger, putting God to the test; false worship – Jesus is faithful. Temptations deal with hunger, one’s ability to trust in God, wrestling with false worship. In each place, Jesus is faithful against the tempter’s power. (3) Jesus survives the struggle. Jesus is faithful. But we can go deeper.
The temptations serve a purpose. But so does the location: wilderness, the desert. There is a strong connection between the presence and voice of Yahweh and fierce landscapes, whether it’s Sinai or the Judean wilderness (which is a desert), or the wilderness of the human heart, or the wilderness of Golgotha. Yahweh seems to dwell and be revealed in these dangerous, potentially life-threatening, limiting kinds of places. “The desert will lead you to your heart where I will speak,” says Yahweh (Hosea 2:14).” It’s a place of desolation. It’s beyond the norm, beyond civilization, the opposite of home. Writing from the around the fifth century, Saint Jerome (c. 347-420), who knew a thing or two about deserts and wilderness said, “Nudo amat eremos.” The desert loves to strip bare. Actually, the desert is indifferent to human concerns. It simply doesn’t care about you or me. It’s in different. It takes you out of the center of your world. It means you’re not the focus of everything, because the wilderness really doesn’t care about you. In his book, Desert Solitaire, the American naturalist Edward Abbey (1927-1989) writes about his many years living in the deserts of the American Southwest. “The desert says nothing,” he writes. “Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.” (4) Contemplation.
When we are knocked off center, when we are brought to the edge of existence, when we are forced to contemplate our lives and the world from a completely new perspective, when we are taken out of our comfort zones, when we are taken out of the noise of our lives and forced to silence all the chatter that fills our ears and our hearts, then – and probably only then – can we begin to hear another voice, a deeper, stiller voice who calls out in love.(5) It’s then in the gracious threat of silence we are confronted with ourselves – and not ourselves alone (although that might be a deep fear, that we really are all alone). But deeper than that fear we are confronted with ourselves and ourselves in the presence of the Wholly Other, who waits in the silence and speaks from the silence. It’s from hearing that voice and living into what it means, that we come to see who we really are.
The Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness for him to ask the question, Who am I?, to come through the wilderness with an answer. What does the Tempter say first? “If you are the Son of God…” If you are…. It’s here in the wilderness that Jesus’ identity is to put to the test. Will he be faithful to who is and what God is calling him to be, or will he take the easy route? The wilderness is the place where we discern the call, the vocatus, our vocation, discover a voice and what we have to say. It’s where we discover who we are and therefore what we are called to do.
In his commentary on Matthew, Tom Long, is really insightful to see that the three temptations Jesus faced were not temptations of doing (that is, doing one thing versus another), but temptations of being – that is in each temptation he is tempted to be someone other than the person God has called him to be. These are temptations that try to pull him away from the voice, to deny the voice, the voice that told him, “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” Each temptation is trying to get him to deny who he is, to settle for someone less than who he is, to settle for less than the purpose of his life. (6) It’s a temptation to do gospel-lite.
Indeed, the Tempter is trying to beguile Jesus into making the nature of his life and his work too small, limiting the scope and impact of what he can do. In this way, the temptations Jesus faced are not any different than the ones all of us face on a daily basis. There are so many forces that prevent us from hearing the voice of our calling, that block the Spirit’s whisper, so many times the tempter wants us to deny or forget who we are, to deny we are all, right now, children of God. So many times we are tempted to set our sights too low, to settle for gospel-lite, so many times when we personally or collectively as a church risk losing sight of the breadth and height and depth of our calling, when we’re tempted to be “realistic,” or “practical,” or that most American of traits, “pragmatic.” (A nineteenth-century philosophy, pragmatism, that had its origins here in the United States, as the nation woke up for the nightmare of the Civil War and came to grips with the devastation and loss.)
Identity leads to action. Remember who you are, then even the gates of hell cannot prevail against you (Matthew 16:18). That’s what Jesus discovered in the wilderness. It’s probably why, for us, we find the wilderness so threatening and why we try to tame it with “civilization,” because we just might come out from it completely changed.
There Jesus discovered who he was and sought to be faithful to his calling. Jesus left the desert, went back to Galilee, and got to work, confessing, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. It’s Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom that stands at the heart of his message and ministry, a vision of God’s gracious intent for the well-being and healing of God’s people, a radical, disruptive vision of grace and love, of acceptance, forgiveness, and welcome; a radical, disruptive vision of the limitless generosity of God who loves to be generous; a radical, disruptive vision of God that places at the center of the kingdom a child, a child who, in Jesus’ time, was worth no more than a slave, with no status or power, completely vulnerable, who places at the center of the Kingdom all those without status or power or privilege or wealth and gives them a seat of honor at the joyful feast of the people of God. A radical and disruptive vision because it comes with judgment, God’s judgment and assault upon everyone and everything in this universe that attempts to thwart the Kingdom, that harms and destroys “the least of these,” everything in our lives that causes us to forget who are and what we are to do with our lives. This and so much more Jesus came out of the wilderness preaching. And because he was faithful to himself and his God, faithful to his calling, he was courageous and bold and had the guts to confess God’s power in the face of the enormous power and brutality of the armies of Caesar. This is what inevitably led to his death at the hands of the Romans. It’s the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus because it could not tolerate the threat Jesus posed by preaching and embodying with his life the gracious Empire of God.
This might be a new or different way of viewing Jesus’ death. It goes like this: the cross was the consequence of being faithful to his purpose; the cross was the consequence of Jesus being faithful to his work; the cross was the consequence of Jesus being faithful to his calling; the cross the consequence of Jesus being faithful to his identity. Being faithful to your God-given identity and work comes with a price. To follow him today means something of the same today. Our cross is the consequence of being faithful to our God-given purpose, our work, our calling; our cross is the consequence of being faithful to our God-given identity, both as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what it means to have a cross-shaped, cruciform life, we who bear the name of Christ.
Image: Piedra Lumbre, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico. Photo by K. Kovacs.
1. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
2.Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 43.
3. Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 35-39.
4. Cited in Lane, 23.
5. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: With the drawing of this Love/ and the voice of this/ Calling/ We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot (1888-1975), “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.
6. Long, 35-39.
14 February 2010
Matthew 14: 13-21
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14th February 2010
There’s a deep logic in this text, a deep pattern. It’s a fundamental, even foundational insight into the laws of God’s economy. Sure, we’ve heard this story countless times. It’s one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. All four gospels include an account of this event. That’s how central it was to the early church. We can try to wrap our minds around how something like this could take place: thousands fed with five loaves of bread, two fish. There was so much food left over of broken pieces of bread it filled twelve baskets full. We can try to figure this out, but we would probably end up with a really nasty headache. There’s actually more than mathematics going on here; it’s more than a miracle story.
Pay attention to the verbs describing Jesus’ actions. After he ordered them to sit down (in order to allow them to be served, because Jesus has become a gracious host), Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed, and broke, and then gave them to the crowds. He focused upon God and then he blessed, broke, and gave. And then all were fed. Blessed-broke-gave. That’s the deep logic, the deep pattern, the archetypal undergirding of God’s kingdom. Blessed-broke-gave. This is the fundamental, even foundational law of God’s economy. I’m being very intentional here in the use of the word economy, as it’s rooted in the Greek word oikonomia, meaning, not high finance, but literally, “household.” It’s a word found throughout the New Testament. In God’s oikonomia, in God’s household, in the ordering of God’s people under the dome of God’s kingdom this is the way the world works, this is the way Christians live, this is the way church organizes itself: blessing-breaking-giving.
This is how it works. We bless, that is we give thanks to God for all that we have received, all the blessings, something so simple as fish and a piece of bread. We bless or thank God for what we have received. And because what we have received does not belong to us, it’s not ours, and because we have a responsibility for our neighbor, we take what God has given us and we break it – we fracture it, we break it up into two or three pieces or more, and then we then give it away. We share it. We pass it on. Then someone else, your neighbor or a stranger, finds himself/herself on the receiving end of a gift, that which you have shared. Thus giving that person occasion to bless God for what was received. And then after the blessing, they, he or she gets to break it, and give it away. And so the cycle continues. This is how God’s household, God’s economy is arranged. It all centers around thanksgiving. It all centers around eucharisteo, the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” or what Presbyterians call Communion or the Lord’s Supper. That’s what going on here at the Table of the Lord – it’s a sign, a witness of God’s Kingdom economy. We bless-break-share.
And when we live this way we soon discover there’s enough to go around for everyone. Thousands are fed. Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourner’s community in DC, an evangelical Christian who, because he is an evangelical, is passionately concerned about social justice, is really a modern-day prophet. He’s calling the church and the nation to give an account for the way it lives its life. In his newest book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street, he makes this very simple point. This is what life is like and can be like in God’s kingdom. “God’s economy, [God’s household] has two basic points: 1. There is enough; 2. If we share it.” (1)
Unless we share what we have, then there’s never enough for any one, which is precisely the point of this story in Matthew. Jesus wants his people to live from a sense of abundance, not from a sense of scarcity. Believing there’s enough and then sharing what we have, we find there’s more than enough to go around. It allows everyone to be fed. This is why the church has a rich history of being extremely generous – and why the church of Jesus Christ, I believe, should be one of the most generous institutions on the face of the earth. Because we know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of God’s blessings, of God’s love profoundly given in Jesus Christ. I/we are extremely grateful for the generosity expressed by this congregation to support Haiti relief, of the support for our programs and ministry, of the extraordinary way we finished up 2009, of the way we’re confident facing 2010. The more we’re aware of how much we have received, the more we risk breaking it and then giving it away, the more blessing abounds in and through the church.
And yet, overall, did you know that giving in and to the church nationwide is on the decline? I was surprised to learn this in Wallis’ book, even as the overall wealth of Americans has escalated over the decades, particularly since World War II. In fact, the highest percentage of giving to the church and its mission, with numbers adjusted for inflation, was back in 1933 – in the midst of the Great Depression. And we haven’t seen those numbers since.
This story in Matthew, which is really more of a parable, is designed to remind us, to teach us, to inspire, and equip us, to remember how God’s world is ordered – or should be. Jesus wants his people to live from abundance, not scarcity. There’s enough if we share it.
M. Douglas Meeks put it so well in his extraordinary text, God the Economist. “If the righteousness of God is present, there is always enough to go around.” (2) I lift up this quote because righteousness is at the heart of Matthew’s gospel; the meaning of this word stands behind the message of this text, it grounds the meaning of the parable. Meeks puts it clearly. The “economy of God…is the distribution of God’s righteousness.” Biblically understood, righteousness is not a moral term, nor is it a human characteristic. Righteousness refers to God, “the righteous one,” the One who does “steadfast love, justice, righteousness in the earth.” It’s an expression of God’s being, what God does. It can be translated as “God’s power for life.”(3)
If God’s righteousness – God’s power for life – is present in our lives, in the church, in the world, then this power will bring people alive, it will seek to secure one’s livelihood, one’s ability to live, it means the hungry are fed and the homeless given shelter, it means reconciliation and peace are known because that’s when human life can flourish, not in times of alienation or war. When this power for life is manifest within our hearts, within our families, within our communities and churches, we’ll know it because people will be given an opportunity to live, to thrive, to flourish. “There’s always enough to go around” because God’s intent is that everyone be fed.
This is the truth we affirm every time we gather around the Lord’s Table. Come eat. Be fed. Be filled. This meal is more than just a memorial meal, remembering what took place long ago. It is the shining presence of God’s promise to be with us and provide for us, which is why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted the Lord’s Supper included in every Sunday worship service. It informs, shapes our ministry and mission. For example, I love the fact that we’ll go from here into fellowship hall for the Souper Bowl of Caring Luncheon, where we will break bread together around tables in Fellowship Hall, beautifully linking the meal in the Fellowship Hall with the meal we will share around the Lord’s table.
And Communion is appropriate on this Sunday as we ordain and install officers. I have a question for all the new officers to consider, as you make your way to the table. Indeed, let us all consider this question as we approach the feast. What gift, what resource, what blessing which you have received, do you need to break, to share, and then give away that someone might have a glimpse of God’s kingdom, thus giving someone occasion to give thanks to God?
Image: “Feeding of 5000,” Painting by Justino Magalona.
1. Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), 120.
2. M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.
3. Meeks, 94. “The oikos [house] of God is a gracious gift of God’s righteousness, God’s power for life. God’s gracious goodness gives enough, more than enough, for everyone in the household to live abundantly. The question of economics, will everyone in the household get what it takes to live? is referenced not to scarcity but to the righteousness of God which makes possible the sharing of the household’s store. In any case the work of God the Holy Spirit is to subvert any oikonomia based on scarcity. The reason for this is that scarcity as a starting point will always produce an oikos in which some are excluded from the means of life.”