Monday, November 27, 2006

Not from this world

SJF • Proper 29b (Christ the King) • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus answered Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
This week we come to the last Sunday after Pentecost, before we launch into Advent next Sunday. But today’s Gospel, instead of anticipating the season that is about to begin, provides us with a reminder from last spring. Rather than peering forward to the purple of Advent, the Gospel reading looks backwards across the whole long green season after Pentecost, back past the seven white weeks of Eastertide, to the purple of Lent. Here we are six weeks from Christmas and it might as well be Good Friday, as far as the Gospel is concerned.

For there is Jesus, standing before Pilate, answering his cross-examination with the full knowledge that his disciples are powerless to defend him, that his own people will cry out for his death, and that the colonial agent of the Roman emperor will soon hand him over to the executioner.

Pilate has heard strange accusations raised against this itinerant preacher. But what he sees before him hardly matches the things he’s heard. So Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And the answer Pilate gets, on Good Friday or on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, is always the same: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Not from this world ? The old translation reads “not of this world.” And I’m glad the current translators made this change, because if you didn’t know any better, when you heard “not of this world” you might think Jesus was saying he was from another planet, that the Gospel was like the strange stories you see in the National Inquirer: “Space aliens from other worlds are here and working for the government in New Mexico.” File that one with the stories about Elvis still being alive!

For surely Jesus doesn’t mean anything like that when he says his kingdom is not from this world. He isn’t saying he is from another world, any more than that his rising from the dead is simply a matter of someone still being alive whom everyone thought was dead, like Elvis. The Gospel is not the stuff of tabloids; it is not something to be glanced over as you stand at the checkout in the supermarket; the eternal Gospel is the message of salvation.

So what does Jesus mean when he says that his kingdom is not from this world? What he means is that his authority, his right to rule, doesn’t come from the world, but from God. Jesus’ kingship is not from the world but toand over the world — and his kingship comes from God.

Look at the language in the reading from Daniel: the one “like a human being,” — and here I think the translators of the have done us a huge disservice by no longer using the evocative phrase, “Son of Man” — this “human being” comes to the Ancient One and he receives “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Jesus, whom the church identified with the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, derives his authority from God. He isn’t the King of kings because the kings or the people of the world elected him, or because the people of the world obey him, or because the people of the world follow him. His kingship isn’t from the people of this or any other world, from their obedience or their approval or their support.

Because that’s the kind of kingship that can be taken away: when the people don’t want to follow such earthly kings, history shows us they quickly get rid of them. One needs only look to the recent reversal of power in our own Congress to see how easily those in positions of worldly power, depending on worldly support, can slip from their thrones — or in this case, committee chairs — in a day.

And even real kings — who in their day thought that their power came as a matter of divine right — are also uneasy in their seats when the economic or political system they govern gets beyond their control. And that can do more than simply force an abdication! When the French got tired of Louis XVI, they chopped off his head. When the Soviets triumphed over the Czar, they wiped out his whole family, gunned down in a moment of horror in a crowded little room. What goes round comes round, though, for how long ago was it that the statues of Lenin were pulled from their pedestals, and smashed to bits? And dare I add to this list the similarly toppled image of Saddam Hussein, a man who likened himself to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, reduced to hiding in a spider hole and now condemned to death — more like the unhappy Belshazzar than Nebuchadnezzar. The world, you see, is fickle! It weighs kings in the balance and finds them wanting. Those who are kings or dictators from this world can lose their kingdoms in a single night, and the handwriting on the wall is spelled out against them in letters high and broad, and it doesn’t take a Daniel to understand their meaning.

But Jesus’ kingship is different. It doesn’t rest on the power of the people, on popularity or approval ratings. Jesus’ kingship is eternal. For Jesus’ kingship comes from God. It is not a kingdom from this world, but a kingdom from heaven. Jesus is the king of salvation, who is to rule the world, whether the people follow him or not.

On this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the fact that Christ is king whether we, or his disciples, or the Jewish authorities, or Pilate, or the Romans or anybody else anywhere wants him to be king or not. His kingship is not from the world, it is not from us, or from anyone else in this world — on the contrary, his kingship is over the world and over us and over everybody and everywhere else — not just on this world, but all the worlds and suns and stars of space. His kingship was over the Jewish authorities who saw him as a blasphemer, and over the Romans who saw him as an insurrectionist. And he is over us whether we obey his lordly rule or not.

That is the reason Good Friday rings in our ears: because nowhere is the kingship of Christ more clearly seen than on the cross. For here, though stripped of every quality that might adorn a human king, the kingship of Jesus is undiminished. It doesn’t matter that his followers have abandoned him; it doesn’t matter that his own people have betrayed him and stand there cursing him; it doesn’t matter that the Roman power-brokers have him nailed as a common criminal, and have added insult to injury by posting a mocking notice that this miserable specimen is the best king the Jews can come up with.

The irony is that Pilate’s mocking joke was on Pilate as much as on the temple authorities: Jesus was and is the King — not only of the Jews but of Pilate too — the King reigning from the cross, a throne more precious than the golden thrones of tyrants, and infinitely more lasting than a rule based upon the tastes and desires of an electorate.

Now, you might be thinking, Wait a minute. Isn’t what happened to Jesus like what happened to Louis XVI, or to the Czar. You might even go so far as to observe that Jesus was tried and sentenced to death, and so was Saddam Hussein. And it is certainly true that all of these worldly leaders were stripped of the worldly trappings of majesty, and were killed or are awaiting death.

But, my friends, there is a difference — a difference that matters in a deeper way than we could conceive, if we didn’t already know it. The kingship of those worldly rulers really was from this world— and their death is the end of their story. When their worldly power — power derived from worldly sources — and their life, is taken away, they have nothing left.

But Jesus’ story didn’t end with his trial, or with his death on the cross. Yes, he was stripped of any semblance of worldly power, stripped to his bare humanity. We say it every week in the Creed, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” But we don’t stop there, my friends — if we did we might as well close up shop and head home right now — we don’t stop there, and that is what makes all the difference. For after the memory of Good Friday comes the promised dawn of Easter. “On the third day he rose again.”

Such a simple phrase, but it makes all the difference, doesn’t it? Those seven words can’t be said of any other king, no matter how great. And the creed doesn’t stop even there — as the TV ad says, “But there’s more!” “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

His kingdom will have no end. Yes, there’s the crucial difference: the cross isn’t the end of the story. Unlike the guillotine or the gunfire that ended the kingdom of King Louis and the empire of the Romanoffs, unlike the noose that may one day end the life of Saddam Hussein, the cross is not the end, for the kingdom of Christ shall have no end, for Jesus Christ is the End, just as he is the Beginning — the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come. Jesus Christ, begotten of his Father before all worlds, rose as firstborn from the dead, and he will come again; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and nailed him to the tree, “shall the true Messiah see.”

And what about us? What are we to do in the meantime, before his coming in great glory to judge and rule the world? Well, we have a kind of kingship too. It says so in the passage from Revelation we heard this morning: we have been made kings and priests to serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And we know now what it means to be made a king and servant after the image of Christ. It doesn’t mean a lovely golden crown upon your brow. It doesn’t mean a comfortable seat on a throne. It doesn’t mean standing on a pedestal. It means taking up the cross, the sign of Christ’s kingship, a kingship not from this world, but a kingship that lasts for ever in spite of all this world has done to reject it.

We, you and I, have been made kings and priests — and servants — in the likeness of Christ crucified. And we have been given our orders — serve the Lord! — take up your cross! It is the sign of the great Servant King, who will come to judge and rule the world.

Advent is about to begin. The King of kings is coming, and when he does, may he find us his servants busy bearing our crosses day by day, and spreading the good news of the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ, for he shall reign for ever and ever.+

Monday, November 20, 2006

Reading Lesson

SJF • Proper 28b • Tobias Haller BSG
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
A few weeks ago a priest friend of mine sent me a short note. He is writing a book about the Bible, and how it is used in the church. His note got me thinking, and the collect for today continued my thinking. Because one of the questions he asked me was, “Why don’t Episcopalians know the Bible better?” I agreed with him that this was true of many Episcopalians, and offered a few suggestions as to why this might be the case. I told him how shocked I was to discover in seminary that some of my classmates had never read some of the lesser prophets, to say nothing of the Wisdom literature. But then I also told my priest friend that my congregation did not in general fit that sorry rule.

For while it is sadly true that many Episcopalians never open a Bible from year-to-year, I know that many of you in this congregation read your Bibles regularly. I know this because when I visit members of this congregation at home or in the hospital, I will very often find a Bible sitting by the bedside — or even in someone’s hand! And from the look of the worn covers and page edges, I can tell you don’t just grab the Bible as an emergency lifesaver when you’re feeling low, but you read and study it on a regular basis!

I also know that this congregation has a close relationship with the Bible based on things I’ve observed in our Sunday worship. Our worship shows me that this congregation has a firm grasp on the five steps laid out in our collect for today: to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture.

I can see how carefully you listen to the proclamation of the written text — and I can see how you will follow along with the text printed in the bulletin, combining hearing and reading in one step.

I also note how you mark the text — and mark doesn’t mean to get out a highlighter or pencil and adorn the printed page. To mark in the sense our collect means it is to pay attention, to heed what is said or written rather than to ignore it. And it is also in worship that I can see this happening, right before my very eyes. I’ve noticed how you respond to my sermon whenever I refer to the scriptural text. You may not even be aware of it, but every time I see you do it, it makes me proud. For whenever I refer to the scripture reading for the day I see many of you immediately look to the bulletin to find the text to which I am referring. And you do this, I know, not to check that I’m not making things up, but rather to mark the text: to make a mental note of it by seeing the words to which I refer.

If you’ve ever watched artists drawing a portrait or painting a scene, you will see them look back and forth between their subject and their work. They are marking the scene or the subject in order to set out a true likeness or a recognizable landscape. And it is the same with the Scripture. When you hear someone say, “The Scripture says such-and-such,” it is wise to look to the text and see that it really does say what is claimed. One of my favorite seminary professors would challenge students when they made claims about the Bible, by saying, gently, “Show it to me in the text.” Often they would discover that it wasn’t in the text at all! So this is how we mark the texts of Scripture — paying attention to them, as if our Lord were saying, “Mark my words!”

Which brings us to learning. In the first sentence of our gospel today there is a wonderful phrase, a parenthetical comment which says, “Let the reader understand.” (By the way, did you notice how you looked at the text?) Understanding is important — learning what the text means, what it meant to whoever spoke or wrote it, and what it means to us who hear, read, and mark it so as to learn it. Learning, as we all know, doesn’t just mean memorization — although it is wonderful to have a good memory so as to be able to have portions of Scripture at one’s disposal in one’s mind. This is a skill that comes with constant exposure to Scripture by reading it on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons I can refer to Scriptures that are not in the readings for the day with the confidence that you, who have been exposed to Scripture through your own study and reading, will know what I’m referring to.

The Scripture writers themselves did this all the time: for they were writing for people who knew the Scriptures well. Our gospel passage today refers to the book of Daniel, for example, both the abomination that makes desolate, and the idea of understanding the words of the book. The passage we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews alludes to the prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous one will live by faith.” (This was a very popular quotation, by the way; Saint Paul quotes it twice, once in his Letter to the Romans, and once to the Galatians.) My point is that the Scripture is full of these kind of cross-references, quotations and allusions, woven together like cloth with woof and warp — but if you only know the shreds and patches of isolated passages, you won’t have learned to grasp the whole fabric of Scripture.

So it is sad, but true, what my friend observed: many contemporary Episcopalians simply haven’t learned the Bible all that well, because they haven’t marked it, or read it, or even heard all that much of it. The three short portions that they hear on Sunday may be their only experience of the Bible: and believe me, that little hearing and reading will not be enough to learn the Holy Scripture! It would be like thinking you understand dressmaking on the basis of having looked at some fabric swatches.

For as our collect says, there is more than hearing, reading and marking to be done, even more than learning: we are called upon inwardly to digest the Word of God. What a stunning image; for when you digest something it becomes part of you, incorporated into you, a part of your body and your being. That is the level of intimacy that God wants with us — to have the Word of God within us, in our heart and mind and body — so that we may love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

This is a kind of skillfulness to which God calls and invites us. And acquiring a skill takes a lot of hard work, effort and repetition. Just hearing three bits of Scripture once a week willcertainly not do it. I can guarantee you that even reading the whole Bible through once will not give you the kind of skill God wants you to have. Even reading it twice or three times will not do it. Rather it is the daily exposure to the Word of God through study and reading and reflection that incorporates it into your heart and soul like the food you eat becomes part of your body. So I commend to you regular daily Bible reading, especially through the church’s Daily Office, which is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer starting on page 936 — a program of daily prayer and Scripture. The Daily Office will lead you through all the most important parts of the Bible over a two-year period — and not only you, but the thousands of people throughout the church who will be reading the same passages each day — as if we we’re all part of a huge church without walls — which, if you think of it, we are! That may seem like a big effort, but as with any skill, no matter how hard it may seem at first, it becomes much, much easier with practice — I’ve been doing it for about thirty years myself, so I can testify — that it comes to the point where it may not seem to take much effort at all — it is just part of my day. And when the Scripture becomes part of you, by being a part of your day, you may not even notice it: God’s Word will just be there, resting in your mind and ready to be recalled, a quiet source of inner life of which you may be no more conscious than you are conscious of the beating of your heart.

A 19th century religious sage of Eastern Europe once observed a tightrope walker at a town fair and said, “He makes it look so easy; yet what a degree of skill it takes to walk that rope. If only people would apply themselves to walking in God’s path with such devotion!”

This is the skillfulness to which God invites us through the Word — the Word of God spoken so that we might hear it, written so that we might read it, preached and proclaimed so that we might mark it, studied so that we might learn it, and finally taken inwardly into ourselves to nourish us and help us grow into the stature of Christ, the living Word of God, to whom we ascribe, as is must justly due, all might and majesty, henceforth and forevermore.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Every Three Seconds

SJF • Proper 27b • Tobias Haller BSG
The widow said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
In the midst of a terrible famine, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow, with the promise that she would feed him. When he arrived, she greeted him with the words I’ve just quoted — a testimony to her dire condition, resigned to cook one last meal before she and her son starved to death. Of course, this story had a happy ending, because God kept his promise to Elijah, and the widow found that she never lacked for flour or oil.

It’s a wonderful story; wonderful because exceptional. As Jesus himself would later point out, many widows suffered during that famine, but it was only to this one that Elijah was sent. And the sad truth is, there are many widows still: many widows and many men and women, and many, many more children who will either lay themselves down tonight in hunger — to find, in sleep, a temporary escape from the gnawing pain in their stomachs’ pit — or who will, as the widow expected, die.

It is a sobering thought, so sobering I scarcely dare to think it. So let’s try to snap out of it. I’d like you to snap your fingers with me — every three seconds. Snap two three, snap two three... and as we keep snapping our fingers, I want to bear in mind that every hour 1200 children under the age of five die somewhere in the world, die from preventable causes like hunger or disease. Snap two three, snap two three... Every time we snap our fingers a child somewhere dies who didn’t have to die. Someone’s son or daughter dies whose life could have been saved by some food or some medicine. Snap two three, snap two three...

I told you it was a sobering thought, and we didn’t snap out of it, but deeper into it. It is a waltz of death — this finger-snapping in three-quarters time — and the dance of death goes on and on. And Elijah doesn’t come.

But someone else can come instead. I said these deaths were preventable — deaths due to lack of food or medicine — if only “someone” will act. And I will be even bolder still: there are lots of other problems facing this world that are preventable if only “someone” will act. But aren’t we someone? What could we do if we only set our hearts and minds and hands to action?

At the beginning of this new millennium, the United Nations established a series of audacious goals for the world: The Millennium Development Goals. They were eight in number:

1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
2) Achieve universal primary education;
3) Promote gender equality and empower women;
4) Reduce child mortality;
5) Improve maternal health;
6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
7) Ensure environmental stability; and
8) Develop a global partnership for development.
Eight steps to a new world; and as a further audacious step, the United Nations said, we will accomplish all of this by the year 2015.

Now you might well feel like that widow of Zarephath, confronted by Elijah asking for supper, when you know all you’ve got is a handful of flour and a few drops of oil. How in the world can we accomplish this by 2015?

Well, the United Nations has an answer. It will take about $178 billion each year. That is a lot of money. But if it is spread out, and everyone does their fair share, it can be done. And what is that fair share? If all of the developed countries would just dedicate seven-tenths of one percent of their gross income to this cause it would be enough to accomplish the goals. Seven-tenths of one percent — that’s less than three quarters out of $100; if you make $25,000 a year you could set aside seven-tenths of one percent just by putting a quarter in a jar when you left your house in the morning and another quarter when you got home at night every day. No one is asking anyone to be like that other widow whose two pennies amounted to everything she had! We are literally talking about nickels and dimes: and the amazing thing is that if every Episcopalian did this, set aside just seven-tenths of a percent of his or her income, Episcopalians alone could nationally raise $354 million a year!

We have to ask ourselves what value we place on human life — not just our own lives, but the lives of so many others. What after all is the value of a human life?

You may have seen the old thriller The Third Man with Orson Welles. He plays the ultimately selfish man: an affable man with the sour name of Harry Lime, who makes his living by selling watered-down penicillin in post-war Europe, watered-down medicine that kills those whom the real thing might save. In a climactic scene, Harry’s friend Holly Martin finally tracks him down, and confronts him in the bus-sized gondola of a huge Ferris wheel, high above the city of Vienna, looking down on the people below who look like just so many dots. Martin asks Lime, “Have you ever seen any of your victims?” As the gondola rocks in the autumn breeze, Harry Lime responds, “You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax...”

What a chilling and cynical view of human life! To tally up each death not as a loss to the world but in terms of personal gain. And yet, if we simply hold back all that we have when we could afford to help save a life — if we stand idle when it is in our power to help another even at some cost to ourselves — do we not engage in the same kind of self-serving bookkeeping? If we hold on to our handful of meal and few drops of oil — we may have our last meal; but what then?

Just last week we talked about us spending some money on ourselves — spending about $40 apiece to refurnish our parish hall. And we still want to do that — if for no other reason than that we use that parish hall as a part of our ministry — including feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving Day.

But I would like to suggest to you today that there is something else we can do to stop that finger snapping dance of death — and isn’t that more important than almost anything else you could imagine? To save a child’s life — and even more, to provide for their education — not just a life but a good life?

Our bishop has presented us an opportunity to enter into a partnership with the Anglican Church in Tanganyika through a program called The Carpenter’s Kids. I don’t need to tell you much of Africa has been devastated by the AIDS pandemic — villages have been wiped out and families destroyed. And among those who suffer most are the AIDS orphans, of whom thereare over 2.5 million in Tanzania alone. Our diocese has entered into a cooperative venture with the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, a venture that partners parishes in New York with parishes there. Each parish in partnership finds 50 people willing to contribute $50 a year each for five years. And you might ask, What can $50 do. Well, I’m very glad to say, that like that handful of meal, or those few drops of oil, or those two pennies tossed into the treasury by a faithful widow — $50 can do all whole lot more in Tanganyika than it can in New York! $50 a year — that’s less than a nickel and a dime a day — will send a child to school, buy them shoes and two school uniforms, and books and school supplies, and provide breakfast every day for the whole year. That one life that will be changed — one life that could have been another finger snap — changed forever literally by nickels and dimes. If we as a parish can find fifty people willing to support this project, the fifty neediest children in a parish in Tanzania will receive that aid. Fifty of us here will change fifty lives there.

I’m not asking you to make this decision today — but I am asking us all to think about it in the context of our overall stewardship — what we spend on our own families, what we spend to support our church, and what we might spend to join in reaching those Millennium Development Goals, by focusing our effort on The Carpenter’s Kids. The pledge forms for the Carpenter’s Kids program are at the back of the church. I invite you today, if you’re moved to do so, to take one away with you and read through it. If you want to participate, to be one of the fifty, bring the form back and give it to me and I will hold it — along with mine — until there are fifty — and if there are more than fifty so much the better. But when we have reached fifty, I will send our joint application to the Bishop to enroll us as a parish in partnership, and then receive the first year’s offering at a special ingathering.

The problems of the world can seem overwhelming — yet even the greatest problems can be solved by people of goodwill doing what they can. I won’t say it’s as easy as snapping your finger. I will say it is as easy as nickels and dimes, and I will say it is something I know that I can do; it is something I know that most of you can do. The question is, will we do it?+

Thursday, November 02, 2006

At Your Service

SJF • Proper 25b 20006 • Tobias Haller BSG
God will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.
In today’s Gospel, a blind man is brought to Jesus, and the first thing Jesus says to him is, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man’s response, quite naturally, is “My teacher, let me see again.” This morning, however, I’d like to turn the text around a bit, in light of our other readings, and pose the question another way. When people come to God, as we do week by week, and day by day, we often come to him with an implicit or an explicit need, something we want God to do for us.

But among us are also mature Christians, committed and dedicated members of the church — as opposed to those still on soft food, like the new church members described in the Letter to the Hebrews — and these dedicated church members approach God more like a soldier reporting for duty, or a worker reporting for an assignment, and ask God, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now this question, revealing as it does the idea that we can do anything at all for God, is at the heart of one of the hottest debates of the Reformation, the question of faith versus works. The radical reformers insisted that works were useless for salvation — and they used part of the Scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews to support their argument. Our reading today affirms that repentance from what it calls “dead works” is a foundation of the Christian faith. The radical reformers insisted that nothing we do could earn us salvation; that all works, whether liturgical works like prayer or worship, or corporal works of mercy like visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, all of these were so many worthless nothings in the eyes of God. Faith alone mattered, faith and God’s grace that snatches us worthless sinners from the jaws of Hell.

And to a certain extent the reformers were right. We are not saved because we pray and worship. We are not saved because we do works of mercy. God saves us because God loves us, not because we have earned his love, but because we are his, purchased with his own blood on Calvary’s tree.

However, where the reformers went too far was in making it seem that the works of prayer and the works of mercy are worthless, not just as means to purchase salvation, but worthless period. And this most surely goes too far — as radicals often do! And it is surely not going far enough — something radicals also often fail to do. For if you read on in the passage from Hebrews, on a few lines past the reference to “dead works” you find this important witness to how much God values what we do on his behalf, as servants in his kingdom: “For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.”

The reformers went too far when they discounted all human worth, insisting on humankind’s total depravity and God’s unmerited grace, to the exclusion of the very clear scriptural witness that when we approach God with the question, What do you want me to do for you? he has a whole long list of things he wants us to do, starting with, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself! And that takes work!

Where the reformers were right, of course, is that we are not saved by our works. But strange as it may seem for me to say it, salvation shouldn’t preoccupy Christians all that much, since we believe we are saved by Jesus already. Because I often travel on public transportation wearing my clerical outfit, from time to time I’m asked the question by a well-meaning evangelical: Are you saved? Now, by that question they mean, have I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. In any case, I always answer, Why yes I am! Then they will usually ask, When? meaning, when did I accept Jesus. But since I don’t think my salvation depends on what I do with Jesus — but with what Jesus did for me — I will say, Well, I was saved about two thousand years ago, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. For my salvation is not hinged, thanks be to God, on my poor ability to respond to God, but on what God did for me: I believe all Christians are saved, because that is what Jesus came to do! It is not for me to call my Lord a failure! So the important question for us as Christians, given our assuredness of salvation in Christ, is not, when did it happen, but what are we going to do about it!

Some years ago, I heard about a famous Southern Baptist preacher, imbued with the strict reformed theology, who was asked what he thought about Mother Teresa. As he sat comfortably behind his gigantic desk in his richly furnished office, He said that if Mother Teresa hadn’t turned accepted Jesus as her Savior then all her good works amounted to nothing at all. Well, maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that we should assume that on the basis of her life of humble service, she must have turned her heart over to Jesus, and then went about doing a lot more than just sitting behind a thirty-five-square-foot desk! We might rather well echo the words of John F. Kennedy in a religious context: Ask not what God can do for me — but what I can do for God!

Salvation — what God has done for me — is an unmerited gift, but anyone with good manners knows that in response to a wonderful gift, at the very least you send a thank you note! How shall we show our love to God — what shall we do for God — in thanksgiving for the precious saving gift we have received? How shall we do as God asks: how show our love for our neighbor, whom God has given us as a means to witness to and practice God’s love, to make God known throughout the world, so that every corner of God’s green earth can sing, My God and King!

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We are saved by grace and justified by faith. The blind man who knelt at Jesus’ feet heard the word of salvation: “your faith has made you well. “ But in gratitude for his salvation and justification, he responded by following Jesus on the way, walking in the holy and sanctified way that Jesus laid out for him and for all of us, the royal road of love of God and neighbor. When we follow in this road, having already been saved and justified, when we take up the tasks God has prepared for us, we are sanctified. Justification by faith prepares us for this burden, just as soft food and milk help a young child to mature to the point where solid food is suitable. Salvation is the gracious act of God picking us up from where we have fallen, healing us so we can get back to work, just as the healing of the blind man’s vision enabled him to see, and seeing, to follow.

And this following is the life of sanctification, the life of holiness, in which works are not worthless, but necessary if we are to “stand up, stand up for Jesus, as soldiers of the cross,” walking in the way and along the path that Jesus has prepared for us to walk in — like good soldiers who have reported for duty, and who have received their marching orders. Strengthened and equipped by God, we take up the tasks God has given us to do, the works of righteousness, the works of service to the saints. The saints, you see, serve each other, as well as serving those on the outside, the strangers and sojourners who haven’t yet heard the good news, or who have heard it so badly preached or practiced that they want nothing of it.

This is a great responsibility: to do the works of prayer and mercy in such a way as to let light shine where it has never been seen. God cares about what is done upon this earth that he created and redeemed. And the great honor that God has done for us and with us, since Christ first put on human flesh, is to adopt us as his children, to commission us as his servants, working together with Christ to extend the reach of grace.

For God does care about what goes on upon this earth. God saw, as Isaiah says, how little justice there was upon the earth, how there was no one to intervene. And so God intervened himself, with his own arm winning the victory, putting on righteousness like a breastplate and a helmet of salvation upon his head.

But that was then. This is now. Since Christ came, we too have been found worthy to join God as commissioned servants — as soldiers of the cross. What does Saint Paul say in his Letter to the Ephesians? That we, yes we, frail creatures of flesh, and feeble as frail, should put on that breastplate of righteousness, that helmet of salvation: God’s armor not only in the sense that God gives it to us, but in the sense that God once wore that very armor himself! God is giving us his own armor to carry on this mission and ministry. So we, we children and servants of God, have a task to do and work to be done.

This is a great responsibility, a responsibility that comes with spiritual maturity, a thankful response to the knowledge of salvation. It is astonishing, but it is true; it is awesome and hard to believe, but it is the gospel truth: God has commissioned us as co-workers, recruited us as soldiers for the spread — not of war — but of peace. As we each appear before God to ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do for you?” may we each and all be strengthened by the Holy Spirit: to do the works of prayer and mercy, until God’s kingdom comes, to love God as we serve him and our neighbors, to the glory of his Name.+