Here's a rough draft of my sermon for June 15, 2008. Here are the readings for the day.
Good morning. Happy Fathers’ Day. Hmm…a challenge, proclaim the gospel or give a nod to Fathers’ Day? I imagine this is something priests have to deal with often, dealing with cultural expectations but preaching the culture shredding good news. Well, today I’ll stick to the good news and maybe even work in the good news about Father’s Day.
When I was in college, we had a weekly, Wednesday morning chapel service. At my first visit to chapel the question was asked: what is the most important verse in the Bible? Now, a little back story, I was raised as a Baptist in America, like many here today. So you can imagine what was my initial response to that question, what is the most important verse in the Bible? John 3:16. Of course that is what I reactively thought. Any football fan would say John 3:16. I think even non-Christians would say John 3:16. But then those around me began to shout out, “Love each other as I’ve loved you,” “I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly,” And from today’s Epistle “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” not one “For God so loved the world… “What gives?
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was my first encounter with the Mystery of Christ. The Mystery of Christ was new notion to me. And it wasn’t until I had joined the Episcopal Church that I really began to wrap my head and heart around this mystery. The Mystery of Christ describes the bearing of God, the whole divine milieu. The Mystery of Christ describes the manner in which God relates to creation.
Turns out God has called us fully and completely to be reconciled with him. I don’t think this is a point many Christians would argue: God wants to be with us, fully. But then we start thinking about it. Ruminating, you see. This thinking that we do is called theology. God has given us a gift of absolute grace: why, how, to whom, to what degree, when? All these are valid questions. The great and entertaining philosopher Alan Watts once boiled down all theological questions to five: Who started it? Are we going to make it? Where are we going to put it? Who’s going to clean it up? And finally, Is it serious? I look forward to bringing those questions to Sewanee. But we start to question, in an inquiring way, why and how God would reconcile himself to us, this is theology.
The most culturally ascendant thinking about God’s gift to us probably has a name, likely a long name that was formed in the 1600’s. But the best term I’ve come across is transactionalism. I give this, to get that. Transactionalism states that if we believe in Jesus then we will be saved. John 3:16 seems to say this outright. But I think our first understanding of this passage is a little off in its sense of time.
In today’s Epistle, Paul writes “while we were still weak…Christ died for us.” And “while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The point being, that before we knew him, Christ died for us, once and for all. For me, transactionalism gets it wrong because it treats our faith like a special variety of work. If we will take the action of believing then God’s gift of reconciliation will enter our lives. As if our faith was the cause of the gift.
But Jesus, not to mention Paul, says otherwise. Jesus proclaims the truth that has been hidden “from the foundation of the world.” Paul even goes further to say that the Mystery of Christ, this universal grace, was present before the foundation of the world. So with this understanding that God set up this intimate relationship with us before the forming of the world, we can look at John 3:16 again: Yes, God did love the world so that he did indeed send his only son that whoever should believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life. All that happened, God laid all of it out before we came on the scene. So our faith is not a mediating factor in our relationship with God but something else.
Since God’s gift came to us before there was an us we need to reconsider our notion of faith. God’s gift is present to all at all times, so our faith then becomes a kind of knowing. Faith is belief but it is not a ticket into something, faith is a recognizing of God’s gift. The theologian and priest Robert Farrar Capon describes the Mystery of Christ like this: stadium, all invited, free, t-shirt day for all, free food and drink. Faith is the believing, the understanding, that you are in the stadium, you’re there! Unfaith, is that a word (?), is just non-belief, not seeing, that you’re in the stadium; it’s like saying “well, I hear you about the free entry and all, but who would do such a thing?” The theologizing begins.
Most theology wants to set up ticket booths in front of God’s stadium, and the ticket price is works, or that special kind of work: faith. Others want to say, the tickets don’t cost anything but you do need a ticket, only this one kind of ticket. But the mystery of Christ, as informed by Paul and the Parables of Jesus says, there are no ticket booths, just come on in! Even more, we’ve been sitting in box seats the whole time, just open your eyes to the gift!
So we have God’s gift of reconciliation open to all from before the foundation of the world and “while we were still sinners.” God’s gift was finally and fully incarnated in the person of Jesus who said the kingdom of God is within you, here, now. For our part we can choose to have faith that we are already reconciled to God, then we begin to share the reconciliation around in the world.
So, what’s all this talk of God’s mysterious gift giving without condition have to do with Fathers’ Day? Everything.