Sermon: Epiphany 5B

St. Stephen’s, Maple; Zoom Eucharist; February 7, 2021

Collects and Readings for the Day:
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”

There’s an almost-comedic tension running through this first half of the Gospel of Mark, and it’s set up in the reading we heard tonight. Jesus tells us plainly: he came out to “proclaim the message,” to preach and teach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. But Mark’s Gospel doesn’t have time for long, flowing speeches: the story we’re given is one of action, signs, miracles, healings. Jesus moves immediately from scene to scene, from Synagogue to home to countryside, from Galilee to Judea to surrounding Gentile territory and back to Judea—with some silent nights to pray to the Father and catch his breath in the Spirit. Maybe he wants to stop and preach, and in the other Gospel accounts we get to hear what he has to say, but in Mark it seems like all he does is miraculously transform creation, and then move on.

Western Churches in our time struggle with a similar tension about our calling, which often spirals into full-blown cultural conflict. Is our “obligation”—as St. Paul puts it—to get the teaching “right,” to say the right words and believe the right things about God, to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ” as received in Scripture and Tradition? Or does it only really matter that we live well, act well, treat people well? That we preach the Gospel with our actions, and words are optional?

There are good reasons for us to want it to be a simple matter of one or the other, and I’ll address them in a bit. Sadly, it isn’t so simple: as Rowan Williams once said, God “indeed answers our questions, but he also questions our [simple] answers.” To take two examples at-hand: St. Mark’s story of Jesus immediately darting this way and that and doing all these wonderful things is itself a teaching, a collection of words, a Gospel account handed down to us, as part of our fourfold centrepiece of the Scriptural witness. Or in the other direction, when we use spoken words in our common worship, words that are the ancient heritage of Western Christianity and authorized by our Church, we act as a gathered community, we come to know God’s love more fully, and share it with each other and the world.

This tension is especially pertinent to the Season of Epiphany, the Season of God’s Manifestation in Jesus Christ. Each year, we hear Gospel stories of Jesus stepping onto the scene, inviting us to name and hear God in Jesus’ own words, to see and encounter God in Jesus’ own actions. Hearing, naming, seeing, encountering: if we do that enough, we come to know God as this person who has come to us to be with us, to love us, someone for us to know and love for the rest of our eternal lives. Words and actions are both always necessary, because together they paint a fuller, truer picture of God’s love for the world, of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that St. Paul was compelled by this encounter to proclaim. In our Baptismal Covenant, we too have promised to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.”

So why do we struggle to hold together the words God has given us and the actions God has called us to? One reason is that there’re lots of folks who read their Bible, who might even know how to say the right things or sound “godly,” but act in unloving ways contrary to God’s nature. The extreme example that easily comes to mind are the domestic terrorists who stormed the US Capitol a few weeks ago, and thanked God for their quote-unquote “victory” right there in the House of Representatives. No wonder so many people have such a sour view of Christian truth claims right now.

But there’s also an example that comes closer to home: I can preach a well-crafted sermon about knowing God’s love, but if I then refuse to seek reconciliation with my family, friends and neighbours, or if I actively cheer on the systems of injustice that pervade our world, then that sermon is powerless to help people see God, others and themselves more clearly.

In a similar vein, I think theological speculation and Bible study have suffered from a lot of jargon-laden gatekeeping. I’m disappointed that those of us with more theological education have led folks to thinking that it’s the sole purview of clergy, academics and those with an intellectual bent. Our witness to God’s love may not be as simple as emphasizing either the importance of right words or right actions, and there is of course a place for high-level academic discourse. But the fundamentals of the Christian faith don’t have to be complicated. The most important purpose of our theological education, our “commission” and “obligation,” is to “make the Gospel free of charge,” accessible in “all things to all people,” whatever their level of education or comprehension.

Because our witness and response to the Gospel can and should be expressed in a way that everyone can grasp: “We love because God first loved us.” The Gospel is primarily that story of “God first loved us,” by coming to us, suffering, dying and rising to new life as the perfect human being. Our response, the “we love because,” begins when we are baptized into this story of “God first loved us,” when we are reborn into the life, death and eternal life of Jesus Christ. That baptism matters, and our weekly gathering in mutual love as the baptized people matters. Every day and every week, we are invited to live within the reality of our baptism, invited to let this God of love define our lives, to let God write our story as part of his world-creating and world-renewing story.

Sadly, it’s a story that can get obscured by hypocrisy and academic over-complication, and so it’s a story that we’re tempted to forget. When I was younger, I remember some Christian circles bandying about the phrase, “what would Jesus do?” The slogan, bracelets, bumper stickers and other paraphernalia seemed innocuous enough, and I’m sure they helped when folks needed motivation in the moment to do the right thing. But I always felt a bit uneasy about it, put off by the self-centred moralism that lay just below the surface. You see, that “would”—“what would Jesus do,” as if he weren’t already here—removes the main character from the Gospel story, and makes us the main characters instead. In doing so, it removes the very means of grace by which we can act rightly in the first place. 

“We love because God first loved us,” and the Gospel of Christ’s presence among us is the story of that love. When we discern who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do in the present moment, we are right to turn to the questions posed by the Gospel story and let it show us what our loving response looks like. But that question isn’t “what would Jesus do,” but rather, “what is Jesus doing,” and more importantly, defining this and every other question we could possibly ask: “who is Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“Have you not known?” the prophet Isaiah sings our excitedly. “Have you not heard? He is the Lord, the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. It is he who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” We love, because God loves through us, dwelling among us in the life of his Son, transforming us in the power of his Spirit.

This is the reality of our baptism.
This is the story into which we are invited.
This is the covenant that God has made with us, and that we can make with God:

Will we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
We will, with God’s help.

Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons,
Loving our neighbours as ourselves?
We will, with God’s help.

Will we proclaim by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
We will, with God’s help.

May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things
give us the grace and power to perform them.

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

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