“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, but oh that we evoked a similar response from any who should chose to remember us.
We are doing two things today in our liturgy. We are honoring and giving thanks for those who have come before us in the faith. Others, who by the example and often times sacrifices of their lives have made it possible for us to stand here today and hear the Good New concerning Jesus Christ. The other thing we will be doing is renewing our commitment to Christ and his ministry, particularly through this congregation and our mutual ministry.
I recently listened to one of the Great Courses called Jesus and the Gospels. The lecturer was Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar and early church historian at Emory University. In this course, which I would commend to you, Johnson compares and contrasts the image we get of Jesus in the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John with other apocryphal gospels, especially those written in the first and second century, in other words, ancient writings about Jesus that did not make it into the Bible as we know it today. You may have heard of some of them, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary that have had some recent popularity. He made several observations, but a few in particular stuck out for me. Beyond just being the four oldest known gospels written, these four, over and above all the others emphasized the humanity of Christ and the community of his disciples grounded in their Jewish roots. Why do we care about these things, and why in particular today when we are focused on the saints and our own personal commitment to Christ?
The story of Jesus’ saving of humanity is deeply rooted in a promise and a commitment that God made with Abraham, with Jacob aka Israel, and with David. We cannot understand what Jesus was doing on the cross and at his Resurrection if we do not know what God was doing with and through Israel since he called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and promised him a land, a family, and that his family would bless the entire world. How do we know this? Generation after generation told their children the story of what God had done in the past, what God was doing in the present, and what they believed God would do in the future. These are our earliest saints, not just persons canonized by the church, but the people who preserved the story of God’s mercy and God’s judgement for each consecutive generation.
I am sure there were times when it was difficult to tell the stories because it was difficult or painful to see where God was working in the present. When the children of Israel first crossed the Jordan River, Joshua gave them a choice. They had just spent 40 years wandering the wilderness because they had refused to obey God. They could now choose to follow the God of their forefathers or they could choose to serve other gods, the gods of Egypt that their parents had served or the Baals of Canaan where they had just arrived, but one could not serve both. They chose, at that time, to serve the God who had spoken to Moses in a burning bush and had guided Abraham and the patriarchs before him. Community and a devotion to God sustained them. What, I would ask, sustains us?
After the fall of Jerusalem and during the Babylonian exile it was hard to share the stories of God’s mercy and judgement. In Psalm 137 the psalmist says
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up *on the trees in the midst of that land.
For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: * “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song * upon an alien soil?
Yet they did not lose faith, they did not forget or fail to sing the songs of Zion. How do we know? We have them today, the Psalms.
Are we failing to sing the songs of our faith? Are we allowing them to become lost and forgotten? One of my favorite memories of my grandmother is listening to her sing old hymns while she washed the dishes. Most of us now load the dishwasher while the TV is playing. What are our children losing was we let go of the daily proclamation of the gospel through word and song?
For the earliest Christians, it must have been difficult to sing and tell the stories of both the Old Testament and God’s keeping of his promise in the coming of Jesus when the name of Jesus could cost you your life, and yet, we have an amazing abundance of literature concerning Jesus that was written before Constantine legalized Christianity.
I mentioned the four canonical gospels put more emphasis on the humanity of Christ than the apocryphal gospels that were written during this time frame. Why is that important? The tendency today for those who wrestle with the Christian doctrines is to want to make Jesus a wise and nice person, period. What we find in these ancient apocryphal texts is a denial of Christ’s humanity in favor of a more spiritualized Jesus. His divinity was not an issue. His humanity was, because the physical world was seen as corrupt therefore Jesus could not have been really human since he was divine. What this resulted in was groups and individuals who isolated themselves from the rest of humanity seeking an interior and personal Jesus that did not require them to live out their faith in community. The 4 canonical gospels do just the opposite. They call us to live out the good news in the messiness of community. This is especially so in Luke’s version of the beatitudes that we read today. Luke does not spiritualize poverty, hunger, pain, or hate. He has Jesus embrace and transform these very human experiences.
Today what we seem to have is the opposite theological conclusion of the apocryphal texts with a similar result. Many have humanized Jesus to the point that he has become our favorite analyst, talk show host, or BFF. He has been removed from the Trinity making God, the Father, distant and ethereal. In doing so, we have eliminated the need for Christian community as we have privatized our relationship with a very human Jesus separate from his heavenly and divine Father. The results have not been a growth of Christian community and a spread of the gospel as we are commanded by Christ, but isolation, loneliness, and emptiness.
We need both – we need the human and divine Jesus, we need a personal relationship with Jesus lived out in a community that worships the Trinity because it is only in community with other humans and in relationship with God that we are fully human, the creatures God created us to be.
How will our children know these truths? Only if we continue to share the story of the Good News of what God has been doing down through the centuries and especially through Jesus in our communities. Only if we remember we are part of a long line of the saints of God and we tell their stories and our own as part of God’s continuing saga. Only if we continue to meet in community as part of God’s people will we still have a story to tell.