Sermons That Work

Once Pentecost and Trinity…, Proper 9 (C) – 2004

July 04, 2004

Once Pentecost and Trinity Sunday have passed, the church comes into “Ordinary Time.” For many months now, we will have ample opportunity to explore concretely what the effects are of God’s mighty acts of salvation in our lives together. On this July 4 Sunday, as we celebrate this country’s Independence Day, the Ordinary Time lectionary—in happy coincidence—gives us a reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians whose central theme is Paul’s conviction about freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (5:1) This freedom, he explains, “is not an opportunity for self indulgence” (5:13) but, rather, the opportunity to express in our lives together the core commandment of love: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:14)

In our passage today, Paul explains how that love is manifested in the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Now that we are set free from enslavement to sin, love shows itself in our lives by joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self –control. (5:22-23) Further, those who have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit will engage in the work of reconciliation: sinners are to be restored “in a spirit of gentleness.” In the life given by the Spirit, each one is responsible for carrying their own load, (6:5) but all are called to bear one another’s burdens. (6:1-2) This, Paul concludes, is God’s work of a new creation, and “a new creation is everything!” (6:15) Grounded in freedom, expressed in love, God’s new creation brings forth shalom – that untranslatable word which means peace, unity, and love shown as justice among the human community. (6:16)

On a day when we are celebrating the freedoms of a nation grounded in the Declaration of Independence, Paul’s convictions expressed in Galatians 5 and 6 are probably enough for one sermon. Any of us getting into the pulpit on this July 4 can probably find at least six different political applications of this Word of God to our current national conditions at home and overseas. It would, however, be short sighted to miss the connection between the central theme of Paul’s message and the readings from Isaiah and Luke’s Gospel.

The whole of “third Isaiah” (Chapters 61-66) imagines the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile. When God redeems and restores the city and the Temple, God’s presence will be the source of new life. The people of God will come home to a new creation. (61:3-4,8-9) This is why Isaiah pictures the restored city as “Mother Zion,” (66:11-13), giving birth to the returning exiles as though they were a new people, and nursing them at the breast as though they were newborn babies.

The corollary to this picture is Isaiah’s conviction that God is going to wreak havoc upon his enemies with sword and fire. (66:14-16) It is curious that those of us who pray daily to be delivered from evil have such problems with a picture of God doing just that! Perhaps this reflects our inability to accept that the dynamic of God’s judgment and wrath rises up with God’s love. The presence of evil in our lives—these “enemies” of God—contaminates and prevents newness of life from taking shape. In contemporary psycho-jargon, evil is toxic. When the prophets of Hebrew Scripture get going—as they all do, eventually— on the subject of God’s anger, punishment, and destruction, they seem to understand that God’s love is a lot tougher than our own love. If God loves his creation enough to bring about salvation in the form of new life, God has to do something pretty forceful about the powers of evil and sin that would stop that new life from taking shape.

Because of the Easter Good News, we believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection God did indeed do something ultimate and forceful about evil. He took it into his own hands, sterilizing its toxicity and contamination. So it should be possible for us to re-read the prophets of Hebrew Scripture with this in mind. When God brings about a new creation by his gift of new life, he also sees to it that no “enemies” can ultimately destroy that new life. We cannot, then, let the presence of evil deflect us from living into the new creation God is bringing about in us.

This insight, in turn, allows us to read today’s Gospel with God’s new creation in mind. In Luke 10, Jesus sends a crowd of 70 disciples off, two by two, on a mission. Already in the previous chapter he had called “the twelve” together, and sent them out to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” (Luke 9:1-2) and so we may assume the 70 are being sent for the same purpose. It is probably legitimate to assume that Jesus empowers the 70 here with the “authority over all demons and to cure diseases” which he gave the twelve earlier. (Luke 9:1) God’s new creation is to be announced, enacted, and offered as gift to every town and place where Jesus himself intends to go—they are, as St. Paul put it earlier, “ambassadors for Christ.”

In light of the Isaiah passage, we can see that when Jesus tells the 70 not to take money, possessions, or food for the journey, he is telling them not to be deflected from living into the new creation God is bringing about in them. Money, possessions, and food are certainly not intrinsically evil, but they can occupy an enormous amount of our time and attention in daily life and therefore become sidetracks that deflect our energy and block the Spirit from doing her work in us.

Even more serious is Jesus’ instruction to the 70 that whenever they meet opposition or indifference, they are simply to move on. It is not necessary to read urgency into this scene. It is simply necessary to see that God has all the various outcomes of our mission and ministry in hand, and we don’t. The source of new life, the energy of the Spirit that brings forth the new creation, these are God’s to give and not ours to make or control. This is presumably why, when the 70 return with joyful amazement at their success in overcoming demons, Jesus says, “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) What matters is the gift and purpose of God’s new creation. Paying attention to anything else is simply a misuse and abuse of time and of all the other gifts we are given.

So, yes, this is a day to rejoice in our freedom, but we should not let this Fourth of July deflect us from understanding and holding fast to the source and shape of our blessed liberty as the children of God. We must not let the politics and economics in which we participate sidetrack us from our lives in the kingdom of heaven.

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Christopher Sikkema


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