July 9, 2017


Proper 9 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Ian M. Delinger


You have probably learned by now that your Rector sometimes stirs things up. I like to keep us on our toes so we don’t fall into complacency or get too comfortable. So, let me once again take you back to my seminary days. You may remember when preaching on Galatians, I told you about my New Testament professor who said that “Paul was hoppin’ mad.” He was that scholar from Texas whose time at Cambridge did weird things to his strong Southern accent, as my time in England did to my accent. “Paul was hoppin’ mad” when he wrote to the Galatians.

That same professor set us the essay question: “Does Romans 7 Indicate that Paul had an ‘introspective conscience’?” After my exposition of much of the commentary around Romans 7 and the context of the writing, I concluded:

“If as academic theologians or everyday Christians we focus on Paul as our example of Christian living, we run the risk of being idolatrous pagans. Our focus is to be on Christ, His life, His actions, His teachings, His death and resurrection. Paul’s writings can inform our understanding of Christ, but too much emphasis on Paul, himself, misses the point.”

It resulted in the end of an hour-long supervision session, with 4 other students, being very tense, as the man who had devoted his life to the study of Paul’s writings asked me exactly what I meant by that.

As I read that concluding sentence 14yrs later, I realize the conflict within myself is that I do not understand the loudest voices in Western Christianity who spend more time talking about Paul than they do about Jesus.

And real quickly: When I had to sit through 2yrs of Lutheran confirmation class after having been confirmed at the young age of 11yo in the Episcopal Church, I asked the question to Pastor Larson: “Why do Lutherans spend more time talking about Luther than they do about Jesus?” Unfortunately, that didn’t get me sent home…I still had to sit through the whole 2yrs, even though I wasn’t going to be confirmed because I already had been.

What both Paul and Jesus (through Matthew’s lens) are trying to do in today’s readings is untangle the complicated path to freedom in Christ. Paul is untangling the relationship between the Law, sin and faith in Christ. Jesus is untangling the demands of the people on the signs and wonders of God’s prophets.

Paul’s writings were not prominent for 350 years until Augustine of Hippo began to refer to them. More than a thousand years later, Martin Luther also referred to Paul. Since then, Paul’s writings have become the focus of Western Protestantism, to the point that the evangelical wing of the church will say that Romans, particularly Chapter 8, is a perfect summary of the Christian faith.

I want to quote a theologian, but bear in mind 2 things: firstly, Episcopalians sit firmly in between Roman Catholic theology and mainline Protestant theology, and we often welcome the exercise of contemplating diverse understandings, and even including Eastern thought; secondly, being a Christian today is not like being a Christian in Paul’s time. That being said, John Espy writes:

“For centuries most Protestant churches, true to the Reformers’ understanding of man and the Law, have preached the Christian message by presenting first the Law, so that the hearer would come to recognize his or her sinfulness, and then the Gospel, that the Hearer might be brought to hope, and eventually to faith, in Jesus Christ.” (Espy, 161)

It is an important caveat that we are Episcopalians. Our way of coming to faith is not typically through the Law or through a recognition of our sinfulness. As most of us know, we Episcopalians are like the Roman Catholics, but without the guilt. We tend to take a more cognitive approach to faith, and live with the tension of faith, sin and holiness being lifelong discernment processes.

But what Espy writes is important in understanding how we receive and understand Paul’s writings, because another theologian, Krister Stendahl, puts forth the modern problem of the coming-to-faith pattern set out by the Reformers:

“To be sure, he [Paul] is honored and quoted – in the theological perspective of the West – it seems that Paul’s great insight into justification by faith was forgotten.” (Stendahl, 83)

My assessment of these theologians’ comments on this particular part of Romans is that the eventuality for all of Luther’s campaigning of the justification by faith is that it has been lost in an effort for theologians and preachers to preach that we are all miserable sinners. And for that, I thank God that I am an Episcopalian and not a Calvinist.

Just a quick anecdote: My last year of seminary, Ash Wednesday was led by the seminary of the English equivalent of the Presbyterians. The preacher was a professor who was indeed a Scottish Presbyterian. He started his sermon by saying, “As a Scottish Presbyterian, I don’t understand Lent. We don’t have Lent in the Church of Scotland, a time when we are supposed to spend time in prayer and repenting. We Presbyterians grow up knowing that we’re supposed to spend all year-round knowing that we are miserable sinners.”

What is Jesus untangling? John the Baptist’s role was to call people to repentance and preach the Coming of the Kingdom. Instead, his hearers wanted to be joyful: ‘we played the flute for you, and you did not dance’. Conversely, Jesus preached the Good News of Salvation and likened the present to a wedding celebration. His hearers were wanting John’s message: ‘we wailed, and you did not mourn’. Jesus’ mini-parable is basically saying, “Sort yourselves out and figure out that there is a time for joy and a time for misery, but the important thing in this world is to focus on the Kingdom of God” – symbolized by the ‘rest’ that He says that He will give.

Jesus accurately uses a yoke as a metaphor for the situation – both the situation of His time and for us today. Yet, the metaphor is also a tangled web of understanding and misunderstanding. Jesus’ yoke is easy: The depth of knowledge that the Pharisees are demanding is far greater than Jesus’ focus on the spiritual essentials. But Jesus’ demands for righteousness in the omitted passages of today’s reading are significantly more difficult to achieve, because the demands of love of God and neighbor are inexhaustible.

So, both Paul and Jesus
are acknowledging the complexity of
human life. It’s something that
Episcopalians are willing to

struggle with, too, because we
know that, regardless of our
faith, life is complex.

I am often asked why the Evangelical churches are so large in number. It’s a well-known dynamic that it’s not so much the music, it’s not so much the PowerPoint liturgy, it’s not so much that numbers attract numbers. By-and-large, Evangelical preachers offer a simple message and a simple blueprint with which to navigate the complexities of daily life. The lively music is a salve to temporarily sooth the wounds inflicted from Monday to Saturday.

I do not want to be too harsh on my Evangelical colleagues. It’s a different pathway to God from mine. The typical presentation of this portion of Romans is that Paul is attempting to clear his own conscience while simultaneously setting himself as exemplar of that which Christians must now overcome. “See, I did it. I became perfect when I came to Christ. Be like me.” It’s a simple blueprint, because, as I said, the very next Chapter of Romans lays out the blueprint of the Christian faith. And if you come to Christ and shed yourself of your evil ways, Jesus will take on your burdens so you can rest. What we are being told in today’s readings is much more complex than that. And with daily lives in which there are not enough hours to deal with our competing priorities, it is much easier to hear that simply coming to Jesus will mean that it will all go away.

I’m sorry for not making it that simple.

While the pathway to the Kingdom of God might be different, and we Episcopalians have chosen a more convoluted path, ultimately, we understand the same end. That brief moment of insolence as a seminarian highlighted the tension among the different pathways to the Kingdom of God within Western Christianity. The theme that runs through Zechariah, Psalm 145, Romans 7 and Matthew 11 points to a different writing in a different Gospel:

For God so loved the world that
He gave His only Son so that all
who believe in Him may not
perish but may have
Eternal Life.

That is true for sure. It is precisely the daily struggle to know when to dance and when to wail that keeps us coming forward to receive Christ in Bread and Wine and praying that God “Grant us the GRACE of the Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to God with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.”

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