|Posted by thethousandmarch on April 21, 2013 at 7:50 PM|
Here's a link to the sermon I gave today.
The Church is a Sign (click on the link to go to my audio page and there you can download the recording.) Act 9:32-43 was my jumping off point. This is my response to death and suffering in the world. What follows is an edited text version of the sermon.
Today on Good Shepherd Sunday we read from John 10 where Jesus says,
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
And we read from Revelation 7 about those saints in God’s throne room in heaven who have come through the great tribulation:
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
This is the promise Jesus makes to the poor and oppressed – eternal life
But Christianity has often been criticized for telling poor and oppressed people to put their hope in Jesus for a future salvation, a pie in the sky. Our critics call this hope a drug, too often used by tyrants to pacify those they abuse. To quote Karl Marx: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.” In other words – if people are to be truly happy they must give up their hope in a future happiness, which they are told can be found in heaven, and must instead take their happiness now. The poor and oppressed should stop hoping that God will one day judge the wicked and reward the righteous – no judgment is coming. We must fight for justice and freedom now. Don’t wait for God to save you, take your salvation now – use force if necessary.
What are we to say in response to this criticism of our hope that Jesus will free us from our present sufferings and give us eternal life? Is heaven only a hope for fools? Many Christians have responded to this criticism by giving into it. They try to make Christianity more appealing by downplaying Jesus’ teaching on eternal life. They want us to think that Jesus didn’t really care that much about the life to come; instead they want us to think that Jesus came to establish a kingdom that is of this world. He came to feed us and heal us now. Forget all that spiritual stuff; he came to give us change now. Forget about that heaven stuff; let’s build God’s Kingdom on this earth now. Jesus came to give you your best life now. That’s what being a Christian is really about. Incarnating the Kingdom of God now, transforming the world, transforming your personal life just like Jesus did.
Now I can appreciate where some of these people are coming from. Of course we have an obligation to help others if we can; to care for those in need; to oppose evil and work for good; to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is our lawful duty. James, Jesus’ brother, tells us, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). And John says in 1 John 3:17-18 “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” But is this what Christianity is all about – making this world a better place through moral living ? Or to put a more positive spin on it, the church triumphing over the world, thus establishing the Kingdom of God now in all its fullness – it doesn’t really matter what happens after we die.
If that was the case then how could Paul say, as he does in Corinthians 15:55-57:
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. Is this what victory over death looks like? Is this what the Kingdom of God looks like; the paralyzed are made to walk, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the sick are healed, the hungry are feed, the thirsty are given water to drink? No, and yes.
Jesus came to open our eyes and ears so that we could see the spiritual reality of who he is. He came to heal us from the sickness of sin which has corrupted our bodies and not only brings upon us physical death, but more significantly spiritual death. He came to give us the bread of life, and living water that quenches our thirst forever. Jesus says “Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
The physical temporal healings, and feedings and raisings from the dead are not the fulfillment of God’s promises, they are merely signs that a much more significant spiritual event has occurred and they are signs that the promises Jesus makes of complete future physical fulfillment (being raised form the dead for example) will happen. All those that were healed died, all those who were fed died, Lazarus, the widow’s son at Nain and Jairus’ daughter – all whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again. Tabitha whom Peter raised, and Eutychus whom Paul raised – they died again.
All these miracles were not the promised reality, they were a sign of things to come. They are not the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, they are evidence that Jesus and his apostles speak with the authority of prophets and what they claim is true. This means Jesus is the Son of God. He has the power to forgive sins, save us from death and give us eternal life. It is easy for Jesus to claim that he has the power to forgive sins; any insane cult leader could make such a claim. But to show that he really does have this power he also tells the paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk.
The Church is a sign of the Kingdom; it is not the fulfilled reality which has been promised. We are a sign of what is to come; because of God’s great love he is healing the spiritually sick, forgiving sinners, reconciling his enemies, overcoming death and redeeming the world through the work of Jesus. We can’t fix this world. Only Jesus can redeem his creation. We may be able to accomplish some small, though not insignificant, acts of love. But we humans are incapable of establishing justice in this world, we cannot redeem suffering, we cannot overcome death.
We should try to make this world a better place, but if we dismiss a person’s hope for eternal life, their hope for real justice and redemption, we may crush the only thing which enables them to survive. And if we think we can replace this hope with some material promise of temporal prosperity we are fools.
I’ve had three friends who have lost young children this year. No matter how hard I work to effect social and political change in this world, no matter how loving and wonderful a person I am able to transform myself into, I cannot redeem the death of one child. But Jesus can – not only will he save us from the evil which engulfs us, he will redeem the pain and suffering, and he will fix what has been broken.
And so, though we have not yet received the things promised, we still live by faith even unto death. We see signs of what is to come, and welcome it from a distance, admitting that we are foreigners and strangers on this earth. We are looking for a country to call our own. We are looking for the promised land in which we may finally enter into God’s rest. We are looking for our home. If our hope were in the country we were leaving behind, we would return to it. Instead we are longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called our God, for he has prepared a city for us and all who share our hope.