August 07, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During my time at Sewanee this summer, working with SUMMA, I took an afternoon and evening off to make a quick trip to Atlanta. I was determined to see Alice, a life-long friend of my parents and me, who sang at my parents’ wedding. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and fought it well until a couple of months ago, when she went into hospice care. In our short visit, she offered a strong Christian witness, saying that because she has a deep sense of what the old hymn calls “blessed assurance,” she is not afraid of dying or of what follows. She is putting her trust in an infinitely good, powerful God, whom we know in Jesus by means of the Holy Spirit, and who will never leave us or forsake us.
By faith, Alice knows the end of the story. She cannot foresee every detail, but she knows God’s promises, revealed in scripture. She sees the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection as the principal sign that God is deeply involved with us and with all creation as time moves forward and that he has already won the ultimate victory over evil and death.
In one of our eucharistic prayers, we summarize this “mystery of faith,” by saying simply, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Believing that the Christ who overcame death will come again, “with power and great glory,” is what, centuries ago, would have been called a comfortable doctrine. References to this second coming, such as in today’s gospel, do warn us of judgment. Nevertheless, we take heart that the God who comes to judge us is the God of love and mercy we know in Jesus. We are the Lord’s “little flock,” as we read today, and it is the “Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.” This echoes Jesus’s teaching we read two weeks ago, that if we who are evil know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God is not reluctant, but, rather, eager to save us. The whole of Luke’s gospel and its sequel known as the Acts of the Apostles, attest that God is working out his purpose in the midst of an often troubled human history and that this purpose is profoundly good, just as the original creation was pronounced “very good” in Genesis.
Indeed, the whole Bible attests that we, along with all creation, are headed toward a future that is good beyond our imagining. Therefore, like Abraham, our forefather in faith, we look forward, in the midst of wanderings and troubles, “to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” We look forward to incredible fruitfulness, with countless numbers entering the heritage of those whom, like Abraham and Sarah, God calls to participate in his redeeming work of bringing creation to its glorious fulfillment. We look forward to full and eternal life, where justice and peace prevail, rooted in divine love.
So we, like my friend Alice, know the end of the story by faith, and, as in Alice’s case, this can be wonderfully liberating. First of all, it frees us from fear. The letter to the Hebrews, which (if I have to pick) is my favorite biblical book, encourages its readers with the good news that Christ’s life, which we share, and which is stronger than any threat to it, frees us from our lifelong fear of death. With this blessed assurance of things hoped for yet not fully seen, we can then be truly free tolive, devoting all our energies to loving as Christ loved us. In other words, we can fully live the way Jesus both teaches and exemplifies, with a love that does not count the cost.
That love may lead us to do seemingly risky things, such as selling our possessions and giving to the poor, as Jesus discusses in today’s gospel. It may mean making the outrageously costly, open-ended promises involved in the covenant of marriage, or in the covenant of Baptism, for that matter. It means actively and passionately working with God in Christ in the power of the Spirit so that those afflicted with all kinds of hunger may be fed and the lowly lifted up. The scriptures promise us that in Christ our labor is not in vain, no matter what we may sacrifice in the process. This way of life brings treasure beyond measure.
Only from this perspective can we understand, for example, the recent statement of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, that children in horrible refugee camps across the English Channel near the French port of Calais have a “legal and moral right” to sanctuary in Great Britain. Many of these children were sent there alone by their parents from places like Afghanistan, Syria, and the horn of Africa, and they suffer not only from hunger and lack of education but at times from sexual assault and other violence.
Helping them certainly involves more cost than gain, from a short-term, worldly perspective. Britain could easily say that it is already overpopulated and overburdened with debt. It already has tensions along ethnic and religious lines. It is easy to say, as some have, that the interests of truly British people (however that might be defined) should come first.
Yet, as St. Paul might say, we have learned a different way as Christians. Archbishop Williams is calling Britain to tap into its best Christian roots and not to fear change and cost if in doing so they are following Christ’s commandment to love. Christian love is, again, a risky business. As the Cross shows us, it involves making ourselves vulnerable out of love for others. Our faith teaches us that this, paradoxically, is the way of life and peace, even though it may involve putting our lives on the line.
I don’t know about you, but this way of the cross, this way of sacrificial love, does not come so naturally to me. My lesser self wants to protect me and mine, first and foremost. It dislikes making material sacrifices. It wants to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, because it is unpleasant and because it might challenge me to change and to be more giving. It wants to set myself apart from others as part of a number of privileged superior, groups—as part of the American nation; as one of those who have plenty to live on; as one of those who have education and health insurance; as one of those who have historical advantages based on skin color, gender, and religious affiliation. It wants not to have a care in the world, like the rich man in last Sunday’s gospel.
Yet the Christ within us calls us to something higher, something better. The Lord calls us, as our baptism commits us to do, to give ourselves generously, outrageously, out of love for God and others. That same baptism empowers us to do this, to follow this risky way. We can move forward in faith then, rather than fear, because we know the end of the story, confident, in our best moments, of the glory that will be revealed.