It seems to me that any religion worthy of the name should help us to address these three great issues in life:
• What I believe,
• What I do, and
• What I become.
Today may we consider how Christianity helps us do this.
First among these great issues is–What I believe.
The Church presents us with creeds, statements of faith, and in a few minutes we will recite the most important of Christian creeds, which bears the name Nicene. But in Christianity, before there is a creed, there is a story. The classic expression of this story appears in the library of documents we call the Bible.
This story tells of the relationship between God and his people. By recalling and reflecting on historical events, it reveals the character of God as the One who suffers with his people, liberates them from bondage, and empowers them for freedom.
A section of the Old Testament that stands out with particular clarity in this regard is the Exodus account. The people of Israel are subject to cruel slavery in Egypt. They cry out to the Lord, and he hears their cry. Their God is not deaf. He is not oblivious to his people’s pain. When they suffer, he suffers as well. The Lord liberates his people, doing so, as scripture says, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Moses is the human leader of the Exodus, but God’s power is how it comes about. Our Jewish neighbors continue to celebrate this divine victory in that springtime festival known as Passover.
The central event of the New Testament builds upon this Exodus. The new Moses is Jesus Christ. The exodus he leads brings us, the Church, out of slavery to sin, death, and all destructive powers. This new exodus is meant for the entire human family. In Jesus the Word made flesh, God suffers with and for his people in a greater way than ever before. Jesus willingly serves as both the sacrificial lamb who suffers for us and the conquering lion who rescues us. We Christians celebrate this victory at Easter and every time we offer the Eucharist.
Thus the biblical story helps determine our view of the world as Christian people. This story remains forever current because it repeatedly shows us the compassion and power of God.
A second great issue is–What I do.
What I do depends on my acceptance of the Christian story, how I find myself inside that story and that story inside me.
If I do, then I will want to make my life a response to what I believe. I will want my life to be a response to the God who appears as the central character in this story.
The expectations God has of me are clear enough. Jesus announces them. He reduces to a simple summary the path provided for God’s people in the Hebrew Bible: love God with all that you are, love your neighbor as yourself.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Dear Dick, I use the fruits of your hard work week after week, and decided it was time to say thank you. I don’t know how you are able to find the time to pull such thorough research together every week, but you sure do it well. I have used your resources faithfully for about the past year, and my preaching has gotten so much better. I’m able to really “dig in” to the texts with my congregations, and I’m preaching more biblically than I ever have.”
A thousand sparks to spark your imagination!
Our love for God is inevitably simple in this respect: there is only one God. That God is always near to those who call upon him, and even near to those who do not.
But our love for our neighbors is complicated from the start by their multiplicity. We have neighbors near and neighbors far away. In this global village that the world has become, we are aware that we have neighbors numbering in the billions.
Our love takes one form as we interact with our spouses and children and siblings, our friends and fellow parishioners and co-workers, as well as area residents we encounter in the stores and on the streets. Our love must take another form, however, toward many people we share this world with that we never come to know in a personal way. I speak of our fellow citizens, our fellow Christians, our fellow human beings whose names and faces we do not recognize but who are wrapped up with us in the one bundle of life.
With regard to them, personal concern must give way to something no less significant. English translations of the Bible often speak of this something as justice, not justice in the sense of crime and punishment, but justice as the maintenance of right relationships and the restoration of relationships that are damaged.
The God of compassion, the God who delivers people from bondage expects from us an attitude similar to his own, similar behaviors if we claim to be his children.
This justice can never be a sideline to what we do as Christians. Nor is it for some of us only, but for all of us who claim the faith of Jesus. Look at the Baptismal Covenant in the Prayer Book: you’ll find it there. “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” “I will, with God’s help.”
There is also this great issue–What I become.
Christians desire to become holy, to grow in the holiness which is God’s gift to us.
But what is this holiness? Today’s passage from Leviticus addresses the question in a way that may surprise us.
This passage opens with a divine imperative relayed to the people through Moses: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
The passage then explicates this holiness through a series of prohibitions. For example:
• You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.
• You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people.
• You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.
• You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.
• You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.
So here’s the surprise! To be holy with a holiness like God’s own, we must be just in our dealings one with another!
Yes, holiness can involve separation, withdrawal, retreat, fleeing into the desert to struggle there against the demons. Jesus himself engages in this sort of activity between his baptism and the start of his public ministry. But holiness also involves relationships characterized by justice. Holiness means struggling so that everyone can be free from the demons of injustice. Holiness means politics together with prayer. It means rejoicing in divine goodness, yet also repairing the damaged fabric of this world, this world which God loves and for which Christ died.
Our nation is facing extraordinary challenges. We all know that. If we as Christians are to contribute to constructive resolutions, then we must recognize what we believe, and what we do, and what we become. Our lives both personal and social must be formed by our faith.
As followers of Christ, we do not own the public square, but we do have our place there among all the people of this land. Together with these neighbors we engage in what Bishop William Scarlett of Missouri once called “the audacious and ever-changing, ever-challenging experiment of democracy.”
May the Church be holy as God is holy. For the God of Exodus and Easter remains at work, suffering with people where they suffer, liberating them from every form of oppression, and empowering us all for that service which is the meaning of our freedom.
Jesus tells us to become like children, children who trust God with open hearts. And so it seems right that we make our own this prayer by a child, Harriet Sudduth, an elementary school student in Louisville, Kentucky.
Let us pray.
“Thank you for this wonderful and beautiful world. It is full of big surprises.
“I am trying to do my best in making peace in the world. But I have one question: How can I? Please help me, maybe by giving me an extra push along the way. Sometimes I need a little push but don’t know who to ask! If you could help me do anything better, then please tell me.
Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.