Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve , OHC
Proper 28, Year C - Sunday November 13, 2016
“This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
One of the gifts of having four gospels in the canon of Holy Scripture and our three-year lectionary cycle is that we get to journey, during the weeks of the season of Pentecost, with one of the synoptic evangelists and immerse ourselves into the ways our Lord is given presence in such distinct and dramatic ways. Luke has been a particularly powerful guide and challenge especially this year with news of mass shootings, police killing and being killed, political debate, and now speaking to us on this Sunday after a presidential election. For Saint Luke, Jesus is, in the parlance of recent politics, the one who “blows up the system” of entrenched customs and prejudices of exclusion, discrimination, and paranoia that characterized much of the way the establishment of Jesus’ time sought to keep power and control.
By acts of compassion and justice across social boundaries and outside the norms of religious purity code, Jesus inaugurates a new community which called the too young, the too old, the poor, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the demon-possessed and all kinds of marginalized persons into the embrace of God’s care and out onto the road of joyful obedience and holiness of life. To those of the “in” group, the call is to a repentance of humility and generosity reflective of life as God’s abundant gift, not a limited commodity to be hoarded and protected. Luke illustrates for his non-Jewish audience that whoever you are, whatever your ethnic, racial, class position, whatever you have done or has been done to you, you, too, are summoned into new life in Jesus the Christ. This Jesus-reigning life is both inner healing, forgiveness and repentance AND new eyes to see neighbor through the eyes of Jesus’ boundless and limitless compassion.
Given that context, today’s gospel, which is set in the Jerusalem temple during Holy Week, reveals the extent and shock of Jesus’ message of a new humanity. We are dropped into a world of frightening political, religious, natural, and even cosmic upheaval and breakdown centered on the demise of the temple. By the time Luke is writing the gospel the temple is already destroyed, so his intent is to place the risen and ascended Jesus into solidarity with the persecuted early Christians. The destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD is the social and theological turning point which moves the symbol of God’s presence from its physical boundaries to the individual Christian as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” to use St. Paul’s phrase from 1 Corinthians. God has not abandoned the people in the temple’s destruction, but each Christian now embodies the very presence of God.
We rightly think of Luke as the evangelist of compassion, of the lost being found and coming home, but there is also the prophetic edge aimed at the resistance to new life. Discipleship is always set within and proved in circumstances of crisis, temptation, and opposition. There is no real following after Jesus and his way without being thrust into the cosmic battle between love and control, service and status. The wilderness of temptation is the heart, the temple, of each Christian. A romanticized image which believes that I can love my neighbor and follow Jesus and everyone will love me back and live in peace and light is a dangerous betrayal of all that Jesus says and does. The call to compassion is a battle against the constant encroachment of our stubborn wills and the social and religious forces which oppose compassion.
To follow in the way of Jesus means that compassion and resistance are partners in the way of reconciliation. The purpose of the mention of war, earthquakes, plagues, heresy and persecution is to usher the reader into the heart of the moment when one Christian stands before some king or governor to give testimony. Everything that is taken for granted as stable and secure, all the sources of human flourishing, are smashed – revealing just how tenuous and fragile life actually is. And revealing what is really inside the soul.
When everything is gone, Jesus is there, giving words and comfort, assuring the suffering of their ultimate salvation in God’s hands. When all is destroyed, life comes down to my willingness, my exposed and vulnerable soul becoming a vessel for Jesus’ words and power to flow through me and keep loving, keep undermining the power system, even if it is the last thing I do. The new humanity and community of Jesus is a testifying humanity.
In 2008 the late Phyllis Tickle wrote The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why which describes exactly what is coming to pass today 500 years after Luther’s 95 theses, which she calls the last great upheaval. She states that the central question during these one every 500 years events is “Who is in charge?” We live in a time of shifting definitions and authorities. The power of office or title doesn’t hold the weight of respect it did even in the recent past. Who or what defines what is Christian? How is that definition defended and by whom? If I simply call myself a Christian, what does that mean? Must I claim to be a certain kind of Christian? If many people value individual moral decision-making and interpretations of scripture, what shared values form the basis of community and common mission? These kinds of questions are the new normal. Definers and categories and affiliations are all jumbled up.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify.” Do we despair or testify? We live in a time ripe with invitations to live our faith with courage, adventure, and creativity. We need not draw new lines or impose new definitions, but we must testify, we remember and reclaim what is ultimate and foundational even in, especially in, the jumbled chaos. When structures and security are gone and Jesus is all you have, then you realize that Jesus is all you ever needed.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify.” Testifying has taken on added seriousness since the election – for all of us. This is our opportunity, whatever your political affiliation, to face the moment. And what is involved in our moment? Testify that our ultimate identity is not in party or election, as important as they are, but in the kingdom of heaven. Testify that the minority, the least, the bullied or dismissed, are those with whom we are to stand just as Jesus did. Testify that as Christians we cannot sit on the fence. We can no longer rely on being the entitled and privileged people of empire, ensconced in walled churches that ignore the other. We either live together – all of us - or inevitably tear each other apart. The church is now a confessing church, a resistance movement against forces on both the right and the left which seek to neutralize or coopt it. If the gospel was ever a nice story about being a better person, it cannot be that any longer. The gospel is our blueprint for the transformation of how we are to be and act together. We testify that the reconciling love of enemies is becoming more difficult in the face of so much invective and suspicion. We will practice reconciliation. We will love our enemies. We testify that we will face insult with longsuffering, persecution with forgiveness. We will hold out our hand to our neighbor and when it is slapped away we will cry and then we hold it out again because we are people of hope – a hope that will be fulfilled. Testify in hope and for hope.
If Jesus comes to seek and save the lost then that first means each of us. In those times when we feel anger and want to lash out, it would be so easy to give up, to give in to fear, Jesus gives power and comfort and words to us and for us. Jesus finds us and saves us in our confusion and grief. When the temples fall, when the truth is challenged, when the earth quakes, when the nations war, when our family and friends have left, Jesus is with us. Then he sends us out into the world as the Word spontaneously speaking within us the love, mercy, compassion, of Christ’s whole life indwelling and empowering us to be him, his body. “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” Amen.