October 22, 2017

2017 Oct22

Proper 24- Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M. Delinger

 

You may have noticed that dotted throughout our Gospel readings from Matthew this summer, the Pharisees have tried to entrap Jesus. We know that Matthew was writing to a Jewish-Christian community who was at odds with the broader Jewish community, so it seems reasonable to assume that Matthew sets up these entrapment scenarios to illustrate how nasty and backwards the Jews were and how reforming and radical Jesus was. 2,000 years later, there seems to be very little change.

 

Sometimes I feel like there’s an entrapment game going on with other Christians I meet. It almost happened to me while I was at a banquet at my Alma Mater last weekend. You will read a part of this in “The Witness” next month. I was seated one over from a woman, herself an alum, who was there with her alum husband. I was in my collar, and everyone knew I was a priest. This person leaned over the retired professor sitting between us and said,

 

“So, what is the process for
Salvation in the Episcopal Church?”

 

I was actually quite stunned. I didn’t know what to say.

 

The credibility of the entire Episcopal Church was on the line and in my hands! “…process to Salvation…” I didn’t really know what she meant; no one has ever phrased anything like that before. I wondered if there was some sort of certification in her denomination which one worked toward, and then got permission to be saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. My Pear & Goat Cheese Salad was gone; my Beef Roulade hadn’t come yet; I had nowhere to hide! I was trapped!

 

In reality, the woman at the banquet was not trying to entrap me. But her language was similar to those Christians of today who do try to entrap either “the wrong kind of Christian” or those who need to be converted. I have been using the term “Pharisaic Christianity” for over 20yrs now to describe the legalistic type of Christianity, and I believe it to be a very apt term.

 

These stories of entrapment in Matthew’s Gospels did not disappear with the vanquishing of Death at The Resurrection of Jesus. They are alive and well. Two extreme examples in our Christian history are The Crusades and The Reformation. Both eras were bloody and unholy, even by the standards of the day; and The Crusades and The Reformation, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time and the Pharisaic Christians of today, shrouded their thirsts for power and control in religious language.

 

The Church before the Emperor Constantine had a tough time. There was persecution from the beginning, which reached its height in about the 3C and continued for a century until the Emperor Constantine converted in 324AD and began paving the way for Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire under his successor Theodosius.

 

In the Early Church, there were tests to INCLUDE people, not exclude them. Take the fish symbol, for example. The main origin of the use of the symbol is as an acronym:

 

ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys) for “Ἰησοῦς
Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ”
which translates from the Greek
into “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”.

 

Ancient Christians, during the various persecutions, used the fish symbol to indicate meeting places.

According to Elesha Coffman at “Christianity Today”:

 

“When a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Current bumper-sticker and business-card uses of the fish hearken back to this practice.”

 

That, to me, is an example of the opposite of entrapment. It was not only life-saving, it was inviting. The Pharisees and Pharisaic Christians ask questions and provide signs and symbols in order to exclude or persecute. We should be expressing our faith in a way that invites people into the love of Jesus Christ, not in ways that threaten or exclude.

 

Diocesan Convention is in 2 weeks. It is our annual business meeting, during which we vote on Resolutions which will guide our expression of the Christian faith in this 5-County region. One of the Resolutions has been modified to be more inviting, but used to read:

 

This Convention “Resolves that the Diocese of El Camino Real states unequivocally that we believe that Christ is the only way by which we find salvation.”

 

This caused a kerfuffle within the Diocese for various reasons. In line with what the Pharisees were doing to Jesus in today’s Gospel, I’m going to suggest that there are two different motivations of entrapment that could be – and I stress “could be” – part of this proposed Resolution.

 

The first motivation of entrapment is within the Diocese of El Camino Real, among those of us who call one another Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Are all the members of all the parishes on the same wavelength with one another? The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have had a rocky 20-30 years, with threats of splits or dissolution altogether.

 

Who are the true Anglicans or
true Episcopalians?

 

It’s an unhealthy debate, but as the Gospel illustrates, it’s not a new dynamic. We must ask the question of the motivation of the Resolution: Is this a plot to entrap us, to catch us out if we waver, so that we can be expelled…or worse? Or, more positively, is this a way to reaffirm our commitment to one another in Christ, to welcome one another in our common life in Christ in an increasingly pluralistic world in which more each day are hostile to religion, and in particular Christianity?

 

The second motivation of entrapment could be to weed out those who just don’t have the muster to believe what I believe. There are those who believe that Christ is the way to Salvation for themselves, but leave open the possibility that there may be other pathways to Salvation. Furthermore, using such exclusive and final language might be a barrier to Mission and Evangelism. Can we leave open the possibility as people come in the door, and then draw them into The Catechism when they are ready? Or is this a plot to entrap individuals whom we encounter so that when they come through the door, or we see them on the street, we can legitimately snub them and condemn them, and throw Bible verses at them, like, “The wages of sin is death.”

 

Believing in the One True God is foundational to our faith, which we inherited from our Judaic ancestry. From Isaiah:

 

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

 

The Resolution has been modified, and it is now worded in such a way that we, as congregations, should discuss what the Primacy of Jesus means.

May it be Resolved, That the Convention encourages our congregations to engage in the “Living Room Conversation” process within each congregation and in other venues especially inter-parish/congregation discussions, with respect to

 

“Christ is the way,
the truth,
the life.”

 

As Christians, is our faith in Jesus Christ a means to EXCLUDE or to INCLUDE those who don’t share our faith? Is our expression of faith, even our Sunday morning worship a mechanism to ENTRAP or to ENVELOP others in God's love?

 

Every 10 years, the Bishops of the Anglican Communion meet. They always affirm the role of the Scriptures and of Jesus Christ. In 2008, the Bishops from around the world affirmed that we are:

 

Baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, believers are called to embody the truth that there is nothing broken that is not repaired in Christ; no sin which cannot be redeemed by God.

 

So, what was the outcome of that awkward banquet conversation? The woman explained herself: “In our church, we make a public affirmation that Jesus Christ is the one and only savior, that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. After reading the Bible and learning about Jesus, we make that affirmation in front of everybody, and it is through that statement of faith in Him that we receive Salvation.”

 

“Ah,” I said. “It’s basically the same in the Episcopal Church…but it’s…[I stutter-paused]…more…nuanced and wrapped in formal and traditional language,” I think is how I replied. I continued, “We have what is called Confirmation, which is a public affirmation of our Baptismal Vows.” I explained infant Baptism and the Rite of Confirmation, and the statements of belief that are in those Vows. “Ah, right. So, it’s pretty much the same thing!” she exclaimed.

 

The woman was clearly well-intentioned, and she wanted to make me feel welcome by asking me something from my background. That’s how polite conversation works. We had lunch together the next day, and both she and her husband are lovely people with whom I would spend time again. But there are many Christians who ask particular questions in order to test whether or not to EXCLUDE the person to whom they are speaking, or even to determine if that person needs to be converted.

 

When I was University Chaplain, a priest in one of the two Deaneries I was in saw me once a year at the Clergy Christmas Dinner. Paul would sidle up to me as soon as I walked into the restaurant, offer to buy my first drink, engage me in conversation in such a way that meant I had to sit next to him at the dinner table. He would then proceed to speak to me about the Christian faith as if I needed to be converted. He did this, perhaps, 3 Christmas Dinners in a row! He knew I was also a priest, but because I wasn’t his brand of Christian, I needed to be converted. The woman at the banquet at my Alma Mater is a good story to illustrate the context, but this priest in Warrington is the real example of Pharisaic Christianity. He had several tests for people who were not like him, and his “process to Salvation” was neatly prescribed in a way that excluded many from the process.

 

The Gospel story started with a plot to entrap Jesus, and it ended with the Pharisees being “amazed” at what Jesus had spoken to them. Again, this may have to do with the context of Matthew’s audience: Jewish-Christians among the Jews. If the Pharisees – the keepers of the Jewish laws and faith – can be amazed by Jesus, then so, too, can the everyday 1C Jew.

 

We need to amaze people with Jesus,

 

not entrap them in order to exclude or persecute them. We need to reclaim the Gospel from the Pharisaic Christians and amaze people with the God of Love through Jesus Christ. We need to amaze people with what we understand Salvation through Jesus to be so that others want to join us to “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

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