God’s Nature & God’s People (Isaiah 53:4-12; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Mark 10:35-45)
Almost every Sunday, no matter what other words I use to pronounce the benediction, I always repeat the words from the very end of 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Some of you may have wondered why I can’t find a new tune to play or some new words to utter after all these 15+ years. One of my colleagues used to distribute a hand out of approximately five typewritten sheets on the front and back, in 10 point font, with different words from the scriptures and elsewhere to use at the end of services. I have at least a dozen so-called Minister’s Manuals that give other benedictions, so there is no shortage of material. I have chosen these words to end each service, as much as any reason, because of how the Apostle said what he did. Look where he started. He starts with grace – unmerited favour, unearned good will and good actions, something no one can earn and no one can buy – and it is not just anybody’s grace, it is the grace of Jesus. Paul used two titles to describe Jesus. The first word, “Lord,” is a name which would have played differently in the two worlds Paul inhabited. In the Hebrew world, “Lord” was the normal substitution for the very personal Hebrew name of God Yahweh, the so-called Ineffable Name. Hebrew scribes would substitute the vowels of the word “Lord” with the consonants of this most sacred name in the text of the Hebrew Bible, so that when people came onto this sacred name in a text, they would read the word “Lord” instead, so as not to pronounce Yahweh’s name at the same time a sin could be on their tongue. In Paul’s Greek world, where he did his mission work, the title “Lord” was one that was taken by the emperor. To call Jesus “Lord” in that world could be a dangerous act of political subversion. It said that Jesus, and even the grace of Lord Jesus, ruled over those who spoke this way, rather than the domination of Lord Caesar. Not just a nice little religious phrase that, but one that carried a real-life political, economic message: The Lord Jesus. What we received from our sovereign is grace, not domination.
Beyond that, there is also the title “Christ,” which many people think was Jesus’ last name. Not so. It is the Greek word used to translate the old Hebrew term messiah, meaning “anointed.” The messiah was the one whom God would anoint, or set apart, to save the messiah’s people from all that threatened them, politically and in every other way. In Jesus, the early Christians confessed that they found the fulfillment of what they, as Jews, were looking for, the Messiah. I grant you, it was in a different way than they thought. Jesus did not deliver them from tyranny in an immediate political and military way, with the thunder of legions of soldiers with weapons at the ready in order to force compliance. Rather, Messiah Jesus delivered them in a spiritual way that helped to transcend tyranny in their hearts, and, in quite a few places, abolish it in the long haul in the greater world.
Paul’s words go on to say “the love of God.” There are many characteristics of God that Paul could have named – power, holiness, knowledge – but this one is what Paul chose: Love. It is that same wonderful word for love (agape) that Paul held up and sang about in 1 Corinthians 13.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends… (1 Cor. 13:4-8a)
This, to Paul here, is the central affirmation to make about God. And, if there’s only one, this one has to be it: Love, not fuzzy feeling, but active good will without self-interest.
Further, the words speak of the communion, the common sharing together, of the Holy Spirit. Paul is writing to Corinth, that was a stormy congregation that loved to fight, especially about the mighty acts of which the Spirit was capable: speaking in other tongues, miraculous healings, and so on. Now, no one knew the mighty acts of the Spirit better than Paul, but he chose here to speak of just one: communion. This communion is a sharing together not only with God (vertically, so to speak), but with one another as sisters and brothers in the community birthed by Christ’s grace that led into God’s love (horizontally).
What I continue to be interested in, here, however, is how Paul said what he said. Just about everyone knows that most Christians speak of God (and we do too), as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, or more traditionally, Father, Son , and Holy Spirit. Paul, at a much earlier date than these classic formulations about God, used a different order than the traditional one, and different terms: The Lord Jesus Christ, God, Holy Spirit.
And here is the nub of why I use this benediction each week. It is to remind us, at least once in the service (and I hope I do it more than once) of the point that Paul makes here by using the order he does. The lens through which we see both God and the Holy Spirit is Jesus. One of the oldest questions in the world is “What is the nature of God?” “What is God like?” “What’s beyond us?” What force or being (or even beings) is/are at the centre of the universe of human experience? The Christian response to this question is, if we want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus’ life and teachings. Look at Jesus’ death and resurrection. And, believe it or not, look at Jesus’ community – the Church. God is like this: Jesus’ grace leads us to God’s love, which unites us in bonds that transcend diversity in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We would do well if we could affirm these three as taproots of our experience.
The Gospel Lesson in Mark relates that Jesus was trying to cope with disciples who didn’t get what being the Messiah or followers of the Messiah was all about. Everyone who has tried to teach anybody anything has experienced what it’s like for students not to get it. One of the things that, especially in my early days of teaching, used to upset me, was when students didn’t get what I thought was very clear. In more recent days it doesn’t upset me so much as it causes me to question whether I’ve lost the ability to communicate. But that’s what teaching (and ministry) is like. Sometimes it doesn’t go well, and it’s hard to know whether it’s because the students are thick as bricks, or whether the material is more difficult than the teacher remembered. I have come to realize, however, that it’s not because the students (or the professor) are evil
One of the students in Jesus’ class – Simon Peter – caught just a glimpse of the truth back in Mark chapter 8 when he said: “Jesus, you are the Messiah.” Jesus knew however that Peter’s mind, heart, and values were someplace else and he said, “Don’t talk about this.” Instead Jesus busied himself teaching Peter and his classmates that the Messiah would suffer and die and be raised to new life. That didn’t penetrate, especially when you weren’t brought up to think the Messiah was supposed to suffer or die, and didn’t know what a resurrection was. Jesus said, “You’ve got to take up your cross to follow me.” He said, “Saving yourself will only result in losing yourself.” Neither or those things made any sense. Again, he talked about his suffering and death and rising. This time Mark clearly says, “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). I cannot imagine that Jesus was not frustrated. As I just said in different words, their understanding was that God was like Caesar, except on their side. God was all about the kind of might that would kick the Romans all the way back to Italy. God, of course, only thought well of the chosen people, and that’s us, you know. Others could be mistreated at will, by God or us. Have we changed so much?
In fact, Jesus was taking his cue for what his mission was and what God was like from such passages as our Old Testament Lesson about one who actually suffered redemptively on behalf of others, who was bruised and broken so others might live. When the disciples came to Jesus, they were still thinking of a messiah as one who exercised great power and authority over people to force them to do his bidding and, as old preachers used to say, “get right with God” by overwhelming them.
Just before our Gospel lesson today, Peter had asked what they, who had given up much to follow Jesus would get out of the deal. Jesus had promised much. James and John, who came to Jesus, seem a bit smug in their assurance that they were the leaders of the elite of Jesus’ followers, but they were a little worried that Peter had asked ahead of them, and they wanted Jesus to work a special deal for them: they wanted Jesus to submit to their request to be the first and second mates of the good ship Bound-for-Glory of which Jesus was, of course, the captain. Jesus replied, “You haven’t the slightest idea of the cost of those positions, nor of the job description.” What he meant was that, if you want to know what God is like, you’ll have to pay closer attention to my mission. You’ll have to understand that it includes crosses and losses and being for others rather than for yourselves. Jesus, using the images of drinking a cup and being baptized said to them, “You don’t get it now, but before you’re all done, you will.” As it happened, James died very early in the history of the church (44 CE). John, though he lived to a ripe old age, was a victim of many persecutions and trials before he learned what God was like. They thought that following Jesus was all about victory over enemies and all the rest of it. They found that it was all about loving your enemies and sharing the common calling to servanthood and suffering with others to bring them wholeness. It infuriated the other ten disciples, this business with James and John. The implication of the story is that it made them angry, not because James and John got it impossibly wrong, but because they got in ahead of them. We can almost sense Jesus letting out a great sigh and uttering what’s recorded beginning at Mark 10:42:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mk. 10:42-45)
Why do you think that Jesus said that the Messiah was supposed to die and those who follow the Messiah must find their greatness in gentleness and service and bringing peace? I suggest to you that it’s because he knew what God is like. God’s power is not just raw, naked force, but power used to empower, to lift up, to encourage, to solidify, to build up those who need it, to embrace the unembraceable God honours those who come as children do, with openness and with humility. That is because God chooses to reveal the divine will in openness and humility. Across the pages of Holy Writ, we find that God has a heart for the poor and downtrodden. That is because God knows what it is like to be rejected and misused in the world.
Jesus revealed God as the one who takes suffering, grief, sorrow, joy, pain, pleasure – all of life up into the divine life and makes it count for something. God is the one who calls a community to be a community of bearing with one another of laughing, of weeping, of putting restless hearts at peace, and making them instruments of the divine peace and wholeness. Jesus knew that what God’s like, at base, was summed up by the words grace, love, and communion. Augustine said: “O Lord, thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” So it is. What is God’s nature? God is like Jesus, who is both Lord and Messiah, but who is also the Servant King of the Church.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.