Saturday, January 28, 2012

Epiphany 4 2012

Epiphany 4B 2012

          So far this church year we’ve heard of Jesus’ birth, and his baptism, and the call of the first disciples. Today we hear of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, a ministry of teaching and healing that will lead to his death on the cross and his resurrection–death that destroys death and the power of sin, resurrection new life offered freely to all who will believe.

Jesus called his first disciples, 3 pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Nathaniel. The 7 of them go to Capernaum, Peter and Andrew’s home town, possibly because Peter’s mother-in-law was ill. On the Sabbath they went to services. The custom was that strangers with a recommendation were welcomed and invited to say a few words. Jesus message is given in St. Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe the good news.” 18 words that have changed lives ever since.

    St. Mark tells us, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The teachers of the law find 613 commandments in God’s law, the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. 365 negative commandments (the number of days in a solar year), and 248 positive commandments (thought to be the number of bones and significant organs in the human body), divided into 3 general categories: Mishpatim, commandments that make logical sense, forbidding murder, adultery, theft and “bearing false witness,” Edot, testimonies, such as Sabbath observance, and Chukim, whose rationale and purpose are no longer obvious in a post-Biblical context. Since the destruction of the Temple scholars reduce the number to 271, 77 positive and 194 negative commandments that can be observed today.  Anglican Christianity says, “Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christians . . . yet notwithstanding, no Christian . . . is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” (Article 7 of the 39)

    The teaching of the scribes was focused on obedience to the law as the response to God’s love and favor to his people. True obedience is obedience freely given in gratitude. We obey God’s moral law as an act of love, not from motives of fear. Judaism teaches obedience from motives of love and gratitude.

    When we come to love anyone we want to do what pleases them. As with our families, so much more with God. God has shown us what behavior pleases him, and we who love God want to do what pleases God.

    In our modern society people want to know and obey good rules of behavior, and institutions that promise such rules are attractive.  Preachers have been tempted for centuries to spend their time on the rules, and on trying to show their relevance to our lives.

    And inside each one of us is an adolescent pushing the envelope. Before comedian W.C. Fields, a long time skeptic, died in 1946 a friend saw him reading the Bible. When asked why, Fields replied, “I'm checking for loopholes.” God grant od’he came to faith and found them.  All of us spend some time looking for the loopholes, reasons why some part of God’s will for us that seems hard doesn’t apply.  In 1910, G.K. Chesterton wrote in England, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (What’s wrong with the world, 1910)

    The teaching of the scribes, like preaching in the 18th century and since, was about how to know and do the will of God as revealed in his law. That’s what they thought the people needed and wanted. But that kind of law-focused preaching tends us to think that we can get right with God, that we can be justified, simply by keeping the law. And that’s wrong. It gets religion backwards. We obey God’s law not in order to be justified, but because we are justified first. God sets us right with him by grace, received by faith in the saving death of Jesus, faith that makes us, as hymn 410 says, “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, evermore his praises sing.” Jesus preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe the good news.” We repent, we are forgiven by God’s free grace in Jesus.

    No wonder the people “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”  Catholic and Anglican teaching is that the final authority for Christians actions is the informed conscience, God the Holy Spirit working in us as we read the Bible, as we seek to inform ourselves about the particulars of the decision we are called to make, and as we pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I am told that Baptist Christians call this “soul competency.” By whatever name, God is the final authority. He made us because he loves us, and when asked what is the great commandment in the law–which of the 613 do we obey first - Jesus quoted from the Bible, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    I want to close with a charge to the vestry and altar guild members we will induct, and give a pin to, this day. It has been my privilege and pleasure to serve with you as your regular supply priest for almost a year. Fr. Ramone begins next Sunday and I know you will welcome him with the same grace and friendship with which you welcomed me. He and I have agreed that I will offer to supply on the Sundays he will be away. I encourage you, wardens, vestry, altar guild, and congregation, to continue as you have in good works, in worship, and you are blessed with good lay readers, hymn pickers, and schedulers, in your educational program, in your care for these wonderful grounds and church, and in your service in this community.

    Remember that we are all sinners, sinners saved by God’s grace in Jesus’ death and resurrection, “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, evermore his praises sing!” and live by God’s law as Jesus states it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Amen.

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