Monday, July 15, 2013

growing into faith

All Saints Episcopal Church
Proper 10, Year C, Track 2 (readings here)
July 14, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

At first glance, it appears that the community of the Colossians is too good to be true. The Colossians, “once estranged and hostile in mind” (Col 1:21), have done a 180 and have been completely transformed, all because they have heard the gospel. We don’t know to what degree they were bad before, but we do know that they were “doing evil deeds” (v. 21). And now, all of a sudden, they are a model faith community. When faced with an idyllic example like this, it can be intimidating and it can even turn us off: “There’s no way we could ever be like that community. We’re not perfect. We might as well stop while we’re behind.” 

But while the Colossians are good Christians, it doesn’t mean that they are perfect. A closer look reveals that the transition is not necessarily as smooth or quick as we might presume. The gospel has been “bearing fruit among” the community (v. 6). Their transformation has not happened overnight! They have been steadily growing in their “knowledge of God” (v. 10), and to assist them, Paul and his companions ceaselessly pray for this growth to continue. The Colossians don’t master being Christian after hearing the Gospel once; they are constantly discovering what being a Christian means, constantly discovering how to apply the words to their lives. 

The passage tells us that, among other things, a life of faith takes strength, reminds us to be thankful, and urges us to “endure everything with patience” (v. 11). I don’t know about you, but more often than not I find it difficult to be strong, I regularly forget to be thankful, and many times I have little to no patience. I think that last one is probably the most difficult for me. In an age when so many things are instantly accessible, when questions can be answered within minutes, if not seconds, I have become increasingly more impatient. I want to know now. I do so many things in the name of saving time, but then I often end up wasting time on the internet. And then there’s driving. I may be a small, soft-spoken person, but when I get behind the wheel I get angry--irrationally so. Let’s just say I’m not very forgiving and don’t always have the most charitable thoughts toward other drivers. 

Being a Christian is hard work! Our baptismal covenant acknowledges this. One of the questions reads, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (BCP 304). It doesn’t say, “if you happen to accidentally sin”, it says “whenever you...sin” (ibid; emphasis my own). Face it: we are going to sin. We’re human; it’s inevitable. Now, that doesn’t mean we have free rein to do whatever we want. We should be continuously striving to resist evil and the things that separate us from God. But just because we are sinners, it doesn’t mean that God can’t use us. After all, some of the most important leaders in the Bible did some pretty awful things (Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer who had his mistress’ husband killed, and Paul was on a mission to kill all the Christians before being converted to Christianity himself). But these leaders acknowledged their sins and experienced the grace of God’s forgiveness. 

Throughout the Bible there is a cycle of faith, sin, redemption, and restoration, and this is reflected in our liturgy, in our rituals of faith. In our service we listen to the words of Scripture, we reaffirm our faith in the creed, we remember our sins and receive forgiveness, and receive nourishment for the spiritual journey ahead. When we are baptized, it does not mean that we will be magically transformed into perfect Christians. It does not guarantee that our life will be easier or that all our problems will disappear. But it does mean that we will become members of a larger family, the Body of Christ, a family that is broken like we are, but that works together to support each other in faith and to help each other follow the way of Christ. 

I experienced the power of the Body of Christ first-hand. When I was a sophomore in high school, my family went through a particularly difficult experience. Our church was right there, supporting us, calling us, and loving us. There was no judgment, no pointing fingers; just lots of cards and hugs. In that period of darkness we were surrounded by love and prayer so strong it was almost palpable. Time eventually brought healing, but it was the love of Christ demonstrated by our Christian community that really made the difference.  

The Gospel reading for today reiterates how to be the Body of Christ. In the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn that when you truly love “your neighbor as yourself” you are promising to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, even those outside your circle of friends, outside your ethnicity, or even outside your faith (Luke 10:27; BCP 305). We are to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). This is what we promise when we are baptized. 

But being part of the Body of Christ doesn’t just mean that we are a social club that gets together weekly to talk about our problems and make each other feel good. Being the Body of Christ also means that we “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP 305). When we are baptized, we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and living this experience of God’s grace, forgiveness, and promise of everlasting life should give us so much hope that we can’t keep it contained! I’m not saying that we should necessarily go door to door trying to convert everyone, but we should not be ashamed of our faith, either. We don’t need to bring it up in every conversation we have, but we also shouldn’t shy away from it (I’m saying this to myself as much as to all of you). 

Last night we welcomed Max and Sadie into the Christian life. We promised to “do all in [our] power to support these persons in their life in Christ” (BCP 303). We will teach them the stories of Jesus and the rituals of our faith. We will listen as they discover and try to articulate what they believe. We will do our best to answer their questions. And above all, we will pray for them. This is what we promise to do for every one of our brothers and sisters in Christ, whether or not we are present at their baptism.   

If all of this seems like an overwhelming burden, know that we are not alone. When we renew our baptismal covenant, don’t forget that we (or our Godparents, on our behalf), promise to do all of these things “with God’s help” (BCP 304-305). God will be with us as we attempt to live out a life of faith. God will be with us as we struggle with difficult questions (and difficult people). God will be with us when we mourn and when we celebrate. 

We live in the hope that God has “rescued us from the power of darkness”, granted us “redemption, the forgiveness of sins”, and “enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (vv. 13, 14, 12). With Good News such as this, we, like the Colossians, can be transformed. It doesn’t mean that we will be perfect Christians; we will mess up, time and time again. But as we “grow in the knowledge of God”, we will “bear fruit” (v. 10). We already are--in our service to the hungry and the children of Miller Park, in our offerings of Christian education and Vacation Bible School, and in our time of worship together. We welcome the baptized into a community where the love of Christ shines through. May we help strengthen them, teach them patient endurance, and give them many reasons to be thankful. Thanks be to God!