August 26, 2018

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

In Frederick Buechner’s book The Magnificent Defeat, he gives an insightful sermon based on our Epistle passage this morning entitled “The Two Battles.” In it Buechner describes two different types of war:

“Whatever we do, to live is to do battle under many different flags, and of all our battles, there are two, I believe, that are major ones.

The first is a war of conquest, which is a war to heat the blood of even the most timorous, because one way or another we all fight to conquer, and what we fight to conquer is the world. Not literally the world, perhaps, although like Walter Mitty we may dream a little in that direction sometimes; but for the most part our goal is a more realistic one: just a place in the world, a place in the sun, our place… We feel that we must conquer a territory in time and space that will be ours.

If that is the goal of this war of conquest that we all must wage, there are also the adversaries with whom we have to wage it; and they are adversaries of flesh and blood. They are human beings like ourselves, each of whom is fighting the same war toward the same end and under a banner emblazoned with the same word that our banners bear, and that word is of course Myself, or Myself and my Family, or Myself and my Country, Myself and my Race, which are all really MYSELF writ large.

To use the metaphor of Ephesians, what is the armor to wear in such a war? Not, certainly, the whole armor of God here but, rather, the whole armor of humanity, because this is humanity's war against other people. In such a war, perhaps, you wear something like this. Gird your loins with wisdom, the sad wisdom of the world, which knows that dog eats dog, that the gods help those who help themselves and charity begins at home. Put on the breastplate of self-confidence because if you have no faith in yourself, if you cannot trust to your own wits, then you will never get anywhere. Let your feet be shod with the gospel of success-the good news that you can get just about anything in this world if you want it badly enough and are willing to fight for it. Above all, take the shield of security because in a perilous world where anything can happen, security is perhaps what you need more than anything else - the security of money in the bank, or a college degree, or some basic skill that you can always fall back on. And take the helmet of attractiveness or personality and the sword of wit.”

Then Buechner goes on to describe the “other” kind of war—the one of which Paul speaks:

“But there is another war that we fight, of course, all of us, and this one is not a war against flesh and blood. ‘For we are not contending against flesh and blood,’ the letter reads. Then against what? What worse is there to contend against in this world than other people? "The principalities . . . the powers . . . the world rulers of this present darkness . . . the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places," Paul writes.

This other war is the war not to conquer but the war to become whole and at peace inside our skins. It is a war not of conquest now but of liberation because the object of this other war is to liberate that dimension of selfhood which has somehow become lost, that dimension of selfhood that involves the capacity to forgive and to will the good not only of the self but of all other selves. This other war is the war to become a human being. This is the goal that we are really after and that God is really after. This is the goal that power, success, and security, are only forlorn substitutes for. This is the victory that not all our human armory of self-confidence and wisdom and personality can win for us - not simply to be treated as human but to become at last truly human.”

One of my seminary professors, Kenneth Kinghorn, wrote a book entitled, Christ Can Make You Fully Human. When I first encountered this little book in seminary, I questioned the thesis of his title. In my naïve and immature understanding of God’s redemptive plan I wondered, doesn’t God want us to be more than human, to be like Christ. Isn’t humanity broken and damaged and sinful and in need of divine intervention so that we might be something other than frail humanity.

But Professor Kinghorn helped me see what the Psalmist had known millennia ago, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made;” and what the story of Genesis tells us so beautifully, that “God saw all that God had made and said it was very good;” and at the creation of humanity that we are made “in the image and likeness of God.” No, God doesn’t desire for us to be something other than what God has created us to be, God desires for us to be wholly, completely who God has made us to be – fully human, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

What we see in Jesus is not only the fullest expression of who God is, but also the blueprint for humanity. Jesus is the second Adam, the one who demonstrates what it means to be truly human. The one who lives the fullness of the human experience and shows us that the way of the cross is the way of life, that the way of love is the path to fulfillment; the one that touches the untouchable, has table-fellowship with the undesirables; and brings a new understanding of what it means to be righteous, not in outward appearance, but in inward purity of heart.

This is the Jesus we are empowered by the Spirit to follow, not just individually, but in community, with people who have been called together by the Holy Spirit to embody Jesus’ new humanity – to welcome the sinner and the saint into the fellowship of love; to call those who have been excluded and injured by the Church and the world to come to a place called Grace, where they can experience anew the invitation of Jesus, to come to the table where Jesus turns no one away, and to partake of the bread of life, and in so doing to experience the same forgiveness and love that those first disciples did and that every generation for two thousand years, on every Sunday and weekday since that first Last Supper has encountered - the living Christ.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”