Sunday, January 21, 2018
A Life Worthy of the Calling (Sermon)
“A Life Worthy of the Calling”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Paul loves God. He feels deep compassion for his fellow human beings. He’s invigorated by a relentless passion for the Gospel. Because faithfulness to Jesus is more important to Paul than loyalty to a great and powerful nation, the Apostle writes his letter to the Ephesians from a Roman prison.
Imprisoned but not encumbered, Paul, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, transforms his cell into a kind of hermitage. He uses his incarceration for creative ferment rather than for despair and lament. His letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for Christians who are struggling to be citizens of the kingdom of God in a world of empires and armies.
Listen for God’s Word in this portion of Paul’s letter:
14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 3:14-4:6)
“You are being rooted and grounded in love,” says Paul to people mired in violence and fear.
The Apostle situates the Ephesians within the unlimited “breadth and length and height and depth” of that love rather than the worldly boundaries of empire, because love, not power and wealth, opens the door to God’s fullness.
Domination is the principal attribute of empire, and it creates resentment and maintains temporary truce. Paul “begs” his readers to live humbly, gently, patiently, and peacefully, because these attributes create genuine unity and maintain lasting peace.
Paul is calling the Ephesians to embody the love of Jesus.
Last Saturday, I sat with my dad who was at his computer reflecting on a question I asked him. Drawing on Aristotle and Jesus, Dad referred to the politics of fear and vengeance. He mentioned the reality of what he calls “imperial selves and states that exist for their own [sake].” They’re dangerous, he says, because they will do anything in their own interest. When he talked about taking and managing existential risk for the sake of others, he referred to “Quakers, black churches in the south, and Christians in the middle east,” people who choose to live according to the demands of radical faithfulness to Jesus, even when faithfulness could mean being harmed, or killed, or simply demeaned by those who hold power. That kind of living requires a commitment to that actively engaged love called Agape.
The last thing Dad typed was, “So, Aristotle and Jesus agree – love that isn’t practical isn’t love.”1
“Love that isn’t practical isn’t love.”
In the wake of Martin Luther King Day, I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote it after he had been arrested for parading without a license. He and others had simply exercised their constitutional right to peaceful assembly. In an act of practical love, they protested segregation in one of America’s most racist cities. Taking exception to demonstrators, especially black demonstrators, Bull Connor, Birmingham’s infamous Commissioner for Public Safety, unleased his troops, who unleased their billy clubs and their dogs. Afterward, for eleven days in April of 1963, Dr. King sat in prison, in the state of Alabama, in the great and powerful nation of the United States of America. And he transformed his cell into a kind of hermitage. He used his incarceration for creative ferment rather than for despair and lament.
During Dr. King’s imprisonment, a group of white pastors criticized him. They said he should have waited for that demonstration. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a response to those pastors. It’s an epistle worthy of Paul. Writing with his characteristic eloquence, passion, and unflagging hope, Dr. King challenges those pastors, and all who call themselves Christians, to grow living tissue on our often-dead theological bones.
King’s words speak very personally to me. “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’”2
King suggests that churches led by such ministers tend to espouse a “completely other worldly religion” something rooted and grounded in the thin and rocky soil of pious platitudes and loveless inertia.
After reading Dr. King’s letter, this white pastor realizes once again, that when my life doesn’t reflect what my words say in this comfortable space, then I am using this sanctuary to seek sanctuary from God. I’m using my pastoral office to hide from God, even to deny God. Martin Luther King helps me to hear Paul’s words with new urgency: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
The life Paul talks about, is a life of practical, active, incarnate love. And because following Jesus includes social and political engagement on behalf of those without power or voice, it can be an uncomfortable life. Many within the church condemn Christians who live that life. They label them as radicals, as extremists.
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” says Dr. King. “‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them…’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’…And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [people] are created equal…’ So,” says Dr. King, “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?...Perhaps,” says King, “the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”3
It seems to me that if “extremists” are men and women who dare to recognize and uphold the holiness and the inherent value of all people, regardless of skin color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, social class, or any other category that alienates us one from another, then those extremists are what Jesus and Paul call disciples.4
In his epistle to new Christians, James declares that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) When reading the whole letter, it becomes clear that James is not advocating some kind of self-aggrandizing works righteousness. James refers to what he calls the “royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (2:8)
Like Jesus, Paul, and Martin Luther King, Jr., James challenges his readers to embody their faith. He calls them to live lives of practical, incarnate love, because “if love isn’t practical, it isn’t love.”
Agape love is “the power at work within us.” And only through that love does God “accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.”
1After I preached this sermon, someone made the comment that practicality is a very subjective category. He said that there could, indeed, be expressions of love that many would deem impractical. For example, he said, some who wanted to see racial equality addressed with greater decisiveness might argue that Dr. King’s non-violent protests were impractical. No single protest “achieved” the end of desegregation. And certainly, racial prejudice and injustice continue in 2018. So, I suggest that by “practical,” my father and I both are making the distinction between lip service to an ideal and some form of participation in a broader effort to engage positively in the world on behalf of other human beings – particularly those who suffer from injustice. I consider this consistent with what Dr. King meant when he distinguishes between “negative peace” and “positive peace.” In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King also makes a clear distinction between the movement in which he was a central figure and Elijah Muhammed’s black nationalist movement, which tended toward more violent action. One might argue that the black nationalist movement was more “practical” in that it confronted racial injustice with more immediate and militant force. And one could certainly argue that love for the black community motivated such actions. But King clearly wanted to use Jesus as his standard by which loving action was measured. And that precluded violence.
2 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html(This is just one of many sites that post Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”)
4I realize the danger of using the term extremism in today’s highly-polarized culture. The rhetoric of political and social extremes has gained traction in our current climate of fear and resentment. And it only serves to divide and alienate us all the more. I intend that term as descriptive of the specificity and the urgency of the Christian’s call to model his/her life on the life of Jesus as opposed to the prevailing and selfish forces of first-world politics and economics. (Again, I call attention to Dr. King’s distinction between his “direct action campaigns” and the more radical black nationalist movement.)