The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18A): September 7, 2014
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good morning, St. Michael’s! And welcome back here as we launch into a new program year.
These days after Labor Day have always been a time to reset—a time to refocus after the summer. Of course, we all learned to see these first days of September as a new starting line when we were in school, right?
Like the new year, this too is a moment for new beginnings—When many of us desire to dig in and set a new course. I am certainly feeling that this year: And not only here at St. Michael’s, where Sunday School is about to start; where we begin a new Bible Study on Wednesday, and where we have our first Men’s Retreat in recent memory this coming weekend. I am also thinking about that for myself—time to start a new diet; time to resolve to clean my desk and keep it that way; time to refocus.
All of this new resolve in my life draws me to verse 11 of today’s epistle lesson: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
The Letter to the Romans is the writing of the mature Paul – as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago this may be the last letter we have from him. After more than 20 years of teaching, preaching and writing, Paul give us a summary of his ideas – sort of his “what matters most” sermons.
In this section of the epistle, Paul has turned his attention to the end times – the Apocalypse. In the first eleven chapters he builds a theological foundation, and then in chapters 12 and 13 he brings those ideas to their conclusion in part with an examination of how we might prepare for the second coming of Christ.
Remember that Paul was writing at a time when the end of ages was understood to be right around the corner – and so he wanted to be sure that his listeners were behaving themselves in a way that would pay off at judgment day.
That meant things couldn’t be business as usual. The theme of these two chapters is clearly set out in the second verse of chapter 12, which we read two weeks ago: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Paul says his listeners must step out of the world as it is, and instead live a life intentionally focused on the coming age of Christ. And Paul and his readers understood that that new age had already been inaugurated, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And so here in chapter 13 Paul tells his readers that this is the moment to wake from sleep—to stop just going through the motions and to become alert to the world around them.
Have you ever felt like you were just sleepwalking through life? That you weren’t a participant in the world, but rather only a spectator? I think this is the condition that Paul is speaking to. Too often we live one-step removed from everything around us.
Of course, that’s a protection mechanism, isn’t it? Certainly we who live in New York know how to keep our heads down and not get involved. It would be foolish—and also absolutely exhausting—if we tried to engage with everything that goes on around us in this busy city. We keep our guard up—and remain aloof—out of self-preservation.
And you know, we do just fine living in this sleepy way. Things get done; bills get paid; school papers get written; everything is OK.
But life lived this way can quickly hollow out the heart. We can become numb to the world, and that numbness can dull us until we don’t even see the world going by. None of us want to get to the end of our days on earth to discover that we slept through it all, do we?
Paul suggests that we know this—that we know that we must find a new way to live. And he points to the simple answer: A life lived in love. He understands that love “serves as an identity marker or descriptor of the Christian community.”[i]
Paul explains that love is the basis of the commandments; they can be summed up with the understanding that we should love your neighbors as ourselves.
Paul goes on to paint a picture of the contrast between a life asleep and a life of love. Because he is thinking in apocalyptic terms, he uses the metaphors of that language: night vs. day, darkness vs. light, etc. All of this contrasting language helps the reader understand that a life lived in Christ is most often the polar opposite of the life of the world—the life of self-centered egotism.
Paul quickly goes on to a list of the evils he deplores—reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness. I hope this is not to focus on the ways that we fall short (this is the way we often think of Paul, as a finger-waving know-it-all), but rather to continue with the literary device of contrast. He contrasts these self-centered vices with the challenge to live a life focused on emulating the love of Christ. These behaviors are all, at their core, self-centered; and the way of love looks outward – to others.
He concludes this passage with a different metaphor—another way to understand how we are called to behave in preparation for the end of times. He urges us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” to literally step into a life clothed in the person of Jesus.
How would our lives be different if we put on the Lord Jesus Christ each morning? What might that look like for you?
Theologian Mary Hinkle Shore says that, “putting on the Lord Jesus…is as public an activity as wearing new clothes….It bears witness to the hope that it is in us. Lives characterized by loving one’s neighbor as oneself offer testimony to an alternative future.”[ii]
Now I know that many of you are awake – and that you have found opportunities to step into the world clothed in the love of Christ. Perhaps you dared to leave a lucrative but meaningless career for work that was focused on the needs of others; maybe you adopted a child that needed to know that he or she was loved; or maybe you have made a significant commitment to support life-giving work with your gifts of time and money.
But I dare say that some of you are sleeping; well, it’s time to wake up! Now I know it’s hard to be motivated by the same things that motivated Paul’s readers; after all, it’s been almost 2,000 years since the death and resurrection of Christ—the event which began the age of the second coming—and still, we wait. And we don’t know what that second coming will look like.
But I think that our alertness—our embodiment of Jesus and his love—hastens the coming reign of Christ on earth. Perhaps the second coming is not simply about the bodily appearance of Christ, but is also about a time when the whole world takes on Christ’s likeness—the time when we are all living by the light of love, all being Christ for one another.
Dare to embody the love of Christ every day. I can’t tell you what that might mean for you; only you can ultimately know what that looks like. But the good news is that you are here, in a community of people that can help you figure this out—and that you can look to as models of lives awake, lived in the clothing of Christ.
And I wonder if this also a call to St. Michael’s Church. At this time of transition, are we fully awake to the world outside our doors? As we contemplate a new beginning with a new leader, are we looking around with eyes wide open to see how we can embody the love of Christ in this place? And is this place fully clothed in Christ? Are there ways that we might better “put on Christ” in this place?
These ideas are put forward by Paul—and by me—not as challenges to you, but rather as opportunities. Christ, through his life, his death and his resurrection, has pointed to the most-fulfilling way to live: in love. We have been given a gift in the life of Christ. We have been shown the simple way to abundant life, through a life actively lived in love. What a great opportunity we have, as the body of Christ, to be love for a world in need.
Another theologian, David Jacobson, puts it this way:
[Paul] refuses to set up love as a big, shadowy ‘ought.’ Instead, [he] sets love firmly in the light, that is, God’s dawning light of the new [era]. In other words, we don’t love because we should love. Rather, we love because God’s ever-lovin’ day is about to dawn.
Perhaps this is why Charles Wesley ended his famous hymn with this verse:
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
God calls us to love not as a task long-ago given, but because our destiny is to be “lost” in such wonder and love.”[iii]
I dare you to wake up to the possibility of a world ruled by love—and to examine your own life to find opportunities to be God’s partner in finishing the new creation.
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Amen.
[i] Fernandez, Eleazr S., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 38.
[ii] Shore, Mary Hinkle [Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN], http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/4/2011&tab=3. Accessed 9/1/2011.
[iii] Jacobson, David S., http://web.wlu.ca/seminary/dsj/apoca1.html. Accessed 9/1/2011.