Many of you have asked me questions about where we’re living so I thought I’d let you know that my family and I moved into the neighborhood on Tuesday.
I think we can all agree it was perfect weather for grinding manual labor, as hot and moist as the devil’s undercarriage.
About moving- let me tell, it’s exhausting…
….watching my wife haul and unpack all those boxes.
Since last Sunday’s sermon, many of you have asked me other questions too.
“You seem so dignified- was that really you dancing in the picture?”
“Are you always sarcastic?”
“Does it usually take you so long in your sermons to get to the point?”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a dead-ringer for Ryan Gosling?”
The best question I got from a few of you.
It’s a question that gets right to the heart of the Apostle Paul’s rhetoric here in the first chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians.
In so many words, the question you asked me was this one:
If God chose us from before the foundation of the world
If everything has already been done- everything for your redemption, everything for your justification, everything for your salvation- by Christ for you
Then why bother?
In other words:
If you’re already and always forgiven in Christ, then why bother with Christianity?
Doesn’t that strike you as superfluous as purchasing the service plan at Best Buy?
If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?
Because you don’t you know- have any reason to fear.
Fear God or fear for your salvation.
As St. Paul says here in verse 20, Christ has sat down at the right hand of the Father.
As the Book of Hebrews puts it, Christ’s sitting down marks the cessation of God’s judgement, for Christ our Great High Priest has offered himself as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for your every sin.
Christ has sat down from his work.
Never to get up again.
And though we still like to the play the judgement game with each other, he’s taken a seat from it and put up his feet, with all our sins forgotten underneath his heels, like a father waiting for his prodigal child to come home.
You are forgiven.
You have no reason to fear.
Because, as Paul says here in verse 23, the pleroma, the fullness, the plentitude, the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus who bore your sins in his body upon the tree.
You’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully, Paul says, and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Jesus Christ in whom God fully dwells.
Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word here at the end of Ephesians 1.
Fully: there is no lack in your relationship with God.
From God’s side there’s not.
No other book of the New Testament stresses the completeness of what Christ has done like the Book of Ephesians.
There is no tension in Ephesians between the already and the not yet.
In Ephesians, it’s all already.
It’s all been done.
What he has done for you- it’s fact.
And it has nothing to do with how you feel about him.
Christ’s incorporation of you has happened- literally- over your dead body, your sin-dead body, when you were buried with him in your baptism.
From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.
Because you are fully in him.
And in him, you are forever safe from the wages of your sin.
He has sat down from his work with all our sins beneath his feet- that’s a sign as obvious as an empty tomb.
A sign that God forever rejects our rejection of him.
God literally does not give a damn anymore.
But, that begs the question, your question:
If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all
If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God
If God’s grace is not transactional
If there’s no work you must do to merit it
Then, why bother following?
Why bother giving up your time on a Sunday morning?
Why bother forking over your hard-earned dough into the offering plate?
Why bother entangling your life with someone as crazy Peter or as challenging as Chenda?
If we have no reason to fear God, if we are in him and all our sins sit forever underneath his feet, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ?
Why would you bother?
Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?
Why bother arguing about welcoming the stranger and caring for the immigrant in your land?
Why all the heartache and anxiety about it if, when you don’t welcome or care for them, Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?
What’s the point?
What’s the benefit to you?
If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’ve nothing to earn from him that isn’t already yours, then why bother following the hard and peculiar path laid out by Christ?
We don’t have the cable hooked up at the new house yet; however, I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone.
So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 8 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos or Westworld right there on my phone.
Or, if I want to see more of Matthew McConaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.
Earlier this week, while Ali was busy hauling and unpacking boxes, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I rewatched this little documentary from 2011 about Delores Hart.
Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.
Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams.
After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.
She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.
Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect.
In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat.
After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence.
“I had it all, everything really, but my life wasn’t full,” she says in the documentary.
So, she quit her acting gigs.
She got rid of all her baubles.
And she broke off her engagement.
She renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.
What’s more remarkable-
What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it.
This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular.
Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it.
They’re drawn into it.
They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life.
Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation- her life in Christ- is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, they think her life is captivating, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life not just captivating but beautiful.
You can tell these Hollywood have-it-alls, they suspect that maybe she is somehow more human than they are.
More fully human.
Why we follow even though there’s nothing for us to fear.
Why we bother even though there’s absolutely nothing we need to earn we’ve not already been given by grace.
We are fully in him, that’s true- fully forgiven, with no more we must do, with no reason we ought to fear.
We are fully in him.
But we are not fully like him.
I know I’m not, and I’ve only been here a week but I know- neither are you, not by a long shot.
We are fully in him but we are not fully like him.
And if he is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble him.
The image of God is not ours innately, by nature; it’s ours by imitation.
If he is the first born of creation, the first fruit of the new creation, as Paul says in Corinthians, then what it means for us to be a human creature is for us to look like and live like him.
If he is the Second Adam, as Paul names him, then he is who we were meant to be all along from Adam on down.
If the fullness of God fills Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God fills our flesh with himself and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven one day but because we hope one day to become human.
We do the things that Jesus did not because we’re commanded to do the things that Jesus did.
The Gospel, declares Galatians, is that Christ has set us free from the Law.
His obedience has freed us from the burden of obeying the commandments, even his commandments.
So don’t you dare give me that verse about the sheep and the goats because the Gospel is that the Good Shepherd became a goat so that a goat like you might be counted among his faithful flock.
Christ has set us free from any anxiety about obeying the commandments, even his commandments.
We do the things that Jesus did not because we’re commanded to do the things that Jesus did.
We do the things that Jesus did because Jesus did them.
And his is what a fully alive life looks like.
The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7, and intimidated by a love that washes the feet of strangers and enemies is that we’re not yet, fully, completely human.
As human as…God.
We get it backwards.
It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be.
Before it’s anything else, the Church- it’s the ultimate recovery program.
It’s a community for all of us addicts hooked on the highs of our un-human habits.
And just as in AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Or, as St. Paul puts it: “While we were yet sinners…”
The Church- before it’s anything else, it’s a recovery program.
Where once a week we’ll hand a self-involved narcissist like yourself a cup of coffee and force you (with hymns and stained-glassed language) to confront the fact that you are not the center of the universe.
We call that step “worship.”
The Church- it’s like a 12 step recovery program.
Fo you with your log-jammed eyes, content to let the sun go down on your anger, we have a step called “confession and pardon.” Don’t kid yourself, it’s not for God to forgive you- you’re already forgiven. It’s for God to make stubborn unforgiving you a more forgiving person; that is, more fully human.
For you addicted to the tit-for-tat way of this un-human world, we’ll force you to do something odd called passing the peace.
For you who is a junkie to the delusion that what you have is yours by your own doing, we’ll pass you not the peace but a plate where you will recover a creature’s sense of gratitude to the Creator from whom all blessings flow.
For you who are anxious about accruing not just for tomorrow but for the next day and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that, we’ve got a prayer (not about serenity) about daily bread.
For you hooked on the high that comes from the illusion that you are responsible for this world, we’ve got the same prayer.
It goes “Thy Kingdom come…” in order to teach thou that its not your Kingdom to bring. Or, even, to build.
For you used to using your talents to take and make, we have this table of wine and bread, where all you can do is receive.
And by the way, it’s a table reserved not for the best and the brightest but for betrayers- learning that is a hard step on the path to recovery too.
We’ve got other steps too, like rolling up your sleeves and serving your neighbor so that you can no longer convince yourself that God is the stuff of idle, pious speculation because you’ve met Him in them, just as He promised you would.
Before it’s anything else, the Church is a recovery program where you learn through word and sacrament and service to say “Hi, my name is Jason and I’m a sinner which is to say I need to find my humanity.”
When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.
She thought the wedding dress was the perfect sign to others that fullness of life comes not from the things with which we so often try to fill our lives: career, children, relationships, riches, reputation, success.
She thought the wedding dress was the perfect sign for others of where- in whom- fullness of life was to be found.
And were that it, it’d be a nice uplifting story, right?
The perfect sort of slice of life story to end a sermon.
Except, St. Paul says that at your baptism you were clothed in the wedding garment of Christ’s own righteousness.
And here in Ephesians Paul says not only that Christ was fully God and that you are fully in him but that you are fully him. You are his Body.
He has no other Body but you the baptized.
In other words-
By virtue of your baptism, you’re wearing Delores’ wedding dress.
Which makes you not just an addict in recovery.
It makes you a sponsor.
For the sake of others.
For the sake of them finding their full humanity.
And that’s my final answer.