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Discovered this at the Met today, a painting by Jusepe de Ribera. There’s Peter, holding the keys to the Kingdom, and there’s Paul, with the hilt of a sword (alluding to this martyr’s death) leaned against the wall behind him.
You can see the conviction, passion, and respect each one has for the other. Their faces are only inches from one another, but you can tell, “>especially from Paul’s eyes, that they’re not about to spit in each other’s faces–there is deep, abiding trust and respect and zeal between them. They are brothers through Jesus Christ.
Here, they’re passionately debating the Matter at Antioch, according to de Ribera; which at least in part concerned the place of the Hebrews–Jews–and the Old Covenant since the chronological arrival of Jesus Christ.
I was struck at how this depicts in practically iconic form the strife of our own day and Church (Anglicanism). Because we are a body that stakes its claim on community and incarnation, we’re meant to fight it out and to disagree with vigor (but with compassion and patience!) rather than looking to one supreme ruler to hand down decisions, or breaking up into camps the moment we can’t see eye-to-eye. We in the Episcopal Church haven’t done a very good job of living into the example our brethren present to us above (or in Acts, or Galatians).
The thing I observe to be missing most is respect. More than “tolerance,” respect demands a patient and humble compassion. It is not that we are to cover up or ignore or avoid disagreements at all costs, but that when tension results amidst our convictions, we pursue them patiently, humbly, compassionately together.
May de Ribera’s piece serve as an icon for us, as we seek to be patient, humble, and compassionate with each other and with ourselves.
Earlier this week, everybody’s favorite scientist from the 1990s, Bill Nye, went head-to-head with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. It was the sort of showdown that you hoped both sides knew better than to engage, and yet there they were on network television on Tuesday night. They were there to try to settle once and for all whether the world was created by God or came to be through evolution.
The problem that neither one seemed to notice, however, is that effectively, one of them came with a goalie stick, full hockey pads, and a helmet, while the other one came dressed ready to play catcher in a game of baseball. They were both well-prepared, they had worked through all the proper arguments, each one was well-versed in the game that he was ready to play.
The problem is that they were ready to play different games, and even worse, they’d both showed up on a soccer field. Let me explain:
Bill and Ken have gotten caught up in “lofty words” as Paul puts it in today’s Epistle lesson; they’re trying to use “plausible words of wisdom” to explain the “mystery of God.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul cautions us against this kind of attempt, knowing that few, if any, converts have ever been made through intellectual persuasion or clever reasoning. Paul explains to his friends in Corinth that when he came to witness to them as a missionary, “[he] decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2).
If you’ll excuse the crassness of the analogy, the mystery of God is the soccer field. So if we’re not playing hockey, and we’re not playing baseball, how can we find and put on our soccer cleats instead?
We live in a world where knowledge is power. Paul’s world wasn’t much different in this way; the educated people were the ones who held powerful offices in the government and in the community, and as Paul is quick to remind the Christians in Corinth, these powerful people were exactly the ones who sentenced Jesus to death (1 Cor. 2:8). In the first century, as today, we learn from a very young age that there is a price to pay for doing something wrong. We’re located just across the street from the Supreme Court of South Carolina; we know well that there are consequences for our wrong actions.
But what happens when Jesus comes on the scene? There are plenty of questionable women, shifty businessmen, and mentally-ill people who have been shoved to the edges of the community, paying the price for their wrong actions. Jesus walks straight toward them, embraces the ladies of the night, goes to dinner at the crooked shopkeeper’s house, and opens his arms to those who are made helpless by problems with their minds. We don’t see consequences, we see love.
What does Paul mean when he says he knew only Jesus Christ and him crucified? This is the Gospel. This is why we come to church on Sundays, why we pray, why we do hard, good things like asking each other’s forgiveness, like forgiving someone who doesn’t ask, like getting married, like continuing to keep your word by showing up even if there’s no one to notice you’re there.
The mystery of God is contained in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We believe that God walked among us in a person, Jesus. We believe that God’s way of living is so unreasonable in the middle of a consequence-ridden world that through our fellow human beings back in the first century, and through our own sinfulness today, Jesus was killed (1 Cor. 2:8). We believe that even when evil did its worst—when the wise and powerful of first-century Judea murdered God incarnate, God brought Jesus back to life. Jesus submitted himself to consequences even though he spent his whole life forgiving everyone else’s.
This mystery doesn’t change. We see echoes of it in the Old Testament, when God tells Abraham that somehow, a child, a son, will be born of two very old shriveled up bodies–the unreasonable, the impossible—our living God makes it happen. The birth of Isaac, along with other Old Testament stories, point toward Jesus’ resurrection–these are not the sort of “plausible words of wisdom” that Paul speaks about as the stumbling block in Corinthians; they are, as Paul puts it “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
We’re not supposed to be able to explain everything in our world, how it came to be, how it all adds up. We are supposed to witness to how it is that God builds a relationship with each one of us. Our hope is not in words like “evidence” or “proof,” words that have come to bear a lot of weight in our society.
The living God, who we have all come to worship and encounter here today, sets for us the example of forgiving every person who hurts us, of not holding a grudge against anyone. This God loves us just as much, whether we choose to pray and to study his Word, or to profess that he does not exist. None of this, none of the Gospel, makes sense to us in a world where there’s always a price to pay if we’ve done something wrong.
This grace—the mystery of God’s love for us—cannot be explained away in a primetime debate, nor can it be put into words very well at all, despite our great literary efforts over the last many centuries. God’s grace is best known by its being shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
God shows us that there is no power, no evil, stronger than himself. Though we may feel helpless to our sins, unable to control our reactions, unable to forgive or let go, as if we can’t escape the way this world teaches us about consequences—despite all this–we prayed at the very beginning of our time together this morning that God would set us free. We asked God to loose the bonds of sin that tie us up, the ways that we hurt each other and hang on to hate. We asked God to then fill us up with his grace, with the abundant life that he first revealed fully in Jesus Christ.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). Amen.
1 Kings 17:8-24
It’s like the climax of a James Bond movie, when the hero has gotten himself into some incredible situation, and you can’t see any way out—you know that he’ll survive, he always does, but you can’t imagine how it will happen. Watching those movies we have hope. We are even certain of Bond’s coming success. The widow in 1 Kings today had no hope. Her personal stores of food were gone, the country’s stores of food were dwindling; she was at the end of her rope. The widow had lost hope—from her perspective in life, there really was no way out.
Elijah arrives on the scene and asks the widow for water and food. I imagine she somewhat bitterly retorts, “Food? Yeah, wouldn’t some food be great about now? As you well know, prophet-man, we haven’t got much food these days. Just as sure as your God is the most powerful, me and my son are dust—we’re about to eat our Last Supper, and then all we can do is wait for death. So, yeah, I’d love to have some food about now, too.” Women probably didn’t presume to have such an attitude with men at the time, especially a non-Hebrew woman speaking to a holy Hebrew prophet, but her honest response—that they had no food to share—was still a departure from the expected course of conversation.
Elijah isn’t ruffled. “Okay,” he says, “fair enough. So, go and make the food you’re talking about—keep to your plan—but give me the first loaf you make, and if you show by that action that you really trust that my God is most powerful, he will keep food on your table.”
The widow told Elijah that she knew his God was truly in charge, and now Elijah challenges her to act on what she’s declared. Like it says in the book of James, “You believe there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe it—and shudder!” Elijah asks, “What is your response to recognizing that this God I serve is the only true God? Will you place all your trust in his grace and love?” The widow does. She offers to God, through Elijah, the cake baked with the last bit of flour and oil—but of course it turns out not to be the last bit of food, for what Elijah said was true, and what the widow asserted was true—God has power over death, and provided food enough for the widow and the prophet and her household.
“The end!” Can you see the scrawled across the screen in your mind? What a lovely story that was about a woman growing into a trusting disciple of the living God. Well, the widow’s bold faith is part of the story, but by scaling back our focus and looking at the context of this story, we can see that there’s a lot more God is revealing to us.
First, there’s the second part of the story between Elijah and the widow, where the widow’s son, spared from starvation, then succumbs to a horrible illness.
There’s also the context of these two stories in the larger story of Israel—what’s happening on a nation-wide scale while the widow is discovering the broad implications of the statement of faith she’s made. Elijah had spoken with the King of Israel, Ahab, at the time, and as happened often to kings of Israel, Ahab had forgotten that he wasn’t really the one in charge. Ahab’s stubborn, prideful heart was keeping him from reaching out to God, who longed to save the people suffering from the famine and truly had the power to do so. The leader’s refusal to admit his limitations and to ask for help caused his people to suffer and die.
Viewed from this vantage point, it becomes clear that God is not just showing us a snapshot of an Old Testament saint, her story sandwiched by the nation’s woes. God is revealing something about himself to us—acting in our lives to show us who he is.
So who is God, as revealed in the two stories about the widow’s household and the larger story about the famine in Israel?
God makes food out of nothing to keep the widow, her son, her household, and Elijah alive during a far-reaching famine. He listens to Elijah when the prophet takes the widow’s dead son into his arms and cries for mercy. He does not coerce King Ahab to trust him.
God is the giver of life. We see this part of God very clearly in Jesus—resurrection, bringing life where there is death, is what God is about. Resurrection is part of God’s identity.
This May, my great-grandmother died. Her funeral was held in Minnesota, and because of our moving schedule to come here, I was free to be able to go and be with my family. As the weekend ended, my husband Jordan’s family called him to ask if he could help with planting—he’s from a farming community in North Dakota. I had plenty of time, so after the funeral, I decided to drive North instead of back south to St. Louis, and spent a few days with them, especially with Jordan’s mother.
More than thirty years ago, another death took place in May—it was Jordan’s older sister, who was stillborn. On the anniversary of her death, his mother had been praying about her sadness over not being able to raise a daughter, and as she tells it, less than a week later, I made the unexpected trip to North Dakota. God heard the prayer of my mother-in-law and gave her life and joy in the form of two daughters as wives to her sons.
One of the lessons my mother-in-law has taught me is to view life with more wonder and joy. I am often like the widow, grumbling about picking up sticks, grumbling about the lack I see in some area of my life, muttering under my breath about others.
In the Scripture this morning, God invites us through Elijah to live in a way that requires God to be the giver of life. King Ahab is not willing to let God take charge, and he is not forced to do so—though the consequences are serious. In a similar way, God invites us to let him give us life through Jesus Christ, his son. In Jesus, God reveals himself to be the one who brings life and joy to places of death and darkness. Like my mother-in-law, who brought her experience with death to God, we can bring to him our experiences with death, whether it is the end of a loved one’s life, a broken relationship that has left us in the dark, or a nationwide problem that we recognize we need God to be able to overcome.
Of course, we see that even the return of rain to Israel is not the end of the story. In Jesus Christ, God reveals himself to be the giver of life in the most powerful, most personal way. We meet our life-giving Lord for the first time in baptism, we meet him again and again at the altar as we eat the life-giving bread he gives us, and we have a sure hope of eternal life as we trust God’s power to overcome death and darkness.
Each Sunday is a little Easter—we celebrate every single week the power that our God has over sin and death. As we bring before God the places of darkness and death in our lives, let us also respond to his invitation to each one of us. God says through his son Jesus, come to me, and I will give you life, that you may live with joy.