Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16], August 26/27, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
There are many ways in which the Name of Jesus has permeated our contemporary thinking … not always through terms of endearment! There was a time when the expression … come to Jesus … clearly referred to an experience of conversion or a determined re-commitment to Christianity with an appropriate change in that renewed person’s life or behavior. I was a mess, but then I came to Jesus!
That was then … this is now. In contemporary America a Come to Jesus Moment represents a new insight … a break-through … a light bulb coming on to dispel confusion.
Today the expression, Come to Jesus, is often used to describe a critical intervention in the life of a person you value … a family member, a friend, or a significant employee. When things are out of control we know a Come to Jesus Moment can mark a new beginning.
When a concerned mother finds a bag of pot in her son’s coat … or a cardiologist confronts a patient about bad life choices … smoking, drinking, poor diet … suddenly we have a Come to Jesus Moment.
I suppose we could say that Our Lord had a Come to Jesus Moment with the money-changers in the temple, when he drove them out for demeaning the Temple. Some of the most sublime moments in Scripture would fall into this category … particularly Jesus’s invitation … Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest. [Matthew 11:28]
Jesus found a variety of ways to challenge his disciples to think about what it would mean for them to Come to Jesus … to be His dedicated follower. Our Gospel lesson records one of those critical moments.
We know there are many people who claim to be Christians, but are living their lives as functional atheists. What I mean by this expression is that many individuals who outwardly consider themselves Christians … they want prayer in the public schools, Christmas carols sung at winter concerts, and they insist on the superiority of “their faith” over that of Islam or Judaism … in reality demonstrate little compassion toward those in need by acts of generosity, behavior one should expect from a follower of Jesus Christ.
Many of these people are members of a church … they may regularly sing the hymns of faith, receive the Lord at His holy table, place an offering on the plate … but … God and Jesus Christ have little day-to-day significance in their lives. Such people find their lives and their values formed by something other than the Gospel, proclaimed by Jesus Christ. If they pray, they rarely ask for guidance to live lives that conform to God’s will … instead, they generally pray for God to conform to their will and give them their heart’s desire!
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? At least once a year we travel with Jesus and his disciples to that far-off Roman region called Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks his followers what they are hearing in the streets. Do people have any sense of who I am, Jesus wants to know?
Those of us who are regulars have heard the disciples’ answers before: John the Baptist … Elijah … Jeremiah … one of the prophets. The disciples liked it when Jesus took them far from the madding crowd, but in the midst of this time of rest and relaxation … they were not expecting an oral exam … but when are we ever properly prepared to make a good confession of what we believe about Jesus? This always must happen at a time we least expect.
Who do you say that I am? Jesus quickly gets up front and personal. No more research … no time to check Google … you cannot call a friend! Our Lord wants us to respond in an authentic way … from the heart … he wants us to know Him in a way that those around us will also come to know Him!
We need to understand that the question at the heart of our Gospel lesson is addressed to every one of us: Who do you … the people of God gathered in Washington Memorial Chapel … say that I am? All of us, including those who wear the funny white collars, must maintain a clear connection between what we say and sing in worship and how we live our lives each day. If we are not attentive a gap can grow between our Sunday world and the lives we live the rest of the week.
Last Friday in the New York TIMES I read a sobering op-ed piece by a 24-year-old Christian from Hong Kong, China, named Derek Lam. In an article entitled, I Worship Jesus, not Xi Jinping ["Shee Jeen Peeng"], Lam writes:
Since I was 16 years old, I have wanted to be a pastor. I was raised in a Christian family in Hong Kong that urged me to live by biblical principles. I was taught to love my neighbor as myself and that all human beings are created in the image of God.
Those teachings about love and equality are what inspired me to study theology at Chinese University of Hong Kong. They have also informed my democratic activism for the past six years — and it is for that reason that I am likely to be jailed next month and that I will be barred from ever becoming a pastor.
Lam goes on to state that the Chinese government has slowly dismantled all of the freedoms that were granted at the time Hong Kong was separated from Great Britain and returned to China. As a result church summer camps for young people have become less about the Bible and the formation of the Christian faith and more about patriotism and loyalty of President Xi.
This concerned young Christian reports that on the last day of camp this summer church leaders insisted that God would make China prosperous and that Xi Jinping’s pet infrastructure project, known as “One Belt, One Road,” was the path that God had prepared to spread the Gospel. [New York TIMES, August 25, 2017, p. A23]
Now it would be easy to simply bash China, but do we not face similar challenges as Christians in this country? In many churches the line of demarcation between the Gospel and a political agenda is regularly blurred. Prior to the last election I received a mailing from a group called that called itself something like The Concerned Christian Alliance. The mailing contained inserts that I was encouraged to put in my congregation’s worship leaflet on the Sunday prior to the election.
The inserts indicated where the two candidates stood on issues deemed important by this Christian Alliance. Many issues had nothing to do with traditional Christian values; others were issues about which Christians of good will could reasonably disagree. Major Biblical concerns like feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, supporting refugees, visiting those in prison, speaking the truth, and working for peace were not considered important enough for inclusion.
And so, dear friends, please remember: It is hard to believe in Jesus Christ, but it is harder still to reject Him. It is challenging to live the life our Lord inspires, but it is cowardice and weakness to avoid Christ’s call. It is hard to belong to the Church, as a fully committed follower of Christ, but it is profoundly discouraging to walk away, saying, in effect; … Who do you say that I am? … Please put me on your “no call” list … I do not want to be disturbed!
May our loving God give us the faith and the courage to make a good confession through all that we say and all that we do. AMEN.