February 15, 2015 Quinquagesima
An Anglican Gospel
Deuteronomy 10:12-11:1, Psalm 103, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, St. Luke 18:31-43
Legend has it that a man who was lost at sea washed up on the beach on a remote coast. Some village people found him scarcely clinging to life, afflicted by dehydration, starvation and exposure. They nursed him back to full health.
He stayed on, living among the natives for fully two decades. In all that time he confessed no faith. He sang no hymns, preached no sermons, offered no testimony, recited no Scripture.
But when people were sick he attended them long into the night. When people were hungry he foraged for food and fed them. When people were lonely he sat with them and consoled them.
This man taught the ignorant basic things and he taught the more knowledgeable higher things. When disputes arose he took the side of the weak and the poor and the oppressed.
When he had been with them more than 20 years some missionaries arrived from the sea and straightaway they set about telling the natives about a man named Jesus. “Yes, we know him,” the natives replied. “Come with us to that far hut and we’ll show him to you.”
Beloved, we have gathered on World Missions Sunday in the Anglican Church in North America. Archbishop Beach has asked the churches to emphasize the work in which we have been involved and to rededicate ourselves to the propagation of the gospel in all the world.
Rather than speaking on the Anglican Relief and Development Fund’s efforts in favor of the persecuted church to which you gave so generously last year I want to take a more general approach to the subject of world missions.
When I worked in that area I visited missionaries serving in a number of countries, most of them in poor places, some of them in desperately poor places. And I gained an appreciation for some of the hidden rigors of their work.
Some of their difficulties were apparent on the surface. They dealt with inferior medical care and sanitation and schools. Most of those I visited wrestled with miles of red tape strung before them by governments that were at best indifferent and at worst hostile to their work.
But over time I learned to spot the rocks beneath the surface. Some of them lacked the emotional stability to survive long-term in these inhospitable climes so far from family and friends.
Some took a great heart for their Lord to the field and developed a great heart for the people they served but had the administrative talent of a goony bird.
In Muslim contexts, some found it difficult to strike a balance between the boldness required to share the gospel and the wisdom necessary to avoid getting booted out of the country. In those places, some struggled to overcome cultural and language barriers while pursuing the secular jobs they had to do to justify their presence in the place.
They were all devoted to their Lord and dedicated to spreading His witness but their challenges in sharing the gospel, planting a church and maintaining it on course in the early days loomed large as the Hindu Kush Mountains. I marvel that they succeeded as well as they did.
Has it not always been thus? In our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy 10 this morning we get a glimpse of Israel’s travail in meeting God’s demand that they couple mission and godly ethics.
The generation that worshiped the Golden Calf has died away, save for Joshua and Caleb, and their descendants are gathered on the plain of Moab, east of the Jordan, poised to enter at last into Palestine.
Their great prophet Moses is preaching an extended sermon in which he restates God’s law for this generation that is charged with living it out in the land of promise. Without making specific references to them he draws on well-known chapters from the nation’s history to build his case.
Our passage for today is a splendid specimen of soaring Old Testament rhetoric in praise of Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. It sums up the Book of Deuteronomy and, for that matter, all of the Torah, the law.
It also concludes a section built on the platform of the Joseph story in the latter chapters of Genesis. The point of that story is the point of Deuteronomy: God blesses the faithful and curses the disobedient.
In Genesis, Yahweh rewards Joseph for his steadfast obedience in loving his God and serving God’s people and humbles Joseph’s brothers for their unfaithfulness. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls Israel to obedience based on lessons from her history; in this case, blessings for covenant faithfulness and curses for rebellion.
Moses says, "And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?”
It’s a simple matter. Not easy. Oh, no, never easy for the sin-soaked, but simple: fear, walk, love, serve, keep. At the center is love, for if these Israelites love God, truly love Him, the rest they will do willingly.
Think of how this straightforward commandment reduces the worshiper’s burden. Israel swims in a cauldron of polytheism. In pleasing Ares, will one offend Aphrodite? And what, pray, do Ares and Aphrodite really want?
Yahweh claims to be the one true God; none other need His people try to please. And He has made His moral will known. Moses is building toward this bold statement in ch. 30:
"For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, `Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'
“Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, `Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
Why do these things? For your good. God has not given you His law to demonstrate His superiority. He has no need of proving that you are subservient to Him. His law serves you by keeping you – when you observe it – in right relationship to Him and to one another.
Some 1,500 years later, Paul will put the matter this way in Romans 8:
"And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
In our passage in Deuteronomy, there follow two matching triplets, each of which opens with a soaring, hymn-like exaltation of Yahweh, followed by a declaration of something unexpected in His character or actions and then a command to Israel to respond rightly.
"Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the LORD your God, also the earth with all that is in it.”
Yahweh has no rivals in the spirit realm, neither in heaven nor on earth. He owns all that is.
"The LORD delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day.”
Yahweh chose insignificant Israel as His favored nation, and not because of their merit but because of His grace.
"Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.”
Repent and put away your disobedient ways. This is your bounden duty that issues from your love for God and which demonstrates right living before God before all the nations.
The next triplet:
"For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.
This Yahweh who is Owner of all is Lord of all. He shows no partiality. Did He not elect Israel? He did, but as Moses has pointed out in the previois chapter, not because of Israel’s righteousness but as a demonstration of God’s grace.
Nor does Yahweh take a bribe. Other peoples bribe their deities with sacrifices, even of their children. Israelites who offer sacrifices without love for their Lord in their hearts seek to bribe blessings from Him. This is man’s delusion; Yahweh accepts no bribes. Neither those ancient Jews nor we today can put Him in our debt.
"He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”
This high and mighty One who is Owner and Lord of all must rain down blessings on kings and queens, mustn’t He? By no means. He delivers justice to the poor and the outcast and love in the most practical terms even to those who are not of His covenant people.
"Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
To walk in the ways of the Lord is to love the stranger. In the Old Testament as in the New, a biblical ethic demands the imitation of God. Reason No. 2: As captives in Egypt, Israel, you knew the curse of the outcast.
So in these triplets Israel is commanded to respond to Yahweh’s ownership and lordship in creation expressed in His loving character in two specific ways: repent and love the stranger. When the Christ comes, what will He command? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And love your neighbors and love your enemies.
Now Moses repeats, “You shall fear the LORD your God” and summarizes his earlier commands. He reminds them that when Joseph invited his family to Egypt to escape the famine in Palestine there were but 70 of them; by now Yahweh has given them increase into a vast multitude.
Their numbers are not for their good alone; those numbers testify of God’s loving care of all who worship Him.
Israel had a mission: to bring others – those “strangers” – into worship of the one true God. She failed not because she knew not the forms of worship; she knew them well and practiced them. She failed because her sins that flowed from uncircumcised hearts rendered her worship a stench in God’s nostrils.
The early church adapted Israel’s forms for Christian use and loved their Lord so ferociously that many followed Him into the martyr’s death. The church at her birth was the church at her best.
Over time, uncircumcised hearts introduced innovations that exalted men and at last some cried “Enough!” and walked away from Mother Church to worship in their own way.
And in swept the new polytheism, the idea that each can worship in his own way, which is another way of saying, worship oneself. The scholar Peter Kreeft calls it the new paganism, an improvement on the old paganism because these latter-day practitioners have figured out that atheism will never fly off the shelves and, rather than preaching a belief in nothing, have infiltrated the churches.
“Another word for the new paganism,” says Kreeft, “is humanism, the religion that will not lift up its head to the heavens but stuffs the heavens into its head.”
For all practical purposes, the splintered church looks back to Oct. 31, 1517 as its birth date. But Martin Luther did not inaugurate the church; Jesus Christ did. In its headlong flight away from Rome Protestantism has thrown out the forms, making the motive of the heart paramount.
The problem is that both are necessary. Yes, Israel went astray when she corrupted her structured worship with her sins.
But go back and read Revelation 4 and 5 and look at the shape of the ongoing worship in heaven, the worship into which we enter, Hebrews 12 tells us, each time we gather. It is not helter-skelter. The forms ensure that we worship according to God’s preferences and not our own.
And this is the primary thing, I think, that we as confessing Anglicans, as Reformed Catholics, can offer to world missions.
That fellow the villagers mistook for Jesus got it right . . . for a while. Living out the Christ-like witness before the world is where we begin. But in something well short of 20 years he should have organized his proselytes into a church.
As Anglicans, we understand that evangelism, as vital as it is, is not the main thing. Education, as vital as it is, is not the main thing. Worship is the main thing, and we do it in church.
Kreeft finds something important missing from the new paganism that creeps about in the church today, a lack of “awe at something transcendent, the sense of worship and mystery. What the old pagan worshiped differed widely — almost anything from Zeus to cows—but he worshiped something.
“In the modern world the very sense of worship is dying, even in our own liturgy, which sounds as if it were invented by a Committee for the Abolition of Poetry. Our religious sense has dried up. Modern religion is de-mythologized, de-miraclized, de-divinized. God is not the Lord but the All, not transcendent but immanent, not super-natural but natural.” So says Peter Kreeft.
Mission – especially to those deluded by false gods – is a staggering task for any Christians. As Anglicans we must go on mission to feed the hungry and to heal the sick and, yes, to proclaim the gospel as others do, but we must do something more.
We must plant churches imbued with awe at something transcendent. We must keep the forms that Rome brought forward from the early church and that still serve us well today and blend them with the right motive of the heart that Luther insisted on. We must continue to advance ancient liturgy encasing Reformed theology.
I bless the day I stumbled into the Reformed Episcopal Church. If I did not worship here I cannot conceive where I would be.
And so let us share the good news with all our might but let us never lose our Anglican accent as we do. Let us confess the same Christ as the Presbyterians and the Baptists but never forget our roots in the church of Polycarp and Perpetua and Ambrose and Augustine.
Let us put away sin and prepare our hearts for worship as others do . . . but never abandon those forms that enforce our Lord’s desires above our own. Amen.