LENT 2 | Gen 15:1-18; Phil 3:17-4:1; Lk 13:31-35
The letter from St. Paul that we just read a portion of was written to the Christians in the city of Phillipi. It is clear from this letter that Paul has a lot of affection for Philippi, where one of the earliest gentile Christian churches was founded—probably by Paul himself. To really understand what Paul is saying, it’s important to know a few things about those he is writing to. Phillipi was a Roman colony in Macedonia, which is near Serbia today.
Because the Roman army was stretched pretty thin, trying to stand on the hydra necks of scores of subjugated peoples, one of the strategies the emperors employed to keep their subjects in line was the settlement of large numbers of Roman citizens in every part of their empire. So in every colony there was a pocket of Roman culture, governed by Roman laws, testifying to the Roman subjects the might and the rightness of Roman rule. They were, in fact, little outposts of Rome, in the same way that the US embassy in Russia is a little outpost of American soil. Roman citizens living in the colonies had all the rights of Roman citizens living in Rome, including the right to return to Rome once their tour of duty was up.
This was the world that Paul lived in, and it was to the Roman colony at Phillipi that he was writing. So when he told them that “Our citizenship is in heaven,” it was a phrase PACKED with meaning, much of which is lost on us who do not live in the Roman colonial system. With those few little words, Paul was saying a mouthful, his meanings pinging off of innumerable memories, customs, and laws—all of which his readers were familiar with, and we are not.
His readers would have understood Paul to be saying that just as Phillipi was an outpost of Rome—where Roman customs and Roman laws and Roman ways of being are honored in the midst of an alien culture that was often hostile to them—just so, the church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God, where heaven’s customs, heaven’s laws, and heaven’s ways of being are honored. All in the midst of a culture that is alien to that way of thinking, and often hostile to it.
There is no institution on earth more countercultural than the church—which is becoming more and more apparent in our own culture. Paul was talking about people in his own culture when he said “their god is their belly, their glory is in their shame, their minds are set on earthly things,” but he might just as well have been describing our own culture, obsessed as we are with material wealth, with mindless, even compulsive consumption, obsessed with getting more stuff and with what other people think of us.
Truly that kind of living is at enmity with the cross. Whereas the culture of the Kingdom says, “Seek the good of others, even if it means pain and hardship for you,” our culture says, “Seek your own comfort and security, and to hell with everybody else.” The cross is the archetypal symbol of risk: the willingness to put myself—all that I am and all that I possess—at risk for the benefit of another.
Every time we turn on the news we get a very painful reminder of just how out of sync this way of thinking is in our own culture. Right now, we’re turning away refugees fleeing political violence in Central America, forcing them to jump through hoops with no promise of relief or help if they do.
If we were REALLY a Christian nation, we would receive every single one of them. We would welcome them into our homes, we would help them get on their feet, we would make great personal sacrifices to make sure they were safe, that their families stayed together, and that they would flourish in their new homes. EVEN IF some of them turned out to be terrorists, EVEN IF some of us died because of our generosity. Because people who sincerely follow Jesus do not hesitate to follow him to the cross.
Because that’s what would happen at an outpost of heaven. But that is not the America that we live in. The America we live in is an enemy of the cross, even as we ironically wear them decoratively around our necks. Our culture insists that we avoid pain, that we AVOID discomfort, that we AVOID sacrifice on behalf of others. And we, you and me, we are PRODUCTS of this culture. Because we follow Jesus, we live with both feet planted in two worlds—one foot in the dog-eat-dog America that you see on TV, and one foot in this colony of the Kingdom we call the Church. We are resident aliens, in a culture that—it is all too easy to forget—is at odds with the culture of our true home.
Jesus shows us exactly how that tension played out in his own life in our gospel reading today. The Pharisees take Jesus aside and they tell him, “Listen, we’re your friends, and we’re telling you DON’T go to Jerusalem. We know you’re headed there, but you really need to turn around and go as far and as fast as you can away from there. Herod has heard about your crazy Kingdom talk and he’s looking to make you pay for it. He wants to kill you!”
But Jesus does not listen to them. Jesus is not afraid of going to Jerusalem because Jesus is not afraid of dying. And Jesus is not afraid because JESUS TRUSTS GOD.
And there’s the crux of the hardship right there for all of us, isn’t it? Trust is hard. Especially when RISK is involved. Especially when our livelihoods or our families or our LIVES are involved. I trust God to make the sun come up in the morning, but do I trust God to keep me safe in the face of murderous evil? Eh….not so much.
In our OT reading, we see Abraham struggling with this kind of trust. In his culture, the only afterlife was the continuation of your line through your children. And Abraham and his wife Sarah were way past childbearing years, and yet they had no children. Abraham feared that he and Sarah would have no future.
God was asking Abraham to go completely against the culture he was raised in. God asked him to reject the gods his family worshipped and to embrace this one weird God that he had never heard of in his life! God asked him to leave his homeland, his country and set out for a country that he had never seen! God asked him to TRUST that an elderly couple would have children, long after Sarah had entered menopause. In short, God was asking a heck of a LOT.
But look what God does: In one of the most bizarre and surreal scenes in the whole Bible, God asks Abraham to bring five animals—a cow, a goat, a sheep, and two birds. Then he commanded Abraham to take the large animals and cut them in two, long-ways, so that the two halves of the animal would be splayed out on the ground like the wings of a butterfly. Then, after the sun went down, as Abraham watched as if in a trance, a smoking censor and a flaming torch levitated in the air, passing over the large animals, passing in between the splayed halves of their bodies. And as the torch and the pot of incense hovered over those carcasses, God made a covenant with Abraham—promising to give him and Sarah children, promising to make them a great nation, promising to give them a land of their own.
In this weird and incredible scene, God enacted an ancient Middle Eastern ritual of binding. In Abraham’s time, to split an animal and carry a torch between the halves was a formal, ritualized way of saying, “If I don’t keep my promise to you, may what has happened to these animals happen to me.” It was the most severe and binding contract possible.
And here, before Abraham, God cut a promise into the flesh of these beasts, and bound God’s OWN SELF to this lowly human, and through him, to the Jewish people. And was that for God’s own good? It’s hard to see how. But it was certainly for Abraham’s good, and for the good of Israel. Because this is the very definition of God: God is self-giving love. Which is something that we who are formed by a self-serving love have a very hard time comprehending.
There is an echo of this on the cross. There God cut another promise into the flesh—this time into the flesh not of a cow or a goat or into a sheep, but into the Lamb of God, into Jesus himself. And in doing so, he made a NEW covenant—one that extended God’s love and care and concern beyond the Jewish people to ALL peoples, to everyone, to US.
And in doing so, God was willingly bound to us, made irrevocable promises to us. And this is the promise: If you live according to the culture of heaven, if you risk yourselves—your own wealth, your own health, your own benefit—for the good of others, I promise that you will not lose your lives, but you will save them. Your lives will have meaning, your lives will have purpose, your lives will have hope—because your lives will not end, even if you are killed as you stand alongside others in defiance of your culture. Because God promises that the same resurrection that raised Jesus from the dead after HE went to the cross, will also be OURS. Let us pray….
Jesus, you spoke mournfully about Jerusalem, about the culture there, so at odds with the Kingdom, just as ours is. You spoke about how your heart breaks for them, how you long to gather them beneath your protecting wings just as a mother hen gathers her chicks. And I think you desire that for us, for those in our culture as well. But yours is not the way of coercion. You either cannot or will not force people into intimacy with you. You can only invite us. And we are gathered her tonight precisely because we have self-selected to say “yes” to your invitation. And yet, the implications of what we have said “yes” to are often lost on us. For when we say “yes” to following you, we say “yes” to following you all the way to the cross, we say “yes” to giving ourselves—all that we have, all that we are, even our very lives—for the good of others, for the good of total strangers, just as you did. Give us courage. Give us clarity. Give us resolve. Give us the knowledge, deep in our bones of who we are, the knowledge of to whom we belong, the knowledge of where our true home lies. Help us to be a faithful outpost of the Kingdom, right here and right now, loving the people we’re not supposed to love, living in ways our culture says we’re not supposed to live, putting ourselves on the line for total strangers. You call us to CRAZY lives. We know that. Now YOU must help us LIVE THEM. Amen.