Second Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
We are practicing our gospel. This is what we are doing in Lent. We are explaining what we mean when we say at Easter that Christ is risen. Last week we saw that man is confronted by the question of his identity. He is summoned to be free and to make the world free. Will he answer this summons? This the question for man, and indeed for God. Man is confronted by the question of whether this is his purpose, and he is tempted to turn away from this freedom to control it, reduce it, delegate it, even refuse it altogether.
I said that we talk about Easter by talking about the Church and by talking from the Church. We cannot discuss Easter in terms of general truth, that can be separated from the distinctive community of the Church and so turned into a cliché about ‘new life’, just a religious expression of what we already know from other sources. We have to learn the distinctive calling of the Church, which is to be Christ-bearers to the world. How hard this is and how inextricably it is tied to the Christian gospel and the Christian gospel to the Church is what I want to show you today.
We may receive one another from God and thank him for the identity we receive through Christ. We live in expectation of being transformed, and we must look to one another for the some of this formation. The practices which Christians share allow them to discover of a common mind developed through the practices of reasoning together. This practices sustain the existence of Church as a fellowship created by the love of God for us and an act of witness to the world. For Christ is risen. We cannot regard people simply as what they presently are, but also as they will be. We must see them in hope. Truly to see them, we have to see them together with their future, even though we don’t know what that future will be.
Let us look at the four readings from Scripture that tells us something about the secret identity and purpose of the Church. This week these four readings come from Genesis – the Lord says to Abraham I will make of you a great nation, the psalm and the apostle as commentators on this, so Paul in Romans talks about Abraham and the gospel is the third chapter of John, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus that we are born again from above.
I Man is made a community
The LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. So Abram went, as the LORD had told him. Genesis 12.1-4
Look how laconically this call is recalled just as if it was a ‘Hey, You, come with me’, followed by an equally simple ‘OK, I’m coming’, from Abraham. Having heard God, Abraham listened out for him again and again, to find out what it was that God was promising.
What are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? He is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’. Abraham believed in God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Romans 4.1-5,13-17
God creates a world, sustains it and redeems it. His words are actions and promises of more action. They create what they name. Abraham, apparently, was content to see whether could indeed bring about what he promised. Abraham listens, waits and so he represents all the people of the Old Testament, the named and the unnamed, all to way up to Mary. It was for us that they heard God, suffered and waited, for our sake, which makes them little intimations of Christ. For Christ has listened to the Father, and heard him. And he has heard the cries of every last human being. And he now enables us to hear God, and to hear these cries too, and to hear one another as the creatures of God.
II John on the source of life
Life comes from outside us – we are ‘born from above’. We are not individually in charge of our own existence, means that life also come from outside us. This ‘outside’ John identifies with ‘above’, where God is.
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? You are Israel’s leader. How can you not understand this? John 3.1-17
We are born, again and again, continuously. We are renewed continuously, from above. Our creation is not only a one-time event in the past – and so our relationship with God is not only a single event situated in the past, but it is also live now.
God is full of life and full of freedom and time, for us. He dispenses this life and freedom to us, gently, through time. God gives himself to us, slowly and piecemeal, always preparing us to receive more of him. The work of God is to ratchet us up into increasing participation in the economy of his life, in which new human action may continually come into being – the inexhaustible economy. The life we have comes from the Spirit, from above, our wellhead and headwaters, our source and provider.
Nicodemus is a senior man in Israel. He knows that he is not the source of his own authority.
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
Man as mystery
Man is sourced from somewhere that we do not know – somewhere ‘above’. He is mystery to us. That source is the communion of God.
III The Church is the Spirit-filled community
The whole covenant of God and ascent of man is what the resurrection is. The resurrection is the ascent of man in a moment. With Abraham, God calls into existence a community that can hear him. This community can repeat back what it hears from him, and so can learn to speak freely back to God in the way that delights him.
The first and fundamental difference that God makes is the difference between this particular community, the Church, and the world. This difference is created by the baptism of every Christian. This difference is the one great gift, the spring from the rock that sources and waters all society and civil society. For this is the community with the greater and most sophisticated account of man, man as called and therefore utterly restless, and yet as good even while he is lost and enraged, who is on his way to redemption and to something much bigger than he or anyone of us can contain in our imaginations.
We cannot blind out the Church, for the Church is the one big difference that God makes in the world. God has made the Church – we can confess that this as baffling to us as to anyone else – but there it is. The only thing we cannot do is pretend it isn’t so. The Church is the first fact – the elephant in the room.
The Christian has something that the world does not yet have. Without being removed from the world, the Christian is being made different from the world, so that that he or she may become the witness of God for the world. The Christian is in the world precisely in order that the world notices this, and begins to desire the relationship with God that it does not yet have. All Christian life must demonstrate this difference. Whatever Christians say about life, and discipleship, about science, sociology or politics, points to that good news and to that Christian distinctiveness.
Without the Christian gospel mediated through the Christian life and teaching, our culture is obliged to construct for itself what it refuses to accept from God. It is under a harsh law, entirely self-imposed. Unable to receive its shaping with gratitude, it is then only able to perceive others as a threat.
V The church and our identity
We are persons, made up of soul and body. Because we are bodies we are present to each other, and because we are more than bodies, we are not entirely controllable and definable by each other. Christian theology has a very high view of body and of soul. It does not exalt one and downgrade the other. It is not true that Christianity has a low view of the body – quite the opposite. It is our bodies that make us present to one another, so without them we would not communicate or be with one another in any sense. We are embodied and therefore we are free for one another, and therefore we are free to act. But together in this apprenticeship in humanity, we learn to be more than simply our own bodies and needs. We learn to hear the demands of others and so we learn self-control. To exercise self-restraint is not to act against ourselves, but it is to act for one another. Christians are freed by Christian discipleship and the discipline it represents.
We do not have a soul or have a body, but rather we are soul and body – both, together. We are this plurality held together by love. We are nature and freedom, body and soul. Our bodies make us available to one another, but we are always whole persons. Our bodies are therefore essentially social. Love is never merely bodily, no act of ours is solely ‘physical’. We are not just our material interests. All meaningful human action involves learning of disciplines that allow us to be properly present and available to one another.
But without the Christian faith two things happen. One is that confusion about our identity descends and the other is that too much certainty about our identity descends.
Let us look at the confusion first. We cannot decide whether we are essentially bodies, and must obey the dictates of our biology, or whether our bodies are simply vehicles which we can use or abuse, as though nothing our body does really touched us. The modern self is a solitary and solipsistic being. It regards itself as the only real thing, and is determined not to be interrupted and inconvenienced by anything or anyone not itself. The Christian tradition calls this attitude ‘gnosticism’. This is the belief that I am solely my mind, and that I am trapped in my body, and in this world. It asserts that my mind can know the world, and other people, entirely without their aid and begin to extract itself from the limits they represent. Gnosticism is a panicked attempt to escape my past, my present situatedness, and all the plurality and ambiguity of life. It views embodiedness as entanglement and misfortune. It is a permanent temptation to believe that we are to remove ourselves from what it regards as the entangling, disgusting materiality and complications of this world and set ourselves above them.
The whole Christian tradition is our very own corporate memory. If we have less memory, we have fewer resources by which to understand our circumstances and fewer options for dealing with them. The grace of God provides us with these resources for the very purpose that we grow through them and are empowered by them. The Christian life and teaching is the grace of God mediated through the experience of previous generations of Christians. It allows to us grow and become this distinctive and holy people, able to hold out to our society what it cannot receive from any other source.
We are persons and the creatures of love. We are loved. God’s love brings us into being and holds us together and draws us into encounter with one another. He gives us one another in instalments. We are units of past-and-present and present-future. The Christian life is one of faith and hope. We are being transformed. Those who have nothing to hope for, believing that they already have and are all that they will ever have and be, do not look forward. For them perhaps the world appears to be simply a matter of nature and of whatever science can tell us about it and about ourselves. But the world is not simply a matter of nature, for we anticipate a nature redeemed.
VI We gather together in one place
In Church we learn how to be with other people, and how not to regard them as restraints on us but to regard them as the source of life and our freedom. We learn how to hold freedom and fellowship together.
At Easter we turn up in Church. In the worship service you have to turn up and be physically there. We stand shoulder to shoulder. In Church we are in one place with a group of people with whom you do not normally associate. You are brought together with those who are not like you. This Church is the living demonstration that the Spirit brings down barriers and allows us to overcome our limits. But more than that, we learn to receive the restraint and definition that these other people represent from us. We are content to be known as members of this body – that is not defined by our demographic, socio-economic group, our income bracket. We are not banded by our taste, by style of worship or music. We– that is not simply ‘people like us’. we are content to let go of all that. The Spirit brings opposites together and holds them together – in love and that means in mutual subordination. This is the first thing we have to say about the difference the Spirit who raises Jesus has made – he brings us together in one place with these other people, and we freely accept the restraint that they represent on us.