Sermon for October 1st, 2017
As you can probably imagine, I have quite a few bibles in my collection. Different translations, different commentaries; some have been gifts, some have been ones that I have purchased. This one is actually one of my favorites: it is a King James Version that has a verse by verse commentary. I particularly love the fact that it has the little tabs that help you find the book in the bible you are looking for. This one also happens to be one of those bibles that prints the words of Christ in red. Are you familiar with those? They were pretty popular among Protestants, especially in the King James Version bibles. Any words that are directly spoken by Jesus are printed in red ink. I actually find it rather useful sometimes. It really drives home the importance of who is speaking, and the importance of those words in a very visual way. It’s like making you stand for the gospel reading in mass: you are aware that these words have special significance.
At my ordination I, like every priest in our church, had to affirm that I believe both the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God and to contain all things necessary for salvation. It’s an affirmation that I still maintain today. It’s all inspired. God can and does speak to you in even some of the most difficult books and passages. But I actually like having the words of Christ in red, because it is a recognition of the supreme authority with which he speaks. It’s not that Jesus sets out to negate other parts of the bible (he repeatedly claims that that is not his intention); it’s that he, through his life and teaching, gives us a lens through which we can properly view everything else. He clarifies; he interprets; he demonstrates. For Christians he is the supreme interpreter of the law.
I know that when many people think of Jesus they think of his teachings. They think of him as a teacher and they think of his primary contribution to faith as the words that he said, but if you actually flip through one of these red letter bibles and look through the New Testament what you will find is that there is a whole lot of black. His words may be printed in red, but his actions they are printed in black and they form the bulk of his ministry that we have recorded. The world thinks of Jesus as a man of profound words, but what you discover as you dig deeper is that actions mean so much more to Jesus than just words. Words are important, but actions are much more so. Words are cheap, but actions take real effort. That is, after all part of what he is getting at in the gospel this morning isn’t it? The son who actually worked in the vineyard, his actions meant more than the words of the son who said he would go and didn’t. The son who worked in the vineyard did the will of the father, not the one who just said he would. Words are important, but actions are much more so.
When we talk about the Word of God, we naturally think about the Bible and what God is saying, but the truth is much of our scripture is focused on what God is doing or on what God has done. The words of God are important, but the actions of God are much more so. As far as we have been able to track, the oldest parts of the New Testament, those that were written down first, were Paul’s letters. In Paul’s time there was plenty of preaching and telling the stories and teachings of Jesus, but Paul was writing before the gospels were completed, before there was a written record of everything Jesus said. And if you look in a red letter bible to Paul’s letters, one thing that you will quickly discover is that there isn’t much red. Paul wasn’t terribly concerned with sharing everything that Jesus said in his teaching, in his words. Paul is far more concerned that those hearing and reading his letters understand who Jesus was and what he did in the world. Who Christ was and what he accomplished in his death and resurrection and how we therefore ought to respond to Christ, that is Paul’s concern. He would leave it to others to record the teachings of Jesus. He wants us to know what the actions of Jesus reveal to us about the God that he is one with. In Paul’s letter to the Phillipians this morning we get a little passage that we think might have been an early Christian hymn. Just like I am sometimes fond of quoting hymns, Paul was probably quoting a hymn when he wrote:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
It’s interesting to me that this ancient text doesn’t have any words of Jesus in it. There is no red ink here. This hymn is all about celebrating who Jesus is and what he did in the world. It doesn’t say anything about what he taught. It is his identity, his authority as one in the form of God and his actions, his willingness to suffer and die that were of greater importance to those early Christians and to Paul, than trying to remember everything he actually said and taught. Proclaiming his authority as the Son of God and proclaiming his actions in his death and resurrection, those came first; recording his teachings, that came later.
The world has known plenty of great teachers. There have been charismatic sages and prophets preaching and teaching since the beginning of time. What makes this one special? What authority does he have? It’s an important question. It’s a dangerous question. The temple priests were asking themselves that very same question when they saw Jesus teaching: who is this man, and where does he get his power from? They learned very quickly what a dangerous question that is. They asked him by what authority he was teaching and he agreed to answer only if they answered a question of his: by what authority did John the Baptist minister? Was it his own, or did it come from God?
As the priests tried to think of a response, they realized what a dangerous question they had been asking: to recognize John’s authority would be to recognize that they needed to respond to him. They weren’t ready to do that. They couldn’t come up with an answer that didn’t threaten to change their lives. So they couldn’t answer Jesus. “We don’t know” they said. So he doesn’t answer their question. The question doesn’t die though. I think it echoes throughout the ages. It gets asked again and again. Sooner or later it is a question we all have to answer: who is this man? By what authority does he speak? Ultimately I think we all face the same dilemma as those temple priests: to recognize a prophet’s authority, means that we have to be prepared to respond to what he says. Are we prepared to do that? I say it’s a dangerous question because answering it can dramatically change your life.
Two weeks ago I asked you all two important questions:
- Why Jesus? Why are you a Christian? What is it about Jesus or his story that makes you want to be a follower of his?
- Why Ascension? Why do you choose to be a follower of Jesus in this place? What is it about this community that draws you to worship Christ here week after week?
Some of you have already responded, and thank you. Some of you have commented to me on how easy the second question is to answer and how difficult the first one is. I’m not surprised. Of course the second question is easy! If someone has decided that going to church is important to them; if being a part of a Christian community is important to their life, who could blame them for wanting to do that here? We have a great choir, a great Sunday school, friendly people…we’ve got a lot to offer. It’s easy to see why someone would want to worship here and frankly I don’t think it is all that hard to convince people to choose this church. But I don’t think most people today are struggling with the question of should I go to this church or to that church. I think people want to know why they should go to church at all. That is a harder question to answer. That is why I asked you the first question. Why do you follow Jesus? What authority does he have in your life? Just be aware that it is a dangerous question…it always has been. Recognizing his authority means actually allowing his words to change you and call you to a different life.
Yes, what Jesus taught is critically important. His teachings have the power to change your life, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But his words mean so much more to be, because I understand who he is. It is what he does that reveals his true identity and the authority that lies behind his words. Here, I think, is the great irony of the red letter bible: you can’t just jump to the words in red; if you truly want to understand the power of those words in red, you need to first understand what the words in black have to say about the man who is speaking.