14 January 2018
Second Sunday After Epiphany / Proper 2
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Before attending university, I spent a year with a Lutheran monastic community in Northern Germany. One of the brothers there once told of his conversion story. The part I remember is this (aside from the fact that he obviously had not been raised in the faith):
When he “gave his life to Jesus” he said the Jesus Prayer, which goes something like this, “Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Saviour and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.”
Then he entered the date on the page of the tract where the prayer was written and signed his name.
He felt ecstatic. He felt flooded with the Holy Spirit. He knew that that which had happened was real and that his life had been profoundly changed.
But the story isn’t over yet. As days went on, he felt less ecstatic, and not as close to God as on the day when he had spoken that prayer. So he began to doubt what had happened in the sense that he thought that he had not done it right and therefore must do it again. And so he took that little booklet and opened it to the page that bore the date of his conversion and his signature. And he crossed out his name, and crossed out the date, and he said the prayer again, and signed the page anew, and entered the date a second time. This happened on more than one occasion, until he realized that prayer is not an incantation and that faith is not magic, but there are simply times when we feel closer to God than others.
I think he may have told us the story to highlight the emphasis on the individual, on what we say, believe, pray, and experience, and that what we do, feel, and experience only goes so far.
Last Sunday night we were invited to St. Monica’s. A lay member of the parish had put together an event that initially was to focus on bringing together Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Christians to celebrate Christmas in the Orthodox tradition and Epiphany in the Western tradition. However, the event grew to include representatives, of Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Baha’i.
And so we came together. We sung about 15 carols (if not more), interspersed by brief addresses from representatives of the faiths present.
It was an event that celebrated neigbours and given that the event went a bit over time and that we sung exclusively Christian hymns, I must express my appreciation for our neighbours of other faiths who had come to be with us on that night.
I have had few intentional interfaith encounters. I generally have two attitudes toward interfaith relationships:
They are necessary and important and our situation is similar to that of the early church that also lived in a multi-faith society.
I am a little leery of “we- statements”, for while we have much in common we are not the same and in the midst of much good will it is easy for us to subscribe to a general belief that all religions are the same. That all religions are the same is a sentence, I believe, is most often said by people who do not follow any faith; but in order to love our neighbour me must understand our neighbour, which requires us to make time to listen to our neighbour. General assumptions about our neighbour actually short-change our neighbour.
This brings me back to the theology of my childhood. I grew up Lutheran. But I grew up in a church with strong evangelical leanings. While we did not emphasize works we had a different kind of works: The right faith, the right words, the right theology.
While we never regarded prayer as some kind of incantation, we were pretty fussy with our theology and we were pretty sure that in order to go to heaven one would have to know Jesus.
It was a faithful, but pretty literal reading of John 3:16 (for God so loved the world …) and of other passages. But such reading confined us to thinking that being a Christian was only about the afterlife and into thinking of adherents of other faiths as somewhat deficient – which does not make good neighbours.
That God had sent Jesus to save the world seemed only one side of the coin, the other side of the coin seemed to be that God would condemn. It made it seem as if not only the world was black and white but that God was black and white, too.
In our text from the Gospel of John we see how Jesus calls Philip to follow him and how Philip tells Nathanael that they have found “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathanael responds with skepticism, if not cynicism, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, he asks.
That could have been the end of the story. Philip invited Nathanael. Nathanael said, ‘forget it’. But Philip invites him to come along, “Come and see.”
And again it could have been the end of the story. Jesus, who knows all things, could have greeted Nathanael with his own skepticism, or disapproval, “So, why did you come?”
Instead Jesus recognizes Nathanael’s quality of speaking with honesty, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
That Jesus does not reject Nathanael, even though Nathanael has pretty well rejected Jesus is important in at least two ways.
The first one is obvious. Nathanael is included, not excluded. He gets to be with Jesus.
The second one is at least as important: What matters is not so much what Nathanael thinks of Jesus but what Jesus thinks of Nathanael.
The action is all with God. Jesus calls, we answer. It is not us who choose God, but God who chose us first while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
If my friend had known this when he first became a Christian, he may have worried less about what he felt and been content with what Go did and does.
Protestants have made “the right teaching” the works we offer God. Sometimes this is really good, as in good theology, sometimes it is really bad theology.
I am not trying to make a case for poor theology, but the fact that in all call narratives, the one of Philip and Nathanael, of Samuel, and of Paul, the initiative is with God should help us relax about what we offer God, or what our neighbour offers God.
The third chapter of Romans is important in Lutheran theology. It was here that Luther discovered that the righteousness of God is not firstly the righteousness God demands but the righteousness God grants. The central verse reads like this, “21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
It is quite possible to translate the verse like this (without doing it any injustice): “21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
The faith of Jesus is his faithfulness to the Father. It is also his faith in us.
Such translation is consistent with Jesus’ address to Nathanael. Jesus does not name Nathanael’s deficiencies but he expresses his belief in Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
It seems then that Jesus’ faith in us is even more important than our faith in him. And that gives us room to give God the glory and not change people short.[i]
[i] Helpful for my reading of these texts have been the following sources: