The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

June 24, 2007
Luke 8:26-39
Proper 7C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I bet I know what you’re thinking.

Here you are, dutifully sitting in church on a beautiful Sunday morning. It’s sunny outside; it’s not too hot today. You’ve had a busy week and maybe it would have been really nice to sleep in. It could have been a great day to skip church to play golf or to go spend time in a park with the kids. But no, you didn’t do that. You set your alarm, you got dressed, most of you probably drove in (despite the big ditch between Madison Avenue and the parking lot!) and here you are. Perhaps you resisted the temptation to enjoy the near-perfect weather this morning because you were feeling empty in some way and were hoping to get a word of encouragement that might help to feed you in the week ahead. You’ve just heard [Lauren, or Tom, or Lind] read the Gospel, I walked into the pulpit and now, instead of feeling washed in the comfort and encouragement of the Gospel all you can think to yourself is, “Who, then, is this?”

Admit it. That’s what a lot of y’all are thinking right now.

I know! I find myself thinking the same thing! And if our reading this morning had joined Luke just a few verses earlier, we would have heard the disciples saying those same words that so many of us find ourselves saying this morning. “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25b)

Just before the story that we read this morning, Luke tells us the story of Jesus and the disciples encountering stormy seas. The disciples were afraid, so they woke Jesus who came and calmed the storm. Luke tells us that after he did this the disciples were amazed and wondered among themselves who he was that he could be capable of such power over even the forces of nature.

And then, as if causing a raging storm to quiet were not enough to convince us that Jesus is at the very least, someone special, Luke moves immediately into the story of Jesus casting demons out of the Gerasene man. He shows us that Jesus’ power extends beyond even the natural world that he inhabited – he can even control the spiritual world, too!

The tormented man comes to Jesus, and his demons, speaking through him, beg that they not be tormented. Luke, in his usual subtle way of making his point, has the demons address Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” Just three verses after the disciples asked, “Who then is this?” they encounter demons that give them their answer.

It would be easy to try to preach on this text by way of teasing the disciples for not knowing exactly who they were dealing with in Jesus. I’ve heard that sermon before from time to time related to several texts. Usually it’s in some form of derision against Peter for forgetting that Jesus is the “Son of the Most High God” or an attack on Thomas for needing to actually see the risen Christ before he can believe.

Yes, it would be easy to preach such a sermon today, but it wouldn’t exactly be fair. We do, after all, have more of the story than those first century disciples had when they were following Jesus through the countryside. We know how the story of Jesus unfolds. We know of his death and Resurrection. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the feast of his Ascension and just after that, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We know the story so well that we’ve developed a calendar around how to celebrate it! So it wouldn’t be fair to tease the disciples for not recognizing what may seem so obvious to us; and it certainly wouldn’t do much to justify waking up early on Sunday morning.

So, the central question that Luke proposes remains: “Who then is this?” Sure, in some ways he gives us the answer: he is “Jesus, Son of the Most High God”. But there must be more to Jesus, as much as to any one of us, than a simple name and title.

Imagine if someone were hearing of you for the first time. How would you (or your friends on your behalf) convey something of who you really are? Of course we’d begin with things like name and title: I’m Jon. I’m one of your seminarians. So great! You know my name and you know that there are at least some people in this church who have decided to affirm my desire to explore a vocation as a priest; but does that really tell you everything that you’d need to know to really know me? So I’d probably offer a little more about myself. I’m a recent graduate of the Theological School at Drew University where I earned the Master of Divinity. Next week I start a job as Director of Youth and Family Ministries at St. Peter’s, Morristown. Okay, so I do stuff. Who doesn’t? By this point you’d probably be wondering what it is that makes me unique. Perhaps I’d tell you that I’m from Louisiana – that I moved here three years ago to study at Drew and that I found that I loved living in New Jersey and didn’t want to leave. I suppose there are people who’ve never been here, who might argue that loving New Jersey makes me somewhat unique… But clearly they don’t know what they’re talking about! So then, I might also tell you about how I grew up. I’d tell you that my father is a United Methodist minister, and that I was, like him a Methodist until I joined Grace Church about two and a half years ago. I’d tell you about my deep love for this parish – for the sense of community that I’ve found as I’ve worked with the Altar Guild and through getting to know that faithful band of 7AM church goers on Thursday mornings. I’d tell you about the relationships that I formed with my colleagues in the Inquirers class two years ago – relationships that are still an important part of my experience when I’m able to be here on Sunday mornings. If you still wanted to know more I’d tell you how grateful I am for the deeply loving mentoring that I continue to receive from our Rector, Lauren; and, how all of these experiences have joined together to contribute significantly to my profound love for our Episcopal Church and our Anglican traditions. I’d tell you about how much it pains me to see the political struggles that our church is facing as we debate issues related to biblical authority and human sexuality in very public arenas; but I would balance that by telling you how proud I am of so many of the leaders of our church who, like the writer of this morning’s Gospel, remain deeply committed to Jesus’ message of justice through the love of God for all people. And when you asked me if I thought there would be a schism in The Episcopal Church (that’s always the next question when I talk to people about my love for our church), I would remind you that people often respond with fear when they are confronted by the profundity of Jesus’ love. Like the Gerasenes who, out of fear, asked Jesus to leave when he had saved a man from the demons inside him, there may indeed be Anglicans and even other Episcopalians who ask us to leave when we continue to insist that the love of God be extended to everyone. And like the example we have in Jesus, I would insist that we must not let that dissuade us from our commitment to the ministry God has entrusted in us.

Perhaps if we got to the end of that conversation you’d know a little more about who I am. But would you know enough to really know me? What would it take for you to really know me?

What would it take for me to really know you?

Luke knew that a relationship with the risen Christ could not be achieved just by sharing the name and title of that man who was “Jesus, Son of the Most High God”. He wrote his book, you’ll recall, for Theophilus, a wealthy man, presumably a new Christian, who wanted to know more about Jesus. Luke knew that Theophilus needed to know more than that Jesus was the “Son of the Most High God”. Like the facts and stories that would be told about me or you if someone wanted to know us, Luke tells us the stories of Jesus that can help us find the answer to that persistent question: “Who then is this [Christ]?”

But these stories are always only the beginning. If we were to really get to know one another, it might begin with stories and facts, but it would only be truly achieved through our dedicated attempts to spend time with one another and to learn one another’s ways.

That’s why we’re here today. That’s why we’re sitting inside when the weather outside is so perfect. That’s why we braved the Madison Avenue construction. That’s why we’ve put off our golf games and our time in the parks with the kids until the afternoon. We are here because a central element of our Christian vocation is our ongoing discernment of that question posed by the disciples: “Who then is this?” We are here because we believe that when we gather in the name of God we will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, encounter the Body of Christ; and because we know that it is only through those encounters that we can come closer to knowing Christ in the intimate way that our faith requires.

Who then is this Jesus?

Who then is this Christ?

I’m afraid I don’t really know. At least not the way that I want to know.

But I do know that I come closer to the answer each time we gather around the table. So I keep coming back to find out more about this “Son of the Most High God”. I find out more and more through the stories that I hear and through the time that we share. Amen.

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