The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
Habakkuk 1:12-2:4, 9-14, Psalm 15, Colossians 3:12-17, St. Matthew 13:24-30
Audio: Living in the New Creation
Living in the New Creation
One day in 2010, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts announced from the bench the death of Marty Ginsburg, husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Observers saw Justice Antonin Scalia wiping tears from his eyes.
And why not? He went way back with the Ginsburgs. He and Ruth had been contemporaries as law professors and had served together on the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. He was a Catholic and she a Jew but they were both outer-borough New Yorkers and they both loved opera.
They not only attended the opera together but went souvenir-shopping when they traveled. On a trip to India, they shared an elephant. The plentiful Antonin Scalia sat in front. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that lean, jut-jawed champion of women’s rights, sat in back. The question was inevitable.
“It had to do,” she said, deadpan, “with distribution of weight.”
And they and their families and a circle of friends had a tradition of sharing New Year’s Eve. One regular guest, a high-ranking lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said – referring to Scalia’s reputation as a hunter – “Scalia kills it and Marty cooks it.”
So, right there on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, Scalia wiped away tears at the public announcement of Marty Ginsburg’s death. And it mattered not a trifle that regarding the cases that came before the court he and Ruth disagreed – and disagreed vehemently – about just about everything.
He was a Constitutional originalist, committed to the principle that the Founding Fathers’ intent should be primary when judges interpret the law. She was and is as liberal as any jurist who has sat on the high court, ever ready to revise the Constitution to accommodate changes in society and culture.
In a case that resulted in Virginia Military Institute’s opening its doors to young women, regarded by some as the capstone of Ruth Ginsburg’s lifelong battle for gender equality, Scalia growled in dissent, “This is not the interpretation of a Constitution but the creation of one.”
But he made sure to complete his dissent in time to deliver it to her while she was still writing the majority opinion. “He absolutely ruined my weekend,” she said, “but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”
She said, “As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’”
He said, “If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.”
They were, in her words just after Scalia died last year, “best buddies.” And friendship is important and we should celebrate it but there’s something else in their relationship we can learn from. Their mutual warmth and respect made the Supreme Court better.
Spirited debate, done civilly, sharpens the arguments on both sides. And the public nature of their friendship despite their differences at law said out loud for all to hear that the institution they served could function just fine despite polarized views among its members.
A nine-member court is, after all, a community, something like a church.
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering;” St. Paul instructs the members of the church at Colossae, “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.
“But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”
We must of course consider what the “therefore” is there for. The apostle has been explaining to his charges in Colossae that the church is a “new creation.” Because it is without precedent, it must incubate relations among its members such as the world has never known. It must adopt an original rule of life to inform and govern those relations.
We find Paul using terms applied to Israel in days gone by – “God’s chosen ones,” “holy” and “beloved” – because the church is the “new Israel.” In this new creation, the standard under the new covenant that regulates it is mutual love.
He’s not sketching some Utopian dream; he’s not describing a scene from heaven he saw in a vision. He’s telling them – and us – to treat one another with kindness, meekness, patience and forgiveness.
The word for “kindness” is interesting. It’s used for wine that has aged long enough to lose its harshness and take on a mellow quality. It’s also the word Jesus uses when He says, “My yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30).
And, yes, this is the Jesus who has modeled for us these same qualities the apostle is urging upon us. This Jesus, who is the perfect representation of God, in whose image we are made. This Jesus, in whom we are forgiven and who calls us to forgive one another.
In the church that is the new creation the world should see the new man, created in the image of God and re-created, or born again, through His grace. The world will know us by how we love one another.
When we do, we demolish the walls that have forever kept men apart. In the verse that precedes our lesson for today Paul has said that in this new creation, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free . . .”
Well now. Everyone has forgotten all those old grudges, buried all the hatchets, hugged his old enemies. Not a lot of wiggle room there. Kumbaya, Lord, kumbaya.
Maybe he’s kidding. He’s probably putting us on. We’re not angels, are we?
Except for one thing. Here’s the next phrase: “but Christ is all and in all.” Christ has brought about a spiritual revolution. If Christ is in you, you are not as you were before. You have put off the “old man” and put on the “new man” who is a member of that “new creation” which is Christ’s church.
When Christ becomes everything to everyone, “love, which is the bond of perfection” pulls everyone together as the peace of God rules in your hearts. You have become one body, in which every member maintains a vital interest in the welfare of every other member.
Paul’s overarching concern is unity in the church. Certain recent “visitors” have called its theology and practices into question, and the result has been dissension. The way to overcome it, to achieve peace individually and corporately, is through love, which is possible when every member relies not on his own understanding but on the Christ who dwells within him.
C. Lucas put it this way: “the treasure of Christ’s spirit resides in the very ordinary clay of the local congregation of his people in Colossae, as elsewhere.” No, Paul isn’t putting us on.
He adds: “And be thankful.”
If I tried to examine every quality of this new man in Christ I might make you late for the Super Bowl, and I’m far too savvy a preacher to run that risk. I’ll settle for three – forgiveness, humility and gratitude – because I’m fascinated by how they bleed into one another in the Bible.
To attain forgiveness we must first acknowledge our need for forgiveness. He who makes no such acknowledgement is an unrepentant sinner, wise in his own understanding and proud in the imagination of his heart. He thinks himself righteous.
He may claim an innate perfection. I remember an old country song. The chorus goes:
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait
To look in the mirror.
Cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.
More likely, he who sees no need for forgiveness assumes his many assets far outweigh his few liabilities and considers himself justified in the balance. He has not considered well Paul’s words addressed to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
So, begging forgiveness requires humility, an understanding of our own frailty and utter dependence on the God who made us to cleanse us and make us fit to come into His holy presence. No sin may enter there.
Any who will not forgive do not know God’s forgiveness. All who understand what they have been forgiven will freely forgive those who have wronged them.
When we summon the humility to beg forgiveness, we receive it, for God promises it to all who ask. And when we receive it, we are profoundly grateful.
I have discovered that gratitude is the hallmark of a person in whom Christ’s Spirit resides. It’s impossible to miss for anyone who has a child who wandered for years and decades in darkness and at long last emerged in God’s glorious light.
Gratitude pours off of him in buckets. He can’t say “thank you” often enough – both to God and to those who stood by him through all the trials and provocations and helped him find his way into the light. Anyone who finds within him the humility to beg forgiveness will be overcome with gratitude when he receives it.
When this spirit prevails in the members of a church it will produce peace in the church, and peace must prevail for the church to function effectively as the body of Christ.
Does that mean we must always agree? In your dreams. But Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg show us that we can disagree, even vigorously, and be at peace, that we can make each other better and make our church better in the bargain. And not they alone.
At the beginning of his brilliant academic career, C. S. Lewis could be a bit of a bully. Some of his early students suffered under his scorn.
In his early 30s – more or less concurrent with his giving up his embrace of atheism – he wrote to a friend that he had recognized he was in danger of turning into “a hardened bigot shouting every one down till he had no friends left.” Lewis said, “You have no idea how much of my time I spend just hating people whom I disagree with.”
Many of you know of Lewis’ friendship with the other members of the literary discussion group known as the Inklings, among them fellow Christian authors J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. But this Christian conservative had other friends who were atheists and liberals and socialists.
He loved to debate and he would take on friend or foe, conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist. George Watson was first a student of Lewis at Oxford and later a colleague on the faculty at Cambridge.
Watson said, “Lewis was a Christian conservative from around the age of thirty, which is to say before I knew him; and since I am neither one nor the other, there was never any question of doctrinal influence. If I was not exactly a friend, still less was I a disciple. That in no way altered my sense of admiration and affection . . .
“We both thrived on dissent . . . (He was) the best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague, he did not ask or expect me to share his convictions.”
Watson said Lewis’ “twin passions . . . were people and arguments, but he did not often make the mistake of confusing them. Good people can believe in wicked things . . . like race war and class war. Lewis could be polite, even friendly, to such people. What aroused his trenchancy was evil opinion.”
He provided an example of Lewis’ aggressive attack on the argument of a communist scientist, all the while making it plain that it was communism and not its advocate he was lambasting.
Lewis fell back on a deep humility that acknowledged that he didn’t have all the answers and could always learn from others. At Oxford, he served as president of a discussion group known as the Socratic Club. In a debate with him there, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe catalogued the deficiencies of Lewis’ book “Miracles.”
His response? He promptly sat down and rewrote it, demonstrating what his opponent called his “honesty and seriousness.” Truth always mattered most for him. He loved to debate not to parade his wit and learning but to bore down to the truth.
I pray that for us what seeps up from Lewis’ example is a sense of proportion. People of other faiths or no faith at all are made in the image of God. Those of other Christian denominations and traditions for the most part agree with us on the Trinity, incarnation and resurrection. That’s not nothin.’
Within the Anglican world we have important differences with liberal churches, so stark that we look back and ask ourselves how we could begin in the same place and spin off into such radically different orbits. Still, we’re all Anglicans.
Inside our own body we will disagree on various points. This church has split before. I pray that before it splits again all concerned take a deep breath and consider the grace and even charm in times of dispute that others have modeled for us. If C. S. Lewis could summon humility, you and I ought to be able to.
I don’t mean to make gracious disagreement sound easy. It often isn’t. Sometimes the mere presence of those of repugnant opinions can make the skin crawl. I believe abortion is murder. Making cocktail party chitchat with those who speak breezily of the “right” to choose an abortion has proved a burden for me.
So, I return to one sentence: “Good people can believe in wicked things.” Even if that is not so, we will not win them over if we refuse to speak with them. And if we can disagree respectfully with them, surely we can do so with one another.
A mentor for me in this regard was our late Bp. Grote. He didn’t shrink from conflict but neither did he seek it and he appeared never to take disagreement personally. I remember well Bp. Sutton’s eulogy at Bp. Grote’s funeral, his recollection that his friend seemed to be bathed in a perpetual peace.
To have peace, he said, is to have Christ who is our peace. Forgiveness, humility, gratitude . . . peace. Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. It’s the way of love. It’s the way of unity in the body. Amen.
All Together Now
We hear a great deal these days about community in the church. But what exactly does community look like? Might it require the commitment and sacrifice of our Lord, who committed and sacrificed for eternal community with His brothers and sisters?