Pilate’s question to Jesus, “So, are you a king?” is arguably the most instructive political encounter in the Bible. Yes, Jesus is a king but not according to the standard hierarchical political system of violence and patronage. He, instead, turns leadership on its head. Accordingly, “the free movement of gifts—in a nonhierarchical way—is the very heart of Christianity.”
I love Thanksgiving Day. It’s such a quintessentially American holiday celebrating one of the better founding myths of our country. Sure the story of Puritans and Native Americans sharing a thanksgiving meal is romanticized and overlooks the suffering of Native Americans caused by European immigrants. Even so, as Diana Butler Bass comments, “That’s what myths are—stories that express something we desire, what we hope will be, and how we dream of happiness in peace.”
On All Saints Day, we especially remember the local, unsung saints who have touched our lives. We also look forward with hope to the eternal city as depicted in the book of Revelation, symbolizing a time when God will make all things new. Accordingly, every ditch dug, every brick laid, and every vote cast that has contributed to the decency and flourishing of human life will be preserved and built into this city.
This sermon concludes the series on Paul. A fascinating insight from this series is seeing how Paul’s thought kept developing in response to new situations. This is something we can learn from him as we and our churches face ever new circumstances. Another unique aspect is that these are first-person letters that reveal Paul as a person—something unique in ancient literature. Finally, what was most basic for Paul was love of God and neighbor, or, as we might say, “living the love.”
Our experience of death and our questions about our future with God are intensely personal. No question should be off the table as we wrestle with this in our death denying culture. In this respect, it can be helpful to study the development of Paul’s thought as he considers his Pharisaic belief in the resurrection, Greek beliefs that our imperishable souls are confined in our perishable bodies, and the experience of suffering and death. In all such formulations, we’re reaching beyond what we can clearly see or articulate. Our hope is that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.
The partisan political divide in our country is ugly and it also runs through our churches. We’re complicit in the sexual violence and other forms of brokenness that feed this acrimony. We therefore enter the process of reconciliation with a sense of our own sin and limitations. It forces us to recognize the ways we depersonalize “others” in situations of conflict. We cannot achieve reconciliation through our own resources; it’s God who initiates and brings about reconciliation. In that sense, it’s something we discover rather than achieve, and it’s more of a spirituality than a strategy.
Paul’s understanding of being saved by faith needs to be disentangled from the Protestant understanding of being saved by faith “alone.” Paul’s concern in his letter to the Romans was not about being judged by an angry God when we die. It was rather about God’s purpose in repairing the earth and about healing the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. He paints the human condition of sin in dark hues and, as a counterpoint, he paints our new life in Christ in vivid colors. This speaks powerfully to congregations in our day that recognize that there is something profoundly wrong with civilization as we know it. Our communal life and our faith in action is the vanguard of God’s new world coming.
Unity is not uniformity; it is instead negotiating the essentials and non-essentials in a diverse fellowship. For Paul, one of those essentials was a fellowship where Gentiles are not forced to be Jews and vice versa. How is such unity in diversity expressed in our American society and in our American churches? According to Iris De León-Hartshorn, God’s Spirit is blowing things together that don’t naturally belong together and we now need to figure out how to live together as part of God’s reconciling mission for the world.
We now take the role of a woman as a pastor for granted but that has only changed in our lifetime. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus was the first woman to be ordained by Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1989. I still remember those heated debates about the ordination of women when I was a seminary student in the 80s. Paul’s letters were at the center of that controversy. Several questions predominate. How do we make sense of the contrasting views in the letters attributed to Paul? How did Paul relate to women in the church? Finally, what can we learn from this as we strive for gender equality on the church today?
Paul’s teaching that there is no longer slave or free is part of an early baptismal rite. Slavery in the Roman Empire, as in the American South, was brutal and afforded slaves no legal rights. In this respect, Paul’s appeal to Philemon to do his duty and receive his former slave Onesimus back as a brother was a radical claim that slavery had no place in a fellowship where being one in Christ transforms all social relationships.