Sermon preached by Marilynne Robinson, April 19, 2015

 

Acts 3:12-19

1John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

 

We liberal Protestants are particularly inclined to give respectful hearing to every one of the arguments against traditional understandings of Christianity, to every seemingly intellectual doubt that might erode the ground of our own belief—so willing, in fact, that we do not often pause to consider the reasonableness of these arguments and critiques or their basis in fact.  An effect of our receptivity to what might in many cases be called debunking has been a narrowing of our faith and perhaps as well a diminishing of the comfort it would extend to us, or, rather, of the comfort Christ would extend to us through our faith.  As we become more tentative in our beliefs we find it more difficult to offer to others the kinds of purpose, courage and comfort we take from them ourselves.  Beauty and complexity fall away.  The first meaning of the word “liberal” for our tradition was “generous,” an ethic too precious to be subordinated to any other value, or to be lost because the associations of the word “liberal” have changed.  While an open and critical mindset is also central to our tradition, credulous acceptance of bad thought and scholarship brings us no closer to truth than dogmatism would do.  Here are a few instances of bad thought and scholarship that have had influence among us.

 

            It has been known for a long time, insofar as such things can be known, that the Gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and presumably after the deaths of most of those who knew him while he lived.  This thought has always perturbed people who have assumed that the truth of these accounts is compromised by the passage of years and by the imposition of subsequent interpretations, which are taken to have distorted the narratives of his life and death.  

            Whether accuracy is a synonym for truth in this case is a question I will put aside.  Of course anyone would wish for the clearest possible view of this singular man, though by the standards of antiquity, and especially considering the modest circumstances of his life, it is truly remarkable that we have as good a portrait of him as we do.  Still, the real question these accounts raise is of a different kind.  What, after all, is being described in the texts of the New Testament?  

            The writer known as Mark seems to have had as an audience a largely Gentile congregation in Rome.  The writer of Luke and Acts is describing to an apparently cosmopolitan readership the origin and early history of the movement that came to be called Christianity.  From this point of view Jesus’s death and resurrection were truly the beginning of the era of Christ’s  presence in the world, confirmed by the experience of Paul most notably, whose letters carry the names of distant cities in which congregations had gathered, even before any of the Gospels and Epistles were written, some of them before Paul’s own conversion.  If all this were not so familiar to us, we would certainly find it surprising, as the early community clearly did.  Whatever else is reflected in Luke’s story of the event at Pentecost, the tongues of flame and the multitude of languages, it clearly reflects amazement. Luke recalls the words of the resurrected Jesus after his self-revelation to his disciples and before his ascent into Heaven, that  “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations.”  How improbable this must have seemed, before it began to be realized.

            A book came out some years ago that popularized the idea that Christianity was established and enforced by the Roman Imperial government.  The early history of the faith has always been important to the much disputed question of its essential meaning.  And the ways it has lived in the world, as a valued and authoritative standard of righteousness and holiness from which Christendom has departed with disturbing regularity, is a gauge of what we are, essentially.  To take it to have been an instrument of authoritarianism in its formative period is to imply a fundamental reconciliation with authoritarianism—Christianity forever defined as conceding the claims of Empire, forever doing its modest good within the framework of a grossly unjust society.  

            This pattern has been common enough, historically.  Classic Christendom seems often to have existed to put its blessing on such arrangements.  But the Edict of Milan, in which Constantine proclaimed tolerance of Christianity and of all other sects active in the Empire, came in 313, 280 years after the death of Jesus.  For purposes of comparison, only 240 years have passed since the American Declaration of Independence.  In the long interim after Jesus’s death and before official tolerance, Christians had suffered periods of intense persecution as a despised minority.  So what was Christianity before Constantine?  What was the movement in which the New Testament writers saw, to their amazement, the living presence of Christ?

            The Emperor had a nephew and successor, Julian, called the Apostate because of his earnest efforts to re-establish traditional paganism as the state religion.  He wrote an attack on Christianity, largely lost, titled Against the Galileans.  In it he attributes the attraction of Christianity to the fact that it fed and sheltered the needy, Christian and pagan, without respect to their religion.  Julian treats Christianity as a surging popular movement against which the traditional religion is losing ground.  So we know that the early movement characteristically practiced unconditional charity, and that the faith was not imposed from the top down.  Simply to have persisted so long, and to have continued the practice of charity through nearly three centuries of intermittent persecution, means that Christianity had a strong and highly defined character before it enjoyed, if that is the word, any kind of protection from the state. 

            John Chrysostom, a great saint of the Eastern Church, was a younger contemporary of Julian and a bishop of Constantinople, then the seat of the Empire.  This is from his homily on the text “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” . . . and “thy neighbor as thyself.”

 

            If [love] were everywhere in abundance, how great benefits would ensue:  how there were no need then of laws, or tribunals or punishments, or avenging, or any other such things since if all loved and were beloved, no man would injure another.  Yea, murders, and strifes, and wars, and divisions, and rapines, and frauds, and all evils would be removed, and vice be unknown even in name . . .

            and

            If any one had a beloved child in whose behalf he would even give up his life, and some one were to love the father, but pay no regard at all to the son, he would greatly incense the father, nor would he feel the love for himself, because of the overlooking of his son.  Now if this ensue in the case of father and son, much more in the case of God and men (that is, human beings):  since surely God is more loving than any parents . . .

            and

            Yea, and if this were duly observed, there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler nor ruled, neither rich nor poor, neither small nor great; nor would any devil ever have been known . . . Yea, rather consider how great a blessing it is of itself to exercise love; a thing which above all is a choice quality of it.

 

            Certainly this is no endorsement of empire, or of the existing social order of slave and free, rich and poor, which existed as it did (and does) in the absence of obedience to the commandments of Moses and Jesus.  It is always a little perilous to identify anything as uniquely Christian, there being so many points of similarity among the religions.  But this is not anything less or other than Christian.  I can only believe that Jesus would have said Amen.

 

            The other day I happened to read a book review in the New York Times.  The author, a religious skeptic himself, is quoted as saying that in pagan antiquity parents could do whatever they wanted to children, who were “stoned, beaten, flung into dung heaps, starved to death,” and so on.  He says “It is hard to overstate the influence of Jesus’ teaching on the fate of children.”  It is impossible to imagine the degree of change, the sweetening of life, that would have come with a new respect and tenderness toward the young where this influence spread.  The imagery of the Old Testament appeals so consistently to the limitless love of a parent for a child that Jesus’ influence in this as in many things could be called the movement of Jewish values into the pagan world.  In any case, thank God for it.  And this new gentleness we can recognize as Christian, too, and an astonishing departure from the values prevailing in the very dominant culture of the Empire.

 

            For a long time we have lived with the idea that cynicism is both sophisticated and incisive.  So, when it is taken to be true that the Christian movement interpreted its origins as having been affirmed in the narratives of the life and death of Jesus, this is typically seen as a distortion and a misuse of the text.  Paul the tentmaker emerges from our reading as a third-party candidate with media savvy.  But if the movement associated with this crucified Galilean spread abroad, as we know it did, and remained, in its counterintuitive way, faithful to his spirit, as at its best it clearly did, then this fact would inevitably inspire a changed understanding of every memory and tradition of his life and death.  The epochal significance of it all would be affirmed again and again as the faith spread and endured.

 

            I began all this with the idea that I would talk about “comfort,” which is central to the lectionary texts.  The psalm tells us that, granting sorrow and difficulty, as Scripture always does, there is comfort to be had in the thought of the Lord, and in simply lying down to sleep.  The Lord says to David, or David says, “Be angry but sin not:  commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.”  Excellent advice.  Faith in the Lord lets a beleaguered man, as David certainly was, lie down and sleep in peace. 

            The passage from the Book of Acts by implication attributes the healing of a lame man to “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob,” whose servant Jesus was, whom these “men of Israel” sent to his death when Pilate would have released him, killing “the Author of life”—Peter uses this display of power, the healing, to identify Jesus with the God of Israel, seeming to condemn the Jews in the harshest possible terms.  But this power that astounds them is after all the power to restore to perfect health.  And Peter is quick to comfort those he has rebuked—they acted in ignorance, and God “foretold by the mouths of the prophets that his Christ should suffer.”  Repent therefore, he says, as their faithful God had said to them through all their generations, and a “time of refreshing” will come.   He speaks to them precisely as the risen Jesus has told his disciples to speak to “all nations.”

            How to interpret the fact that, in the passage from the book of Luke, Jesus identifies himself to the disciples by the wounds in his hands?  That he invites them to confirm that he, unlike a spirit and like a mortal, has bones?  That he would like a bit of food?  He seems intent on proving not only that he is the Jesus they have known as a friend and companion, but, more importantly, that in his ultimate and eternal nature, he is human.  Let us say that this moment has passed through the filter of memory and realization I proposed earlier, and that it was precisely in light of the emerging Christian movement that just these details were recalled and made central to this astonishing scene.  Perhaps these wounds are meant to tell us that in his exaltation Christ is still the Servant who made himself subject to death on a cross, that he did not cease to be the man of sorrows, did not cease to identify in the most fundamental way with the oppressed, the heavy-laden, with the poor and the enslaved, with those unvalued ancient children.  Let us say that his movement, insofar as it was truly his, honored a sacred humanity in its tenderness, its charity.  In every moment that his followers are and have been faithful to his spirit, we have the presence of Christ.  When we comfort, we carry that presence forward.  When we love our faith and our Lord for the beauty of his graciousness, for the good and elevating demands he makes on us, we can experience what Chrysostom called the blessing of exercising love, that “choice quality of it.”  This is the kind of comfort we can find, or perhaps enjoy more fully, if we want to.  In the deepest sense we can repose in it, each one of us “no more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.”