Year B Epiphany 5: by all means

It is the second to last week of Sundays after Epiphany, and in the sermon series that we’ve been following, it is time for the fourth promise of our Baptismal Covenant:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. (I will, with God’s help.)

Last week, we imagined ourselves as not only Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but his beating heart, a tangible sign of God’s love to another. This week, turn and turn about, we seek the heart of Christ in those before us, those around us, those behind us. We who are sealed at baptism as Christ’s own forever, indelibly marked, seek out the signs of Christ in those around us, knowing that no one is made in the image of God unless all are; no one bears Christ’s cross unless it is the one bowed down by the burden, cast out by the crowd, the one raised to glory by the grace of God.

Paul spoke of being all things to all people, not because he was manipulative, or had no sense of himself; Paul seems, most of the time, to have a rather strong self-confidence, in fact, and an almost foolish tendency towards politically incorrect and unpopular statements.

He speaks of becoming all things to all people for the sake of the gospel, for the love of Christ and the love of those he seeks to reach with the good news that the kingdom of God has been brought near, declared to be at hand by Jesus, whose word is true.

In order to love his neighbour as himself, he tries to become his neighbour, to put himself in a different skin, let his heart beat to a different rhythm, in order to reach out with compassion, understanding, love.

Paul wasn’t always so understanding. At the beginning, he was the worst kind of extremist, colluding and condoning the killing of Christians for their religion, for what he understood to be their blasphemy, their apostasy.

When Stephen was stoned to death, Paul cynically stood by, guarding the belongings of the lynch mob, consenting to their murderous rampage. A zealot for the Law, he watched as the fifth commandment was broken, buried, and he consented to the madness. He was the worst kind of extremist.

And even Paul was capable of redemption. In fact, a man named Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, was sent to seek Paul out at the house where he was staying, since his strange encounter with the light of Christ on the road, which had left him sightless.

Ananias was sent to seek out Paul and to serve him with the gospel. Ananias laid hands on the man (who at that time was still named Saul, not yet Saint Paul), saying,

“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Perhaps it was the example of Ananias, and the few others who trusted in his conversion, that taught Paul how to see beyond the past and into the soul of another, becoming as one under the law to the in-laws, and as one without the law to the outlaws.

Most of us, God willing, will not have need to seek out the worst kind of extremists and serve them as Christ’s own anointed, although it’s worth considering.

But we are called to seek and serve strangers, however shy we may feel of them, who are our neighbours, deserving of our love, and of the gospel.

Even Jesus, rather than staying in the family home in which he had plenty of healing work still to do, what with the whole town crowding around the door, set out to seek and serve others in the region, others who might need the gospel, others who needed Christ.

Christianity is in some ways a restless religion. St Augustine, who although not an extremist like Paul, was in his youth and well into adulthood rather profligate; Augustine recognized that restlessness as that which draws us closer to God, compelling us to seek God out in the working out of the gospel, of grace, of love. In the very beginning of his Confessions, he writes,

“you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.”

Our hearts are restless, ever seeking God; what better use to put that restless energy to than to seek and serve Christ in those around us, our neighbours whom we are called to love as ourselves, the great commandment second only to the call to love God with mind, strength, and heart.

This morning we commission our new Vestry and Officers for the year’s work ahead, and one of the things that we will be discussing as the year goes on is how we can become to others what they need us to be for them; not to manipulate them into church attendance or propping up our numbers, nor out of any lack of certainty about who we are, as Christians, as Episcopalians, as members of Epiphany. We can keep our identity and our integrity strong, and out of that strength, founded in the gospel, built on the solid foundation of Christ, we can reach out to others, enter their skin, hear their heartbeats, dance to their rhythm.

Do you remember who first sought out and served you with the gospel? Maybe it wasn’t as explicit as, “Little girl, do you have a moment to talk about Jesus?” Maybe it was more like a gentle touch, a word of encouragement, the knowledge that you were valued, and loved, and over time, the realization that this was absolutely consistent with all of those stories about God seeking and saving the little lost sheep, seeking and serving rough fishermen and their mothers-in-law, feeding with broken bread and wine the multitudes and the select few friends, indiscriminately.

Someone once asked me the question, “What difference would it have made in your life if you had never heard the gospel, never known the love of Christ?” It hit me like a rock; I could see the answer and it moved me to tears. For a moment I was as sick and unsteady as Simon Peter’s mother-in-law before Jesus grasped her by the hand and lifted her up.

Do you remember how it happened to you? Can you become the person who does the same for another child of God, another lost sheep, another lonely soul?

Jesus went out from the house where he was staying while it was still dark, and watched the sunrise in prayer: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the Lord’s name be praised.”

And they came to him and said, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he answered, “But where is the one I am seeking, the one who most needs me today?” And they went out, seeking to serve the others.

He came seeking us, serving us; Christ the Lord, all things to all people, and always good news to see him coming. And he bids us follow.

Amen.

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