A sermon for 9 October 2022, Year C Proper 23
Every Sunday we say together the Nicene Creed. Morning and night, in the daily office, we recite the Apostles’ Creed. We proclaim, unashamed and aloud, the faith that we have inherited: that, however we think it was managed, God is the author and originator of all that we know and all that remains a mystery to us. That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became one flesh with us, because God so loved the world. That there is forgiveness for sins and hope in this life and beyond. That God remains with us, in Spirit and in truth.
Some several years ago, when I was beginning the final stages of my journey toward ordination, I had a conversation with a colleague who was on the same track. I remember them saying that one of the benefits they had accrued from the process of conversation, discernment, and successive interviews with various church bodies was that they found it much easier to say the name of Jesus aloud than they had before.
I remember this because at the time it was arresting. Here was someone whom I knew through the church, through our shared faith, and whom I knew well only because we were both on the same path towards priesthood; and here she was confessing that up until quite recently, it had been a bit awkward talking with people about Jesus. It’s alright in church, couched in the Creeds, but still, in the world, the name of Jesus is one that can evoke caution. It has too often been used as a cudgel rather than a comfort; hence, I think, the embarrassment of those of us who long to shout from the rooftops, “Jesus loves you!”, in case we are misunderstood.
But if this is what we believe: God loves you, no exceptions, and Jesus is the living proof of that, well, then, isn’t that something to sing about?
The middle lines of the piece that we read from Paul’s letter to Timothy today are thought by many scholars to be from a hymn, which must make it one of the oldest in the Christian canon. The poetry of the paired propositions:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful
point to that musicality, that repetition, the refrain that tends to form us in faith.
The commentaries that I had to hand to consult this week debated whether the first line, dying and living with Jesus Christ, point to baptism or to physical death and its counterpoint, resurrection. The final line, telling of the incorruptible faithfulness of God in Christ Jesus is our blessed assurance. God is with us, God does love us, without regard to how lovable or otherwise we are.
The commentaries were less inclined to scrutinize that third line: “If we deny him, he will also deny us.” I can understand why. It is a hard word in the midst of such a glorious and warm song.
It seems important, though: both Mark and Matthew record Jesus saying something similar to his followers during his earthly ministry. Mark helpfully renders the saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father in the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
That makes sense to me. I am not ashamed of the love of Jesus; but I can sometimes feel a little abashed, almost embarrassed, by some of his commands: to give away everything, to love even enemies, to eat with tax collectors and sinners, the greedy and the grasping. But worse, I confess sometimes to having my own purity code against which Jesus Christ himself might, at moments, be judged. That, as cringy as it is, might be my moment of denial.
And here’s the thing that I think might be most dangerous and insidious about it: when we are embarrassed by the largesse of God’s mercy towards those of whom we do not approve, we are tempted to deny Jesus’ love for them, Christ’s love to them. Personally, I find it easy and obvious to proclaim God’s love for the straight, gay, trans, questioning, single, married, black, white, Asian, uncertain, stranger; but I can’t kid myself that there are not lines that I draw, ironically enough, mostly between those who agree with me and those whom I think are just plain wrong. And when I find my limits, when I close the door on understanding and the possibility of reconciliation, when I deny Jesus to them, that’s when I pass judgement upon myself.
And let’s be clear: I am not ashamed of the gospel that I have received. I won’t wrangle over the words “black lives matter”, nor the good news that trans children are God’s beloved children. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to proclaim the love of Jesus, except when it comes to the people whom I find it hardest to love. But I know that “If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)
If I deny the love that Christ has even for my enemies, I become like the people at the dinner table where Jesus sat, who prided themselves on being in his presence, while he only had eyes for the weeping woman at his feet. I become like the nine who were healed, who received mercy, who went on their way happy, no doubt, and whole, but who missed out on the profound and deep joy of the Samaritan who saw more clearly than any of them the depth and breadth of God’s grace, and fell on his face before Jesus in gratitude for the limitless love that he embodied.
Still, I am comforted by the last line of the hymn; perhaps that’s why its composers put it there, to remind us that even though we fall down in faith, Jesus remains faithful to us.
After the cock crowed the morning after Jesus’ violent arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter broke down weeping, knowing that he had just done precisely what he had vowed he never would: denied Jesus before the onlookers around the fire, afraid of what they might say to him, do to him, tell others about him. Peter wept; but after the resurrection, when Jesus found him, he greeted him with peace, with the peace that passes understanding. Even Peter fell, but Christ was faithful, because that is his nature, and his being.
And that’s a love worth shouting from the rooftops.