In this country, we have so many things for which we may be thankful. We have a beautiful and abundant land, a diverse group of cultures and backgrounds, a spirit of compassion and generosity towards those who are suffering or less fortunate. We have a history of social progress, of correcting past mistakes, of attending to the general welfare. We also have a viable combination of personal responsibilities and personal freedoms–including the freedom from political persecution, the freedom from having to join any particular denomination, and the freedom from practicing any religion at all. Congratulations to you for exercising your religious freedom this morning by coming to church, instead of playing hooky from church and going to the rivah. Your odds of getting into Heaven just went up ten percent.
Yet perhaps some of the principles and characteristics that mark our life in the United States do not always conform neatly or appropriately to the situation of our being Christians. As Christians, our governing document is not the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but rather the text of the Old and New Testaments and the tradition of faithfully interpreting the Bible and faithfully adhering to it. The Bible is nowhere so obsessed with personal freedoms and individual liberties as is American political culture. Indeed, the Bible is far more concerned with our responsibilities for loving God and loving our neighbors than with the political concept of autonomy. Of course I do not mean to say that the Bible is anti-American or that being American is anti-Christian. Let me be clear about that point, because I would like to keep my internship here for the rest of the summer. I do, however, mean to say that we Americans who follow Jesus Christ and we Christians who happen to live in the United States really do face some tensions between our national culture and our religious heritage.
I wonder if our national idolatry is making individual autonomy our new god. Individual autonomy entails having each person acting as a law unto oneself and deciding what to do independently of others. That approach is central in the American political system, but it is not central to the framework of biblical ethics. For we Christians all belong to God the Father, who has the parental prerogative to declare his own laws for us [instead of having us declare our laws to him]. We Christians all acknowledge Jesus Christ as our King of kings and Lord of lords. We Christians all have the Holy Spirit working in us to teach us about the divine will for our lives and to bring us divine grace to accomplish it. We Christians all belong to each other, too, as members of Christ’s one body. What each one of us does within the Church has a bearing on the rest of that body. And ultimately there cannot be one unified body if each body part acts on its own, if each limb provides itself with its own laws.
Think of what happens in the Bible when people act on their own, making their own decisions apart from God’s law. Ask Adam and Eve about the consequences of their selfish behavior, when they replaced God’s will with their own. Ask the children of Israel, moving from Egypt to the Promised Land, how God punished them for making the golden calf as an idol of a false god. Ask the kings of Israel how they suffered and how their kingdoms suffered for defying God and betraying him. Ask the Jews who were taken from the Promised Land by foreign conquerors how God deals with idolatry. The Bible is full of the record of how God gives us the laws we need, how he gives us the grace to follow them for our benefit, how he holds us to standards of his righteousness, and how he judges the living and the dead according to their faithfulness.
In both the Old Testament and the New, whenever God’s people stand in need of reminders about his claim upon our lives and his expectations for us, he sends prophets to give us messages of instruction, hope, and warning. Time and time again, prophets in the Old Testament called the people of Israel to repent of their sins and to return to the Lord. Moses, Samuel, Ezekiel, Jonah, Isaiah all belong to the tradition of bringing God’s message to his people. Perhaps most famously among the prophets, there is Micah’s call for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God; perhaps we need that reminder now as much as ever. Time and time again, prophets in the New Testament called the people of God to repent of their sins and to return to the Lord. We have the prophecy of John the Baptist, who not only summoned the people to repent but also promised the arrival of the Savior, Jesus Christ, with great hope and anticipation. We have Jesus’ own prophecies of his Crucifixion and Resurrection for the sins of the whole world, and we have Jesus’ own prophecies of his return to judge us all as he separates the sheep from the goats, those who obey God from those who rebel against him (Matthew 25:31-46). We also have the prophecies in the Book of Revelation that concern Jesus’ Second Coming, his defeat of sin and destruction of death, and his establishment of a new Jerusalem, a new Heaven, and a new Earth. The whole set of prophetic texts in Scripture, from the first book to the last, explain how God has worked throughout his creation throughout history to declare his glory, to fulfill his own purposes, and to save us from ourselves. And to be quite frank, his work does not place individual autonomy and personal liberties at the center of our existence.
Across the centuries, God has sent his prophets to us in order to teach us hi swill for our lives. His prophets have been candid with us about our faults, our sinfulness and weakness. His prophets have also given us hope about God’s work to draw us back to himself, and to give us encouragement for enduring until his final victory and judgment. Even in the case when we human beings have rejected the prophets–rejecting even Jesus himself–God has continued to love us enough to send us prophets once again, so that we might place God in Christ as the center of our lives instead of the sinful “devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP 41). The prophets of the Bible, and God’s prophets since then, have summoned us to worship God instead of any idols that we might make for ourselves.
If individual autonomy is not our national idol, then perhaps tolerance is. The American political system is well-designed to coordinate the exercise of personal liberties and the toleration of many different beliefs and practices. Similarly, the Church can accommodate a variety of positions on many issues, all within the bounds of living faithfully under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Even the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which we are a part, have been recognized for our contributions to the cultivation of a certain kind of tolerance as a political virtue. But we Christians follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and so we recognize the powerful claim that God has upon our lives to direct us away from sin and to transform our lives into his image and likeness–rather than having us transform God into our image. And because God continues to call us towards a life of holiness and sends us prophets to remind us of that call, we Christians are not permitted to tolerate just anything and everything. There simply are some beliefs and some practices that are incompatible with the Christian life, and in the end we all will have our lives judged about them. We are expected to welcome sinners into the Church as God has welcomed us all and received us in his wide-open arms of love and mercy. After all, were it not for sinners being in the Church, the pews would be entirely empty, and this pulpit right would certainly be vacant right now. But we are also expected to ask for God’s help in turning away from sin and for God’s grace to strengthen us for holiness. We need relationships with God and with each other that involve honesty about sin and encouragement about resisting sin.
The Church is the place where those relationships are begun and sustained as guided by Scripture, including the Scriptures about the prophets. Here in the Church, we Christians have the joy of having our sins drowned by the waters of Holy Baptism and the joy of having our lives raised up by the food of Holy Communion. Here in the Church, and especially in this parish, we Christians have the responsibility to be doers of the Word and not hearers only (James 1:22 ). Here in the Church, we Christians have the high calling to worship the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Whatever personal freedoms we have in our national life and whatever we must tolerate within American culture, here in the Church we Christians are concerned less with the laws and principles of American government and more concerned with what the Book of Jude calls “the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3, NRSV). We Christians are called not to invent that faith, any more than we are called to invent idols. We are instead called to receive that faith as God’s gift to us and to the whole communion of saints, here on earth and in Heaven above. Amen.