Preached July 18th, 2010
St. Mark 8:1–9
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This is the seventh Sunday after Trinity, coming this year exactly two weeks after American Independence Day, the Fourth of July. Most of us, as Americans, can still recall hearing the fireworks, perhaps seeing the parades, maybe even hearing a patriotic speech or two. As Americans, we are very conscious of our independence, our freedom, and we take great pride in this. We think ourselves the most free people on the face of the earth, although many worry a bit about that freedom slipping with the continuing encroachments on our liberties by an ever expanding government.
And then we are struck with the words of today’s Epistle lesson in which St. Paul begins with an apology for an imperfect description, but he goes on to speak of a Master – Slave relationship. The word which our text reading renders as “servants” really needs to be understood as “slaves” in order for us to get the full meaning of this text. The word “servant” simply does not carry enough weight to explain the level of devotion involved, either when we were slaves to sin, or now that we are fully committed to Christ. It is an utter, total devotion, the devotion of a slave, far more than simply that of a servant. Paul uses this description with some regret because he does not like to describe the relation of the Christian with Christ in terms of slavery.
He points out that as sinners in the world, we sinned with absolute abandon, without restraint, without regard for Christ. That path, if continued, we know will lead eventually to our absolute destruction and damnation. Now, as those redeemed by Christ, we must turn away from the world with the same ardor with which we once embraced sin, so that we now seek to be completely free from sin.
There is no middle ground, no being free men in this world. This is the part that I think is so very difficult for Americans. St. Paul is telling us quite clearly that we either belong to the world, and thus are on the path to destruction with the world, or we belong to Christ and eternal salvation. There is simply no option to be free in this world to be our own masters, to choose our own way in between the two. This sticks in the craw of many Americans who want to say, “what do you mean I can’t make my own choices? It’s a free country, you know.” Of course you can make your own choices, but if you make any choices other than those that Jesus Christ has already made for you, they all lead to damnation.
We look at the result of our choices to see whether they are of God. St. Paul says, Romans 6:21a What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? He is speaking specifically here of those things done earlier of which we are now ashamed, things done contrary to the will of Christ. What sort of fruit did such actions produce in our lives? Invariably, the things that have led us away from Christ have produced unhappiness in our lives here on earth, just as they have led us toward eternal death.
The wages of sin are death, and sin has its end in eternal death. The wages of sin are the day by day penalties we pay for our part in sin, the unhappiness we suffer in the here and now. A list of the wages of sin is very long indeed, but let me suggest just a few items. Theft of any sort usually leads to time spent in incarceration and the life–long label “felon” attached to your name. Marital infidelity frequently leads to divorce and the breakup of families with much heartache and distrust for all involved. Greed pushes people to work simply for the sake of acquiring more, losing sight of all that is important in this life and the next. This list could go on for a very long time, but the point is that all of these reduce our joy in this life as they lead us toward eternal death.
Rather, it is our life as slaves to Christ that produces joy in our lives even now. Being a slave to Christ is not a burden, it does not restrict our lives, but rather it brings happiness to us. The fruit of the Holy Spirit, living in us, enriches our lives day by day. Whereas sin leads eventually to death, the Holy Spirit living in us leads to life and gives us the sense of Christ dwelling with us every day. The more we immerse ourselves in Christ, the greater the peace and joy we experience in this life as our sanctification is increased and we are brought ever closer to our Lord Jesus Christ. We become progressively more certain that we are on the right path with every passing day and the yoke of Christ bears every more lightly upon us. The reward is both in this life and in the next, as difficult as that is for many to see. Thus this is a very strange sort of slavery, a slavery that brings great joy to those who are the slaves of Christ.
Our Gospel lesson for today presents the other side of complete devotion to Jesus Christ. As St. Mark has recorded the story, a very large crowd, at least 4000 people, had followed Jesus into the wilderness for three days listening to him teach. Now if we stop to think about it, this in itself is a singular act of devotion. They have followed a wandering preacher for three straight days, even as he leads them away from their towns, out into the open countryside. Jesus was no doubt a spell binding preacher, but can you imagine how physically hungry these people were after following along for three whole days? We might imagine that some had brought food for a day or two, but three days is really stretching it. But here we are, Jesus has finished teaching, and now he is concerned for the physical welfare of these people that have indeed shown the dedication to follow Him all this distance. He knows that many of them are far from home, and that they have been without food for a long time. They simply will not make it home if they are not fed before they start their journey home, and yet, what to do? There is no grocery store in sight, no fast food place around the corner, no food to be had at all except for seven loaves and a few small fishes. So we have 4000 people, and enough food for a family of perhaps five, provided they all like to eat a lot of bread. The disciples are not very encouraging about the prospects at all.
Now Jesus was aware from the very beginning of the situation that was going to develop. He could have shortened His teaching. He could have chosen to stay close to the town. There are any number of options He might have chosen to avoid this situation, but He did not look to avoid it at all. He let this situation develop, knowing full well what the final result would be, what it would cost those who remained to hear Him out.
Christ who demands much of us also provides for us; there is grace to provide for all our needs. He has told us to follow Him, and for those who have responded, He will not fail to provide. He knows exactly to what extent we have accepted the challenge to leave all and follow Him, and He will provide for us in the same degree. Those who have left nothing should not expect to receive anything, but those who have left everything to follow Him will be fully provided for, both now and hereafter.
This is one of the places where Christ expects His Church to be active in the world today, that is, in providing for those who have left everything to follow Him. The Church is Christ’s agent to support those who are doing the work of Christ in the world, and Christ expects this of us.
In whatever acts of service the Church undertakes for Christ, it is always blessed in one form or another. This does not mean that all of our service projects will be a success in the way that we define success, but simply that some good will come of them for the Kingdom of Heaven. That good may be small, it may be a long time in coming, we may not be able to see it, or it may be fully evident right away. But however it happens, Jesus Himself always blesses every good work undertaken in His name.
As we think about a life of service, it is well for us to consider the Collect for today. It is addressed to God, the creator and master of all things, “Lord of all power and might,” but yet also a God of love, “the author and giver of all good things.” As we seek to serve God, we ask for four things. First, because true service is not natural to us, we ask “Graft in our hearts the love of thy name.” Secondly, “increase in us thy true religion,” because this faith will cause the graft to hold in our hearts and make us new people. Thirdly, we pray for growth in this new faith, saying “nourish us with all goodness,” so that finally we ask to be preserved in the goodness of God, with the words, “and of thy great mercy keep us in the same.” With these four thoughts in mind, let is pray again the Collect for the Day:
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things; Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.