Saturday, September 24, 2011
September 25, Proper 21: When Bad Things Happen to a Good Messiah; # 1 in a series, Kingdom Characters
Exodus 17:1-17, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Last winter and spring I preached a series of sermons on the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God is the great theme of the Gospel of Matthew. What is the Kingdom, what does it include, what life is like within it, how do we see it, how do we seek it, how do we receive it. Today I’m starting another series, more about us, the citizens of that Kingdom, and what the Kingdom offers us, who seek it, and what it expects of us, who receive it. I will focus this series on the word “character”: Christian character, godly character, Kingdom character.
This focus was given to me by one of you, this past week, when you wrote me in response to my sermon last Sunday. You felt a connection with an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine, describing how two schools in New York City are trying to teach good character. An educator friend of mine sent me a copy of that article the next day. The issue of “character” is in the air. So my plan for the coming Sundays is to ask one question of every set of our scripture lessons: “What do these lessons have to tell us about Christian character?” I don’t know yet what the answers will be. The title for this series is “Kingdom Characters,” in the plural, because we’re not expected to be all the same.
But in our epistle lesson St. Paul challenges us to have the same mind and to be of one mind. Of course he does not mean that we conform our minds to each other, that you conform your mind to my mind or I to yours, but that we all aspire to the mind of Christ—which is a challenge to us all. Character needs challenges. You develop character by working out your challenges, especially suffering, pain, and loss. It was true for Jesus too. He was not an angel, he was a human being, he had to develop his character, especially through the challenge of his loss and suffering, and the shame of the crucifixion.
We can observe the mind of Christ, the mind that we aspire to, when he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, yes, who for the sake of his mission did not defend his honor as the rightful prince of Judea, nor did he hang on to his position as the legitimate Son of David, or grasp the rights of his position as the lawful Messiah of Israel.
To not hold onto your position is something rulers just don’t do. I heard Jimmy Carter tell Charlie Rose that he considered his presidency a failure, simply because he did not get reelected. How much of what Barack Obama does is driven by his natural desire to get reelected; it is what rulers do, they want to hold on to their positions. Not Jesus, though. What he held to was his mission, even at the cost of his position, trusting that the God who had commissioned him would see him through the fear and trembling to work it through. This was so unusual his opponents didn’t know what to make of him and so they were afraid of him. And that too was part of his suffering, that he was feared and opposed by those he came to save.
Look at the gospel lesson. It takes place the day after Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the city like a prince, and cleansed the temple like he owned it, throwing out the money-changers who no doubt had to give a cut to the temple authorities. Of course the authorities want to know what right Jesus has to do such things, and what are his credentials. His question back to their question is right on point, because the answer to his question is the same as the answer to their question. And they do have an answer, but they will not say it, because they fear the people and they want to protect their position. They can’t be certain that the people will rise against them, but to people in power every potential threat is a real threat, as Dick Cheney has written.
They weren’t bad people, the chief priests and the elders. Jesus was pushing all their buttons. They were in a tough position, between the Romans and an unruly populace, and so to keep things under control they hang on tight to their position, and they back off from the right choice, the risky choice, the courageous choice.
Stanley Hauerwas has written that your choices and the succession of your choices are what determine your character. Your character is not static but dynamic, you work it out by the choices that you make. And the choices you make today both open up and close off the further choices of tomorrow. Your choices have momentum and a trajectory, they position your inclinations and your leanings and your posture and your attitudes as you address your life. Your choices also leave with you a residue, with things like compassion and sympathy and with what that magazine article called “grit”, and with other things like shame and guilt. The composite of these attitudes and aptitudes you can call your character, the role that you have written for yourself in the ongoing drama of your life.
In the ancient Greek dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the characters are always in bondage to the choices of their past. This bondage is compounded by the grip of Fortune, with a capital F, and by the selfish ambition of the gods and goddesses. You get the same thing in the Iliad and Odyssey, which is what the Philippians will have been educated in.
So they must have found it liberating, and maybe a little scary, to learn from the Gospel that neither Fortune nor the gods have any such power, and that the Lord Jesus offers freedom from the bondage of your past. You are always free to choose what’s right, even when it’s difficult. Jesus offers that freedom to the chief priests and elders, they still have the choice to heed the parable and let go of their position and be welcomed into the Kingdom. With the Lord Jesus, every judgment is an invitation and every challenge is a welcome. But for you to receive his freedom he requires of you a transformation instead of just an adjustment in your trajectory, and that transformation risks the loss of your position, and so you regard his challenge as an obstacle.
How you handle obstacles and opposition is the real test of your character. If you aspire to the mind of Christ, you will face opposition from the outside, certainly, but the more critical opposition is from inside yourself, when you oppose yourself by means of repentance, or with that long term character trait of “humility”. That’s a challenge if you want to get ahead. The only way to get to be Caesar, for example, was by selfish ambition. But by humility I don’t mean softness, and by repentance I don’t mean groveling. I mean resting from your momentum, not pushing your trajectory, risking your position. Emptying of everything but yourself. That is the mind of Christ.
Which has its benefits. It means you do not have to defend yourself or prove yourself. Jesus did not defend himself to the priests and elders, he knew who he was. He did not have to assert his authority or fight for his position, because both his authority and his position were grounded in his character. You can have that freedom too by being grounded in your character when your character is a Kingdom character, sharing the mind of Christ.
He emptied himself. He did not grasp at the rights of either his earthly royalty or his heavenly divinity. He emptied himself because that is God’s character anyway, this is the God who bends towards us—who yields to us, who yielded, for example, to the complaining of the Israelites. That is the character of God, and Jesus kept choosing for that kind of character his whole life, even to the loss of everything he had. And so his Father gave it all back to him as a gift, a greater position, and the name above every name, the name of “the Lord”, Adonai. We Christians believe that Jesus is rightly called the Lord God because he had in him the fullness of God’s character. When you aspire to the mind of Christ you are aspiring to the mind of God.
I close with a paraphrase of that final verse in our epistle: “Work out your Kingdom character in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to desire and to choose for God’s good pleasure.” And God’s good pleasure is nothing other than Love. God’s love is built into God’s character, so that I can even say that God can’t help it, loving you. And that certainty of God’s love is the position in which you stand.
Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.