It is both All Saints Day and two days before a presidential election. As I pondered the texts for today I was struck by the polarity between our current expression of the City of Man, illustrated by the Presidential race, with the vision of the City of God seen by John.
From the one: Democracy, division, sickness and racial strife. From the other: The Kingdom, unity, shelter in the presence of God and rightly ordered allegiances.
This sermon reflects on what parts of this are available for the Saints at warfare in the midst of the tribulation, and what All Saints at rest look forward to.
The events of the week offered two extremes. The last fruits of a culture that would listen the church, and the declaration of the end of that listening. This is a little raw, but call it first pass a law and gospel in exile. The fact of repentance and the hope of return.
The jumping off point for the sermon is a veteran’s tale of the end of a world (Iraq) and where he goes from there. It is a well told tale of an apocalypse of the City of Man. Based in truth or at least true emotion and experience. Told well. Strengthened by a deep bit of truth related to The Apocalypse. The apocalypse of the City of Man is always about accepting its end. And that is the deep truth; the city of man ends. The question is does your identity end with it, or does it just transfer to another city of man. It too doomed to end, just in a way yet unseen. Or do you look for your residence in the City of God?
The world’s advice is always acceptance of death. The world’s advice is the true opiate, that all of this is meaningless, a striving after the wind. But Jesus says to us: “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your head, because you redemption is drawing near.” Right now the world groans. Right now the nations are in distress and perplexity because of the roaring of the seas and the waves. People faint with fear and worry about what is coming. But not you. Straighten up and raise your heads. Your redemption is near. The creation waits with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed…to be set free from its bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21).
If your hope is in the City of God, if you identity is found in Jesus Christ, the roaring of the seas are but a receding sound before that last trumpet.
The deeper theological term that this sermon circles around is kenosis. This contrast used as a summary refrain: The city of man seeks God to add to itself, The City of God seeks God to empty itself, is the kenosis statement. Every path of discipleship involves some emptying of the self. I’ve applied this here in a stewardship frame; it was budget preparation day. The first step in a robust spirituality is often a turning back to God, an emptying from ourselves, of a determined percentage of income. (The traditional response is the tithe, but the important point is putting kingdom values first.) The American church from what I’ve experienced has a problem right here. It is just not willing to turn over finances in a serious way to God. The reasons are legion and many are legitimate. But those reasons pale in comparison to the distrust that is built by not surrendering a portion to God.
But I think this applies in a much larger way to today. There is a much reported phenomenon of spiritual but not religious or the new “nones” in reply to religious beliefs. And I’ve got a big problem with most of that. And yes my current livelihood depends upon the religious aspect, so I am a partisan. But the call of Jesus is to turn our gaze away from our navels (stop being curved in on ourselves) and in this age to turn toward the cross which is the ultimate emptying of self. And Jesus’ vision in not a personal spirituality, or at least not exclusively. I can’t be like the rich young ruler looking to add spirituality to everything I’ve already got. Jesus’ vision is incarnational. The church is that incarnation. The church is the place where a true spirituality is created. The church is that 100 fold return of brothers and sisters…and persecutions. If it is not, it isn’t fulfilling its purpose.
One of theses days I’m going to write a novel with that title. It’s an allusion to Gen 31:19,32 and as with so much else from that Ur-Book, its a powerful story that we play out again and again like a musical fugue.
The Gospel text for this day is one of those repeats and an appropriate horror story as we get to Halloween. The contrasting character to Jesus is a man who knows he’s trapped by his household gods but can’t leave them. The task of discipleship is to learn to leave them behind. This man’s question is every man’s question or should be. That novel, amongst the characters, the protagonist is the one who in the eyes of the other characters has failed miserably but who is actually the only one who is free.
The big struggle this week was the question have I let the gospel predominate. I went back and forth in my pondering about that call to deep discipleship and how it might be taken. It could be a law proclamation of the second kind. All one might hear is the refrain to give up the idols and the application to do more and feel convicted. We know the responses when told to do something we really don’t want to do before we are ready to break the fugue. It could also be a law proclamation of the third kind. What must I do? Look at the commandments. That is how God intended us to live. Actually putting requirements back on people seems like a reversal of the gospel. If you are proclaiming the captives free, how then can you put the chains back on?
But Jesus didn’t seem to have any such qualms about being explicit. And that gets to a core recognition of the gospel. We can talk about the gospel in those freedom metaphors, but the call to “follow me” is every bit as much the call of the gospel. We can get deep in the Lutheran weeds and get all worried about passive righteousness. We can piously mumble true words about “I cannot by my own reason of strength follow Jesus”. But in the midst of the Christian life there are moments where it certainly feels like a choice. Like the one Jesus put to the rich man. The choice is really do we hear the gospel and walk in the way Jesus has laid out for us, or do we go our own way. So what I hoped the sermon opened up was not a list of preacher saying you must do x – which would all be great things for the preacher – but a space for the hearer to ask that question – “what must I do?” – and hear Jesus’ answer. These are your household gods and need to be left behind. Whatever they might be.
Augustine is one of those people who even if we have never read him still influences our thoughts. He influences the categories that place things in without us knowing it. Two of those categories are the City of God and the City of Man. We tend to slip into a little too dualistic thinking, making the City of Man all bad or evil. That isn’t really the case. The City of Man has its good and proper things. In fact it is usually good enough that we refuse to consider something else and spend out days desperately grasping what we have in the City of Man.
In Mark 10 Jesus lays out core distinctions between the Kingdom or City of God and the common perception. And he starts with marriage and divorce, which to be polite, Jesus is beyond the bounds of polite discourse.
But core distinction that he is trying to get at I think is this. The City of Man runs on accommodation. Because everything in the city of man comes with an expiration date, everything runs on making accommodation. The City of God runs on absolution. Accommodation hides. Absolution reveals. Accommodation eventually fails. You run into something that can’t be accommodated. God never runs out of grace. And that’s it, the currency of the City of God is grace. It buys nothing in the City of Man; but its what opens out eyes to something better.