Sermon: LENT 2, March 17th, 2019
In the Name...
"'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe." That was the first line of the poem "Jabberwocky" from Lewis Carroll's, "Adventures of Alice Through the Looking-Glass." It's a wonderful bit of nonsense, full of made-up words. And, in the book, Alice is treated to a commentary on this poem by the character of Humpty Dumpty who makes this telling remark, "Words mean what I want them to mean. Neither more nor less."
Abraham Lincoln, though, would have disagreed with that because he once asked some friends, "If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs would the dog have?" They replied, "Five.", But, he said, "No. You can call a tail a leg, if you like, but, it’s still a tail."
Two points of view then, the subjective and the objective. Is something what it is regardless of what we call it, or is what we call it, what it is? And why, on a Sunday morning, are you listening to someone prattle on about semantics? Because, I'm afraid, of something that happened 2,000 years ago in the city of Antioch.
Antioch was the third largest city in the Empire. Only Rome and Alexandria were greater. An important trading centre for merchandise, it was also a trading centre for every sort of vice. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, crime, you name it. A small number of its citizens enjoyed great wealth and a large number suffered great poverty. And in this city, a group of believers in Jesus started to meet and, we are told, became described by their pagan neighbours by the term “Christians.”
The Episcopal church in Silver Creek, NY, where I was rector, owned a couple of acres of land outside of town. This land had been part of the bequest of a local doctor who left instructions that all his real estate holdings were to be divided among the churches in the town, "who believe in the fundamental principles of the Christian religion, and in the Bible, and who are endeavouring to propagate the same.”
They say no good deed goes unpunished and the lawyers had a field day sorting out this one. It came down to this. What is the legal definition of a "Christian"? The doctor was a Presbyterian, so mainstream Protestants seemed safe to include. But, the Pentecostal lawyers didn't think the Roman Catholics qualified for a share under the "fundamental principles" clause.
Well, as you can imagine, there was a great deal of opinion about what it meant to be a “Christian” in Silver Creek, NY. And the fact is, there is a great deal of opinion today as to what a Christian is, or is not, just about everywhere else. Is it subjective, is it objective? What defines it? Who determines it? Does it matter? What, after all, as Shakespeare put it, is in a name?
In the Bible, though, we see that names are often symbolic and filled with meaning. They can reveal a character trait or life's mission. The name Jacob, for example, means "grasping" because when he was born his hand was grasping his twin brother Esau’s heel and he, indeed, grew up to be a grasping fellow. Elijah means "Yahweh is God" and he became the prophet who fought against the worship of Baal. Joshua, who led his people into the Promised Land, means "he who saves" as does its Greek form, 'Jesus', especially applied to the one who leads all God's people to Heaven. In the Gospels, we know the famous incidents of Simon, "the seeker" being renamed Peter, "the rock", and Saul, which means "narrow", becoming Paul, "the visionary".
And, in our experience, names can be about relationships. We all have family names. We have nationality names. If we're in a civic club, such as Rotary or the Lions, we identify ourselves by those names. We're proud to bear some names. Good names give us a positive image. Bad, or controversial, names make us uncomfortable. You don't find a lot of people today named Hitler. Most probably changed their names to Smith, even though Adolf wasn't their fault.
Now, the word "Christ" is a royal title and means "the anointed one". Kings are anointed at their coronations. "Christian" literally means "like a king" so a Christian is "like King Jesus". And that's really quite amazing. Because it seems that “Christian” isn't supposed to be a name we give ourselves, it’s a name that others should give us. The believers in Antioch didn’t call themselves “Christians.” They didn't say, "Look at us, we're like Christ". It was the other way round. People looked at them and drew their own conclusions.
Being a Christian, then, is something that shows. Antioch was a dark place, morally speaking, and something contrasting was obviously going on in the lives of the Antiochean believers. They were adapting their lives to the life of Christ, the light of the world. He was their model in their deeds and their words. I'm sure these believers weren't shy about talking about how Christ had impacted their lives. And so it should be with us. Our neighbours and co-workers should see the way we live, the way we make decisions, the way we respond to life’s joys and sorrows, the way we handle sickness and death, and they should think, “Now, that person is different. Why? What is it about them?”
St. Athanasius, a theologian who lived in the 4th Century, made this statement, "Man is a creature who has received a command to become God". And this refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which gives us a share in God's life and power here and now. Miracles were the proof that Jesus was who he said he was. Miracles are the proof that we are who we say we are. You and I should be making miracles.
But, has anybody here fed the 5,000 or stilled a storm lately? Anybody heal a leper or raise the dead? No? Well, has anybody provided food for the hungry or comforted someone whose life is in turmoil. Has anybody helped someone who felt outcast and isolated to feel loved and appreciated? Has anybody turned someone's life around and saved them from disaster?
Those are the miracles which the people of Antioch witnessed. Those were the proofs that this group who talked about this Christ Jesus actually shared in his anointed kingly power and deserved to share his name. The miracles demonstrated there was more to these Christians than how they lived. It was how they loved, loved their God, loved their neighbour. And the power of God's love for the world, working through them, was the greatest miracle of all.
Oh, how did the NY court resolve the question of who was a "Christian" in Silver Creek? It took the pragmatic view that the word "church" referred to the religious tax-exempt corporations represented in the town. So the Roman Catholics, and the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, all got some land, but, the Pentecostals, who were only an unincorporated house-fellowship, did not. Humpty Dumpty must have sat on that court.
The people of Antioch called the believers in their midst, "kings", "anointed ones." What claims do the people around here make about us?
Blessed is he who comes in the name – and the power – of the Lord.
In the Name...