In the Name...
Some years ago, there was a fellow who claimed he had evidence that Moses was an alien from another planet and had been spying on the Earth to prepare for an invasion. This upset some people, but a rabbi said if this was true we had nothing to worry about because the aliens had no sense of direction. After all, the rabbi said, Moses managed to lead the Jews to the only spot in the entire Middle East with no oil.
The Middle East and oil. It's hard not to think of one without the other. Archaeologists have found that this association is older than we might think. Ancient temples were often built over places where oil oozed out of the ground. The oil was set alight so that the constantly burning fires could remind worshippers that as light vanquishes darkness, so, good conquers evil and knowledge overcomes ignorance. And that symbolism of light has continued in many religious traditions to the present day.
Indeed, this universality of the place of light in religion is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Jesus' own words, "I am the light of the world", words which, by extension, apply to all Christians as lights in the world, conquering evil, overcoming ignorance, and vanquishing darkness. This must be the constant work of the Church and of each individual Christian. But, the light as we exhibit it, while certainly constant, has flickered greatly over the centuries and at times has burned so low as to be barely visible. The reason is because the wind blows very strong. The wind of the world blows relentlessly in an attempt to extinguish our light.
St. Paul knew this would happen. He knew the world outside of Palestine and knew that as the Church expanded into pagan territory, the pressure would be on converts to slip back into their pagan ways. That is why his letters are not addressed to Christians in Jerusalem or Nazareth or Bethlehem, but, to Christians in Corinth, Philippi, Thessaly and Rome - places without a strong Jewish Scriptural foundation. These people, mostly Gentile converts, needed all the encouragement and guidance they could get.
Today, we heard a passage from his Second Letter to the Corinthians in which he emphasizes that Christians are a new creation. A new creation. This is quite a concept and says a lot about the Christian calling. In those days, most pagans didn't have any sense of what we call spirituality. Pagan religion was all about ceremonies and magic and had nothing to do with a person's way of life, morality or ethics. So, Christians were introducing an entirely new vocabulary to the Ancient World - a completely new way of thinking. And, in the letters of St. Paul, we see examples of how this was happening.
St. Paul writes at length about what he calls "oiko theo anastrephesthai" which we can translate as "a man's behaviour in the house of God." Now, Christians have often used the phrase “house of God” to mean a church building, but, St. Paul is not concerned here with when to kneel or sit or even how to pay attention to sermons. For him, the "house" of God is just another term for the "people" of God, the “household” of God. That was the sense of what we prayed this morning in our collect when we said, "Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love."
Our collect was based on the third chapter of the First Letter to Timothy and, in it there were four words and phrases which St. Paul used to define four cardinal principles which should inform the behaviour of Christians.
The first was that word "household." The Greek is "oikos." (Yes, like the yogurt.) It doesn't simply mean a place in which to dwell, nor is “family” a good translation, either. A “household”, in the Ancient World, didn’t just include people related by blood or marriage. The term even refers to people who had what we might call a business or employment relationship to the family. The Ancient World was far more interdependent than ours is with a great sense of mutual obligation. It was common for dozens, even hundreds, of biological families to consider themselves part of a great man’s “household.”
That’s not an easy concept in our individualistic society, but St. Paul would say that if a gathering of believers is not such a household then it is lacking something essential and it may be large or small in numbers, but, it will always be empty in soul and, instead of light, produce only darkness.
And the second word we used today was the word "church" itself - in Greek, "ekklesia" from which we get the word "ecclesiastical." Now, in Ancient Greece, the word "ekklesia" had nothing to do with religion. It was a secular, political word and meant what we would call "congress" or "council." A gathering of civic leaders who manage public affairs. St. Paul took this word, though, and applied it to the Christian household to emphasize that what we are supposed to be about is not merely spiritual. Not merely spiritual.
We are the congress of God in Kent County. Our purpose is not to do nothing, as we often accuse the Washington, D.C. congress of doing. Nor is our purpose to just focus on personal religion and think lofty thoughts. Our purpose is to do practical outreach for the public who don't come here and who may never darken our doors. After all, the young Jesus said, "I must be about my father's business" and if we are not about our Father's business in this area, imitating Christ and serving those whom it is easy to forget, then it doesn't matter what else we do.
The next two phrases St. Paul uses are in connection with the word "truth." The Church, he says, is the "stilos", the "pedestal” of truth, and the “edraioma", the "foundation” of truth. The pedestal and foundation of truth. A pedestal is something on which we put statues. The Statue of Liberty, for example, is impressive in its own right, but, it stands on a massive pedestal that it might be the better seen, and, the pedestal itself rests on a deep foundation to prevent the whole thing toppling over.
The Church is to display the Truth with which it has been entrusted and hold the light of the Gospel aloft – both deep rooted and high reaching. And what truth and light is that? That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and all that follows from that belief.
A household, a congress, a pedestal, and a foundation. That's what keeps the light shining and each one of us who claims the light of Christ has a responsibility to see that that light is not extinguished in how we live and act either as individuals or as a group.
How vivid, therefore, Christ's metaphor of the light, and how contemporary the words of Paul, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"
In the Name...