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Moving Beyond Our Self-Centredness to Christ-Centredness: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

February 24, 2019:
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Toward the end of my undergrad degree at the University of Waterloo I took part in a study trip, where a group of students and community members got to travel through Germany and Poland, seeing various sights associated with the famous theologian and Nazi-resisting pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other sights related to the Second World War. We saw some of his hand-written documents from the archives, the house where he grew up, the study he worked at in the upstairs of the family home, the prisons and concentration camp where his last years were spent. But one peculiar memory sticks out from an otherwise pretty serious trip:

We had stopped in a Jewish cemetery somewhere in Poland. I was standing next to one of our guides, a professor of mine from Conrad Grebel University College at UW. After our brief lesson, a group of conspicuous and rowdy street toughs started walking our way. And I think all of us began to wonder, is this group of loud teens and twenty-somethings going to ignore our group of religious studies students and senior citizens, or will they antagonize us?

And as they got closer and closer my professor, this elderly, Mennonite theologian said to me in a hushed tone, though with the hint of a smile: “It’s still pacifism as long as we don’t kill them.”

My professor’s cheeky comment reflects the long and complex history of Christians trying to grapple with the radical words of their Lord in the Beatitudes, about turning the other cheek, giving to all who ask of you, and loving your enemies. So we rationalize, or relativize, or make excuses, or spiritualize. You see this even in the Gospels themselves: we heard from Luke today: “give to everyone who begs from you.” Matthew puts it in slightly less demanding terms: “Give to him who begs from you.” (Not “everyone,” but “him.”) Luke records “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” while Matthew reports “blessed are the poor in spirit” — he spiritualizes it — “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Another thing there, Luke’s listeners are the poor — “yours is the kingdom” — while Matthew’s audience seems to be hearing something about other people, ‘the poor.’ This tells us something about the social standing of the members of these different communities, and how they took in Jesus’s words.

But no matter how they’re nuanced, they aren’t easy words, they’re not convenient words, and they’re not words in line with the prevailing wisdom of the world that says “might makes right,” and the increasing polarization of society that comes with the echo chambers of social media, where we the only interaction most people have with those who think differently from them is in levelling snide, personal attacks.

For me, today’s Gospel and Epistle play off each other in a helpful way, as we wrestle with Jesus’s words. On one hand there’s a tendency, even among Christians, to pit Jesus and Paul against each other. It goes like this: Jesus is easy to like; Paul is easy to ‘not.’ Jesus gives practical (albeit challenging) guidance on how to live; Paul never seems to make reference to any of Jesus’s teachings. In today’s readings, Jesus is talking about how to live in this world; Paul is going on about how to live… after we die.

But we can find some connection in how Paul writes: “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven.” We can follow the way of Adam: the normal human tendency to be disobedient, scapegoating, flawed human beings. This is what the world is mired in. Or, we can follow the way of Jesus, the way of life. One of the great Anglican figures of the 20th century, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, writes this in his book about the resurrection: “Dying to their own self-centredness, the Christians enter a new life wherein the centre is not themselves, but the risen Christ.”

And this is one of Paul’s main themes in his writing: we preach Christ crucified. We don’t point to ourselves, no matter how ‘good’ we might be. No, we point beyond ourselves, to Christ, and the perfect offering he made, in his life and death. We have been buried with Christ, and raised to new life. And it’s through our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (in baptism) that we pass from darkness to light. And even though baptism has to do with how we live — that’s why we make all those vows, “I will, with God’s help” — it’s not all about us. It doesn’t depend on us. It has more to do with who we are, in Christ. Moving from being “Adam people” to “Jesus people.” “Dying to our own self-centredness, Christians enter a new life wherein the centre is not themselves, but the risen Christ.”

And here’s where we can more fully connect Jesus’s radical teachings with Paul’s radical vision: The end, the goal, isn’t moral, legalistic perfection as an end in itself. The end isn’t about us triumphing over others, those who are different from us. The end isn’t about the victory of our side of the argument. The end, the goal that Jesus preached is the Kingdom, or Reign of God, which encompasses, but comes from beyond us. So rather than get caught up, or feel guilty, or try to rationalize or relativize the teachings of Jesus in the Beatitudes, we might simply understand them as reflecting God’s Reign that Jesus said is starting to break through into our world. This Reign is “here, but not yet,” is how theologians will describe it. It’s “present, but partial.” It shows through in Jesus’s life, and his teachings, and his compassion shown for others. It shows through when he loves his enemies in a way that most of us couldn’t, when he says “forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.” It shows through when he is raised to life, and God shows that what was once perishable can be made imperishable. And the ultimate Christian hope that Paul is concerned with is that God’s Reign will show through most fully, will actually come to fruition, when we and all of creation are transformed, recreated, in the same way.

When, even in our perishability and fallibility we’re able to live up to Jesus’s radical demands, we participate in the [coming] of the Reign of God, and help reveal it to the world. But rather than feel guilty about when we fall short, or get inventive to try and somehow get around them, we might understand that in these teachings Jesus isn’t pointing the finger at us, but pointing US toward the Kingdom of God. And in doing so he says that there is life. There is our peace. There is our hope. But the Kingdom is here, but not yet. So we can step out of our self-centredness and look to the one who points toward the Kingdom. And though we won’t get it right all the time, I’m sure we’ll find ourselves slowly, over a lifetime, conformed to the image of the risen Christ.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter