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February 07, 2021
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
While it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
Over the years I have been in ordained ministry, I have participated and led a number of discussions about the Eucharist, sometimes with people coming new to the faith, and sometimes with very long-established worshippers. I’ve always enjoyed asking people the
question about what their favorite part of the Eucharistic liturgy is, and it is fascinating to hear the various answers that are forthcoming.
Many people, of course, simply answer that it is the act of receiving Holy Communion that is the highlight of the service. Others talk about the joy of sharing the Peace or experiencing the intercessory ‘Prayers of the People’ so that they can pray for their neighbors locally or across the world. In a church with a musical tradition such as St James, of course, there are no shortage of people who speak with great joy about the choral and organ music we enjoy - even in these challenging times. There are even kindly folk who have said that it is the sermon that is the highpoint of their Sunday morning.
Underlying this question, of course, is a more basic question that goes to the heart of how we relate to communal worship. The question that simply asks, “What did you come out to do?” - or, in these strange times, perhaps also, “What did you tune in to do?” But as the internet was approximately 2000 years in the future for those who lived in the era of the New Testament, we will stick with the original version of the question, and seek to find an answer from the two major figures we encountered in our readings from the New Testament.
Paul, it appears, has gone out to ‘proclaim the gospel’. Indeed, as we learn from the opening part of the passage we just heard, Paul has gone out to proclaim the gospel not out of personal choice, but because he has been ‘commissioned’ to do so. And, for Paul, it is quite clear that ‘going out’ has been an ongoing state of existence, ever since he found himself on the road to Damascus. Paul understands with unique clarity that an ‘apostle’ is one who is sent, and thus we see him journeying pretty much without ceasing across the ancient near east and the countries around the Mediterranean, never staying put for very long, so urgent was his desire to fulfill his commission.
Indeed, there were, really, only two places that he was ever to stay for a long time after becoming the ‘apostle to the gentiles’ - the great city of Corinth, where he founded a church community, and the even greater city of Ephesus, from which, almost certainly he penned his letters back to this fledgling church. Two large, cosmopolitan, diverse cities, into which Paul journeys when ‘it was still very dark’. For these two ‘pit stops’ of his apostolic career were places of sleaze, licentiousness and fake news - places that, in spiritual terms, were deserts. Corinth, we should realize, had been a place of very significant missional opportunity for him. Flick back a few pages to chapter six of that letter from which we just read. Paul is talking about the need for morally upright behavior by the members of his church, and, as he does so, he reminds them of their pre-Paul, or pre-Christian past:
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” says the great apostle… “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers… thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers,” (And, yes, I’ve edited and abbreviated that list!) “None of these will inherit the kingdom of God,” says Paul, and continues, very pointedly, “ And this is what some of you used to be.”
For Corinth was famed for pagan religions, some of which were noted for their dubious sexual morals - so very well noted that, as one scholar rather cheerfully observes, it had given rise to the Greek word corinthiazesthai - literally, ‘to live a Corinthian life’ - understood as meaning blatant immorality.
Paul had many theological opponents who did not believe you could become a Christian without first, as it were, becoming a Jew. In other words, they expected new Christians to embrace circumcision and all the other requirements of the Jewish law - the Torah. This made the Corinthians a particular ‘prize’ for Paul if he could convert their behavior to something more moral and ethical without it being the kind of ‘obligation’ that the Law demanded. This would be real proof by which Paul could demonstrate to his detractors the power of the Gospel uncoupled from Torah.
That’s why, as Paul finishes reminding his flock of their very disreputable past, he also rejoices in their present state and its future implications: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” But if Corinth was a ‘place of darkness’ - if Corinth was a mission challenge that justified the urgently itinerant apostle spending some while in residence there - then so also, to an even greater degree, was Ephesus, where Paul may well have spent the best part of three whole years, and from where, as I mentioned, he probably wrote his letters back to Corinth. Ephesus was not as ‘sleazy’ as Corinth, but it was a vast city by the standards of the time - the capital of the Roman province of Asia - and was a melting pot of high and low, and of east and west, with a constant flow of visitors from beyond the immediate Greco-Roman thought world. It was - as we learn from a major incident in Acts - the home of a very large cult to Artemis, and a place brimming with shamans and magicians. It was, you might say, riddled with ‘fake news’ - fake news which Paul saw as being directly opposed to the Good News of Jesus Christ, and that is why, near the end of First Corinthians, he speaks of his plan to stay longer in Ephesus, “for a wide door of effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”
Paul, we see, had no problem going to places that were dark - places that were spiritual deserts. That is what he ‘came out’ to do, and he did so with utter consistency of purpose pretty much from his commissioning by the risen Christ until his eventual arrest and final
imprisonment in Rome.
And, in making this lifestyle the heart of his response to his commission by the risen Christ, Paul is, of course, adapting and emulating Jesus’ own approach to mission about which we just learned in the gospel, admittedly in a context radically different from the vast, cosmopolitan, gentile cities to which Paul traveled. But the principles remain the same - and, ultimately, the reason they remain the same is because, as Simon tells Jesus in that early morning gloom, “Everyone is searching…”
For they were certainly searching in Corinth and Ephesus - searching to see if their lustful and immoral patterns of behavior would yield them a better life; searching to see if the cults of fake news propounded by charlatans or magicians who had vested interests in selling idols would really transform the world for good. And while their context was so different, and really very much more humble, back in rural Galilee a few decades earlier, the folk whom Jesus encountered were also searching - searching for any quick fix that might be on offer to rid themselves of their demons and their sicknesses.
And some 2000 years later, people continue to search for quick fix solutions to life’s challenges; people continue to turn to self gratification through drugs, money or sex, and fundamentalism, whether biblical, economic or political, rather than work for the building up of community and Kingdom. We see this in the awful results of the search for status, power and drugs writ large in the gun violence for which our own city is tragically famed. We have seen this both in the corridors of power and on their surrounding streets in the nation’s capital with the contemporary quest for the vacuous comforts of fake news and unverified truth.
In this Black History Month we will see it again in tragic stories old and new of the exploitation of those of one ethnicity by those of another. And very much today, we see it in the heart-breaking statistics about the impact of the Coronavirus on different communities and different countries, reinforced by the arguments about purchasing and distribution of the vaccines. And - when we look in the mirror long and hard - we probably see it in some of the ways we choose to live out our own lives. Even us - the ‘good guys’ - who participate in the life of a sane, liberal, educated church community. For I suspect that if I examined how I choose to spend my time and my money, some of the priorities would reveal the same ‘quick fix’ principles that gratify me personally, rather than help make the world a genuinely better place.
Truly, as Simon says to Jesus, “Everyone is searching…” - but what Simon had not quite worked out at this early stage of the gospel story, is that although they are searching for Jesus, they are doing so for the same ‘quick fix’ or ‘high’ they have seen their neighbors experience the previous evening. After all, is there anyone here this morning, in person or online, who would not want their demons eradicated just by a simple word or gesture?
But that isn’t what Jesus ‘came out to do’ - and it isn’t what Paul went out to do either - which is why we need to work out why we came here this morning, either in the flesh or through the wonders of internet technology. We might even need to work out which part of the liturgy really is our favorite…
Jesus, so he tells Simon, has come out to ‘proclaim the message’. And, as Mark makes very particularly clear, Jesus is intent on proclaiming this message with a great sense of urgency, just as did that most unlikely apostle he commissioned after the resurrection, who mirrored the same sense of urgency in his own approach to mission. Jesus and Paul are convinced of the urgent need to ‘proclaim the message’, and - as Mark makes clear just a few verses earlier, in the opening moments of his gospel - the message that must be proclaimed is that the kingdom of God has come near, and it is time for people to have a change of heart, a change of life, a change of mind - it is time to ‘repent, and believe in the good news’. The good news, not the fake news, not the selfish news or any other kind of news that prioritizes power, privilege or gratification at the expense of others. And what we learn from our two readings this morning is that the kingdom of God - which drew near in Jesus and has not gone away - the kingdom of God is worth proclaiming at all costs, for it has power to change people, and thus it has the power to change the world. But we need to take note from Jesus’ example, that such a mission is only going to succeed if it is under-girded in prayer - even, and perhaps especially, if that means getting up very early to go into the darkness. For, as Jesus and Paul both show us in different ways, it is in the dark and the desert where the Good News of the kingdom of God is most needed.
And if we have the courage, in our own situation, to follow this fundamental pattern of mission, set out so vitally and powerfully by Jesus and Paul, then we will help prove true not just their words, but even the words of a young woman who only the other week was talking about the challenge of finding light in what can feel like ‘never-ending shade’.
As Amanda Gorman reminded this nation at the inauguration, “if we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy…” - you may not be surprised to learn that this young woman is a church-going Christian - if we do this and proclaim the message to people in darkness and deserted places, then, as she said,
When day comes we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Amen, Amanda, Amen to that.
And it is when we hear words like that, that we need to ask ourselves why our favorite part of the liturgy isn’t the dismissal, when we are told to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Because that is the moment that we are reminded of our commission - the commission of our baptism, which, as the Baptismal Covenant makes so explicitly clear, calls us to the ministry of proclamation and example. That is the moment when we get our chance to get up early, go into the darkness, pray, and then proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God. If, like me, you think the world might be just a slightly better place with a bit more of the Kingdom of God lived out in it, then let’s do what we can to honor and live out our commission. For then, as the young woman said so clearly, we might be brave enough not just to see that light, but to be it. Amen.