St Mary’s, Robinson; St John’s, Albion; St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel—Luke 7:11-17, I Kings 17:17-24
Let me pose a question that may seem like it has an obvious answer—but I wonder how readily any of us would be able to answer it: What’s the point of being a Christian? Now, I’d kind of like to just pull up a chair and toss that one around with you for a while and see what we come up with. But we haven’t got time for that, plus, I’m the one whose job it is to say something at this point in our liturgy.
What’s the point of being a Christian? For many years, during my childhood and youth, my answer would have been: To go to Heaven, and not Hell, when I die. Many people hold this view. By default, we’re all going to Hell. But if, at any moment, you sincerely acknowledge to God that you are a sinner, and sincerely put your trust in the shed blood of Christ to atone for your sins, then you will go to Heaven. Saying that prayer makes a permanent change in one’s standing before God. In the moment of that prayer, you are “saved,” no matter what evil things you’ve done before then. Now, there’s some debate about whether you can ever lose that sort of salvation. Some say No—once saved, always saved. Others say that you can lose your status if you don’t live a life that is generally consistent with the faith in Christ that you professed when you were saved.
By contrast, some would say that the point of being a Christian is to be “a good person.” That seems to be largely an assumption of people who are not Christians, or merely nominal Christians—you know, the “Christmas and Easter” variety. From this point of view, the primary significance of Jesus is as a teacher and example. If we listen to and imitate Jesus, we will love our neighbor, practice honesty and generosity in all our dealings, tell the truth, honor every person’s freedom and dignity, and generally be upstanding citizens, the kind of “good person” that we wish there were more of.
For many others—a great many in the Episcopal Church, I have to say—the point of being a Christian is, quite simply, to make the world a better place. Our collective mission is to be God’s hands and feet in this world, striving to eliminate war, eradicate poverty, dismantle racism, and redress injustice, all of which effort will tend to disincentive both crime and terrorism. God is counting on us to be the instruments of the coming of his Kingdom of righteousness and justice, peace and love.
But perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves, What did Jesus say? What did Jesus say about the point of being his follower? Was is so that people could “go to Heaven” when they die? Was it so that we could all learn to be nicer and more civil toward one another? Was it to form an army of justice workers and community organizers? I have to say, I don’t think any of these understandings hits the bull’s-eye, but they are all at least somewhere on the target. In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, beginning at the tenth verse, and speaking of all people everywhere, Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Abundant life. Jesus came to bring us abundant life. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, frequently uses the expression human flourishing to describe what abundant life looks like. It includes obvious low-level physical needs like health and security; you can’t flourish if you’re constantly sick or constantly vulnerable to violence. But human flourishing—abundant life—also presupposes a degree of community, a community where there is mutuality, where people have the skill and the resiliency to live reconciled—or, more importantly, perhaps, reconciling—with one another. Human flourishing certainly includes meaningful work and economic security. But abundant life also addresses our higher-level needs—the need to have, literally, a reason for living, a sense that one’s life is significant, that it has meaning and purpose—meaning and purpose, that is, in the context of the knowledge and love of God, for there can be no meaning and purpose except in relation to the One who made us and sustains us.
“I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” In light of what most human lives are actually like, we could be forgiven the amount of cynicism required to see these words on the lips of Jesus as more aspirational than real, right? Yet, the audacious claim that the Church makes is that only through repentance, faith, baptism, eucharist, and discipleship do human beings find ultimate meaning, purpose, and reconciliation. Christians make the insufferably audacious claim that Jesus is the one who delivers on the hope of abundant life, delivers on the promise of human flourishing.
Like I said, it’s an audacious claim. It even smacks of arrogance. It’s certainly something that needs to be authenticated. So we have two stories in our readings this morning that have to do with the authentication of a bearer of good news
The Prophet Elijah first meets the widow of Zarapheth, and her son, when they’re both about to die of starvation, and he asks her to make him a pancake with the little bit of flour and oil that she had earmarked for her and her son’s last meal. When, against her better judgment, the widow complies with Elijah’s request, she discovers that her supply of flour and oil constantly looks like it’s going to run out, but never actually does so, until the famine was ended. After that, Elijah became friends with the woman and her son, and took a guest room in their home. The boy suddenly takes ill one day, and he dies. The widow is beside herself and rails at Elijah and Elijah’s God with sarcasm: “This is what I get for being kind to you? My son gets taken from me?” So the prophet takes the limp body of the boy up to his room and offers what had to be the most heartfelt prayer ever offered. A few minutes later, he’s back downstairs, only now with a very much alive young boy. So Elijah was authenticated as a “man of God”—the descriptor by which he was known—Elijah was authenticated by being the vehicle through which life was restored, the vehicle through which human flourishing was made manifest to the widow of Zarephath.
Then, in Luke’s gospel, Chapter 7, we have a strikingly similar story. There’s a widow there’s a widow’s son who has died (only this widow’s son is a grown man), and there’s a “man of God”—in this case, Jesus. Jesus and his followers just randomly run into a funeral. It’s a strange town; Jesus doesn’t know anybody there and they don’t know him. But Jesus is moved by what he sees, by the grief of the young man’s mother and the loud mourning of the others who were there. Acting somewhat more confidently than Elijah did, Jesus grasps the dead man’s hand and invites him to sit up, which he does, and the man is restored to life, much to the amazement and delight of everyone there. In so doing, Jesus was authenticated as a prophet even greater than Elijah.
You and I, my friends, are the “messengers” of Jesus. We have a message to share, news to tell. We might well ask, How is our message authenticated? Today’s liturgy gives us the answer: Our message is authenticated by the fruit that it bears, by the observable reality that the gospel is effective, that Jesus delivers on what he claims to deliver: abundant life and human flourishing. The good news of Jesus is authentically life-giving.
So the witness of the church-in-mission is authenticated by its superiority to the idols, the false gods, of our age and culture—false gods such as wealth and power and reputation; idols such productivity and social connections and personal autonomy and any sort of identity other than child of God and follower of Christ. Part of the exercise of our missionary responsibility is to seek out and hold up instances of abundant life and flourishing among those who have become disciples of Jesus: We see addicts not just enter recovery but get recovered from addiction. We see marriages that are hopelessly entangled in resentment and conflict get healed and made whole. We see family relationships that have been “stuck” in estrangement, sometimes for generations, find reconciliation. We see people who are consumed by greed become exemplars of generosity, finding contentedness with having enough rather than constantly grasping for more. We see saints in our midst who can manage to see the image of God in every person they meet. We see immense courage in the face of immense adversity. We have the amazing experience of watching someone die in an astonishingly holy way. And from time to time, we see miraculous healing from terminal diseases and people who testify to mystical experiences, visions of angels hovering over the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist. We see all these things, and the world can see all these things, and that is the authentication of our message.
Are Christians free from sin and effects of sin? Quite obviously, No. Are these signs sometimes evident among non-Christians? Quite obviously, Yes. But our witness will be known as authentic when people see that faith in Christ brings peace, faith in Christ brings purpose, faith in Christ brings hope, and joy of a sort that is not predictably available elsewhere, when they see that the best route to human flourishing is through the One who is himself life itself. Praise be Jesus Christ. Amen.