The Irony of Good News
at St. George's, Summerville
The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany
February 16, 2014
I Corinthians 3:1-9
As I explore the Bible, I experience quite a variety of personal reactions to what I find there. Perhaps you do as well. For instance, I encounter fascinating nuggets of faith history which sweep me up into their truth. And, at many other times, I find myself lacking in contrast to impressive and humbling figures from the past. And, sometimes, I discover a desire to question the biblical writers about particular circumstances and behaviors of their day. And, at still other times, I can become impatient with some of the ancient rituals and liturgies and lists of unpronounceable names. These are just a few of my own personal reactions to encounters with biblical passages. I have found that others share at least some of those reactions to the Bible as well.
Our lessons today, though, seem to challenge us in particular and timely ways. In fact, I found myself strangely uncomfortable as I struggled with the readings this week. And, I have learned through the years to pay special attention to those times of personal discomfort, as I encounter the Bible.
The collect for today sets the stage for our readings. The matter of God’s law is before us there, as we prayed about “keeping (God’s) commandments” (BCP, p 216). The intention of this collect involves a petition for God’s grace because, as we read, “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you.” So, the concern for today becomes obvious, even here. We will fall short of God’s expectations of us, without the help of God. Thus, early on in today’s liturgy, I find good reason to be uncomfortable.
The reading from Deuteronomy refers to choices that people have, as well as the fact that our choices result in consequences. This writer indicates that one set of choices involves God’s way and following the commandments that God provides. But the writer makes it clear that other choices do exist. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (30:19-20). Now, that message seems pretty straightforward – and, actually, it is not all that uncomfortable. It offers a familiar biblical theme – the theme of encouragement along the way that is God’s desire.
After that reading, though, comes the one from First Corinthians ... and my level of comfort takes a plunge at that point. St .Paul expresses this thought to the Christians in Corinth: “As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (3:3). Division within the church, St. Paul writes, indicates that we are not acting according to God’s will. This awareness surely is uncomfortable to us in South Carolina, these days. In that situation – and by extension – we find ourselves on the wrong side of the contrast set up in Deuteronomy – the side, that is, which is different from God’s choice for us. Further, church division indicates our great need for the grace of God mentioned in the collect, for “in our weakness we can do nothing good.”
Then – to cap things off – in the Gospel passage, Jesus interprets the laws of God in very general ways ... ways that make us all guilty. Even the straightforward Ten Commandments have meanings behind them, Jesus says, which will catch us all ... every one of us.
Therefore, the collect and the readings for today are not very comforting, it seems to me. In fact, they make me feel downright uncomfortable ... and I imagine that you agree with that assessment, if you are honest with yourself.
Even in this dark place, though, there is Good News today. What is called “the dark night of the soul” often predicts a wonderful dawn which is to come. Put another way, we know from experience that Lent surely will be followed by Easter Day.
There is a considerable bit of irony in the Good News today, however. In most circumstances, for most of our lives, we are encouraged to believe that our personal resources can overcome most any problem. Self help groups bear witness to resilience in the face of trouble. We are quick to advocate what has been called “buck-up theology” when someone feels sorry for himself or herself. Our society and culture put the self-made individual on a high pedestal.
But the irony of the Good News today is that we must recognize our need for a Savior in order to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is precisely at those times when we fail that we are most susceptible to God’s grace. When we fall short – and recognize it – then we become painfully aware of our need for help beyond ourselves. Put another way, it is only when we admit our shortcomings that we are prepared for the Savior of the world.
Therefore, there is uncomfortable, bad news in today’s lessons. Our church divisions result from sinful “human inclinations.” There is no doubt about that. In these and other situations, we make choices that put us at odds with God’s will for God’s people. We fall short of the full expectations of the commandments that Jesus calls to mind. However, ironically, that bad news leads to much better Good News. When we fail, we realize that we need help. As we fall short, we recognize that we cannot make it on our own. Then it is that God’s grace is most welcome to us, and we know that we need the One who offers to be our Savior. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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