Sermon - All Saints, Ordinary 31 Year C - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |
Bringing an outsider into the family :
Membership in the Communion of Saints
[Note: The main part of this sermon is based on the Gospel for Ordinary 31. The inclusion, he too is a son of Abraham, is extended to membership in the universal church, militant and triumphant, on the theme of All Saints Day.]
Can you put yourself in the picture? In a crowded street in the oldest city in the world something new is happening. A man had come from Galilee on his way to Jerusalem with a band of followers. Everyone was talking about him. They wondered whether when he reached Jerusalem he would re-establish the ancient kingdom of David, and rule as the Messiah. Some of them were probably to be found a week or so later shouting in Jerusalem,
Such was the mood of expectation. The street was so crowded that a small man could not see over those in front to get a glimpse of the man they said might be the Messiah. So Zacchaeus ran on ahead and climbed a tree. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and called him down,
Where are you in this picture? Are you amongst the band of followers from Galilee, filled with wonder and excitement at all that is happening? Are you up the tree with Zacchaeus, and coming down to meet the man who is causing all this excitement? Are you in the crowd watching and trying to work out what is going on? Take a moment to think about it. Imagine you are really there. What do you see? Who are the people? What do they want? What do they say? [Pause] What do you think? How do you feel? [Pause] What happens next? [Pause]
To understand how people felt about what was happening you need to know something about Zacchaeus and the people who lived in Jericho. If you were a citizen of Jericho you would have called Zacchaeus a sinner because he belonged to a despised class of people, the tax collectors who worked for the Romans, occupying your land. What is more he is cheat who had made himself rich by squeezing much more money out of defenseless citizens than the Romans required. He has put himself outside the family and the nation. He was no longer counted as being among the covenant people of God. You would believe that he did not keep the law of the God and if you went to his house you would be corrupted by eating food that was not clean, not prepared in the proper way. If you felt particularly generous you might just be able to imagine inviting him to your house, but you would never go to his house because you would feel revulsion at the prospect of being made unclean. He was "dirty", to you as Jew, like a person of another race, outside the special family of Abraham to which you belong and from which you know who you are. Indeed it is because you are a child of Abraham that you are so excited at the suggestion that Jesus is the Messiah. How then do you feel when Jesus invites himself to dinner at the home of this traitor, this dirty sinner?
Imagine the people around you in shocked disbelief. What do they say? How do you feel? Are you perhaps disappointed that, after all, this could not be the holy one of God? Luke reports that,
But then he gives you have cause to think again. Something very strange and absolutely unexpected is happening. You can hardly believe your own ears:
If you are a lawyer, you might be thinking, "Four times as much! My God, what is happening? He doesn't have to go that far!" And you shuffle through a scroll of the law in you mind, "Ah, here is it is,
Yes, that's it: the principal plus twenty per cent. That's all the law required of a cheat. At four times as much, he's overdoing it by, what is it, four times less one, 300 minus 20, he overdoing it by 280%! ... And what's more, he gives half his possessions to the poor ... Its a gross exaggeration, like the time Jesus spoke of a crop yielding 100 times as much as was sown; ... or like that crazy image of a camel going through the eye of a needle. Well, I suppose, if your are not too literal about it, it does make the point rather well." So the lawyer of Jericho might have mused.
Now you have it: he too is a son of Abraham. Outsiders are in! The dirty traitor is accepted into the family. How far does it go, when Jesus says, For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost ? Can you feel yourself having been lost and now found? Or would you be outraged at the thought of outsiders being included in the family?
Now, where are you? Still looking on, wondering? Or are you there with Zacchaeus the sinner, now saved? Where are you in this scene? Try to see yourself there. Is there anything you need to do? [Pause]
Zacchaeus repented. He turned right around and his whole life was changed? It was not just something that happened within himself in the way he felt. He acted. Not only did he need to be reconciled to God, he had sinned against others and had to make it right with them too. So there were outward signs of a basic change. You might say social action followed immediately from his conversion. The new relationship with Jesus put him into a new relationship with other people. He knew he was included in the family of God and began to share his earthy wealth with his brothers and sisters, just as he shared now in the new hope of the kingdom of God.
What I have been talking about in large part is evangelism. The challenge of meeting Jesus and responding to him personally and socially. It is an essential part of the life of a Christian fellowship. Sadly many people today, both within the Church and outside, think of evangelism as a distasteful sectarian activity. Rather than sharing good news and accepting people into a fellowship that is open to all humanity, the sectarian view of conversion is more like sheep steeling, taking from one flock and adding to another. That is proselytizing not evangelism. When we engage in evangelism we are not taking scalps, and we should not be seeking especially to build up our own group. There should be no need for pressure tactics, making people conform to our way. A faithful witness to Jesus, as the Christ, will be a challenge in itself if anyone is really confronted by Christ himself. We should not be afraid to urge a response, but people make their own response, and we must allow them freedom to express their faith in their own way. Yet, it is not an individual matter. Joining with Christ joins people with a fellowship of believers.
This is the Sunday nearest All Saints Day, and we are reminded us of the great host of people in the universal communion to which we belong. The Uniting Church and any other Christian church is a particular expression of that fellowship. When we join in the fellowship of Christ, we join with an enormous range of people of all places and all times. When we are baptised we join the universal church. When we meet at the Lord's table, we meet in the communion of saints with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Not only do we find there, Zacchaeus, Matthew and the other sinners who were tax collectors, and not only Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, and Peter and Paul and Augustine and Luther and Wesley, and holy women like Hilda, Teresa and Julian, but we meet also with ordinary common believers like ourselves from all walks of life in all sorts of different cultures with different languages and traditions, ancient and modern, we are all there together with the martyrs, the faithful witnesses and the great examples of devotion. We who are the church militant, alive today, engaging out of love in evangelism, spreading the good news, are joined in the same fellowship with those who have lived and died before us. That is the communion of saints. It does not consist only of the great examples of people who were especially good, but it includes all who have been changed through meeting with Jesus, the Messiah, and following him, our common Lord and Saviour.
If you think of evangelism in relation to membership in the universal fellowship of changed people who are all different, you will not try to make everyone like yourself. You will not say to anyone, 'If you have not had my kind of experience of God, you do not belong', or, 'If you do not think of God in the same way as I think you cannot be a child of God'. Evangelism is not at all about conformity. Quite the contrary, it is about liberation. It is about sharing the good news of the love of God that was shown to whole world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, good news which sets us free to love God and other people.
Lest anyone should misunderstand the message of acceptance without requiring conformity, it must be clear that in recognizing and celebrating our diversity there is no license to continue sinning in our old ways. No one can bargain on the terms on which he or she will enter, let alone demand the right to continue in a way of life that would remain as sinful as it ever was. Acceptance into the family of God is a gift of grace for sinners who are transformed by their encounter with Jesus, just as Zacchaeus was changed by Christ's challenge and acceptance of him. As we each respond in faith we beginning the process of being made into a new person, each in the particular way to which God has called us.
Let us then not be afraid to be evangelical in the open universal liberated family of God; and let us make our own response to the man the crowd came to see in Jericho as we share the good news of the difference it makes. In that way we can anticipate with joy sharing in the kingdom which extends beyond this life and includes all that marvellous rich diversity of the human family in the universal church, militant and triumphant. Praise to Christ who makes it all possible. -- Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today -- Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
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