Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, October 22, 2017
“Walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.”
IT TAKES THREE untouched strikes to get a batter out, but on four balls, he can take a walk to first base. He walks because it’s safe and he doesn’t need to run, avoiding a tag. Another kind of strike removes your labor force from the job where they aren’t getting paid enough, and so your workers take a walk. Of course, if a basketball player walks, holding the ball while taking two steps, the whistle blows and the other team takes over. How many ways we use the simple word Walk. A man on charges is acquitted, and walks. It’s a good form of exercise, a path through enjoyable landscaping, a dog pen, and the way of getting home when you lose your ride.
In an abstract use, your walk is how you conduct yourself, taking a particular course of life. It’s in this sense that St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians enjoins us not to walk as other Gentiles walk, with vain minds, dark thoughts, alienated from God’s ways though ignorance, with their hearts blind. This evil walk is a way of life, a worldview, one’s attitude and values placed in the wrong things. Paul goes on to describe this pattern of a life lived shamelessly.
We as Christians are continually shocked by the drift our culture is taking toward normalizing immoral behaviors. Sexual sin is turned into entertainment; drugs are used for recreation; children are born carelessly into unmarried relations; and many are not born at all, but die casually through abortion. Our world is rapidly approaching the world that was before the flood, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes. St. Paul wrote to a church that found itself to be a small point of light in a very dark world. We find ourselves likewise reduced to one candle flame burning in a dark room, it would seem. We might despair for our way of life, our moral standard, our code of ethics—what’s the point if the world calls good evil, and evil good? The world has been here before. Everyone seems to be walking the other way from us.
I remember a wall mural in another church’s youth room. Fish of every description were all swimming to the right, except one little fish in the middle, valiantly going left. It was the IXTHUS, the Christian fish symbol once made by the edge of a sandal in the dust, secretly identifying one Christian to another on the road. IXTHUS is Greek for fish, an anagram of the words Jesus Christ, God’s Son, my Savior.
What kind of lives do Christians lead today? Paul wrote his admonitions for a reason. His churches struggled as ours do, swimming against the tide, and against our own fallen nature and the habits we established before we turned to Jesus. It isn’t automatic that we find faith, and stop behaving as others do, and as we once did. The process is called Sanctification, and old habits die hard. George Barna has made a life study of Christian beliefs and behaviors, and the results have made him pretty jaded in his view of the Church. Just about as many Christian marriages end in divorce as outside the Church, just as many abortions, just as many children in abusive homes, just as many unmarried young people cohabitating. Walking as other Gentiles walk.
We aren’t Jewish, and the word Gentile has for us a different meaning, so we can recast it as the non-Christian culture surrounding us. This Gentile world uses the word Religious as criminal behavior. Our Religious worldview is hurting people, they tell me. I was asked the other night at the Women’s Resource Clinic banquet to join two other pastors in keeping peace outside when about 30 pro-abortion protesters staged a counter demonstration. We spoke to the protesters who, God bless them, were determined to keep within legal guidelines and not block people coming to the event. But their slogans and epithets included something about getting our religion out of their lives, and men oppressing women by denying them abortions. At an event where people willingly give to a clinic that offers free services to women who choose to keep their babies, I wonder what words like choice mean to those who are offended.
Without shame, promiscuity and sexual deviance are now normal. But we’ve learned Christ as our reason to live better. Tuesday night I watched a movie called The Heart of Man which treats sexual sins frankly, and overcomes the guilt and shame of falling this way not by religious admonitions and accusation, but grace, God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, His never turning away from us, always seeking to take us home, like the father of the Prodigal. It isn’t about our sins, though they can be many. It’s about His love. We don’t walk right just because we believe. It’s a harsh world we live in, and even our cellphones can betray us in a second. But we don’t walk a tightrope, always subject to gravity and missteps. So, is it faith or is it behavior that get us safely to the paths of eternal life?
We are meant to be reborn, to have new minds, to think in new ways, to adopt healthy attitudes, to reorient ourselves to the world. We are meant to live true lives, not hiding, not running from ourselves. How hard is that? It can be the hardest thing we ever do. Every man, at one time or other, is a liar. Every soul betrays itself. Every path has its divergent trails that lead downward and dangerously close to the cliffs.
Jesus didn’t always walk. Sometimes He sailed, and the people living around His homeland of Galilee often used boats for travel. Once He didn’t use the boat, and He crossed the huge lake on foot. Sometimes He rode a burro, but only to show His royalty. Most times, Jesus walked. This time, He took the boat and came to Capernaum, what St. Matthew calls Jesus’ own city.
People there brought a man to Him laid on a stretcher. Some accounts explain that there were too many people around Jesus for them to approach and therefore they lifted him to the roof and lowered him down by opening a hole above Jesus. Think how desperate these men were to have their friend be healed by our Lord! When the bed was lowered into the crowd, Jesus exclaimed to the paralyzed man on it, “Cheer up, my friend! Your sins are forgiven!”
That was not what people were expecting. They were waiting for the show, the man’s body jumping up, suddenly healthy. Instead, the Savior saved the quivering man strapped to the stretcher. He saved his soul. He gave comfort to the inner man, while the outer man remained unchanged. This is a picture of all of us. Christ comes ready to forgive us. We would like a lot of things made different by Him. We ask what many ask: If I adopt this religion, what will it get for me? Will I be happy? Will I get the job? Will I overcome this addiction? Will it save my marriage? Will we be able to have children? Jesus says, Rejoice! Your sins are forgiven! Our sins are forgiven.
The religious types were offended. They believed that sin was for people beneath themselves, thieves and drunkards, lower class immoral failures who didn’t follow the laws of Moses. And failing to live by the law earned you punishment. Where was this forgiveness coming from? Only God forgives, and seldom does He feel obliged to forgive such people as these. Who does this Jesus think He is to dole out forgiveness?
He knew all along how this would go. He felt the reaction to His tremendous gift for the man on the bed. They all saw the outer problem, the palsy that withered his legs and paralyzed his body. But what does sin look like? We feel it, we see its results, but sin hides inside us and sickens our hearts. It’s the real illness that besets our lives. You can’t get a shot to heal it or to inoculate yourself from it, like the flu shot. It’s like cancer—everybody has such cells. Whether cancer grows and overcomes your body’s defenses or not depends on many factors, but we all have the degenerative disease. Like sin, we’re born with it. Jesus was healing this man’s major problem. Eternity at stake, the greatest healing had been given, and yet was invisible to everyone else. We don’t know what the paralytic felt, or how his face may have changed. I expect he was surprised and filled with wonder.
Jesus asked his naysayers, “Why are you thinking evil things? Is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” If Jesus had just said, Rise and walk, they would only know that miracles happen. But the deeper truth was first revealed. The Son of Man has authority, God’s authority, and exercises it on earth, and it includes our forgiveness. So, when Jesus later breathed on His Apostles, bestowing the Holy Ghost and giving them the power to remit sins, He had that authority, and we have it from Him. Forgiveness, justification, redemption, salvation, mercy, and welcome into God’s family are all functions of Christ’s Church that are available to every aching soul, each and every day. Jesus told them it was right, and that He was the Son of Man, a title for Messiah, and that while fully human, He had power from above.
But no one saw it. This invisible power requires faith to see, to believe. No one was convinced. So, to prove that this poor man was clean of sin, Jesus looked down again and said, “Get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” Stand up, prove to them what I say and who I am. Stand on those legs, O man, and furthermore, pick up that stretcher. And then take a walk. Show them all you can walk by going home in your own power.
We can’t prove our souls are clean, our minds are reformed, our thoughts are right unless we move through our world in the new way. People in this new Gentile world will never believe our God unless we are changed from how we lived before to how Christ lives in us. The people of Capernaum only believed Jesus’ power to forgiven when they saw the man walking, carrying the bed that previously had to carry him.
So, what does this walk look like in this world? We tell the truth in love. If we get angry, and even Jesus got angry, we use it only to move us to act against evil and oppression. Just grumbling and cussing doesn’t reflect well of us or of God. Be ye angry and sin not is a tricky phrase. It means, when you’re angry, don’t let it cause you to sin, and don’t go to bed angry. The devil is looking for a way in: don’t allow that. Work for your living. Earn your bread and share it willingly. Don’t say things to hurt others. Speak to their benefit. Join the Holy Spirit, and don’t fight His influence. Be healed from bitterness, quarrelsomeness, cursing others, or hating anyone. Instead, practice kindness, empathy, and forgiveness of others. You have power to forgive anyone who’s harmed you. Forgive them, in God’s command and empowerment. And if you feel an objection because of how grievous their sins were against you, just remember that Christ first forgave you. Remember when He did that?
Was it last Friday? Was it ten years ago? Was it the day you decided to be Christian? Was it at your baptism? It was all those days, and many more. His forgiveness goes out constantly. But the day He first forgave you was a dark day. You stood among the crowds that day, unsure of what it all meant. You were witness to a slaying, an execution. The sky was unnaturally dark, and the earth seemed to be objecting. Three men were being tortured to death on wooden frames set up between soldiers, guarding the punishment for crimes of theft and of being the King of the Jews. Between two others was Jesus, His arms outstretched. From that cross, He turned His gaze heavenward, and for you, and for me, He prayed this prayer. It’s our salvation that He prayed. It’s the first healing and the most powerful miracle ever done. It’s how we are able to rise and walk today. He said:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.