Second Sunday After Pentecost Zechariah 12:8-13:1, Psalm 63, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 9:18-24
When we hear someone say “God bless America”, do we know what they mean?
Do they mean “may God’s blessing be upon my neighbors”? Or do they mean “May God keep out anyone without proper paperwork”?
Perhaps they mean to say “May God guide the decisions of the Government to bring about his will for all people”, or is it “Those in authority have done such a good job that God ought to bless them for it”?
Does “God bless America” translate as an acclamation that every part of our society pleases God, from Dunkin Donuts to Detention Centers? Or is it a despairing cry rising up from a people who have hope in no one else but God?
In my experience Americans talk about God a lot more than other Westerners, which can make it appear as though other peoples do not have a yearning toward God, but I believe this sense of being a part of something larger, of being a child, of being in need of someone to care for us, speaks of a wound in all our hearts which will not heal until it is treated with a very specific medicine.
Americans are, for whatever reason, able to articulate this much more easily. Even if the phrase “God bless America” can mean nearly anything, it is praiseworthy that many of our neighbors even have the conception of God in their imaginations at all and not simply some mute, unplaceable angst concealed beneath careerism and excessive consumption which appears to be the case in the land I come from.
People, as long as there has been a thing called history, have sought out power from on high. Perhaps seeking favor for a harvest, or marking the seasons at the Summer Solstice, and perhaps most predictably, seeking salvation from those who would come and destroy them and change their way of life.
All of these kinds of prayers and many more appear in our Bibles, particularly the Old Testament. Our first Lesson today seems to be a response to the prayers for Jerusalem, besieged by many enemies. God speaks to the prophet and through him promises a day when those who come and trample on them will be stopped, and all the people of the city will be able to live in peace and prosperity.
Does that desire sound familiar?
God is promising to bless his people. He has heard their prayers and will make them strong and wealthy and safe. He will bless them.
God says he will pour out on them a spirit of what? Of strength, of courage? Of cunning and the ability to produce weapons more efficiently?
God will indeed bless his people who have sought him through prayer. He will bless them and keep them safe. Yet the blessing he will give such that his word will be fulfilled is the blessing of compassion and supplication, for the people of God have committed a great injustice, and when God visits his blessing upon them it will not be a larger army or a treaty with Egypt. The blessing will be open eyes that see that One whom they have pierced, and mourn over the terrible guilt of their actions. And from this horror at the things they have done to the man who was pierced will come their salvation, for God will open a great fountain from which will flow water which can make people clean and take away all their sins.
God’s idea of blessing is not quite what ours might be.
In this oracle of Zechariah we see that God hears and understands the prayers we pray out loud, our “God bless America”‘s, yet his answer changes the question. Do you want to be safe? Do you want to be strong? Then God will fill you with compassion to love those you once despised, and remorse so that you may look on what you have done, and who you have hurt, and repent.
Zechariah is curious in his specific mentioning of the One whom they have Pierced. One might think of someone who has been struck down in battle, or even murdered in cold blood. Yet the piecing of a human body rings with an eerie familiarity for Christians. This passage has for the Church been a place where we see a shadow of Christ and his death upon the cross – the one whom we have pierced. And so God’s blessing to those who beseech him, is that they may see the wounded Christ and instead of indifference or contempt, they may have compassion and in Jesus’ suffering find their own culpability.
Because the God who made us, knows that it will not be full wallets and impenetrable walls which will make us truly and everlastingly secure, but only in coming to know and walk with our God and turning from those things, those cruelties and ignorances, which led to the death of his Son Jesus Christ. And so the blessing with which God truly blesses those who seek him, is the power of the Spirit to make people’s eyes be opened and hearts break.
This is one of the reasons the earliest Christians began to say that God had dome something among them which made them more than they were, more than Jews or Gentiles, Men and Women, something which made conventional distinctions between people melt away. They had found that they were all now made one in Christ. We saw this first on the Day of Pentecost when many peoples from many languages all heard the Gospel and became followers of Jesus.
This inner transformation is described by Paul as the coming of “faith” in your English bibles and in Galatians 3 he contrasts this to “Law”. In this instance he is primarily referring to the Law of the Torah, though if you read his epistle to the Romans he makes a similar case about what he calls the “conscience” of the Gentiles, seeing that both Jews and Gentiles have received a knowledge of right and wrong and both have failed to uphold them and thus need to be forgiven. But here in Galatians 3 we see that the Law of God, which is to say the over 600 laws of the Torah are a kind of guardian, keeping the people of God safe until something better comes along.
St Paul is a well trained Pharisee and knows his Hebrew Scriptures very well, and so it is not news to him that there is something better than the Law which was to come. The Prophets are filled with promises of a new Covenant, a new way of God relating to his people, and the Psalmists yearn for a kind of intimacy with God which was not yet theirs. Witnessing the transformation of city after city where the Gospel was proclaimed, seeing people who previously had nothing to do with one-another now become one spiritual family was the cause of Paul and the other Apostles to dispel all doubt and proclaim that all of God’s promises had come true in the life, death, resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. Now there had come to be a people who shared all in common not because they were of the same blood, or came from the same tribe, or were in the same social caste, but because their hearts had been changed and they had looked upon the one they had pierced and repented.
The Gospel then can be described as God freely doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, which in Paul’s language is – being made alive when we were dead, able to fulfill the loving purposes of God for which we were made. The thing St Paul and the Apostles went around celebrating and proclaiming was that all of God’s purposes for his good creation were bursting forth, a chief sign of which is the sudden expansion of the people of God to include all people, not just those who had been brought up to keep God’s law.
Once God’s people were a specific nation with a particular culture and language. Their calling was the be witnesses of God’s saving power so that all people might see them and believe in God. The course of their history, the Jewish history, sees a developing conversation between God and his people, as he leads them and they in various ways go astray or show themselves to be weak. It is the bitterness of their experience which finally calls from them a hope for a different way of living, a miracle which would change the world and transform every human heart. This is what we call the Messianic hope in the Bible, and that hope could only come from a long history of trust and prayer.
By the time of Jesus of Nazareth, that hope had become crystallized in some specific ideas about what this promise of God would look like. They used a Greek word – Christ – to describe what in Hebrew was called the Messiah. IN our Gospel today Jesus has been with his Disciples for quite some time, and they have witnessed his character, his teaching, and his miracles. He asks, in a typically Jesus-ish way, a disarming opening question: Who do the crowds say that I am. And then he asks a harder question, to those who have known him the most intimately – who do you say that I am?
Peter’s confession, seeing Jesus for who he truly is, opens up for the Disciples a yet more intimate space, as the earthly ministry of Jesus is suddenly set in the context of God’s aeons-long plan to bless all people, a plan which Zechariah told us involves this unique figure who will suffer, and yet whose suffering will be a source of forgiveness for all who will look upon him. Seeing Jesus for who he truly is, is a window into the eternal, an insight into the true nature of all things.
Yet the veil is pulled swiftly over that glimmer of the eternal when far from talking prophetic visions and the things of the future, Jesus addresses those with him in the strongest terms: If anyone would be by disciple, they must take up their cross and follow me because everyone who seeks to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for his sake will save it.
What an ask.
Is this our faith?
A life of constant cost? Constant trial? When we baptize someone are we signing them up for a life of cruel self-denial? How can this be called salvation? How can anyone know themselves to be a follower of Jesus when he isn’t here as our Rabbi to literally lead us and teach us? When will we have carried enough crosses or walked enough narrow roads?
Sometimes we can hear the words of the Bible and wonder if there is any kindness left to be found in it. Sometimes just living is hard enough, and being kind harder still and we are told here that God’s great plan to answer the cries of all people, everywhere, is that they should endure an even worse suffering – willingly?
And yet, the witness of the Apostles and the stories they told were of people, ordinary people from all walks of life, who would give up their old ways and turn toward the teachings of Jesus Christ, doing so with joy, receiving as brothers and sisters those who might have once been enemies, now transformed through the waters of Baptism to be one family.
St Paul in Galatians chapter 3 describes Baptism as the turning point between the old way, and the new, between the Law and Faith. Baptism is given to the Disciples as a part of their mission in the world and it marks the entry point of a person into God’s Church.
Baptism is a mystery, a place where human obedience to Jesus’ teaching meets with God’s eternal power and purpose to make dead souls alive. Baptism is the moment where God brings someone into the Church. Baptism is also something we do with water and words. It is our work and it is God’s work.
Baptism is then the bridge between the unmerited and unearned grace of God which makes holy the profane and forgives the sinnner, and the call of Jesus to take up our crosses and follow him. It is the first act of obedience in a Christian’s life, perhaps not chronologically, but we remember our baptisms as the beginning of our new life in Christ, rooted not in our imaginations but in the action of the Church with water and words and still also the means by which we are born anew into God’s new creation.
And so if Baptism is both our work and God’s, if we can see it as something we choose to do, and as something God does for us, perhaps we can go on living in the footsteps of Jesus, not resentful of being given a hard task, but rather rejoicing that we frail beings are invited to walk daily with unearned and unmerited power and grace from On High, to have access to Eternity, to be more fully that which we were meant to be.
Our Baptisms also mark us out as a people whose relationship to God is not rooted in our tribe or family, our nation or our language, our ethnicity or our gender or class. And so when we ask God to bless us, when we beseech him to come and work amongst us we do not mean what others might mean. When we say God Bless America, we already know that we are not first and foremost Americans but Christians, and so we have recognized that America is an alien land into which we are sent to be a blessing so that the people of this land might know and see that there is a God who loves them just as he has loved us.
May we today embrace this calling with confidence, knowing that in all of our struggling obedience God will help us. We may have a cross to pick up tomorrow morning which seems entirely too heavy, but our Lord Christ went ahead of us on a cross of his own, so that we could look upon his wounds and be made new.