Mirroring Christ: Inside and Outside
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 22 August 2021 [Proper 17]:
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I remember a line from an old Simon and Garfunkel song that said, “I get all the news I need from the weather report”. As someone who has always tried to be well-informed, this lyric has strangely floated back into my mind; and with its presence I am tempted to follow its lead. There is just too much to absorb in the news, and in the face of the events of each day’s news, I find myself increasingly feeling helpless, registering as a knot in my stomach. “I get all the news I need from the weather report.” Even the weather report, with its hurricanes and wildfires, and droughts, overwhelms, tempting to wonder where God is in all of this mess, this confusion.
So it was that amidst my musing and wondering if God is “Missing in Action”, I received an important and timely response. Here is what I received from one of our St. Philip’s community members. The message was a quote from a well-known evangelical pastor.
Ironically, when God seems most distant because of what we face, He is often most active in our lives. When we least understand what God is doing, we are better positioned to know Him at a more personal level because of the faith we need to exercise. God’s goal is not our comprehending Him more completely, but our trusting Him more deeply.
Yes, this is the hard but very truthful message and reminder of the cross. If there is one lesson from this pandemic experience, we have been given proof positive that life is neither rational; nor do any of us control it. And this is the point where we confront the truth that all of us are “religious”; the problem is what we worship, what we hold at the center., what we rely on as our anchor in the storm.
So then, this question: What is the purpose of following Jesus as the Christ of God? Put more simply, what is the reason we go to church? This morning’s Epistle reading from the Letter of James implies the answer. That answer is that we are to mirror Christ both in our hearts and minds and in our actions. This is to say that the purpose of the Christian life is to mirror Jesus, to reflect continually the resurrected Lord, and to engage in signaling in ourselves what we have seen in the Risen One, which I believe is what James is saying in this morning’s lesson.
In terms of this epistle, Martin Luther famously called the Letter of James the “Epistle of Straw”. Necessarily backtracking on his intemperate interpretation, Luther clarified that the epistle was not useless; but in comparison to the gospels and St. Paul’s writings, James’ letter was of a lesser value. This is the reason that 16th century, Reformation theology cannot be transplanted wholly to our time without careful contextual awareness. In Luther’s case, he was so filled with “anti-papist” positions (and some with good reason) that he overlooked the plain fact that this letter, attributed to “James” (the precise identity of the author is not known – perhaps the Apostle James, the Son of Alpheus) – this letter was written out of concern for Christian converts in a local situation. It was a pastoral letter that (as Luther saw) did not contain anything about the faith’s first principles or Christian doctrine, but rather sought to correct certain actions that were emerging in a young, first-generation, Christian community. James saw that the results of these behaviors were dangerously separating the people from God and the people of God from one another.
Seen in this light and regarding the Letter of James as a pastoral outreach to some of the earliest members of the Jesus Movement, I suggest that what James says gives us a helpful resource for our own time of confusion and disorientation. The pastoral guidance that James offers those first century followers of Jesus speaks distinctively to the purpose of our faith and to the purpose of being the Lord’s church. Specifically, we are to foster mirroring Christ, which is to say that the example of Christ is the link between what we hold in our hearts and minds and reveal in our actions. Or as James expresses it, “be doers of the word and not merely hearers…”. Let God’s Incarnate Word sink into our thoughts and feelings so that we increasingly act as reliable representatives of Jesus.
I have a friend who has a mantra of sorts that stems from what James teaches. When he is in a bind and when he is tempted to behave in his old (and not so helpful) way, he stops and asks himself three questions: What am I feeling? What am I thinking? Where does it come from?
To ask about our feelings is to begin to take responsibility for our emotions. For the unmitigated truth is that we always make a choice when it comes to expressing our feelings. This is the step-back moment to think about this choice. As Jesus has said, when someone punches me in the nose, as painful and insulting as that might be, I still have the choice in making a response. The Lord’s advice is to “turn the other cheek”; and knowing myself as I do, I need to do some quick and sobering thinking about my emotion-charged actions because there are always consequences to what I do. And where does all this stepping back to detach come from? As with anything else, such behavior comes from practiced life, and such practice stems from our employment of Christ-centered discipline to change and develop.
Practicing Christ. Just thinking about mirroring Christ doesn’t cut it because becoming more Christ-like also requires action: Practice. We are called to develop our souls: that is, to work at gaining the mind of Christ and also putting that resurrection perspective into action. For the full message of Easter is that God wants us to be like the Risen One. We are called, therefore, to “grow into the full stature of Christ” (a phrase I trust you recall from our Baptismal vows).
The purpose of our life as Christian people is to mirror the Christ of God. And I was reminded of this fundamental goal when another member of St. Philip’s shared a prayer with me. The prayer goes like this:
Let it be seen that I have been with you this day. Let there be
traces of glory in my life. Fill me with your radiance, and use me
as your light to others. In your Name I pray always, Jesus.
In my own internalization of this prayer, my focus inevitably is on the first line; and in my case, I need to apply a more forceful emphasis. My personal supplication bluntly prays this: “Let there be evidence that I have been with you today…”
What all this is about and what I hear in James’ pastoral care is that if we seek to be whole and healthy, if we seek to mirror Christ, what is inside of us and what is outside of us is irrevocably linked. It is also a lesson that the computer scientists have taught us: Garbage in; garbage out, which is the reason we have focused so much in the last month of Sundays on the Sacrament of Jesus Body and Blood. We are what we listen to. We are what we eat. We are what we do.
So it is that we come to church to practice, practice, practice: We practice listening to God and remembering who we are and Whose we are. We practice listening to what God is saying to us so that (especially in times of trial) we remember that we are “the people of [God’s] pasture and the sheep of his hand”. We practice receiving what we need and cannot provide for ourselves, taking the God-life into our hearts and minds. And we leave this ratifying, re-centering, and hopeful experience to go into the world, offering what we have been given and practicing in our actions the mirroring of Christ.
We are hearers of the Word, and what we hear is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We hear this, and we receive this. What remains is for us to act on all this -- not only for the life of the world but also at pressing times like the ones we are in now for ourselves.
So, we practice, practice, practice. Thanks be to God. Amen.