A life worthy of the calling
Sermon preached at Enmore, 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 5th August 2018
Readings: 2 Samuel 11.26–12.13a; Ephesians 4.1–16; John 6.24–35
The David we encounter in 2 Samuel 11 is a very different person from the young shepherd boy we were introduced to in 1 Samuel 16, when Samuel anointed him as the new King of Israel. The man ‘after God’s own heart’ has lied, committed adultery and murder and has shown no hint of remorse. He has assumed a kind of moral autonomy which declares, I will do whatever I want because I can- I have the power. Every powerful Empire in history has at some time fallen for the same line. Empires are adept at coining new words to hide the crimes they commit: final solution, ethnic cleansing, collateral damage, rendition, to name a few. Last week we read of David’s lust after Bathsheba and his attempt to cover his actions by having her husband killed in battle. With Uriah out of the way David takes Bathsheba into his house and makes her one of his wives. He thinks he has handled a difficult situation rather cleverly. However, in a wonderful piece of understatement, the narrator comments, “but the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” David’s guilt was even greater because he treated so lightly the gifts God had poured out on him.
Nathan, the prophet has the unenviable task of bringing the King to account. The parable he tells about the poor man with his one little ewe lamb, gets under David’s defences and touches his sense of injustice. He feels righteous anger towards the heartless rich man in the story and in doing so finds he is condemning himself. David’s behaviour has touched not only Bathsheba and Uriah, it has touched the nation. The King’s behaviour influences everyone. David had Uriah killed by the sword and his punishment is that the sword will not depart from his house. The subsequent history of David’s household will be a bloody one. But in the midst of the guilt and the inevitable consequences of David’s sin, there is grace. God forgives David and later Bathsheba and David will have a child Solomon, who will succeed David on his throne. Psalm 51 which is traditionally ascribed to David as his response to this episode in his life begins with the words, “Have mercy on me.” The Hebrew text is literally, “Grace me.” In the Psalm, David honestly describes his situation but casts himself on the steadfast love and abundant mercy of his God. We do the same, Sunday by Sunday as we too claim God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The Epistle passage today begins with Paul’s plea that his hearers lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called. In this letter, Paul seamlessly segues from theology to Christian living: good theology leads to good behaviour. Christian calling or vocation is not just for the ordained- in Paul’s view every Christian has a calling to live a life worthy of Christ whether they are builders, bankers, lawyers or labourers, or parents caring for their children. If we take the name Christian, literally Christ’s one, then we must live in a way that honours the name we bear. In this first section Paul says that living up to our calling involves celebrating the unity we have with all Christians and doing all that we can to preserve it. Now it is disturbingly obvious that at one level there is precious little unity among Christians; we have many different Christian denominations and within our own Anglican Communion we are painfully aware of the things that currently divide us: issues to do with gender roles and human sexuality, to name just a couple. None the less we have also experienced the unity that comes when Christians sit down and pray together or worship together as we do, for example, with our combined Advent and Lenten studies. In reality Paul says there can only be one body of Christ for there is one Holy Spirit who unites us. We always do better to focus on the things that unite than on the things that divide. This is also true within a congregation. Christian communities are always diverse- the wonderful thing about church is that it brings together people who are different- we don’t all vote the same way and we may not all agree on the hot topics of the day; be it our treatment of asylum seekers, euthanasia, or how we should respond to climate change. We are different in personality, socioeconomic status and a host of other factors but if we are followers of Christ and seek to live out that calling then we are all part of the one body whether we like it or not. So Paul says do all you can to affirm and encourage that unity. In other words be sensitive with each other, try not to be provocative and be willing to listen to another point of view. Exercise humility, gentleness, patience and bear with one another in love. In the Greco Roman world, gentleness and humility were seen as marks of weakness — Paul says these things are Christ like.
In the second part of the passage from verse 7, Paul talks about the gifts that the risen and ascended Christ gives to the different members of his body. Before he does so he quotes from a well- known Psalm (68.18), in an attempt to give a context for what is to come: “When he ascended on high he made captivity captive; he gave gifts to his people.” Now the way most Jews understood this Psalm was as a reference to Moses. Moses ascended Mount Sinai, met with God and returned or descended carrying the tablets of the law, God’s gift to his people. Scholars differ in their understanding of what Paul is arguing here: one suggestion is that just as Moses ascended the mountain so too Jesus ascended to the heavenly realms following his death and resurrection, setting us free from our bondage to sin and death. However, instead of coming down again with the law as Moses did, Jesus returned in the person of his Holy Spirit and gave various gifts to his church. Verses 9 & 10 are undoubtedly rather puzzling but the important point Paul is making is that although there are many diverse gifts given to his people, it is the same Lord, the same Jesus who is at work in each of them, by his Spirit.
Paul’s theme in this section is about Christian growth and maturity. The different gifts that God pours out are to build up the body of Christ. The gifts mentioned here (some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers), are not meant to be exhaustive. In other letters Paul has different gifts mentioned such as helpers and administrators, etc. The analogy of the church as a body is one we are familiar with from Paul’s other writings- the point being that we all have a part to play in this body. To function effectively we need each other. As Paul argues in 1 Corinthians it would be ridiculous for the foot to declare that it didn’t need the hand, or the ear to announce that it didn’t need the eye. The independent Christian out on his or her own is an unknown concept in the New Testament. Being called to unity means being called into community.
Paul looked for signs of growth in the Christian communities he nurtured. He expected them to grow up. We don’t remain children forever, we leave behind the books and toys and attitudes of childhood and deepen our understanding. We would think it strange if a Book Group read only children’s stories. We would be puzzled by a driver who wanted to stay on their L plates forever. Sadly some Christians remain content with a very simple understanding of their faith and don’t do very much to improve their knowledge of the Bible or to explore their faith more deeply. We should be able to give an account of the hope we have within us. We don’t all need to be academics or teachers but we should have a faith that is informed. There are plenty of resources available if you want to study the Bible more carefully. Those who are mature in faith will want to do all they can to build up the church and to strengthen its unity.
When we live a life worthy of our calling, when our lives reflect something of Christ’s love and compassion, then we are living witnesses to the one who said: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”