Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stewardship as Soteria

RCL Proper 33B
18 November 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18] 19-25; Mark 13.1-8

To hear the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. eucharist please click here.

                  At some point between 60 ce and 100 ce a Christian leader prepared what we now know as the Letter to the Hebrews.  Although theories have been advanced regarding the identity of this leader, the majority of scholars agree that we do not know who the leader was.  Scholars are divided as to whether the leader was a Jewish Christian or a Gentile Christian and whether the leader was addressing a Jewish Christian community or a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles.  All scholars agree that the community knew its Bible well, what we know as the Hebrew Bible, and was troubled by the delay in Jesus’ return and the coming of God’s reign.  Some members of the community had ceased to participate in the community’s life and others were tempted to return to the practice of the Jewish religion or even the Gentile religious and philosophical traditions they had left to follow Christ.

                  By any measure this was a time of crisis.  What we now know as Judaism was beginning to take shape and to oppose any accommodation with those Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah.  Conflict between the followers of the covenant of Moses and followers of the covenant of Jesus was growing and becoming a concern for the Roman imperial authorities.  The emperor Claudius had ordered all Jews and what he called ‘followers of Chrestos’ to leave the city of Rome.  His successor, Nero, would blame the Christians for various civil disorders and begin the first active persecution of the Christian community.

                  What the author of Hebrews undertakes is a re-connection of the Christian community to its roots in God’s revelation to the Jewish people and to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  His message is simple:  even if Jesus has not yet returned, even if we are being persecuted for our faith in him, we need not despair.  There is more to history than meets the eye, he seems to write, and God is writing the future in ways we can only imagine.  If I were to summarize the author’s message in one sentence, it would be this:  Let us live with a hope shaped by our faith and sustained by our love.

                  The author’s message to the Christian community was and is a form of pastoral care.  Pastoral care is more than counselling someone in a time of personal crisis or visits to those who ill or house-bound.  Pastoral care participates in what the New Testament calls sōtēria.  We sometimes translate this word as ‘salvation’, but it would be more helpful, I think, to translate the word as ‘living a whole life’ or ‘living a life embodying God’s present gift and future promise of justice and peace’.  What the author of the Letter to the Hebrews was urging his people to discover was the wholeness of life they already had in Jesus and to remember the promise of what God has in store for us and for all of creation.

‘Let us live with a hope shaped by our faith and sustained by our love.’

                  Twenty years ago I had an episode of prolonged and debilitating back pain.  After many visits and tests I was given the bad news:  I have a congenital condition which cannot be remedied by any present medication or technology.  But at the same time I was given good news:  I could learn how to avoid the causes of my pain and, as I grew older, my natural loss of flexibility would actually reduce the likelihood of recurrent back pain.  In other words, I was given both a present and a future hope of some freedom from the potential oppression of my congenital condition.

                  No one can live without hope.  Unfortunately many people confuse their naïve belief that everything will turn out for the best with what hope really is:  the deeply-rooted, well-watered conviction that God’s purposes for us and for the whole of creation will be accomplished even if our present circumstances seem to belie that hope.  But hope is not vague; it is shaped by what we believe.

                  We believe in a God who called the universe into being because it is the very nature of God to love and love requires both a lover and a beloved.  We are God’s beloved, all of us, whether human or non-human, animate or inanimate, believer or non-believer.  Nothing can separate us from this love.

                  We believe in a God who became present to us in Jesus of Nazareth because it is the very nature of God to love and love requires some expression of physical presence.  All of us long to touch the face of our beloved whether partner, parent, child or friend, and in that touching share a moment of communion.  We long for this physical contact because that is how God has made us and it is how God relates to us in Jesus and in the community to whom God has entrusted the continuing ministry of Jesus.

                  We believe in a God who animates the whole creation because it is the very nature of God to love and love is the breath that fills the lungs of creation with divine oxygen that fuels our growth into the likeness of God.  We have all experienced the power of love when we enter into a home warmed by love of family or when we share a moment with friends whom we know and who know us with acceptance and joy.

                  We believe in one God, the Lover incarnate in the Beloved and revealed by Love.  This God has called us as a community of faith to be stewards of sōtēria, a ministry of pastoral care to those who are weak and to those who are strong, to those who are ill and to those who are well, to those who live in bondage whether of body or soul and to those who live in the freedom of Christ.  The pastoral care we offer is not just the binding of wounds; it is the patient and compassionate love of neighbour and of stranger, of family and of friend, so that all of us can live life marked by hope, shaped by faith and sustained by love.

                  As we come to the end of our annual pledge campaign, let us remember that we are stewards not just of the resources God has entrusted to us.  We are stewards of God’s sōtēria, God’s pastoral care of all who are weary, weak or wounded.

                  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorted the community of faith in these words:

22 [Let] us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

All around us are people in need of the pastoral care, the sōtēria, that God has entrusted to us.  May they find us faithful stewards of this life-giving, life-affirming gift.

Let us pray.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  [Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 304]

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