We cannot defend Christianity or Christians, or even God, with words; only by lives transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christly, self-giving love, can we truly witness to the grace of God made known to the world in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Festival of St. Bartholomew, Apostle
texts: John 1:43-51; Psalm 12
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I read a book by an atheist last week. It was witty, hilarious, really. Also very profane and vulgar, shocking, even. I found myself liking and respecting the author from the very beginning, as different from me as he is. He seems like a good person who loves his wife and children and friends, who tries to live as a good person.
He also makes deeply pointed and painful observations about Christians that are impossible for me to brush away. There is far too much truth behind them, truth I’ve seen myself. What surprised me was the growing sense as I read that while I grew to respect and like him, I wondered if he would respect and like me. From this reading, I think he probably wouldn’t pre-judge me. He’d give me a chance to be a jerk first. But there is this truth, that I am a Christian, a person of faith, not something he’s had good experiences with.
It’s strange to realize that our very identity as baptized children of God in Christ could be what drives people away. Simply because we are who we are.
This isn’t new for us, it’s something many have experienced from society and others, over many things more than just one’s faith. It’s sometimes even true for me. I am a white, straight American male from European ancestors. I have lived a life of privilege, privilege that includes a good education, ample resources, ability to get and keep jobs, and respect of others. In most of my encounters, these attributes have given me a leg up, an insider’s path. Not because of anything I did, simply because of who I am, most of which is not of my doing.
There have been places, however, where these attributes have inspired a Nathanael-like comment or thought from others.
Nathanael Bartholomew says of Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
It’s hard to know what he meant, but clearly he had ideas. In the greater church these days white, straight, European-American males are sometimes treated as if we cannot know or speak truth about issues such as race in the church or society because we are part of the problem. “Can anything good come from such people?” I’ve run into that since seminary. I say this not to complain; how can I complain given my privilege? I say it as truth: in a diverse church there are places where people like me are not trusted. That’s certainly fair.
There were likely some of these attributes that might have caused some of you to wonder about me when I came here. What overrode all was that you called me as your pastor. From the first day I came you have received me as that, whatever doubts you may or may not have had. But for this atheist author, adding “pastor” to my attributes is adding more gasoline to the fire. How many people trust a Christian pastor these days, except people in the pews? (And there are plenty of them who have come to not trust the clergy, for good reason.) If there’s any characteristic that might inspire “can anything good come from him,” it might be that I am a pastor. That which leads you to trust me can lead others to write me off.
So it is with our Christian identity.
Nathanael raises a question we must take seriously.
“Can anything good come from a Christian?” “A Lutheran?” “Someone from Mount Olive?” There is another direction to this, our own prejudices. Who are the people, what are the places where we’re tempted to say, “Can anything good come from them?” We need to be aware of those and address those.
However, we first need to ask this today: what does it mean that we bear the label “Christian” in a world where so many Christians have done horrible things? What does it mean that we sit in privilege and wealth, bearing Christ’s name, and by our very lifestyles and attitudes prove that people shouldn’t trust good to come from us?
The last thing we want to do, the last thing we should do, is spend time saying, “We’re not like those other Christians.” “We believe something different.” It’s tempting; I’ve said it myself. I no longer think we can do that, not with integrity and honesty.
Because in this case, words mean nothing. If people can’t tell by who we are that we belong to Christ and who Christ truly is, any protestations or proclamations we make have no meaning, no value.
But Jesus’ way of handling Nathanael’s critique might be worth examining.
Jesus answers his prejudice with this: “I admire your honesty.”
The way John tells it, Jesus didn’t hear Nathanael’s dismissal. Somehow he had a vision of him under the tree, but his opening statement clearly implies he knew something of Nathanael’s attitude, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus says, “Here’s someone who doesn’t lie.”
Interesting. Jesus doesn’t try to convince Nathanael he’s wrong about Nazareth. Jesus simply is himself. Since he likes honesty, he praises Nathanael for not holding back on his views.
What is impressive is that Jesus lets Nathanael come to know him as he really is, leaving his own actions to be what Nathanael learns to trust and see. “You will see greater things than these,” he says, and it’s true. Visions are nothing compared to the grace of God Jesus reveals to Nathanael and the rest of the twelve in the years ahead.
Jesus is our model. Actions, not words, are the only thing we can bring into the world.
We simply can’t say, “That’s not us.” We must earn respect and trust by how we embody Christ. As the psalmist said today, lots of people lie about who they are, and the needy go hungry. In fact, Jesus suggests that we start by acknowledging the honesty and mistrust of people who have good reason to think we’re not worthy of trust.
We’re in the middle of our interview process for our new staff person to lead us in our outreach and ministry in this neighborhood. We’ve had very good interviews, and I’m hopeful that God is leading us to find the right person God needs here. But this encounter with Nathanael only underscores that we need to take seriously what we said throughout the visioning process about our presence in the world as the people of God.
What we heard from each other was a real hunger to understand how meeting God in this room each week, worshipping and being blessed by the grace and love of God, connects with our meeting God out in our lives, in the world. How the life we cherish here of being blessed by God in our worship might become a life we cherish in our daily lives, of also being blessed by God.
We need to realize that whomever we ask to do this job among us, we are telling him or her to help us get to work, to embody Christ. To help us listen to the movement of the Holy Spirit who would transform us into people whose lives are deeply rooted not just in here, but in our neighborhood, and the neighborhoods we live in. We’re not hiring someone to do our Christly work for us, but to walk with us and help us into our ministry and mission in this world. Into becoming people who expect to meet God not just here in Eucharist but in the streets where our Lord Christ has said he will be.
I am convinced the Holy Spirit has led us to this point, to where we discover in new and powerful ways who we can be in this city, what it means to be Christ. We’ve done much over the years. Now we are feeling a call to find deeper integration between our worship and our service, deeper awareness of how we are shaped to be Christ. And to act on that shape, that reality.
This is tremendously exciting. And it is our answer to our Nathanaels.
We have no right to tell others to trust us. We only can ask the Spirit to make us trustworthy.
That’s a really good thing. The death and resurrection of Christ Jesus began the overturning of this world, began God’s new resurrection life poured into believers. For all the evil spoken by Christians, hateful actions done, countless reasons the world has not to trust us, there have also always been faithful followers of this Lord who lived embodied as Christ in the world, living sacrificial lives of love, quietly offering a witness of the One who has ended the power of death and brought God’s love to the whole world.
This, then, will be our answer: our lives lived as Christ, bearing the love of God in the world. Since Jesus has said he is in our neighbor, we will also find our lives blessed in receiving the love of God from our neighbors as we walk with them.
It would be wise for us to keep our mouths closed for a while. Those who don’t trust us have legitimate reasons. Like Nathanael, they’re only being honest. Let us rather pray that the Holy Spirit so transform us that at least when people meet us, they begin to see the love of God for this world, and we begin to see it in them. Then God’s healing can truly begin.
In the name of Jesus. Amen