Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sermon: Epiphany 1

11 January 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 2:41-52 (1 Kings 8:6-13, Rom 12:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

It has suddenly become popular to be “spiritual” as opposed to “religious.” To be “spiritual” is cool, but to be “religious” is somehow old-fashioned and out of touch. And, as a bonus, being “spiritual” means having no organized religion, no place where one is expected to be, no obligation of other people, no need to live one’s life in conformity with the demands of organized religion. After all, God is everywhere, so I might as well let him deal with me where I want to be: the golf course, the fishing camp, or best of all, sleeping in on Sunday. In other words, being “spiritual” means doing whatever we want and being convinced that God is happy with the arrangement.

Of course, being “spiritual” in this way is a lot less rigorous than being “religious” and avoids the social stigma.

St. Paul speaks of “spiritual worship.” And yet his use of the word “spiritual” has nothing to do with having God meet us on our terms on the golf course or on the beach. In fact, “spiritual worship” means to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” It means: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Notice how Paul doesn’t drive a wedge between the body and the spirit. The two are together. And to be spiritual means using the vehicle of your body to submit to God’s will. And notice how Paul carries this talk of the body to lead us right to the Church that is so despised by people who would rather be “spiritual.” St Paul observes: “as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”

In other words, being “spiritual” means, at least according to God’s Word, to be physically attached and active in the Body of Christ, that is, the Church. And just as an arm doesn’t get to pick when and where the body will be, and what he, the arm, will be doing at any given time, neither does “being spiritual” in the true sense of the word mean shunning the “living sacrifice” of church life and pursuing a self-centered hobby instead.

False religions vilify the body and seek the body’s separation from the spirit. But if you think about it, this is death. But Christianity doesn’t seek to separate the two. In fact, “spiritual worship” is based on a transformation and renewal of the mind, and offering up our bodies in submission to our Lord through service to His Church! And that, dear friends, is the very opposite of death. Jesus describes the physical attachment of the Christian life in terms of His being the vine and we the branches. Plants survive by bodily organic connection – not by some kind of “spiritual” separation.

And it is true that God is a Spirit. He needs no house. He is truly everywhere. But notice that God wanted a house, a place where He could be located in space and time, where man could meet Him. The Ark of the Covenant was a place where God’s Spirit could dwell in the physical world, and where God’s flesh-and-blood people could assemble around His Word. The Lord assigned certain men to a priesthood to stand in the Holy Place and to minister before Him for the sake of the people.

The omnipresent God is indeed on the golf course. But God doesn’t invite us to the golf course to enter His presence, to receive His gifts, to eat and drink with Him in unending communion, to forgive our sins, or to strengthen our faith. For that is done physically, in the flesh, in the very same mode that God comes to us. And if God, who truly is spiritual, who has no need to be “religious,” but even He chooses to be present in space and time, in body and blood, in His Word proclaimed by His priests, in holy places at holy times – what makes anyone think they are somehow different?

Let us look to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself!

When the holy family went to Passover as our Lord was even still under the age of the traditional bar-mitzvah, the boy Jesus was in the temple, in His “Father’s House.” And though His Father had no need of a house, the Father knew beforehand that His Son, in human flesh, would be in that holy place at a holy time to be about His Father’s business.

And notice that not only does our Lord submit to His divine Father’s will, but also to His human mother’s: “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.”

This, dear brothers and sisters, is the ultimate in what it means to be “spiritual.” If anyone had reason, and indeed the right, to shun “organized religion,” it would be our Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ always pointed out hypocrisy and false religiosity, and yet He never spurned the temple, never played “spirituality” against “religion,” and never attended to His own comfort instead of meeting the obligations given Him by the Father – including the cross itself. And it is He who taught us to pray “Thy will be done.”

Dear friends, we too have obligations. We parents are obliged to baptize our children, to instruct them in the faith, to bring them to their Father’s house, to establish our own homes as sanctuaries for the Word of God – which is our “spiritual worship.” Even those of us who are not parents have responsibilities as members of the Body of Christ. In human physiology, when part of the body rebels against the rest of the body, it is known as cancer, and such malignant cells do not seek merely to be independent, they seek to destroy their host. Those who claim to be Christians, but of a “spiritual” sort, bodily disconnected from the House of the Lord, from the Body of the Church, are likewise malignant – even if their only intention is to be selfish and lazy.

And lest we become self-righteous, let us all heed St. Paul’s admonition: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,” for by virtue of the sin that dwells in each one of us, we all bear the malignancy of selfishness, of rebellion, of a lack of love for the Body of Christ and an inbred desire to push back against the divine Head of the Church, our Lord Himself. And the good news is that “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

Because of our sinful nature, we cling all the more tightly to the Body of Christ, seeking Him where He may be found, “in this holy house,” and bodily gathering with “all who offer here their worship and praise” – which is indeed “your spiritual worship.”

The old temple was finally destroyed, as the Lord tabernacled among us in the Word made flesh. The temple of His body was destroyed, but on the third day, that Most Holy Temple was rebuilt. And unlike the old temple of stone, this new and greater temple is one of flesh and blood. And that flesh and blood is not limited, as ours are, to only one place and one time. Indeed, the new and greater temple is the Lord’s body and blood, and He is housed in the tabernacles of Christian churches of every time and place, and give to us to eat and to drink, turning our bodies likewise into temples of the Holy Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters, to be truly spiritual is to submit – even as our Lord did – not only to those placed over him by virtue of their parental vocation, but to submit to the will of our loving Father that we gather in spirit and in body around His Word, in His sanctuary, in the Most Holy Place where His flesh and blood are given to us. Being spiritual is also about being in the flesh. In God’s good creation, both the body and spirit of man are in the image of God. For our God is not only a spirit, but willingly took flesh and dwelt among us.

And just as a child instinctively gathers around the bottom of a Christmas tree or roots around inside a stocking to seek gifts, we, the body of Christ, know where the Lord’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are to be found. We, like our pre-teen Lord, know that we are called upon to be in our Father’s House, to submit to our Lord’s Will, and to see to it that being “spiritual” doesn’t mean deluding ourselves that where our bodies are makes no difference.

Indeed, dear friends, it is only “by the mercies of God” that the Lord empowers us to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: