Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sons of the Kingdom

Matthew 8:1-13 (ESV)
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. [2] And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." [3] And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. [4] And Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them."
[5] When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, [6] "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly." [7] And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." [8] But the centurion replied, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. [9] For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." [10] When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. [11] I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, [12] while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." [13] And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; let it be done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment.

“Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from the east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
A few laughed. It wasn’t anything I found particularly funny. But there was laughter, as the speaker mentioned he believed in hell, and believing in its existence thought a few would wind up there. I think he was trying to defend his conservative, confessional credentials to the audience. It was a great lecture. But I couldn’t see why this was a matter for laughter. Those laughing, if I were to guess believed the same with the speaker. And there is nothing funny about it. He was denying being a universalist. I told my old seminary mentor and friend, you know, I’m not a universalist, I don’t believe everyone goes to heaven, but I wish I could be, and I do not think I’d be sad if in the end Jesus figured out a way of letting everyone in, even those who don’t want to go.” See, Jesus has some dire warnings for the sons of the kingdom here, for those who ought to have known better, the Israelites who had the word from their youth, he says that they will be thrown into outer darkness, a term by which he means hell, a place where the weeping and gnashing of teeth he speaks about betrays the torture with which the people are pained. This reality is something that pained Jesus as he walked amongst us, the people he loves, it is something that pains him still, and should be a source of contrition for you and I. Christians don’t tell people to go to hell, because we know of what an awful place that is, and of the love of our lord for that very person whom we would curse. We take no joy in the death of the wicked, because this is something our Lord takes no joy in. We pray for their repentance, for them to believe, because our Lord, who died for us, died for them, and we who know the Love of God who would shed blood for wretched sinners such as you and I, share that love with patience, with forgiveness, with prayer, and when opportunity presents, with the comforting word of God. Yes, this is what you do. We aren’t perfect at it. We may not even be good at it. (Soul searching this past week, I am amazed at the bitterness, and resentment I carry in my own soul. Well perhaps I’m not amazed, but a little saddened. The people I avoid talking to. Grudges that resurface. I think I found a few more people to add to my prayer list.) No we may not be good at it, but it is what we as the church, we as the body of Christ do, because it is what our Lord does. We do it together as the body of Christ, as we gather together here Sunday after Sunday confessing our sins, receiving absolution, rejoicing at the death of by drowning of one sinner after another in baptism, who rises to new life in Christ, and Praying the Lord’s Prayer together saying “thy Kingdom Come, thy Will be Done, and receiving the Lord’s Supper as nourishment for our souls. Yes, we do this together here. People too often right off church as empty ritual, as not important, not Christ, he established it with his word and his sacraments that here the world would here his gospel, be absolved, be forgiven, and grow in faith and love as they grow together being one and ever becoming one, receiving love that they might share love. This is why we come to church, this is why we support the church, this is why we build Church buildings even as we support charities and build hospitals, because we realize that it is not only their bodies that need a hospital, but their souls too need healing. And the one, despite worldly criticism, is far more important than the other. We go to church, and support our church, because we love the sinners for whom Christ died, around the world and in our own neighborhood.
The sons to the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…. Yes hell exists, but it is peculiar in whom Jesus says will be going there. It is curious of whom he gives his warning. The sons of the kingdom. The traditional view of this is that he means the Jews, and especially those who would refuse to believe in him. I have no problem with that interpretation, except that I think it falls a bit short. It doesn’t quite deal with the whys, and not dealing with those fails to be a warning for us. Of course the texts today are about gentiles being saved, the kingdom of God expanding beyond the nation and people of Israel, to Naaman, to the centurion, to Jew and Gentile, For as Galatians says in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave for free, but all are the same, saved in the same manner. And that is where the more traditional interpretation, if we were to stop at “Jews” being identified as the sons of the kingdom would fall short. Jesus is addressing an attitude that rejects him as savior. It is an attitude that thinks it needs not forgiveness.
It was quite common for Israelites to believe they were saved for being Israelites and following their laws and customs best they could. Jesus turns everything on its head. Here is a centurion. A roman. A gentile and Jesus says he has greater faith, that it is the likes of him that will sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the Blest. Today, I think some of this is still common among the sons of the kingdom, you and I who have been baptized, stones of whom God has made children of Abraham. It is all too natural, and therefore all to pervasive to think that it is those whom the world marks good, who go to heaven, not so much for belief in Christ Jesus, but for being good. Of course, what the world calls good is open for debate as to its essential goodness. We like law abiding citizens, indeed we like laws in this world, we need them and citizens who follow and enforce them that we might live peaceful and prosperous lives. And it is quite right to reward the good and punish the evil doers. But that sort of thinking is best left to the polls and courthouse, it has small room if any at all in the kingdom of God, that reigns not by law, but by forgiveness, by gospel. See this is where we so often get in trouble. Jesus here is not warning those whom the world would see as bad, (though possibly at the time as eccentric and maybe fanatical) he is warning those who have lived what the world deems as good lives. He is warning those for whom if they converted you would see very little in the way of exterior change as they adjusted to living in accordance with the gospel, in love for their neighbor. He is warning your middle class neighbors, who do food drives, donate to pregnancy resource center, partake in the civil life of the community, who would be embarrassed ever to be arrested, or see their children in jail, those who never cause trouble, those who the centurion protected from anarchy. Here Jesus warns church goers, or synagogue attenders, who have lost sight of the cross, who have lost sight of the mercy of God, who believe heaven is attainable by their own merits. But he blesses and praises the centurion forbidden from the temple, forbidden from the synagogue for eating pork and being a sinner, because this man has faith in Jesus Christ who would die for his sins, just as he died for you and your unloving, resentful hearts. Yes, he forgives your sins too.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.

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