Powerful stuff in today’s readings. Everybody seems to be on a tear; Jesus and Isaiah are full of wrath and judgment, and even the author of Hebrews slips out of his Platonic abstractions long enough to get downright graphic about the costs of discipleship. All pretty grim for a Sunday in late summer.
This abundance of slaps upside the head calls to mind a little saying from the French writer Léon Bloy. Bloy is often quoted as having said, “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”
Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. That’s true in a scary sort of way. And it’s true of all of us.
After all, in every reading we heard today, even in the psalm, God is saying, rather strongly, that behavior is important, that God has some very real expectations of us, and that what we do, our actions and attitudes, matter.
So, we hear all that talk of demands for faithfulness, of discipline and judgment, wrapped up by Jesus’ strong words about division and fire – about what he must undergo and his impatience to get on with it.
And we need to hear this stuff. Maybe we don’t hear it often enough.
We cannot simply ignore or overlook the fact that God offers us a vision of what human life can be, of what it should be. We pretty much know what that vision is. It has to do with shaping ourselves as people by living faithfully, by keeping God at the absolute center of our lives. It has to do with telling the truth and with living not for ourselves alone but also for others. It has to do with holiness of life and with a passionate concern for the poor and oppressed. It has to do with the way we take care of the stuff and the people God places in front of us. It has to do with how we behave, but even more, it has to do with who we become.
What it all really comes down to is the imitation of Christ; Jesus living his life in us and through us. Now, God is very serious about this. God expects us seriously to try to conform our lives to it.
And when Jesus talks about fire, and about his baptism, and about division and conflict, he’s talking about what it looks like and what it feels like – for him, and from time to time, for us – to struggle to live this way, to be faithful to God’s vision of who we are created to be.
Now, in all of this, we need to see first and very clearly that God’s primary call for holiness and righteous is not made to an evil world out there, telling them to shape up. God’s first call for holiness and righteous is made to us, to those who claim to follow Jesus. It is only after we hear and struggle long and hard with these words to us, that we might have something to say, and much more importantly, something to show to a world that definitely needs to clean up its act. But it all begins with us.
Each one of us – grown-ups (whatever that means), youth, children – every one of us has the same choice. On one hand, we can choose to try, over and over, to live as God will have us live, to live faithful, honorable Christian lives wherever we are, no matter where such faithfulness may lead us or what it might cost. And that’s hard. It’s not for the weak, the lazy or the uncommitted. Such a life is truly heroic. It demands our very best. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. That’s one option.
On the other hand, we can simply put all of that stuff on the back burner, do what the world out there and our own ideas and appetites tell us to do, and hope for the chance, every now and then, to be a nicer person.
Every Christian who is not a hero is a pig.
Now, it’s also very important that we keep clear about something else here. God doesn’t give us this vision of how human beings should live so that God can sit up there with a checklist keeping score and gleefully sending us to hell if we get too many things wrong. That’s just dead wrong.
And none of this stuff about behavior and discipline has to do with whether or not God will keep loving us. God’s love is a given, it’s never at issue. Instead, there are at least two other reasons, two real reasons, why God tells us these things about how our lives should look.
The first reason for all of these demands is that God loves us, and God wants for us the fullest and the richest and the deepest life we can have. We are created in such a way that the very best that life has to offer us is available to us most fully as we try to live God’s vision of what it means to be a human being. It’s a little bit like the fact that most cars are made to run on gasoline. Sure, there are some other things you can put in cars that may work for a bit – things that might even make for a very interesting ride, for a little while. But then the car just won’t work any more. So with God’s vision for our lives. We just run better, over the long haul, when our lives are running as they are created to run.
God’s way of living promises is life at its fullest and its most abundant. God loves us, and God wants the very best for us. That’s one of the reasons God gives us his vision of how human beings should live. For our own sakes.
The other reason has to do with our mission, with our calling to be the body of Christ, to carry out the work and the ministry of Jesus Christ wherever we may be. Part of our witness to the world out there is offering it a real option – a different way to live and to be.
This is what Jesus did. The way Jesus lived forced a choice from everyone who met him. Remember, Jesus didn’t grab people by the throat and say, “You’re a jerk. And if you don’t get fixed, you are in deep trouble.” Instead, he offered himself; he spoke of the Father; he told the truth; he lived with absolute integrity. People saw in Jesus something that caused a crisis within them – and they had to choose.
And for the world to see Jesus today, it must look at us. There’s really no place else.
Again, it does no good for us, or for the church, to sit on the sidelines and shout to the world out there that it is “bad, bad, bad.” Even – indeed, especially – when it really is bad, bad, bad.
Nor does it do any good self-righteously to tell “them,” the folks out there, exactly what they should be doing to clean up their acts. Even if – indeed, especially if – we might have some rather useful ideas. We are called, as was Jesus himself, to transform ourselves, to show and to tell the world what it looks like, and how it’s different to live as we are created to live.
That’s what’s behind all of these tough lessons. It’s the call to that wholeness and completeness and new life that living as we are created to live can bring. And it’s the call to present such new lives to a world that is dying for the lack of exactly that.
It’s a challenge, and it’s hard. Nevertheless, this is what we believe, this is the challenge we have accepted, and this is what we try to teach our children.
And the simple fact is that trying to share this vision of life with our world – or with our children – doesn’t make any sense and won’t have any effect unless we, ourselves, are firmly and visibly on that path.
Like our children, our world may not pay much attention to what we say, but it’s watching very carefully what we do.
So today, amidst all this talk of judgment and destruction, we are, I think, being invited to remember two things.
First, we are being invited to remember that God loves us, all of us, more than we can possibly imagine. God wants, for all of us and for each of us, the best life possible. For this reason God gives us in Jesus both a model of what human life can look like and the grace and forgiveness to embrace that life, and to live it faithfully.
The second thing we are called to remember is the fundamental issue of our own integrity. We are reminded to remember that any challenge to faithfulness, any vision of human life, that our faith offers – this is really about us. It with ourselves that we begin, and nowhere else.
After all, any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.