June 20, 2010

The Difference of One

SJF • Proper 7c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They will look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child… On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.

Those of you who have seen my Christmas tree know that I am among those who can legitimately be called a “Trekker” — all of the ornaments come from Hallmark’s “Star Trek” series — though I stop short of dressing up as an alien and attending Star Trek conventions. I belong to the generation that grew up watching and enjoying the original “Star Trek”— and I’ve remained a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future through its various film and TV versions. One of the reasons I’ve done so is that“Star Trek” often deals with issues of serious social or theological significance, using the fantasy world of the distant future to hold up a mirror to our own times, in which we can see our own faults and virtues reflected, and sometimes learn a thing or two thereby. I mentioned one of these just the week before last, in reference to the character Data wanting to become fully human — an important theological theme!

Another such theme comes up in one of the early “Star Trek” movies, as the passionless Vulcan Mr. Spock sacrifices his life for the sake of the crew. As he is dying, he tells Captain Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” And he dies a heroic death to save his crewmates, one life given to save many. And, indeed, at his funeral Captain Kirk extols him as the most “human” person he had ever encountered.

+ + +

This sort of heroism, this sort of self-sacrifice, is noble and true, and you don’t have to go to the realms of science fiction or fantasy to find it. Many a soldier has performed an act of heroism to save his squad; many a doctor or nurse has risked contracting a deadly illness to continue to minister to the sick in the time of plague. And when one hero gives his or her life to save many, giving their life as a gift, then the equation makes moral sense, and we honor that giver as a hero: after all, “Greater love hath no man than this...”

But where the equation doesn’t make sense, where it all falls apart, is when the decision to sacrifice one for the sake of the many is made by someone else — is made by one of the many, instead of the one choosing to sacrifice him or herself — when someone decides not to perform a noble act of self-sacrifice, but to sacrifice someone else whom they consider expendable, or inexpedient, making them a scapegoat. Then the death of one for the many becomes the cold calculus of Caiaphas: not the free gift that shows the greatest love, but commercial capitulation to the demands of power. The high priest Caiaphas said it was better that one should suffer instead of many. He had no intention of suffering himself, of offering to sacrifice himself, of course, but to hand Christ over as a victim for the Romans to execute. Caiaphas, in doing this, rejected the teaching of his own faith in favor of the calculating philosophy of utilitarianism. For the great Jewish Rabbis had taught the supreme value of every human life. They had taught that human beings are not to be weighed by the pound in the balance of expediency; instead, they taught that “to save a single life is to save an entire world.” If you’ve seen the powerful film Schindler’s List you know just how important that teaching is.

Caiaphas chose the other way, however, and took the cold path of political prudence, turning Jesus over to be crucified, offered up as a scapegoat in order to prevent further problems with the Roman government. And ironically, his choice to reject the Son of Man, to turn him over to be killed, did indeed lead to life for many, for the death of this One was for the life of the whole world. As I’ve often noted, God can take our worst mistakes and turn them into something good.

+ + +

God through Christ was able to turn Caiaphas’ cold-blooded calculation into something positive, into the most positive thing that ever happened, something that saved the whole world. And Christ did this by accepting the cross, taking it up, and not rejecting it. Instead of being a scapegoat he became an offering — “a sacrifice of himself once offered for the sins of the whole world.” Had Jesus gone to the cross kicking and screaming, it would not, it could not, have been the means of salvation for all. Had Jesus used the power that was at his command to summon legions of angels to deliver him from death, he would never have died, and salvation would not have come. Instead, Jesus took up his cross willingly, obedient to his Father’s will that he should drink the cup of human sadness and frailty, and suffer death as one of us. And by taking it up instead of rejecting it, through his obedience, Jesus transformed Caiaphas’ selfish act into redemptive action of self-sacrifice. His life was his to lay down for his friends, and he did so — and Caiaphas and the Romans were thereby transformed into the instruments of his self-sacrifice, no more in control of the situation than the grenade upon which a hero throws himself to save his squad.

So it was that they looked upon him whom they had pierced. And three days later a fountain of grace opened as a stone rolled away from a tomb and the Son of Man was raised from the dead in glory. The one who gave himself as a ransom for many triumphed over death so that the many might not perish, but have everlasting life. Such is the difference of one, the difference one makes, the one who makes a difference, all the difference in the world.

+ + +

We are part of that many affected by that one — we gathered here today, together with all the believers who have walked this earth since the days when Jesus lived and died and was raised from death. We are the many, but we are also one in him. We who have been baptized in Christ have been clothed with Christ: we have put on Christ like a garment. Thus washed and newly dressed, our many individual differences are cleansed and covered because of the difference he made when he died for us. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female any more, but all are one in Christ Jesus — the One who made a difference. Jesus has wiped away the old differences by which, according to the tradition, only Jewish men thought themselves special in the eyes of God.

For every day the pious Jewish man of those times would arise and say this prayer, “I thank God that I am not a Gentile; I thank God that I am not a slave; and I thank God I am not a woman” — and that’s the prayer Saint Paul was responding to point by point in his Letter to the Galatians. Paul was challenging the neat little world that the a Jewish man of those days — such as Paul himself before his conversion! — believed God had carved out for him from the rest of the world, a world of difference from all of “them” — thank God I’m not one of them, and thank God I’m not one of them, and certainly thank God I’m not one of them!

Well, Jesus upset that neat little world as surely as he wiped out the expedient politics of Caiaphas. And Saint Paul confronted that world in his Letter to the Galatians, a world in which Paul knew one could not find salvation through race or class or social position or gender, but in which salvation depends only on the one — only in God, and Christ: the one who saves us all. For with the coming of Christ, and with his “sacrifice of himself once offered,” all human beings are empowered to become the children of God, all the many to become one in the Risen Lord, the personal differences covered over with the garment of salvation, the garment of baptism, all of the individual differences covered by that spotless robe, so that it doesn’t matter any more if you’re black or white, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, gay or straight, young or old — none of these things make a difference any more — all have been baptized into the one Lord through the one Faith in the one baptism, a baptism whose waters spread from the fountain that opened two thousand years ago, to cleanse us and make us one in Christ.

+ + +

All that remains for each of us — for all are together, but each is called — all that remains for each of us is that daily putting on of the Christian garment, that fits each of us like a glove no matter how big or small we are, no matter how wide or narrow, or tall or short. It is the only garment on which the label reading, “One Size Fits All,” is absolutely and completely true. And the really strange thing is that this Christian garment doesn’t look like a garment at all.

It looks like a cross, a cross each and every one of us must take up anew each day — and each of us has his or her very own cross to bear — and we are not to judge how well or poorly our neighbor might be carrying his or hers. We can only answer for our own lives — our own lives that we give to God for God’s purposes — and that it more than enough to keep us busy!

It is in taking up the cross that we join Christ in his act of self-sacrifice. In Christ we transform the assaults of the world, the attacks of the devil and the thorns of the flesh, into opportunities for grace, as Christ transformed the calculation of Caiaphas into the fountainhead of salvation, by means of the cross.

This is how we too make a difference, each and every one of us. All our individual differences fade away in the light of the cross, all our personal differences fade to insignificance. When we put on that cross-shaped garment, we no longer even look like ourselves any more, but like Christ, who offered himself for us, and for the sake of the whole world. In Christ there is no east and west, no north and south, no black and white or brown or yellow or red, but only the whole humanity of the children of God. Let us rejoice in this, brothers and sisters of the faith, brothers and sisters of the cross, that we have been clothed in Christ, anointed in baptism and marked with the sign of his cross, which we take up day by day as we learn to make a difference through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom we give all praise and thanks, henceforth and for evermore.+


7 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

But where the equation doesn’t make sense, where it all falls apart, is when the decision to sacrifice one for the sake of the many is made by someone else —

Tobias, I am so pleased that you emphasize in your sermon that freely chosen self-sacrifice is what taking up our cross means and what truly sets us free. To lay crosses on the shoulders of others is the very opposite of Jesus' teaching.

Monk-in-Training said...

What a great post, dear brother!

I lifted a quote from the concluding paragraphs to be my facebook status today!

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Mimi and M-i-T.

Mimi, that's exactly why the "gracious restraint" model is so problematical. Also the "crucified place." It is noble to place oneself there, villainous to place another there.

Sherry Peyton said...

Just beautifully said. Thanks so much for posting this.

Rev. Kurt said...

Amen. (or should I say Engage!)

Live long and prosper Tobias!

Great food for thought.

Michel S. said...

On an administrative note, will future podcasts appear here or at ekklesiastes? Me and my podcast client would like to know, thanks :)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Michel, the podcasts are normally at Ekklesiastes (when I don't forget to press the right button! as happened last week... hence the lack of audio.)