Sunday, May 24, 2009

Easter 7: An alternative way of life

Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 17

We are an Easter People living in a Good Friday world. For the last seven weeks we have been celebrating the historical fact that Easter changed our conception of reality. Because his disciples testified they had encountered a risen Jesus who had entered a new, glorious and eternal life, we no longer need to fear death as the power that rules our lives. But the world has not accepted that reality. It still thinks a crucifixion can fix things that have gone wrong. The world’s various principalities and powers continue to believe that death has the final say. So they either threaten us with death or promise to protect us from death to gain power over us.

According to John’s gospel, Jesus anticipated that this difference would be the dilemma of his disciples. That is why he prayed at the last supper for his disciples to be in the world but not of the world. He told his Father, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world… I am not asking you to take them out of the world… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus’ mission to restore all people to a right relationship with God and with each other could continue only if his disciples engaged the world as he had. But he also knew that the world’s understanding of meaning, identity, and value could capture the minds of his followers if they did engage it. To participate in his mission, Jesus’ disciples had to remember that they belong to Jesus, not to the world—that they were not of the world even if they were in the world.

It’s a good theory. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. How do we go about being in the world without being of the world? Ever since Constantine adopted Christianity as the cause that would win him the Roman Empire, Jesus’ disciples have often been as much of the world as in it. We only need to recognize how some Christian groups have used politics to push their agendas to realize how much today’s Christians are of the world.

That is what happens when we forget that Christianity is not a religion but a way of life. Religions are a combination of ideologies and institutions that serve a social purpose, like keeping people moral, maintaining public order, and justifying or critiquing public policy. But Jesus did not come just to update the religion we had so that it would do those things better. He came to reveal and enable a new way of life to be lived for its own sake; a way of life that would immerse us in the love of God. If we are going to be in the world without being of the world, we need to live out the alternative lifestyle to which Jesus calls us instead of the lifestyle to which our culture tempts us.

It would take a book to describe that alternative lifestyle and how it contrasts with the world’s lifestyle. In fact, several books on that subject have already been written. But let me offer you one very central contrast between the world’s way of life and a Christian way of life to show you what I mean.

With their 1985 book, Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his associates began to document how the American way of life has been dominated by individualism. People who affirm individualism believe that the meaning of life is found in pursuing personal achievement and success. They identify themselves as “self-made” persons who worked hard to become what they have become. They believe their value is based on how much prestige, power, and wealth they have accumulated for themselves.

By way of contrast, the Christian way of life calls us into a community of mutual caring, in which the meaning of life is not found in what we get for ourselves but in how we love our neighbors. The fullest expression of who we really are does not come from what we make of ourselves, but from the difference we make in the lives of our neighbors and the various communities in which we all participate. What we value most is not what we accomplish as an individual but the compassionate relationships we have nurtured with our brothers and sisters on this planet.

When we live by the core values of mutual caring and donating ourselves to the communities we inhabit, we will look for ways to use those values in transforming our social environment. When we intentionally try to live a Christian way of life, we work to restore peace to families, cooperation to work places, civility to community politics and society, and possibilities for genuine renewal to leisure activities. By being disciples who belong to Jesus rather than to this world, we can help transform the worldly way of life that isolates people from each other and divides groups against each other to a Christian way of life in which empathy, compassion, caring, and love unite us with each other.

As much as I am attracted by this vision, I have no illusions that we will quickly change the Good Friday world by living a Christian way of life. But we can keep that world from dominating the way we live by intentionally affirming the core values of a Christian lifestyle. In that way, we at least participate with God in working for his mission to reconcile all people to him and with each other. And who knows, some of the people who do not belong to our community might see that we live an alternative way of life that is not cheapened by the world’s way of life. And they might be attracted to live our way of life when the see the joy we have in living the way we do. In that way the values of God’s kingdom can gain a foothold in this world without ever having to be of this world.

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