A Sermon for St. Francis Anglican Church, Portland, OR.
August 13, 2017
Ninth Sunday After Trinity
Luke 15:11-32; Corinthians 10:1-13
As the proverb goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Humans are creatures of habit, and we tend to pick up the habits of those around us. For most of us, this means that the wider culture, our friends, and, perhaps most of all, our families have a profound influence on our behaviors and our desires.
Most of us have probably heard a parent say in exasperation, “I don’t know where Johnny gets it from.” Most of us have probably tried to hold back a smile, because little Johnny just lied, and that parent has the most unbelievable fishing stories. Or Jane threw a temper tantrum, and that parent cannot drive across town without threatening all sorts of bodily harm to other drivers.
In the movie A Christmas Story, you’ll remember the scene where nine-year-old Ralphie helps his dad replace a flat tire, drops the lugnuts, and shouts a four letter word. The parents are horrified, and wash out Ralphie’s mouth with soap, demanding to know which friend had taught him such a vulgar word. Ralphie had of course learned the word from his dad. Throughout the movie to this point, Ralphie’s dad has been constantly muttering curses. Like father, like son.
In today’s epistle reading, Paul makes the same point to the Corinthian church. But Paul does not talk about the idolatry and immorality of Corinth’s culture, or the Corinthian church’s outside friends, or their physical families. Paul, a Jew, reminds the Corinthians, a group of Gentiles, about Israel’s desert wandering. Paul claims that they are the Corinthians’ “fathers” as much as they are his.
For Paul, the church is the people of the new exodus, the people liberated through Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of this, Jew and Gentile Christians are all spiritual descendants of Israel. And in the same way that we learn about ourselves by observing our family’s habits, so Paul encourages the Corinthian church to learn from their fathers, the nation of Israel. Paul encourages the church to read Israel’s story as their own family story.
If our story is Israel’s story, then our baptism, our liberation from the slavery of death, is Israel’s liberation from Egypt through the sea, their “baptism into Moses.” Our nourishment from God through bread and wine is the manna and water that nourished Israel on its journey. Paul even goes so far as to say that the rock the Israelites drank from was Christ. This does not mean that we should ask ourselves whether Christ was igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary. Paul is helping us recognize that God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has always been at work to reunite the larger human family, to gather us at one table, and to eat with us as His companions and friends.
You may have noticed the curious way that Paul words this in verse 4 – “For they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them.” Paul here is drawing from an ancient Jewish tradition. Rabbis saw that God provides Israel water from a rock right after being freed from Egypt in Exodus 17 and also much later in Numbers 20. And both times they name the place Meribah. “Obviously,” the old rabbis thought, “this must be the same rock if it has the same name. Which means – of course! – that this rock must have rolled alongside Israel through the desert.” Hence, “the rock which followed them.”
As God provided water and spiritual reassurance to Israel through that rock, so God provides for us through Christ. But, despite the baptism through the sea, despite the spiritual food and spiritual drink, Israel rebelled against God and found themselves under judgment. Israel desired evil, committed idolatry and immorality, tested the Lord, and grumbled, and they faced the consequences.
The people of the first exodus learned God’s power as He freed them from Egypt, but they did not entirely learn what it meant that the living God was now dwelling in their midst. As the people of the new exodus, who have the Spirit dwelling inside us, how much more are we called to live in a way that reflects God’s holiness.
As Paul says, we are those “upon whom the end of the ages has come.” We bear witness to the new age that Christ’s death and resurrection has inaugurated, and even now experience a foretaste of God’s kingdom when we gather for our spiritual food and spiritual drink. At the same time, the old, dying age continues on with frustratingly little change. Like Israel, we too must continue to face the trials and temptations of living in the old, dying age – and we too are prone to wander.
After this fairly dark, demanding passage, Paul offers us comfort in the last verse – “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The words translated “temptation” and “tempted” in verse 13 mean either to tempt to do wrong, or to put through a trial, to test the character or integrity of someone or something. There is some overlap here – a trial would not test our personal character unless we were tempted to give up. Israel’s hunger tested their patience and faith, tempting them to grumble.
Paul’s words, then, apply as much to enduring illness and adversity as to resisting the urge to commit idolatry, lie, cheat, or steal. We are not tempted or tested beyond our strength. Not because of our great strength, but because of God’s provision; God is faithful. In the words of a modern theologian, “God has given his people everything they need to worship him, to be his friends, and to eat with him.”*
That we are given “everything we need” does not mean everything we want. Those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” will not always live lives free from suffering, free from adversity, free from injustice. In fact, we are promised the opposite while the new and old ages continue to overlap. We will encounter trials and temptations, and we will often feel overwhelmed, pushed to the brink. But we have been given what we need to faithfully endure whatever comes our way.
He has given us Baptism into Christ, He has given us the spiritual food and spiritual drink of the Eucharist, and He has given us His Spirit to guide us. We can be faithful because God Himself is faithful. God Himself is in our midst as He was in the midst of Israel.
*Sam Wells, God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics.