This is my homily at Grace Anglican Church for upon the 4th Sunday in the Lenten season, 30 March 2014.
We are now about half way through the season of Lent. This fourth Sunday in Lent is a natural point in the season to grab a breath of fresh air, get our heads above water to survey the scene before diving back in for the rest of the journey. With the Psalm and Epistle reading focusing on the city of Jerusalem, we are reminded of the spiritual Jerusalem, which is the destination of our Lenten pilgrimage. So let’s stand back for a moment and look at the big picture together before we dig into today’s readings.
There’s a nine-week sequence in three groups of three. The first three are the Sundays before Lent which were about preparation: kind of like the planning and packing stage before a journey. Ash Wednesday was the actual beginning of the journey, and the past three Sundays were the second stage of this sequence: the first half of the journey. During that time we focused on the hardships of our pilgrimage, especially concerning the fight against temptation to sin and the influence of the demonic. And now we are entering the final section of this sequence. Today the final destination is coming into sight; next week we explore Christ’s atonement for us from a doctrinal perspective; and finally on Palm Sunday we explore Christ’s atonement for us from a practical or devotional perspective. So that’s the big picture: three weeks of Pre-Lent to prepare for the journey, three weeks for the first half of the journey, and three weeks to wrap up the Journey’s end.
Zooming back in to today, we have this moment of relief amidst our long Lenten journey: today we get a preview of where we’re going and what happens there. The Epistle reading and the Psalm show us our destination: Jerusalem. The Old Testament and Gospel readings show us part what goes on in Jerusalem: Christ feeds us. Even if we’re still only halfway there, it’s always encouraging and refreshing to be able to have the destination in sight; that’s what this 4th Sunday in Lent is all about. Now, because we’ll have opportunity to talk about what Jesus does for us in Jerusalem later on, especially on Maundy Thursday, we’re just going to focus today on the destination itself: Jerusalem.
Jerusalem in Galatians 4
A glimpse of our destination lies before us – Zion, the beautiful city of Jerusalem. For us, as Christians, Jerusalem is not about a physical city in geographic Israel, but a spiritual city in spiritual Israel. We’re not going to the place where King David and his descendents reigned three thousand years ago, but where the descendent of King David reigns today and forever. We’re not looking for the city where the earthly Temple was built and destroyed, but the city where the heavenly Temple has always been. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we are told that earthly worship is a copy of the worship in heaven, and that the earthly Temple is modeled on the heavenly one (Exodus 25:8,40, 26:30, 27:8, Acts 7:44, Hebrews 8:5). So now in this era, after Christ, we no longer seek the earthly copies, but the heavenly original. For sure, earthly Jerusalem is special to us, even holy, because of what God has done there in the past and all the Old Covenant worship that was centered there. But even more than that do we honor and seek “the Jerusalem that is above.”
In our reading this morning from the letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul gives us a brilliant allegory that teaches us about covenants, promises, and Jerusalem. Much of the book of Galatians is written to counter the heresy of the Judaizers – people who insisted that we must remain yoked to the Law of Moses in order to be united with Christ. St. Paul has many arguments to refute this, and these 12 verses has one of the more interesting ones. He goes back to Abraham and his first two sons: Ishmael who was born from Hagar the maidservant, and Isaac who was born from Sarah Abraham’s wife. Ishmael was born by the normal human means in every way, and thus would normally be considered the firstborn and the heir. Isaac, on the other hand, was born according to God’s promise, through a womb that was both too old and had been barren all along. The power of God was at work in the conception and birth of Isaac, and that’s where God’s promise was directed also.
What St. Paul does here is draw up this scenario as an allegory, or symbol, or example of the difference between Jews and Christians. Jews are descendants of Abraham according to the flesh – the normal human processes. Christians are descendants of Abraham according to the promise – the power of God intervenes to make us so, even if we ‘naturally’ aren’t. Taking this further, Paul points out that Hagar and Ishmael were slaves while Sarah and Isaac were not slaves. This corresponds with the fact that Jews are slaves to the Law of Moses while Christians are set free from that yoke. The image of slavery and freedom also speaks to the condition of sin: before Christ, the Jews under the Law were still enslaved by sin. By being yoked to Christ we are set free from the bonds of sin. If we, for some reason, were to try to go back to being yoked to the Law of Moses, it would be rejecting the freedom that Christ has given us and, in essence, returning to the life of sin. Those who are yoked to Moses and the Old Covenant receive condemnation of sin; that’s the best it can do. Those who are yoked to Jesus and the New Covenant receive the righteousness of Christ; it’s an infinitely better deal; there is no reason to go back.
One more layer of allegory remains here. Paul likens Hagar and Ishmael and the Old Covenant given at Mount Sinai “to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” Sarah and Isaac and the new Covenant, in turn, are likened to “the Jerusalem above, who is our mother.” This is referring to the Church – the people of God according to his promise and power, not simply according to earthly genealogy. Instead of tracing parents, grandparents and other ancestors back to the Patriarchs of old, we trace pastors, priests, bishops back to the Apostles. Instead of being born into Israel according to natural inheritance, we are born again into the Church according to spiritual inheritance. Nobody is “born a Christian;” we are all adopted into God’s family.
Honor the Church as Mother
Saint Cyprian, a Christian teacher who lived in the 200’s, wrote a short treatise On The Unity of the Church in which he said: “Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” These are strong words taken largely from Galatians 4, recognizing just how profoundly important it is to recognize the heavenly Jerusalem, or the Church, as a spiritual mother.
Something that I have noticed in some evangelical circles over time is that it is sometimes difficult to take the Church, or the idea of going to church, seriously. This is not a blanket statement that applies to all Protestants everywhere, but there is a trend among some that I have observed and been challenged by at times. They say things like “don’t go to church, be the church.” They ask “who do you fellowship with?” instead of “where do you go to church?” These types of emphases can be good and refreshing in order to get away from an overly-institutionalized vision of the Church. We certainly don’t want the Church to be treated simply as a business or corporation, and that’s a trap that can happen to anyone: megachurches, smaller churches, and even for church planters.
But the issue here, with some of these evangelicals today, is that the understanding of the Church gets domesticated. It becomes a local gathering, a phenomenon that doesn’t get you much beyond your own congregation, let alone out of this period of time and recognizing the whole history of Christianity as one family. That is where this biblical image of the Church as mother can be immeasurably helpful. Sure, yes, the Church is the Body of Christ of which we are members, and yes, the Church is the Bride of Christ which God loves so very much. But the Church is also a mother who adopts her children. Being “members” of the Body of Christ does not mean we’re shareholders who get to vote on company policy. We are members of a family, children around God’s table. Children do not set policy; children do not decide what’s for dinner; children do not decide who gets adopted next or how to do it. Children are to be obedient. As the commandments teach us, we are to honor our father and our mother. That’s not limited to mom and dad, but applies to every God-given authority, not least including God our heavenly Father and the Church our spiritual mother.
Love the Church as Mother
At risk of giving a one-sided message, speaking only of obedience, I’d like to turn now to the necessary partner of obedience: love. We are not just supposed to obey Christ’s commandments, we are to love him also. The same is true with other authorities in their proper order. We aren’t just supposed to obey and respect the Church as mother, but to love her as well. She’s not just a mother, but our home. Returning to the image of the Church as the heavenly Jerusalem, I can’t tell you how many Psalms in the Bible this unlocks!
So many of the Psalms speak of Jerusalem with love and longing. When we read and pray the Psalms as Christians, we aren’t paying homage to the earthly city of Jerusalem, but to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is another mistake that I’ve seen across the evangelical world lately: many have forgotten that spiritual Jerusalem is our home. The promised city is no longer a physical location in the nationstate of Israel, but a spiritual or heavenly city that represents the Church – the very presence of God with all his people in perfect communion forever and ever! But instead many Christians today, subscribing to a view known as Zionism, spend so much time and energy fussing over the earthly city of Jerusalem, towing dangerously close to the line of the Judaizers that Paul fought so hard against.
Instead, we turn to psalms like Psalm 122 which we read together this morning, and see not an earthly city, but our spiritual home, the Church. “Let us go to the house of the Lord,” the Psalm exclaims, expressing our desire to answer God’s call to worship him with his gathered people. “Jerusalem is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up,” it continues, declaring the unity of faith and love shared by God’s people. The Psalm goes on to speak of thrones of judgment from the house of David, noting that King Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father and will soon return to judge the world, and that those who are in Christ are already seated with him in the heavenly places. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those be secure who love you. Peace be within your walls…” This is a prayer for the whole state of Christ’s Church and everyone in it.
This and many other psalms show us what it looks like to love and cherish our spiritual mother, the Church. For the Church is the “Jerusalem from above,” our spiritual home which is even now made manifest in the community of believers in every place that the Word is truly proclaimed and the Sacraments truly celebrated. The Church is not a business that we control, nor is it a club that we join and leave at a whim. The Church is our mother and our home, the dwelling place of God, and therefore the only place that the salvation of Christ can be found. As you seek to grow in Christ, seek also to deepen your love for Mother Church. As you seek to reach the lost for Christ, seek also to invite them into your spiritual home where the love of God’s family can be seen and experienced.
And finally, remember that it’s “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.” Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end! Amen.