Harrowing Of Hell
July 26, 2020

Context Matters

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I love this line… “The Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Can’t you just imagine God looking out at humanity, and loving us all so much, and just being like: (deep sigh)… Why can’t they love each other? Why can’t they care for each other? Why can’t they get along? I know, it sounds like a platitude… just get along. It is more tricky than that (maybe not for God, but certainly for me).

Sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll let out a sigh, as I begin to expound on a particular issue, complaining that someone isn’t doing something in the manner by which I think it should be done… or something like that. And Kristin, my wife, might say: “Maybe you need a little more context here. Maybe you should get more curious about why that “thing” is unfolding the way it is.”  

And I sigh, and I know I should, that the relationship is more important than the outcome. I get it, and yet, I also know that I will never reach the unfathomable depths of another person’s context; that my sight and insight will always come up short, and that is, well, one difference between me and God. 

God has the full picture. God has the complete context, and we don’t… and we never will. God knows how all of the pieces fit together, and we don’t and we never will. That is a Kingdom of God reality. And so, we have to figure out how to live in God’s world, where God has the full picture, and we don’t.  But more so, in this world where God has the full picture, and we don’t, God also has an opinion about how we act; because we were made with agency to act so as to move creation along toward that city on the hill, where there is new heaven and a new earth; and the streets are lined with trees bearing leaves that hold healing balm for all humanity.

That is the vision painted on the very last pages of Holy Scripture. Creation is not static. Creation has intent; there is an arch of meaning, toward a reality where love is the standard operating principle of humanity, and trust in God, the fuel that sustains this love. God created with intention, and we are called to execute God’s plan… and to do so without all the context.  ‘Sigh.’ I like more control than that.

And so, did the people Paul was writing to in Rome. But before we get into that, let me say this: the complicated thing about context, in the world as it is today, is the lack of authority about the facts of the context itself. Flip on the TV if you don’t believe me. Long gone are the days when Walter Cronkite would come on TV and announce to the country the facts, commonly believed facts, and from there we could decide how we feel about the facts, and we could decide how we were going to act as a result of the facts. 

Today we have no commonly held facts. Does that mean there are no facts behind particular situations? Does that mean objective reality is dead? Maybe in the kingdom of human perspective, but not in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, the reality God seeks to reveal, however, is not indisputable facts, but grace-filled human responses. In the Kingdom of God the responses matter even more than the facts.

And that is hard for me, because I want the facts; because I know if I know the facts, and more so, if I control the facts, then I have the power to win the argument… And winning is what this world rewards.

But, as I’ve preached about before, there are no winners or losers in the Kingdom of God; because in the Kingdom of God facts are not the most important thing; how we respond is the most important thing. It is our response that moves us down the path of God’s intent for creation. It is our response reveals the new heaven and new earth.

Paul is seeking to make that point in this section of the Letter to the Roman’s we hear today. It was written in anticipation of his visit to Rome, paving the way for a conversation he will be having regarding the division and strife between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus.

Paul is confronting the Jewish followers who were trying to marginalize the Gentile followers around the single issue of circumcision…and you can just hear Paul sighing as he writes: “We know all things work TOGETHER for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” In other words, don’t let the details of a flap of skin, undermine God’s desire for us to be TOGETHER. Circumcision is a dumb reason to create division in the Kingdom of God.

But it so often seems that it is a single issue that we argue about, as if it is the silver bullet, that can put all other issues right if we could just agree upon this one issue. But that bullet never seems to hit the mark, does it? For the Jews, circumcision was the core issue; but for the Gentiles, the fact of a flap of skin had no bearing in their minds on their relationship with God. You know why? Because this world was made by God, not so that we could be master of facts, but so we could be people who respond to whatever comes from the facts at hand.

This is why Jesus, the smartest person to ever live, the person who understood how to mix mud so a person could see again; or move the diseased cells of leprosy out of a body…Jesus knew a lot of stuff,  he knew a lot of facts, but he didn’t come to teach humanity the facts, he came to teach us how to respond to the facts in love. He came to teach us how to trust that this is God’s world, and God reigns, and it all works best when the impulse to win is replaced by the response of love.

The Church hasn’t always gotten this right. John Calvin, a 16th century lawyer in the city of Geneva, during the time of the Protestant Reformation, seized on a single issue to amass for himself all the power that existed in that city. It became known as the doctrine of predestination, a word pulled from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear today. Calvin believed that before the world was created God picked some people for heaven and some people for hell. And Calvin believed the people saved for heaven could never lose this predestined status, no matter what they did. Talk about a silver bullet.

And here is the cool thing, at least for Calvin, he believed he was chosen by God to say who God had predestined for heaven and who God predestined for hell. A good gig if you can get it… picking the winner and losers of God’s favor. 

Paul’s use of the word predestination is exactly the opposite of that. For Paul, to be predestined, was to be anticipated by God for the needs of the world at a particular moment in time. As I have often said, if you were born, you were foreknown by God; and because you are here, in the context of the world as it is right now, your job, that is your meta-job, the gestalt you are to live into in the context of whatever life you have right now, is that of responding to your life and circumstances and relationships and, well, context, with love. It is the response that matters most. It is the response in love that we are all predestined with capacity to reveal.

I know as Christians we talk a lot about love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love others the way God loves you. It’s familiar, right? I certainly hope it is.

When we the Episcopal church talk about love it’s not the sentimental feeling of love we’re talking about, it’s the intentional action of love we’re talking about. We talk about love because we are compelled to do so; knowing that it is the only vehicle by which we are connected to the full context of God.

With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with one request and one reminder.

The request is to locate your single issue. Maybe it is circumcision, or maybe it is predestination, or maybe it’s something else. If you don’t know, I am pretty sure if you thought about it, you’d land upon it. But if you can’t, then wait for your next argument and then look at where you land, you will find your single issue. It will be something you feel terribly passionate about, either positively or negatively; it will be the thing that, to your mind, if all people set at priority #1 all would be right in the world.

What is that issue for you? Capitalism; Marxism; Abortion; Education; Democracy; Racism; Third parties; The 2nd amendment; Science; Trade unions; Vaccinations? Find your single issue, your silver bullet, and then go set it on a shelf where that participation trophy sits you got for being on the little league team. And take down that participation trophy, and put it in your pocket… metaphorically, because it is your participation in the Kingdom of God that matters most. Your participation on team humanity, your participation together…for as Paul wrote, “We know all things work TOGETHER for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose;” towards a new heaven and a new earth.

Which brings me to the second take home, the reminder, practice responding in love. What does that look like? Well, it looks like the practice of Christianity. This entire institution was developed to form our responses toward love. It looks like worship and prayer, self-examination, repentance and amendment of life, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Here is the value proposition of Christianity: if you practice the Christian spiritual exercises, you increase your capacity to respond in love to whatever facts you encounter.

And while there will still be days when you sigh, as you do so, it is my hope that at least you will do so knowing that this is God’s world, there is intention, direction, arch to this moral universe, toward a new heaven and a new earth and all we need to do is respond, to act over and over and over again with love.