Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Trinity
St. John's Church - Moultrie, GA
August 21, 2011
There is a term that has been used to speak of Anglicanism for years that has in some way become corrupted, but has a use for us this morning in hearing the words from St. Paul to the church in Corinth. I believe I've mentioned this before, but it certainly helps ground our lesson if we know a little something about the church to whom Paul is addressing his concerns. If you really wanted to insult someone, and basically say that they were a sorry lot, un-redeemable, hedonistic, and in general residents of the the pleasure capitol of the world, you called them a Corinthian. Certainly there were plenty of other places in the Ancient Near East with their own vices, but the Corinthian community had a reputation for rampant paganism, debauchery, and sexual immorality surrounding the pagan cult practices of the area. It was a rough place to live a morally upright life because the pervading culture around you was such a hotbed of its antithesis. Unfortunately, we appear to be moving the compass in that direction ourselves as a society.
Going back to my original comment as I opened this sermon, the term I wish to speak on is the phrase via media. What was originally used to describe Anglicanism as somewhat of a middle way between the gross abuses of Roman Catholicism from the Middle Ages and a rejection of the overtly Protestant rejections of everything Catholic, the Church of England sought to find a middle way which was a reformed Catholic form of the Christian faith that was not a wholesale housecleaning that the Protestant and Puritan reformers were advocating. Today, the term has somewhat come to mean that under the umbrella of Anglicanism you will find high church Anglo-Catholics, broad churchmen, low church Evangelicals, including influences of the charismatic movements. Even though we have differing views regarding churchmanship and style of worship, we still proclaim our unwavering belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our wholehearted devotion and worship of Him as our Saviour, and the mission and ministry of the church which he founded.
So, what does that term have to do with us and our lesson from I Corinthians? I'm glad you asked.
One of the things that Paul exhorted his hearers to pay attention to was the dangerous temptation that exists in trying to keep things in balance and keep things in their proper perspective. There is always the temptation to swing from one extreme or the other and swing from strict legalism on the one side to extreme laxity on the other. The danger of becoming just like the Pharisees one the one hand, and making statements like the French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said on his deathbed, "God will forgive me, it's His business." Or as the Anglican poet W.H. Auden once wrote in his poem The Christmas Oratorio, "Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: 'I'm such a sinner that God has come down in person to save me.' Every crook will argue: 'I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really, the world is admirably arranged!" On the one extreme there is a moralism that says I can do it if I simply try a little harder, the other says that no matter what I do I'll never succeed so why bother trying. Our Christian life is lived in the via media, the middle way of these two extremes.
One Anglican priest I've begun following speaks of this middle road as follows:
There are a lot of struggles in the Christian life, but as I've walked with Jesus myself and as I've talked with fellow brothers and sisters over the years, one that keeps cropping up over and over is the balance between the extremes of legalisms and license. I think it's fair to say that at different times we've all fallen into the ditches on both sides of the road. Fr those of us who identify as "conservatives," we're probably more likely to be so often thinking of sin and recalling to mind all the Bible's do's and don'ts that we fall into the trap that we can earn God's favor by "keeping the rules." The biggest danger in that is if we don't manage to get back on the road-if we keep walking in the ditch of legalism-we inevitably become self-righteous as we compare ourselves to others and to our own lists. The cross falls out of our vision and the witness and ministry of the Church withers and dies. But we can run off the other side of the road too. Like the Corinthians we can remember that because Christ died for us, we are free from the condemnation of the law and in that knowledge we can start asserting our rights and our freedoms to the point that we forget what it means to walk in love and to live as new creations. Instead we simply insist our freedom and we end up just like the world around us-and again destroy our witness and ministry. But regardless of which ditch we find ourselves in, we strayed off the road and ended up there because we took our eyes off the cross.
When we start trying to earn God's favor it's because we've lost sight of the fact that Jesus, on the cross, has already earned God's favor for us. And when we fall into license because we know we don't have to earn it, we're forgetting the high cost of our freedom-we're forgetting that to pay the penalty for our sins, God himself had to come to earth and die in our place. When we fall into license we forget the price God paid for our freedom, when in fact, that high price should motivate us to serve him, to do what we know to be pleasing to him-ultimately to be supremely loyal to our redeemer-all out of gratitude. Legalism and license: they're both the result of losing sight of the cross.
We are called to live in that via media, that middle of the road between legalism and license. Both extremes are dead end roads that ultimately lead to naught.
Fr. Bill Klock concludes his commentary on this passage from I Corinthians when he says:
We can never earn our salvation or earn God's favour, and yet our love for him and our knowledge of how merciful and gracious he has been to us ought to motivate us to a radical obedience-not because it'll get us brownie points, but because we seek to be loyal and because we're grateful for what he has done. We come each week and are reminded at his Table that we are members of the body of Christ. How then can we leave his Table and go back to a life in which God is not our first and highest priority? We aren't making a sacrifice before a false god, but we still engage in idolatry. Sin, no matter what the specific form, is always at heart a rejection of God's plan for us and a substituting of our own. It's treason against our Creator and Redeemer. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: you can't serve God and mammon-or for that matter demons, whatever form they might take in our modern world. Knowing the grace and mercy and love of God, how can we be against our Lord. His invitation to us to gather and eat around his Table and it partake of the benefits of grace and freedom never give us license for religious and moral licentiousness. No, instead, what it really does is bind us together-all of us-in a common fellowship in, with, through, and around Jesus Christ and his new covenant, in such a way that our behaviour - what we do and how we live-is radicalized toward what Paul calls "the law of Christ"-toward a radical obedience driven boy a profound love for God - a love that itself is rooted in gratitude for just how much he has done for us.
Our church is oriented in a particular fashion to direct all of our attention to one place - the altar and the cross. The cross is the place where the once for all sacrifice took place to atone for the sins of the whole world. Those repeatable sacrifices upon the altar of the Temple are replaced by a never to be repeated sacrifice of the Son of God. Everything that we do, the fundamental component of our worship finds its focal point upon the work of Christ upon the cross. License must be abandoned because of the price that was paid on our behalf. Legalism must be abandoned because all that we do must be borne out of love, not out of some favor we think that we have earned.
The via media is a difficult road to walk because it means that we too must bear our own cross along the via dolorosa or the way of suffering as our Lord did on His way to Calvary. The principal difference comes in knowing that we have the assurance that Jesus has walked that same road before us, and willingly will do so with us as we seek to follow and serve him all the days of our lives; and at the end, the way of suffering ultimately leads us to the way of life everlasting, the destination of those who love God and submit our wills wholly and completely into his never-failing care and protection.