Last week I received a call from the Bishop of Rhode Island who was a friend of mine, and he invited me to come to Rhode Island to preach at the Diocesan Convention to give one sermon. And he wanted me to answer a question that has been kind of burning in his heart for the last few weeks. It’s the kind of question that he went and began to ask people as he attended our Triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church. And that question was, “What is the Gospel? And he wanted me in my sermon to address the question “What is the Gospel?” Because answering that question is incredibly important today, he believed.
We live in a time of incredible shift and transition in terms of our culture, in terms of our communities. And in these times of tectonic change it is important for us as Christians to keep our own message clear, and as much as we can learn from one tradition before us, we have to be able to put the words of Christ and the Gospel in our own words to meet the challenges of our day.
In 1944, three months before he was executed, Dietrich Bon Hoeffer, writing from prison wrote a note to his godson in which he was celebrating the day of his baptism. And he writes to him that, “Today you will be baptized in Christ. All the old words will be said over you and you will be welcomed into the house of Christ forever.” Bon Hoeffer writes, “We are now at a point in which we do not know what these old words mean. We need to find again their new meaning and we will hopefully in the process begin to find new life and new energy, so that our words again turn the world upside down.”
What is the gospel? That is the question you and I have to answer in every time of transition and the Gospel, I want to suggest to you can be described in this way, in Jesus Christ, God’s reconciliation has entered time and space. God has closed the distance between God and humanity through Jesus Christ.
This was a distance that we could not close, we could not travel, our way to God. It does not matter how smart we were or how much knowledge we had. It does not matter how good we are, it does not matter who we were in our community, it does not matter what office we held, we cannot cross that distance and find our way to God. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has found His way to us. Jesus Christ has crossed that distance so that we might be reconciled to God.
And in fact, all of those things that we normally try to generate in our lives to get to God, these things actually can become impediments, our knowledge can become a problem, our pride in terms of our moral rectitude, that can become a problem, our position in society that could become a problem.
Only if God crosses the distance do we find our way to God. That is the Gospel and Jesus Christ is not only God’s reconciliation entering time and space by crossing that distance, Jesus Christ Himself reconciles all things. On the Cross, Jesus offered up a prayer or sacrifice that you and I could not give, a powerful prayer, and that prayer was powerful enough to cover over anything that keeps us from the love of God, and anything that keeps us from God. And so we have been through Christ forgiven.
And throughout His life, in His manner of life and who He was, and the love and compassion he showed others, Jesus, Himself, was constantly reconciling God and humanity. He was giving us a kind of parable of what it meant to be in right relationship with God and with each other.
And you and I partake in that Gospel through two things. We partake in it by remembering and knowing ourselves as beloved, as having in some manner after Grace the things that Christ is by nature. You and I are God’s beloved just as Jesus is by nature God’s beloved, you and I are loved infinitely. And the second thing is that you and I are blessed. You and I have been blessed by God profoundly by knowing Jesus and by being with Jesus and by Jesus being with us.
And I want to focus today on that blessing because I think that blessing is key. The blessing of God is not a scarce commodity. We tend to treat the things of God as if they were scarce, but in fact, the blessing of God does not follow in economics of scarcity, but in economics of abundance. We have been blessed with Christ’s infinite love and that blessing abounds.
And the blessing of God begins in God, not in us, but the blessing of God is born in us often from the inside out, often from the kind of renewal and regeneration and rebirth that we experience when Christ is born in us. This is why Saint Paul writes at one point, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, because he now knows that Christ is with him with such a profound blessing that all of the love he shares is but the love of Christ working through him. And all the knowledge he could claim is just God’s knowledge that has been given for to him, and all the hope he can have and all the faith he can muster. All of these things are a kind of echo of what God has already showed him in Christ. That is the Gospel. That is the good news. And you and I are called today to remember that we are blessed.
Years ago, in 2006, I took a group of students from Sewanee, we went to South Africa to do this incredible visit of the reconciliation efforts that are in South Africa, and we went all through the country. And we went to Johannesburg and we spent about three days in Soweto, which is this enormous township that is out just on the outskirts of Johannesburg, almost four million people live in Soweto. It’s an enormous city. And it’s a city that was created by racism because people who were not white were placed in Soweto. And this included mostly Africans but also you find in certain neighborhoods of Soweto, you find Indians, you find people who fall into the racial category of being called colored, and then you also find occasionally believe it or not, a few white farmers who got caught up and fell through the cracks.
And Soweto has this incredible beautiful topography. There are some incredibly beautiful large homes, and then there are homes which are known as informal settlements. Those are the shacks that are made out of corrugated steel or tin. And one day in Soweto we went into a place called Kliptown, which is the poorest part of Soweto, and is probably one of the poorest places I’ve ever been. There was no running water. The first thing you smelled when you went into Kliptown were all of these porta potties that were all ringing the city, and you walked into this area and then you would smell the burning coal from the stoves.
There was no running water in Kliptown. The people there had suffered horribly and they were not partaking in any of the blessings of living in a post Apartheid South Africa. And I went there with my group to meet a man named Bob Nameng. Bob had started in 1987, a youth movement that he called Soweto Kliptown Youth, and he realized that the only way for Kliptown to be transformed was by trying to build up a center that stressed three things for the children, that would give them some lunch, that would help them build their bodies, that would help them express themselves artistically, and something that would stress education.
And throughout the day that I spent in Kliptown with Bob, it was amazing to me how many kids came and were transformed by him, I was given a friend to tell me his story, he had graduated from high school, he had matriculated with the first-degree. He was the first person in his family to graduate high school. And recently in 2017, people have calculated that about 900 children go to Bob’s outreach every day for lunch.
But what really struck me about him was not so much what he was able to accomplish, it was the fact that we got to see him in the midst of some incredibly dire poverty, and he welcomed us and his face was shining and he said, “I am so grateful to see you. I began this day by reminding myself that I am blessed. And by reminding myself that I am blessed, I became full of joy and love, and those are the things I need to make my way each day in Kliptown. That’s the kind of thing I rely on, and I am so blessed to have you with us.”
It was transformative to me, it was a witness to me to see someone who was facing such opposition and scarcity yet to claim his blessing. And this perhaps is the third thing I want you to see about blessings. They’re not only a creature of abundance and blessings not only begin in God, and are born in us, but blessings are able to transform your world. Blessings are able to change the way you walk in life so that you know that God is with you. And you experience, when you remember that you are blessed, a love that can endure and can live and can be hopeful and can be assured and can be the gospel for others.
All of our readings for today touch upon what it means to be blessed. In our reading from 1 Kings, there is the blessing of God’s provision. The moment in which the prophet who thinks he is on his last legs suddenly receives a blessing of a meal and that blessing helps him maintain his strength for the journey. And you and I know those small blessings.
Years ago, a friend of ours set out on his own to become a musician and he began to busk at a subway stop. And I’ll never forget the day that I got off the subway and I saw him there, his name is Andy, and he turned to me and he said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I need $100 or I’m going to get evicted.” And I, without question, went over to the local ATM and I took out $100, although it was a lot of money for us in those days, and I gave it to him and I became a small blessing for him that day. And as much as each of us might not face material problems or challenges with our finances, we live by those tiny little blessings that we receive from others.
And so the question we have to take away from 1 Kings is how can we be grateful for the small blessings that we have received and how can we give small blessings to others, the blessing of forgiveness, the blessing of some kind of goodness, the blessing of a gift. And in our incredible reading from Ephesians, there is this emphasis on the blessing of God as power, the blessing to become new people to no longer engage in falsehood, to no longer engage in stealing, but to somehow live a renewed life in Christ, so that we build up one another as the body of Christ. What a miracle that is.
And finally in our gospel we have this incredible moment in which Jesus recapitulates something that has been said all the way from the beginning in John, which is that God has crossed the distance to us in Christ, and He says it within the context of the blessing of His presence. He assures his auditors that he has come so that they would know God and that they would be lifted up, and raised at the last day, so that they would find eternal life, so that they would find in the bread that they share and break together, His very body, His very flesh, because God has come to us so that we receive the blessing of God’s presence.
Years ago, I heard some different teaching on Ephesians and as I was reflecting on what to say today, the reading from Ephesians that kept on popping into my mind, and it came to mind because I’ve heard it so many different ways, ways to articulate this blessing. When I was in college, I belonged to this evangelical group, and so I was brought to – they had segregated Bible study. This is how much I’ve changed.
So the boys would go learn from boys and girls would go learn from girls. And so I went to hear this incredible evangelist from South America, come to speak to the boys, and he actually preached on this whole thing that Jesus gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, and he connected it to a part in Paul’s epistle where Paul says, “You are the aroma of Christ.” And so he was working on the idea of aroma and he says, “Hey guys, you ever go into an elevator and then a woman comes in and suddenly there’s perfume and you kind of go, ‘Wow! There’s something there’?” And we all could relate somehow. He said that’s what it means to be Christ to another person. You want to be able to walk into that room and for them to kind of just smell the sanctity on you to see that God’s love is in you.
And I thought that was pretty cool. But the best teaching I received on this passage. Happened when I was into the discernment process. And I used to go across the way to attend this noon, day Eucharist at a little Cathedral. And the priest who preached on this passage focused on these words, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” And he was this incredibly impressive priest yet he had stepped away from an active ministry to care for his wife who had a stroke. And he spoke about this passage, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” He said, “You know, when my wife had her stroke, I could not imagine a worse thing happening to her, or to all that I hoped to achieve. But over the past five years, I’ve learned the meaning of love, and I’ve learned to see God so profoundly in those events.”
So do not grieve the Holy Spirit, these moments when these things happen, they are blessings. And I have to say, as much as I like the evangelist, I have to say that it was the priest who gave an interpretation of this passage that is powerful for me. What does blessing look like for you? What does it mean to be blessed? What does it mean to be a blessing? What does it mean to have the blessing of God born in you?