Through the Waters, To A New Beginning - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 17, 2023)
Scripture Reading: Exodus 14:19–31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1–12 | Matthew 18:21–35
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:7-9).
Water is a complicated thing in the Holy Scriptures.
It is of course essential… a basic necessity for the flourishing of Creation. Without water, there can be no life. But with it, life abounds. It truly is a gift from God.
And yet, water is also an image of dangerous, unpredictable power. And no wonder! We got a taste of water’s force this weekend, as the overly warm waters of the South Atlantic helped to generate Hurricane Lee, a storm which made its way to us here in the Maritimes.
Further afield, we’ve also heard about the devastating flooding in Libya this week. Over ten thousand lives were lost as dams burst, and the waters raged. Let us keep Libya, and especially the flood’s survivors, in our prayers in the days to come, as they mourn their incredible loss, and seek to rebuild their lives again.
For many ancient cultures, including those in the Bible, water… particularly the vast saltwater oceans and seas, held deep symbolic significance: they represented the abyss… the fierce chaotic forces always threatening to undo creation… the home of monsters and dragons… the realm of no return.
It’s no accident that in the first pages of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, God separates the waters and makes dry land appear so that new life can begin. Or that when, a few chapters later, all of humanity was hell-bent on destroying God’s good world with violence, that the flood-waters returned, washing away all but Noah’s family, so that humanity, might have a new, albeit still very broken, beginning.
And in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, we heard of another key biblical story in which the Living God brings about a new beginning through the waves: freed for a moment from Pharoah’s grasp by God’s dramatic acts of deliverance, Israel was on it’s way out of the land of Egypt, and into the land the LORD had promised their ancestors.
But they found their way blocked by the abyss… the waters of the sea stood in their way… and suddenly Pharaoh’s army shows up behind them, trapping them between Egyptian swords and the watery depths. Death seemed to be their destiny… but the LORD was determined to save them.
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22). And when Egypt’s army pursued them, the waters closed in again, washing them all away. Israel was saved through the waters of death, for a new life with the Living God on the other side.
The crossing of the Red Sea marks the dramatic break between Israel’s old life, and their new beginning, reminding them that what lay ahead would look nothing like what lay behind them… and that they could truly trust the Living God to lead them into life.
And this story points forward to God’s ultimate act of deliverance in Jesus Christ, God’s own beloved Son sent to rescue God’s beloved world and bring it a new beginning.
At the start of His ministry, the Gospels tell us that Jesus passed through the waters of the Jordan River… baptized by John, and identified with those Israelites who were again turning their hearts to the LORD with repentance and trust. In that moment, His unique connection to God the Father and God the Spirit was revealed, driving home how firmly united all Three divine Persons were, and would be in all that was to come.
And Jesus would once again pass through the waters, not of the Jordan, but the deep waters of no return… entering the abyss of death at the cross, washed away along with all the wickedness of the world, to set us free.
But the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be ultimately overwhelmed by any flood, and in God’s steadfast love, Jesus was raised again, overcoming death once and for all, to share God’s new resurrection life, and a new beginning for all.
And we the Church, followers of Jesus Christ who place our hope and faith in Him, have already begun to share in Christ’s new life, united to Jesus in His death and resurrection. In our own baptisms, we cling in faith to Christ, and through His Spirit at work in us, God leads us from our old broken ways to the New Life shaped by His holy love, which even the waves of death cannot overcome.
One day, like everyone since the beginning, we will die. But in Christ we know our physical death will some day give way to a physical resurrection like Jesus our Saviour, a new beginning, fully embodied, but filled with the power of God’s the Holy Spirit, united together with Jesus in the love of God for all eternity.
In many ways, all this remains a mystery… but because of Jesus, it’s a mystery we believe to be reality. As St. Paul writes in Romans 14:7-9, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
We are the Lord’s… whether we live or die.
Like Israel, once through the waters, we have a whole new adventure ahead of us. They were set free from Pharaoh’s power, not to wander each on their own way, but move forward together as God’s people in the world… to the destination that the LORD had in mind for them. Learning to live together His way.
And for us Christians, we’re not simply baptized… passed through the waters… to go our own way on the other side. Baptism is just a first step in a new journey, living God’s way… now no longer as one nation, but as God’s multi-ethnic, and beautifully diverse family that we humans were always intended to be.
Even so, as we know, this ‘new way’ presents us with many challenges: ones that can feel pretty overwhelming. How can we actually start to live God’s way in the world? Learning to put His holy love into practice in everything?
For the most part, our world is not asking this kind of question. It’s far more concerned with other matters. And many times in our history, Christians have forgotten God’s ways, and tried to be more like our neighbours… swept along with the current of whatever our culture says matters most, or just going our own ways, instead of moving towards the New Life God has prepared for us.
But this morning, our two readings from the New Testament remind us of God’s way… highlighting for us two very important facets of this New Life this new beginning we have been given as God’s family, both of which might seem unsafe… dangerous… and even likely to bring about our end at times… but our Saviour Jesus leads us through them both, not to overwhelm us, but to share His New Life with us… and those around us.
The first of these dangerously deep waters that Jesus leads us to in St. Matthew’s Gospel is forgiveness.
In Chapter 18, St. Peter asks a pretty important question for those who want to live alongside others about the reasonable limits of forgiveness.
Matthew 18:21-22, “Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Seventy-seven times. That’s quite a number… and oddly specific. I’m sure many of us would have a hard time wrapping our heads around forgiving someone even seven times, as St. Peter suggested… but seventy-seven times? That sounds a little extreme.
And it is extreme. Jesus is trying to make it as clear as possible for us what kind of life God has shared with us… the kind of life built on forgiveness, not vengeance.
This clearly stands out from the ways of our world, where ‘getting even’ in one form or another consumes so much energy, and tears apart so many lives. And even in the first few pages of the Bible, in Genesis Chapter 4, we hear an account of this spirit of violence and pride at work in one of Cain’s descendants, a man named Lamech.
As we might remember, Cain was the first murderer: out of envy and anger, he killed his innocent brother. But God had mercy on Cain, and offered to protect him from the violence of others he would meet. God promised that “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Genesis 4:15). In this way, God sought to spare even a murderer’s life, and stop the spiral of violence, and vengeance from spreading.
But several generations later, Lamech looked at God’s promise to Cain, and twisted it to be used to intimidate others, threatening those who insult or injure him with death. In Genesis 4:23-24, Lamech proclaims
“I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
And so the cycle of bloodshed grows, throughout humanity’s story. ‘If you do wrong to me, I’ll get you back... seventy-seven times worse.’
But Jesus flips all this on it’s head. He shows us God’s way is not too escalate retaliation, but to abundantly forgive.
To go far beyond the reasonable limits when it comes to seeking reconciliation, setting each other free from our failures and faults… to find a way forward together.
Jesus then tells a powerful parable, highlighting the logic of forgiveness at work within God’s family: that we must extend to each other what God has already given to us.
For how can we presume to receive God’s gracious forgiveness ourselves in Jesus Christ, and then withhold it from each other?
Jesus’ command far exceeds the expectations of His followers, back then and today. Even now, we can hear the voice of those who call themselves Christians calling for bloody vengeance, and targeting others around them with brutality. But imagine if God were to do the same thing to us whenever we fail? That’s what Jesus calls us to do: to reject the way of wrath, and to side with God’s gracious forgiveness instead. It might seem too dangerous to forgive… to unpredictable to step out and seek reconciliation. But Jesus leads us through these waters, and there is no other way that we can go to share in His New Life.
This leads us to the second dangerously deep abyss that Jesus calls us to cross, explored in St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: the rejection of judgmentalism.
How many friendships, families, communities, and even churches have been torn apart by differences that ultimately don’t make any difference at all? How strong is the instinct that has been polarizing so much of our world today? Looking down with distain at anyone who disagrees, and desperately grasping after power.
But speaking to the Roman Christians, a community struggling with many deeply ingrained divisions… especially those at work between Christians from Gentile and Jewish backgrounds, St. Paul shows us a very different way.
Romans 14:1, “Welcome those who are weak in faith”, he says…that is, those still struggling in the early stages of understanding the nature of God’s gracious, saving love offered to us all in Jesus Christ. The Church was not to be an elite order for spiritual experts, but a family where we are all welcomed, and continue growing in God’s love together.
And an important part of this flows from what St. Paul says next: all are welcomed “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Those who are weak in the faith… beginners, might struggle with knowing the nature of this new community. That unlike the world around us, it’s not based on common interests, shared preferences, or opinions, but on the saving grace and love of God for sinners revealed in Jesus Christ.
And the examples St. Paul touches on may not seem too important to us, but they were actually sources of deep divisions within many early Christian communities.
I mean, these days what we eat has become a pretty big concern for many. People have strong ideas about what is the most ethical, healthy, and morally sound diet, and it can make it hard to relate to those who make other choices about their food.
But back in St. Paul’s day, there were lots of other reasons, including religious reasons, why food was such a source of contention. In Gentile cities throughout the Roman world, meat was often purchased in markets after being sacrificed in pagan temples.
St. Paul makes the point elsewhere, in his letters, that mature Christians know that there’s only One God above all, and that any food received with gratitude to Him does us no spiritual harm. But St. Paul knew that not everyone’s able to see this yet. Some were still worried it would be a sin to eat such meat, so they just ate vegetables.
And St. Paul’s advice was not to get caught up in arguments… to seek the truth, but at the same time not to look down on those who don’t agree with you! Don’t judge them! Love them! Walk with them. Make concessions for them as younger siblings in God’s family, regardless of their age or status. In short, treat them God’s way: with patience, grace, and welcoming love, even when it’s hard. And over time, help them to grow in their faith, just as others have helped us grow.
But another reason why eating food might prove divisive had to do with differences of religious heritage: Jewish Christians might opt to eat only vegetables to avoid non-kosher foods. In order to maintain their intentional distinctiveness from the Gentiles all around them… including those in the Church, causing all sorts of tensions between these two groups.
And this relates to the other example St. Paul deals with: considering one day as more important. This likely refers to the practice of Sabbath, resting on the seventh day, which was a central mark of Jewish identity, that some were arguing was a necessary practice for all Gentile Christians too.
According to St. Paul, this ancient Sabbath practice was not bad, but it was also not binding for Christians… those kinds of distinctions aren’t what make God’s people unique anymore. Their new way of life in Jesus Christ is what counts now… seeking to honour the Lord with our whole lives. In short, we must learn to welcome, and share our lives with, and love people who are very different from us. This can feel scary, and unsafe, but if we are to live as God’s people today, we must leave judgmentalism behind, washed away, just as God welcomed us all through His Son.
In Romans 14:4, St. Paul says “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Can we trust the Living God to deal with us in His own wisdom, and righteousness, and gracious love? Can we learn to welcome each other the way Christ welcomed us? Freely, in order to set us free by His own blood?
There will always be tensions and differences within the family of God. The question is: What is God’s way for us to deal with these differences? And with each other?
It’s not to abandon our commitment to the truth, to the Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s saving love… the Living Faith we have received.
It’s not to retreat into our own private corners, and keep from Sharing the Hope we have been entrusted to extend to each other and to all those around us.
God’s ways forward is to continue to Grow in Love… to learn to walk with each other, even with our differences… to stay devoted to each other, despite the tensions that will arise from time to time. To offer compassion and care to each other, as Jesus Christ has offered to us all… especially at the cross… not to condemn, or seek vengeance, but to forgive and set even enemies free.
And though it might seem too daunting and dangerous of a path to open ourselves up to God’s forgiving and welcoming ways, we know that our Saviour Jesus has already passed through these dark waters, and with Him we will find His New Life at work in us… which is what we and our struggling world desperately needs: Signs of God’s new, forgiving, and welcoming beginning, that they too are invited to share in.
I’ll end now with a sonnet by the poet and priest Malcolm Guite, for the Baptism of Christ:
Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-One;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Spirit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings,
‘You are belovéd, you are my delight!’
In that swift light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quivering rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river,
To die and rise and live and love forever.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School