In the process of writing a sermon for a funeral this week I thought a lot about what it means to be remade in Christ’s image. The deceased’s family picked Matthew 18 as the first reading, an unusual but terrific decision. Jesus says there, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This got me thinking about what we’re becoming. By we, I mean disciples of Jesus: people who have accepted that they stand as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness; people who recognize that they are powerless to bring about the kind of change in themselves that will truly matter; people who have heard and believe that God loves them regardless of their powerlessness.
What happens to us when hear and believe this?
An important and well-known part of accepting such a message is the act of repentance. John the Baptizer is famous for linking repentance with Baptism, infusing repentance with the imagery of being washed clean. Cleanliness, as we hear in today’s gospel, is an important part of Jewish religious observation.
Of course, John’s baptism, and the baptism that Christians practice, is not about being washed of physical dirt. Rather, it symbolizes a cleansing from sin, something that no ordinary water can do. In being baptized, I am washed in the blood of Jesus.
And for some Christians, being washed seems like it’s enough, enough for them, enough for Jesus, enough for so-called “true religion.”
But as I meditated this week on the call to become childlike, I thought more about how Jesus’s life, passion, and resurrection invite us into more... more than being cleansed of sin? because Jesus doesn’t stop at cleanliness.
Rather, the life that Christ gives us is life in the Spirit, Christ’s spirit, whom Christ sends to build his Church. People who have made the choice to be baptized as disciples have also invited the Spirit to dwell in them.
Theirs is now a strange life, a life that isn’t really their own, but is connected continuously to the vine. They have become part of a community in-dwelt by the Spirit.
There is an interiority there, whether they recognize it or not. That Spirit sent by Christ dwells deep in the heart of us, closer to the center of ourselves than we are often able to penetrate, consumed as we are by the daily and minute-by-minute preoccupations of our lives. As St. Augustine put it, God is closer to me than I am to myself.
The good news of this is that as we wander, as we become distracted by life’s cares, or become estranged from God, even in our darkest moments, God sustains us, God is at the center of us.
In the baptism of the Spirit, we enter into a new stage of that interiority, where having invited the Spirit to take up residence in our hearts and minds, we are invited to explore a new kind of life. We are invited into the highest and most authentic kind of Spiritual Life, one in which we seek after the highest good, to become inflamed with love for God.
Ironically, our hearts and minds were already the Spirits to begin with.
And this answers part of my question: what are we becoming?
But James isn’t satisfied to merely narrate the Christian life as one of intense interiority. For James, the baptized are also marked by mission. Just as the holiness of Christ’s life was marked by both action and contemplation, so too the life of a Christian is marked by an outward mission that is fed by a deeply interior spirituality.
For a Christian is a person who has accepted through grace the challenge to be Christ to the world.
Today we hear from James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
This troubled and much maligned word, religion, for James means nothing more or less than to be bound to someone or something. What does it mean to be bound to Jesus? And having been bound, what does it mean to be attached to Jesus in a pure and undefiled way?
Shall I maintain my purity by avoiding the world? Shall I remain undefiled by keeping my distance from those whose spiritual and intellectual lives aren’t yet marked by my own commitments?
Obviously not, and it’s hard to understand why those to whom James wrote thought that such a life would have been consistent with their discipleship.
However, for us, I think the harder task is to examine those moments when our outward actions don’t match our inward commitments. We claim to prioritize the love of neighbors, yet we routinely hedge on who our neighbors are. We claim to prioritize forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and yet I shudder when I think of all of the ways that I harbor grudges and let resentment fester.
What do these inconsistencies reveal? What happens when our outward actions don’t represent who we think we are inside?
Jesus isn’t going to let us off the hook easily here. According to Jesus, corruption in our actions comes from corruption in our hearts. James’ challenge to us, just like Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees, is to become reformed within and without, for repentance and reformation in the heart will lead to reformation in our outward lives.
The Christian life, my friends, offers us both an intense kind of interiority, and an equally intense exteriority. The spirit dwells in us, enflaming our love for God, while the Spirit propels us outward in mission, to love our neighbors, to become burning sources of charity. Such a life, such intensity and consistency is difficult.
But we shouldn’t forget that this is the difficulty of love.
And the collect for this morning reminds us that this love begins first, not in us, but in God, God who gives us this Love as the Father of all Good Gifts.
“Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”