I was at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, this morning (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scripture readings for this morning were Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; and Matthew 25: 31 – 46.
This has been edited since it was first posted.
I began this message with a thought about how this is Christ the King Sunday and not the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The nature of the liturgical calendar always makes the identity of a particular Sunday very interesting. And the changing nature of the liturgical calendar and how it is dependent on Christmas and Easter lead me to a thought more appropriate perhaps for my chemistry lab than the pulpit.
One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that you may be able to determine the position of an electron with reference to the nucleus or you may be able to determine the velocity of the electron but you cannot determine both. This is the foundation for what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. This is also part of the basis for the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Quantum mechanics can take us into some very interesting areas of chemistry and physics, none of which have any immediate impact on our lives today but perhaps might in the coming years. It also leads to some interesting thoughts and possibilities, possibilities that lead Albert Einstein to reject the notion of quantum mechanics and state quite categorically that “God does not play dice with the universe.”
Einstein was never comfortable with the uncertainty that came with the development of quantum mechanics, firmly believing in a deterministic model of the universe; that is, there was an underlying reality in which particles, such as electrons, do have well defined positions and velocities and that this would ultimately become known to mankind (adapted in part from “Does God Play Dice?”)
As I was writing this, I began to think that there might be some sort of correlation between the deterministic model of the universe favored by Einstein and first developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century and the deterministic, pre-destination model of theology developed by John Calvin.
John Calvin (1509 – 1564), the 16th century theologian, proposed that everyone is born a sinner and there is no escaping the penalty for sin. A simple way of saying it would be that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people and if you were one of the bad people, then you had no hope in this world. It is a model that has been rejected by most theologians because if it were the operating model for our faith, then there would be no reason to have Jesus in our lives. Our escape from a life of sin and death is predicated on the presence of Jesus in our lives; if we cannot escape sin, then we have no need for Jesus or even God for that matter.
To some extent, this idea, that our lives were fixed and determined by God before we were born, was the basic understanding of the people of Jesus’ time. Illness, poverty, misfortune were all the signs of a sinful life; good health, riches, and a fortunate life were all the signs of a righteous life. How many times was it said that the children suffered because of some sin either or both of their parents did? It was, if you will, the central point of Jesus’ message to say that all had a hope and a possibility, one that came through Christ.
Unfortunately, John Calvin preceded Newton by almost 100 years and if there was any link, it would be in terms of what Newton thought, not what Calvin thought. So I will leave it to others more versed in theology to determine if there is a relationship between John Calvin’s deterministic ideas and those of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There may be such a link because what most people don’t know is that Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible and faith than he did about any other area, including optics, calculus, or gravity (See my notes on Newton – “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)
Still, some 600 years after Calvin, it is interesting to note that many people still believe that one’s life is determined at birth and riches come to the righteous while poverty comes because one leads a life of sin. Many people today are quite willing to believe that they will be the ones who will receive the stated rewards of heaven because they are, if you will, the “true believers”. But their actions often times don’t reflect their faith.
Oh, these “true believers” do come to church on Sunday but when the sun rises on Monday morning, in fact by the time the referee blows his whistle to start the football game on Sunday afternoon, what has been said and done on Sunday morning is often forgotten. They heard the pastor speak about the equality found in Jesus but practice inequality in their daily lives. They nod with knowing approval when someone gets up to say that the local food bank needs donations and volunteers but they always seem to find things on their calendar that somehow take precedence. They tell all their friends about how they were part of a mission trip to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but they are not willing to help with local missions as it is a waste of time and only encourages the poor to stay poor. Their day to day lives are more reflective of the people of the Old Testament who ignored the sick, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed and were more interested in their own lives.
It takes more than coming to church on a Sunday to be a Christian or giving lip service to the call of the many; to say that one is a Christian is to say that one has a new life, a new view of the world. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,
At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.
If we leave Christ behind when we leave the church then it is impossible for Christ to be in the world. If our lives during the week are not reflective of the time we spend in the church on Sunday, then we haven’t learned anything. It becomes easy then to not see the hungry or the homeless, the sick or the oppressed. When our focus is not on Christ and His message, it becomes very easy to become blind to the world.
When your life in Christ is limited to a few hours a week in a single building, you are not likely to see Christ as He walks by you on the street each day. When your focus is on the world in which our bodies lie, it is very hard to see the world in which our spirit tries to live. The Gospel reading today is a very stark reminder of what can happen. When our vision of Christ is an image on the wall in a building called a church, it is very hard to see Christ any other way.
It isn’t always about doing mission work far away from one’s home; it is about doing mission work anytime one walks out of the church and into the world. It is about seeing Christ not in the building they left but in the world outside the building.
It is quite easy, then, to understand why the people responded the way they did in the Gospel reading. I am utterly convinced that people today would respond the same as those who read the words in Matthew when they were first written two thousand years ago. They do not see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, or the imprisoned. Christ is viewed only in terms of the building they called the church, not the person who walked the dusty back roads of Galilee and taught others about the love of God the Father, who healed the sick and brought comfort to people who were convinced that they had been forgotten.
I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?
It takes more than a few words and some limited actions one week a year. It takes a change of heart; it takes a new vision. To see each person you encounter as Christ, not just another person on the street.
Some years ago, I took my mother to a new Christian restaurant in Memphis. That was how it was advertised. It was clean, it had a nice environment and no alcohol was served. It was a nice, clean place to take your family to eat. It should have been a booming success. Unfortunately it failed.
Now some will tell me that our society doesn’t like Christian-based businesses. They will tell you that this restaurant’s failure was based on society not wanting anything to do with a Christian theme business. But I will let you in on a little secret; if the food at a restaurant is not good, calling it a Christian restaurant won’t make it better. But the food was lousy and, in the end, a restaurant that serves lousy food is not going to be successful, no matter what its name. If the owners had been more of the Spirit, perhaps they would have understood this. I will be honest; I thought that their attitude was one in which the name would be enough.
What would you serve Christ for a meal? And if you were to serve the best for Christ, what would you serve his children? And that points out something very critical about our lives, do you treat each person that you meet, that you work with, that you encounter as you would treat Christ? Will you know it when you encounter Christ?
I am reminded of a church that one day welcomed a stranger into their midst. But just because he was a stranger, he wasn’t treated as such. He was welcomed as a friend and as a neighbor. It is my understanding that he never returned after that single visit. Some years later, the church received a check from the estate of this man, a check that enabled them to buy some property and build a new parsonage and turn the old parsonage into a Sunday school house. The stranger was welcomed into the church and he remembered that welcome.
I am also reminded of an individual who is a United Methodist preacher today but some ten years or so ago was a bouncer in a local bar. You would never have thought that this individual would become a preacher and even he would tell you that back then it was the furthest thing from his mind. But one day, he came to church because a family member insisted he needed to be there for a baptism. Someone helped him get a cup coffee and he stuck the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket. A couple of weeks later, he discovered that bulletin and remembered the offer about the coffee and he came back. That particular bulletin sits on his desk as reminder that he once was a stranger and he was made welcome in a church.
I recognize that many times we come to church because we are looking for Jesus. In many modern day churches today, that is a hard thing to do. Too many churches today have made that a very difficult thing to do. For one thing, we sometimes don’t really want to find Christ because He will remind us of the things we are supposed to be doing. For another, we want Christ to be in one place when He is very likely to walk through the door as a visitor or a stranger in need. If you leave with one thought it is that we need to see Christ outside this place, not necessarily here.
This day is called Christ the King Sunday. It serves as a reminder of what the focus of our life should be. When John Calvin put forth his brand of theology, he told the people that many of them would lead lives of despair and grief; that was the way it was with God. But Jesus came into the world, not to condemn but to lift up and offer hope, to show that there was another path to take.
We stand at this particular point in time, staring at a choice we must make. We can choose to continue as we have done in the past, hoping against all hope that we will have an opportunity at some other time to choose to follow Christ. Or we can choose to follow Christ, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to Him. And as we leave this place today, we leave knowing that we are going to encounter Christ, not leave Him behind.