Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lasting Epitaph

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Luke 7:36-50

Funny epitaphs: GA (an obvious hypochondriac) - "I told you I was sick"
England - "The children of Israel wanted bread, and the Lord sent them manna; Old clerk William wanted a wife, and the devil sent him Anna."
Silver City NV - "Here lays Butch.  We planted him raw.  He was quick on the trigger, but slow on the draw."
Maryland - "Here lies an atheist; all dressed up and no place to go."
But this one is probably the most profound: "Consider, friend, as you pass by; as you are now, so once was I.  As I am now, you too shall be.  Prepare, therefore, to follow me."  Scotland

"Epitaph" is from the Greek which means "funeral oration"; "epi" meaning "over" or "at, and "taphos" meaning "tomb".  It is the brief text we include on the head stones of our loved ones who have passed on.  It is a means by which we honor the deceased by trying to express in a few words what we want the world to know about this person, something that can sum up this person's life in a few short words, space obviously being limited.  Yet aside from an obvious historical record, it is impossible to capture the fullness of any person's entire life on a small block of stone.

In much the same way we "set in stone" a record of the deceased, we too often consider the entire Law of the Lord being confined to two small chunks of stone large enough to contain Ten Commandments but small enough for an elderly man to carry - and after forty days of fasting (Exodus 34:28-29)!  So there are those basics which are contained in the "Ten", but we have several books that expound on those Ten.  So we cannot say the Lord's entire Law can be summarized so simply on two blocks of stone anymore than we can say a person's entire life can be fully known or appreciated only by what can be carved in a few lines on a head stone.

It should also be remembered that when it comes to "commandments", Jesus affirms the Greatest Commandment which is not included in the Ten: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  And the second [greatest commandment] is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).  So Jesus says the entire Law - that is, the "spirit", the intent of the Law - cannot be restricted only to the Ten written in stone.  There is much more to the Law - just as there should be much more to our lives and the life of the Church - than what can be printed in a few, short lines.

The word "church" in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word "ekklesia" which comes from the two words, "ek" meaning "out" and "kaleo" meaning "to call".  So the church addressed is called out by Jesus and the apostles as the "assembly"; not merely a bunch of individuals.  It gets us closer to understanding the greater context that necessarily (for the sake of the Church) transcends "personal salvation", a particular fond term among Protestants upon which nothing really hangs especially for those who have "taken" what they think has been given - but are willing to "give" nothing in return; like the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus but only one of whom returned to Jesus, a Samaritan not of the "assembly" of Israel to whom Jesus refers as a "foreigner" (Luke 17:11-19).  Yet this "foreigner" was so grateful to Messiah for his healing that he refused to allow himself to be separated from the source of his healing.

All of this is to say that the Bible is the book of the Church, and the Church as the Body of Christ, the "ekklesia", called out and set apart from the rest of the world, the "assembly" that is healed and called forth, like the returning leper, to glorify God, proclaim the Gospel, and make disciples as Jesus commands the Church (Matthew 28:18-20).  In a word, "mission" - the duty from which no Christian - and certainly no church - is excused because it truly is as has been expressed: "Any church not seriously involved in helping fulfill the Great Commission has forfeited its biblical right to exist" (Oswald J. Smith).  Because there is no other reason for which the Church is called forth.

"Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die".  This excerpt from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" pretty much sums up what it means to be the Church in complete submission and obedience to our Lord and what it means for we who excuse ourselves from the life and mission of the Church by absolving ourselves of our own sins and abdicating Messiah's claim on our whole being: if we are not "doing", we are "dying".  And if we die the slow, painful death of inactivity and complacency as our spiritual muscles slowly atrophy to the point of uselessness, what will be the epitaph that can possibly define our life as disciples, as "ekklesia"? 

There is more to this, of course, than the simple notion that everyone "should" be in Church - and only on Sunday morning.  Jesus' story of the debtors in Luke's gospel contrasts self-righteousness (the Pharisee) against the righteousness granted by Divine Mercy (the anointing woman) when sins are truly forgiven.  It should be noted that even though Jesus was invited into the Pharisee's home for a meal, Jesus was really offered nothing by the Pharisee who probably didn't feel it necessary to offer Jesus much more than a perfunctory meal.  In fact, the context - in which this Pharisee was probably among those who had previously "rejected the will of God" in verse 30 as Jesus was teaching of John's legitimate baptism - suggests it is more likely this Pharisee had less-than-honorable, or purely self-serving - intentions when he invited Jesus to his home in the first place.

The woman, on the other hand, had heard of Jesus' presence at this Pharisee's home and invited herself to come NOT WITH EMPTY HANDS (as commanded against in Exodus 23) but with oil and tears of sorrow for sins she freely acknowledged in her life.  A less-than-worthy woman - at least in the Pharisee's eyes - but a woman who by the sorrow of her heart and her need for forgiveness from sin obviously overwhelming her, she offers her entire being to our Lord in complete humility.

Which of these has truly invited Jesus "in"?  Which of these is the greater "debtor"?  It is very likely the Pharisee does not see himself as a "debtor" at all.  In fact it is difficult, if impossible, to feel like a "debtor" if one rarely - if ever - admits sin and a profound need for a Savior.  When we become so self-righteous and so self-involved that we do not feel a need to do much more than offer our Lord a social acknowledgement, our own epitaph is already being written because our slow, painful, degenerative death is already in progress - and we're just too blinded by our own self-concern to see it - OR - we just don't care.  And when we are too wrapped up in ourselves, the Church we are called to serve - the Church we freely joined rather than being "drafted" into against our will - suffers as well because the Church cannot be in mission if the "ekklesia", the assembly, is too busy with its "real life" to be bothered with "church stuff".

So what will our epitaph read when our moment of imminent demise is upon us?  And I am not referring to us as individuals; like the Bible, I am addressing the "ekklesia".  Will our epitaph read, "We were too busy" - OR - "What is there except to 'get saved'?" - OR - "We had real lives, you know" - OR - "Someone should have seen to it" - OR - "What were we paying the preacher for?"  Or will it be that an epitaph will be unnecessary because no one will really care - or even notice that we no longer exist?     

I think the Church's greatest problem is that we have become so self-involved with our own problems and our own plans that the Church has become just a place to be - that is, whenever we can find the time to "be" there because our perceived need for the Lord has disappeared altogether because we have perhaps failed to really understand or appreciate the destructive nature of sin itself - or - we have lost faith - or - we just don't care.  As long as it's open when I decide to show up ...

The worst of all is when we are so concerned with our own epitaph that we do not concern ourselves with the epitaph of the Church we are called to serve, the Church we freely "signed up" for, the Church we will not allow to baptize or educate our children, but the Church we will call upon and whose undivided attention we will demand when there is an accident or when we are sick or when our lives come to an end.

The Lord revealed to Jeremiah the coming New Covenant because the Old Covenant - "that I made with Israel and Judah ... which they broke [after having been delivered from slavery to Egypt]" is still a Covenant that involves the Law - the ENTIRE Law - the Law "fulfilled" by Jesus and written not on "stone" but in hearts of flesh and minds of the faithful, the "ekklesia" to be called forth - the "assembly" of those whose "iniquity has been forgiven and whose sins will no longer be remembered".  The Church personified by the woman whose sins were many, burdened by a debt she could never pay, who kissed the feet of the Savior of the World and Lord of the Church.

This is not a "free pass" nor is it offered as such.  It is the Covenant sealed with Blood, but it is also the Covenant that requires active participation by the whole life of the "assembly" devoted to something greater than self, the assembly that loves the Lord our God "with all our heart, all our mind, and with all our soul"

It is the "MISSION STATEMENT" of the "ekklesia". 

It is the "epitaph" of the faithful.  In the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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