Sermon preached at the enthronement of Bishop Sumner at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Dallas, 15 November 2015.
In advance of one of my first parish visits a few weeks ago, the rector suggested I talk at the adult forum about what I have been working on recently. I told him that I have been writing a book on the doctrine of sin. The rector demurred — perhaps the bulletin announcement, “new bishop’s studies of depravity,” would put parishioners off. At least parishes will be glad the Rt. Rev. Dr. Dead has left, and blessedly the rector is back in the pulpit. In a similar “good time Charlie” vein, I want to begin this happy evening thinking about tragedy.
We human beings are built to run toward a goal. We run toward what we want, what we hope for. We run toward home. But what it turns out we are really running toward — that is a different story. In the grim No Country for Old Men, set in west Texas by that dark, sometime Roman Catholic, Cormac McCarthy, the characters run toward a bag of loot, or a new life, or reunion with a husband, but what they are all really running toward is the sociopath Anton Chigurh, with his deadly airgun. And Texan Tommy Lee Jones, graduate of St. Mark’s School, played the sheriff nobly but futilely trying to stop him. Chigurh thinks he is the random agent of doom, deciding with a flip of the coin who shall live and who shall die. Life can feel like that: you run toward the future, but really you are running toward a cancer screening, or a breakup, or nothing in particular.
We think we are running toward home, but the Greek writers of tragedy knew all about this. The king is determined to run toward the truth, run toward daylight, no matter what, but what he learns at that crossroads is a hard, cold light indeed. And the amazing thing about the Christian gospel is that it denies none of this: we are running there indeed.
In today’s lesson from Philippians 3 Paul thought he was running toward sanctity, toward being one of the elect. He now sees that all these plans for his own religious accomplishment are as nothing. His is a CV consisting of wind. And we know that in actual history he was running toward a martyr’s death, far from home among soldiers of the empire little different from those who killed his master. The story the world tells us, both within and without, is hard.
But in today’s epistle there is a second goal toward which the apostle is running, because in the story of salvation there is a second plot at work, running through the cold and hard one, inside of it, on top of it. The father has shocked us all by running toward us, his prodigal sons and daughters, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That same son died a lonely and defeated death in the holy city towards which he had run, but now he is raised. God has given to the history of humankind another end, all of his own making. Now, through and beyond doom, there is the new Jerusalem, the city of God, his kingdom. Through no power of our own, we are also journeying toward the day of the Lord and his victory.
That is what Paul is talking about in Philippians. Everything he thought he was going to earn is counted loss because something much greater is counted to his credit. He now has the hope of attaining the resurrection of the dead, God’s day that lies ahead but is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own resurrection. As a result, a new kind of running commences, running toward God’s new day, the one he alone will bring. Paul presses on into the future, into the unknown. He wants to grasp it and “make it his own,” not because he has some power over it, but because he knows the one who is there to meet him, and, present appearances notwithstanding, what kind of day it will be.
If only we too of the Diocese of Dallas can attain the resurrection of the dead, we too leave off what lies behind and press on to this upward call in Christ Jesus. Amidst many differences, our life together is wholly defined by this: we are running together toward the resurrection. Our platform, our work plan, the place we are headed, can be summed up in that one familiar and profoundly mysterious phrase.
We are here to witness to the resurrection of Jesus — but what does that mean? How is it that all that we believe and all we are called to do and suffer is packed into that one phrase?
First of all, it means that we are people who are making a claim that is shocking to the world. This man Jesus is raised up bodily from the dead. He is alive in a wider and deeper sense than we can imagine. This is not a mere symbol for hope springing eternal or for the discovery of lasting meaning in life. Those sentiments may be so, but only because Jesus is actually and bodily raised. The great southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once heard the equally famous skeptic Mary McCarthy call the Eucharist a symbol, to which O’Connor replied, “Well, if it’s only a symbol I say to heck with it.” We believe something similar about Jesus being raised. This matters. Only if he is bodily raised is it really he — so that the one we obey and will someday meet on the verge of doom is a person, not a stranger but my friend. In this way we, the Diocese of Dallas, are proud to be conservatives, traditionalists in this bedrock way. Let us all be allies in this kind of traditionalism. Dissent of other kinds is welcome, but we all say the Creed without our fingers crossed.
Second, this does not mean we are not interested in our culture, our time, the struggles of the young, the challenge of science and secularity, the blood sport called politics. What is all of this but a running toward the future? Do we not imagine that harmony or liberation or ease or justice are to be found there? In fact every endeavor of the human mind is a pressing on in the name of the future. Every religion promises a rival account of the human future. That is why our faith has something to say to each and every effort, every camp, every generation. Ours is a struggle over the shape of this future, which we see only in a glass darkly. We Christians have much we do not know, much we can be taught, but we are also witnesses to the shape, indeed, the face, of the future, which we are running to meet. No one surely is more interested in that future than the young, with whom we as a church have much to discuss. Our whole life amounts to one great claim about that future, a risky claim, and if we are wrong we will be, says Paul, “of all most to be pitied.” We are banking our lives on Jesus and his resurrection — hardly a safe, risk-averse kind of traditionalism.
Third, being a Christian means that we know what time it is, we know when our running is taking place. To be a Christian is to be running between that first resurrection and the second one. Those apostles were, first and foremost, witnesses to the first resurrection and pilgrims in hope of the second. Most every reference to them in the New Testament affirms this. And insofar as a bishop is, in all humility, an inheritor of this mantle, he exists to remind the flock where and when they are alive. What time is it? It is, says the New Testament, the time of the nations, the time that the door of salvation is swung wide open, the time of grace and the new law of the love of Christ. And that means that the nations need to be told of this, to be invited. We are supposed to run toward the resurrection with our fellow Gentiles. This is why mission is about as much an option for the Church as oxygen is for a living creature. As Emil Brunner famously said: “The church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning” (The Word and the World, p. 108).
Fourth and finally, running toward the resurrection defines our life together as the Body of Christ. It is easy to be discouraged with the Church, not least among clergy themselves. If you have done this kind of work for a long while, you can surely take as your own Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, a vision of the house of the people of God far from home. Who has not recognized the poignancy of Jesus cooking fish on the beach for his own beloved friends, who have just now betrayed him, applied to his or her own life? But God’s Spirit, even this late in time, rattles those bones. And Jesus does not dwell on the betrayal, but rather on what he now has in mind for his disciples — and what the running up ahead will cost them. The Church, compromised, sinful, unlikely, receives her life back, too, as if from the dead. She has nothing to boast of, no CV, but she has this second wind, this running with expectation, even after we had supposed that we had labored in vain, and spent our strength on vanity. That is our life in the years ahead of us, brothers and sisters, whether it is autumn or spring in our own mortal life: we have this leaving behind and running ahead in which spiritual youth is restored like an eagle.
I have already mentioned how in Philippians 3 Paul’s impressive CV came to naught. In addition to discerning the movement of the Spirit, an episcopal search invariably has a dimension of the job application — each candidate putting forward his best foot in the form of a résumé. I did so, among other admirable candidates. The gifts are in my case matched by failings and shortcomings, as you will over time learn! But in truth my real CV is far more impressive than anything I wrote down for our process last winter and spring. For I come to you all as bearer of what you already have: the message of the resurrection of the dead through our risen Lord Jesus Christ, which we cannot bring, toward which we will in the coming years run together in weakness, in confidence, in joy. Amen.