12 September 2021
St. Titus, Durham
The Reverend Dr. Harmon Smith
Good morning; I hope you are safe and healthy. I’m glad to preach again because I want to praise my Maker while I’ve breath; thank the rector for this opportunity, and offer this sermon as always to the glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and for the benefit of his people.
I want to begin with a story about something that happened before any of us were born. About135 years ago there was violent fermentation in the American labor movement. Workers were beginning to organize for collective bargaining with the barons of industry; and amid considerable agitation and anger, some actions led to injury and even death. Then Matthew Maguire, a machinist from Paterson NJ, and Peter McGuire, a carpenter from NYC, conceived the idea of a Labor Day Parade; and workers representing many trades marched in the 1st parade in New York City on 5 September 1882. That was followed by labor organizers, the Knights of Labor, who planned demonstrations and parades to emphasize workers’ rights and their families’ needs, and soon several states passed collective bargaining laws. But it wasn’t until several workers were tragically killed by US Marshals and US Military during the Pullman strike of 1894 that, with the support of a unanimous Congress, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill on 28 June 1894 that declared Labor Day a national holiday.
That’s the story; and I can remember from my boyhood onward that Labor Day – from the smallest hamlets to the largest cities – was widely celebrated in our country. Some towns continue to celebrate Labor Day with concerts, parades, picnics, and a full docket of community activities. But for many of us, the reason for its being has been consigned to the mists of history. It has become just another day off from work. So I have sensed, as perhaps you have, that while some other events – like motorcycle rallies and birthday parties – have drawn huge crowds, there is less enthusiasm nowadays to celebrate some of our national holidays. I’m sure the pandemic, together with recent government mandates and moves to cancel culture, have dampened interest in parades and large crowds. But I found it striking that last New Year’s Day and Independence Day and then Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday came and went without their traditional celebrations. Even the inaugural Juneteenth was muted. But when workers are so essential to our busi-nesses and industries, I wondered why last Monday’s Labor Day was also one of these muffled events. And what did you think of yesterday’s 20th anniversary remembrances of 9/11, and the capacity crowds attending football games?
We’re in the middle of 5 Sundays when James is the appointed epistle. “What’s the use,” he says, “of saying you have faith and are Christian if you aren’t proving it by helping others? If you have a friend who needs food and clothing and you say to him – well, goodbye and God bless you – stay warm and eat hearty – and you don’t give him clothes or food. What good does that do?… Remember that Jesus’ message is to obey, not just to listen”. (2:14-16, 1:22) Unsurprisingly, his book is among the favorite biblical passages for advocating a capitalist economy and opposing socialism and communism because it empathizes actions over words.
Martin Luther strenuously objected to James’ epistle, saying it advocated salvation by works, not by grace alone; and he wanted it removed from the Bible. He was wrong about that, but he was right to say that we are not the authors of our salvation. And he was also right to say that when the NT talks about ‘being born again’ – of our having ‘put on Christ’ – and ‘Christ being formed in us’ – about our having ‘the mind of Christ’ – that all of this is sola gratia – by grace alone. The initiative always lies with God. If he doesn’t act, we can’t act. So James does sometimes appear to get the cart-before-the horse and sound very like a humanist when he speaks so aggressively about what we are expected to do as Jesus’ followers. But I think he is much misunderstood. Overall, the heart of his message is that repeated admonitions to just believe in Jesus – just have faith – can become a moribund orthodoxy that needs to be quickened into life by a commitment to perform good works. And I think he’s right about that!
The Bible teaches that both God and we act in two distinct ways; we beget and we make or create. In a few minutes we will come to the Nicene Creed that claims Jesus is the Son of God who is “begotten, not made”. In my experience, congregations are comfortable saying that ‘Christ is begotten, not made’. But words like ‘begetting’ and ‘begotten’ are anachronistic – so I wonder whether we know what they mean because there is a difference between begetting and creating. C. S. Lewis helped me articulate that difference. When we beget, he said, we beget something of the same kind as ourself. Persons beget human babies – beavers beget baby beavers – and birds beget baby birds. To beget is to become the mother or father of another like yourself. But when you create you make something that’s of a different kind from yourself. A beaver builds a dam – a bird makes a nest – a person creates a telephone or perhaps a doll. And if a person is skilled enough, the doll can mimic a long list of human behaviors. It can talk, move its eyes, need changing, and more because of a computer chip in its little belly. But it’s not alive – it can’t breathe – it can’t think. It may look very like a human being but it’s not a real person – it just looks like one. To create is to make something, to fabricate, to construct. So we only beget babies while we create dolls and telephones and spaceships. It’s just that simple and we should remember that difference when we speak of ‘artificial intelligence’ because the distance that separates begetting and creating is hugely important.
What God begets is God – just as what we beget is other human beings. But what God creates is not God – just as what we create may be an expression of ourselves, but it’s not our-selves. It’s something else. The world, the universe, humankind – everything God has made is not God so we are not polytheists – just as everything we create is not human being but a thing – a gadget, an implement, a device.
In addition, when we think about our creation we remember that the Bible tells us that, from Adam’s first creation, we are all created imago dei – in the likeness of God – bearing a re-semblance to him. Theologians have long struggled to say clearly what that image signifies – but minimally they agree that it means dominion over the earth and the capacity to show love and compassion. Imago Dei means that we are favored among all that God has made. We are of one blood, one human race; like God but not God. We do not have the life that God has – we are like God, and that is precisely what Luther wanted to make clear. So all human beings are likenesses – images of God – and we believe that we will have the life of God infused in our lives when God is no longer merely accommodated to our lives, but when our lives will be located in the life of God. That is our hope – our prayer – and our destiny. And that is the first point of today’s reading – that God has created us imago Dei – an imperfect likeness to himself. The second point is equally important. Although we are an imperfect likeness, God will be satisfied with nothing less than our perfection. Nothing less than our perfection! Imago Dei embeds that latent desire in the human condition. If you are a parent you can remember your delight at your baby’s first feeble attempts to walk – or your abiding love and concern when you first learned that the baby was born with a congenital disorder that we now call a ‘special needs baby’. Barring an insurmountable incapacity, no parent would ever be satisfied with anything less than the ‘perfection’ that’s signified by their child’s optimal development.
George McDonald once said that “God is easy to please but hard to satisfy” – and that sounds very like the point James makes when he asks rhetorically: “What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it? – If faith does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing. Show me this faith you speak of with no actions to prove it, and I by my actions will prove to you my faith. Be sure that you act on Jesus’ message, and don’t merely listen and thereby deceive yourselves”.
I think we make a similar point when we say there is a fundamental difference between ‘merely listening’ and hearing. Listening is passive – hearing is active. So when we want some-one to pay serious attention, we say ’hear this’! That’s not a request – it’s a command – and if you hear you are expected to act. So James says, be doers of the word you hear, and not mere listeners. The great 20th c. theologian, Karl Barth, defended the doctrine of virgin birth along similar lines when he argued that Mary’s organ of conception was her ear. She was not a passive listener. She heard the Word of the Lord and she acted on it. She became obedient to the Word she heard – she said yes – she was a doer – and she became theotokos – the bearer of the Son of God.
But hearing, as all of us know, isn’t easy. My NT koine Greek was virtually useless in modern Athens – and my schoolboy French and German are seriously challenged when I listen to native speakers. That was painfully underscored when I was the US representative at a UNESCO sponsored conference held at Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. Some of you know the story so I’ll be brief; but it’s message is enduring. The president of the conference was a scientist who was also head of the Bulgarian communist party and the keynote speaker. Kyril Bratanov was about 5’5″ tall and needed a booster platform when he spoke about his laboratory and experiments with ovarian and testicular transplantation, embryo transfer, genetic interventions of various sorts, and other studies that offered, as he put it, ‘careful and useful scientific improvement for humanity’. I listened mostly in French because I was going on to Paris and wanted to resuscitate my limited French. And when he finished his address he received tepid applause and I thought someone needed to respond; so I stood to thank him for his interesting but problematic remarks. I added that there are scientists in my country who would very much like to conduct experiments like the ones he had described – testicular and ovarian transplants, embryo transfers, genetic interventions, and the like – but they are prohibited by stringent stipulations for what we regard as valid informed consent by subjects of scientific investigations and experiments. ‘So I want to ask you, my distinguished colleague, did you have any problem gaining valid consents from the subjects in your studies?’ At that, he was convulsed in laughter and literally fell off his platform; and then, after composing himself he said, ‘Thank you, Prof. Dr. Smith, but perhaps you did not understand that I am a veterinarian’.
Earlier in Mark, Jesus said that he came with a message for those who had ears to hear, and today he both delivers that message and creates the ability to hear it. The gospel is not about supernatural events but about a people so formed and conditioned to God’s speech that they can hear it – and having heard it, do it, perform it and embrace it as their identity and the purpose in their lives. So we’re back to square one – to James’s insistence that we must do the Word when we hear it or our hearing is vacant and void.
Every issue of the Titusian devotes a significant place to acknowledge some of the workers here in St. Titus, where the emphasis is on people who make or do things. I believe that’s what we are about here and that celebrating workers is fine. Our life gets acclimated to God’s life when we hear God’s Word, and we honor these workers because they are both hearers and doers of God’s Word. They remind us that both hearing and doing are absolutely essential if we mean to do God’s work in this world.
So join me in thanking God for this always unsettling but forever exciting and awesome gift, and pray that God will give us the resolve to hear our Lord Jesus, and by his Real Presence – his imago Dei within us – offer him good works that materially evidence our faith. And remember that we don’t have long to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us; so be quick to be kind and be swift to love; and remember, too, that we are created in the likeness of God and that our destiny is secured and sustained by his peace and blessing: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
NOTES: The phrase “only begotten Son” occurs in John 3:16, which is in the King James Version as, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The phrase “only begotten” translates the Greek word monogenes. This word is variously translated into English as “only,” “one and only,” and “only begotten.”
So what does monogenes mean? According to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD, 3rd Edition), monogenes has two primary definitions. The first definition is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship.” This is its meaning in Hebrews 11:17 when the writer refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only begotten son” (KJV). Abraham had more than one son, but Isaac was the only son he had by Sarah and the only son of the covenant. Therefore, it is the uniqueness of Isaac among the other sons that allows for the use of monogenes in that context.
The second definition is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind.” This is the meaning that is implied in John 3:16 (see also John 1:14, 18; 3:18; 1 John 4:9). John was primarily concerned with demonstrating that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:31), and he uses monogenes to highlight Jesus as uniquely God’s Son—sharing the same divine nature as God—as opposed to believers who are God’s sons and daughters by adoption (Ephesians 1:5). Jesus is God’s “one and only” Son.
The bottom line is that terms such as “Father” and “Son,” descriptive of God and Jesus, are human terms that help us understand the relationship between the different Persons of the Trinity. If you can understand the relationship between a human father and a human son, then you can understand, in part, the relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. The analogy breaks down if you try to take it too far and teach, as some pseudo-Christian cults (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses), that Jesus was literally “begotten” as in “produced” or “created” by God the Father.