A Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, February 17, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Rev. J. Michael Strachan
We are St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, a Church on the Way. The metaphor at play in that motto or slogan is a combination of different biblical themes. Of course, Jesus is the Way, so we are a church who follows him. John the Baptist came proclaiming the Way of the Lord, and the Gospels tell us that the Way of the Lord is the way of the cross. We are a church who takes Jesus seriously when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The earliest name for the church recorded in the book of Acts is “the Way,” and we recognize that what we do when we gather together for to worship is something ancient and something rooted in the Bible. We are a Church on the Way within this complex metaphor of biblical allusions and theology. Of course, speaking about “the way” isn’t particularly new. The Didache, the earliest Christian document that doesn’t make it into the canon, begins like this. “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways” (Didache 1:1). The author of the Didache structures the book using this concept that there are two ways. The next verse begins “Now this is the way of life” (Did 1:2), and then a few chapters later we read “But the way of death is this” (Did 5:1).
This theme that there are two ways is not distinctly Jewish or Christian. It was commonplace in ancient moral philosophy, and there are parallels in the Islamic and Buddhist traditions. Nevertheless, even though this idea isn’t distinctly Jewish or Christian, it is a common theme throughout sacred Scripture. It is used explicitly in the very first Psalm, which we said together this morning. Psalm 1 speaks of “the way of the sinner” or “the way of the wicked” in contrast to “the way of the righteous.” Proverbs also speaks of “the way of the righteous” and “the way of the wicked.”
It could be that Psalms and Proverbs are merely using this common literary theme, but more likely they are expanding the concept of blessing and curse that we find in Deuteronomy. As Moses prepares for his departure, he says, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them” (Deut 30:15–20).
Jeremiah is picking up this same theme in our Old Testament reading today. He says, “Cursed is the person who trusts in humanity and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD. … Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD” (Jer 17:5, 7). A bit later he’ll say to the people explicitly referring back the passage from Deuteronomy, “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jer 21:8).
It’s within that context, the context of God’s covenantal faithfulness and our responsibility as covenant members, that we need to hear our Gospel reading this morning. Today we listened to the Lukan version of the Beatitudes followed by several pronouncements of woe. This pattern of blessing and woe is an explicit reference back to the blessing and curse of Deuteronomy, and it’s drawing on that same related theme of the two ways that we found in the Psalms, the Proverbs, and in Jeremiah. God sets before his people two ways. One leads to blessing and life. One leads to a curse and death.
The difficulty of teaching on this is that our instinct as human beings is to want to create a new law. We like things to be black and white and clear cut. What are your expectations of me? What must I do to perform well? What must I do to inherit eternal life? I could stand here and give you an answer. I could compile what the top Christian leaders of our day say you need to do and believe to be considered a Christian. I could make a checklist for you, hand it out today, let you start checking off boxes, and when it was wholly checked off, you could know for sure that you were on the way that leads to life. But if I did that, I would be a liar, and I’d be giving you something other than Christian truth. We don’t get a new law. We get the Spirit and the sacraments: baptism and the meal. And the sacraments are quite simply symbols of death. Baptism is where you die. The Lord’s table is where we remember Christ’s death and take that death into ourselves. And now we come to the great paradox of Christianity. This paradox is the fork in the road. It is is the stumbling block. It is the part of our faith the world cannot and will not understand. The way of life, the way of blessing, looks like the way of death, the way of the curse.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:20–23).
The way of life is the way of death. The way of the Lord is the way of the cross. The way up is the way down. You need to understand that if you asked from Old Testament times, how do you know someone is blessed, he would have said, “The blessed person is rich, never hungry, always laughs, and everyone speaks well of him.” Now Jesus pronounces woe upon those same people because the cross changes everything. It flips the world upside down.
So, if we are going to be a Church on the Way, we’re going to be a church on the way of life, on the way of blessing, but we must remember at all times that the way of life is the way of death. Or self-sacrifice might be a better word there. We must not forget that the way of the Lord is the way of the cross. And because the cross inverts the world, we must always remember that the way up is the way down.
Moses said, “I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life,” and the great irony of the Christian life is that to choose life means to choose the death, to choose the cross. May God help us as we follow him on the Way.