One of the catchy quotes often thrown around in Christian circles is a phrase falsely attributed to St. Francis. It goes like this: “Christians must preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.”
While that’s sometimes used as an excuse to attempt to share the good news silently – a dangerous justification to keep our mouths closed or talk ourselves out of why each and every one of us has been given the job to tell others about the hope and healing and assurance and power that comes from faith in Jesus – it touches on an important, even central aspect of our lives as followers of Jesus.
Each of us who has been baptized is a part of the Body of Christ. That means that, wherever we are, whether it’s at home, or at work, or in the store, or lounging around the house, or having a beer and playing a game of crib with a buddy, or sitting around having a bit of a gossip – I mean, ‘catching up’ – with the girls, our task, your task, is to literally bring Christ’s presence to that situation. That’s your job. Some of us do it well, some of us need to improve, some of us do it consistently, or with one group of friends but not another, but one thing is certain: that’s the job you’ve been given.
We know and we believe that God isn’t far off, unaware or unconcerned with our daily routines and struggles. Jesus says in the Gospels that God is aware of every bird that falls, and notices each and every time a hair falls out of your head. Really, the whole message of Christmas is that God became human so that he would join to himself the full range of human experience, redeeming not just the good bits, but all of it – making himself present in everything from the carpenter’s workshop to the ruler’s palace, and everything in between.
Part of saying we are his body reflects our core belief that we don’t just come into this building to encounter Jesus for an hour on Sunday, but that our mission – your mission – is to carry Christ’s presence out into the world, doing that both with our lips and in our lives. That’s our job.
Food Sacrificed to Idols
Now, we’re not the first ones to struggle with that; each week we confess together those words and deeds “left undone”, not to let ourselves off the hook, but to acknowledge together that it’s an area where we need God’s help to improve.
If we turn back to our epistle lesson today, we see St. Paul addressing this issue of preaching the Gospel, of bringing the presence of Christ into the world through our lives.
Of course, having food sacrificed to idols isn’t part of our experience, so it requires a little bit of unpacking to get the gist of this important message.
In the Greek and Roman cities in which Paul was planting and supporting the Church, the prevailing culture had built temples to the various gods who represented human interests – like Zeus or Jupiter who represented kingship, Ares or Mars who represented war, conquest, and bloodlust, or Venus who represented passion and fertility. The expectation was that one would make a sacrifice to these gods for fear that they would retaliate and let your army lose in war, or cause you to be infertile, or cause your city to be overrun by enemies. Many of these temples functioned as brothels, with young women and young boys sold into their service as slaves. Now, obviously, these statues weren’t going to eat the meat sacrificed to them, so big side-business sprung up: you’d bring in sheep and goats and pigs and cattle, slaughter them in the temple in the name of whichever idol was housed there, and then you hauled the carcass out back, where there just so happened to be a butcher shop that always had a fresh supply and good deals on meat.
Now, of course, Christians did not participate in the temple rituals. When you know the one true God, when you see the power of the Risen Lord in your life and acknowledge his generosity in providing for your needs and offering hope and wholeness, no, you can’t just go along with the crowd and pretend to worship or put your trust in a statue made by human hands. And, of course, this came at great cost – it was at these rituals that a lot of the town’s business was conducted on the side, so you lost on our business and income, and at various points in history when temple sacrifices were demanded by the government to show support for the emperor or the army, you could be punished and many Christians died because they refused to bow down before a statue and call it their god.
But, the question arose: well, what about the butcher shop? No, a Christian can’t worship the idol… but where will I get my steak? Can a Christian go out back and pick up a nice cut of beef from the temple butcher? After all, if we know the statue isn’t really a god at all, what harm is there is benefitting from someone else’s idolatry; I don’t struggle with worshipping statues, I know it’s only in Jesus – only in God made man to sanctify humanity – that we can be saved from sin and death, so what harm if I go on living like everyone else is living?
But here’s the thing: your job, my job, is to make the Lord’s presence known, both with our lips and in our lives. We believe that when any baptized Christian goes somewhere, we’re bringing Jesus with us.
It’s not a question of rule-following; after all, right living, trying hard to be a decent person is really neither here nor there when it comes to our salvation: no amount of rule-following or right living will ever be enough to escape death. Rather, as Paul points out, the question is this: does me doing this help or hinder the message I’ve been given to share? Does the way I live my life help my words and deeds together show that there is abundant life in God; that in Jesus we can be forgiven even for those things for which we can’t forgive ourselves; that there is healing; that there is freedom – true freedom, not to do whatever we want, but freedom from being pushed this direction or that by desires or impulses; that there is blessed assurance and true peace as we learn God’s eternal plan and let go of the anxiety about what tomorrow will bring.
It’s about being mindful, because as those called to love our neighbours as ourselves, there is harm in benefitting from another person’s foolishness or bad decisions, not that we are to make up another person’s mind for them or take responsibility for their actions, but how can we speak words of healing, freedom, and peace if our lives don’t back them up? Rather, like St. Paul, as much as I enjoy a good steak, if that steak supports a pagan temple full of child prostitutes, then I should be quick and willing to give it up so that it doesn’t get in the way of the message we’ve all be given to share.
Now, you might be thinking: what does this have to do with us today? It’s not like Kaeser’s or Northern has a temple to Jupiter out back, at least not last time I checked.
But I want to suggest that we’re no less idolatrous today than the 1st century Greeks; if anything, at least they were honest about it. Our idols don’t live in polished marble temples, but there’s no less problematic. We make idols out of lots of things, but most of all, we make idols out of our image, idols built out of pride and pretense.
If anything, the church allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, and now we’re paying the price. The common person out there knows absolutely nothing about abundant life and peace and joy and freedom in Christ. No, our image – at least in some part because of us – is that church is dour and boring, that it’s full of people trying hard to be self-righteous, people who are anxious about maintaining a lengthy and impossible list of commandments, gathered to congratulate ourselves on how good we are: in short, the exact opposite of the message of forgiveness, freedom, mercy, hope, and peace that we are sent to proclaim!
No, rather, if we have blessed assurance, if we have a sure and certain hope that yes, while each and every person has missed the mark of obedience to God– man, woman, married, single, common-law, gay, straight, white, indigenous, and whatever other identity we pridefully cling to – all of us have hope only in the forgiveness offered by Jesus, that all of us have fallen short and need God’s help to find blessedness in imitating Christ more and more each day, that’s a message that frees us from trying to show how much we have it together, how composed and well-put-together we are, and instead gives us the freedom to proclaim Jesus as our only source of hope and strength.
That wonderful change in my life that’s been wrought since Jesus came into my heart should be one that the world can see from a mile away and causes them to say “I want that too!”. I want that joy, I want that ability to forgive as I’ve been forgiven, I want that peace, I want that freedom from trying to prove myself that comes from simply acknowledging the full extent of our faults and our total dependence on grace.
That’s the message we’re sent to proclaim with our lives. Not a list of good deeds, but a life freed from trusting in ourselves or our image or anything but God. A life freed to be present in the moment, to be truly thankful and make the most out of every little blessing that God sends our way, and a life that brings Christ’s presence out into the world, learning to be always ready to open your lips and be willing to simply name the reason for the hope that is in you – blessed assurance, Jesus is mine; God is faithful, great is his faithfulness; and he’s changing me, purifying the things I could never change on my own, to make me share more fully in his risen life.
We’re sent to proclaim the gospel, both with our lips and in our lives.
Be mindful of your choices – don’t serve whatever idols we find in our lives. Keeping your mouth shut about your struggles, about your own dependence on God and the help of others only serves the idol of self-image, and it’s a far bigger stumbling block than a piece of meat; those idols of self-image, whenever we pretend that we have it all together, whenever we act as though the church is a place one is born into rather than a hospital for sinners, we set out that stumbling block, preventing our friends and neighbours from hearing and seeing that forgiveness, hope, and mercy are available for them, too.
Let’s be a church where people see and hearthe wonderful change that God has made in our lives; let’s be a people who tell the hope of the Gospel with our lips and in our lives in such a way that people see, and glorify God saying, “I want that too!”.
To God be the Glory, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Yes, an over-simplification of the temple economy.