Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on December 18, 2005
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Second Sunday of Epipheny
Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
January 15, 2006
Every so often it is good to pause and ask, "Why am I here?" I don't mean, "Why am I here on earth?" I mean, "Why am I here at St. Paul's?" Or perhaps, "Why am I an Episcopalian?" Or perhaps, even more fundamentally, "Why am I a Christian?"
I want to let that question hang in the air for a moment. It is not a throwaway question or one to be glossed over glibly. If you were born to a Christian family, as most of us were, you know how you became Christian. For example, you may know the historical reasons of how your ancestors became Christian. You were born into it. Baptism for most of us was not a choice. Baptism for most of us happened as infants. We don't remember going to the water, and had no personal choice in the matter. If you were not born to a Christian family, or were born in a Christian tradition that does not baptize infants, if you made a choice as an adult to become Christian, you may have a leg up on many as to the answer to the question that I want to leave hanging in the air: Why are you a Christian?
One of the answers to that question from years past was social. Folks embraced the Christianity to which they were born with varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm because it was socially advantageous to do so. One made one's way up in the world not just by working hard in the office, but by belonging to a good wholesome Church, too. There was a social and even economic payoff to being a member of a church. Churches were full. While those days are within our corporate memory, for the most part they are gone. In fact, in many ways, there has been a reversal. Among religion's cultured despisers are diverse types as members of academia, and captains of industry. Some liberal hippy sorts on college campuses, and some young upwardly mobile professional types may have little else in common besides a mutual disdain for church. Whatever the reasons, the mainline denominations are shrinking. With most of the compelling societal reasons for belonging to a church gone, membership dwindles. Folks prefer St. Mattress to St. Paul's. Yes, Western New York's population is shrinking-but churches are closing in New York and Boston, too. I remember an add in the New York Times a few years back showing a husband and wife sitting in bathrobes with steaming cups of coffee blissfully reading the paper and the caption read, "This is what Sundays were made for!" There has been a cultural shift. Sundays were once the Christian Sabbath, set aside for worship, now they are a secular Sabbath, set aside for relaxation.
So if you are here, you are here for a reason. Showing up in Church isn't automatic. We ought not take anyone's attendance here for granted-except perhaps the clergy and musicians! Why are you here? What compelled you to pass over sleeping in and reading the New York Times in order to be here?
There could be myriad answers for that question. There are levels of answers to that question. Some of us are here for the social life of this place-it is full of friends. Some of us are here because it is a church that our families have attended for generations. Some of us are here for the sublime music-either to hear it, or to perform it. Some of us are here because of the hospitality of this church-we welcome with open arms folks who may not be welcome in some other churches. Some of us are here because we just haven't thrown off the habit of going to church that we picked up in an earlier age. Some of us are here because we like an hour with our own thoughts in a beautiful place to help us collect ourselves for the week to come. For good or for ill, we all have mixed motives.
Whatever else we may be here for, it is my hope that many of us are here for the gospel-we are here because of Jesus. Good music can be found elsewhere. We all have circles of friends outside of church. There are other places that are hospitable and welcoming.
Why am I a Christian? Because God in Christ loves me. Because His love invites me into transformation. Because my human need and brokenness is being healed by the man from Nazareth. Because there is a balm in Gilead. I am a Christian because of what Jesus accomplished for me on the cross and by his resurrection. Because God has found me, I have found a treasure.
I am in Church on Sunday morning, because I can't be anywhere else. If a man finds a treasure buried in a field, he sells everything he has so he can buy that field. Here is where the pearl of great price is. I am so thankful that I have found this pearl, salvation, this treasure, that I must praise God for it. The soaring music of the Gloria is the song of a redeemed heart!
What has any of this to do with the passage from St. John that we heard proclaimed this morning?
For whatever reasons, that great treasure that we have in Christ is not immediately evident to folks outside our doors. They cannot tell what we have in here from out there. In a way, we have our light under a bushel basket. We know what God has done for us in Christ. We gather here to praise him, and to be fed by word and sacrament-and then off we go into a world that is in desperate need of the spiritual medicine that we have found and we don't mention it! When Philip tells Nathanael that they have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, his initial response is, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Even on the testimony of his two friends, Nathanael does not believe about Jesus. You might say-look here is scriptural warrant not to evangelize. Nathanael, who would end up one of Jesus' disciples was not convinced when his friends told him about Jesus, so we don't have to tell people about Jesus either! As clever as an interpretive twist as that is, I think it would be wrong.
When Nathanael doesn't accept what they are proclaiming to be true about Jesus, they invite him to see for himself. "Come and see," they say. Nathanael does, and is transformed from doubt to faith-because of his encounter with Jesus. Nathanael is able to say to Jesus, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" At the end of the day, Christ is the one who converts-Christ is the one who makes a new disciple. But Nathanael is able to encounter Christ because his friends invite him to come and see Jesus.
Why are you here? If you are here rejoicing because of what God has done for you in Christ-if you are here because you meet Jesus here and he heals you and makes you whole-don't keep this treasure to yourself. There is no shortage of seats at St. Paul's, and grace is abounding, there is no scarcity of the love of God. This is a treasure that will not be used up if more people possess it. Don't worry about that word so scary to Episcopalians-evangelism. You don't need to convert anyone, you don't need to threaten with hellfire and damnation-just invite others to meet Christ whom you meet here, just tell others about the treasure you have found here. And if they don't believe you, just say, "Come and see." Jesus will do the rest. Amen.
©2006 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York