The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the Festival of St Andrew, Apostle, 30 November 2020.
We’ve got rights responsibilities! (Ezek. 3:16-23)
Grace, mercy and peace to you all from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
So here we are. We are here with Jesus. Following Jesus. We have exchanged any rights we think we have for the privilege of being His disciples. Those first disciples, when hearing the divine call, didn’t calculate the costs and benefits. They just followed. Yet with the privilege of following Jesus came lots of responsibility—as a prophet, an apostle: not just comforting but also warning others.
It’s not clear to me the extent to which the notion of human rights is helpful language for Christians these days. Both liberal and conservative Christians that care about matters of social justice may be shocked to discover that nowhere in the Bible are inalienable individual rights confessed or secured. You will find something even better: the idea that God considers people so valuable to Him that He would have us people treat each other as gifts to one another. And so we have responsibilities towards each other.
It seems to me that a kind of communitarianism was more prevalent in the ancient world, and precedes the US Bill of Rights. Communitarianism, to be distinguished from communism, doesn’t necessarily place the value of the group over the individual, which is certainly a concern in societies where Christians are increasingly in a minority. Instead it conveys that dignified human beings don’t simply approach each other in terms of rights. Rather we have duties towards one another. That instead of having a right from other’s involvement in our lives, we owe each other care.
Certainly, rights are easier to deal with. Keeping people away from me. Responsibility is about your obligation to get involved in other peoples lives, in spite of whether or not they think its your business! One social consequence of the current pandemic climate—suspicion towards our neighbour, for his very proximity to me may be a cause of hurt (he may be carrying a dangerous plague)—further cultivates an unhealthy atomistic view of society. God considers community in a much more positive, healthy and organic way. We are a body. When one part hurts, the whole thing suffers. This means that for pastors, who are to father spiritual families, it is their business how their people live, think and believe.
By embracing the language of “rights”, we Christians have shot ourselves in the foot in the public square. We have all but lost the abortion debate. For instance, in the eighties, Christians approached sanctity of life issues by fighting for the child’s “right to life” instead of society’s responsibility to protect the life of the innocent. But now, even when many of the medical community and feminists concede that the fetus is human, and may even have certain rights, it has become a competition between which right trumps which. Considering that the mother lives longer and has more to lose in life, means her rights matter more. By buying into the world’s way of thinking, we have let it define the rules of discourse and we have failed in defending a public space for debate that includes Christian values and Biblical ethos.
Another example: a culture of rights drives the idea that one is entitled to determine their own gender, in spite of it being physically destructive, and scientifically and metaphysically insane! Today, even children prior to the age of consent have a right to choose to destroy their lives with puberty blocking hormones and “sex change” operations, and parents are commanded to stand by and watch, or suffer the removal of their offspring from their household. What was once considered to be child abuse and drug abuse is now celebrated as beautiful and progressive within the sphere of inalienable human rights. I have a right to be—irrational and self-destructive? May God rescue us from these absolutely devilish ways. I even have a right to kill myself; Euthanasia: We don’t want God to have that which he so graciously purchased with His blood. We’d rather steal our bodies from Him by not only despising the sex that he has gifted us with, but by determining the duration and “usefulness” of our lives. Yet thanks be to God that He is insistent upon invading our alleged “rights”, and out of love. Jesus doesn’t ask our permission when He pays the price for the sins of every single human being by choosing to give His life on the cross. As a compassionate father, we could even be so bold as to say that God feels rather obligated to save us from ourselves.
In our Old Testament lesson, God commands us to get involved in other people’s business, out of love (God cares about us more than any rights-based language could possibly allow). And so He tells us to warn our confused, blind and deceived neighbours of the coming wrath. We find God’s love is so strong for the ones who have wandered away, and for their salvation, that He threatens severe punishment for our neglect to get involved in their lives, by failing to warn them about the coming judgement now and at the end of time. When pastors practise closed Communion and church discipline, it is out of care for their neighbour, though others may find them mean or meddling in spiritual affairs that aren’t their business.
Yet this responsibility to warn others isn’t limited to pastors alone. It’s the job of every Christian when they encounter sin or injustice. When we do, we are compared to a “watchman”. These citizens were gifts to society. They warned others of danger, protecting them from threatening enemies.
So too you are a gift to those in the church and state when you confess and speak out and up. It’s often the most loving thing you can do. Yet, unlike the Ninevites who repent and turn and are saved when they hear the prophetic message, most unbelieving people despise, rebuke, and attack faithful pastors and Christians when they don’t like what you’ve got to say. Yet sometimes we are pleasantly surprised.
Its never comfortable or popular, following Jesus and His Word. (Honestly, as fellow citizens, we haven’t done a great job.) We are good at talking amongst ourselves, but we Canadians hesitate to breach controversial subjects with others. We don’t want to jeopardize friendships. We are already labelled as “fanatics”. We would rather blend in with the crowd.
Sometimes its easier to believe that we aren’t being persecuted for our faith. Early on in the pandemic, Christians of all denominations refused to believe that threats to close churches—even if there is some common sense from a secular point of view to do so—was persecution, that it was ridiculous to suggest that this global crisis was part of a broader demonic conspiracy or divine judgement. Yet even though our PM isn’t personally plotting against our church, it is still spiritual persecution: to forbid worshipping together, even if the law has good intents. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Do we—like St Andrew, who didn’t count himself worthy to die like Christ, so insisted on an X-shaped cross—do we count ourselves as unworthy to be Christ’s disciples? So why are we not a little less reluctant to amend our worship and practice at the first hint of resistance. By tolerating the notion that the church doesn’t provide “essential services” we have failed our unbelieving neighbours by increasing their doubt that what we have go to say to them is more important than anything else; a matter of life and death.
And yet we are still here. Christ hasn’t come back yet, which means that there is still work to do while it is day. And because God is patient, He hasn’t given up on us either. To the contrary, Jesus forgives you and me our sins, washes us clean from all of our failures, and takes away all of our greed, and sends us out again and again to take on the tasks set before us, loving the people entrusted to our care. Jesus still died, knowing full well that we would be reluctant to do the same. The punishment which we deserved has been willingly taken upon Jesus Himself as the atoning sacrifice; Jesus, who never hesitated to warn. In fact, what He warns against is absorbed into His own Body and Blood, given and shed for you. He is the propitiation for our sins. He takes our place in the divine courtroom and saves us from the coming judgement. Even when churches have closed their doors, it hasn’t stopped pastoral ministry, nor His kingdom, from coming. His will is still done.
If anyone had a “right” to be silent, to leave us alone, it was Jesus. Instead, He takes responsibility for us, He speaks and He offers humanity the greatest act of compassion, mercy, through the forgiveness of sins. That was His chief task. And that is your chief task too. To forgive.
So Here we are, equipped by the Spirit, empowered by God’s Word and sacrament, enabled again by His grace to both warn and forgive, even suffer and die. In this building. In this life. In this service. For that is what hearing the call and following Jesus means. By counting ourselves unworthy to suffer like Christ, embracing our X-shaped cross, by speaking the truth in love, we are continually revealed as His disciples who behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.
The peace that passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.