Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Normally, when someone talks about being God’s temple, they’re talking about moral issues: since our bodies are God’s temple, we should keep them “pure.” But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here. And Paul isn’t speaking to individuals, he’s speaking to the whole community of faith. You see, in Greek, the word for saying “you” is different when you’re talking to a group than to just one person. It’s kind of like how in the South, some people use “y’all” or “all y’all” when talking to a group, but “you” when talking to just one person. Paul is addressing the whole church in this section of the letter. His words could also be translated like this: “Don’t you know that all of you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all of you?”
So what difference does it make? What’s the difference between Paul talking to one person versus talking to the whole group? Christians in America tend to focus on our individual relationship with God—our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior. And that’s important … but the Bible focuses more on the community’s relationship with God. In Matthew 18, Jesus says “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.” In other words, God is most fully present when a group of Christians gather together to study, to pray, and to worship. Paul is talking about the entire congregation being the Temple together. He’s talking about the Holy Spirit dwelling within the whole congregation. When they come together, as baptized children of God, the Spirit is there in their midst. When the congregation comes together, Christ is working in them and through them.
Paul says it like it’s an obvious thing, something they should already know. But anybody who’s ever spent much time inside churches knows that it sure doesn’t always seem like that. Churches, you see, are full of people. Being committed to Christ doesn’t always stop people from being petty and sinful. There are hypocrites in church. There’s gossiping in church. There are people who are just plain mean. And sometimes even well-intentioned people who are genuinely trying to do their best have no idea the hurt they can cause others. When I talk to people who don’t go to church, often their number one complaint is the people in church: they just don’t seem like they’re following Christ. When you see people, warts and all, it’s hard to look at them and think that the Holy Spirit is dwelling in their midst. It’s hard to imagine that God is working even there.
And yet, the Holy Spirit is present. Even in the midst of human problems and doubts and conflicts, the Holy Spirit is there, whenever we gather together, helping to guide us and inspire us to be the people that God created us to be. The Holy Spirit inspires us to be the people Christ died to save, the people God claimed and chose as his own.
Today, we see the Holy Spirit at work in the baptism of Tanner David Jacobson. We will see Christ reaching out to claim Tanner as his own through the water of baptism, and we will see Tanner be marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. In this sacrament, the Holy Spirit’s work becomes tangible: we can see the water through which God is working, and touch it, and taste it.
But the Holy Spirit’s work in Tanner’s life doesn’t stop at baptism, and it’s not confined just to Tanner himself. It’s not even confined to Tanner and his family and godparents. No, what the Holy Spirit is doing in Tanner today involves the whole congregation. We, too, are baptized children of God. In the waters of baptism God claimed us just as God is claiming Tanner today. We, too, have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit works through this congregation today and always to support Tanner and all the children of this congregation, young and old. The Holy Spirit works through us to minister to one another and to the world. The Holy Spirit inspires us to love one another even when we’re not very loveable, because the Spirit teaches us how to love as Christ loves us. The Holy Spirit brings us together and inspires us to do God’s work in the world, spreading God’s love to all people.
Which brings me to another place the Spirit will be at work in Tanner’s baptism. Before the water is poured over Tanner, I’ll be asking questions. I’ll ask Tanner’s parents if they promise to live faithful lives with Tanner, bringing him to worship and teaching him the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, placing in his hands the Holy Scriptures, and teaching him to proclaim Christ through word and deed. I’ll ask Tanner’s godparents if they will promise to nurture Tanner in the Christian faith and help him live in the covenant of baptism. And I’ll ask you, the congregation, if you promise to support Tanner in his new life in Christ.
The Holy Spirit is working in and through those promises, just as the Holy Spirit works in and through all promises made in all baptisms—Tanner’s baptism today, and your own baptisms however many years ago they were. At every baptism, those promises are made. You made those promises as a congregation for every baptized person here. As God’s temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and calls and inspires you to support one another in life in Christ.
What does it look like, to support someone in their new life in Christ? Some things are easy to spot: teaching Sunday School is one way of supporting a baptized child’s life in Christ. Giving to Camp of the Cross so that child can experience God’s love and grow in faith amid the beauty of God’s creation is another way to support their life in Christ. When you strike up a conversation with a young person and hear their story, encouraging them to speak of their struggles and joys and sharing your own in return, you are supporting them in their life of faith by helping that young person see what a faithful life is like. No one individual can do all of that—it takes a whole community of faith to provide the support children need to grow in Christ. We are the temple of God, all of us together. Christ is the foundation, the cornerstone of our life together. And the Holy Spirit helps us build one another up in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.
And that support in the life of faith doesn’t stop when people grow up. When you build a relationship with a fellow Christian, when you are there for them in their time of need, you are supporting them in their life in Christ. When we pray together, sing together, read the Bible together, we are being built up in the faith. And we receive over and over again the gift of the Holy Spirit in so many ways. Yes, as sinful human beings we fall short of God’s plan for us. Yes, sometimes we follow our own sinful ways rather than the Holy Spirit’s call for us—even when in church. But even when we fall short, God sends the Holy Spirit to rebuild us into his temple. A temple not built with stone and brick and wood and sheetrock, but with love and faithfulness. We are built up with God’s love and faithfulness and light, and we are called to share that light and love and faithfulness with one another and with the whole world.
We are God’s house of living stones, built for his own habitation. We are built up together on the rock that is Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit. But no one stone can make up a building by itself. You need a lot of different building materials to make even the simplest building. You need bricks and mortar and wood and nails and screws and glass and shingles and wiring and pipes and insulation and a hundred other things. And they all have to work together to make a good building, or things will fall apart. In the same way, we as God’s people need one another. Each of us has a different role to play, a different thing to contribute to the whole, and our roles change at different points in our lives. Each of us is called by the Holy Spirit in different ways to give our gifts for the good of all. In order to be God’s temple, in order for God’s work to be done, we all have to participate as the Holy Spirit calls us. We have to support one another through good times and times when we struggle with our faith and even in times when it’s hard to remember that we are all children of God.
Today we welcome Tanner into that house. He’s just a small part of God’s temple, today, but that will change as he grows. And we are the ones called to guide and guard him on his path, to support and encourage him, as we are called to support all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, young and old alike. I pray that as Tanner grows, the Spirit will grow in him and in all of us. I pray that wherever Tanner goes on his faith journey, he will find faithful communities filled with the Holy Spirit to support him. Thanks be to God.
Guided by the light of Christ, who has been made known to the nations, we offer our prayers for the church, the world, and all people in need.
Holy and perfect God, you call us to share your word of love even when it seems like foolishness to the world. Make your church bold to proclaim our hope in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
You make the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all. Feed rich and poor, land and animals, with your abundance. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
You call us to the ways of justice. Lead all who govern in the path of justice, so that those in need will not be forgotten. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
All in need belong to you through Christ. Strengthen weary caregivers. Comfort those who are sick and in pain (especially). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Help this congregation trust that your Spirit dwells in us. Show us the way to be your holy people. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Sustain us, O God, until we gather with all your saints from every time and place (especially Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and martyr) in your eternal protection. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Radiant God, hear the prayers of your people, spoken or silent, for the sake of the one who has made his dwelling among us, your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.