It is good to be back. Vacation and Continuing Education were wonderful, and it is good to be back. I always know I can go away for a few days because Trinity is a community that keeps the home fires burning. It is not simply “you can survive for a few days without a pastor”; it is a sense of involvement in the ministry here. The feeding, housing, caring, growing that we do here is Trinity’s holy work. That phrase, “keep the home fires burning,” comes from actual work stoking the flames of the hearth.
When St. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, this work was a religious ritual in every home, priestly work in the service of the household gods. In the old days of the Roman Republic, this had a public equivalent. The sacrificial fires for the top ten gods of Rome were kept burning by a group of priests called the flamines. The flamines fell out of use in the later republic, but Augustus revived the priesthood and established flamines in many places. Augustus also created a new religious order, the Augustales, freed slaves tied to Augustus and the gods he claimed as his ancestors. You could advance in Corinthian society through faithful service to these public priesthoods. (If you got appointed flamine you had made it.) Moreover, the city of Corinth was built on loyal service: Julius Caesar founded the city in 44 BCE by giving the site to some of his most loyal army veterans. Its identity persisted into St. Paul’s day—Corinth was a city built on hard, faithful work being rewarded by the state.
Rewarding hard work gives Lutherans trouble. On the one hand, we can be so concerned to speak only of justification by grace through faith as to reject all work. (Anything you do could be an attempt to impress God; best not do anything.) On the other hand, we have our share of the Protestant Work Ethic, that belief that God rewards our middle-class lifestyle by maintaining our middle-class lifestyle. We Lutherans are forever pulled in both directions: maybe I should work hard and God will reward it with a middle-class life, or maybe I should wait and let God do God’s thing. Take our response to that staple of Protestant worship, the Invocation. We don’t have one in Lutheranism. Most Protestants do. Having worked hard for Augustus and the Empire and having conformed our lives to the market’s expectations we build houses of worship that reflect our tastes and values and then for a short while on Sunday morning we invite God into our space, that we control. Lutheran worship doesn’t have an invocation, and there’s a good reason, but in practice our reason is usually that we don’t want to ask God to show up, lest the Lutheran secret police arrest us for being works righteousness operatives in disguise. We still want to consider this our space.
In our space, God is the guest. It’s like having your in-laws over to visit. They can come over but it is your house and they should behave. If at some point they drive you bonkers you can retreat to your room or schedule an emergency at work, and eventually they leave. In today’s texts, God is not the guest; we are. It might escape our notice in 1 Corinthians since we’re just reading Paul’s “hello,” but Paul says to these people in Corinth who believe they’ve earned a higher station through hard work, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” We didn’t invite Christ over for Sunday brunch; Christ invited us over for the foreseeable future. It is more evident in John. The first two disciples don’t invite Jesus into their hearts for a few minutes of warm fuzzies; they ask, “Where are you staying?” He says, “Come and see.” And they came, and saw, and remained.
This is more like visiting the in-laws. It’s never really your space. Even if you make yourself at home, it’s just a little disorienting and dislocating. So we don’t have an Invocation here, because this is God’s space. And while the décor fits our taste, it is rather odd. We locate ourselves in the space in relation to a bath at which we joyfully claim to be drowned; to a table from which we proclaim our dangerous memory that when God was a man he was murdered; to a book from which we read of God’s faithfulness to the marginalized; and to people in white gowns and fancy vestments who are charged with holy work…and are still just people. Sufficiently dislocated and disoriented, we recognize that Christ owns the space, Christ has made Trinity able to do the work, and Christ is the one for whom Trinity works.
Christ makes our work for Christ possible. I’ve mentioned it’s not always evident to us Lutherans, but it is not always evident no matter who you are. Our First Reading today marks a turning point for Isaiah the Seer. It involves our old buddy Cyrus, again. I’ve picked on Cyrus a lot, lately, mentioning how some evangelicals say our President Elect is Cyrus, saying Christians don’t worship Cyrus, and so on. Well, Cyrus is here, again. Before the Exile, the biblical historians believed that God rewarded good and punished bad. The Exile must be punishment for some terrible sins. Cyrus was a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, God was going to fix everything. Israel couldn’t possibly atone for what it had done, but God could, and God sent Cyrus the Messiah to free prisoners and rebuild the towns and the Temple that Babylon had destroyed.
Cyrus has not lived up to expectations. This should surprise no one. Twenty-four years ago, finally baby boomers and hippies would make the world one big love in now that the Messiah was in the White House. Sixteen years ago, Christian values would finally rule the earth now that the evangelical messiah was in the White House. Eight years ago, the Messiah ended racism by moving into the White House. Yeah. Isaiah the Seer realizes that Cyrus has given him what Cyrus is gonna give him. Maybe he threatens never to vote again. Maybe he goes to his room and listens to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on endless repeat. But he discerns that the work is still there to be done. The people are still in Exile and the towns are still in ruins. Maybe God wants him to do it. Maybe God wants Israel to do it. Maybe Cyrus has removed Babylon—in effect removed the guilt of Israel’s Sin—so that Israel can be God’s people doing God’s work. So it is with Christ for us.
Christ makes it possible for us to do God’s work because Christ takes away the sin of the world. Sin is what makes work and faith such a difficult thing for us. We find ourselves in that bind over exactly how much we work following God because Sin fouls up the whole thing. God says, “Love your neighbor”; Sin says, “but who is my neighbor?” God says, “Care for creation”; Sin says, “That’s a really good rule for someone else to follow.” God says, “Trust me”; Sin says, “Nah, you’re just some guy.” That is all Jesus is when John the Baptist points to him the first time: some guy. We don’t even get a description. The other gospels call him the son of a carpenter, which gets us all excited for a rags-to-riches kind of story. Not John. In John Jesus is entirely nondescript. When the Baptist points and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” everyone looks around in silent bemusement. “Who? That guy!?” The Baptist has to testify again! “No, seriously! God said the one the Spirit descends upon is the One. Look, I didn’t pick this guy! God did. I swear!” And Jesus takes away the Sin of the World.
There is no verse in which that is narrated, here. We just know that yesterday John pointed to Jesus and everyone said, “Who? That guy!?” and today John pointed to Jesus and two disciples followed him. They were able to see that they could trust him, not because they were so great and insightful or because Jesus had a huge sign on him that said TRUSTWORTHY, but because Jesus took away Sin, which said, “That’s just some guy John pointed to!” So he brings them to his space, where he is just some guy…and also God. A space where they are never quite at home, always slightly dislocated and disoriented. A space where they can do their holy work because Christ eliminates the sin that would keep them from doing it. It’s ongoing; it’s not “one and done.” Every day we get up, and ask God to forgive the Sin that still surrounds us and infects us so that we can follow God. And every day, Jesus sends the Sin away, so that we can stir the embers of the home fire: caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, naming the systemic sins we see, and proclaiming with John the Baptist that the Lamb of God takes away the Sin of the World, and makes it possible to do the holy work of God.