“The Scandal of Particularity”
by Fr. Blake
The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, in St. Louis, Missouri. This was my first Sunday back from Maine, and was also the day after July 4. St. Louis’ Independence Day celebrations this year were held very close to church in Forest Park, owing to construction near the Gateway Arch.
Collect: O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
One of the characteristics of the Christian religion is something that’s often called, “The scandal of particularity.” Maybe you’ve heard the phrase before. Essentially, it means that our religion is fundamentally tied to the particular: not lost in abstract concepts, but deeply concerned with material things, and their spiritual import.
In our Bibles, God reveals himself to particular people at particular times, using a particular language and specific human beings. Why is this a scandal? Because many people are troubled by the task of having to translate through time and space. Others are troubled by the implication that God’s truth has not always been universally accessible. Still others think it’s unfair that certain people and nations throughout history have been considered special enough to receive God’s word. The scandal of particularity is a real scandal, and it’s worth spending time wrestling with it.
There are lots of positive implications too, though. Even if you or I don’t feel especially spiritual on any given day, we can still approach God through the spoken words of our common prayer; through our conscious decision to love our neighbors; even through the contemplation of creation, and all God’s many wonderful works.
Best of all, it means we can rely on the fact that God is really, actually interested in the hum-drum of our daily lives: because that’s the way he has chosen to reveal himself, through the small, unimportant actions of everyday individuals in everyday places. First with Adam and Eve, and Noah. Then with Abraham and David and the whole people of Israel. Then with Jesus’ incarnation, the apostles, and the whole church around the world.
Christianity begins with the particular, with each individual listening to God and obeying his voice in the nitty gritty of their own daily lives. And because it begins with the particular, our task as Christians is to love and obey God in the particular too. One of the great principles of Christian theological ethics is set forward by St. John, the beloved disciple: we cannot claim to love God whom we cannot see, unless we first love our brother whom we can see. We begin with our families, our neighborhoods, and then our cities, our states and nation. This is Independence Day weekend, and it is a good and Christian act to celebrate our country, and to give thanks for all the good things God has given us.
The realm of the particular is not always easy, though, and that’s why I suspect some people prefer their religion to be abstract, full of noble principles but divorced from day-to-day living. It’s not always easy to love your family, or your country. But in those moments we struggle to do it anyway, and that’s where we learn things like discipline, and long-suffering, and the need to ask for forgiveness.
The scandal of particularity, and the difficulty of loving one’s particular setting, are both in the background of today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has preached and cured the sick all around the Sea of Galilee, but now he returns to his home town, to Nazareth. He preaches in the synagogue there. His home congregation is less impressed than they are envious, and they are offended by him. In St. Luke’s telling of the same story, they are so enraged at him that they drive him to the edge of the ridge on which Nazareth is built, and try to cast him over the side. But Jesus escapes and goes on his way.
Here is the scandal of particularity in microcosm. Jesus himself is the incarnate Son of God: the second person of the Trinity, in human flesh, come to a specific people at a specific time and place. His healing miracles and his teaching, even in the particular setting of his hometown, are rejected. Later, he will be rejected by his home nation, as its chief priests and officials conspire to have him executed.
On the face of it, it looks like failure, and the end. But in today’s Gospel, fresh from defeat in Nazareth, Jesus sends out the disciples two by two, to do the same miracles that he was doing, in the same manner, with the same sermon. It’s almost as if Jesus’ rejection makes him double down on his whole project, and renew his efforts.
Why? Why is Jesus so unbothered by rejection and failure? Especially when the whole mission seems to be to these people, at this time? Partly because it was his mission to die for their sakes and ours, and not to convince them of any idea or policy. But also because, while Christianity begins with the particular, it does not stop there. It carries on, through the particular and earthly, to the heavenly and eternal.
Jesus preaches and heals in his own time and place, in first century Galilee and Judea. But he also inaugurates a kingdom which transcends it. All of us who are baptized into his death and resurrection are citizens of that kingdom, even while remain citizens of our own nation. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we are one people with persons of every language, tribe, and nation. We rejoice together in the victory of our God not over foreign states, but over sin and darkness, disease and death. We long for that kingdom’s final consummation, when God will wipe away every tear from every eye, and all shall be at rest in the perfect freedom of his service.
In the meantime, we are all dual citizens: of our own country, and of heaven. If sometimes we experience a little strain at the tension between them, well it’s no wonder. One belongs to the here and now, on an earthly timeline, with an earthly trajectory, and earthly agendas. The other belongs to the eternal glory of God, on a spiritual timeline, with a heavenly trajectory. What we are now is not yet what we shall become in the grace of God. But where we are now is where God meets us, and begins to draw us, with all our various duties of love to family and nation, into his kingdom.
In a few moments, we will come to the holy communion, to the Lord’s supper. In this Sacrament, earth and heaven meet: the scandal of particularity, and everything nitty and gritty about our lives; our families, our neighbors, even things as common as bread and wine. These are taken up in the prayer of the whole church and transformed by God into instruments of grace, emissaries of his heavenly kingdom to the here and now of our lives. Every time we make our communions heaven and earth are brought a little closer together, and the glory of God shines all the brighter in our lives, wherever it is we are.
What am I trying to say? First that, on this July 4th weekend, we should give thanks to God for our nation and for each of our communities, knowing that it is in the particular moments and duties of our daily lives that we know the love of God. Second, that God makes his love known to us in this way in order that we might be made citizens of his heavenly kingdom, even while we remain citizens of our earthly nations. And finally, that in God’s economy he has given us gifts of grace whereby heaven and earth are knit together, and we enjoy even now a foretaste of heavenly glory. May this taste strengthen us to do the work we are given to do, and become the people we are created to be, now on earth, as it is in heaven.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.