Sunday, July 3, 2022

Sermon: "A Good Worth Boasting About", 2 Kings 5:1-14/Galatians 6:7-16 (July 3, 2022)


What would you say is the highest good? What is the principle that’s most worth standing up for, whose pursuit leads to the best possible existence? Is it beauty? Wisdom? Maybe on this Independence Day weekend, you’d say “Freedom”. Actually, our founding fathers couldn’t decide on just one; they gave “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” all equal standing as far as the values upon which our budding nation would be built. Today, of course, there are plenty of different opinions in our country about which is truly the GREATEST good. Different groups have created entire identities around their consensus in this matter. For example, in American Christianity today, it seems that we’ve collectively agreed to “life” as being the good that we value the highest.

Now, certainly, life is, indeed, a great good. It’s one of the greatest gifts given to us by God. According to Genesis, our bodies are imbued with life by God’s very breath, the ten commandments clearly instruct us not to kill, the Apostles’ Creed celebrates the resurrection of the body, and Jesus spends much of the New Testament promising never-ending life to those who follow him. But if life were the GREATEST good, then that would make death unacceptable in all circumstances – and that’s simply, objectively, SCRIPTURALLY not true. It might make us uncomfortable to admit, but God themself commands God’s people to destroy their enemies on multiple occasions. God calls several people who had killed or been responsible for the death of others to important ministries: Moses, David, Jael, and even Paul. And let’s not forget that, by our own admission, the greatest act ever accomplished by our Lord was to willingly submit to physical death at the hands of those who would consider him their enemy.

I’m definitely not trying to endorse murder here, and I’m certainly not suggesting that death is a GOOD; I’m just saying that even in our sacred scriptures, death is not the unequivocal evil that we often presume it is, and that there are certain circumstances in which physical life is not the ultimate goal that God has in mind. It’s true that Jesus emphasizes life in his ministry, but he’s VERY clear that the life he promises is NEW life, with a resurrection body, one that cannot be destroyed. Our current existence is merely the faintest shadow of what’s to come. Yet still, we persist in the stubborn mindset that our current physical bodies are somehow the most holy thing about us.

Here’s the problem. Even though our current lives and bodies are, indeed, incredible gifts, God doesn’t place nearly as much importance on them as we assume. Paul spends a great deal of time in his writings disabusing early Christians of the idea that God is as concerned as they are about the religious regulation of bodies. You could even argue that, as the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” it was his primary responsibility. As we know, many early churches were deeply divided over the issue of circumcision – some Christ-followers were adamant that it was central to the new movement’s identity, and they excluded anyone who was unwilling to conform to their view (some things apparently never change). Hindsight being 20/20, we know now that there are much more important things for Christians to be concerned about than whether or not a person chooses to undergo this particular procedure. Yet again and again, Paul finds himself writing to the early Christian communities to redirect their attention towards more essential issues.

The people have become so overly concerned with their physical lives that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh, σάρξ (sarks), to refer to any behavior at all that distracts from the gospel. The language of the CEB translation sounds more natural to our ears than many others, but it obscures this important point. It has Paul writing about physical bodies as well as “doing things for our own benefit,” “selfishness”, and “human standards,” but in each of these cases, Paul is actually using the same word: σάρξ (sarks). He’s not suggesting that our bodies are bad or sinful. They’re a gift given by God that is, nevertheless, distinctly human in nature. For the early Church, bodies had become a serious distraction from their larger calling. Bodies are important, but when we privilege matters of the flesh high above matters of the Spirit, our priorities have gotten seriously out of whack.

What’s worse, though, is that we don’t only uphold matters of the flesh as the greatest good; we gloat about it. It’s not enough to pursue this perceived good quietly in our own lives; we insist on advertising our idolization of physical life, treating it as something that must be protected at any and all costs. We brag about the lengths we’re willing to go to in order to ensure its preservation, no matter how complicated the process, no matter how unlikely the life in question is to survive, no matter how much grief or pain it causes. We prioritize the survival of the flesh over all else, and we consider this sort of “life evangelism” to be our highest calling, the most important part of our faith, in direct contrast to what we learn from scripture. And in doing so, we detract from the ACTUAL gospel.

Have you ever wondered why Naaman gets so angry at Elisha’s instructions? As his servants point out to him, he had been willing to go to great lengths for a cure. And yet he’s prepared to return home having accomplished nothing over this perceived insult. The only explanation that I can think of is that Naaman is angry at Elisha for robbing him of the opportunity to boast about his flesh. He wants to demonstrate his own righteousness through the public restoration of his body – HE wants to be the focus of his healing.

Think about it: the slave girl says that he should go to the PROPHET, but Naaman goes instead to the king (who obviously can’t help him) with an absurd amount of wealth and a letter directly from his own king. There is nothing humble about Naaman’s actions. When he’s sent instead to a prophet (who refuses to even meet with him in person) and is given simple instructions that require neither fanfare nor dramatics, Naaman is furious. Elisha is willing to give him what he wants, but Naaman very nearly refuses it.

WITHOUT a public miracle, Naaman still could have used the healing as a chance to spread the Good News of God, to testify about God’s power and goodness and love. But that’s not really what he wants. He wants to be the center of attention, to demonstrate his own righteousness. Although he otherwise has plenty of things to brag about, he wants to gloat about his flesh. And Elisha cleverly takes that away from him.

Although we might claim that such boasting is for the glory of God, in truth, God has no interest in boasts about the flesh. Our bodies are something to be cared for and appreciated, but not idolized. It’s selfish, and it does nothing to further the gospel message. Instead, Paul insists that the only thing we should boast about is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ – the death that brings NEW life. God didn't send Jesus to earth for the preservation of life, but as a profound statement about transformative love. Love that doesn’t punish but forgives. Love that walks alongside people in their suffering and pain instead of condemning them. Love that's willing to sacrifice physical life for the sake of another. Love that brings a brand NEW life. Because, thanks to Christ, not even the realities of sin or death can separate us from the love of God.

THIS is what God considers the greatest good: not life, but love. The Church seems to have forgotten this somewhere along the way, but we should have known it all along – Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor, and he shows us, again and again, what that looks like. It looks like welcoming the stranger: not just those we don’t know, but those who are completely incomprehensible to us. It looks like working hard to remove the log from our own eye instead of obsessing over the speck in someone else’s. It looks like treating others the way we’d like to be treated in our most shameful moments. It looks like compassion and mercy first and foremost and always.

It means trusting that God has the whole world in their hands, and that there's nothing that our bodies can do on their own to either undermine or further the work of the kindom. It’s the love that we demonstrate through our actions and our words that brings heaven here to earth. We can’t show this love by adhering to strict rules and self-righteously trying to control one another. All we can do is make the best choices we can for ourselves and walk alongside others in love as they make theirs. This is what God asks of us. This is a good worth boasting about. Amen.

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