*A homily, originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Feb. 7, 2009.
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Kings 4:8-37
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
We are in the season of the Christian year between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. As we’ve said over the last several weeks, this season focuses on the church’s mission to make God known to the world.
How might this look? What are some of your initial impressions when you hear this? What sort of sense does this leave you with? We might think like this: We’ve got work to do. It’s up to us to make God known, so we’ve got to get some initiatives going. We need to make a plan, get organized, get motivated, get mobilized. We need to get everyone excited to evangelize, get some flashy lights, loud music, put up some banners, and come up with a slick motto that we can put on the marquee out front. And right when all the momentum starts to die and we get a bit worn out, then we’ll have to start using guilt as a motivator. “God did so much for you, the least you could do is . . .” It’s pretty familiar and we all know the drill fairly well.
But how might these passages re-shape, re-form, and re-configure how we think about our task of making God known to the world?
As a reminder, at Midtown we follow the church lectionary. We don’t focus on just one passage of Scripture, a method which has a lot of value—there’s nothing wrong with that at all. We focus on a number of passages set together, because often in comparing passages, there is a deeper Scriptural logic that emerges into view. We look across these texts, taken together, to note their contours and the basic shape that Christian discipleship is to take. And we’re always asking, “what are the ways of God with his people?” “What is God like, and what does he want from us?”
As we do that, therefore, with these texts, what is the Scriptural logic that informs how we make God known?
We can ask the question of our texts in this way: What does God require of his people, in calling us to make him known to the world? Our texts provide us with this answer: God wants his people to be needy, to be in the position of receiving from God, and from one another. We make God known to the world by being and becoming a community of weakness, always returning to the reality of our dependence on God.
Let’s see how this works in our passages.
The 2 Kings passage tells a very interesting story, and there is this wild exchanging of roles between Elisha and the Shunamite woman. Elisha is in the position of receiving from the woman and her husband. He’s been traveling and he often passes through Shunem, so this woman comes up with a creative way to provide him with hospitality. After regularly feeding him a meal on his occasional passage through town, she says to her husband: “Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”
Well, there we have it! We could stop right here and talk about how this is all about using our resources to come up with creative ways to meet concrete needs. After all, this is no small thing that this couple has done – they build a spare room and set it up nicely so that Elisha has a place to stay when he comes.
But that isn’t the point because the story doesn’t end there.
Elisha wants to give back to her, to repay her kindness, but here’s where the complications are introduced. Elisha’s gift creates both a blessing and a curse. Not only this, but there’s an obstacle: The woman is a giver, not a receiver.
Elisha inquires how he can do her good, but he is rebuffed. “I’m sorry, Elisha, you don’t understand, I’m the one who helps, not the one who receives help.” She says to him, “I live among my own people.” Translation: “I have no needs.” She’s very likely an upper-class woman who has resources and can make things happen. She’s decisive and strong, as she demonstrates throughout the story.
As it happens, Elisha finds out that she has no child, so he summons her and announces that she will have a son. But, surprisingly, the woman is resistant. “Don’t deceive me,” she says. It is interesting to note that she does not ask for this, we are never told in the passage that she actually wanted a child in the first place, and she never gives thanks to Elisha for the boy. I’m not sure that she’s at all happy with having received this gift from Elisha. She’s not comfortable having been put in the position of receiving a gift. She’d much rather be in the driver’s seat in a relationship.
As it happens, however, she bears a child. A son. And then tragedy strikes, as it does. That’s sort of how life is, and I wonder if this is the posture from which the woman is operating. I wonder if this is how she lives her life. If you never receive from others, you’ll never be hurt. If you withhold your commitment from people, if you never send out your heart, you’ll never experience tragic loss. If you’re only a giver, you can always be there when others have pain and loss, but you’ll never really have to experience it yourself.
But now she has a son. And over time she’s grown to love him. And the child dies.
Now she is in need, and she doesn’t like it. It’s worth asking whether or not she’s really pleading for her son’s life when she comes to Elisha. We are not told that this is her intention. As I read this story, I think she wants to “have a word” with the prophet. It may be that she’s angry at Elisha for putting her in this position of having lost something she’s come to love. Look at her words. She never asks for anything, but only scolds Elisha for putting her in the position of having to receive and then experiencing tragic loss.
What is interesting, though, is that having been put in this position of need, she embraces it fully. Elisha sends his servant to see to the situation back in Shunem. But the woman tells Elisha, “I’m not going anywhere unless you’re coming with me.”
Elisha is now again in a position of extreme need and he pleads with God, first through Gehazi, then through the extended process of bringing the boy back to life, which seems fairly drawn out.
All this is to say that the major characters in this story are all put in a position of weakness and need, both from each other and from God.
This reading of the story is corroborated by the other passages.
The Psalm runs along the same line – pleading with God. The psalmist is in desperate need and calls out to God, brings his complaint before God. This is also a sort of honesty before God that we’re not comfortable with. We often imagine that we’ve got to have our lives sorted out before we go to God, rather than just bringing to God our contradictions and complexities, our trouble and our turmoil, and dumping them before him.
We see this same logic revealed in the NT passages, but only if we look carefully.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul notes how it is that in his own ministry, he became all things to all people in order to share in the blessings of the gospel. Notice what he does not say. He does not say that he went to all people with the gospel. He did not go to the weak with the gospel. Look at his words. He became weak in order to share in the blessings of the gospel.
He does not say that he marshaled all his resources to bring the gospel to as many people as he could. That is exactly how we would say it if we were to put this in our terms. That is, if we were to tame the gospel and own it and pervert it so that it fits our own conceptions of how we make God known.
Paul did not become the dispenser of the gospel to various sorts of people. If he did, he would not be able to share in the gospel. This is a discussion of absolute and extreme sympathy. Paul went to people and became along with them a person who needed the gospel. For those who need the gospel, we must make ourselves people who need the gospel and receive it, and share in it along with them.
Notice that precisely the same pattern is at work in the Gospel text. The disciples are receivers from Jesus, and then they help others receive from Jesus. They are not in the position of power, they are not in the driver’s seat as they go with Jesus. In fact, it’s wrong to say that they first receive and then give, or that they first receive and then preach the kingdom.
Note the order of how things unfold. This brief episode begins with them being blessed by Jesus, as Jesus raises up Simon’s mother in law. She then begins to serve them. They then begin to bring others to Jesus, and finally it is Jesus—not Jesus and the disciples—who begins to go and preach the kingdom. They are with Jesus, but it’s interesting that they don’t become givers, they are recipients along with others.
So, what do these texts teach us about life in the Kingdom of God and the gospel?
The gospel is not a message that we bring to people. The gospel is not a package that we happen to possess, and which we dispense. It is a reality that is lived, and it is a gift that is received. And we cannot give it unless we are also at the same time receiving it.
Paul does not say that he wants to “share the gospel.” He wants to “share in it.” We share in the blessings of the gospel, we participate in the reality of the gospel and experience it only as we become weak and put ourselves in the position of being receivers. If we ever become the patrons, the ones who have arrived and are now deciding to bestow good gifts on others, we put ourselves outside the gospel and we do not share in it.
The gospel calls us all to become weak, to become recipients. We are called to tell the truth about ourselves and our situation. That we are often confused or depressed. That we are in need of help or rescue. We all need each other, and we all together need God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think that when we read the story of the Shunamite woman, we immediately identify with what she does for Elisha. It makes perfect sense. She gives! She builds a spare room! Wonderful! That’s the lesson–we need to be givers. We’re good with that. We’re not always consistent, but that makes a lot of sense to us.
And that’s good—there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think that especially for those of us who have so many resources, there’s a temptation to play to our strengths and not invite the gospel in to show us where God wants to heal and restore. We can become so used to providing for others that it becomes difficult to ask for help from others. It becomes difficult to admit that we’re in need and may need a break, or some help.
I don’t care to give our church a label, but if we are any “kind” of church, we’re a missional church. And the missional question is, “how can we help?” But we also need to be willing to say to one another, “I need some help.” And we, as a community, need to make sure that we as a church are always putting ourselves in a needy and receiving posture toward God. As Paul says, we need to make sure that we are always becoming weak so that we may partake in the gospel.
And this is what is meant by the collective prayer: “Set us free from the bondage of our sins and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” In this prayer, the gospel is revealed to us.
So, in conclusion, it is very interesting—and perfectly in keeping with God’s upside-down logic—that the way we make God known to the world is to make sure we are the kind of community where God is always making himself known to us.
We do not finally or exhaustively or completely know God. That is, we do not possess or own God, having him figured out so that now all we have to do is turn and pass him out as if we were handing out a product. The way we make God known to the world is to confess that we are the ones who need to repent from our strengths, who need to receive, who need to come to know the grace and goodness of God anew.