Sunday, May 8, 2011

Christ's Resurrection and You: Who Is Your Mother?

Texts:  Galatians 4:21-31; John 21:15-19

THERE'S A STORY ABOUT A little boy, maybe four or five years old, who goes Christmas shopping with his mother.  The store is crammed with customers, and he loses her in the crowd. The child looks around desperately.  He sees a woman with her back to him, wearing a blue coat.  Oh! His mother was wearing a blue coat!  That must be his mom!

    The little boy runs up to her and grabs her by the belt of her coat.  Whew, he's safe!  But she's busy and distracted and he can't get her attention, so he just holds onto that belt for dear life.  Eventually, the woman pays for her selections and makes her way out of the crowded store, the little boy in tow.  Out on the sidewalk, the woman notices the pull on her coat belt.  "Mommy!" she hears a little voice say.  She turns around-- and the child bursts into tears and wails, "You're not my mommy!!"

    Oh, dear.  We have to hope that if and when this happens in real life, the nice lady would take the boy back into the store and help him find his real mother.  But nice and helpful as she might be, as nice and helpful as babysitters and teachers and aunts might be, they are not your mother, they can never take the place of your mother.  A normal child knows who his mother is, and he looks to her for guidance, for teaching, for counsel, for nurture, for protection, and yes, for discipline.

    It's important for us children of God the Father to know who our mother is, too, for nobody and nothing can take her place, and only she can guide, teach, counsel, nurture, protect, and discipline us up to everlasting life.

    Trouble is, too often we children of God fail to recognize our mother.  We latch onto mother substitutes and follow them to spiritual disaster, even to perdition, if that could be possible for the elect.  As a Christian, it's important that you know: Who is your mother?

    This is the problem St. Paul confronts in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Galatians.  The members of the Galatian Church had forgotten who their true mother was.  You could say that the whole epistle is Paul is trying to wake this church up to the danger that's gotten them into.  At the very start he says

    Paul, an apostle-- sent not by men or from man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead--

Paul writes in the authority of the resurrected Son of God.  He speaks in the power of the gospel of Christ dead and risen again.  This is the gospel that gave us birth into new life with God in Christ.  In it we gain the freedom of God's household (as we read in the first part of Chapter 4).  This good news is "not from men nor by men."  For what human being could ever conceive of an actual living, breathing, walking-around personage dying, and then, all by Himself, under His own power, rising from the dead?    The resurrection put the final seal on the new covenant God had always intended to make with mankind.  It made good on all the promises the Lord made so long ago to Father Abraham, that through his seed all nations would be blessed.  The Holy Spirit Himself had enabled the Galatians to believe and accept that Christ's blood had been shed for them, and that now they were justified through faith in Him alone.

    All this was on their spiritual birth certificate, you might say, and yet now they were doubting their identity in Christ.  Maybe they needed something else to guide, counsel, and nurture them.  Maybe they should follow what those men who came from Jerusalem said, and be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses like good Jews!

    And Paul can only shake his head in frustration and say, "You foolish Galatians!  Who is your mother, anyway?"

    Which brings us to our passage in Chapter 4.  Here Paul compares two mothers, Hagar and Sarah.  You know the story from Genesis.  God promised Abraham a son from his own loins.  For years nothing happened, and Abraham and his wife Sarah grew older and older, till the time of childbearing had passed her by.  So Sarah and Abraham decided to help things along a little.  After all, doesn't God help those who help themselves?  They utilized a device prevalent among their Hittite neighbors, for a wife who was barren to give one of her maidservants to her husband to be a surrogate mother.  The child would count as the wife's own offspring and everything would be acceptable and legitimate according to the rules of  the time.

    You know what happened next.  Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, got pregnant and proceeded to make herself insufferable.  She pushed it so far that Sarah punished her and Hagar ran away into the desert.  But she returned and bore Ishmael, Abraham's natural son.  Then in God's good time, He miraculously enabled Sarah and Abraham to make a baby together.  As it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, "And from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore."  The birth of Isaac was literally life from the dead!  But Hagar and Ishmael didn't appreciate the wonder God had brought about.  Ishmael mocked and persecuted his little half-brother, and so it was the Lord's will that he and his mother be sent away. 

    As it happened, Ishmael fathered a great nation of his own, the Arab people, but in Galatians Paul wants us to see how these two mothers and their sons are metaphors for the choice we have to make.  Who is our mother?  Is it Hagar, whose son was born in the ordinary way?  Or is it Sarah, who bore her child from the deadness of her womb by the resurrection power of God?

    I'm still working away at the family tree for my mom that I mentioned last week, and for a time I had a certain 4th great-grandmother down as the daughter of her own sister-in-law.  That's what comes of having sons named after their fathers.  So how did I make that mistake?  I took the word of several different websites that said that Mary was Catherine's mother.  Never mind that the dates didn't make a bit of sense, that's what they all said.  And for awhile, I believed it.

    The voices of this world unite to tell you that Hagar is your mother.  Hagar is human effort making us acceptable to God.  Hagar stands for us making things happen in our own time and by our own effort, instead of being patient and waiting for God to keep His promises.  If you're nice enough, if you give enough to charity, if you follow the rules-- especially God's rules!-- He'll accept you as His child and take you to heaven when you die.

    To claim Hagar as your mother is to reject the power of Christ in His resurrection.  It's to reject Him as the fulfillment of all the promises made to Abraham.  The men who were travelling throughout the Roman world trying to convince Gentiles they had to be circumcised were known as "Judaizers."  Their goal was to make sure that good Christians also became good Jews.  They didn't realize or didn't care that the covenant that God made with Moses at Mount Sinai was only provisional.  That all the ceremonies and sacrifices looked forward to the slaying of the perfect Lamb of God on Calvary's cross.  And that now that He, Jesus, is risen, there is no more need for Gentiles to convert to Judaism to be pleasing to God. In fact, all Jews need to welcome Jesus their risen Messiah in order to be the chosen people God always intended them to be!

    Hagar represents the old covenant of Law, but Sarah represents God's new covenant of grace, shown to us in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  We, too, have been born by the power of the Spirit.  We, too, are children of promise.  We are sons and daughters of the free woman, Sarah, and we share in the inheritance of God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ.

    That is, if Sarah is your mother.  That is to say, if you accept that you are a child of God solely by His own life-giving power.

    In the same way, we must also choose whether our mother is the Jerusalem here on earth, or the Jerusalem that is above.  Remember that in the first century, Jerusalem was still the site of the Temple.  It was where the animal sacrifices were made.  It was where the men of Israel had to go to observe the appointed Feasts, like Passover and the Day of Atonement.  It was the heart of Jewish religious observance, the place where forgiveness of sins was to be found-- until the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As Jesus said to the woman of Samaria,

    "A time is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . A time is coming and now is when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth." 

    Now that Christ has died, risen, and ascended into heaven, the place of our worship is in heaven with Him who is Spirit and Truth.  It is our mother the heavenly Jerusalem, which is above, and is free.

    But does that mean God has left us motherless here on earth?  By no means!  For the Scripture makes it clear that the Jerusalem above represents the Church of God in all her perfection.  In Revelation 21 it says, "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband."  In Ephesians 6 we read that husbands should love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, . . . to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless."  The Jerusalem above is the perfection of God's covenant people, His Church, and if you are in Christ through faith, she is your mother.

    To many, that's strictly a Roman Catholic concept.  And really, we have to avoid the idea that "the Church" is just the pastors and the presbytery and the General Assembly and not all of us gathered here as the body of Christ Sunday after Sunday.  But even we Protestants need to recognise the Church as our mother, for it is to her that God has entrusted His Word and Sacraments, that through them we might be guided, taught, counselled, nurtured, protected, and disciplined.  John Calvin says in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, that "the Church is she into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9)": to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother. This was true not merely under the Law, but even now after the advent of Christ; since Paul declares that we are the children of a new, even a heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26).

And so our Lord Himself commanded the Apostle Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to demonstrate his love for Christ by feeding His lambs, taking care of His sheep, and feeding His sheep.  Whatever else the leadership of the Church does, they must make sure that saints old and new are constantly being fed with the pure milk and the solid meat of the word of God.  Following their example, we must all teach and encourage one another, loving and caring for one another for the sake of our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ.  That's the only way we can grow up to be like Him.  There are many who think they can be Christians on their own, without being connected to any visible church.  But the Scripture utterly denies that this is possible.  You are either incorporated into God's covenant assembly, or you are still out in the desert, clinging like Ishmael to the robe of Hagar your slave woman mother.  You are either miraculously born of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and incorporated into His body by baptism, or you are dead in your trespasses and sins.  You can seek your own spiritual food and starve, or be richly nurtured by the hand of the mother God has given you.

    Who is your mother?  Your mother is the new covenant people, sealed in Christ's blood.  Your mother is the assembly of the children of God, given new birth by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Your mother is the Church, the heavenly Jerusalem, the spotless bride that God has foreordained you to become.  Nothing can take her place.  Today and every day let us thank our earthly mothers for all they have done for us. But even more, let us thank and praise our Father in heaven for caring for us and loving us through His Church, our mother who is free. 

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

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