The First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 7, 2018
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,
2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
3 He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.
6 But someone has testified somewhere, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?
7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,
8 subjecting all things under their feet." Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,
9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,
12 saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."
We stood in the gift shop of Holy Trinity Monastery. The monastery is perched atop a pillar of sedimentary rock in Meteora, a collection of 14th century monasteries in the central region of Greece. While access to the monastery once required a barrel hoisted by ropes and pullies, visitors wishing to marvel at the ancient frescoes and panoramic views can now travel via a rough-hewn path and 140 stairs.
In this remote and somewhat obscure location, we stood in the gift shop run by sisters from a nearby convent, admiring miniature icons and home-made jellies along with two other visitors. The nun behind the register asked where we were from. When we told her we hailed from southeast Michigan, a town called Birmingham, one of the other men in the shop said, in a thick Greek accent, “Ah, we’re neighbors.” I looked at him quizzically. He was wearing a Detroit Tigers t-shirt, but he was clearly Greek. The man explained that he was from Farmington Hills, a town less than 10 miles from our home in Michigan. He was painting the frescoes for a new Greek Orthodox church there, and he was in Greece to show some of the parishioners the work that had influenced his own.
The conversation somehow came around to where we had gone to college, and it turned out that the other visitor in the shop, who happened to be an American, had attended college in the same town as my husband.
Four people in a monastery gift shop, in a remote part of Greece, all happened to be connected to the state of Michigan.
Our connection to geography was surprising to all of us and reminded us of our connections in Christ, who by the grace of God…taste[d] death for everyone. A Presbyterian minister, a Greek Orthodox iconographer, and a post-grad who was exploring his spirituality. Yet Jesus calls us all brothers and sisters.
That is the paradox we live into each time we come to the table of Jesus Christ, each time we celebrate the great feast of thanksgiving we call communion. The paradox that we are all so different, and yet we are all human beings, made “a little lower than the angels,” and also brothers and sisters of Christ. On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate The Lord’s Supper with Christians all over the globe, testifying to our unity in faith.
At a time when our country, and our world, is deeply divided, this is a radical rebellion against the anger and acrimony, mutual hatred and accusations, threats and insults governing our public discourse and shaping our society. World Communion Sunday is a testimony to the paradoxes that define our faith:
Humanity is hopelessly broken and also infinitely loved.
Jesus is fully human and also fully divine.
Jesus is the suffering servant and also the glorified savior.
The word paradox originates from the Greek paradoxos, which means, literally, “beyond belief.” Most of us are not comfortable with paradox, because we cannot believe that something can be one thing, and at the same time something completely different.
In the Confirmation classes I have taught over the years, the paradox of Christ’s dual nature has been a sticking point for every one of my students who chose not to be confirmed. They could believe in God. They could even come to terms with the Holy Spirit. But they could not believe a man could be both God and human. This is a paradox; it is “beyond belief.”
The 8th Psalm highlights more of these unbelievable paradoxes:
· Who can believe that infants, who are weak and vulnerable, are also somehow a bulwark against God’s foes to silence the enemies of God?
· Who can believe that God is sovereign, yet humans have been given dominion over God’s creation?
· Who can believe that humans are both totally insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, and “crowned them with glory” by God?
And the letter to the Hebrews presents us with even more paradox:
· The words of the prophets are still true and authoritative, and God speaks to us in a new way through Jesus
· God created the world through Jesus, sustains and redeems the creation through Jesus, and Jesus was part of that creation, a human made to be “a little lower than the angels”
· Humanity was given dominion over all things, and we see a creation totally out of our control (okay, maybe that one isn’t so difficult to believe)
· Jesus suffered and died, and he was crowned with glory and honor
· Jesus is God, and he is our brother
This stuff is all paradox, it is beyond belief.
The Christian faith is one great, big paradox of glory and humiliation, power and suffering, authority and servanthood, radical grace and radical obedience; an utterly majestic and cosmic God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. As Christians, we must accept paradox to accept the gospel.
Dictionary.com defines paradox as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.”
The truth of the gospel is impossible without paradox. If Jesus is not both human and divine, there is no gospel. If humanity is not both insignificant and deeply valued, there is no gospel.
It would seem, then, that Christians, of all people, should be more comfortable with paradox than the general population. But that would not appear to be the case. We may be able to accept a savior who is both humble and powerful, but humility in our human leaders somehow negates their power. We may be able to theologically reckon with humanity as both sinful and beloved, but in practice, we vilify those we have judged to be sinful and only love people who share, uphold and promote our virtues and values. We may, in theory, believe in a God who is both just and merciful, but in courts of law, and courts of public opinion, in church pulpits and church pews, mercy is viewed as weakness and justice is swift and driven by self-righteousness.
It is beyond belief that someone could be both patriotic and protest injustice. It is beyond belief that someone could be opposed to abortion and also supportive of women’s health. It is beyond belief that someone could support both capitalism and social welfare programs. It is beyond belief that someone could be a gun enthusiast and also support reasonable restrictions on gun purchases. It is beyond belief that someone could want what is best for both our GDP and our environment.
Humanity is a paradox. Our Christian faith tells us so. At the heart of the body of Christ is the fundamental belief in our total depravity and our absolute sacredness. So why is it so hard for us to accept this truth? That we are walking contradictions. That we can’t be slapped into boxes labeled “liberal” and “conservative,” “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” “#metoo” and “#himtoo.” Why can’t we believe that black lives matter and blue lives matter? Why can’t we believe in naming historical injustice and oppression and celebrating our heritage?
Because these things are paradoxes. They are beyond belief.
Who would believe that a man could be hailed and celebrated as a king, and only days later be crucified as a criminal? Who would believe that an all-powerful God would submit to suffering and death? Who would believe that life could come out of death, that hope could spring from despair, that eternal life could be experienced here and now? It is beyond belief.
An icon we saw again and again in Greece, which is found in the dome of most Orthodox churches, is called Jesus Pantocrator, Jesus “ruler of creation.” Without crown or scepter, Jesus is a ruler devoid of royal trappings. He wears an expression of love rather than one of superiority. In one hand, he holds the book of the gospels, representing the law, the justice of God. And with the other hand, he is making a sign of blessing, of mercy.
This is the Jesus, ruler of creation, who invites us to this table.
When we come to this table, we are stepping beyond belief. We are actively participating in paradox. We are believing beyond belief that ordinary humans can encounter and be united with a holy God in Jesus Christ. We are believing beyond belief that ordinary bread and juice can become sacred and facilitate this divine encounter. We are believing beyond belief that in all our divisiveness, we can be united in Christ Jesus.
We bring to this paradoxical experience the paradox of our individual lives. Our internal contradictions. Our brokenness and beauty. Our foolishness and wisdom. Our hunger and our riches. Because paradox is welcome here. This table is a place, an experience, beyond belief.
As we are nourished at this table, may this paradox transform us. Into people who know that justice must be paired with mercy. That power must be paired with humility. That the ugliness of sin must be paired with the beauty of love. May we be people of the paradox, transforming the world around us to welcome the reign of God, now and forever. Amen.