Today’s first scripture is an excerpt from the 17th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, one of the most beautiful and interesting texts of the Old Testament.
Ezekiel is a priest who is trying to prepare the Israelites for what will be one of the most catastrophic events in their history. In the year 587 BC, the lands of the Israelites will be invaded by the armies of Babylon, Jerusalem will be ransacked, the royal house of David put to the sword, the temple will be destroyed and the people scattered, enslaved and sent into exile.
In the 17th chapter of his book, Ezekiel offers an allegory which explains how an arrogant and foolish political decision was the turning point for this disaster. The king will break a treaty with the Babylonians, attempt to form with alliance with the Pharaoh or the Egyptians, and in doing so will provoke Babylon to invade.
This is harsh for the Israelites to hear, because Ezekiel places responsibility for the catastrophe on the Israelites themselves, a reckoning he believes is necessary if they are to repent. Truth sets us free- all the biblical prophets insist on this and it is especially coming to terms with the hardest truths we refuse to admit that do the most to free us from our self-deception.
At the conclusion to Chapter 17 is the scripture passage we heard this morning.
The meaning is that though the Israelites have been cut off, indeed, cut down, by the terrifying events of 587 BC
In this respect, the surviving Israelites are like the “crest of the cedar tree” that Ezekiel is referencing. The Lord will take this remnant of a once great and now fallen tree and from it will renew its life. In other words, the Israelites, reduced and humiliated, will, through God’s power, be restored.
The events of 587 BC haunt much of the Old and New Testament. In fact, much of what the Lord Jesus has to say about the Israelites concerns the fulfillment of the promises and insights of prophets like Ezekiel. We know little about the events of 587 BC and their significance, which is one reason why there is a tendency for the scriptures to sound strange, even unintelligible to us.
The sages and saints of the Church have understood that the story of the Israelites from the Old Testament has a great deal to tell us about the story of the Church. And this is how we can try to understand Ezekiel’s insights. Coming to terms with our own complicity in events that have diminished the Church is what a prophet like Ezekiel imparts to us. Admitting the hard truth that if the Church is not flourishing, it is far too easy to blame someone else, rather than accept what we ourselves have done or failed to do, is a necessary crucible. And further, remembering the Church did not begin as a massive international institution with seemingly unlimited resources and unassailable prestige. How did the Church begin? It began small. And in every age, when through human wickedness the Church falters and fails in her mission, God preserves enough of what is good to assure that the Church continue.
It is most often through small movements, small communities, that the Church is reformed and renewed. It seems that this is God’s favored way of doing things- he can even take the seemingly diminished and withered Church that is the experience of so many, and from that remnant, make the Church bloom with renewed life and vigor.
The second scripture for today is an excerpt from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
The Apostle speaks about his body and our bodies and in doing so he makes a very important point about the Christian way of life- our bodies matter. But why does the body matter so much for the Christian?
Because it is the Body of the Lord Jesus revealed in his Incarnation that saves us; it is into the Body of Christ, the Church, that the Lord Jesus gives his way of life to us, it is the Body of the Lord Jesus given to us in Eucharist that sanctifies and sustains us, and it is the suffering bodies of the poor in whom Christ dwells that we serve the Body of Jesus himself.
Knowing Christ, encountering Christ is not simply a matter of our mind or our emotions, but of our bodies and it is through our bodies, practicing the Faith of the Church in worship, Sacraments and works of mercy that Christ redeems us all.
Christ reveals himself in a body, a body like our own and in our bodies that his salvation happens to us.
It is mistake to reduce our faith to having the right ideas or thoughts or having the right kinds of feelings- as if ideas and thoughts and feelings are all that it means to be a Christian. Christian Faith is about the significance of bodies, Christ’s Body, the bodies of our neighbors, and yes, even our own bodies.
This physicality of the Christian way of life is hard for many to take. Bodies are, after all, messy, often times non-compliant, and very difficult for us to deal with. A faith that is reduced to ideas and feelings is far less demanding than dealing with bodies. But the significance of the body is a non-negotiable necessity for the Christian for God in Christ has chosen the significance of our bodies. How so? By accepting for himself a body, a human nature, and through that body, living like us, a real, human life. In doing so, God made the body, our bodies an inescapable fact of our faith and a necessary route of access to him.
Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, testifying that it will always first manifest itself in what is small, like seeds sown, and as a particular example, a seed as miniscule as the mustard seed, which can produce an enormous plant.
Now, I know we Christians have a tendency to spiritualize the kingdom of God, thinking of it as being an otherworldly reality like heaven, but this is really a mistake.
Connect our first two scriptures with this Gospel: Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of an actual people in this world, the Israelites and St. Paul emphasizes the physical, bodily reality of our faith. And in his Gospel Christ speaks about a kingdom, a kingdom that starts small and has the potential to grow and grow.
This kingdom of which Christ speaks is a new kind of Israel in this world, a kingdom composed of real flesh and blood, of bodies. This kingdom is the Church and the Church has and will always start small, but it isn’t supposed to just stay small, because like the small seeds Christ references in his Gospel, the Church is filled with the potential to grow and grow and grow.
The Church is the kingdom of God. And the seeds of the Church have been given to us to sow into the world. The seeds of the Church are small, and as such, many Christians try to protect them, keeping them safe as if planting them in the world would mean they would be lost. But this over protectiveness simply results in a Church that never realizes its purpose and the life that the Church does have ends up withering away and dying.
The task of every generation of Christians is to sow the Church, to plant the Church in the world, that is, to facilitate the growth of the Church and in doing so bring the kingdom of God to life- not just in heaven, but in the here and now.
This task is not something that can be delegated away to religious professionals, it is the mission of every Christian. So, ask yourself now, because the Lord Jesus himself is going to ask each of us later, and our answer is going to matter more than anything else- are you sowing, planting the seeds of Church and helping the Church to grow? Or are you missing in action in the fields of the world or worse, tearing up what he has already planted?