A Joyful, Unexpected, Liberating Surprise

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Dean J. Jayakiran SebastianRead the sermon preached by our new Dean, the Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian, at the Holy Communion service held at our Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel on September 5, 2012. The sermon reminds us that “the Gospel continues to be a surprise — a joyful surprise; an unexpected surprise; a liberating surprise.”

Among the many roles that I had played during my four years in seminary in Bangalore in the early 1980’s was that of the student mailperson or Postal Secretary. In those long ago days before email, instant messaging, and cell phones, please remember that the almost only mode of communication was that of the letter. One of the legacies of the British Raj, apart from the Railway network that crisscrossed the length and breadth of India, was the postal system. It was possible then, and even now, to send a letter from one end of the country to the other — from the icy reaches of the Himalayas in Kashmir in the North to Kanyakumari in the South, and from the remote jungles of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the far North-East of the country to the town of Porbandar, from where Gandhi came in the western state of Gujarat, for a couple of paise. Hence the daily arrival of the letters was an eagerly anticipated exercise — there was no mailroom nor as efficient a person as those who serve there. The regular postperson brought a huge pile of letters addressed to various people at our college and delivered it personally to a designated office secretary, who sorted out letters meant for the administration, faculty, staff, and students into separate piles. At 10:30 in the scheduled time-table there was a coffee break, and it was at this time that I climbed the many stairs to the administrative office, collected the pile meant for students and made my way to the common room and distributed the letters amidst a happy chaos of people reaching out and making comments on the likely writers of different letters, especially if it involved so-called ‘personal’ letters, and speculations of what the handwriting on the envelope revealed about the state of mind or rather feelings of the heart.

The postal service works best when the myriad rules and regulations are strictly and systematically followed — rules regarding the weight of the letters; the size of packages; things that can be sent through the post and things that are prohibitied; rules regarding sending letters or packages to different countries. I’m old enough to remember the complexities of sending letters abroad from India. Airmail letters were many times more expensive than domestic mail, and a special paper called “onion paper,” thin but durable, was developed, so that within the weight restriction one could write on more than one sheet of paper. Handwriting shrank to the barely legible in order to get as many words as possible on the sheet. Each letter was carefully weighed in the post office, and one let out a sigh of relief when the letter was placed in a balance, small and precise weights were put on the other side, and the weight of the letter passed muster. One of the very sophisticated machines that we have in our seminary is the one in our mailroom that has the ability (once things have been correctly programmed) to weigh letters and print out the e-postage stamp in one quick action. I’ve always been fascinated by this, but my mind takes me back to the dreaded balance in the Indian post offices! With all these rules and regulations in place, one wonders how the Post Office here has run up a huge deficit and I wonder whether there will be a new definition of how long a “Forever” stamp will remain valid. I say this because I was at an Alumni meeting at the United Theological College in Bangalore, where the then Bursar, the CFO, asked in the open session — “Can you please tell me how long life membership in the Alumni Association is valid?” He didn’t seem to get the point and looked perplexed when the Principal politely told him “till that person dies!”

Our lesson from Deuteronomy recalled a foundational event in the life of the nation — the reminder that statues and ordinances were given so that they could be observed and certain consequences would follow and outcomes could be expected; that following them diligently would set the people apart from those around them, since this “entire law” was just and proper. Things were clearly laid out; things where the boundary lines were set; things were one knew what was expected and required; things that were there to be followed; things that made the regularity of life and the routine of daily living manageable; things that spelt out religious requirements, duties, and responsibilities. No wonder that the writer of the epistle of James tells us clearly what to do — “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” The writer goes on to talk about “the perfect law” interpreted as the “law of liberty” and calls upon the recipients and readers of the letter to persevere, so that “they will be blessed in their doing.”

Our Gospel lesson stands within this great tradition of trying to understand what it is that the law requires. Jesus and his disciples are confronted by those who “know what it takes”; those who have acquired, after many years of study and meditation, the skills needed to interpret and understand the law. And these people, these guardians of all that is right and proper, are horrified at some of the things that the disciples were doing — they were showing bad table manners! They did not follow the purity rules and regulations! And this, at table, where lines had been clearly drawn for centuries, rather millennia, regarding what is good, correct, and appropriate. Jesus is not going to take this lying down — he issues a challenge: Is it the externals that are of greater importance or is it the being of the person? Were they getting bogged down in the minutiae that they missed the intention? Were they so concerned about dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s that they were unable to grasp the broader picture? But then didn’t Jesus himself say that not an iota and not even a stroke of a letter would pass away from the law (Matthew 5:18)?

Well — where does this leave us in our preaching of good news today? Where does this leave us as we try to understand the law and the gospel? Our Gospel lesson for today concluded with yet another list — a catalog of things, evil things, that “come from within, and they defile a person.” Yes — we find ourselves in this list; we find ourselves as people who have fallen short; as people who have failed to live up to the expectations that are placed before us; as those who have tried, some very sincerely and others rather indifferently, to be what we ought to be, to do what we ought to do. And yet, and yet, nothing that we try, nothing that we do, seems to suffice — time and time again we recognize that the standards are too high; the expectations too demanding; the requirements beyond our capabilities; the willingness to do certain things lacking; the motivation and the promise of reward not alluring enough. And so, do we give up? Do we say that this is not for us? Do we withdraw into our own individual understanding of what it is that we are capable of and what feels comfortable within our framework of living in a manner that suits us best? 

Well — the Gospel continues to be a surprise — a joyful surprise; an unexpected surprise; a liberating surprise. Just as the letters that I delivered all those years ago continued to surprise people in unexpected and often unanticipated ways, the good news surprises us with the freedom that it offers. We are those who are called upon not to abrogate or ignore all that the law and the rules and the regulations and the commands and the expectations and the demands place upon us. But we are those who are freed to recognize what all this means in practice. That just as we who have been convicted by the law are the same people who have been freed by the recognition that it is not the law that will define us; it’s not the things that we do that will make or break us; but that things have already been done for us; that in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we have been set free to become what we truly are — not creatures defined by the law, but those defined by the freedom offered to those who are the children of God, heirs of the Kingdom, and inheritors of the gift of life, life in all its abundance. And so, with this confidence and with this faith, let us rejoice in the power of the Gospel that sets us free to be the members of a new community, a community that includes all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds and ethnic and racial groups; people from a variety of social, economic, cultural, and national identities; with varying levels of educational competencies; yet not defined by the externals or the appearance, but by the one who looks into our hearts and welcomes us to join him around a table — a table where the law has now been transformed into a living presence; a presence that we experience every time we break the bread and lift the cup; a presence that enlivens, illumines, and enlightens us, a presence that invigorates our ongoing quest and our journey, a journey from life to life and beyond, a journey where we understand who we really are, for it is by God’s light that we see light (Psalm 36:9). And to this God be all praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.