A friend of mine used to have a guilty pleasure. He loved soap operas so much that he recorded them while he was off at work during the weekdays and watched them all at once over the weekend. One of his favorite programs was a rather short-lived one. It was very bizarre, camp, and an acquired taste, sort of like Dark Shadows was back in the 1970s. This particular show did not gain a big enough rating to last with its fan base never quite the size of the handful of soap operas that still occupy the early weekday afternoon time slots. The show’s title was particularly memorable, pure soap opera magic: Passions!
In the epistle reading today, we encounter early Christians talking about what matters and what does not for the faithful Christian. What does it mean to follow the ways of Christ versus the ways of the world? Part of the answer is found in how well we deal with the part of our lives that soap opera writers go to for inspiration: passions!
Passion can be understood a variety of ways, and let’s just settle up front that the sermon will not veer off into anything above a “G” rating. Positively, passions can be understood as healthy ways of expressing oneself. You could claim a passion for an ideal, a relationship with another, or even a basketball team. The negative understanding of passion is what this epistle’s addressing, those things that may be great, feel great and yet you find yourself distracted or even addicted to the point you’ve lost your bearings.
There’s a British phrase I’ve loved (indeed, feel quite passionate about) for years. When somebody’s thought to be quite mistaken, it might be said you have “lost the plot”. The phrase helps here, as we see ancient Christians wrestling with some of the same stuff that bedevils Christians today. We have passions of varying forms, some healthy and some unhealthy. The epistle aims to hand us a compass, drawing us from those places where we falter or fail, or when we wander or gaze off in the wrong direction.
All of us struggle with issues that drive us to distraction or tempt us to stay off the path indulging ourselves. The plot to find or rediscover is fairly straightforward. The epistle writer reminds the Christian reading this letter that God brought Christ into the world to save us from ourselves. We could not do it alone. Only with Christ can we find wholeness. Our unhealthy passions try to fill those gaps we know to be within us, yet it is Christ alone who shall bring us to the peace we desperately seek. The epistle claims, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
Keeping to such a plot as the one to follow is part of the Christian’s calling. Even though we had nothing, God gave us abundant mercy, great love and gave us life when Christ came into the world, and we invited Christ into our lives. The plot of Christ at work in our lives is what keeps us on good pathways. Christ brings us to the fullness of life.
Such a hopeful vision for faith brings up an old question from back in seminary studies. The theology professor was fond of speaking to her Baptist upbringing in the South, where she said faith was often framed in terms of the question, “What are you saved from?” In other words, Christian belief and discipleship (what we believe and how we live those beliefs out) could be woven around questions of heaven/hell, good vs. evil, and whether or not you would be on the right side of things when a time of reckoning (or since we’re a month out from April 15th, the “final audit”) is at hand.
Christianity can explore this line of questioning, though certain types of Christianity seem to be in this mode of questioning without looking beyond much else. We can make faith just about keeping on the straight and narrow and looking over our shoulder, wondering if we’re being watched. Perhaps a gentle nudge to this question is helpful. Instead of pondering, “what are we saved from?” so much, the Christian might find it more helpful to ask, “What are you saved for?” Looking for the faith that saves us is part of the Christian journey. This is only part, as the gospel calls us to be in service, to live out its message and to share it in word and deed alike.
Back at the seminary, I recall the cornerstone of our seminary’s main administrative building. Though the spring and summer flowers in the garden planted in front of it sometimes obscured it, you could see that the cornerstone was not just a date or even with text written in English. Instead, the cornerstone had words inscribed in Greek: “For Christ and the Church”, a motto the seminary valued. Such words described what the seminary existed for as well as what the seminary aimed to do: train persons to serve “for Christ and the Church” in ministries and mission fields near and far.
So it is for the epistle to the Ephesians. Our faith calls us away from those things that draw us away from God and the good way of life toward something greater than the passions, temptations or distractions could ever offer or fulfill. Embracing God’s good word for us in Christ Jesus allows us to turn away from those things that would lead us down the wrong path and opens up our lives to live for Christ, the Church and if I can add to the seminary’s motto, for the sake of others: those we know well as family and friends as well as those to whom the world has left little goodness or recognition.
The epistle offers this good word, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. Harkening back to the creation of Humanity, we were made in the divine image, man and woman, created to be “good”, not “spectacular” or “perfect”. We are “good”, and in living out our faith in Christ, we are returned to our truest selves, reclaiming what was lost in Eden long ago as well as in the story of our life’s journey where we “lost the plot” or willfully let our passions get the better of us.
Earlier this week, the New York Times carried the story of Elizabeth Bartlett Grannis, a “good” Christian witness from the turn of the 20th century whose faith led her to become known as “a humanitarian, social reformer and pioneering suffragist”. The article noted that this past week, her church held a celebration in her memory as well as to apologize for taking her name off the church rolls. (To read the article, visit this link: http://goo.gl/AvDR7)
Back in 1906, Grannis held views on women’s rights quite revolutionary at the time, though the real challenge for church leaders was her firm view that the congregation’s young and quite popular minister had definite moral failings, under suspicion for some rather seamy (and steamy!) behavior. The minister was found to be guilty of these allegations a few years later, yet in 1906’s “heat of the moment”, the church elders took steps to remove her from the membership rolls for raising too many questions. Adding to the charges, the elders took exception to her insistence that she bring her adopted child, who was African American, to worship services without hindrance or exception. The elders brought Gannis to a church discipline trial, claiming that she was a “disturber of the peace” for her views and convictions.
Remarkably, Grannis kept attending the church services for the next twenty years until her death in 1906. She kept a witness to her faith and her convictions, unpopular as they were for their time or within the congregation. She had a passion for justice that sustained her over those years.
To some Grannis was branded a “disturber of the peace”. Others remember Grannis as “a humanitarian, social reformer and suffragist”, a woman “ahead of her times” with a faith sustaining her through many years. As for the New York congregation that removed her name, just this past week, the present day congregational leadership recalled her story and restored her name to the rolls, citing her courage and their congregation’s past mistakes.
One could claim the story of Elizabeth Bartlett Grannis and the congregation’s treatment of her back in 1906 as a story of the passions we seek out too readily and the passions we should be seeking for our lives. Grannis spoke a contrary word about matters others would have preferred that she kept silent. She was a woman of faith whose desire to follow Christ was strong and to be who God made her to be.
As we seek our way through Lent and the entirety of life’s journey, the epistle calls us to a careful and humble understanding of why we follow Christ. Many passions cloud our judgment and our way alike. The good story of the gospel calls believers to step onto the pathway Christ gives us, where we know what it means to be fully alive, where we can regain who God made us to be.