Congregation as Body of Christ

Sermon Preached on June 17, 2007 at Church of the Transfiguration (Palos Park, IL)
Proper 6C

In the 1991 movie What About Bob? a successful psychiatrist, Dr. Marvin, heads off with his family on what he hopes to be a relaxing summer vacation away from the cares and concerns of his patients. What he has not expected, however, is that one of his most dependent, most manipulative, and most annoying patients, Bob, has managed to discover his whereabouts and follows Dr. Marvin to his vacation getaway. Despite repeated efforts on the part of Dr. Marvin to send Bob home, it is clear that Bob is staying and, in fact, he quickly befriends Dr. Marvin’s wife and children who find him to be much more fun and interesting than their uptight and boring husband and father. As his family becomes more and more enamored of Bob, Dr. Marvin’s attempts to get rid of him become more and more egregious.

Bordering on the ridiculous at times, the movie, nonetheless, speaks to some of the categories of difference which we hold most dear in our society: health vs. illness, normal vs. abnormal, and honor vs. dishonor. And, in each case, the movie flips our assumptions around. The mentally ill patient, Bob, comes across as more “normal” than the increasingly frantic Dr. Marvin. Likewise, Dr. Marvin who holds an honorable position in society as a psychiatrist quickly calls that label into question as his actions and words toward Bob cross both ethical and legal codes of honor.

This morning’s gospel reading also draws our attention to differences between people - in this instance, Simon, the Pharisee, who is hosting the meal with Jesus and the sinner woman who is an uninvited intruder. Like Dr. Marvin in the movie, Simon makes certain assumptions about his uninvited guest and about how Jesus is expected to respond. Simon thinks to himself, “If this man [referring to Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” In the story that follows it quickly becomes apparent that not only does Jesus know what kind of a woman is touching him, but he also knows what Simon was thinking. This Jesus is clearly much more than a prophet!
Jesus goes on to list three things that a good host might be expected to do: (1) provide water for the guest’s feet, (2) greet a guest with a kiss, and (3) anoint the guest’s head. These are not unknown or unusual kindnesses. What is, in fact, unusual is that Simon has not done any of these things when Jesus entered his house. Instead, it is the sinner who has done all of these things. Here the categories of difference might be clean vs. unclean, righteous vs. sinner, and munificence vs. inhospitality. And, as in the movie What About Bob?, this story flips our assumptions around. The woman who is identified by her sinful nature is the one who cleans Jesus’ feet and is the one who behaves most hospitably toward him. Though she is uninvited, she has proven to be a better host than the host himself who is barely cordial.

O.k., so we get that there’s some irony going on here. But just what is the point? Certainly the message is not that sinners are better than the righteous. Nor is the point to prove whether or not Jesus is a prophet. So what is going on? I think the key lies in the conclusion of Jesus words to Simon and in his first words spoken to the woman. He says to Simon, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” This relationship between love and forgiveness is the key to understanding this passage. And there is a bit of a chicken and egg chase going on if we try to identify which comes first love or forgiveness. But, in either case, the link between the two is made clear. Alan Culpepper, in his commentary, describes it neatly:
“It is not that the Pharisee had less for which to be forgiven than the [woman]. Rather, because he did not recognize his need for forgiveness he received less. And she, because she recognized her need and received forgiveness joyfully, received more. . . . Her openness to God’s forgiveness and her selfless loving response are accepted as faith. . . . Love is the natural response of the forgiven, but the capacity to love is directly related to the ability to receive grace, forgiveness, and love.”[1]

Now just a moment ago, I said that the point of this story is not to demonstrate that sinners are better than the righteous. And, I still affirm that. However, what becomes clearer as we think about this connection between love and forgiveness is that when we are tied up in making distinctions, in focusing on differences, on judging our fellow human beings, our ability to love is hindered. And, more importantly, our ability to experience God’s love is hindered. The woman in today’s gospel did not allow difference to hold her back. She entered the Pharisee’s home knowing that Jesus was there and she brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. What she left with was the knowledge that she was welcomed by Jesus, that her sins were forgiven, and that she was loved by God.

A little over a year ago, I came to Transfiguration with a jar filled with new ideas and a modest amount of energy. I came with the expectation that I would encounter Christ in this place. And today I am leaving here with the knowledge that Andrea and I have been welcomed, that Christ is truly alive in this place, and that we are – each one of us - loved by God.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote that a

“Congregation . . . is no longer the sum of all those who are registered as members on the church rolls. Congregation is rather a new kind of living together for human beings that affirms:
– That no one is alone with his or her problems,
– That no one has to conceal his or her disabilities,
– That there are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say,
– That neither the old nor the little ones are isolated,
– That one bears the other even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement, and
– That, finally, the one can also at times leave the other in peace when the other
needs it.”[2]
It is my prayer for Transfiguration that you will continue to live into this understanding of what it is to be a congregation, what it is to be the Body of Christ; that as you welcomed us, you will continue to welcome all who enter this place, focusing not on how they are different from you, but on how you are all alike in God. Christ is alive in this place and you are loved by God.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX – Luke, John, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 172-3.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 33.