“Bold Boasting”: Sermon by Laura, Proper 9C, 7.4.10

Scripture Readings: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20; Galatians 6:1-16

How boldly do you boast? Really, how boldly do you boast?
I imagine many of you sitting there thinking, “What are you talking about? I don’t boast.” Boasting doesn’t seem very Christian, does it? Aren’t we supposed to be humble and modest? But the basic definition of boasting is fairly neutral: “to express pride in oneself or one’s accomplishments.” Of course, as Webster’s also notes, while boasting of our accomplishments may “imply a claiming with proper and justifiable pride,” “to boast often suggests ostentation and exaggeration.”

So, it seems there are two ways of “boasting,” two ways of claiming the power of our accomplishments. Some boasting is authentic, boldly naming and claiming the power at work. But some boasting exaggerates power and accomplishment. We might call this second kind of boasting “idle,” because it cannot deliver what it says it can.
When we look at our scripture readings for this morning, we find some boasting going on. Are these boasts bold or idle? Let’s take a closer look.

First there’s Paul. Now, from a human perspective, Paul had plenty to boast about. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul remarks, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All of these were accurate claims to the power Paul claimed when he was known as Saul of Tarsus. But one day on the road to Damascus, everything changed. “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

So now what is Paul boasting about? “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” he writes in his own bold letters. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”

If we stop and think, these words are ridiculous. To boast of the cross is to point to an instrument of torture and execution, a symbol of defeated death. And yet, here Paul is naming and claiming it as a symbol of victorious life! And to call the one who was crucified upon it “Lord” is to locate power in the absolute least expected place. “Lords” do not get crucified on crosses. And in Paul’s time and place, the only “Lord” anyone could see was Caesar in Rome, the one doing the crucifying, not the crucified.

It is a bold boast, a gutsy claim made in the face of all sorts of contradictory powers. It is to call out all those other kinds of powers as false: the egocentric power of prestige and self-promotion Paul is facing in his opponents in the Galatia church, as well as the power of military might Paul is facing in the Roman Empire. But to boast of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is not an idle claim—it is a boast with the power to deliver. And Paul knows this from his own experience.

For Saul of Tarsus met Jesus Christ on that road to Damascus. He came face to face with the one who suffered and was crucified, but by the power of God was also resurrected and exalted to the heavenly places. And meeting Jesus, he was transformed by the power of grace. He came to know, in his own life, the exceeding peace, joy, and freedom of faith in Christ Jesus. Reconciled, redeemed, and reunited with God in Jesus Christ, Paul began to live out of a New Reality he cannot but share with others.

We also see some bold boasting in our gospel reading from Luke. “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” proclaim the 70 disciples Jesus has sent out before, now that he has “set his face toward Jerusalem.” What makes this a bold boast, you might wonder?

First, consider where it is that these 70 have been sent out. To get from the region around the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples are going through Samaria. Since the division of the kingdoms in Old Testament times, Jews and Samaritans, who had come to be ethnically and religiously differentiated from one another. Because of the hostility that had developed over the years of division, pilgrims traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem typically avoided Samaria if possible. But Jesus boldly sends the disciples out in pairs to towns all over this territory.

Second, consider the instructions Jesus gives in commissioning the disciples for this mission. “See,” Jesus tells them, “I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves.” Taking no purse—and no money—no extra possessions, no sandals, even, when the disciples arrive in town, they will be vulnerable and in need, utterly dependent upon the hospitality offered to them. And whatever is offered to them, they are to gratefully accept: they don’t get to go shopping around for better accommodations or food!

Where no hospitality is offered, they are not to respond with hostility or violence, but only a gesture of protest, wiping the dust off of their feet. And even in those towns, they are still to share their most important message, the one they proclaim everywhere they go, regardless of the welcome they receive: “The kingdom of God has come near.”

It is a bold boast indeed. For if they followed Jesus’ instructions, in their vulnerable and dependent state, we would have hardly believed the disciples represented any important power, let alone a kingdom. Let alone the kingdom of God! Yet it is not an idle boast, for in faithfulness to Jesus’ commands, they truly represent him, the King of that kingdom. And so, Jesus tells them, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

Jesus has empowered the seventy with the real power of heaven, a power which is exactly the opposite of our usual understanding. It is not the power of dominance and control, not the power of violent coercion. It is not the power of ego-centric self-promotion. The astonishing power at work in Jesus, and in which he instructs his followers, is that of vulnerability and self-giving love.

No, it is not an idle boast, for the power of the kingdom of God gets results, as the disciples discover. Luke tells us the 70 come back to Jesus “in joy,” saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus affirms, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” The power they represented, the boast they proclaimed in word and deed, does indeed accomplish the eviction of the spiritual forces of violence and destruction. It accomplishes new bonds of peace, as those who were enemies welcome them and share their meals, as those who were sick are healed with compassion that transcends all barriers. And, now that they have seen and felt this power at work in them, the disciples are transformed.

Later Jesus tells them, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Let me return then, to the question with which I began. How boldly do you boast? For, though we may never have thought of it that way before, there is a kind of “boasting” we are called to do. In fact, it is one of the basic tasks to which we are commissioned as disciples by Jesus Christ: Proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, in the name of the Messiah who suffered and rose from the dead. Go forth and tell the gospel you have witnessed.

Like Paul, we are called to boast of the new creation in Jesus Christ, boldly calling the lie in the face of any earthly power which attempts to enslave us. Like the disciples, we are called to go forth like lambs in the midst of wolves, proclaiming first by our peaceful actions, and only secondarily by our words, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

But I suppose the question for us here and now is, are we capable of such bold boasting? It is not an easy proposition. Usually we think that in order for a boast to be more than idle ostentation, it must be based upon authentic experience. And what in our experience gives us the authority and the courage to make such a boast? As one preacher notes,

“We might be tempted to disagree with Jesus in so strongly asserting that the kingdom has come near. All you and I have to do is open the morning newspaper and scan the headlines to come to the conclusion that we do not live in such a kingdom. Wars rage on… Poverty and hunger claim the lives of so many while others live in comfort with more than enough…These are not the signs of the kingdom that we would expect. In fact, if the kingdom itself knocked on our door with no sandals, no food, and no money–we might be tempted to ask it to leave us alone.”

In the face of the obvious power of worldly forces, it is not surprising that most of us would prefer to stay at home with our mouths sealed shut.

Yet Jesus insists on calling us, like the 70, to go out and proclaim the preposterous good news even so. It is an act of faith to boast these things, to stake our claim in the transforming peace of Jesus Christ, but we can be assured that our boasts are not idle. Amidst all the poverty and violence, the kingdom has come near. Amidst the death and destruction of the earthly powers we try to hoard for ourselves, a new creation is already unfolding. When we step out boldly in faith, when we reach out boldly to others in the Way of Christ, we soon find ourselves moving from faith to experience.

Paul boasted of new life in Jesus Christ, and then watched as it transformed Gentile believers from people of self-indulgent passions to a community of mutual care and faithful love. And the seventy disciples went out with nothing but the boast of the kingdom, and faithful to Christ’s word, they watched the kingdom of peace and love unfold before them in shared hospitality and table fellowship with those who had formerly been enemies.

And I have seen the transforming power of God’s kingdom in my own life. When I went to Guatemala as a Young Adult Volunteer some years ago, on the inside I half-felt my presence there was an idle boast. The year before, I had come home from Bangladesh, feeling like a failure. I had gone to ‘make a difference,’ and returned defeated. I was unsure I was capable of much of anything at all. Still, I went with a sense of call to Guatemala, timidly stepping out again.

At first, the Mayan villagers who hosted me asked, “What are you here to teach us,” and I shrugged, feeling that I had little to offer. But as we settled into life together, as they welcomed me, time after time into their homes, and as I ‘ate what was before me,’ honoring, the best I could, the privilege of their hospitality, an amazing thing happened. They made a difference in me, drawing out skills and gifts I never knew I had. They showed me again and again, that the boast was not idle—the kingdom had indeed come near.

My friends, when we claim the power of the cross of Christ, when we stake our lives on the coming of the kingdom, we can boast boldly, for the power of which we boast is not our own but God’s transforming love, able to accomplish in us infinitely more than we can dream or imagine. Go forth, then, and boast boldly—and watch the new creation unfold!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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