The Book of Life

Philadelphia, it has to be admitted, is a clubby sort of a city - at least our part of town is.  The Racquet Club (where you can play the exceedingly rare sport of Court Tennis) is around the corner.  The Acorn Club is down the street.  The Locust Club used to be across the street from us, until it merged with the Union League, which is only a few blocks from here. The oldest social club in the nation is on the other side of Broad Broad Street: the Philadelphia Club.  The building that is now the Lanesborough, on our corner, was built to be the University Club.  Property this parish used to own on 18th and Locust is now occupied by a building that was built to be the Philadelphia Athletic Club.  The Rittenhouse Club closed down decades ago.  Thank God the Orpheus Club is still going strong.  And there were more.

Clubs, of course, are defined by who is in and who is out.  And at most clubs - whether country clubs, or golf clubs, or city clubs, each member is assigned a number, so that the billing department can keep track of members’ accounts.  When you sit down to eat, or order a drink at the bar, or play a round of golf, you sign your chit and you scrawl your name and your number in the designated place.  And the bill arrives at the end of the month.

The story is told of a distinguished, and maybe somewhat snooty, old men’s club in a city, possibly in London.  It was a club with a very small membership.  The staff at the club prided themselves on knowing all the members by name, and they would greet members by name at the door, in the halls, at the bar, etc.  A newly elected member, on the younger side, perhaps not strictly speaking from just the right sort of family, and not much acquainted with the ancient club, because his father and grandfather had not been members there, was, upon his election to the membership rolls, being introduced by the Manager to the club’s customs and practices.  When all the amenities had been pointed out - the squash courts, the steam room, the members-only bar, the smoking room, and the wine cellar - the young new member asked a question of the Manager, whose duty it was to provide this introductory session.  “And do I have a number?” the young new member asked.

The Manager replied, “Oh, yes, you have a number, but you don’t need to know it.”

Sometimes we hear in Scriptures of those who will be in and those who will be out, when it comes to the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, we heard a hint of it in the reading from Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

You will find similar warnings in Jesus’ own teaching in the New Testament.  And it has been a preoccupation of the church over the centuries, to ponder who will be in and who will be out in the kingdom of heaven, in the life that awaits us on the other side of the grave, in the new city that God will establish in peace when the cares and disasters of this world have at last melted away.  Who will awake to everlasting life, and who will find themselves consigned to everlasting contempt?  Who will be in and who will be out?

There has never been a time that this equation wasn’t considered in economic terms, at least in some people’s minds, almost as though the kingdom of heaven is the best club of all.  The well-to-do - who see themselves as blessed by God, and who others see that way too - are often presumed to have an express ride to heaven, or at least access to the preferred members’ lounge on the way.  Jesus actually confused his disciples when he told them that it would be difficult for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.  They were astounded, in fact, and asked him, “Then who can be saved?”  The commonly accepted ideas for who must be in and who would be out were upended by Christ’s teaching, when he asserted over and over again that the first would be last and the last would be first.  Take up your cross, and follow Jesus, but don’t look back, lest you be consigned to outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Since today is Commitment Sunday for us, when I am to offer my most effective encouragement to you to give generously for the work and mission of the Gospel in this place, it is tempting to want to describe to you the benefits of membership in whatever elite segment of God’s people it is that you may be able to join, if only you will give enough.  I am, after all, in some sense of the word, a Manager (or a Steward), who is to point the way to the kingdom, to describe to you its benefits, to explain to you why getting in is so good for you, and why being left out is so bad.

Seldom, in this explanation, would I normally turn to the Book of Daniel, and certainly not to the latter sections of it, which describe the somewhat complicated apocalyptic visions of Daniel.  But we have been asked to pause by these few verses that mention a “time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence,” and I feel that pausing here makes at least a little bit of sense, considering the times we live in.

It would be so easy if I could tell you that your generosity to Saint Mark’s will bring you blessings in heaven, and will, in fact, assure you of deliverance from times of anguish.  But you already know that I cannot tell you such a thing, and I hope you know that I would never try to impress upon you such lies.  But still we are paused here by Daniel’s vision, and we are told that Michael the archangel, the great protector of the people, will arise amid the anguish of God’s people.

We can assume that Jesus had paused before this same vision, and that perhaps he remembered it when he warned his followers that there will be wars and rumors of wars; that nation will rise against nation; that there will be earthquakes in various places; and famines; and that charlatans would come with false promises to lead many astray.

And here in Daniel’s convoluted, confusing, and often confounding vision is a promise that comes, brought to us by way of the Archangel Michael: “But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book…. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

The natural question that follows, of course, is to wonder what this book is, whether it is kept up to date,  and how to make sure that your name is written in it.  This question is akin, I propose, to the question that the young new club member asked of the Manager, “And do I have a number?”  Implied in the question is the thought that if I know my number I can make sure my account is in order.  And if I can make sure my account is in order then I am in control, I can pay my bills, and all will be well.  And this is, in fact the way the world works, the way that clubs work, and the way that billing departments work.

But there was an odd graciousness in the reply that the young new member was given by the Manager to his question, that implies the possibility of another kind of operation.  “Oh, yes, you have a number, but you don’t need to know it.”  It was a graciousness that actually exceeds the capacity of any club, since in the end, every member will still be receiving a bill.

But the cost of our salvation was paid long before you or I arrived at Saint Mark’s.  And  the grace of God has no limits.  You don’t need to know your number because by his sacrifice, Christ has assured that your name will be found in the Book of Life.  Christ died for you; Christ rose for you; and Christ will come again for you because Christ made you, Christ loves you, and Christ will not let you perish.  Oh, yes, you have a number, but you don’t need to know it.

If there is a Book somewhere in the courts of the Lord, and if scribes are carefully scanning it to keep track of who is in and who is out, to be mindful of who will be delivered from anguish, then Jesus wants you to know, I feel certain, that your name is to be found there in that book.  No amount of giving will put your name in that book, and no amount of giving can improve your number, if there happens to be a number by your name or mine.

And God has not called us here into a community of faith and love and service, in order to frighten us, or threaten us, or to extort us on the way to salvation.  No, he has called us here to speak to us of his love, and to assure us that his people will be delivered: everyone who is found written in the book.  Yes, you have a number, but you don’t need to know it.

And because the church is not a club, and because salvation is a gift, not a reward, there is no bill for the blessings you may find here - which is not to say that they don’t come at a cost.  But the giving is up to you.  There are amenities here, if you consider the benefits of a loving and prayerful community of worship and service to be counted as amenities.  And there are amenities in the kingdom of heaven, if you consider the benefits of a society of peace, justice, and love to be counted as amenities.

And God wants you to know that you are a part of this community.  God wants you to know that he intends his kingdom of peace, justice, and love for you.  God wants you to know that your name is written in the Book of Life.  You will not be sent a bill.  The giving is entirely up to you.  And God wants you to know that yes, your name is in the Book.  And yes, you have a number, but you don’t need to know it.  For such is the graciousness of God’s love.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 November 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 18, 2018 .