Lent: Redemption

 

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

John 4:5-42

 

Redemption

On this third Sunday in Lent, we continue our exploration of the theme: “Advancing the Kingdom; Resisting the World.” Recognizing that our citizenship is with God’s Kingdom (as Paul reminds us in Philippians 3:20), we are exploring the ways that this reality forces us to resist the ways of the world, fighting against the dominant pressures and impulses of our culture.

On March 5, we read about Jesus’ temptation, and we explored that pull within us that misdirects us away from God’s path. Like Jesus, we recognize that citizens of God’s Kingdom advance that Kingdom when we resist the ways of the world.

On March 12, we looked to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus—those famous words “You must be born again.” These words and others there in John 3 remind us that we need to undergo a complete reformation of our thinking—a complete rebirth into God’s ways—so we will reflect the Savior of the World.

Today, we come to another familiar text—the encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well, wherein Jesus speaks of the living water that abolishes thirst forever. In this text, as we will see, Jesus models how to engage people in a redemptive way—in a way that allows them to see and experience God’s love for them.

The Samaritan Problem

This is one of those texts of the Bible (however) that I think preachers get weary of preaching. Our problem is that we are so distant from the cultural norms, the prejudices and privileges, and the realities of history that this story just doesn’t have much… oompf… unless these things are explained in depth.

In this way, it’s similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan—it’s a fantastic story, but we preachers usually end up spending half or more of our time trying to paint a picture of how the Jews were prejudiced against the Samaritans. We describe history and bias, we encourage you to think of someone you’d see as your enemy, and we engage in all sorts of oratorial acrobatics in order to help our hearers appreciate how radical these teachings and encounters of Jesus truly are.

Today I just want to cut to the chase. Everything Jesus does here is radical. Let’s just take that as a given. The kindness he extends is a radical kindness. The acceptance he offers is a radical acceptance. The welcome he volunteers is a radical welcome.

And somehow—all taken together—we end up with something that we call redemption.

Now don’t get frightened; I’m not going to use a bunch of ten-dollar theological words. In fact, most of our theological words—things like justification, propitiation, atonement, regeneration, sanctification—these are all big, fancy words we use to express our big, fancy theological ideas about the very, very simple reality of God’s love. God’s love is a redeeming love. To redeem something is to compensate for the bad parts. And that is what God—in and through God’s love—accomplishes in us. The bad parts of us are overcome and we are made to be good again—and in this we see the fulfillment of God’s desires in our initial creation from way back in Genesis.

So how does Jesus demonstrate redemption for us here? Well, there are four elements in this story—four pieces of how God through Jesus engages this woman. When we take these four things together, we end up with a model for how we can advance God’s Kingdom by participating in the redemption of others.

1. God meets us where we are

The first piece is this: God meets us where we are. Here in John 4, Jesus meets the woman in her own context and on her own terms.

Jesus does not (of course) hole up in his synagogue in Nazareth expecting that folks needing redemption will come to him. No, as the gospels demonstrate, most of the folks Jesus offers redemption to don’t even think they need it—not at first.

Have you ever been where you don’t belong? In the pursuit of auto parts, custom glass for old cars, or good food heard about on “Check Please!” (a Chicago-local PBS restaurant program), my father seemed to regularly drag me into parts of town where I just didn’t belong. And that’s not just me saying it—I vividly recall locals menacingly telling me that I was in the wrong part of town a time or two. But there were things he taught me about how to be out of your comfort zone and still be ok.

One of the biggest lessons was that people pick up on how you feel.

So if you’re somewhere and you feel out of place, you’re likely to look out of place.

If you feel embarrassed about being somewhere, people will see that.

Eventually I came to see that if I could accept being somewhere, I no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t have to change anything except my willingness to be somewhere and see other people as regular people like me.

This is how Jesus begins our story. As a Jew, he has little business in Samaria. It should be out of Jesus’ comfort zone. As the disciples’ reaction in v.27 demonstrates, there are people there his friends think he should avoid.

But God always meets us where we are. So Jesus goes to Samaria—where he doesn’t belong—and he talks to someone he shouldn’t talk to.

Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that getting out of our comfort zone is the first step toward participating in the redemption of others. After all, when Jesus issues what we call the Great Commission in Matthew 28, going is a prerequisite to everything else; it must happen before the disciple-making, baptizing, and teaching.

God always meets us where we are.

2. God offers us welcome

Second, God offers us welcome. In this particular story, Jesus extends welcome to the woman by speaking with her as though there were no obstacles between them.

According to the rules of his world:

  • He shouldn’t speak to a Samaritan
  • He shouldn’t speak to a woman without her husband present
  • He can’t drink after a Samaritan without then being excluded from worship

But not only does Jesus speak to her—he initiates the conversation.

You ever think about this? A pastor named Anna Carter Florence got me thinking about this… She says:

What rules is Jesus breaking to talk with us? What social conventions is he disregarding? What lines is he stepping across, in order to speak about what truly matters, and what may save our life? …What traditions or customs or conventions might Jesus have to cross in order to speak to you? (in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2, p.95)

Think about it. Jesus is not breaking the rules because he is desperately thirsty. He is doing so because he loves so deeply and fully. He breaks the rules because redemption requires the kind of welcome that only happens when you look beyond the boulders and minefield between you and someone God loves.

God offers us welcome.

3. God offers us acceptance

Third, God offers us acceptance. As this story tells us—as the woman’s testimony rings out—Jesus knows everything about her but does not condemn her. In her words, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39).

This story invariably reminds me of another. In a couple chapters further in (John 8), Jesus encounters another nameless woman—this time, a woman caught in sin. The gospel writer clearly indicates that she is being abused—manipulated—used as a weapon against Jesus, that they might bring him down. Their motivation is not the keeping of the law, but power and control.

They pretend to request Jesus to declare her fate. If he says to free her, he is breaking the Law—he is violating their religious customs and acting against what the Bible says. But if he says that she is to die, they believe it will render his movement impotent.

Do you remember how Jesus responds? He tells them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 NIV11). Even though hers was a clear case of right and wrong, and even though the punishment was black-and-white, Jesus refused to condemn her. Even after her accusers faded away, Jesus did not issue a punishment for her sin, but he offered the grace of a new beginning: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

You know how ready we are to condemn other people? I can demonstrate it for you real quickly. Back in our scripture reading—in John 4:18—the bombshell revelation that Jesus exposes is that this woman has “had five husbands, and the one [she has] now is not [her] husband.” This is her sin, right? That’s what I’ve been told my whole life by pastors, Sunday School teachers, study bible notes, and seemingly everyone else.

But you know what? They’re all wrong. We’re all wrong. Because we’re judging a person according to the standards and expectations of our own culture, even though theirs was different.

In her own context, this woman at the well has little to nothing to do with her marital status. In her world, she is property—property that has been used and cast out time and time again. Men have married her for whatever reasons, and they have divorced her as soon as their whims changed. She has no power to stand up; she has no power to resist; she has no ability to choose differently. We condemn this woman as a sinner even though the only sin is being done to her. Just as with the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well is being victimized by the men around her for their own selfish gain.

What Jesus exposes is not her sin, but the one thing that the one thing she is most ashamed of—her abuse. But just as we read last week, Jesus did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

In order to redeem us, God offers us acceptance—as we are, and without condemnation.

4. God gifts us in kindness

Lastly, God gifts us in kindness. In John 4, Jesus gifts the woman with an offer of living water, with knowledge of the Messiah, and with insight into true worship.

In kindness, Jesus brings her into this expansion of God’s spiritual health coverage—now broadened to encompass everyone, everywhere—no matter where they were born, their ethnicity, their economics, their gender, or any other obstacle.

In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his presence as he became a human and lived with us.

In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his example of how we humans were made to be.

In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his teachings that instruct us in the way we are to go.

In kindness, Jesus offers healing and grace to those he encounters.

In kindness, Jesus shares his life with the disciples and calls even us today to be his friends.

In kindness, Jesus offers his life to save our own.

Kindness is at the heart of the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31). It is one of the first actions used to define love in 1Corinthians (13:4). It could describe all the actions by those welcomed to the Kingdom in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25). It seems to be rule #1 for Jesus’ followers: Be kind.

In order to redeem us, God gifts us in kindness. And Jesus instructs us to do the same for others.

Conclusion

In fact, all of these dimensions are actions of Jesus that we are to replicate in our own lives and relationships. The way Jesus interacts with this unnamed “woman at the well” provides us with a model for how we are to interact with others. If we are to participate in God’s mission—in the redemption of the world—then

we too will meet people where they are, instead of forcing them to come to us

we too will offer a welcome that treats people as though there are no barriers between us

we too will offer acceptance of a person regardless of what we know of their past actions or what has been done to them

we too will gift people with kindness and grace

If we are following Jesus—if we are going to participate in God’s redemptive plan—if we are going to advance God’s Kingdom—then this is who we will be. We will be redemptive people.

Who will you be?

 

Lent: Reformation

 

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

John 3:1-17

 

Old Dog; New Tricks

That we were able to celebrate and partner in a baby dedication this morning is serendipitous for us this morning. It has meant that things such as “birth” and “life” and “community” are fresh in our minds as we heard today’s scripture reading.

As we look at this little girl and marvel at the miracle of her birth—of our own birth—our bodies—our own creation—we cannot help but be drawn (like Nicodemus) to Jesus’ teachings of new birth.

How can someone as old and jaded as me become so new and fresh again?

How does someone so set in his ways become a blank slate?

Is it possible for someone who forgets so much to become a sponge that remembers everything?

Can an old dog indeed learn new tricks?

To Nicodemus—and to our skepticism—Jesus responds with a resounding ” YES!!” Yes we can.

Yet despite this encouragement—and very much like Nicodemus—we get hung up on the literal, technical aspects of how it happens instead of simply trusting and following our Savior in the reformation of our entire being.

The Story

As we read the story here in John, we encounter Nicodemus: an important Jewish man who recognizes Jesus for who he is—an important teacher who has “come from God.” He expresses no doubt about Jesus’ divine origins or that Jesus is someone we need to listen to and learn form. But just as he makes this profession of faith, Jesus seemingly cuts him off—cutting to the chase—getting to the heart of what Nicodemus needs to know: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

The Bible does not tell us that Nicodemus asked about the Kingdom of God. It does not tell us Nicodemus asked anything at all. But somehow, Jesus knew what this meeting was about. In recognizing Jesus, Nicodemus knows he is the Messiah—the Christ. But being a person of faith, Nicodemus also recognizes that Jesus—the Messiah—didn’t appear in the way they anticipated and he doesn’t act like everyone thought he would. Jesus knows that in realizing he got these things wrong, Nicodemus is likely questioning everything.

For many of us, our faith is fragile like a house of cards or a game of Jenga—pull out one or two of the wrong pieces and the rest might come crashing down. Pull out enough, and even the strongest among us will plunge into doubt and reevaluation.

And when people of faith start questioning, we almost always end up in the same place where Jesus apparently found Nicodemus: “How then are we saved?”

Please recognize that the question Jesus addresses is not: “How do we get to heaven?”

The NT speaks of heaven as the God-realm; it is the place where the dead go to be with God until the resurrection takes place. It is not, however, our final destination. The Kingdom of God that everyone wants to see and get into—that is our final destination—the fully-transformed heavens and earth, united (as if) in marriage, where we as our fully resurrected selves will live and serve and work with Christ our king forever and ever.

We are saved, Jesus says, by being born again.

Metaphor

Now almost without exception, Jesus uses analogies and parables to describe theological realities. Instead of speaking in terms of propitiation or justification or theosis or some other theological language, Jesus prefers to employ metaphor—something we can understand (in part) if we will use our God-given imaginations, yet something that will quickly break down if we try to turn it into a systematic theology.

Like honest and responsible bible readers today, Nicodemus struggles with this imagery of new birth. When he hears “born again,” he wants to take Jesus literally. How can we enter into the womb a second time? It is impossible—inconceivable, we might even say. But Jesus does not allow Nicodemus—or us—to dismiss such realities simply because our world says they cannot be.

Passive

There’s another dimension here too; it’s not just that we readily try to dismiss Jesus’ teachings when we take him literally. I think (like Nicodemus) we want to take Jesus literally because it puts us in a more passive role.

If you’ve ever witnessed a birth—especially the birth of your own child—there’s no doubt who’s doing all the work. Despite stress and physical exhaustion, it’s not the father. It’s not the baby, either—babies are born tired because they have fought being born. The real work is done by the mother. All the work is done by the mother. Even the doula or doctor or other medical personnel can only encourage and coach the mother through the majority of the birth process.

If we (like Nicodemus) take Jesus literally here, then the process of being “born again” is something that happens to us. It is not something we participate in. It is not something we have a responsibility for. By taking Jesus literally, Nicodemus (as do we) cause his analogy to immediately break down and cease to function as Jesus intended it to.

Instead, the kind of new birth that Jesus describes here and elsewhere is an active pursuit. “Born again” involves an ongoing process of being born into God’s ways—actively partnering with God in the reforming of our thinking, our being, and everything we do.

Resembling our Parent

This understanding of new birth as a reformation of who we are fits quite closely with what Jesus actually intended with the analogy. Even though they knew nothing of genetics in the first century, they knew a lot about breeding animals. They knew how to get favorable traits among livestock and how to weed out the unfavorable ones. They knew that a child (of any species) tended to look like its parents.

In our first birth, we are born to parents who are in and of the world. We resemble them physically, but (in most circumstances) we also come to resemble them in terms of values, practices, and even employment (at least until our recent era).

In the kind of birthing Jesus talks about, we will resemble not our earthly parents, but our heavenly one. By being “born of the Spirit,” we are born into God’s ways, God’s values, God’s practices, and God’s likeness. Being “born again” is Jesus’ way of talking about the complete reformation of one’s self that Paul describes in Galatians. In the second chapter there, Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive, but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son, the One who loves me and gave His body on the cross for me” (Galatians 2:20 VOICE).

The way into God’s Kingdom involves being born into God’s ways—being “crucified with Christ”—so that our lives resemble not our own priorities and desires and failings, but the priorities and desires of our gracious and loving God. We live in such complete obedience and submission to God that when people encounter us, they will see Jesus.

Wrap Up

That’s a tall order, I know. But it is what “discipleship” means. It is what being a “follower of Jesus” means. We must consciously choose each moment of every day:

to become “like little children” (Mark 10:15)

to “take up our cross and follow him” (Mark 8:34)

to “sell all we have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21)

to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44)

to become “servant of all” (Mark 9:35)

and to remember that: “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friends” (John 15:13).

If you’re going to call yourself by his name (if you are going to call yourself a “Christian”) you’ve got to resemble Christ or else you will slander him.

And don’t worry, God knows that this reformation—this transformation—will not be complete in this lifetime. God knows that transformation will not be complete until the day of Jesus’ return. For 1John 3:2 assures us: “when he appears we shall be like him” (ESV). Our transformation will be complete as we become perfect reflectors of our God and Savior—our thinking being fully reformed, and being born (at last) into God’s ways.

As we watch this little girl grow and mature over the years, we will no doubt see her grow into resemblance of her loving mother and father. May she—and all our young folk—stand as reminders and challenges to us all that we are to resemble our loving Parent in heaven, most fully revealed through our Savior Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

Lent: Rejection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 4:1-11

 

Rejection

It’s a familiar text and story that we have before us today. Jesus, having just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, is whisked away to the wilderness where he experiences a period of preparation, discernment, and temptation. The gospel accounts pay the most attention to the last hours of this isolating-yet-constructive experience of our Savior, as he—like any and every other human being that has ever lived—experiences pressures that could very well reroute his life away from the narrow path of God’s Kingdom.

Three times he experiences the pull of this world, forces that would draw him away from the path of God’s Kingdom—forces that are still very present and very powerful in our world today. These are the forces of the world—the empire, if you will—that we too will need to learn to reject, if we are to remain on the path of God’s Kingdom, following the footsteps of Jesus our leader.

1. Miracle of Bread

As Matthew tells the story, the first temptation faced by Jesus—the first strong pull of the way of the world—is to turn stones into bread. The temptation here is more than miracle—it is to be a savior of people’s immediate needs—and thus to be needed by them.

Now when we see folks hungry, God is pretty clear that we should be working and sacrificing to meet their needs (cf. Isa 58, 1John 3:17, Matthew 25, and many other places). But as Jesus reveals in John 6, he did not come to end physical hunger but to become the Bread of Life, through whom we obtain abundant and everlasting life.

The temptation that Jesus faces here in the desert is the temptation to be needed by others. And Christ could have done this. Jesus could have come as our high-and-mighty Savior, turning stones into bread, purifying the waters of the world, renewing creation, and saving us from ourselves by taking away the free will that we were given when formed of the dust of the earth.

And honestly, some days that sounds pretty good. But it only sounds good because of how we’ve been brainwashed by the culture and powers of our world. Jesus himself knows it to be a false promise—that it doesn’t really work that way, and that it couldn’t work that way.

And so Jesus rejects this pull that the world imposes on him, and he chooses the way of God’s Kingdom.

Instead of appearing as our high-and-mighty Savior, Jesus is born as yet another apparently insignificant Jewish baby.

Instead of crushing our free will, Christ enters into our broken human condition, engages with the lowest and least of society and the world, and extends sacrificial love to all.

Instead of being our “white knight,” Jesus accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death, supporting and encouraging us. Becoming human like us and with us, he walks with us and guides us toward salvation through relationship with God.

The pull of the world is to make sure others need us—to ourselves become the saviors who brings culture/enlightenment/protection to the weak heathens around us. This was, in fact (and quite sadly), the way the Christian church performed missionary activity for quite some time. Identifying with a savior instead of those Jesus loves (those in need of salvation), we infiltrated and destroyed entire cultures in the name of evangelism. We tried to force our own way of faith upon people instead of meeting them where they were, which was what Jesus himself did. And in the process, we Christians became complicit in some of the most violent and unjust systems that continue even to this day.

To follow the Kingdom way of Jesus is to reject these impulses to be needed and to save. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus Christ to love sacrificially, remembering his teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).

The cause of Christ is advanced—the Kingdom of God is expanded and made more complete in this world when we identify with the broken, the forgotten, the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the powerless. If we cannot learn to love them for the sheer purpose of loving them, then we are not following the example of Christ in rejecting the empire of this world in favor of God’s Kingdom.

2. Miracle of the Superman

After this first temptation in Matt 4, Jesus is tempted to play Superman—to perform amazing supernatural feats that are guaranteed to impress and garner positive attention. If only Jesus would use his abilities to bring himself fame—if only he would amaze and entertain the easily-impressed masses—then he would have a platform to carry his message throughout the world. That is his temptation. That is the pull of the world.

But this, too, is rejected by Jesus. It is rejected because it involves—once again—playing by the rules of this world instead of the rules of God’s Kingdom. To seek to impress people and cultivate fame is one of the more powerful forces this world wields within us. Yet (as Jesus knows), fame is an empty promise; it never leads us to the expected fulfillment.

Yet there is so much we do in order to impress—in order to ensure people think well of us. When we meet new people, we change our introduction of ourselves so they will accept us. So many of our untruths—our lies and deceptions—are fueled by the fear that we won’t be accepted, or that we need to impress. Instead of “count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves,” as the Kingdom way of Jesus instructs (Phil 2:3), the way of the world (the pull we feel within us) is to prove ourselves superior to everyone we meet, no matter the deception or violence it entails.

If we are to reject the pull of the empire around us and follow the way of God’s Kingdom, we will practice a disciplined humility, instead of a false pride. One early Christian voice, a man aptly nicknamed “the Shepherd,” offered this recommendation: “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have any influence and you will be at peace” (Abba Poemen).

3. Complete World Domination

This brings us to Jesus’ third temptation. Psychologists tell us there are two powerful desires within us that require constant management: control and power. In fact, most of our conflicts with one another come down to issues of power or control.

When we feel a loss of power in one area of life, we seek to exert power in another. I have seen many good folks do terrible harm to their families and churches because of an experience of powerlessness somewhere else.

In the same way, when we feel a loss of control in one area of life, we seek to control other people and things as a way of restoring balance. Along with power, such efforts to control others bring us great frustration and can result in great violence. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of power and control is domestic violence, but there are far more insidious ways we inflict power and control on people, as well.

There are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping them—saving them from themselves, perhaps. But here Jesus has that opportunity—he is offered complete world domination, to use however he sees fit. He could successfully take over the world, as Pinky and the Brain could never manage. He could end poverty, stop all wars, mete out true justice, ensure land is used responsibly and for the best purpose. He could redistribute populations to ease the burdens on creation that we generate when we clump up in cities, and to ensure reliable access to the necessary services that are harder to come by in rural areas. He could blend our red states and blue states into a royal purple, where he is to rule as king. With Jesus exerting ultimate power—with Jesus controlling everyone and everything—it seems like the world would be so much better, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??

It might seem that way, but Jesus did not come to control us but to love us. Such it is for our life and mission as well. Even those times when it seems controlling others would be for their benefit, we are being deceived by the forces that want to break us down and destroy us. The way of Jesus—the way of God’s Kingdom—is not to control, but to love.

And the Bible tells us what that love looks like: willing, humble, self-sacrificing obedience. In 1John we find repeated over and over that we know we are walking with Jesus if we obey his commandments and if we love one another. These are (of course) one and the same, for Jesus tells us that the way of God’s kingdom is fulfilled when we love God and love one another—even our enemies.

So while the world pulls us toward trying to exert as much power and control over people and things as possible, we Christians must reject and fight against this notion. Like our example and savior Jesus, we must submit completely to God in order to purge our desire for power over others.

There’s an ancient story from the early years of Christianity that is symbolic of the kind of counter-cultural submission and obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us.

There was a Christian leader named Sylvanus, who was regarded as a wise fellow who closely walked Jesus’ path. Because of this, others were drawn to him as disciples or apprentices, seeking to be mentored by this sage. Trouble was that his disciples thought Sylvanus had a favorite disciple, a man named Mark. They got so jealous of Mark that they started causing trouble, and the other Christian leaders in the area showed up to correct Sylvanus, reminding him not to have favorites and all that.

When they showed up, however, Abba Sylvanus decided to show them around first—you know, give them the tour. As he passed the rooms of his disciples, he knocked on the door of each, calling out, “Brother, come out, I have work for you to do.” But none of them opened their doors right away.

When they came to Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus had hardly finished speaking before the door was opened. He issued Mark some task to complete, and Mark went on his way. But Abba Sylvanus and his visitors went into Mark’s room. He’d been writing—copying a book—and was making the letter “O.” But when he heard Abba Sylvanus’ voice, he didn’t even finish that one letter, which is made of a single stroke of a pen.

The kind of obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us is immediate and complete. Jesus does not ask God to wait for him to finish what he’s doing—not even to finish that word or that letter. No, Jesus submits in complete obedience to God. He voluntarily chooses powerlessness. He voluntarily gives up control of his life and destiny. He voluntarily rejects these ways of the world.

And he does it on account of love.

1 + 1 + 1 = Empire

It’s important to understand these temptations individually—these “pulls” on our hearts by the powers of this world. But it is equally vital that we recognize them in combination as the core of an empire that is not God’s Kingdom. These forces are the building blocks of the social evils around us and throughout history.

If we do not reject this empire, we can have no part of God’s Kingdom. If we wish to follow the way of Jesus, we must reject the ways of this world. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25).

Sisters and brothers—followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom—let us then reject the empire around us and follow Jesus’ kingdom example to love sacrificially, to humbly consider others more significant than ourselves, and to submit completely in obedience to God’s leading and desires.

In doing so, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth, just as it is in heaven.

Amen.

How to Break the Law

 

Matthew 5:13-20

 

How to Break the Law

I have spent the bulk of my life studying the Bible:

from Sunday School before I could even read,
to weekly small groups,
to college courses,
to seminary,
to Masters and Ph.D. level courses in languages and history—

I have had the opportunity to sit at the feet of some genuine sages in churches and in classrooms in order to absorb some of their lifelong learning.

I don’t say all this to claim myself an expert—most of the time I feel I have barely made a beginning. But I believe I have committed considerable time and resources, and that God has opened doors of learning and experience that simply are not available to the average person.

Whenever I have had the opportunity, I have tailored this study to answering the fundamental question of how we came to have the Bible we have. You see, I have come to believe that virtually every conflict among Christians throughout history comes down to the questions of what we mean by biblical authority and biblical inspiration. How we answer those questions affects how we read the Bible, what we get out of it, how we understand God and salvation, and how we engage each other and the world. In other words, what we understand about the Bible affects every single dimension of life and faith.

Jesus (I find) poses a particular problem for us, most acutely for those of us who strive to be honest readers. I stress honesty here because our inclination as human beings is to hold to easy answers, even if they are not true.

This morning, however, I do not want to spend our time trying to refute these “easy answers.” Instead, let me show you why Jesus poses a problem for us.

Scripture Lesson

Our scripture lesson comes from Matthew 5, from the beginning of the longest single section of Jesus’ teachings anywhere in the Bible. We call it the Sermon on the Mount, because (predictably) it’s a long section of teaching delivered on (you guessed it) a mountainside. This three-chapter-long sermon provides some of the most basic, easy-to-understand instruction on how to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. It should be regularly read by all of us.

Here, near the very beginning, Jesus (I believe) understands the reality that I described a moment ago—that without being on the same page about what the Bible is and how to read it, his disciples will become divided and that will undermine the Gospel—the good news of God’s love. And so Jesus works to address all this by showing us once and for all how Jesus reads the Bible, teaching us to read it in the same way.

By providing some “case studies,” Jesus shows us that his way of reading and interpreting the Bible is to focus not on its words or its literal meaning but on its heart. Instead of the slavery of legalism that comes from literalism, Jesus frees us to consider and know God’s heart.

Here’s some examples from just beyond our reading in Matthew 5:

Verses 21 and following reflect on the instructions in Exodus and Deuteronomy to not commit murder. A good rule, right? Any murderers here today?—(no one ever puts their hand up for that one)—But Jesus says that we are all murderers—any of us who have ever called someone a name or otherwise used our words to wound. How we speak of one another and to one another can do as much harm to them as if we physically killed them—and Jesus reminds us that there are terrible consequences for us as well. When God issued the command “You will not murder,” God’s intent was that we see each other as valuable and worth protecting—that we would value the life and person of the other. The heart of this law is that we refrain from acting or speaking in a way that brings harm to others.

As another case study, Jesus again quotes Bible verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy, this time the instruction not to commit adultery (this starts in verse 27 if you’re following along). But once again, Jesus is far from a literalist. He thinks there are many more adulterers than there are people who have had relations outside marriage. The reason? If we lust after another person—if we mentally transform them from a person who is loved by God to an object to be obtained/possessed/conquered/or whatever (even if we never act on it)—we are just as guilty. Once again, we have objectified and dehumanized people created in God’s own image, and, for the harm we do to them and to us, it would be better for our eyes to be plucked out or our hands to be cut off. Jesus invites us to see the heart—the intention—behind the words on the page……words which (in this case) again urge us to value other human beings as much as we value our own life.

Jesus gives a few more examples for us to explore, but I think you get the point. On account of these passages alone, you cannot claim that Jesus was a biblical literalist. In fact, it’s clear from his conflicts with the Pharisees (who were literalists) that Jesus believes the literalists have missed the boat entirely.

Abolish vs. Fulfill

But here’s where some of us still miss the boat: Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Law leads us to believe that the Old Testament is no longer relevant or applicable to the Christian life. But this too is misguided and not consistent with Jesus’ own words.

Here in our scripture lesson, Jesus insists that he has “not come to abolish [scripture] but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). He continues:

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:18)

You see, Jesus does not give us permission to throw two-thirds of our Bible away because it’s hard or ancient or complicated. Instead, he gives us the keys to discover its power. He tells us to read each verse and look for God’s heart—a heart that is most fully revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ himself. As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of Jesus: if it doesn’t measure up, we don’t recognize it as authoritative.

But we also don’t throw it away. We don’t stop asking questions. We don’t stop wrestling with it. We don’t stop trying to find God’s heart in it through prayerful study and discipline.

Alongside that search for answers to difficult questions, we do rely more heavily on those texts and teachings and stories that align most closely with God’s heart incarnate, revealed, and exposed in the person of Jesus. In all texts and stories, we look for how God’s heart is revealed instead of what letters or words are used. As one theologian “famously” proclaimed: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally” (attributed to Karl Barth, but verifiably Madeleine L’Engle in “A Stone for a Pillar”).

To this we might add: “I try to follow Jesus too closely to take the Bible literally.

Conflict

All this is how and why Jesus and the Pharisees keep crossing swords, so to speak. They are both reading and valuing the same scriptures, but they are reading them and understanding them in vastly different ways.

The Pharisees are literalists—every rule must be kept to the letter of the law: murder means murder, adultery means adultery, not working on the Sabbath means not working on the Sabbath.

But Jesus is what we might call a humanist—not in the philosophical way, of course. But in that Jesus recognizes how every instruction issued, every story told—every piece of instruction guides us to recognize and value God’s image revealed in one another and the world. All were written to reveal God’s heart to a world in need of redemption.

Thus, breaking the Sabbath for Jesus has nothing to do with a day of the week or hour of the day—it’s about our human need for rest and to unplug from things, as well as to remember all that God has done for us.

Murder has to do with killing for sure—but Jesus reminds us that there are ways of murdering people with our speech or other ways of denying God’s image in them.

Adultery for Jesus is less about the physical interaction between two people and more a matter of allowing our lustful passions to demean others, turning a human Jesus loves enough to die for into an object or a trophy to possess or win.

Breaking the Law?

Looking at it all through the lens of literalism like a Pharisee would, it seems Jesus is advocating breaking the law—even teaching his followers to do it. But God has frequently pointed out in the Bible that those who work the keep the law literally can completely miss its point—in their literal interpretation and application, they can end up breaking the law they think they are keeping.

One of the most vivid reminders of this comes in Isaiah’s oracle. In Isaiah 58, God offers some harsh reminders to faithful, religious people who have traded the intent the Bible for a literal interpretation of the law. The Israelites are faithfully following the instructed religious practices to the letter: the prescribed sacrifices, fasting, and other rituals as described in the Bible.

But in keeping the Law, they have sinned—at least, that’s what God calls it in Isaiah 58:1. Opposite their empty literalism, God instructs Isaiah to proclaim to them the intent of biblical instruction—God instructs Isaiah to proclaim to them God’s own heart. And here’s what he says: The kind of religion I want is for you

to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
(Isaiah 58:6–7 ESV)

To be open to God requires an openness to our fellow human beings, who bear God’s image and through whom we can experience God. That’s why God through Isaiah insists that when we do these things, then when we call to God, God will answer (Isaiah 58:9). That’s why God says that when we care for each other we will experience God’s care for us. He continues:

If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.” (Isaiah 58:9–12 ESV)

If we can move beyond the slavery of biblical literalism into the freedom of following Jesus’ example to discover God’s heart, then great things await.

God’s kingdom, fulfilled on earth.

Bone weary people rested

Burned up people restored

Dried up people renewed

Broken down people rebuilt

Devastated people made whole again.

It’s not the easy path. But elsewhere in scripture—later on in the Sermon on the Mount, actually—we are reminded that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13–14 ESV).

Prayer

God,

Cultivate in us a dissatisfaction with easy answers,
Make us skeptical when loose ends are tied up too neatly.

Guide us to search for truth,
No matter how hard,
No matter its contradictions or confrontations,
No matter how difficult its journey.

Help us to weigh
Everything we read
Everything we think
Everything we believe
And everything we experience
Against your heart,
Fully revealed in our Savior, Jesus Christ, God incarnate,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever.

Amen.

Your BLANK Means Nothing

 

A Reading: “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation,
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! –but the Elephant,
Is very like a wall!”

The Second. feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!–what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an elephant,
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!’

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like,
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree.”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant,
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun,
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail,
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion,
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

 

1Corinthians 1:18-31

 

“Your _____ means nothing”

As a Christian and as a pastor, one of the most tragic things I see nearly every day is how people fundamentally misunderstand the concept of grace.

These are conversations that haunt me—that keep me up at night, after folks insist on their own self-made salvation.

“But I’m a good person.”

“But I’m active in the community.”

“But I give a lot of money to charity.”

It is hard to affirm the good work people do while simultaneously reminding them that their good work does not save them.

At the same time, it’s a hard thing to discern whether good works are the result of a Gospel-centered life, or whether good works are an attempt to circumvent the Gospel and save ourselves.

The apostle Paul is characteristically bold in attending to these challenges in today’s scripture reading.

Background & Text

The Corinthians live in a world where wisdom is prized and foolishness derided. And take care not to equate “education” with “wisdom” here—that’s not the picture Paul is trying to paint.

The Corinthians fall into that category of people who think they’re always right. Equally proud of their intelligence and ignorance, they are convinced that both make them better than others. Any question, or any problem, can be debated, discussed, and solved by human reason alone. There is nothing they cannot know.

But Paul is brutally explicit with them—all of their reason and knowing, their debates and politics, their intelligence and ignorance—all of it has failed to bring people into knowledge of and relationship with their God. They may know a lot or a little, they may have travelled far or not at all, they may be a Facebook debater par excellance, and yet none of that has translated into living and loving more like Jesus. It has only widened the gap between the gospel and those in need of Christ’s liberating love.

Class Divide

Moreover, there seems to be a class divide in the church at Corinth. Throughout most of the world (at that time) that had been kissed by Jesus’ love, converts to Christianity were more likely the misfits, outcasts, poor, and rogues of society. And in v.26, Paul indicates that the same is the case for the Church in Corinth:

“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1Corinthians 1:26 NIV11).

And yet—as Paul begins to reveal in today’s verses—the elite of society have an out-sized role in the conflicts of the church. Throughout the letter, Paul attends to how those with more (money/influence/power/etc.) are the ones creating divisions and distracting the community from its single-minded focus on Christ. Many of the issues that Paul addresses—such as the eating of meat in 1Cor 8—are simply not applicable to everyone else, as they simply don’t have the resources to participate—meat was too expensive.

But as is still the case today, those with more will often divide and distract those with less for their own selfish gain. Thus (as commentator Harold Mare indicates), Paul uses terms here (wise, influential, noble birth) that “[give] the sweep of all that [people] count socially, politically, and intellectually important” (W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p.196). Right here, in the first chapter of this lengthy letter, Paul wants to make sure they understand that all of that means nothing—not in the terms of Christ’s kingdom.

Philippians

One can hardly read these verses without thinking of Paul’s autobiographical confession in Philippians 3:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4–11 ESV)

In these verses, Paul compares his story to the things others take pride in:

You’re intelligent? I’m intelligent!
You have a proud family history? I have a proud family history!
You grew up on the right side of town? I grew up on the right side of town!
You went to the best schools? I went to the best schools!
You were commended for your service? I was commended for my service!
You sacrificed? I sacrificed!
You backed that political leader? I backed that political leader!
You go to church every week? I go to church every week!
You read the best newspapers and books? I read the best newspapers and books!

But in both Corinthians and Philippians, Paul is not just crooning “Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you,” engaging in an “Annie Get Your Gun”-type competition.

No, Paul’s point is that none of this matters where it really counts.

Your intelligence means nothing
Your wealth means nothing
Your political affiliation means nothing
Your education means nothing

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:7-8a).

Nothing that the world values can put us in better standing with God.

Nothing that we do can earn our salvation or help us “slide through heaven’s back gate,” as someone once suggested to me.

None of it is worth a pile of crap in comparison, which (by the way) is less vulgar than the language Paul actually uses in Philippians 3.

The reason for all this—of course—is grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 tell us “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV).

Or as Galatians 3:26-28 puts it:

It is your faith in the Anointed Jesus that makes all of you children of God because all of you (who have been initiated into the Anointed One through the ceremonial washing of baptism) have put Him on. It makes no difference whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a freeman, a man or a woman, because in Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, you are all one. (VOICE)

It’s simultaneously reassuring and off-putting, I find. In my selfishness, I want some eternal benefit for my Christian upbringing, for the time and financial commitments of my education, and for all those other things that I was erroneously taught would “put stars in my crown.”

God’s grace lifts us up so much higher than any of us could ever go on our own. In order to be made into “children of God,” even the saints among us must be raised and transformed by God’s loving grace a thousand times more than genetics or economics or education or training or self-discipline or genetics or chance or anything else could ever bring about.

Conclusion

So fill in the blank: Your BLANK means nothing. The things we prioritize and pride ourselves for are empty and void of eternal consequence.

By contrast, the things Christ asks of us appear foolish and insignificant in terms of the world.

This is one of those Sundays where I feel a little bit like Moses in Deuteronomy 30, the text we’ll be looking at in two weeks. There, in v.18, he says:

I gave you the choice today between life and death, between being blessed or being cursed. Choose life! (Deut 30:15-18 VOICE).

Choose life!
Choose life

Pray

God, our scripture reading reminds us that you work through things that appear foolish, weak, lowly, and despised. The Gospel story itself is that of the underdog Jesus Christ–underestimated by the forces of evil from the moment of his humble birth to their supposed victory on the cross. But you, O God, have conquered even death itself, and our underdog Savior has come out on top again.

Help us to remember that our positions of power and prestige and wealth and dominance mean nothingespecially when we fail to attend to the people the world sees as foolish, weak, lowly, and despised.

Reconnect us with our faith history as recorded in the Bible, reminding us of the times

When we were foreigners in a foreign land as we walk with our Father Abraham and Mother Sarah;

When we were arrested and wrongly imprisoned alongside our brother Joseph son of Jacob;

When we were homeless and hungry as the Israelites in the wilderness;

When we, alongside the infant Jesus and his family, became aliens and refugees as we escaped persecution and fled to Egypt;

When we (through the Christian churches in Asia Minor) were persecuted by the dominant religion .

Remind us, O God, of our history. And impress upon us again the things you require of us:

to pursue justice,
to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with you, O God.

As these are the things that matter most to you, transform our sinful and broken hearts that they might be the most important things to us as well.

Change us we pray. Amen.

 

4 Sure-Fire Ways to Undermine Gospel Ministry

 

1Corinthians 1:10-18

“4 Sure-Fire Ways to Undermine Gospel Ministry”

There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

He writes to a church that is divided, that has shifted its focus from the Gospel to cultural concerns, that practices individualism to the detriment of community, that aligns itself with government instead of critiquing it, and that (to put no fine point on it) is not following the Way of Jesus.

In the opening verses of this letter, Paul offers the insight of a pastor who truly loves the flock he shepherds. Despite their failings—which are addressed throughout the bulk of this letter—Paul sees their heart, their possibility, and the promise they can live into in Christ.

In the verses we read last week, Paul offers six commendations—six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that are present-but-latent in the Corinthians. These are:

  • the church is rooted in grace
  • the church is mature
  • the church embodies its gifts
  • the church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return
  • the church has a sustaining spirituality
  • and the church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice

All of these things, of course, are descriptive of what it means to be the embodiment of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection depict for us the power of the liberating love of God.

It is important to note that Paul is not tickling their ears with empty praise so they’ll be more open to hearing his criticisms. He truly sees these qualities deep inside them, even if they are not living into them fully. Like all humans and human organizations, the church at Corinth is a study of paradox:

They are rooted in grace but do not show grace to each other.

They are mature but act like little children, unwilling to digest the meaty portions of faith.

They are deeply gifted yet fail to share their giftedness with one another

They know all about Christ’s return yet they do not allow it to drive them to compassionate and urgent action.

And so on.

We—as humans and as a church—embody the same paradoxical reality. There is light and dark in us. We cannot see the planks in our eyes while we pick the speck out of the eyes of each other. Part of the model Jesus demonstrates for us is giving others the freedom to encounter God on the terms of their own life, rather than ours. It means we do not dismiss or judge others because of what is obvious to us. We—if we will look like Jesus—have to trust God enough to believe that God is working in them……in a way that is unique to them……in order to bring us all to our knees before Jesus our Savior.

I think this is why Paul so rapidly changes gears early in this letter to the Corinthians—from its commendable characteristics to its self-defeating practices. He highlights (in our Scripture reading) what I believe are four sure-fire ways to undermine Gospel ministry—four ways of obstructing what God is trying to do through us and others—four “planks” that may be in our eyes which circumvent the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. Divided (v.10)

The first of these is this: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said the reason they don’t go to church is because of how divided and divisive the church is, I’d be fairly well off. Our history—especially as Baptists—is that of schism after schism, splitting from and excommunicating one another over issues that are trivial compared to the Gospel message of Jesus’ love and redemptive power.

In my short lifetime and ministry, I have personally witnessed people breaking fellowship with one another:

because they didn’t like a song leader,

because they didn’t think people of two races should be married,

because a church dared to treat women as fully human,

because a seminary tweeted a bible verse they thought was critical of their chosen politician,

because they didn’t like the contractor the church used for building repairs,

because the pastor was too young,
because the pastor was too old,

because the music was too contemporary,
because the music was not contemporary enough

because the church did not have enough programs,
because the church spent too much on programs,

because so-and-so attends that church,

because that church reads from the wrong bible translation,

because ten or twenty or fifty years ago they had a disagreement with a pastor or church member who has long since gone elsewhere……

It may be that the only thing I have not witnessed is the proverbial conflict over the color of the carpet—though this late-70’s green isn’t going to last forever.

Why are we so divided?

Part of it is certainly that we are human and fail to allow each other to be human. But I believe a bigger piece is that division is the most powerful tool that the powers of darkness use against the cause of Christ. There’s a reason that not one but three words for division appear among the works of the flesh listed by Paul in Galatians 5: “rivalries, dissentions, divisions” (Gal 5:20).

The most effective means of disarming any movement is to divide it: a house divided against itself cannot stand, as Jesus proclaimed in Mark 3:25. From the “union busters” of the last century sent by corporations to cause fights among union members, to the rioters that emerge coincidentally with peaceful protesters today, and back again to the time of Jesus and before—the fastest way of undermining the credibility and mission of any group is to divide them.

The divisions among the Church of Jesus Christ have been sown by powers that work against his cause of love and life, and we as his followers must—MUST!!—recognize and stand against them. In this regard, I believe we are making strides forward. Just days ago, Pope Francis acknowledged that “the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her” (link). That is a huge step toward the reconciliation of our divisions.

But change in our world never comes top-down. It must be Christians—each of us, in grassroots efforts—who chose subversively to live in ways that unite instead of divide, that follow the Jesus who reached out to those different than himself instead of following the world that teaches us to fear those who are different.

Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided.

2. Follow Worldly Leaders (vv.12-13)

Second: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church follows worldly leaders instead of Christ.

Every four years in our country, we cast a ballot for a messiah. No, of course we don’t frame it in those terms, yet republican, democrat, green party, and everyone else argues that their candidate will be the “savior” of our nation, while the other partys candidates will drive us to apocalypse and the brink of extinction. This past year’s process has been particularly vivid in this regard.

This has also been a year where a significant dimension of American Christianity has sacrificed its moral voice on the alter of political power. Now I’m not trying to be political here—I’m trying to be a Christian and a pastor. But when we excuse and condone behaviors that are contrary to the ethic of Jesus, we have undermined the cause of Christ and further silenced the voice of the Gospel.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that words have power in the lives of other people. When we call people names, we do a violence to them that is like committing murder. Rather than disadvantage people, he suggests it would be better to have an eye plucked out or a hand cut off.

I was reminded this week of some other ancient words, penned by a Christian writer early in our history, well before our beloved faith became the tool of an empire. He wrote:

[Christians] live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory.
(Epistle to Diognetus in the 2nd century AD)

As Christians, our most basic confession is “Jesus is Lord.” That is, in its heart, a political statement. It means Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. It means we are Christians first and whatever else second. It means our citizenship in God’s Kingdom trumps any patriotism we may feel for our home country.

The only one we follow is Jesus. For whenever we follow worldly leaders, we undermine the Gospel, and we alienate people from the liberation Jesus desires for them.

3. Complicates the Simple (v.18)

Third: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church complicates God’s mission.

This one is really tough for us. The core message of Jesus—the core reality of our faith—the essential heart of the life to which we are called—it is quite simple: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1John 4:7-8).

God’s mission is simple: God seeks to use God’s transforming power to love the world into wholeness. Jesus himself sums up our responsibility as faithful people with the twin commands of loving God and loving our friends and enemies alike as ourselves. When we don’t know what to do, Jesus provides us with this simple test: How do I love him/her/them in this moment?

It’s a simple thing, really. But we—deceived as we are—work to complicate it.

Do they deserve it, we ask?
Does it cost me too much, we inquire?
Did I get the same breaks, we query?

And soon we look little like the Jesus who laid down his life for those who sought to kill him. As Paul says a few verses down from our scripture reading: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1Corinthians 1:27 NIV11)

Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when we complicate God’s simple mission of loving the world.

4. Pride (v.19)

Fourth and lastly: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is haughty.

Now there’s a part of me that would like to make examples of public religious leaders whose pride has undermined the ministry of the church and disadvantaged the cause of Christ. But I remember the ancient wisdom of the early Christians who suggest doing so brings the same sins and criticisms on your own head. As Jesus says in Matthew 7, the judgment we use against others will be the same judgment used against us.

So let me offer this instead: Pride is antithetical to who Jesus is, and so it should be the furthest thing from who we are as his followers.

Our Savior is one who demonstrated servant leadership time and time again, most vividly by performing the most menial of household duties in the first century—washing the feet of guests. He took towel and bowl and insisted that the only way to have a share in what Jesus was bringing into existence was to be washed and to wash each other. In fact, washing each other’s feet is one of the few times that Jesus directly tells his disciples to ritualize what he is doing. He says in John 13:14-15

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (NIV11)

When was the last time you obeyed Jesus and washed someone’s feet?

We do not often obey this very direct instruction of Jesus to wash each other’s feet. And why? Well, feet are icky and we we feel more humiliated than humbled when we do it. Am I right?

But that also means we don’t get the benefits that come from washing each other’s feet, either. Our pride runs unchecked. We begin to think we are better than others. Then we start to think others are lower than us……maybe even undeserving of grace. And that (in turn) allows us to pat ourselves on the back for not doing a job that we think is pointless—loving someone who won’t accept it anyway. And just like that we have undermined our participation in God’s mission, and we have probably compromised someone else’s ability to do it too.

When a church is haughty—when we fall ill to the pride that Jesus says in Mk 7:22 defiles us—the advancement of the Gospel of Christ is severely impaired.

Conclusion

That’s it. Those are four sure-fire ways to undermine Gospel ministry: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided, when it follows worldly leaders instead of Christ, when it complicates God’s mission, and when it is swelled with pride.

All four of these are present—and even central—to the identity of the American church. But they hold us back—and they hold others back—from the redemptive power of God’s love.

But just as Paul doesn’t give up on the Corinthians, so we must not give up on each other. One by one, as we live into God’s redemptive love—as we exchange our own ambitions and perspective and sense of fairness for that of our savior—the mission of God is expanded. The cause of Christ is advanced. The kingdom of God is brought nearer, as God’s will is done, on earth just as it is in heaven.

Six Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church

 

1Corinthians 1:1-9

 

“6 Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church”

There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

That’s a big statement, but I mean it. The church at Corinth is where we find ourselves in the United States today. Their struggles are our struggles; their failings are our failings. But I also believe that their strengths are our strengths too. Listen to this—this is a description of the Corinthian church written by an author around thirty years ago. The author begins talking about how populous Christianity has become and then says:

It was full of cliques, each following a different personality. Many Christians were very snobbish: at fellowship meals the rich kept to themselves, and the poor were left alone. There was very little church discipline: a lot of laxity was allowed, both in morals and in doctrine—an all-too-common combination. They were unwilling to submit to authority of any kind and the integrity of Paul’s own apostleship was frequently questioned. There was a distinct lack of humility and consideration for others, some being prepared to take fellow-Christians to court and others celebrating their new-found freedom in Christ without the slightest regard for the less robust consciences of fellow believers. In general, they were very keen on the more dramatic gifts of the Spirit and were short on love rooted in the truth.

(David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, in “The Bible Speaks today,” ed. John R. W. Stott, IVP, p.19).

Any of that sound familiar?

Though Christians make up over 70% of our population, the American church has been infiltrated by cancerous schisms that undermine what is common to us all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/)

Though we follow the Jesus who breaks the chains that divide and destroy us, Sunday morning remains “the most segregated hour of the week,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed many years ago. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/6367/most-segregated-hour.aspx)

Differing economics continue to divide churches from communities, as well as within churches.

There is an incredible amount of blowback on pastors and churches who attempt to speak about moral issues, and God have mercy on any pastor who teaches against what someone learned on the History Channel or what they think they were taught 30 years ago as a child in Sunday School. Such actions typically lead to personal attacks and smear campaigns as their authority (or any authority) is challenged.

Humility and consideration for others are qualities that are no longer associated with those practicing the Way of Jesus. Quite the opposite: we are seen as arrogant, self-righteous, and self-involved—unconcerned with the plight of anyone but ourselves.

Christians attack other Christians with a ferocity that is unmatched by unbelievers, while the faith of each is considered such an individual affair that no concern for community or building up of one another is even considered.

We have become very big on our displays of self importance and very weak on demonstrating love rooted in truth.

Welcome to the Roman Empire, citizens. This is Corinth.

 

And yet somehow—proving (in my book) once and for all that Paul really does have a pastor’s heart deep down inside somewhere—he also looks at the Corinthian Christians and sees the foundation of a tremendous church, a great church, the best church.

Because he (like any good pastor) truly loves this church, Paul is able to see it through the eyes of Christ. And after the description I read a moment ago, this might feel jarring—but it’s true. Despite the massive failings, self-sabotage, and undermining of the message of Jesus Christ that is going on at Corinth, there are six characteristics that they already exhibit that can save it. Six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that the church of Corinth—and these United States—needs to live into in the coming months and years.

(these start in v.4)

1. Rooted in grace

First: the church is rooted in grace.

This is the first and most important of these characteristics. As Christians, the grace of God available to us because of Jesus Christ is to be the cornerstone of everything we are and of all that we do.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of the grace we have received, nothing we try will succeed.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of how that grace has changed us, no one will hear.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of why we need God’s grace, we won’t just fail to be a praise-worthy church—we will fail to be a church at all, regardless of what is on our sign or in the phone book.

The church of Jesus Christ is rooted in grace—grace is at the heart of the gospel, so grace must be at the heart of who we are.

2. Is mature

Second: A praise-worthy church is mature.

This is a place where our American church fails—we are (to use Paul’s language) like 30-year-olds who are still drinking milk out of sippy cups and bottles. We never matured. We never grew up. But the Christian life is something that matures.

For too long, churches and pastors in this country have thought our job was to “get people saved.” Everything we did—missionary work, evangelistic outreach, worship songs, emotionally manipulative sermons, alter calls—everything was focused on getting someone to say a prayer, get baptized, and join the church. After that, they were SOL.

We didn’t expect their growth; we only cared about church growth—statistics.

We didn’t watch for the endowment of gifts or their expression.

We wanted the credit for their name ending up in the Book of Life, and once it was there we moved on to some other poor soul.

No wonder so many became restless with the bottle-fed milk of spiritual immaturity that we were forcing on them.

No wonder those who remained began to think worship and church was all about meeting their own needs.

No wonder the church has little voice of consequence in the public arena.

If we do not nurture and grow our Christian faith—if the Christian churches of this nation cannot ditch the bottles and diapers—then no one will take us seriously enough to consider that we might have something of importance to offer.

3. Embodies its giftedness

Third: a praise-worthy church embodies its gifts.

Did you know in Greek the word for gift is connected to the word for grace? These spiritual gifts are “graces.” I find that really ties all this together.

The gifts we are given are graces that we are expected to share in community—we are to embody them for the benefit of others.

Think of the Parable of the Talents. That’s weird, y’all. God gets all harsh on the dude who plays it safe. It’s the polar opposite of how most of us live out our faith. But if there’s one thing that’s clear it’s the moral of the parable: God wants us to use the talents we are given.

Later on in Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul stresses that we are gifted uniquely so our unique gifts may be shared to edify the community of faith. That is their primary purpose. When we insist on only using our gifts outside the church, or when we do not pursue the necessary discernment, prayer, and conversation to discover what our gifts actually are, we handicap God’s community, God’s mission, and God’s kingdom.

One further reminder here: Paul is not speaking to individuals but to a church—a community. No individual will “be enriched in every way” and “not lacking any spiritual gift.” It’s just not possible for an individual person. But it is more than possible for this to be the case within a group who are sharing their graces with one another—this is the way God designed us and this thing called “church” to work.”

4. Is oriented/motivated by Christ’s return

Fourth: a praise-worthy church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return.

The return of Christ is a polarizing thing among Christians. For many, having a proper understanding of an “end times” timeline is fundamental to salvation—at least that’s what I’ve learned the many times I was told I wasn’t saved because I didn’t believe the right things.

But, you know? I just don’t see too many Christians motivated to action by this though. Their complicated manipulations of the biblical text don’t just lack an appropriate regard for context—they also fail to help people live more like their Savior Jesus.

In contrast, a praise-worthy church is one that orients its mission toward Christ’s return. Their focus on the coming of Christ leads them to deeper and more passionate engagement, as they sense an urgency in the work that has been entrusted to us. Genuine belief that Jesus is coming back drives such a church into more and more radical displays of grace and love as we enact God’s justice here on earth—the justice that lifts up the lowest and least of our world, remembering that “just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”

5. Has a sustaining spirituality

Number 5: a praise-worthy church has a sustaining spirituality.

More than ever before, Christians are burning themselves out and destroying their faith communities in the process. Churches, to be honest, bear a big part of the blame for this—it has been we who manipulate and guilt-trip people into overcommitting, serving far outside their giftedness and calling, and (all the while) expecting more than ever before.

I have known many Christians who flat refuse to join a church as a matter of self-care. Their experience of joining a church involves guilt-laden commitments, a burden on their family’s schedule, and a host of other unhealthy realities. So they self-censor these things from their lives by never joining.

I have known countless others who aren’t even sure they’re Christians anymore. They have witnessed selfishness, divisive behaviors, greed, and hypocrisy to the point that they have become disillusioned, unsure that there even is a God if even God’s own people can’t do better than this.

In both groups, these people have become burned out or they’ve been burned as others flame out. Involved are people who were never taught that Christian spirituality is one that sustains, not drains. The model for our lives is to be Jesus, yet Jesus has no problem repeatedly taking retreats and times of prayer to balance out those public engagements and challenging experiences. This pattern is seen over and over in his ministry, yet we as his followers are overcommitted, stressed beyond belief, and running on fumes.

The praise-worthy church knows its members can’t burn a candle at both ends for long—that is not the way of Jesus, and it is not to be our way. Our way is a way of embodied and sustaining spirituality that nurtures, heals, and unites.

6. Correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice 

Sixthly and lastly, a praise-worthy church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice.

While I know from a broader reading of 1Corinthians that this is a sixth and vital characteristic of a praise-worthy church, I admit it is a bit of a stretch here. But when Paul says in v.9 that “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” this is considerably more involved than being Facebook friends.

If God has called us into “fellowship” with Jesus, God has called us to be co-laborers with Christ, participating fully with him in the advancement of God’s agenda of grace and love. That agenda—that mission—involves being in active pursuit of the same justice Jesus pursued:

justice for those on the margins of society

those who are sick—and who are preyed upon because of illness

those who fall between the cracks of bureaucracy

those who do not have enough

those who are without hope

those who are victims of themselves or others

those whose only way out they can see is in a body bag

and those for whom everything is just that much harder.

When the Bible says “justice,” it isn’t talking about the kind of elementary school fairness where everybody gets a candy bar. It’s talking about upsetting the entire system—taking food from the rich kids and giving to the ones who only get peanut butter sandwiches, punishing the bully and encouraging the bullied, nurturing students instead of boosting test scores.

The testimony of the Bible is that God loves an underdog. And if we are going to be a praise-worthy church, we’re going to get pretty raucous in pursuit of God’s kind of justice too.

Love

The funny thing about all of this—when we really think about it—is that it all comes down to love. Everything has a way of doing that, when we talk about God. In fact, while I was writing this sermon my oldest daughter wanted to help. So I had her get out her Bible and read the verses a few times to herself, I told her to listen really, really hard for what God might be trying to tell us. Listen for what God might want someone else to hear. After a few minutes of uncanny quiet and still, she replied: “Dad, I think I heard God, and what he wants us to hear is “I love you.”

The grace in which we are rooted is on account of God’s love.

Our spiritual maturity grows because God loves us enough to engage us in friendship.

We embody our gifts because we have been loved by God and know the responsibility we have in passing that love on to others.

The Incarnation of Jesus came about because of love, as will the Return of Christ our King.

Our sustaining spirituality was modeled by the Jesus who loves us so, and who continues to be our friend.

And God’s justice is intrinsically rooted in the love God has for us. I made the claim some time back that it is actually God’s mercy—what some translations call God’s “lovingkindness” that drives God’s pursuit of justice for the lowest and least in our world.

If you hear nothing else this morning, hear this: The voice of God, echoing in your innermost being: “I love you.”