Second in Ordinary/Baptism of Christ (January 14). First in Love of God series: “Jesus the Beloved”

 

Gen 1:1-5 ; Mark 1:4-11

I promised a series on the Love of God during Advent. Nothing so encapsulates who we are and what we are about as a church as the Love of God. So the Love of God gives us a point to rally around and in which to find our unity; this is just what we need as we approach our annual meeting. And yet the mystery that underlies the love of God is bottomless. (So I haven’t figured out how long this series will go!)

Most of us agree that love is central to who God is, and also that Jesus has something important to do with God’s love. But we might not be sure or agree about what that is. So I want to take this sermon series to rethink God’s love through Jesus. Today I want to explore how Jesus holds together God’s love with God’s justice.

That point is important to make, for when we hear the “Love of God,” many of us will hear in that phrase a contrast to the justice of God. Love and justice are opposite, we might think. Love forgives, justice punishes. There’s some truth to that. But then we end up with a God who is two-faced. As if sometimes God is loving, other times God judges and punishes. How then can we sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with its line, “There is no shadow of turning in thee?” I think we’ve made a mistake. I think that the deeper into God’s love you penetrate, the more you find it united to God’s judgment; and vice versa.

Now, part of the reason we think love and justice are different is that we assume love means affirming someone as she is. (We believe this: “Wherever you are…” We are open and affirming.) Well that’s good; giving affirmation to others is for us a vital and important component of love. Now, we also happen to live in an era in which many believe self-affirmation and high self-esteem are the surest ticket to human goodness. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” (No, that’s not in the Bible. That’s secular wisdom, and we should be wary of it.)

On the other hand, we assume judgment means disapproving of someone as he is. And we try to avoid judging people; we associate judging with being judgmental, and truly that is a bad quality, in part because being judgmental means we are assuming the authority to sum up everything someone is and pronounce approval or disapproval. To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place. But God reminds us: vengeance is mine. So for us, we rightly love and affirm a lot, but judge and disapprove a little or never (I hope). Love and judging are very different.

But are they so different in God? Are love and judgment in God mutually exclusive like this? Or have we taken our human idea of love and justice and projected them onto God; God who said, “My ways are not your ways.” Have we said, well, if loving for me means affirming people as they are, then when God loves us, God must affirm us as we are? And God wouldn’t judge us, right? After all, the least God can do is to live up to our standards of good behavior.

Well, we should ask ourselves whether God’s love must have this same quality of affirmation and self-esteem building that has become popular in the last 40 years. Perhaps we’ve concluded that God must love us by making us feel good about who we are. And then we’ve concluded that since God loves like that, like a good parent who never says anything negative, then God can’t possibly be a judging God. And so we’ve ended up with the idea that love and judgment are simply opposed, and God can’t both be loving and just, in the sense of condemning what is wrong in us, or even just showing us that our glory lies still in our future.

And then we become very puzzled by Scripture. The Bible just doesn’t say that God loves us by affirming who we are. So we resort to dividing the Bible up between the good parts and the bad parts. (Now I am the first to admit that there are some bad parts of the Bible, at least parts that are very troubling and don’t seem useful.) And so doesn’t just about everyone say, The God of the Old Testament is a judging God, but the God of the NT is loving. I hear that all the time. It’s a little dangerous because it can go in an anti-Jewish direction, recalling my sermons from last August, as if the Jewish God is the bad, judging God. But it’s also just patently false. God is loving in both testaments; and God justly judges in both testaments. Even a quick reading of the Gospels will show you a Jesus who is very critical of his society’s religious leaders, even of “this whole generation;” and he is also quick to rebuke his disciples.  Our idea of a meek and mild Jesus who just wants to make everyone feel good is a myth—an idol.

So it seems we have placed our limited and faulty idea of /what love is/ upon God; we’ve remade God in our image. And that is how God’s people from the very first have so easily found themselves worshipping an idol instead of the true God. The true God is not divided; God is never forced to choose between being loving and just. God is one, even if God looks one way rather than another to our fallen little minds. But the more we immerse ourselves in God’s wholeness, or the more we ascend into God’s infinite and eternal being, the more we can perceive the oneness of God, the sameness of God’s love and justice.   Of course, none of us ever rises to perfectly see God in this way.

So thank God we have Jesus our Christ to guide our weak powers of perception, and to protect us from our tendency toward recasting God into our limited image of God. As I said last week, by the incarnation in Jesus the Christ, God showed God’s own infinite being to us in a way we could grasp and live with. If God hadn’t shrunk himself to our size in a way that still contained God’s whole and infinite being, then we would inevitably do so for ourselves, shrinking God into a idol that we can handle, thereby losing the God who is truly our Lord, and never the other way around.

It is Jesus the Christ who holds together all that God is, including both love and justice, in a way that brings us life. In Christ we are loved and forgiven by God, yes; but also in him we are truly judged and our flaws and sin are made known and purged away.

I want try to be very clear on this difficult point about Jesus. He is not just a delivery person for the good gifts of God. He doesn’t show up at our door and drop off good things from God, certainly not things like wealth and success, as some Christians persist in believing, but not even the gifts that are unquestionably good, like our Advent virtues of hope, love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t present these to us like a passage which then becomes our property, receiving our thanks and perhaps a tip, and then we add these goods to our other valued items like family, prosperity, meaningful careers, and so on. Neither is baptism a conveyer of gifts which we then own, whether we think of the gifts as salvation, forgiveness, or even meaningful ‘spiritual experiences.’ Of course we do experience tangible benefits from faith in Christ, although if we lived in a different time or place we might just as easily experience persecution and suffering for our faith. If Jesus just delivered the goods to us as our property, and if baptism in his name just magically conveyed some powers or benefits to us, we wouldn’t need to read and ponder so much about his life, about the things he did and said. We could just talk about our own experiences of God’s benefits, with a nod to Jesus our delivery man.

Here’s the way it really is: the blessings we have from Jesus all come second to, and indeed grow out of, the blessing we have in Jesus. That is, the greatest blessing we receive, and the principle blessing of baptism, is that we die to ourselves and now live our life in Jesus the Christ. Now, this is where you might say to yourself, “there goes the pastor again, being obscure, sounding like an academic, instead of preaching about things that are meaningful to my life.” Now, I have been known to do that, fair enough. But not this time. I am simply preaching the great mystery of the gospel, the great mystery of baptism, and maybe you have a hard time understanding it because you’d rather focus on the blessings that you get to call your own. I like those things too. But those blessings might just be good luck, or our vain wishes. So we need to listen to the mystery of baptism as Paul describes it (and I’m just explaining what he says in Romans):

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Let me try to make this clear: the greatest blessing and gift we get from Christ and from baptism is to have my ego taken away, my ME, my entrapment within my own cares, my own way of seeing things, and especially my own hang-ups and problems; but also the ME that people have put down, and all my insecurities that come from that. Jesus doesn’t give you a whole bunch of good things, so much as he takes away your life. We like to say, we’re saved! But it is truer to say that you lose your life. And if you are really attached to your ego, to having things my way, to the world revolving around me, or if you accept that you are low as your harassers have been saying you are, baptism is going to feel like you are drowning. But once you realize how wonderful it is to be freed from the prison of Me and Mine, and to be raised into being Christ’s and God’s, you will really feel the gift of salvation; then you will know peace and joy and love and hope like you never have; then shall suffering becoming bearable and all your fears will be conquered. This is the love of God that is also justice; the love that slays our old self in a way that might feel like a punishing fire, until we realize it is really the warmth and light of love.

Jesus holds together God’s love and justice. We see this in his baptism. Jesus wasn’t baptized so he could receive gifts from God. He did not need to be saved from sin. Instead, his baptism was first of all a submission of himself to God and to humanity. It is already a laying down of his life to God, and it is a perfect human act of humility to accept baptism, an act of repentance, not for himself but for all humanity. Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of righteousness; it is exactly the right self-giving act that the messiah of God should do. And then by doing this act, Jesus sees the heavens open up to earth, and the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” No one else has ever heard those words, so far as we know. Jesus alone receives them, but for us all, so that when we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we also hear those words of love as our own; and then we begin to share in that same Holy Spirit, in the power to participate in God’s justice on earth.

God knows we will not unite love and justice as Jesus did. We do not easily give up our egos; we want to hold on to our lives as at least a little bit our own. That’s ok. We are not called to literally lay down our lives for God. God in goodness and mercy gives us the grace of creation with its pleasures and delights, while also opening us up to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as much as we are called to do. The waters of baptism are the perfect symbol here. They signify to us the death to ourselves and rebirth into God’s life; but because those waters carry the echo from creation in Genesis, baptism also conveys the continuing blessing upon the creation in distinction from God. God also says it is good that we continue as created beings doing our own thing, living our own life. God loves us also like that, even in our sinfulness. But in Jesus we find the love of God that unites us also to God’s justice. And so we will watch and listen as Jesus’ life of loving justice unfolds, showing us a godly humanity that we also can participate in. That story will continue all the way until Holy Week, when we shall see the union of God’s love and justice is all its mystery and splendor.

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Last Sunday in Ordinary/Reign of Christ: “Reigning as the Least”

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christ the King of the Universe Sunday is the final Sunday in our liturgical year. This is our New Year’s Eve, liturgically speaking. Next Sunday our new liturgical year begins with Advent, and our whole sanctuary will be transformed into a festive scene of expectation and hope for the coming One, Jesus the Christ born in Bethlehem. /So how is it that we go from celebrating Christ as our king one Sunday, to waiting for him to arrive the next?

Well, we should note that celebrating the Reign of Christ on the final Sunday of the liturgical year is not an ancient tradition at all; the festival began in 1925 and only later was moved to the current Sunday. But it makes sense to me. Recall that we’ve been in ordinary time since June 4, Pentecost. For these five months we’ve been trying to be the living presence of Christ and Christ’s kingdom here and now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the three slaves from last week’s parable, we have been entrusted with the possessions of the master. And we have been working hard to benefit God’s estate until the master returns. We are not laboring in vain. Our work as a church is not a pointless gesture, a Quixotic effort that we know will never succeed (“To Dream the Impossible Dream”). The world may think that our efforts are dreamy at best, pointless at worst. Reality is cold and brutal, they say; goodness shall never reign in human hearts. People are selfish. The reality is, is things will never change (That’s what people say, with their double ises). You Christians are just living a pipe dream.

Today we respond with a resounding: No! Our work is real work that we expect with real hope is going somewhere. Our work is based on God and God’s own power will complete and perfect our work. Capping off our efforts, including our recent commitment to another year of good stewardship, by lifting high the Reign of Christ is our way of saying: Christ will be King of all! Peace and justice shall reign on the earth. Indeed, today we recognize that already this is so. Christ reigns here and now!

Our reading from Ephesians speaks this truth beautifully. As always, Paul begins his letter by being thankful for the church at Ephesus. We also should begin by being thankful for the church at Granby. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…”   But Paul’s being thankful doesn’t at all mean the Ephesians were perfect and complete Christians (nor are we). He goes on to pray for God to give them a spirit of “wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” You see, they don’t know all of that yet. They have faith in Jesus and love for the saints, but there is still a lot for these Ephesians to learn.

Paul points that out so positively and without a trace of shaming them or taking back his great thankfulness for them. And likewise, you know what I love so much about this place is our ability to admit freely our puzzlement over and disagreement with some beliefs in the Christian faith. We don’t feel the need to piously pretend to be all orthodox. I was talking recently with two people here that I have always admired for the way they live such spiritually centered lives—indeed, models that I strive to follow. And they were both agreeing that they had come a long way in their spiritual journeys and were thankful for that, despite challenges that remain. And then one said: “But this Jesus, I don’t get what the big deal is.” And the other said, “Yeah, me neither.” I love it. A more uptight church and pastor would be scandalized. But obviously, like with the Ephesians, faith and love have become vessels of God’s power for us, even if some details remain hazy.

What shocked me (for real) was when I told this story to a friend who is an expert in Christianity and he said, Yeah, “I guess Jesus had to die for our sins, but I don’t really get it.” <Palm to forehead> Do you see what terrible straits the Christian faith is in? But I especially have to sigh a sigh of world weariness. <sigh> Because I really see, now—it took me a long time—and I appreciate (at least I’m beginning to) the glorious treasure we have in our faith in Jesus the Christ. With Paul I can say, “Blessed be the God and Father (or Mother) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Ephesians 1:3).  I can’t claim with confidence that I’m a better person in any way for it, sadly, but I get what having faith in Jesus the Christ is all about. You won’t hear me say this often, but I have been given something precious. I did nothing to earn this gift, but it inspired the work I have done. And I give thanks. / It is perfectly understandable that most people struggle and fail to grasp the meaning of the reign of Christ. The Bible is far from easy to read; the church has done a pretty poor job grasping and passing on this faith, and we’ve often been distracted from, and maybe a little slothful about, pursuing it. But I get it. And I thought you should know, because I would love to be a resource for you. (Maybe you’ll think about that adult confirmation class.)

What faith in Christ is all about is simple in essence, but like a ray of light it can refract through the crystal of life into the most complex and multicolored patterns. Still the essence is still there. With all due respect to my friend to so many of our old hymns, forgiveness of sins is only one of those refracted colors and beams, it is not the essence. And you might say “love” but I don’t think that’s the essence either; love doesn’t require a king. The essence is this: Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple. That’s what the whole Bible is about. That’s what everything we do here is about, most simply at Christmas. Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple, and yet humanity is both so near and so far from that union that we need the crystal of Jesus to illuminate the messy complexity of our many paths and challenges to that union with God.

Christ contains many facets. He is said to be a prophet; he is said to be a priest, and even our spouse. But another facet concerns the power of God which we have access to as human beings, and for this Christ is our king. Paul prays that the Ephesians will understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Now the rules of power and authority in our world are generally very clear. Be loyal to friends; hate (or at least ignore) your enemy. The one who is on top is entitled to feel high and mighty; the one on the bottom is expected to feel small and resentful. If you are powerful you might be able to get away with stealing or trickery, but the closest we expect you to come to goodness is a square deal: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. All of that is what usually passes for power and its trappings—for reigning.

Jesus upended all of that. Our king turned kingship on its head. And because of that, the (powers that be) lifted him in mockery on a cross and called him “King of the Jews.” But God raised him from the dead, for our sakes, so we could know that his way was the true way of power. Paul continues: “And God made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We the church are his body, the fullness of Christthat word in Greek does not mean the way you felt after Thanksgiving, but “completeness.” We are the completeness of Christ, which might sound odd, as if Christ weren’t complete by himself. But Christ exists for others. He exists for his body, for his way of turning power on its head to become the way of life for a people, even for all people, for “all in all.” And so we as fullness of the Christ reign do not hate our enemies. We still love our friends, but we don’t affirm them when they do wrong; we desire for them what we desire for ourselves: to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. People among us who are powerful are to be servants to others; the one being served loves in turn and serves others. We would never think of trickery or selfish gain, but nor would we intone: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. No, we look out for the good of each other, rather than me thinking about your good only as a way to get mine.

Now, we’re not really that church yet, that fullness of Christ—right? The sinful marks of fallen and corrupt power are still to be found within us. But what I’ve described is what we are called to be, every time we invoke the one who is above every name that is named, the one who is the reality of God’s union with humanity. And we become the fullness of this one whenever we, in our way of life and our practice as a community, truly love one another.

But even then, would we really be the fullness of Christ? Or would we then just become a kind of self-enclosed love fest?   Our parable from Matthew reminds us that faithfulness to Christ our King means than just loving one another. Perhaps the most amazing beam of color and light to come out of this gem we know as Jesus is his particular identification with the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering, and the neglected. In this way, Jesus is God’s justice, God’s setting right of the most egregious inhumanity that people commit on one another—often by naively innocent neglect.   So Jesus, at the coming of his kingdom in fullness, mounts the throne of his glory, as the parable has it. And he, Christ the King of the Universe, judges all the nations of the world. This is the perfect image of absolute power. But what no one is able to see, even the righteous, is that this one seated on the throne in absolute power is really to be found in the face of lowliest need: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison. And in this parable, each of us is judged according not to whether I did harm or not, it’s whether I went out of my way to help these poor ones, or ignored them. So if we’re saying and singing and praying: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I love my Jesus, and we think we’ve got it all covered, we are going to surprised like the goats in this parable. Because Jesus went to the cross not just so our sins could be forgiven and we can go to heaven despite being sinners—if that is even true—he went to the cross to be truly united with human beings who suffer, who are cast out, who are oppressed. And if we are going to come to know Jesus, as Paul wants us to, in the immeasurable greatness of his power (to be all those who suffer), then we’d better do more than make a joyful noise. We’d better go feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, and take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner. We’d better do some serious, hands-dirty, face to face mission work. We’d better get to know the reality of suffering in those most afflicted, and also in ourselves, for all of us know suffering. Otherwise we might find we don’t recognize this Jesus at all.

And perhaps that is why we go from acknowledging Christ as our King today, to waiting for him to come again next week. Because measured by our actions, maybe we’re not yet living up to the proclamation of Christ as our king. We do fine greeting Christ on the throne here in church, but are we more often neglecting the Christ in the lowly and the least, rather than coming to their aid? If so, then Paul’s desire that we come to know Christ better is still in our future, and perhaps it is time for us to once again admit that this Christ is a stranger to us. Or that we are strangers to him; and we shudder to imagine hearing those words: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Or we shudder to imagine hearing Christ’s answer to the foolish bridesmaids knocking at the door: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” To that shudder, the fast of Advent, by which we take the humble posture of waiting for Christ to come, is the appropriate response. May Christ reign among you, and may he come.

 

Spiritual Inventory #8: Is God in Your Friendships?

Wow, this series is running long.  It’s been good and all, but it just feels like time to move on.  But this was well received.   

Heads up!  The 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation is next week!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matt 18: 15-22

You try to take care of your body, right? Sure, we all could do better. We care for our bodies so that we can accomplish our purposes, live our life. Our body makes possible our spirit, small “s,” our vibrant interaction with the world. For that reason we care for our bodies; but we wouldn’t want to spend so much time focusing on diet and exercise that we forget to live.

We are a social body. Our muscles and ligaments and circulatory system are our relationships with one another. We follow some rules, but mostly it is our personal relationships, our fellowship, that hold us together as a body, that make us move and act as one. We have to take care of this body. It can atrophy from lack of use; our muscles, our relationships, can become flabby when our fellowship is underused. This body can also become diseased; wounds of hurt relationships and anger can fester when not cleansed and allowed to heal. I’ll say more on that later. We need to tend to the health and wellbeing of this body, especially if we intend to grow, to get bigger and stronger.

But if that’s all we were—a social body, a collection of people in fellowship—we would be just a club. We would spend all our time just meeting and talking, and our talk would mostly be gossip. We would do nothing but fundraise to enable our social club to continue. If we were just a social club, we would attend to nothing else as much as our building, because we need a place to fellowship in, as well as our staff, because they coordinate our club meetings. That isn’t us, is it?

Because we are more than a fellowship, a body, for its own sake. We are not and could never be just a social club. In First Corinthians, Paul says to the church: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” That means we all share a single Spirit: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” So let’s put it all together: we need to develop, heal, and nurture our fellowship life, our relationships with one another—our ‘body’—so that we can sustain Christ as our head and give God’s Spirit a place to dwell in power. We exist as a body so people will see our head, see the face of Christ over us.

And what does that mean, to recognize Christ as our head? Briefly, that Christ is our head means we represent a community that practices a godly ideal, namely, we’d rather risk our life, on a cross if necessary, practicing love toward all others, than to settle for putting myself above others, or loving and benefitting only those who I think are worthy or admirable, or only liking and honoring ‘our own kind.’ If that was how God loved us, God would have kicked us to the curb long ago. So, if we want Christ as our head and Spirit of our body, we need to be a community where compassion and forgiveness rule among us instead of ego and bearing grudges (more on that later), and we need to be constantly reaching out beyond ourselves to really welcome and embrace people we might otherwise ignore or even disdain. A healthy, Christian fellowship will do all this.

So to begin, it is vital that we have a vibrant social life. That’s what our body is made of. We should be a place where people find fun within committed and trusted friendship. Look at the first question on your inventory: What kinds of activities can we do to boost our fellowship and deepen our faith at the same time. What would you commit to? Take a moment to jot down any thoughts.

But if we just do more fellowship, more activities, even with more Spiritual upbuilding and dedication, we will not necessarily be a completely healthy body that shows forth the Spirit or the face of Christ. Now we have a lot to celebrate here, a lot to be thankful to God for, as a social body. I regularly hear people talk about what a friendly place this is, and there are strong friendships here. It’s not on the inventory, so take a moment to acknowledge and give thanks for what God has made of our body …

But: Question two. How bad a problem do we have with bearing grudges? Rate us from 1 for no problem to 10 for a serious and pervasive problem. I expect we have a wide variety of perceptions on this. Question Three: Do you bear a grudge against someone in the church? Keep in mind that if you think you are innocent but find yourself constantly blaming someone else for holding a grudge against you, I have news for you: you are holding a grudge! Whenever you see someone and think: “Fault! Blame!”—that’s a grudge.

And we have two excellent Scriptures today on grudges and how to be free of them. Because I bet you think the “Christian” answer to grudges is “Forgive, forgive, forgive!” Keep forgiving until you hit 77 times. We’ve all heard that text many times. Forgiveness is absolutely vital, but it is possible to overemphasize forgiveness. God forgives us indeed, but God also calls us into holiness and transforms us (through Word and Spirit, remember?).

Our reading from Leviticus (from next week’s lectionary) picks it up there: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And then this commandment: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Yes, we know all about that: we’re supposed to love each other, think nice thoughts about each other, always assume the best. We’re supposed to be all <Smiles>. Actually, no, not really. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” Not fakey smiles. Reprove, which means correct, admonish, set right. Go to that person directly—not to others; that’s slander and it’s forbidden—and confront him or her with what you perceive, emphasis on perceive, to be the problem. You are not allowed to simply bottle up the offense you feel, thinking that’s the loving thing to do; no, then “You will incur guilt yourself.” To keep the hard feelings inside is to cut yourself off from a honest and true relationship with your sister or brother. And in the secret recesses of your heart, maybe you want to hold on to that grudge. Maybe you have grown to like the unnatural, secret, private heat that hatred brings the heart. Obviously, lots of people do in our world. If everyone knows “All you need is love,” why is hate so persistent? It holds it’s own seductive form of self-gratifying power.

Leviticus continues: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” When someone does wrong to us, especially here in the church, we either want to lash out in response or bury it inside of us and nurse it as a grudge. Fight or flight. Instead, we are commanded to do the more difficult but more loving thing: communicate our grievance directly. (And you can try this outside the church too.) This is difficult because it can so easily turn into taking vengeance. Jesus’s instructions add wisdom here. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Don’t use the occasion to humiliate the wrongdoer in front of others.   That will only make her or him defensive. (Now, by the way, the guidelines might differ if there has been an abuse of power or certainly any kind of assault or harassment. Let’s stick with ordinary wrongdoing in word and deed.)

Pointing out a fault in private takes a great deal of courage, and also spiritual discernment. You have to ask yourself: Am I doing this to make myself feel superior? Am I trying to bring this person down a peg? What is your heart set on as you go to confront one who sinned against you? If the Spirit is moving you, your heart should be set on lifting up this other one. It should be set on restoring your relationship. Love should be streaming out of you to this other, precisely while you are explaining what you think she or he did wrong. Being filled with Christ’s Spirit of love is what will guide you right and make a potentially uncomfortable occasion into a beautiful and rewarding one for you. And use that technique I talked about in the Message for All Ages.

But be prepared for things to get complicated. Be ready for the other person to see things differently. What someone said or did might have meant something to you which that person could not have anticipated. It might all be a matter of miscommunication—praise God! Or be prepared for your own faults to be a part of the problem. This honest dealing with grievances will work best if we are all prepared spiritually to have our faults pointed out to us, and if those doing so are prepared to accept that the fault was more in your perception than in the person’s act. It all begins with God’s command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

But we are not holy, not completely. That’s why Jesus allows that dealing with a fault one on one won’t always work. So then you bring in one or two others (are you ready for this, Deacons?). And finally you bring it before the whole church, and see if the offender will listen. We welcome everyone to this church, wherever you are coming from. But if someone persists in abusive, cruel behavior and refuses to repent, we must be prepared to let that person go, for the good of the body of Christ.

But I can hardly imagine that happening. We can rest assured that our grievances will almost always resolve in clarifying a miscommunication, or in admission of wrongdoing, an apology, and a willingness to do better. That’s when you forgive, and not seven but seventy seven times. Phew!

We need to work creatively at building a more satisfying and fun social life here, for the sake of our body. And then we need appreciate and take seriously how we are called by Christians to practice justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness with each other. The everyday ins-and-outs of Christian fellowship carry an absolute purpose for us, for there is so much at stake in doing Christian fellowship right. ‘Be Holy for I the Lord am Holy.’ And as Jesus said: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What we do and how we live are bound up with God own doing and living. We are the body of the living Christ, the Son of God. It might all sound intimidating. It’s not, because God is a merciful God.   Instead, it is glorious. Even in the seemingly small ways that we treat each other when two or three are gathered become serious occasions for living as God’s very presence and power. Let’s glory in our Christian fellowship as a friendship charged with the divine, and let’s treat it with the utmost care as the holy thing it is.

Spiritual Inventory Week Seven-Fellowship

Spiritual Inventory #2: “Bringing Salvation Nearer to Us”

This sermon makes an important point about the way Christians understand time and how that prepares us to the work of spiritual growth.  Still, it felt clunky to me.  (That’s a word my drum teacher likes to use when I am playing correctly but not truly “swinging.”)  Next week we will look very concretely at spiritual practices. 

Ezekiel 33:10-16 ; Romans 13:8-14

“But now you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” If I just woke you up, church isn’t over yet, it’s only 10:30. Please stay in your seat. I suppose you may go back to sleep, since the sermon is just beginning. But it’s clear Paul isn’t talking about waking from literal sleep here. In fact, he’s not talking about literal time. Well, what is he talking about? I want to deal with that question at length, before we get to the Spiritual Inventory that we are beginning today. Paul acts like we (2000 years later) are already in on his secret: “You know what time it is.” “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” But do we know what time it is? “The night is far gone; the day is near.” Do we know what he’s talking about?

Well, Paul’s talk of time is what our scholars call apocalyptic or eschatological talk. Paul is saying that the world has been trapped in a kind of nighttime of evil and corruption. The world has been under the dominion of powers of wickedness, powers aligned against God. Many of Paul’s fellow Jews believed something similar. They believed a good God could not long allow the world to continue in its wicked ways, so God will eventually step in to end the current world and remake it the way it should be. This will be the “Day of the Lord,” the eschaton or end of the world; the dead will rise, God will judge the world, and a new, everlasting era will begin. Check out the Book of Daniel.

Now since we are approaching the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I want to work in some fun Reformation facts, whenever relevant. So Martin Luther famously said that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree. Now I think that sums it up my whole sermon, and yet I have nothing more to say about Luther’s puzzling words.

Jesus arrived amid the Jewish expectation of an imminent end that we were just talking about. Some thought the Messiah would destroy all the evil in the world and institute God’s kingdom. That’s not the script that Jesus followed. Instead, he allowed the corrupt powers to take his own life. In doing so, he exposed sin for what it was. He exposed the ugly underbelly of the Roman Empire and their collaborators among the Jewish leaders; he exposed the godless lust for power cloaked behind Roman regalia and temple piety. But if you caught anything from the Ezekiel reading, it’s that there is not always a clear and steady line between righteousness and wickedness. So it is that Jesus also exposed the weak faith of the disciples when they abandoned him. So it is that God did not destroy the wicked, but received all of this sin with mercy. Just like Paul said in last week’s reading, God did not overcome evil with evil, but overcame evil with good. God did this in one mighty act at the resurrection; and that resurrection unleashed a triumph over sin and evil through the power of love.

And so love becomes the guiding principle for the new community that gathers in Christ’s name. Paul tells us, a little coyly, I think, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” We are not to be operate like a typical organization, where some achieve distinction or claw their way to power and the rest owe them honor and allegiance. We are not to feel indebted to one another at all. But what we do owe each other is, paradoxically, everything, our very hearts, love. And it’s mutual love we owe; he says that we owe it to “love one another.” That’s interesting. Suppose instead Paul told us simply to love everyone; then if you didn’t show me love, maybe I’d just have to say, “Oh well, I love you anyway.” But if we owe it to each other to “love one another,” if we owe mutual love, then if you don’t show me love, I owe it to you to call you out on it. In other words, Paul is not a calling us to be doormats to one another. This is love that is also justice. I owe it to you that you love me, too, that you love me back.

Anyway, I love to talk about love, but it’s time to get back to time. Jesus both exposed the sin and evil of the world, he called it out, but he also allowed it to be. So those who believed Jesus was the Messiah had to revise their expectations that when the Messiah came, God would judge and condemn the wicked. But the early Christians continued to assume that God was still going to destroy evil; they thought Jesus is coming again soon to judge the world. It’s pretty clear from his writings that Paul thought something like this. Most of the New Testament expresses the same opinion. And what can we say? It didn’t happen. Anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously has to wrestle with this uncomfortable fact. I just don’t think those who say, 2000 years later, “Any day now, he’s coming back—I mean, look at these hurricanes,” I don’t think they are honestly wrestling with this uncomfortable fact. How many ‘signs’ have to come and go?

So it’s our turn to ask: what time is it, Paul? Is it the end time—still? Do you know what time it is? What are we to say to Paul? We have a hard time accepting this biblical time in which the world is soon going to end. So we say, “No Paul, I don’t know what time it is, this time you talk about.” And we are left consigning ourselves to time as everybody else sees it; secular time rather than biblical time.

But that’s not so great either. In our secular world of commerce and business, we treat time like a commodity, something we have and spend. Only rarely are we reminded that we don’t own time. Time inevitably owns us. I’m reminded of this sometimes when I sit watch over someone who is dying, when “our time has come,” as we say.  But mostly we are expected to manage time as if it were ours. I was just listening to a public lecture by my teacher, Kathryn Tanner. She described how, in our modern economy, we put a premium on working toward the future. The young are expected to use their time to make something of themselves, to make something valuable of their gifts and abilities. And they feel that pressure: soon it will be time to get a job. Hopefully, the job we have been preparing for and training for will still be around. We also put a premium on spending toward the future. We are encouraged to commit ourselves to long-term debts: student loans, credit cards, mortgages. And so we find ourselves on a pretty merciless timetable to pay them back. Far from owing no one nothing, as Paul says, we owe our working years to faceless, loveless banks. In exchange, we get the kind of lifestyle that we have come to see as owed to us.  This is what time is for us. We sell a good chunk of our future for what we can obtain in the present. Time can feel oppressive, with our endless schedule of payments, although somehow we’re left with no one else to blame but ourselves.

No wonder we are inclined to escape from this oppressive, indebted orientation to the future. So either we live for retirement, when at last we will own our own home and all our time will be ours, until of course our time comes. Or we declare “carpe diem,” and try to live only for the present moment. We might do this carnally, taking pleasure in the moment as if there is no tomorrow; reveling and drunkenness, as Paul puts it. Maybe we enjoy material indulgences, or perhaps we are led to addictive substances. Perhaps we lose ourselves in the moment by pointless entertainment that is fun while it lasts, but goes nowhere. Perhaps, more spiritually, we dwell in the present mindfully, freeing ourselves from the future by a Zen-like attention to the present.   I find this last option the healthiest and most attractive of the ways to dwell in the present, although I have tried them all; by the grace of God, I did not fall into addictions and did minimal harm to myself and others. But wouldn’t it be good if we, people of the church, had some alternative time to dwell in, besides the debt-spending future that oppresses us and the present that can only be an escape, a futureless present. Wouldn’t it be good if we could grasp this time that Paul is sure we indeed do know about when he says, “You know what time it is.”

Perhaps we can. Don’t we say that temporally odd phrase during communion: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?” I think we can get back to that Biblical sense of time, but I’m going to have to simplify some things. Let’s, for the time being, say we’re not going to worry about the Second Coming; let’s take the end of time off the table for ‘a time.’ Then we can say this: Jesus came to show us the future. Not a prediction of what is going to happen and when, but he showed us the only future that really has a future. The only future that is not just more of the same: the corruption which breeds selfishness, the selfishness that breeds corruption, with all of it working together to destroy the vulnerable. We are all perpetually caught up in that mess, in one way or another. Jesus exposed it for what it is, and showed us the alternative to it, showed us our real future. He showed us that love conquers selfishness. The worst that the corrupt powers can do to us is death; they can rob us only of the false future that they already own. But if we live in God then death has no ultimacy; death has lost its sting. Notice that Jesus has already showed us this, past tense. Our future has already appeared in the past. The true shape of human life has already been perfected in Jesus. The new way of life already began with Jesus and his disciples.

Whenever we believe in this new human life, this new human possibility found in Jesus, however far away it seems from us and our world; whenever we believe in it and confess it here in worship, we already have salvation. In chapter 10 Paul says: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified; and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Worship may seem like lip service—get it? a little pun—but to confess that we have a future because of what God did in the eternal past of Jesus Christ, a past that lives for all time, is a mighty act. It defies the corruption. It even glorifies God. I remind you of this because I’m not sure we always appreciate just what an amazing thing it is to worship in church. So if we just pay attention—wake up!—to what we are saying and doing here, we’ll see that confessing our faith is much more than lip service. It frees us from the false future that shackles us, in which we have to make good on our debts. We are not indebted to God. We don’t have to succeed or else. And if that’s how you feel about the future of this church—if the ‘success’ of this church feels only like a burden and source of anxiety to you, then you are shackled to the future of this church, and that’s not the same as freely embracing the promise of the future in God.

Confessing our faith, we already have our salvation, the promise of new life in Christ Jesus. But just as importantly, we also have a future. Notice what Paul says: “Salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers,” when we confessed our faith in Christ. Salvation is also a future for all humanity that we are getting nearer to. So we don’t have to live this new life perfectly, and we will of course continue to fail and fall back into the old life. Paul doesn’t say, “You must live perfectly!” He says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are invited and encouraged to live that future now, to wear it now, “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and not put our future in the flesh, as Paul puts it—and do you remember how I translate that word “the flesh?” Paul doesn’t mean sins of the body, like lust and gluttony. “The flesh” means living for your self, living for your ego. We are to make no provision for the flesh, for our egos—there’s no future in that. All of this is to say, that we the church, if we truly put on Christ, are the vanguard of the future of humanity; we are living in the only way that really overcomes anguish and corruption. We are truly living the future.

So it was a long detour, but maybe now we know what time it is; that is, we can understand what Paul means by time in a way that we can really believe in and in a way that changes our whole outlook on life. Now we are ready for the Spiritual Inventory. Because this inventory is all about looking to the future. Being a Christian is about living for the future, not anxiously, not in debt or under the gun, but with the confidence that our future lies in way already shown to us in Jesus Christ. That way means that we do live for our egos. (And don’t you want to be a part of a community where egos are not always getting in the way? That’s how things should be.) So when we do our inventory, we can take stock of where we are—honestly and without pride or defensiveness. And then we can picture what our future can be, what we want to become, and how we can start to go there. This makes for spiritual growth.

Now I will help you look to Scripture as a guide, but I cannot dictate to you what’s keeping you stuck in the present, nor how you can live for the future. Only you can discern what can do now to live for the future; only you can give yourself to God’s future. So do not hand in the first part of the Spiritual Inventory that is there each week to guide your self-reflections.  This week gives you an overview of the four dimensions of our spiritual life in our church, as I see it: spiritual practices, beliefs, fellowship, and mission. As Paul would say, “Let us” think about our whole spiritual life in these dimensions, and begin to think about where we might want to grow. Read it now, quietly; and take it home and write some thoughts on the back.

I’ll ask you to hand the second, short form in to me, either today or in the future. There is a box in the narthex. You may keep it anonymous if you like. The first question on that form asks for your thoughts about what you mean by a rich and full involvement in our church, or spiritual growth more generally. If you have thoughts, please share them with me.  The second question pertains to a process I am leading for the whole church and especially the leaders of our church.   I want us to think carefully together and discuss who we want to become as a church; and every week I want to get your feedback. I’m starting this week with a very general statement of our goal as a church: to become spiritually more vibrant. I hope that sounds fair. No one wants us to be financially healthy but spiritually less vibrant, right? So what does a “more spiritually vibrant” future for this church look like to you? What would you like to see us become? Please share your thoughts with me by answering the second question on that short form. I pray that these forms will be for us a way to put on Christ and bring our salvation nearer, together.

Spiritual Inventory Week One

5th in Easter-Life for Others: By God’s Eternal Life

Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14

“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.

But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.

When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.

And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?

So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.

Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.

In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.

Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.

And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)

So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.

And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know.   Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.

And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.

 

3rd in Easter (4/30): “Life for Others: Life Also for Me”

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:17-23

In this Easter series, I am speaking of “Life for others” as the shape of Christian life. Now, I don’t think normally that we live too much for others; I don’t think  we are usually too selfless. It is easy in our culture to focus on yourself and to ignore others. But a total life for others sounds a little frightening. As a Christian, do I no longer have a life to myself anymore? Is life all for others? Our reading in Acts might make us wonder. It describes the heady days of the community among the first Christians. “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. they broke bread at home [which suggests that they were eating together in each other’s houses] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? We should all desire to have that kind of closeness as a community—and indeed, in some respects we do. But I skipped a line: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Hmm. That’s really lovely too. Imagine if we all sold our possessions and goods and shared the proceeds. Yeah. Still with me? This practice of sharing is picked up again in chapter four: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”—that’s nice—“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (I thought I just heard purses being clutched a little more tightly.) It goes on to say that they sold everything and then laid the money at the Apostles’ feet. Yikes. And in chapter 5 we get the infamous story of Ananias and Saphira, a believing husband and wife who sell their property but keep back “some of the proceeds for themselves.” Do you know what supposedly happened to them? They fell dead at Peter’s feet.

No, this is not a stewardship lesson. This is horrifying. According to Act’s description of the early church, they practiced a kind of communism, abolishing private property. Acts has the first church really practicing what we’ve been calling life for others. And the beauty of it is, we are told, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s really great; we could do more to emulate them in this regard. We could expand our use of the Deacons’ fund, for instance. But I don’t think we want God slaying some of us for holding back a little private property. (Maybe I’m wrong—are you ready to give up all your property?)

But why not? What could be more “life-for-others” than what Acts describes?  If we owe everything to God, as we say, why should we expect to have private property? Why shouldn’t we give it all up?

And let’s not talk just about property. The apostles and others in the community were sent out to preach the good news. It became their life. Paul worked a little on the side to support his ministry, which he did for free; and he could do this because he had no family or anything else going on. How much ministry are we doing? Like I said last week, a few of you put in incredible amounts of work for this church and in others forms of ministry. Most of us don’t. I don’t do my ministry here for free by working a little on the side. And unlike Paul I enjoy being married—fortunately to someone making more than I do. But none of us, I imagine, are avidly pursuing ministry the way Paul and the early disciples did. Well, why not? Is our Christian life not a life for others? Did the apostles not exemplify life for others? You know, we wouldn’t be here if they had not done this ministry; the church would not have expanded so rapidly and become a worldwide body of faith, extending well beyond its local Jewish roots, without this selfless work of apostles like Paul.

There is a genuine dilemma for us here that we need to dwell on. I believe it is a dilemma that helps us make sense of the cross—the suffering and death of Jesus. Now, usually we think of the cross as God’s answer to our personal sinfulness. Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive me. You will hear in our closing hymn a line to that effect. There may still be some insight in this way of thinking about the cross, but nowadays we pretty much assume that God is loving and merciful, and our sin is not so grave. Our need for forgiveness no longer poses the kind of great dilemma to which the cross is the clear answer.

In fact, for many UCC-type Christians, sin is no longer in our vocabulary. (A mistake, I think; but we need to think about sin in fresh ways.) Without sin, the cross is no longer very important. What matters is trying to inspire people to do more good works and to support the church—which is good. But I worry about losing the cross, and about perhaps getting so wrapped up in good works and social justice that we no longer can understand why we gather to worship—shouldn’t we just be out doing good things?

I think the dilemma that our Acts reading poses for us might help us get a better perspective on the cross. Again it was this: Why aren’t we sharing all our property? Why aren’t we subordinating everything else about our lives—our career and family and friends—to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, like the first apostles did? It’s not impossible for us to do this, and I hope and pray that some of us will. But let’s face it, we don’t, and that’s our dilemma. If a Christian life is life for others, why do we get anything for ourselves? Jesus told his disciples: take up your cross and follow me. We’re not doing that, mostly. Sure, we obey the ten commandments, mostly. But why aren’t we sacrificing ourselves to others they way Jesus did? What gives us permission to disobey Jesus, and not take up our cross?

The simple answer is, God’s grace. God gives us permission to not sacrifice ourselves. Remember that before we are life for others, God is life for others, and Jesus is life for others—and that means life for me. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that it is helpful to understand that much of our life is not horribly sinful, but just, for want of a better word, “natural.” Living for myself and those close to me is not so much sinful as natural. This is the created life we share with God’s creatures: be fruitful, and multiply. It’s not completely selfish, although of course it includes tending to my bodily and psychological needs. But almost no one devotes himself solely to himself. We enter into all kinds of relationships—with friends, lovers, parents, children—by which we yoke our own interests and desires with those of others, often giving up some our desires for the sake of others. And we enter or are born into communities and institutions that, if basic justice prevails, provide mutual benefit. I pay taxes and participate in our democratic governance, and the United States protects me and makes my peaceful and productive life possible. I work for my employer (that’s you, actually), and my employer pays me and gives me benefits. Sometimes these relationships are more just than others; sometimes individuals are selfish, and sometimes institutions are oppressive. But the basic principle is mutual benefit. That’s natural, and we see relationships like that among creatures in nature as well. /

What Jesus did on the cross was not natural. To give one’s life to God on behalf not of just your friends or your own children but on behalf of everyone—including those who are crucifying you—is not natural. It is supernatural. We usually think that supernatural stuff entails magical powers or defying the laws of physics; but with Jesus supernatural means above all that he goes above and beyond the law of human nature—that I’ll do something for you with the expectation that you will pay me back. I’ll live for others if others also live for me. But Jesus goes above and beyond that rule—infinitely. He gives up his life for all others, in all times, in all places, no matter what they have done for him. / We won’t get to the bottom of how Jesus does this today. Our reading in First Peter tells us that we were ransomed from our futile ways by the blood of Christ. It tells us that “through him you have come to trust in God…so that your faith and hope are set on God.”   But it doesn’t explain how that works very clearly.

Here’s one clue: It compares Jesus to a “lamb without defect or blemish.” The supernatural work of Jesus is his perfect self-giving for others, like a sacrificial Passover lamb by whose blood the Israelites were delivered. This self-giving of Jesus destines him for sharing in God: We are told that God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” which for us is the origin of our Easter faith. But the real origin of Jesus’ self-giving goes back to God’s eternal plan: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” Jesus’ perfect, supernatural self-giving has its source in God. God didn’t have to create the world. God wasn’t lonely or incomplete without creation. God is always, even now, absolute fulfillment and perfection, dwelling in eternity beyond all need and suffering. God is perfect, but sacrifices perfection to give life for others. God is infinite, but sacrifices infinity to give life to a finite world. God blesses a world that is chaotic and finite, where death and life are inseparably joined, so that life—even the imperfect variety, the kind that would inevitably sin—can be abundant. So God is the ultimate source of Jesus’ selflessness and sacrifice.

Now, we could all imitate Jesus, take up our cross, and give our lives completely away to others. We could give away all our property and devote our time completely to ministry. The perfection of God might even seem to demand this of us. But in this regard I believe the cross gives us this message: only Jesus Christ, because he was God in the flesh, was required to give himself up like this. We are not God. It is ok for us to be natural, not supernatural. It’s ok to be just creation—taking pleasure in fulfilling our needs, receiving our daily bread, enjoying friendship and family and lovers, being fruitful and multiplying. God created us for this. We human beings are still natural creatures. Jesus Christ took our human form to the limit, beyond the natural, so that we don’t have to; he took the cross so that we don’t have to.

But at the same time, Jesus shows us that it is possible for our human form to be supernatural. It is possible and beautiful and divine for us to be life for others without restriction or qualification. We do not need to do this in a self-sacrificing way; no one need ever literally give up his life to God for others again. We can participate in the supernatural life of Jesus while still living our natural lives.

Now, the natural response at this point is: how much? How much do I have to give up to God’s supernatural life for others, and how much do I get to keep to myself? I urge you not to rush to that question. It is easy for us to think that there must be some minimum requirement, something we must do to get our reward, rather than leaving everything to God’s grace. Our Christian traditional has unfortunately encouraged us to see salvation as an all-or-nothing game: if you do enough, you get it all—heaven—and if you do too little, you get worse than nothing. This way of thinking about salvation—which after all is a mystery that we do not understand—encourages us to return to what is in it for me. We end up always thinking in the back of our mind: am I doing enough to get into heaven?

Try this instead: God has by grace given you your natural life. God through Christ has not made you sacrifice this life; it is yours. God asks two things of us natural creatures: we should not sin, but treat each other justly, honoring our commitments to mutual benefit. And we should receive this natural life as a gift from God. God could demand our life of us, but does not, by grace through Christ. And of course we live our natural life on borrowed time. But as long as we have it, and if no one is oppressing us, it is ours.

All of us live this natural life. But it is, in the words of First Peter, ultimately futile. It is finite and limited. The good it achieves is limited and ending. The justice it achieves is partial and local. It is not bad, but futile. First Peter does not say Christ ransomed us from sin; it says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” In other words, Christ has liberated us and called us, the church, to participate in his supernatural life, a life for others without qualification. We are all living this supernatural life, all sharing in it. This is God’s life, and by sharing in it we are living eternal life. None of us is giving up our natural life completely, but all of us are living it, even just by acknowledging God’s grace in Christ and by praying for others. And we live this supernatural life in many other small ways, like giving to our denomination and supporting its worldwide ministry of peace and justice. We do not each have our own individual portion of this eternal life. That’s how we sometimes think: am I saved? Are you saved? No: our eternal life is in Christ, and we the body of Christ all share in it together. And that makes sense. Life for others can’t be mine exclusively; it means always going out of myself. It has to be shared.

So salvation or eternal life is not all or nothing. Only Christ’s life was all for others; we share in that life by the work we do together, by worship, and by uniting ourselves to Christ through baptism and communion. On the other hand, none of us has nothing; we all have our natural life as a gift from God, and we participate in this supernatural life through the church as much as we feel called.

And that’s the key. You shouldn’t have to anxiously deciding how much of your life to devote to God and to the church. This isn’t some bill you have to pay, some sacrifice you have to make until it hurts. Sometimes we do suffer when we live life for others, but that’s because of the sin of the world. But our participation in Christ’s eternal life, life for others without price, is itself a gift from God, not a tough decision you have to make. If it isn’t inspired and joyful—although joyful does not mean painless—then it isn’t life for others without qualification, it is life for yourself in disguise, masquerading as charity or duty or obligation to your community or whatever. Don’t confuse genuine, supernatural life for others with natural life consisting of exchanges and contracts. The love that we have in our Christian life for others is far above the love that we have in our exclusive, mutual agreements, even if there are some similarities. First Peter tells us that keeping this supernatural life for others pure and holy is the key to real Christian love: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Let it be so.

 

Easter: “Life for others, Victorious Over the Grave”

This distinguished our understanding of grace in contrast to that of some Christians hung up on guilt and penalties being paid–though I worried about putting other people down, perhaps by way of caricaturing, on a day of Christian unity.  But then I set the stage for the next six weeks of the Easter season, which will develop the theme of “life for others.” 

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

May the Good News of the Risen Christ be proclaimed from my lips and bring joy to all our ears. Amen.

The Christian faith is an Easter faith. Faith begins from and returns always to the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead. (Alleluia! Christ is risen!) We deepen the meaning of that good news when we retrace the steps of Jesus through the way of sorrows that led to the cross. Likewise, we deepen the meaning of the grace we receive from God when we retrace the steps of our wandering through the alienation and sin that would be all we have were it not for the grace of God. But all of this deepening into the sorrows and the alienation is valid only when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the empty tomb, the dawning realization by first the women and then the other disciples that Jesus Christ is alive in God and his word will endure forever.

It’s a simple point: Easter comes before the cross—but understandably, there is still so much confusion and misunderstanding about the odd order our faith takes. We can clarify this odd but true order by contrast with what goes wrong when Christians get the order of things backwards. Some Christians get it in their head that God was so uncontrollably angry with sin that He (I think they would only say He) had to have a sacrifice to appease his wrath. No act of mere human repentance could suffice to appease God, so the one to pay the penalty had to be very valuable indeed—equivalent to God himself. That is, only God’s own son could pay enough to God the Father to mollify God, to settle God down, so that now God could love us again. / Now there may be a grain of truth in all that, but it’s been understood in a rather childish way, as if God is at odds with God’s own being. As if the grace we came to know through Jesus Christ wasn’t who God was from the very beginning, from all eternity. As if God changes in the year AD 30 from being mad to loving, the way a cross lover does when you give him his favorite bourbon and a backrub. (“There, there.”) I don’t think we want to say that God couldn’t be a God of grace until Jesus bore the cross.   That sounds weird. But this view is not as remote as I make it out to be. In our own Red Hymnal, “I will Sing of My Redeemer” has this line: I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me, on the cruel cross he suffered from the curse to set me free.” (God’s curse?) “I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in his boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave.” Ransom? To whom? To God? Was Jesus paying God (off) on our behalf? It’s left vague in the hymn, but you can see how someone would arrive at a conclusion that might create confusion.

Likewise, some Christians (perhaps the same ones) get it in their head that you can’t have faith, you can’t be saved, unless you become convinced that you personally are a miserable sinner. Nothing you do is any good, it all just makes God so wrathful. So first you have to hit rock bottom and confess that you are a no-good sinner, and then God will accept your contrition and show you mercy. (I’m not making this up, so it should sound familiar to some of you.) Now, that’s just wrong on several counts. First of all, it makes God’s mercy the reward for my contrition and humility, as if—once again—God is wrathful and angry until I win God over with all my self-abasement and tears. No: God’s grace comes before my penance parade. And God’s grace works in us before we hit rock bottom. And as real as sin is, we don’t cease being God’s good creation. And those outside of the Christian faith likewise receive grace from God, at least the grace of creation; I don’t think God has nothing for them but wrath and damnation. (Consider the words of Peter that we just heard: “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him.”) I suspect that some Christians like to demand that we feel guilty and shameful because of our sin, before we can experience God’s mercy and love, because they want to control us by manipulating our emotions. You may be surprised to find out that the NT nowhere enjoins Christians to feel guilty. Yet that’s what it’s all about for some. That, and perhaps they want Christians to feel superior to all those non-Christians because we are going to heaven and they are going to the other place—thus they say that God only loves people who confess themselves to be total sinners and rely solely on Jesus Christ.

So away with all that; you won’t hear that stuff from me, or in our liturgy or song. Because the Christian faith is an Easter faith. We only understand the cross and venerate it because we have encountered the risen Christ and know ourselves to belong to him. We only feel sorrow for sin—both our personal sin and that of the whole world—because we first have known and trusted ourselves and the whole world to a God of infinite grace. We do hear God say “no,” but only because we first heard God’s yes to the whole world, and believe that God has never intended and never will let us go, even when we stray. If you flip all that around and reverse the order, you can very easily make the Christian faith into its exact opposite: a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental path of works righteousness.

So let me be very clear, since, because of the backwards theology of some Christians, you might think that the Christian faith is self-righteous, moralistic, and judgmental. This day, Easter Sunday, is the basis and beginning for everything we believe and do. We believe that because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, God has embraced the whole world and everyone in it in Christ, no matter how badly the world rebels against God, even desiring to put God to death. When you put it that way, Easter should make us catch our breath [gasp] at the depth of divine love for the world. And that love of God is not just a warm feeling—the hapless sentiment of an unrequited lover. God’s love comes in full power. The power of God’s love overcomes all the world’s death-dealing power. No stone, however massive, can stand in the way of God’s power of life. This day of the Lord, this Easter Sunday which is not just a day but the eternal foundation of the cosmos, is not about you, and whether you are going to be a bad boy or a good girl. It’s not about us paltry human beings, and about keeping us in line or about getting us to give more money or to have more good deeds to show for ourselves. This day isn’t even about Jesus of Nazareth. This day, and in essence, our Christian faith, sis about God’s power of life and grace and love. Jesus of Nazareth was a righteous man who was unjustly killed. That much of it is a terrible tragedy. But Jesus didn’t resurrect himself. Did you hear Peter say: “God raised him on the third day.” God raised Jesus up; the Spirit and power of God raised Jesus up, demonstrating that truly this was the righteous Son of God who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever. Easter Sunday is all about God, and because of Easter we know that God is our invisible father (or mother), as well as the Son we have come to know in person, and the Holy Spirit who remains with us. Because, we now know and believe in God’s power of life, and we know that Jesus is God’s son who lives forever, we know we can never be separated from him, and that God has the Spirit power to give us life in Christ Jesus. Easter is not about us, but we can now see—and this is the very basis of our faith—what Jesus told Mary: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We can now see—not because of our own efforts and piety; until we see and believe we are at best just like Mary: confused, hapless, and pathetic. But we know by our resurrection faith that we share the same relationship to God that Jesus did and does. /

So hopefully we understand by now something of what Easter faith means and what it doesn’t mean. It means that, whatever our little accomplishments and virtues, or however lacking we are in virtues and accomplishments, God’s love has the power of life. But that doesn’t make this Easter faith any easier or more accessible for some of us, including me. The Christian faith, I have said, begins and returns always to this day that lives forever, this Easter day, and to what God did on this day by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This day is not even about the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I said. But you might very well think to yourself, “It would be easier for me if it was about Jesus of Nazareth. I can appreciate his preaching and good deeds, the love that he showed to all.” (Never mind whether Jesus was really all that loving or whether his love was of a sort very strange to us.) “But I don’t know,” you might continue, “what to make of God raising Jesus from the dead. And then he appears in strange ways—walking through doors and then eating fish with them, as we’ll read about in the coming weeks—and then this raised body ascends, just floats up to heaven, apparently. I’d rather just believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”

As the kids say nowadays, I feel you. Easter faith may indeed be the foundation of Christian faith, but it is a big pill to swallow. It doesn’t make it altogether easier if I reassure you that the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ are clearly intended to be symbolic and mysterious. You’ll still ask me: Isn’t there an easier place to begin?

That’s what I am going to spend the next six Sundays of Easter exploring. Granted that it all goes back to the resurrection of Christ Jesus and proceeds from a confession in him. But what does being a Christian mean and look like for us, apart from getting into the difficult to conceive events of that first Easter morning? I have an answer for you. It’s an easy answer. It’s an answer you can get on board with. It doesn’t require that you explain and affirm what exactly happened with Jesus’ body or any of that, but I think I can eventually bring us back to the events of that Easter morning as recounted by the gospels and show why they still matter. …Ready?

“Life for others.” That’s what being a Christian is all about. That is the shape of life that we pledge ourselves to in this community. “Life for others.” Being a Christian does not primarily mean believing in something, affirming something, especially affirming something even if it flies in the face of science and reason and evidence. Because the most important doctrines or beliefs in Christianity are mysteries—meaning you never fully understand them. Above all, you never understand God, say what you will about God. So these beliefs in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and justification by faith make for a confusing foundation for describing what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, being a Christian is not all in your head; it’s not a mind thing. So instead, let’s say that being a Christian means that life takes on a certain kind of shape for you. And that shape is being for others.

I can easily spend seven weeks teasing out what that means and what that life looks like. But for this week, let’s just put the matter very starkly: would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for me and mine? Or would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for others? Did you ever say to yourself, what if everyone were just nice to one another? That is in essence what I am talking about: being for others. That sounds so simple, and so attractive on a superficial level. There are still many hard questions to ask. If the answer was just, let’s all be nice to one another, then we wouldn’t need God to come down and die on a cross and then the whole resurrection thing. But essential it is simple. And the essence of Easter goes deeper and higher than just: wouldn’t it be good if we all were this and that way? The essence of Easter is this: God is life for others. The risen Christ is life for others, victorious over the grave. That’s why Jesus can say: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” because God is life for others. Those were not the last words of the risen Christ. But before he explains the rest to us, he invites us to partake of this life for others.