Monday, August 15, 2016

Sermon on Luke 14:1-11

This sermon was preached at Incarnation Tallahassee on Sunday, August 14th, 2016.

About halfway through my time at Trinity, I started working with an organization called Church Army USA. Church Army’s mission statement is “to reach the least, the last, and the lost with the Gospel of Christ; and to bring them into the life and ministry of the church.” This mission takes on many forms. In the late 1800’s, when Church Army first started in England, it occurred in pubs and on street corners, where evangelists shared the gospel with those otherwise deemed unworthy. Today, the base in Hartford, Connecticut takes the form of an underwear ministry, where evangelists collect underwear and socks, then give them out to the homeless across the city. They also go to an HIV/AIDS facility, to people accustomed to being avoided to pray with them, and hug them, and tell them that they are loved. They become friends with these people others would call “service projects” or back in the first century, “unclean!”
The Church Army base I’ve been working with is located in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa is about a 35 minute drive north of Pittsburgh. In its best days, it was a thriving city whose residents found work at the local steel mill. But in the 1980’s the mill closed, and the city was hit hard. Everyone that could afford it moved out, leaving only the poorer residents behind. Drugs and violence became issues, and racial segregation tore the city apart. A Church Army evangelist came into Aliquippa in the early 2000’s and spent three years in the city talking with the people, asking what they would like to see in the community. They all wanted a place to gather that was safe and friendly. This evangelist decided to start a cafe. I’ve worked for the last year at that cafe, called Uncommon Grounds. At Uncommon Grounds we make sandwiches and sell fresh ground Colombian coffee at fifty cents a cup. If someone can’t afford it, we have different tasks they can do around the cafe to earn a drink or a meal. Everyone on staff is required not only to work behind the counter, but also to spend time in the cafe hanging out with our friends who come in. There are many regulars, some who come in every day. Not everyone orders food, and not everyone wants to help out. But they come in, they talk, they laugh, and they share moments together. Our goal at Uncommon Grounds is to let the people of Aliquippa know, just like at every Church Army base, that they are loved. I am on a first name basis with almost everyone who walks through the doors, some of whom I greet with a hug. We sit together and talk. We open up about our struggles and pray for one another.
On Saturday nights, a group meets at the cafe that call themselves the Church in the Margins. Staff members from the cafe cook a dinner, and open the doors for anyone who wants to come in. There’s no charge to share in the meal, and first time visitors aren’t allowed to help clean up afterward. They eat together, and a question is always provided to guide discussion over the meal. It could be something as simple as “what’s one good thing that happened this week?” Or maybe, something deeper, “what does it mean to love your neighbor?”
Sharing a meal together is one of the most vulnerable things one can do with a neighbor. There have been times that people eat the food but then leave without saying a word. There have been other times where people have criticized the host for not doing something a certain way, or even just for being different. There’s also vulnerability in coming to a meal hosted by someone else. Allowing others to provide for us goes against the way we’ve been taught to act as a culture. We live in a payback culture. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I can’t owe you anything. I’ve sat through many arguments over who will pick up the tab for lunch, usually ending with the ultimatum, “okay, but I’m paying next time.” That’s why people aren’t allowed to help clean up at the Church in the Margins their first visit. And, usually aren’t even allowed to help at all until they have been coming for a month or so. It’s to help instill the understanding that you are allowed to receive love without being expected to offer anything in return.
The reading from Luke has a lot to do with this idea. It’s about honor and dishonor based on the outward appearance. In other words, it’s about deserving or not deserving love. The passage begins with the healing of a man and ends with Jesus giving a teaching on taking the seat of honor at a table. I want to look at these two instances out of order, because I think understanding the issue Jesus is teaching about will help us understand the situation surrounding the man who is healed.
The passage begins, “one Sabbath, [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees.” These Sabbath meals were a big deal to the first century Jews. All of the food on these Sabbath meals had to be cooked the day before, and stored in very specific ways, since it was forbidden to work on the Sabbath day. This means that only those with the resources to keep the food were able to host these meals. Because of this, Sabbath meals became notable times for the social elite to display their wealth. Being invited to these meals was considered a great honor.
Luke writes that Jesus “noticed how [those who were invited] chose the places of honor” at the Sabbath meal. In those times, there was more honor to sit near the host of the meal, so each person deliberated their social standing to decide where they should sit along the table. Not one to miss a teaching opportunity, Jesus tells the guests of the meal, “when you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”
Remember, the Sabbath meals were meant to show honor and prestige to those invited. By giving this teaching, he is essentially telling the people at this meal that they have been doing things backward. He is saying that everything they are doing, the very reason that they are even together that day, is wrong. If you ever wondered why a lot people didn’t like Jesus back then, this is it. He openly criticized and contradicted the traditions and practices ingrained in the lives of those around him.
In this case, he is criticizing a very foundational piece of their society. He is bringing into question the notion that one should be concerned with their standing in social circles. Many of you probably have an Instagram account like I do. Instagram is a social media tool for letting others know how awesome your life is. You can use a photo filter on the food you eat to make it look good. You can take pictures at just the right angle to make it look like you have the perfect hair or the best view. And instead of finding the highest seat, we judge our social status by how many likes and followers we have. If any of you remember MySpace, there was actually a feature where you could have your top 8 friends appear on your profile page. In high school, I remember people actually getting into arguments over where they were on their friends top 8. The problem is that all of these things are based on outward appearance. I can update my Facebook status with something profound, witty, or sympathetic. I can make my profile picture look like a model’s head shot. I can even re-post news stories that make it look like I care about social issues. Without actually doing anything to change my life, I can appear honorable. I can make sure everyone else around me knows that I deserve honor.
The problem with fighting over seats at a meal isn’t that honor is bad thing. Jesus even uses honor as the motivation contradicting this act. He says, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘friend, move up higher.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Honor is a good thing. But if we are so concerned about appearing honorable, we can actually be so caught up in that appearance that we forget to actually be honorable. Jesus, for example, was honorable. And he was at this meal for that reason. But he also went to meals with sinners and allowed prostitutes to honor him with oil. He didn’t let outward appearance keep him from acting with honor. When the deadliest mass shooting in American history happened in Orlando, many Christians double-guessed whether to show sympathy because the victims were gay. And a lot of it was concern with how others might interpret that sympathy. “If I give my condolences to the gay community, others might think I agree with their lifestyle.” Or, “if  I do give my condolences, I have to be sure to qualify it with a statement about these other issues.”
Jesus wasn’t concerned about these things. Concern with the perceptions of others isn’t seeking honor, it’s seeking admiration. Jesus ate with tax collectors and spent time with with sinners. The Pharisees used that to defame him. They said “look at this man who associates himself with sinners and tax collectors! He can’t be a true prophet of Israel!” But Jesus knew that how others perceived him didn’t matter if he was acting with real honor. Real honor is caring for those who need care, no matter how others might perceive it. Many of us, like the Pharisees, miss doing the honorable thing in order to look honorable. But looking honorable is just admiration. Because someone might interpret me as dishonorable, I do not associate myself with dishonorable people. But dishonorable people need God just as much as honorable ones. Dishonorable people need love just as much as honorable ones.
The Church has dealt with these issues of honor since its beginning. In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes to them, “when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you … For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
The rich, who did not need to work, would arrive to the church gathering early where the Lord’s Supper was going to be served to eat and drink their fill. The poor, who had to work to earn their day’s wages, would then arrive and there would be nothing left. Those who are eating first have enough to provide for themselves. The meal was meant to be a fellowship and communion with one another, but they used it to get drunk and horde the food for themselves. Because they would have been considered ‘honorable’ people, and ‘more deserving’ than their poorer counterparts, they didn’t bother to think about saving enough for those arriving later. The Lord’s Supper became the same thing as this Sabbath meal that Jesus is criticizing. A show of luxury and honor at the expense of the lowly. As a church, we can’t show favoritism or preference. We must choose the lower seat.
There is a risk involved in taking the lowest seat. Yes, there’s a chance that the host will ask you to move into a higher seat of honor, but there’s also a chance that the host won’t do that. Taking the lowest seat means willingly submitting to that risk. Is it okay if everyone here sees me in that lowest seat? Am I willing to show my “lowness” when it has no external benefit for me?
Paul’s letter to the Philippians outlines how Jesus showed this lowness when it says he “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” If Jesus was worried about his appearances, he would not have died for us. Death is unbecoming. Dying for those who don’t deserve it is even worse. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person,” Paul writes to the Romans, “though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Good News of Jesus is that he was willfully dishonored in the eyes of the world around him. He did not need to prove himself, but took it upon himself to go the the absolute lowest place in his death even though, being very God of very God, he deserved the absolute highest place of honor at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We must be willing to let others go before us, because that is how we love. We love as Christ loved, by laying ourselves down for others. When we create personas on social media or in the world, we fool ourselves into thinking we are setting ourselves up for places of honor.
God warns us in Jeremiah, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches.” These things, however great they might be, cannot bring real honor. They can only bring admiration. If I really want to be honorable, I wouldn’t boast about my great talents, I would use them to help those around me. I would use my wisdom to instruct those who lack wisdom. I would use my might to help those who lack might. I would use my wealth to provide for those who lack wealth. True honor does not need to be announced. Jesus didn’t announce his good deeds to bolster himself. Everything he did was for the glory of God.
Now, I want to look at how Jesus enacted this principle at this very meal among the most honorable guests of the ruler of the Pharisees. “And behold,” it writes, “there was a man before him who had dropsy.” Dropsy is a swelling of soft tissues in the body that is caused by an excess of fluids. It causes deformation, and is obvious to anyone who sees it. The Pharisees were watching him carefully because they were waiting to catch him in a trap. They wanted him to do something they can point to and say, “aha! We knew you were a false prophet!” Jesus reads this in the room, and before he does anything, Luke writes, “Jesus responded to the lawyers and the Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’ but they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away.”
The difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is how they interact with a man such as this. The Pharisees, should they even allow him to stay at the meal, would at least make sure that he take the lowest seat. They would set him down where he can be constantly reminded of his lowness while the others fight over who can be most honored. Jesus doesn’t do this. Instead, he allows himself to be associated with this man, bringing himself low. Then, he heals the man, lifting him higher. Jesus is not concerned with his own honor, but with honoring those around him.
After he heals the man, Luke writes, “he said to them, ‘which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?’ and they could not reply to these things.”
This, I believe is the most important verse in this passage. Jesus equates his healing on the Sabbath with anyone who would save a son or an ox on the Sabbath. But not just any son or ox. He says it is their own. “Which of you, having a son or an ox.” They are not simply walking by any trapped child or animal, but their own. Jesus is saying, “you would help your own possession who needs it, and I also must help my own.” When Jesus heals, he does so because we are his. God heals because the love he has for us is the love of a father for his child. A father doesn’t take his time helping his child out of danger. He rushes to his child and pulls that child up with everything he has. God’s desire to bring us healing comes from a place of ownership. He has created us and we are his. If we are God’s, and God’s desire is for us, then where you sit at a table can’t define your honor. How great you look in that Instagram photo can’t define your worth. What those people are saying behind your back, can’t define your purpose.
The passage from Jeremiah continues, “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight declares the LORD.”
Your honor is yours because God honors you. We boast that we know God because he is our source of worth and dignity. He alone practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. He alone is truly honorable. He is the host of the wedding feast for the his Son and his Church. We are invited to this feast, and he has chosen to honor us when we arrive.
Jesus took the low place. That low place is rightfully ours. The man with dropsy had no hope of gaining honor for himself. He was deformed beyond being able to hide it. We need to accept that we are deformed. I can try to hide my sin beneath these layers that I’ve created. Behind my social media accounts. Behind my outward religiosity. Behind my wisdom and might and riches. But if all of those layers are peeled away, it would become apparent that I belong with the dishonorable. I am a sinner. But, Jesus knew that. He took us up from our seat at the end of the table and has said, “move up higher.” If you want to receive that honor, then get up and let Jesus take your seat. You don’t have to search out honor from others. You don’t have to earn that honor with your wisdom, or your might, or your riches. You can’t earn it.  He has lifted me up and made me new. He has freed me from the burden of trying to find my honor anywhere else. Before I could do anything, while I was yet a sinner, he had already taken the lowest place. He died for us. And as he rose again from the dead, he exalts us, if we would just let him sit in our seats of shame.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51

This sermon was preached at South Side Anglican Church on Sunday, August 9, 2015.

We've all done embarrassing things in our lives. A lot of times, these things can be told as stories and laughed off amongst our friends and family. This has always been a struggle for me. Not only because I'm not very good at laughing at myself. A big part of it is that my embarrassing moments are more awkward than funny. In high school, I was a loner. I wasn't good at making friends, and I didn't know how to relate to people when they spoke to me. So, I wasn't one of those cool loners that was so self-contained that he didn't need anyone. I was the weird quiet kid in the back of the class that shook every time he had to speak in public.

One such instance of my awkwardness manifesting itself full swing happened my freshman year of high school. I was in Spanish class. It was test day, so everyone was spending the whole period working out verbs and nouns and endings in silence. When I finished my test, I turned it in, and then sat back down in my seat. So far, so good. But, what I did next, I don't really know why, or what I was thinking. I started singing softly. And I didn't sing a song about being free, or a pop song that everyone knew. I sang a song about committing suicide. I sang Adam's Song by the band Blink-182. I want to make it clear that I didn't actually want to commit suicide. But for whatever reason, I thought while the rest of the class was silently taking a Spanish test was a great time for this depressive anthem. When I finished, I looked up and the teacher as well as a few of the other students were looking at me. The kid sitting in front of me turned around and said, “hey man, don't ever try to be a rock star.”

To this day, I still get anxiety thinking about this moment in my life. I am filled with embarrassment and shame about how awkward and weird it was for me to do that. I still wonder why I ever decided to sing, not just a verse or chorus, but the entire song in that classroom. I wonder how much had to do with wanting attention. Though I never wanted to commit suicide, maybe having others think I did would make them talk to me. Of course that didn't happen. All I got was a kid in front of me telling me I shouldn't ever sing again.

In our reading from John's Gospel, Jesus tells the people following him, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” In response, many complain among themselves, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven?'”

Those surrounding Jesus doubt who he is because of what they think they know about him. They are using what they know of his earthly life to dispute the claim of his heavenly life. If he was the son of Joseph and Mary, how then can he be the Son of God? If he was born here on earth, how can he be the bread that has come from heaven? These are not bad questions. The problem is not that these questions are being asked, but why they are being asked. The people following Jesus were fine doing so when he was healing the sick and giving them food. But now, Jesus has asked them to do more than just receive these earthly gifts. He wants them to receive the heavenly gift. He wants them to believe in him.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

They are no longer free to come and go as they please among the crowd following Jesus. Jesus is not saying what they want him to say, which is, “whenever you need me, come to me, and whenever you don't, you can go and do your own thing.” Instead, he says, “now that I have fed you and healed you physically, I want you to let me feed and heal you spiritually. But to do that would mean putting your trust in me for all of eternity.”

But we distrust the heavenly truth because we believe earthly lies. The people following Jesus had trouble believing who he is because they saw him only as one of them, a human person with the same physical limitations as any other human person. Maybe they even thought he was a great human person, a prophet with God's favor, but still only a human person. To believe in Jesus as more than that requires faith. We need faith to believe in Jesus because we can't see beyond the world around us. Everything we know is what we see and hear and feel in this physical world. We can't believe a man rose from the dead because people don't do that. We can't believe God can heal us of our brokenness because we know that we can't do it. And what we can do is all we know.

When I think about that day in my freshman year of high school, I'm reminded that I do embarrassing things. I'm reminded of the shame and misery I felt in high school because I didn't know how to make friends or talk to other people and make eye contact. I'm reminded that I'm weak and that I'm weird. When I think about my earthly life, I see that I'm hopeless. I see that a guy can turn around in his chair and tell me I'm not worth caring for just to break the awkward silence in a high school Spanish class. Without knowing whether anything else is out there, our earthly life is all we can know. Without there being something else out there, our earthly life is what defines us.

When we read Jesus saying that he is “the bread that came down from heaven,” what he is saying is that this earthly life isn't it. But we can't believe that there is more unless it is shown to us. A hungry child can't see the full meal on top of the table without being lifted up by it's parent. The child will grumble and complain because of hunger and may even resist the parent's hold because the child doesn't understand the reality of what's up there. In the same way, we can't see the full heavenly life in store for us beyond this earthly life without being shown. We grumble and complain that life is unfair and difficult. We don't see that there is another plane of reality. We don't understand Jesus when he says, “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.”

There are two steps in receiving this revelation. First, we need to accept who Jesus is. Then, we learn who we are in him.

The difficulty of the crowd to understand Jesus comes from an unwillingness to believe by faith. Believing by faith doesn't mean believing blindly, but it means believing something to be true that goes against what we have thus far understood. A simple example of this is sushi. A lot of people are freaked out by the idea of eating sushi because it's raw fish wrapped in seaweed, and just saying that should make you wonder why this was ever invented. For someone to try sushi for the first time who has not been raised in a culture that eats it regularly requires faith. Their faith might be in a friend who knows that person's eating habits and knows they will like it. Their faith might be in the person that makes it, knowing that this person typically makes very good food. Their faith might be in the fact that a lot of people they know like eating sushi and so they trust these people's judgments. The point is, that to take their first taste, that person must have faith in one or all of these things. When I say raw fish and seaweed, the first reaction is that there's no way that will be good. But faith can convince a person that it does.

So what is faith in Jesus? For the crowd surrounding him, faith is trusting in the miracles he has performed. He was famous for healing the sick. He actually fed the people in this crowd, over five-thousand of them, with five barley loaves and two fish. Faith for them is trusting that his great teachings on the Scriptures include his teachings about who he is. It's trusting in the character he has shown himself to have, caring for the poor and the oppressed, and spending time with the least of the people. Faith is putting all of this together, and seeing that he really is who he says he is. Faith is putting trust in him because of these things.

Faith doesn't mean the absence of doubt. I can have faith that this sushi will taste good but still have doubts about it in my mind. It's when I first taste the sushi that my faith is realized. Faith is what gives us the ability to overcome doubt. According to the epistle to the Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Having faith in Jesus is knowing that this earthly life isn't it, but he has given us access to eternal life. He says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Faith is the assurance of our hope for resurrection. It is the conviction that not only is there really a God, but that he loves us and “sent his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” We know this is true because Jesus didn't only come and live among us, but he died and rose again. He came so that we can literally have new life. This isn't just a saying, like “I started to diet and exercise and I feel like a whole new person.” This really is a new life; a life we haven't had access to before. This is a life that doesn't die. The one who believes in him will be raised up by him on the last day and never go down again. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, the life that Jesus gives will never go down. There will be no more weeping, and no separation from God.

Our faith is built on this promise. Because Jesus rose again, we can be sure that our faith will not be in vain. And the best thing about it is that this faith is not based on us or our abilities. Faith comes from outside ourselves. For me, that's very reassuring. I don't need to trust in my ability to understand God fully to have faith in his promise. I don't need to trust in my ability to follow Jesus fully to have faith that he will raise me up to new life. I don't need to trust in my ability to be a good person to have faith that Jesus can share his good news through me.

Because the crowds had their minds set on earthly things, they were unable to receive Jesus by faith. God works in ways beyond our understanding. Who Jesus is can only be understood by faith. Our understanding of heavenly things only comes from him because other than him everything else we know is based on earthly experiences. We cannot know heavenly things without experiencing heavenly things. Jesus is the heavenly experience that gives us access to heavenly knowledge. We see his miracles and hear his promise through his resurrection, and believe. We believe even though our earthly minds say it doesn't make sense. The only way to overcome our earthly understanding is through faith in Jesus. There is no other access point to the heavenly reality of who God is and the promise he has made for us.

Knowing Jesus through faith also means learning who we are in him. In the world, it is said that you are the culmination of your experiences. But the gospel says you are God's if you believe in the one that he sent. By the world's standards, the shame of my past is part of who I am and I won't be able to change that. But as it is written, the Gospel tells me that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Especially in this time of presidential races, we know very well how much our past means to the world. Politicians spend millions of dollars to hide or twist the things they've done so that it doesn't come back to haunt them. If it turns out they smoked marijuana in college or spent time in jail for a petty crime, their entire campaign is in jeopardy. The world doesn't want us to let go of our past. If you've committed a felony in your life, getting a job will become exponentially more difficult. If you've hurt a child, where you live will be determined by your proximity to schools and families. I know, for me, the temptation to let my earthly life define me is very strong. Something that happened thirteen years ago still has control over me. There have been nights I can't get to sleep because of it. But that's not who I am. I don't mean because I've matured, or because I've learned from my mistakes. I mean that who I am is not determined by me or this world. Who I am is determined by the one who made me with a purpose. The one who made all of us with intentionality. God created us to be his own. And by accepting that, we gain the freedom of not determining our own worth. We gain the freedom of knowing our worth comes from him and not from anything we do or have done. Then we have the freedom to become what he would have us be in him.

In our Ephesians reading, Paul writes “let us speak the truth to our neighbors … be angry but do not sin … thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” And finally, he says, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.”

The reason Paul can give instructions on how to live godly lives is because we have already been sealed for the day of redemption in Jesus. So now, we can strive for holiness without fear of losing our identity when we fail since our identity is in God and not in ourselves or anything we do. Good works don't add to our salvation, but they help us to live into the redemption that is already our own. Paul says, “forgiv[e] one another, as God in Christ his forgiven you.” We are only able to do these things because we have forgiveness in Jesus. I don't try to be a better person to make up for my past mistakes. I don't try to be a better person to deserve respect or honor. I know my past is forgiven and I know I have all the honor through the Spirit which adopted me as God's own. I now seek after God knowing that he has already accepted me.

When I think about that time back in high school, I know I can't change what happened. But I also know that what happened can't define me anymore. I know that the definition of who I am doesn't come from this earthly life. We have trouble seeing that because this life, so far, is all we know. But I believe Jesus when he says that he is the resurrection and the life. I believe that even now I have a new life free from the condemnation of my past mistakes and even the mistakes I will continue to make as I try to follow God's will. I know that there is a heavenly truth of who I am because of who I know Jesus is. I know Jesus wasn't just born in this earth, but that he dwells eternally in the heavens interceding for me at the right hand of the Father. I know that I am loved without having done anything to deserve it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

This sermon was preached at Mill Creek United Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 21st, 2015.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Audio

One day, Jesus and his disciples were sailing in a boat across the sea of Galilee. Suddenly, as they were sailing, a great windstorm arose and waves began crashing against them and water from the waves began filling the boat. As the disciples hurried back and forth to empty the water and steady the boat from capsizing, Jesus lay asleep on a cushion in the stern. The disciples rushed to him, screaming over the thunderous sounds of the surrounding storm, “Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?”

This week, our country was hit by a wave from the exponentially building storm of injustice. A young white man walked into a historical black church and sat down at their Bible study. After they had been together for an hour, this man pulled out a gun and killed nine innocent people from this Bible study. After he was captured, he admitted that his goal was to start a race war in the United States. As this storm rages across our country, black Americans are calling out, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

After the disciples called on Jesus, he calmed the storm by commanding the winds to cease and the waves to settle. He asks the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I believe he asks us today, “Have you still no faith?” If we have faith, then we believe when he prays that we may be one even as he and the Father are one. Faith is what unites us as one in him. And if we are to stand in faith, we must also stand as one with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We not only stand with Christians under persecution across the world, but also our neighbors in this country who suffer under the fires of hate. If we have faith, then we must step into that faith as the Body of Christ, his presence in this world, and calm the storm of racial injustice by demanding there be no more and standing beside those who suffer. Let our prayers be for reconciliation and love, that our love will overcome the hate of others, be they ISIS fighters, racial supremacists, oppressive governments, or any other manner of hate in the world. Let our prayers go up in faith and our actions reflect that faith by standing as one, not only in Spirit, but side-by-side here and now, working together to bring unity and reconciliation to our one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “working together with him [that is, Jesus], then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, 'in a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.'”

If we receive the grace of God, we need to also see that grace manifest in our lives. “Behold, now is the favorable time,” Paul writes, “behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”

Because now is the favorable time and the day of salvation, we must live into that truth and not take it in vain. When we act in the world, we should act in faith that God has come to be our help. If he has come to be our help, he has also come to help those around us. And as Paul wrote just before this passage, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

So, this ministry has been passed on to us, and is only made possible through his grace which he has given us in Christ. We are his ministers of reconciliation. How can we reconcile others to God if we don't speak the Good News to them? How can we be reconciled with our neighbors if we don't stand by them? We have been reconciled with God. God has forgiven all of our sin through the Cross of Christ. We have new life in him through his resurrection. Now, as we read in the letter to the Romans, “neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And if we want it to be that “no fault may be found in our ministry” as Paul wrote, we must, like Paul, “put no obstacle in anyone's way.” We can let nothing keep others from hearing our message of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not race nor ethnicity, nor income nor school district, nor where they work nor where they spend their nights, nor anything in all of our social statuses should keep them from knowing that love. As Jesus came down from his high place in heaven to be one with us, we should also go out to those different from ourselves and be one with them by the one Spirit who unites us in Christ.

Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians, “but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.”

A major part of how we are to act in response to things such as the tragic shooting from this past week is how we view ourselves. Who are we as Christians? What is our goal? Paul commends himself and his fellow ministers as servants of God. When we call on Jesus as Lord, we are calling on him to rule over our lives. We are giving our wills, our wants, and our goals, all over to him. What we want becomes secondary to what he wants for us. And through his prayer in the John's Gospel account, we know that his desire for us is to be one as he is one with his Father in heaven. To know how to be ministers of God's love in the world, we must know the way of the servant of God. In the following part of this passage, Paul outlines three main “ways” of servanthood.

First, he writes, they commend themselves “by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”

I call this first part “the Way of Trouble.” Paul outlines things we would mostly associate with trouble, but uses them as ways of commending himself to the Corinthians. What he is saying here, is “See the things we went through for your sake!” It's basically the equivalent of your mother yelling, “All those dirty diapers I changed, all your rides to sports practices and school dances, all the dinners I made and paid for.” It's an appeal to what they've gone through for the work of the Gospel to show their honesty and genuineness in sharing it with the Corinthians. Paul and his fellow ministers are willing to walk this way of trouble if it means they are serving God in the process.

What does it mean for us today to walk this way of trouble? What does it look like for us to deal with hardships and calamities? What are the beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger that today's ministers go through for the gospel? Being a minister of the Gospel means walking this way of trouble for those who are in that trouble. It means walking beside them and on their behalf. When we look around us, to our neighbors who are being either mistreated or pushed aside in society, will we stand alongside them, or turn the other way? Are we willing to walk this way of trouble for others and for the gospel?

The next thing Paul writes is that they commend themselves “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love.”

This, I call “the Way of Goodness.” That is, the way of outward acts which show the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit, we see in the letter to the Galatians is “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” By abiding in the Spirit of God, our outward acts begin to take on these qualities. These outward acts of goodness don't do anything for us in terms of our salvation. We aren't saved by them. But as the Holy Spirit moves through us and we see these qualities becoming more present in who we are, they help to witness to the transforming love of Jesus. By the transforming power he shows in our own lives, we are witnesses to the transforming power he can have in the lives of those around us.

Included in this is genuine love. Genuine love is the love that comes from God. It is love that doesn't ask of others, and doesn't hold up a standard to be received. The genuine love of God is available to all, no matter what. When the families of the victims of the shooting this week went to the shooter's hearing, they took turns, one-by-one, speaking forgiveness over him, and even asking him to receive the love of God in Jesus Christ. The greatest witness we have is our love. It is a love that comes from God and doesn't love as the world loves. It can't be taken away, even if it's refused. Even as the soldiers around Jesus spat in his face and nailed him to a cross, he cried out to God, “Forgive them! For they know not what they do.” And even as these families faced this killer, they said to him, “I forgive you,” and called him to repentance so that he could also receive the forgiveness of God.

The third way Paul writes the ministers commend themselves to the Corinthians is “by truthful speech, and the power of God; with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise.”

This, I call “The Way of Blamelessness.” Paul and his fellow ministers show themselves to be truthful, not telling lies or giving false witness. They do not manipulate or mislead. The ministers of God speak the truth in the power of God. The power of God is a power that can overcome all evil and hatred with love and goodwill. We overcome attempts to divide us through violence by coming together in unity and peace. While the world around us carries weapons of destruction and death, we carry in our hands the weapons of righteousness; the Word of God and the shield of faith. Rather than hate, we love. Rather than destroy, we build up. Rather than fear, we stand firm in our faith, knowing that we have a hope beyond this world.

Through honor and dishonor, whether the world around us acknowledges us or not, we are to love one another. Through slander and praise, when others would speak wrongfully of us, we don't give into them, but lean on the love of God. Even the praise of this world is nothing, because no matter how good the world thinks we are, if we don't have favor with God it is meaningless. We should seek the honor and praise of him who is above all things. And he desires that we be one and care for one another as brothers and sisters. Not for ourselves, but for his sake, do we reach out to others in love. If we love God first and foremost, our love for our neighbor should be an outpouring of that same love.

Paul writes, “we are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”

Again, whatever might be said about us has no bearing on who we really are. There will always be those who misrepresent us, whether they do so intentionally or not, and we have no power over that. So, our concern shouldn't be for what others think of us, but for how we follow the way of the servant of God. Though we may be called imposters, we can stay true to God's mission of reconciliation. Our call isn't to convince others that we are good people. We are called to love God and love one another through his love. Our concern should be on following God's mission and not on what others might think of us. We should “seek first the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “and his righteousness.” We shouldn't worry about the cares of this world.

Paul concludes in our passage today, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”

Let's not be restricted by our cares for this world. Paul calls on the Corinthians as a father to his children, to open their hearts to his ministry. I think that today, our Christian brothers and sisters in South Carolina, in Ferguson, and in Baltimore also open themselves to us. They commend themselves through hardships and beatings and riots. They commend themselves by the Holy Spirit which unites us to them, and by genuine love. They commend themselves by the power of God shown in their forgiveness and by the Word. We are called to be reconciled to God, and through our reconciliation to him, to be reconciled to one another. How can we be reconciled if we don't stand together? How can we be brothers and sisters if we don't sit together? How can we be one as Jesus and the Father are one if we don't worship together?

The way of the servant of God is a way of trouble, of goodness, and of blamelessness. In this world we will know trouble, but Jesus has overcome the world. So, we can face that trouble the world offers with joy, knowing that our God came down to take our troubles upon himself. Likewise, we should take on the troubles of those around us as servants of God, followers of his good character.

Our brothers and sisters have opened themselves to us. We can turn an act meant for hate to be a foundation of unity and love in Christ. Though the actions of this past week were done to cause a rift, both in our country and in our Church, our response can be the beginning of greater fellowship with one another. Let's be reconciled to God. And through that, let's take the steps to reconcile with one another; to end the cycle of hate in this country and across the world. Let's have faith that Jesus has the power to calm this storm. And let's have faith that power will show itself through love.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

This sermon was preached at Mill Creek United Presbyterian Church on Sunday, May 31st, 2015.

2 Corinthians 3:12-18 Audio

Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the day in the Church Year that we celebrate the Godhead, three in one, Father, Son, and Spirit. The holy mystery of the Trinity, three persons yet one God, is one that has caused many questions throughout the centuries. The main councils in the early church debated the very issues of how we are to understand the Godhead. All we can say is that God is one being in three persons, separate yet united, unique yet the same. For the brightest of us to understand this great mystery is like the average elementary math student attempting to understand advanced calculus.

More simply, if I am a child who has only recently learned to add and subtract, I have no understanding of how to identify the circumference of a circle. But if my math teacher were to show me that the circumference of a circle with the diameter of 4 is 12.56, even though I don't understand my teacher's explanation, I trust that my teacher is correct. I don't trust my teacher because I spent my time picking apart every bit of my teacher's explanation, but because this is the same teacher who taught me addition and subtraction. I trust my teacher because I was taught by my teacher. Since my teacher has proven trustworthy in simply the simple truths revealed to me, then I know I can trust my teacher in the more difficult truths.

Last week, I spoke about how Jesus revealed the fullness of God's glory in himself. That the law of the Old Testament was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, very God of very God, who died as a payment for sin and rose again to bring us life. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.”

God has revealed his great love for us by coming to us in the flesh and taking our place on the cross. If he has revealed himself in this way, and if we trust him in that revelation, then we are called also to trust him in the deeper things he reveals to us. Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.”

Moses covered his face because the glory of the Law meant death for the people because the people could not keep the Law. But we no longer need to turn away from God's glory because the glory he has revealed in the Spirit is one that does not bring death, but brings new life for those who believe. The Law brought condemnation for sin. The Spirit brings freedom by grace through faith. Our boldness comes from this freedom. Moses could not be bold with the Law because he knew that the glory of the Law would mean death for those who see it. But if we have been revealed the greater glory of life through the Spirit, we are bold because it means life to all who receive it.

Moses had to hide the glory revealed to him to spare the lives of the people. We now share openly the glory revealed to us because it is a glory that saves. When Paul says we can be bold in a way that Moses could not, it means we can now share openly with others what has been revealed to us. “But their minds were hardened,” Paul continues about the people of Israel, “for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.”

Paul is calling the Church to be a source of truth to those who are still under the old covenant. Paul writes that “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” He writes a similar thought in his letter to the Romans, “how then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” We have been given this great gift of glory. Jesus reveals God's true character in himself and he wants the whole world to see it. The deeper we grow in the knowledge of God the deeper the call on our lives to bring others with us.

If we are to go deeper into the knowledge of God, we must see that Christ is the source of all truth. It is the Spirit of Truth that reveals him to us. We need to trust that he loves us. We need to put our faith in him to guide us into life. He has shown that he is trustworthy in his death and resurrection. Because we know that he loves us and the full extent of his love, that he would even die for us, we can trust him in all other things. If we are not seeking truth through Christ, we are also searching with veiled faces. We must turn to Christ in all matters of life. When we seek after Jesus first, all other things come into perspective.

I need to wear my glasses all the time. Without them, I wouldn't be able to see much at all. I can make out blurry images and guess at what things are based on color and general shape. But, I cannot navigate through my life without having my glasses on at all times. The same principle is true with Jesus. We should go through our lives—how we make our decisions, how we act toward others, how we respond to trials and joys—with Jesus in the forefront at all times. Our minds should be set on Jesus. We can't reveal his glory without him acting through us. “Now the Lord is the Spirit,” Paul writes, “and where the Spirit of the Lord Is, there is freedom.”

The Spirit frees us from worries and allows us to trust in something greater than us. Not just something, but someone. If we put our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit will be with us and act for us. He doesn't do this because we have proven ourselves worthy. He doesn't do this because we have filled out any requirements. The Holy Spirit fills us and guides us because he loves us and he wants us to love others like he loves. When Isaiah appeared before the throne of the Lord, he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts!” And an angel of the Lord touched a burning coal to his mouth, saying, “behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Like Isaiah, we have unclean lips and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. But the Holy Spirit cleanses us of our sin. The fire of the Spirit in the Word of God, the Good News of Jesus on our lips, takes away our guilt. This cleansing is what frees us to be able to do the works of God. We are agents of God's will. We have been given the freedom to share the Good News of Jesus with others and not have to show any merit of our own to do so. When Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well during his travels, he asked her to give him some water to drink. As it turned out, this woman was an outcast from her people because she had had five husbands and was living with a man that wasn't her husband. When this woman found out who Jesus was, she ran into the town and told all of the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.” This sinful woman ran through the streets using her sin as a witness to who Jesus is. It was no longer her sin that identified her, but the man who knew her sin and loved her anyway.

When we accept that we are sinners and receive God's forgiveness, we are accepting a call to witness. We are accepting the call to show God's forgiveness to others by revealing his forgiveness to us. The woman could announce her sin to the entire city because she knew the one who could take away sin. Isaiah was ashamed of his sin, and God empowered him by taking away his guilt and making him a prophet. Our strongest weapon in the mission field is the story of God's grace toward us. He has taken away our guilt and washed away our sin. In fact, the more sinful you were before Jesus came into your life, the stronger your witness is for his sake. His power is made perfect in our weakness.

The freedom of the Spirit is the freedom to be weak. The freedom of the Spirit is the freedom to know that though we can never earn God's love, we are loved by him. It is the freedom to approach God even in our sin and know that he will always welcome us. Without this freedom, our spiritual growth is impossible. We trust in God to do what we can't. We trust in God to make us his own. We trust in God to remain faithful when we lose faith, and to give us the faith we need to follow him more fully. Because of the freedom that comes from the Spirit, Paul writes, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

If you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior, ask and the Holy Spirit will come to you. The Spirit will dwell within you and your sins will no longer be counted against you. It is in this freedom from guilt that we are able to then be transformed into his image. God receives us as his own and gives us his Spirit to make us his children.

A few years ago, I was with my extended family. My uncle, my dad, my cousin, and I, were all standing together and talking. At one point, my sister came over, laughing and pointed out that we were all swaying back and forth in sync with one another. We noticed it as well, and realized that this was a strange habit picked up in our family. My uncle and dad said our grandfather used to do the same thing, and eventually, my cousin and I picked it up as we got older. We had been passing down a very odd family trait without our even realizing it. My dad never took me aside and told me, “Now, son. Whenever you're standing still for an extended time, you need to start swaying back and forth like this.” I also never stood alone in my room practicing swaying back and forth to imitate the way my dad did this. By being with him and having a relationship with him, his habits naturally influenced me. I picked up this little family quirk just like the rest of our family, simply by being with one another.

When we allow ourselves to dwell in the presence of God, we are naturally influenced by his character. When we meditate on the Scriptures, spend time in prayer, and worship with his people, we are being transformed even when we don't realize it. When we turn to Jesus, we don't do it just to practice being better people. We do it to see him. To spend time with him. To have a relationship with him. As we grow closer to Jesus, we become more like Jesus. We don't become more like Jesus because we work hard at it every day. We become more like Jesus because when we spend time with him, we are transformed into his image by his Spirit dwelling in us. There are times when we do have to work at being more forgiving or more patient, but the real change happens when we simply dwell in his presence.

The thing about children is that even if they rebel, they necessarily carry the image of their parents. I have many friends with children of all different ages. And in each one, I can see their likeness. I can see a mother's eyes, a father's nose, even a grandmother's smile. Children don't have a choice in bearing the image of their parents. But they can either highlight that image or cover it over. In Jesus, our veils are torn and that image is now visible. We can see him and he can see us. We can see him in each other, and grow to be more like him every day. The first step to doing this is trusting in him. We need to allow him to transform us for the better. And we need to trust that his image is better than any other image in this world.

I opened this morning by talking about the image of God in the Trinity. This is the image that we are to replicate as Christians. We, as the Church, are eternally united as one, none greater than the other, yet each of us individually are of infinite worth. Together, we reflect the eternal love found in God. His love isn't for us alone. As the Father sends the Son, so he sends us into the world. As the Spirit overtook Mary to make Jesus incarnate, God of God, yet fully man, so he fills us with his Spirit to be his Body and his ministers in the world. As he loves us, we are to love others. And we don't do this because we are qualified. We do this because of his transforming love. We remain united in Christ even when we split off into a hundred thousand denominations. The bond of the Spirit can't be broken by human failings. And just as he unites us with one another, he also unites us with himself. We are united with him no matter how terribly we fail at following him. Our faith isn't built on our ability to be like Jesus. Our faith is built on his ability to love us even when we don't deserve it.

This truth is something that we will always struggle to understand: That God loves us no matter what. And he'll keep loving us, even if we turn our backs on him. He has proven his love for us on the cross. He has proven his transforming power in the resurrection. Now we can trust that he will continue to transform us into his image even if we don't understand how it works. We can trust that he unites us even when we think our disagreements are too big to overlook. We can trust that God will use us to share him with the world, even when we don't think we can. God has called you to be his ministers in the world because he will be working through you. You don't need to go to seminary to love your neighbor. You don't need to be ordained as a minister to pray for one another. These are the things that God has called us to do. If we trust in him rather than measuring ourselves against others, he will do great things through us. If we act out of faith in his promise rather than faith in our abilities, he will surprise us.

Be transformed. Not by trying harder, but by giving yourselves over to God. By spending time with him. Jesus said the greatest commandment is this, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” We can't follow any other commandment, or be his witnesses in the world, without it. If we trust him, then we must also trust that what he said is true. The greatest thing we are called to do is first to love God. By giving us his Spirit, he has provided a way for us to do that. We can do it without shame and without guilt. Even if it's hard to believe at times, all of our sins have been wiped away. They no longer hold any power over us. So now we are free to approach God confidently. By doing so, we will be changed. We will be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 3:7-11

This sermon was preached at Mill Creek United Presbyterian Church on Sunday, May 24th, 2015.

At Trinity, I help to manage the international house, where students from other parts of the world stay during their studies at the seminary. I've done this for the last two years, and mostly I've had students from the continent of Africa staying with me in the house. Even in the years before this, I've had a good relationship with the students coming from overseas. Each year at the end of the Fall semester, when the temperature drops to the mid-forties, the same thing happens. The heavy winter coats are brought out, as the African students are exposed to the coldest temperatures they had yet experienced in their lives. One of my friends in particular asked me just this past year, “so this is Pittsburgh winter?” And I gently warned him that there was worse to come.

When the semester ended, and the temperatures drop to the low thirties or twenties, again, he asked me, “so, now this is the winter you were talking about.” Again, I told him that there is still a colder winter to come.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?”

When we read the Old Testament, we are getting a glimpse of what life looked like before Jesus Christ was revealed to us in his fullness. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, God has slowly been moving his people toward the fullness of his glory. His glory is the beauty and magnificence of who he has revealed himself to be. He did this first through the Law of Moses. The thing is, we and the people of Israel are not able to comprehend the glory of God-- how great God is. Like my African friends, who needed to bundle up in large winter coats for what we would consider cool autumn weather, Moses had to cover his face with a veil to protect the people from the great glory that was revealed when God gave him the Law on Mount Sinai. Yet even that glory was only a taste of the fullness to be revealed in Jesus Christ.

This morning I want to talk to you about the glory that of the Law of God as it has been revealed to us in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. It is because of the Law that the character of God is made known to us. It is through the Law that we are able to understand not only his holiness and righteousness, but our own sin and brokenness.

First, let's talk about how the Law of God reveals his character to us.

When we talk about God's Law, there's another word that often comes up in conversation. It's an old Hebrew word from which we get the word Law. Many of you, I'm sure, know it: Torah. The word Torah has many different ways of being translated. The most common is “law,” but it can also be understood to mean “instruction,” or “teaching.” There isn't really a suitable single word in English to get the full meaning of Torah, but a helpful way of understanding it is as an “instruction of the faith.” What I mean by this is that Torah is not just a list of “dos and do nots,” as the English word “Law” might imply. Instead, Torah is intended to be a teaching of who God is and who we are meant to be as creations in God's image. It's a passing down of family tradition, only this family is the family of God, whom he has chosen to be his own.

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to make a special Chinese pastry she called a “sausalo” at every family gathering, which were meat filled pockets of soft, buttered dough. After she died, one of the things that our whole family wanted to be sure to do was to continue making these special pastries in her honor. But because she had died rather suddenly, we weren't able to get the instructions for her sausalo pastries. We decided to see if we could find the recipe online. We tried for a very long time, but no matter how we spelled the word, there was no evidence of a Chinese pastry called “sausalos.” We eventually gave up, and had to do without her pastries for a couple of years. But, one day, my dad was out at a Chinese shop and saw the small meat-filled pastries sitting in the window. He looked up at the sign to finally find out what they were called, and there was very simple, descriptive title hand written over them, “Sausage Rolls.”

My grandmother never learned much English. Even though she had been saying the simple phrase “sausage rolls” this whole time, none of us could understand her. She was speaking a different language, and we never took the time to sit down and let her guide us in the instruction of how to understand what she was saying and how to properly prepare these small pastries.

God is on a different level than my grandmother. He's on a different level than all of us. His “language,” so to speak, is different than our own. Even when he speaks to us in our own language, we still have trouble understanding. Jesus says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” God's holiness is greater than our understanding, so he reveals himself through his Torah. The Torah is God's way of speaking through earthly things to reveal his heavenly character. He declares “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” His first commandment is a lesson in who he is, what he has done, and a hint at what he will ultimately do. Our God is a god who frees the slave and demands that he alone be the object of our worship.

Through the ten commandments and the rest of Scripture, we see that God desires absolute perfection because he is absolutely perfect. He will not settle for any less. Jesus says that not only should you not murder, but “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” God's perfect character is one that does not hold on to his anger, but is full of steadfast love. His standard, the standard he holds up to all of his people, is that we also should not remain angry with those who do us wrong. Do not steal, do not lust, do not envy. Do not boast of your own deeds. Always do to others as you would have them do to you. Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you. Lay down your life.

Whoever does not live up to this standard is unfit for life in God's eternal Kingdom and is liable to judgment. The Torah of God reveals to us that we are deserving of death because we cannot live up to his perfect standard to which he holds his people accountable. He holds his people accountable to this standard because this is the standard that he follows in his own character. God is the perfectly good and perfectly righteous creator of the universe. He wants to bring his creation back to perfection, and to do that he has to get rid of everything that falls short of perfection. When we look at the Law, the Torah of God, we see God's perfect character. We see a God who loves the poor and needy, who sets captives free, who is faithful even to his unfaithful people. And when we see this perfect God, we realize that we are anything but the perfect people he desires us to be.

Because God has given the Torah, there is no longer any excuse to live apart from the standard that he sets. No one can plead ignorance to this standard, and even as the letter to the Romans bears witness, “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.” The law has been revealed to all people to show God's standard for those he calls his own.

Anyone who fails to live up to that standard is unworthy of being in the presence of God. So, the very thing which reveals the perfect beauty of holiness and righteousness in God is the same thing that condemns us before him. When we know who God is, we know who we are. When we see that God is good, we see that we are not. In God's perfection is revealed our imperfection. Or, more accurately, our wickedness and perversion. We twist everything for selfish gain. We not only worship other gods but seek to become gods. Because we know that we cannot live up to God's Law, we create our own Law so that we can live unto ourselves. We determine our own standard of good because that is the only way we can ever be considered good in our own efforts.

But this is what God's Torah reveals about us: That we are murderous adulterers seeking to be our own gods through slander and envy. But what it reveals about God is that he is abounding in mercy and steadfast love. God has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” God has revealed himself in his Torah. But he proves himself to us by coming to us as one of us. The character that he revealed himself to have in the Torah is the character of a God that would do anything to be with those he loves. This is a God that would come to us and lay down his life for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In Philippians we read that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

And in Colossians, Paul writes, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Jesus died on the cross because we were unable to meet God's standard. God wants us to know him, so he revealed himself knowing that doing so would also condemn us before him. He revealed himself to us knowing that doing so would bring upon us the judgment for sin. But the fullness of who he has revealed himself to be in the person of Jesus Christ, is a God who takes that punishment upon himself for our sake. Because we are unable to live up to his standard, he died for us on the cross. It's one thing to point to the Law and say that God is love because he has said so. It is an entirely other thing to be able to point to the cross and say this is how he loves. But his love doesn't end there. The cross is the end of the ministry of death through the Law, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the beginning of the ministry of the Spirit.

In the Western Church, this Sunday is the Sunday of Pentecost. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, he sent the promised Holy Spirit to fill his people and be his presence among them. Because he has died so that he would “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” then this ministry of the Spirit is intended for the whole world. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Paul writes in Colossians, “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” When we believe in Jesus Christ, we are no longer under the condemnation that comes from the Torah of God. We are under a new Law, a new Torah, which brings life. We now enter into the ministry of righteousness. This ministry doesn't count our own sin against us, but the righteousness of Jesus Christ in his sacrifice. In Romans we read “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be filled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

We want to do it on our own. We want to be good. But we can't change the standard of what is good. We can only lie about what is good and meet a new standard of our own creation, or we can accept that we are not good. But through him, we can receive the merits of goodness that aren't our own. In him, we can pursue the standard of God without condemnation. We no longer live according to the flesh and what we do, but by the Spirit and what he has done. And he has shown that when we can't meet the standard of good, he still loves us and even lays his life down for us. So we can move forward with confidence that we have in him the righteousness of God by the power of his Spirit.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

He has set us free from the slavery of sin, and now we have the freedom to worship him as the one true God. We see that we don't need to set our own standards to be good, but by turning to him, we are considered righteous apart from our own actions. And we can turn to him knowing that he has already proven his love by coming to us in the flesh and offering himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin. We don't need to be our own gods. In fact, he shows that he is more God than we can ever be. And when we believe in his promise of life through his Spirit, he makes us children of God by adoption through that same Spirit which brings us the ministry of righteousness. If you have the Spirit of God, you are a child of God, and you are bound to inherit his eternal kingdom with Christ.

This was revealed to us first in the Torah. Like my friends in heavy coats, those who only know the Torah only get a taste of the beauty and majesty and all-surpassing love of God. But the fullness of God was revealed in Jesus Christ. Suddenly, that old glory revealed in the Law has become nothing compared to the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit who saves us from condemnation. The veil which kept us from God has now been torn, and we are welcome into his presence. We no longer rely on our own ability to meet his standard. By his Spirit, we have the righteousness of Christ. Not only can we worship him as God, but we can call on him as Father because he has made us his own. And he loves us, even to the end that he would lay down his life for us.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sermon on 2 Peter 3:8-18

This sermon was preached at Prince of Peace Church on the weekend of December 6th, 2014.

There was a man named Adam, who lived in a garden in a place called Eden. He had a wife named Eve, and together they were the most loved creation of God. God loved them so much because he created them in his own image. God gave all kinds of trees and plants for Adam and Eve to eat. He gave them peace with all of the animals, and put them in charge of caring for his garden. God would come and walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. They had a relationship with God, and knew him intimately. But one day, they broke God's one rule. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,” God had said, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” When Adam and Eve were disobedient to God and ate of that one tree, the first thing they felt was shame. And from that shame came fear when God came down to visit those he loved. Because their shame made them afraid, they hid themselves from God.

What I find interesting about this story is that they weren't afraid of God because they were afraid of punishment. Adam says to God, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” They were afraid of God because they were ashamed. They recognized about themselves what God already knew, that they weren't worthy to stand in his presence. They were exposed. They realized their nakedness and did all that they could to cover their nakedness from the eyes of God.

When Peter wrote to the Christians in the first century, he said, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

This is a fearsome image. The God who created the universe and all that is in it will pour out his wrath on the heavens and burn away all of the heavenly bodies with a roar. When I lived in Florida, every year, we would have a season where hurricanes would threaten up the coast. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit the east coast with deadly force, causing 25 billion dollars worth of damage in the state alone. Around 1.2 million people were evacuated from their homes to escape the storm. The day of the Lord will be like a storm, coming without warning, like a hurricane of fire, burning and exposing the whole earth.

We cannot respond to such an event with anything but fear and apprehension. And our first response to fear is to hide. But there will be nowhere to hide from God, because the whole earth and all the works done on it will be exposed. He will not come as he did to Adam and Eve, walking in the cool of the day. Neither will he come as he did in his incarnation, as a baby in a manger. God will come to us in the fullness of his being. He will come to judge both the living and the dead for their sin. Peter's description of that coming Day forces his readers to come face to face with the reality of the power of God. He wants to be sure that we pay attention when he gives the warning, that “since all of these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn.”

The fear that Peter's descriptions instill is the same fear that captured Adam and Eve when they sinned in the garden. The fear of God is rooted in our shame. Our shame comes from knowing that we have failed to meet the standard set for us. We have a standard of holiness and godliness against which we have all sinned and fallen short. In our shame we try to hide our shortcomings from God and those around us. We hide because we don't want others to see our deeds. We know that our deeds are evil. We know our greed, our anger, our jealousy; and do everything we can to keep those things hidden. Even greater than the fear of fire and destruction, seeing the heavenly bodies burn away and dissolve, is the fear of being exposed. The fear of standing before God with everything we have done in the open for all to see.

“And this is the judgment,” we read in the John's Gospel, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out by God.”

Peter calls us to live lives of holiness and godliness, already knowing it is a standard we are unable to uphold on our own. What we don't want to take away from his message is that we need to meet that standard if we are to survive the Day of the Lord. If it were possible, Jesus wouldn't have died on the Cross to redeem us. We wouldn't need his forgiveness of our sins. No, we are unable to meet this standard. That is where our fear is grounded. We hide from God because we know that we can't meet his standards of perfection. To try overcoming our fears by our efforts of meeting this standard on our own would only drive us deeper into the darkness of shame. The more we try, the more we realize just how far we fall short of that standard. It would place us under the unbearable pressure of unreachable perfection. It would trap us in the mire of guilt and force us into disbelief. Pure moralism, that is, seeking our value through what we do right or wrong, is what caused the shame of Adam and Eve after their first sin in the garden. It causes us to measure ourselves against those around us instead of valuing them as love-infused and image-bearing creations of God.

We do not strive for the standards of holiness and godliness because we find our value in them. We do not strive for the standards of holiness and godliness because attaining those things will make us feel complete. We do not strive for the standards of holiness and godliness to prove ourselves worthy of God. We strive for these things because they reveal the character and prove the love of God.

God's character is seen in his response to our inability to meet his standard of perfection. The way he responds to our inability shows the perfect union of his justice and mercy. Were God only just, then we would all need to pay the full penalty of our own sin. There would be no hope for salvation, because our salvation would be dependent on our ability to stand perfect and blameless before God. Were God only merciful, then there would be no cure for sin. Our fallen world would continue in its path to destruction. No penalty would ever be dealt for the injustices of humanity against one another. Instead, God does the unthinkable. To fully satisfy his justice, and fully reveal his mercy, God came to us as one of us. He came to us, Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary. He fulfilled his own law, meeting the standard of holiness and godliness we never could. He then offered his own perfect and divine life to pay the penalty of our sin. Because of this, our sins are not only forgiven, but their penalty is paid in full.

Now that the penalty for sin has been paid, we can pursue his standard of holiness and godliness freely and without fear. But we still run into the same problem. Even if we are forgiven for our failures, we are still unable to meet his standard. God still calls us to holiness and godliness. But we have proven time and again that these are unattainable by our own efforts. This is why we must remember that he not only died to paid the penalty for our sins, but that he rose again from the grave. The only way to live a holy and godly life is to be holy and godly. The only one who fulfills this requirement is God himself. Jesus rose again from the grave through the gift of new life that is in him. This same life, by the Holy Spirit, is then given to those who put their faith in his sacrifice. We can pursue holiness and godliness because God is not only with us, but in us and through us. His grace is sufficient for us. As he revealed to Paul, his grace is made perfect in weakness. So, Paul declared to the Corinthians, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

That which drew us to fear is now our source of power. Our weaknesses and shortcomings were our shame. But when we recognize our weakness, God gives us grace. When a child is first attempting to walk, its mother will reach out a hand to help. If the child stubbornly refuses the mother's hand, then it will continue to struggle. The child will not even be able to stand on its own. To walk, the child must submit to the mother's power and take her hand. The child must stop struggling and allow its mother to take control and lift it to its feet. This is the mother's power revealed in the weakness of her child.

When we stubbornly refuse God's grace, we run from his presence out of shame. Our situation is no different than that of Adam and Eve. We are also hiding from God. If the child gives in to its shame of being unable to stand, it will never learn to walk. The child needs to accept its weaknesses and accept the mother's offer to help. We hide because we rightly recognize that we are unworthy to stand in God's presence. We hide because we know that we can never live up to the standard set before us. We hide because we are afraid of the consequences of not living up to that standard. But because the God who holds us to that standard is the same God who died for us, we can trust when he offers his Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. We can trust that if we acknowledge our weakness, he will not condemn us, but give us his grace.

Let's remember the words of John's Gospel, that “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out by God.” It is not we who work, but Christ in us. And we wait patiently until the completion of that work he has called us to do. We step into the light and bear witness that it is God who has redeemed us. It is not by my own efforts that I stand before you. It is not by my own will that I share this Good News. It is the grace of God, revealed to me as it was to Peter and Paul and all of the saints. It's the same grace that is offered to you.

Let's not forget that while we face a fearsome Day that will come like a thief, it is not a day we need to fear if we put our trust in Jesus Christ. If we admit to our weakness and our inability to meet God's standard, then we wait on and even hasten the coming of that Day. We look for it with longing because on that Day all that we have worked for will be completed. Only it is not we who work, but God in us. If we trust in his work, we will find ourselves growing into the full stature of Christ; mature in faith and prepared for his eternal kingdom. Until that Day, we must continue to trust in God to work in us. We must maintain faith in his strong hand to guide us and build us up in holiness and godliness. We do this by turning to him in our weakness so that his power may rest upon us.

If there is one thing I can ask you to remember it's this: that you do not need to be ashamed because of your sin. Instead, come and receive God's grace which washes away all sin. As we receive his Sacrament at his Table, we do so in humility. We receive him knowing that we are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs from under his table. He also knows this. We aren't revealing anything new to God when we confess our sins. We are just accepting the reality of who we are and who he is. We are sinners. He is the redeemer. He is the sanctifier. And he is Savior.