Monday, May 29, 2017

No Peace but a Sword

Preached at South Salem Friends Church
May 28, 2017

I previously posted a sermon about the Biblical teaching that Jesus took the Law to the cross. It was nailed there with him, and it was not resurrected. We live in grace. Paul taught that the Law was a schoolmaster to bring us to Jesus, and that once we trust Jesus’s character and work on our behalf, we are set free to live in and by the Spirit, focusing our energies on what James calls “the law of liberty,” the necessity of living out love to God and to our neighbors. But this doesn’t mean that life is easier. In fact, we lose the comfort of a network of rules that we can obey in order to remain safe, and life becomes more of an adventure, more listening and obeying in each moment.

The Born Again Life

In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.” Being born again means being born “of the Spirit.” And then Jesus adds, “The wind blows where it wills, and you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. The Spirit is like the wind; it breathes or blows where the Spirit wills; you cannot tell where the person who is born of the Spirit comes from or where that person is going.” These are unsettling words; notice that Jesus spoke them to a person already believing in God and interested in God’s kingdom. Jesus calls Nicodemus, and us, to a life of uncertainty about what comes next, of moment to moment listening and obeying, based on our trust in the work and character of Jesus Christ.

When the messenger of God came to Mary and promised her she would give birth to the chosen one, the Messiah, she stepped into a world of trust. And a world of trouble. Simeon prophesied to Mary over the infant Jesus: “This child will cause tumult—falling and rising again—in Israel and many will speak against him, revealing their inner selves. And a sword will pierce your own heart.” This last is usually understood to refer to her grief over Jesus’s death, but we are told that God’s word is a sword that reveals our innermost selves, and remember that Mary was put in her place by Jesus at least once (“who is my mother? Who is my brother or sister? Whoever hears and obeys God”), and that she and the rest of her family thought Jesus might be crazy. Even Mary’s inner self found it hard to trust that this man and the way he ministered and the death he endured were the salvation promised to Israel and to the world. He wasn’t what she expected. Moved by God’s Spirit, he said and did things that worried her, that caused her pain as a mother and as a human being.

And Jesus is not comforting to the rest of us. He says, “Whoever openly agrees with me and publicly aligns with me, I will openly agree with and align myself with before my Father. Whoever openly contradicts me and refuses what I offer, I will contradict and refuse before my Father. Do not get the idea that I bring peace on earth, if peace is the absence of conflict, the ever-present tranquility and harmony. I did not come to send peace on earth but a sword that divides family members from each other, making them enemies to each other. All who love family more than they love me are not worthy of me, are not comparable to me; all who refuse to take up their cross and follow me are not worthy of me. All who work to find their lives will lose them, and all who throw their lives away for my sake will find them.” (Matthew 10:32-39)

“I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

I think we can put these passages together and understand some of what causes divisions in denominations, in congregations, in families, even when all are Christians who want to do what’s right. God does not promise that the Spirit will move all believers at the same pace and at the same time. So when some are moved differently or faster than others, conflict results.

We can see this repeatedly in the book of Acts, particularly around the new understanding of the kingdom of God that Peter and Paul brought back to the church in Jerusalem, all of whom were Jewish. Were Gentiles to be a part of the universal church? Would they need to become Jews as well? How was this going to work out?

Complicating the problem was the fact that while Jews thought of Gentiles as dogs and idolaters, Gentiles also thought of Jews as less than nothing. Gentiles were winners with rich mythologies, after all, and Jews were a conquered people whose one god had failed to protect them. Two superiority complexes.

Only Jesus brought them together, and the brew was always ready to explode. Thus all of Paul’s letters to Gentile churches that rail against Jewish Christians teaching the necessity of circumcision. Thus Paul’s advice to Gentile Christians to be gentle with Jewish Christians around the eating of meat offered in idol temples.  (In this day, we Gentile Christians can hardly understand the repulsion, the nausea Jews would have felt about eating these idol sacrifices.) Thus Peter’s witness to the Spirit falling on the Gentile Cornelius and his household as a sign of their inclusion in the kingdom of God. And thus Paul’s rebuke of Peter for being two-faced, behaving with freedom around the Gentile Christians but acting like an observant Jew around Jewish Christians.  It just is not easy.

The history of Christianity is filled with conflict. Creeds are written to contain change. Some prophets follow the Spirit and then confuse their own spirit with God’s. Some renewal movements are thrown out and become a force for spreading the Gospel in new worlds or among new peoples. Some groups are so offended by others’ views that they go to war with actual swords or guns or bombs in order to enforce their vision of God’s will.

Jesus’s own words about bringing a sword are intensified by his comment that “I came to light a fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” And John the Baptist foretold that one would come who would baptize with the Spirit and with fire.

So what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection was not only our salvation, but the release of the Holy Spirit of God onto the world. This Spirit, the Spirit who breathed God’s word into prophets and poets, is a sword that divides joint from marrow, as the book of Hebrews says, and lays bare our innermost selves, but also divides families and congregations and denominations, and lays bare how much or little we actually love each other, lays bare how much or little we trust the character and work of Jesus in each of us and in all of us. So conflict ought not to surprise us.

Nonetheless, I think we ought to be disappointed in ourselves when we allow differences of understanding about how the Spirit is leading to cause us to take up swords against each other, whether literal or metaphorical. Remember that Jesus also said that whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword, and he told his followers at the moment of his approaching arrest and death to put away their swords. We need to approach each other in our differences without weapons or armor.

Persisting in Community

Jesus told us that we would know people by their fruit—by their words and deeds, both of which come out of their inner selves. Paul contrasted humans’ natural fruit  with that which God’s Spirit brings forth in people. For church conflicts, the most pertinent contrast is between hatred, strife, wrangling, indignation, wrath, factions, divisiveness, hardened opinions—all of which arise out of natural human fear of change, fear of God’s judgment, fear of loss, and the resulting self-protectiveness—and love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control—all of which arise out of God’s grace that draws us to trust in Jesus’s work and character.

So how can we live together in the Spirit when we are not led by the Spirit at the same pace or at the same time?

Paul spends some time on this around the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Remember first that the Council of Jerusalem had issued guidelines for all Christians everywhere, one of which was, “abstain from meats offered to idols” (Acts 15:29). Apparently, this was not taken by Gentile Christians as an absolute prohibition, because we find Paul addressing it as a source of division in Corinth (1 Cor. 8 and 10).

Paul says that all things are lawful for him. This reminds us that Paul has repeatedly taught that the law does not apply to those redeemed by Jesus. He also adds that just because he can doesn’t mean he will. He must decide if an action is helpful, if it is  profitable to his main calling of spreading the Good News. He asks himself not only if he wants to do something, but is that action good for those around him as well. This is right in line with the fruit of God’s Spirit.

So there are two issues to think about. What does my own conscience tell me I am free to do? And will my action harm the person or persons I am with?

My Freedom vs. Another’s Conscience

In 1 Cor. 8, Paul says: “The overarching principle is this: We make nothing of idols, because we have one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ; we belong to and live in our Father and our Lord.

“However, not everyone understands this fully, and thus their consciences worry them about meat offered to idols, whereas we who understand this know that eating meat earns neither approval or disapproval from God. So we are free to eat all meat.

“Nevertheless, suppose someone sees us enjoy this liberty by sitting down to eat meat in an idol’s temple. That someone’s conscience forbids them this freedom, but because they respect or admire us, they go ahead and join in the meal. Then they suffer from having ignored their own consciences, and perhaps this will lead to their destruction. We can’t have that happen.

“So be careful how you use your freedom. Do not use it to harm a weaker fellow believer who doesn’t yet understand how we are free. This is like hurting a child, and it hurts Jesus. Better to give up eating meat than let my freedom come between someone and their efforts to obey, even when those efforts are based on a lack of understanding. “

There is a difference between a person who goes against conscience to copy the one who is enjoying the freedom of living in God’s Spirit and the person who imposes his or her conscience on those who are enjoying the freedom of living in God’s Spirit. It is a question of the use of power. I am not bound by your conscience, nor are you bound by mine, and in God’s Spirit, we are gentle with each other and take care to help each other obey God.

In 1 Cor. 10, Paul says first, “Just buy meat, don’t ask where it’s from. The whole earth belongs to God.

“Second, if you’re invited to someone’s house, don’t ask where the meat is from. Just eat what is set before you with thankfulness.

“But if the host advises you that it was offered to idols, this reveals something about the host, that the host is afraid it is not acceptable for you to eat it. In that case, don’t eat it so that you will set the host’s mind at ease. Again, remember that the whole earth belongs to God.

“In this you are deferring to another’s conscience. But why should your liberty be infringed on by another’s conscience? Why should your enjoying of grace by eating freely and thankfully be judged as evil?

Ultimately, when you eat and drink, and in all you do, bring glory to God.”  

Enhancing God’s Reputation

So our concern is “How can we enhance God’s reputation in order to draw people to relationship with God?”

Paul says, “Make a smooth road for the Jews, who avoid idol meat, and for the Gentiles, who eat it without scruple, and for the gathered congregation as well as the far-flung universal church,” just as Paul works hard to accommodate himself to all others rather than seeking to please himself or do what is good for himself. He does this so that others may be rescued and healed, saved from danger and destruction.

The long game here is what is ultimately good for others who are presently in danger and are being destroyed. This is why Paul rails against the Judaizing legalists—legalism itself is a danger because it destroys the relationship of trust. Paul wants them not to turn their back on the free gift of God. Paul obviously did not work too hard to please those who promoted the Law from within the church. Nor did he go out of his way to make their lives miserable. He used good judgment and followed the leading of the Spirit.

(Aside about the limits of conscience: It is possible for human beings to have a diseased conscience, one which plagues us with guilt and shame for many things in a day. We live in fear of judgment and cannot enjoy the freedom Jesus died to bring us. Even in the example from Paul, the conscience that forbids eating meat offered to idols is a sign of weakness, not strength.

We can look at the facts of our lives when our conscience torments us. John tells us in 1 John 3:18-23, “Let us not talk about love, but let us live out love in our actions and in our efforts for others’ well-being. This lived-out love assures us that we are acting out of truth, confident that God sees us. If our hearts accuse and condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. Though our hearts accuse us, our confidence is in God, and whatever we ask, God gives because we do what God tells us to, those things that we know please God.” It takes courage to live into God’s freedom.)

So how do we move through these tangled times, times when it seems our enemies are those we love, members of our own faith community, perhaps even members of our own household.

1) Keep our eyes on the long game—bringing those heading for destruction to understand the work and character of Jesus in which they can trust.

2) Be unsurprised by conflict: a religion characterized by obedience to a living Spirit of God that moves where the Spirit wills, not where we expect, will unavoidably lead to disagreement.

3) Be tender toward those who have not yet understood the grace of God and the freedom to live out love; don’t put them in positions where they feel they must disobey their consciences.

4) Be careful not to impose your own conscience, which may accuse out of weak faith rather than strong, on someone who is trying to obey the Spirit and live out love.

5) For evidence of belonging to and living in God, evidence that can stand against the accusations of an overactive and fearful conscience, look to your motives and actions in order to live out love yourself.

And don’t be afraid. God is greater than we are, and when we miss the mark, God promises to forgive and clean us up to try again.  Look to the example of Jesus, who gave himself in life and death to rescue those who are perishing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Law Is Nailed to the Cross

Preached at South Salem Friends Church
May 21, 2017

I’m a missionary kid. My parents went to central Africa, right at the end of WW II. I was born in Kansas, but went back with them at 6 months old. Eventually, they put me in a School for Missionary Children, a boarding school. I was seven.

At boarding school, I had to make my bed, tidy my drawers and surface spaces, dust and sweep my room every morning. While I was in classes, my dorm mother inspected the rooms, and if they were not up to her standards, we came back to find our names in the doghouse. We had to clean it to passing standards right away.

If we got put in the doghouse three successive days, we were confined to our rooms for the time between school and supper. I can’t remember what happened if our tidiness still didn’t meet standards, but I’m guessing it involved more of the same.

It was embarrassing to be put in the doghouse and have the fact posted in public. But even worse was the consequence for wetting the bed. My roommate was a chronic bed-wetter, and every morning she had to drag her soiled sheets up to the laundry room and wash them out by hand. Again a public event. One night I had a bloody nose and had the same consequence. I told everyone who would listen that it was a bloody nose, not wetting the bed. This public humiliation was hard to bear.

And once in school, still seven years old, I didn’t have my homework done. I was so afraid of the teacher’s response that I wet myself, and the urine ran into a puddle under my chair. But I remember in this case that the teacher scolded the boy who laughed at me and made him clean it up, and she sent me to the dorm to change my clothes without berating me.  After school, she asked me why I was so frightened, and I explained that I had heard her scold a different boy who didn’t do his homework and threaten him with a spanking, and so I expected the same. She said, "He almost never does his homework."

And that same year, I deliberately broke a rule by reading a Nancy Drew mystery under my covers with the flashlight after lights out. My roommate told on me, and I had the book confiscated and was in significant trouble.

This is vivid to me because at seven, I entered a system of law different from what I had previously experienced. I didn’t know before that time that I should make my bed. I doubt if I knew how to make it, even. I didn’t know about homework. Learning to read with my mother had been a game. I was unaware of obligation, to a large extent, though of course my parents had a few rules. And since at home we had to turn off our electricity at 9 p.m. or so, I may have been reading by flashlight without penalty before I went off to boarding school.

Now the apostle Paul has some interesting things to say about sin and law in Romans 5:12-21:

I need to make some things clear, says Paul.

Before a command was given, sin was in the world, but it wasn’t counted against anyone.

(To connect this to my story, my not making my bed was not a disgrace before I went to a school with rules.)

Paul says: Sin is not part of the reckoning without law. However, until God gave the Law to Moses, death had the upper hand even over those who did not directly disobey God’s command as Adam did.

(For me as a little girl, even though I wasn’t penalized for messiness before I went to school, there was in fact messiness, and someone had to clean it up. Messiness does rule if no one cleans. And when there is a rule against messiness, shame arises. And shame is a kind of death.)

In fact, the Law came in so that we humans could see how sinful we are, how prone to error; but where sin increased, grace hyper-increased, grace filled and overflowed the deficit caused by sin.

Adam is a prefiguring of Jesus Christ In his effect on those who came after.

And if Adam involved all humanity in sin and death, how much more does Jesus involve all humanity in the grace of God. Adam’s trespass brought a condemning judgment, but Jesus’s free gift brings many trespasses into favorable judgment.

Just as through one human, sin, error, trespass, disobedience came into the harmony of the cosmos, with sin came death, and death passed through all humans because all sinned—to repeat: if by one man, Adam, death ruled over humanity, how much more will life gain the upper hand, and people will receive abundance of grace and the gift of being set right with God and will reign in life by the one man, Jesus.

Therefore, as by the disobedience of one man all were condemned, so now by the obedience of one man all are set right with God and brought into life.
So just as sin has ruled through death, even more grace rules because grace makes people who they are meant to be even into eternal life.

Paul is very repetitive about how grace through Jesus Christ dominates and dismantles the law and with it shame. But it’s hard to imagine living without rules. So who can we look at to see what that kind of life is like? We can look to Jesus.

Jesus himself said, I have come not to blow up or break apart the law, but to demonstrate what it looks like when someone understands its true intent and fulfills that intent. Matt 5:17-18 (fulfilled = completed, filled up, satisfied, accomplished) Paul, reflecting on the work Jesus did, said, “Christ in his flesh abolished the law” (Eph. 2:15).

This is what it looks like for Jesus to fulfill the Law: Jesus and his disciples were not scrupulous about following the law to wash up before eating. Jesus violated Sabbath restrictions and had the nerve to say that both he and his Father were still working. He said work done to help was holy and not a violation of the Sabbath laws. Jesus said that God had set up Sabbath laws for the welfare of humans, rather than creating humans so they could obey Sabbath laws. You break Sabbath in order to circumcise, to cut a person up; yet you want to kill me for breaking Sabbath to make a person completely whole (John 7:22-23).

Jesus touched the dead and the lepers. Both made him unclean—unable to participate in temple worship. The same is true for the woman who was bleeding.

Jesus did not condemn a woman taken in adultery, stoning her to death as the law required, but instead told her not to make that mistake again. Jesus called the Pharisees to account for their marriages and the hardness of heart that destroyed their married unions, but when he met the Samaritan woman, he brought her serial marriages into the light but did not scold or condemn or shame her.

Jesus consistently told people to examine their own hearts and behavior before judging how others were being obedient. Did Moses give you the Law, and none of you keep it (John 7:19).

The Law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Whoever loves another fulfills the Law, and love works no harm for another (Romans 13:8-10).

Jesus showed us what it means to love another and thus fulfill, or fill up, or satisfy, the Law.

The Law foreshadowed good things to come but could not bring them about (Heb. 10:1).
Paul says that the Law is useful like a schoolmaster.  The Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, but now we are children of God by faith, and in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ (Gal 3:24-29).  We are dead to the Law by the body of Christ; we are delivered from the Law (Romans 7:4-6). The earlier commandment has been annulled and replaced by a better hope in Christ as our high priest, through whom we draw near to God (Heb 7:18-19).

The fact that we can’t keep the Law, in other words, creates in us the awareness of ourselves as sinners in need of grace, and the need for grace drives us to trust in the character and work of Jesus Christ. And when we put our trust in what Jesus has accomplished through his death and resurrection, and we trust God’s Holy Spirit to lead us every day, we live in freedom, not under the law.
We are justified by the faith of Christ, we believe in the character and work of Jesus Christ; we are dead to the Law so that we may live to God; we are crucified with Christ, and now Christ lives in us and we live by the faith of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us. We do not reject the grace of God by saying that righteousness comes through the Law (Gal 2:16-21).

Keeping the Law does not justify, but we are justified freely by grace through the redemption accomplished by Jesus; justified by faith in Jesus, not by works of the Law (Romans 3:20-24, 28).

The Hebrew and Greek words we often translate as “sin” have in them a number of pictures that help us understand this theological concept.

Sin is To Miss the Way, to Stumble, to Wander, to Misstep, to Slip, to Stumble.

Sin is To Miss the Mark, to Miss the Goal.

Sin is To Fail at the Assignment, To Avoid, to Neglect, to Overstep.

Sin is To Run the Wrong Way when Terrified, To Lose Oneself.

Sin is To Bend, to Make Crooked, to Distort God’s Truth.

Sin is To Overturn God’s truth, To Trespass, to Rebel, to Break Away From, to Defect.

You can see that “sin”—or trespass, or iniquity, or transgression, or other synonym—is a living word that works on several levels of intentionality. 1) We can try to do right and end up messing things up even if we have given ourselves to God, and 2) we can decide to do wrong, and 3) we can deliberately assert that we belong to ourselves, not to God. All are kinds of sin. The last is most dangerous.

As John says in the first letter, if anyone says she or he is without sin, they lie. But if we confess or own up to how we have messed things up and gone the wrong way and avoided what we know God wants from us, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and clean us up and set us straight. This verse is about how those who want to belong to God can keep themselves moving with rather than against God.

There is a path God wants us to travel through our lives; there is a purpose toward which God wants us to aim; there are things God wants us to do; there are things God wants to make plain to us; there are principles God wants us to live by. What are these?  Jesus said the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. How do we do this? We live out of love as much as we can, we ask God how to live out of love and we do what God puts before us to do, and we try not to harm our neighbor or ourselves. And when we fail, we confess it to God and let God work to help us do better the next time we have an opportunity to show love. We live under the law of liberty and we count on our gracious God to help us use our freedom lovingly.

Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:12).

For in Jesus Christ all that counts is faith working through love (Gal 5:5-9, 13-25).

God chose to birth us through the word of truth; we need to humbly accept that word which is planted in us and which can save us, and obey it, the perfect law of liberty; be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:18-25).

But if we really are living and walking in the Light, as He is the Light, we have true fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ the Son cleanses us from all sin and guilt. If we say we have no sin, we delude and lead ourselves astray, and the Truth is not in us. If we admit we have sinned and confess our sins, He is true to his own nature and promises and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness  (1 John 1:7-9).

I started out talking about the shame of finding myself in the doghouse because I couldn’t measure up, and about being humiliated for my human frailty. I added in the fact that sometimes I deliberately broke a rule. However, I did not want to own myself rather than to belong to God. This kind of active rebellion can occur in church-goers and in atheists, and it prevents the rebels from knowing that God is Love.

The Law helps us realize we have missed the mark and are sinners in need of grace. However, when the Law brings us to the point of trusting Jesus, it has done its work and has no more to say to us. We know that Jesus is the answer to our frailty, our imperfect attempts to do the right thing, our mistakes, and even our deliberate wrong-doing. We know that when we come to Jesus, he does not condemn, even when he does instruct. Sadly, we can also turn our backs on God and insist on owning ourselves, of earning our own way, and when we do this, we cannot grow in grace and we rely on keeping rules rather than obeying the Holy Spirit of God.

Let us give ourselves to God, accept the grace Jesus gives, and live guided by the Holy Spirit. Let us embrace our freedom to live out love for God and neighbor.