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.