Sunday, June 15, 2014

God’s Fellowship—And Ours

(A sermon for Trinity Sunday based on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13)

The nature of the Church is directly related to the nature of God. As God is characterized by diversity in the context of unity, so is the Church characterized by diversity in the context of unity. As the one God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so the one Church exists as brown and yellow, black and white, male and female, and rich and poor. Granted, the parallels are not exact, but the overall principle is sound: the one God exists in three persons, the one Church exists in millions of people. That which binds us together—namely, the love that is God and that comes from God—is greater than that which threatens to separate us.

The church at Corinth struggled mightily with the unity thing; indeed, Paul spends much time and expends much effort in his letters to them trying to help them get over their fractiousness and their factionalism. He has to say some tough things to them as he tries to help them deal with the mess that their divisions have gotten them into; he even has to say some tough things in defending his own authority as an apostle, even though he had spent much time with them and they knew him well.

So nobody’s saying that it’s easy to maintain the unity of the Church (with a capital “C” because I mean the Church universal) or the unity of the church (with a lowercase “c” because I mean the church local). It wasn’t easy 2000 years ago and it isn’t easy now. We need to affirm and to maintain our belief in and our allegiance to the one Church; all those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ are our sisters and brothers, be they Baptist or Methodist, Catholic or Pentecostal, Presbyterian or Lutheran, more conservative or more liberal, or more high church or more low church.

And it’s certainly not easy to maintain the unity of the local church, even one as strong as the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. We each have our own likes and dislikes, our own loyalties and disloyalties, our own habits and idiosyncrasies, our own wounds and fears, our own prejudices and blind spots, and our own assumptions and opinions. The problem we have, of course, is that our human tendency is to put our own likes, loyalties, and opinions ahead of everybody else’s. Pride gets in the way and it becomes more important to us to be right than to be loving and more important to us to come out on top than to submit ourselves in grace and love in service to each other.

The things that divide us are strong indeed. The things that divided the Corinthian church were just as strong—and, frankly, probably stronger.

But that didn’t stop Paul from encouraging them and it doesn’t stop him from encouraging us to strive for unity. In so doing he uses present imperative verbs which carry the sense of “Keep on” doing what he tells us to do.

He told them and he tells us to keep on rejoicing (a better translation than “farewell”). The joy that we have in our unity is greater than and can overcome any sorrow coming from our divisions. No matter what, we find our joy in the Lord and by extension in each other.

He told them and he tells us to keep on putting things right. It is our ongoing responsibility to work toward having as healthy a church family as we possibly can and to mend our broken relationships as best we can.

He told them and he tells us to keep on being exhorted. We need to keep on listening to what the Lord says to us through the example of Christ, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, through our mutual relationships, through our life of prayer, and through our prayerful and careful reading of Scripture.

He told them and he tells us to keep on having the same mind. That doesn’t mean that we will always agree with one another or that conformity in all things is necessary. It does mean, though, that we are striving to have the mind of Christ which will lead us toward loving service and sacrifice for God’s sake, for the Church’s sake, and for the world’s sake.

He told them and he tells us to keep on living in peace. Peace is the overall well-being of the individual and the group that comes about when we in an increasingly sound relationship with God. If we will keep working on being at peace with God we will grow in being at peace with each other because being at peace with God gives us a broader perspective that gets us to look and to live beyond ourselves.

He told them and he tells us to offer loving acts toward one another. What he literally says is to “greet each other with a holy kiss.” I can still remember a man in my home church who, on the day I was ordained to the ministry, kissed me on the cheek; I reckon he’s the only man besides my father who ever did that. It was sweet and sincere. We can stick to handshakes and hugs. Really, though, we are better served by acts of loving service to one another—you know, helping each other out by lifting each other up when we’re down, by forgiving each other when we’ve sinned against each other, by being with each other when we’re lonely, or by leaving each other alone when we need just to be with God.

Does it sound too good to be true and too idealistic to be possible? Well, note that Paul did say that we are to keep on doing these things; the only way to move toward perfection is to practice and the only way to move toward maturity is to grow. More important, though, is this: Paul tells us that our increasing maturity in love and growth in unity comes out of who God is as is seen in what God has done.

So Paul says, after encouraging the Corinthians and us toward celebrating, protecting, and growing in our unity in diversity, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” You might recall that I said at the beginning that the nature of the Church is directly related to the nature of God. Here we have a statement that tells that we are who we are because of who God in God’s fullness is and because of what God in God’s fullness does and that, because of who God is and what God does, we can grow in being the Church that God calls us to be.

To say that we don’t believe in the unity of the Church is to say that we don’t believe in the unity of God; to say that God can’t increase our unity in the midst of our diversity is to say that we don’t believe in the Triune God.

From God in God’s fullness comes the grace that caused the Son to come and die and rise, the love that caused God to send the Son and then to send the Holy Spirit, and the communion of the Holy Spirit that creates fellowship and community in God’s self and that brings about fellowship and community in the church. The love, grace, and fellowship that make God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit one God also make us one Church. Yes, we have the responsibility to work at and toward unity, but it only happens because God is with us, in us, and among us.

We praise God as Holy Trinity today because in the Trinity lies the reality of our unity and the hope of our increased fellowship …

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Get Dressed

(A sermon based on Colossians 3:12-17 for Pentecost Sunday 2014)

We’re encouraging ourselves to dress casually for worship during these hot summer months, which is fine and reasonable. After all, it’s possible to dress casually and still dress nicely and appropriately.

I still remember what it was like to get dressed for church at our house when I was a boy. My parents both worked in textile mills and so there was a definite difference between their work clothes and their church clothes. It was 1968 or 1969 and I was ten or eleven when we got our first air conditioner, a big window unit the acquisition of which required the rewiring of our house, and I can still see my father standing in front of it on those hot summer Sundays, putting his dress shirt on over his undershirt just before going back to the bedroom to ask Mama to powder his nose. Hey, he was a Sunday School teacher, after all; he couldn’t have the light reflecting off his nose obscure the Light of the World!

Last Sunday we looked at how Paul described what we might call the negative side of seeking the things that above and of loving out the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus. He framed his description in terms of putting to death the attitudes, motives, and actions that did not befit one growing in the image of God as seen in Christ Jesus. He also framed it in terms of taking off the old clothes that characterized our former way of life; we have the privilege and responsibility of taking off what does not fit us anymore because we are both less than and more than we used to be—we have lost some attributes and we are gaining others. We are giving up what takes away from our humanity and are putting on what adds to our humanity. In the process we are getting much bigger and much healthier.

We baptized four new followers of Christ today; in the early church those being baptized would remove their old clothes before their baptism and would be given a new garment following their baptism. So it is most appropriate that we take a look at what we are, as God’s chosen, holy, and beloved people—as people who are saved by the grace of God and who are brought together by that grace into the one body of the Church—are to put on.

Simply put, we are put on those qualities of life that we see in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord; they are qualities that at first glance might seem very hard for us to embrace and practice—indeed, they sound very idealistic indeed—but that does not lessen our obligation to put them on a little bit more every day. We need to realize too that it is not we who make it happen; it happens by the grace of God because the life of Christ is in us, because in Christ we have died to our old life and are living a new life, and because the presence of the Holy Spirit is God in and among us empowering us to develop these qualities.

We can group them this way: (1) the ways I think about and behave toward me, (2) the ways I think about and behave toward you, (3) the ways we think about and behave toward us, (4) the ways we think about and behave toward God, and (5) the ways we behave toward life.

So, Paul says, when it comes to the ways I think about and behave toward me, I am to put on “humility,” which means not that I think less of myself than I should but that I think more of others than I do myself. Humility is not weakness; indeed, in Christ I can have strength of identity, character, and purpose like he did and still put the needs of others before my own needs like he did. Christians are humble from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness; we are humble because we are compelled by the love of Christ to be humble, not because we are forced by stronger people to be so. Humility means that I am fully aware of my rights and privileges but choose to sacrifice them for the sake of the needs of others.

Paul says that when it comes to the ways I think about and behave toward you, I am to put on “compassion,” “kindness,” “meekness,” and “patience.” In other words, I am to have genuinely understanding sympathy toward you, to approach you with gentleness that wants to do good to you and by you, and with patience that is more like acceptance than tolerance.

Paul says that when it comes to the ways that we think about and behave toward us, we are to put on “love,” “forgiveness,” and “peace.” “Love” is agape, God’s kind of love that is seen most fully in Jesus Christ; it is fully committed love that will go to any lengths and to any sacrifice to rescue another. Our love for each other shows itself in our forgiveness of each other, forgiveness inspired and empowered by God’s forgiveness of us. And when we love each other and forgive each other, refusing to look for reasons to be angry at one another, refusing to hold grudges against one another, and insisting on always being with and for one another, the result is peace in the family—a peace that comes from our open, honest, and committed relationship with each other.

Paul says that when it comes to the ways that we think about and behave toward God, we are to put on gratitude that shows itself in wisdom and in worship. When we consider what God has done for us in Christ, how can we not want the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, to do all we can to help one another grow in the wisdom of God, and to worship God with full hearts and in full voice?

Finally, Paul says that when it comes to the ways that we think about and behave toward life, we are to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” We are to live every moment of our lives, doing everything we do, in ways that reflect the reality of Christ in us and that show his love, grace, and mercy.

So every day, when we get dressed, let’s put on the right clothes—the ones that God in God’s grace and by God’s Spirit has given us …

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dying to Live

(A sermon based on Colossians 3:5-11 for the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2014)

Among the many things in the Hebrew Bible that fascinate me there is this one: toward the end of the book of Joshua, in which we read about the conquest of the Promised Land by the Hebrews, we find this line: “A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years …” (Joshua 23:1); then, in the very first verse of the very next book, the book of Judges, we read this: “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the LORD: ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” (Judges 1:1).

So in one place we read that the Hebrews had been “given rest … from all their enemies” and in the other place we read that they needed someone to lead them in battle against their enemies. Which was it? Well, it was both. The Lord had brought them out of their grave of imprisonment in Egypt and had given them new life in Canaan but they still had to take action to keep that land and to grow in that life. They had been given life but they had to claim the life and to develop the life.

That is how Colossians leads us to think about the new life that we have in Christ. On the one hand, earlier in the letter Paul had said, “When you were buried with (Christ) in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses …” (2:12-13). And earlier in this chapter Paul had said, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3).

Paul, then, has made the point that we have died with Christ; we have died to our former life, to our trespasses and sins. That death to our former life and our being raised to new life is a past event and an ongoing reality. Now, though, Paul says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly …” (v. 5). We have died but there are still things, if we want to live fully the life that is ours to live in Christ, that we need to put to death. God has in Christ done everything that can be done to save us; we now have the privilege and responsibility of living out the life that God has given us in Christ. That includes working on what we need to work on to become all that God means for us to be.

We might compare it to gardening. Weeds and grass already exist in the ground when we introduce our vegetable plants or our flowers. Have you ever noticed how well the weeds and grass will grow if you do nothing to them but how poorly your vegetables and flowers will do if you don’t feed them, water them, and remove the weeds from around them? In our lives, the weeds will prosper if we leave them alone and don’t take steps to eradicate them. But the flowers of love and grace will do poorly if we let the weeds of selfishness grow and don’t feed the flowers of grace and love.

So what are the weeds that we need to kill?

The things that Paul told the Colossians to put to death were things that characterized the life they once lived; they were things that characterized a life lived apart from God. Two things are particularly noteworthy about the two lists that he offers: (1) most of the items have to do with the state of our hearts, which makes sense in light of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and (2) all of the items have to do with the state of our relationships, which also makes sense given the emphasis of Jesus on loving God and loving other people.

So the first list (v. 5) at first (and accurate) glance seems to deal with sexual sins. But for the Christian, what is the nature of sexual sin? The nature of sexual sin for the Christian is sexual activity that is driven by lust, by a desire for self-gratification, and by a drive to have what you want regardless of the cost to other people; it is to put sex (or anything else other than God) at the center of your world and to let that be the point of your life. Such attitudes and actions do not put God at the center of your world and do not lead to whole and healthy relationships. And we can work on such attitudes—no one can work on them for us but us. They aren’t automatically taken away when we become Christians; when they pop up we have the privilege and responsibility of dealing with them before they get out of hand.

The second list (vv. 8-9a) would be judged by many people to be less serious than the first because the attitudes and actions on it sound less “dirty” than those on the first, but they are just as harmful to our relationship with God and with each other. They come down to attitudes of anger and to actions of speaking that want to strike out and hurt someone. We ought not to nurture bitterness toward each other and we ought not to speak evil of each other; such destroys our relationships.

It comes down to this: Paul calls us to work at killing those attitudes, motivations, and actions that lead us to dehumanize others and in the process to dehumanize ourselves [cf. N. T. Wright, “Colossians and Philemon,” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1986), pp. 140-143]. We have put off a life in which we live that way and have put on a life in which we are continually reclaiming the image of God in Christ so that we can live in relationship with God and with others in ways that are sound and healthy (vv. 9-10).

Such is the wonderful life that is given to us in Christ; all we have to do is pick it up and run with it! What motivates us? “If (Paul’s) theology is a theology of grace, the practical response to that grace is gratitude—gratitude in action as well as in word” [F. F. Bruce, “The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 138]. If God has given us life in Christ, how can we not do all we can to claim that life?

John tells the story about the woman who was caught in adultery and who was at risk of being stoned to death for her sin. At the end of that story, when no one was left but Jesus and her, he asked her if there was no one left to condemn her. When she said “No,” he responded, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

I wonder what her life was like from then on. I wonder how her gratitude for God’s grace caused her to work on what she needed to work on and to change what she could change …