Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Church is a Known Body

(A sermon based on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 & John 1:43-51 for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany and preached on January 18, 2015)

Big Brother is watching you.

We live in an age of ever-increasing surveillance. Security cameras are becoming more and more prevalent; Facebook and Google know more about you than your mother does; the debate will continue over how much access to your personal information the government is entitled to as it monitors cell phone records in order to try to prevent terrorist attacks. It’s a complicated situation as we try to walk the line between fostering security and protecting privacy. We want to be safe but we don’t want people to know our business.

Would it make you nervous to know that there is someone who knows everything about you—who knows everything you have ever done, every thought you have ever had, every motive you have ever followed—from whom absolutely nothing about you can or will be hidden? Well, God does in fact know everything about you; God knows everything about everybody.

Our knowledge about God’s knowledge about us might indeed make us nervous. After all, it means that all of those things about ourselves that we have so carefully hidden from everyone are not in fact hidden; it means that the selfish motives that lay behind some of our good acts are known; it means that the corners we have cut to get ahead are not secret.

Our heavenly Father is watching us.

Perhaps our knowledge of God’s knowledge of us should inspire us individually to ask that God forgive us and help us move by God’s grace and power toward being who God has made us capable of being. Perhaps it should inspire us as a church to ask that God forgive us for putting other things ahead of loving God and loving other people; perhaps it should lead us to examine ourselves carefully to see if when we pray that God’s will be done we really mean it and if when we pray in Jesus’ name our prayer actually reflect the character and actions of Jesus.

But we need to come at this from another angle. Aren’t there times when you are reasonably sure that your heart is right with God? Aren’t there times when you are relatively certain that your motives are good and your integrity is intact? Don’t you wish at such times that someone knew that, at least at that moment in your life, you really are ok? After all, there are so many people with twisted motives and a lack of integrity that they figure everybody else has those same conditions as well and so they can’t believe that anybody has sound motives and a pure heart. Rest assured, though, that if and when you do approach sound motives and a pure heart, God knows it.

So when Nathanael approached Jesus, the Son of God said of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Now, the original Israelite was the Jacob about whom we read in the book of Genesis; he was the one who had his name changed to Israel. And Jacob, the original Israel, was hardly a person of no deceit; indeed, he was renowned for his chicanery and shenanigans. But he did grow and change and mature. Evidently Nathanael had grown and changed and matured, too; even before he started following Jesus he was identified by Jesus as a person of faithfulness and integrity.

I have to confess, though, that I am a bit taken aback by Nathanael’s response when Jesus said that of him—he seems to accept it as a valid judgment of his character. I mean, even Jesus, when someone called him “good,” said “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good except God alone.” Perhaps humility wasn’t Nathanael’s strongest point. Or perhaps he really was doing the best he could and he knew it; there’s nothing wrong with knowing such about yourself so long as you take your judgment of yourself with a grain of salt.

It’s the same with our church. We can be hard on ourselves sometimes but let’s not fail to realize the good things about our fellowship; we have come a long way and we are doing many good things. I think that we’ve grown a lot in knowing who Jesus is and in knowing what he would have us be and do. I think that we are growing in being open to the work of God in us through the Holy Spirit. I believe that we are coming to understand better and better that our being must precede our doing. Sure, we have a long way to go and we always will, but I believe the Lord has some very good things to say about us. We can accept them with gratitude.

It was impressive—Nathanael was certainly impressed—that Jesus had seen Nathanael under the fig tree (something which we are to take, I think, as divine insight) even before Nathanael came to him. But it is even more impressive that Jesus was able to see into Nathanael’s heart and know what kind of person he was.

He can and does do the same with us as individuals and as a church.

And he is the one who can help us to grow toward being all that we are meant to be and all that we are capable of being because he is the one through whom heaven and Earth are connected; he is the one who gives us access to God and who brings God to us. The ladder that Jacob saw in his dream was a symbol of such a connection; Jesus was that connection. And because of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, he is still that connection for us.

We are known by God; nothing about us, be it good, bad, or mediocre, is unknown to God. That might make us nervous or glad or both simultaneously. The best news is that because of Jesus Christ we can—if we will but follow Jesus Christ—grow slowly but surely into being true Christians and a true Church in which there is no deceit and which there is much integrity marked by grace, love, hope, trust, and peace …

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Church is a Baptized Body

(A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11 & Acts 19:1-7 for Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

When we think about baptism the first thing we think about is water. We Baptists are known for the extravagant employment of water in our baptisms; we put you in a big pool and we get you wet all over. Regardless of the baptismal mode and of the amount of water employed, though, when we are baptized we are baptized in much more than water—we are baptized in the Holy Spirit of God. We get water on our bodies but we get the Holy Spirit in our spirits.

The presence of the Spirit in us is absolutely vital to our identity as the Church, to our life as the Church, and to our witness as the Church. Without the Spirit we are not the Church; with the Spirit we are much more the Church than we have ever imagined or have ever shown.

John the Baptist preached that while he baptized people with water, when the One who was to come arrived he would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus came to be baptized by John; as Jesus was coming up out of the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10). The coming down of the Spirit on Jesus communicated that Jesus’s life and ministry were guided and empowered by the presence of God. The Holy Spirit is vital in the coming of the kingdom of God into the world; the Spirit was with Jesus and Jesus in turn passed the Spirit on to the Church. The Spirit is our legacy; the Spirit is our life.

The Spirit of God comes into all people who come to trust in Christ. In the narrative of the book of Acts, the Spirit comes in very powerful ways upon people who might have been expected to remain outside the body of Christ or at least to have been pushed out to the edges of it; such is the case with Samaritans, with Gentiles, and, in today’s text, with disciples of Jesus whose baptism had not been in the name of Jesus but rather had been John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. God evidently wanted to make it very clear that those who might have been regarded as “inferior” Christians were in no way inferior; God made that clear by sending the Spirit on them in ways that were very obvious. Also, while the commitment of these men to repent, to change their lives, and to follow Jesus was no doubt sincere and legitimate, they could be fully a part of the Church only if they had the Spirit of God upon them.

So when Paul encountered twelve men in Ephesus who had been baptized with John’s baptism, they were baptized in the name of Jesus and when Paul laid hands on them “the Holy Spirit came upon them.” Then, “they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).

We the Church constitute a baptized body; we are baptized in water but more importantly we are baptized in the Spirit that the water symbolizes.

Because we are baptized in the Spirit, we speak in unknown tongues, too. Now, in the book of Acts there are two different kinds of speaking in unknown tongues. On the day of Pentecost, those on whom the Spirit fell were able to speak in languages that were unknown to them but that were known to others. But in other cases, including this one of the twelve Ephesian disciples, the language in which they spoke was apparently a kind of communication between God and them. It was a heavenly language, we might accurately say.

All who are Christians have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and all who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are to speak in unknown tongues. I don’t mean by that we should speak verbally or even mentally in words that no one can understand; I mean rather that we are to be in deep, real, ongoing communication with God. I also mean that we will speak and live in ways that most people find impossible to understand because we will speak the language of love, of grace, of forgiveness, of service, and of sacrifice.

Thus it is vital that we practice such disciplines as worship, prayer, Bible study, and service to put ourselves in the best position possible to be open to what God wants to say to us and to do through us.

All who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are also to prophesy. Understand that biblically speaking to “prophesy” is not to forecast the future; it is rather to tell the good news of what God is doing in the world right here and right now. We are all to tell the good news of Jesus Christ with every aspect of our lives, including our thoughts, motives, decisions, words, and actions. We are to translate into words and actions those great truths of God that are so wonderful as to be almost inexpressible.

As the Church we are a baptized body; we are baptized with water and we are baptized with the Holy Spirit.

On the one hand, because we are baptized we think, feel, speak, and act in ways that are almost impossible for people to understand.

On the other hand, because we are baptized we display such love, grace, and mercy that we might as well be dripping wet …

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Good News for Everybody!

(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday 2015)

It was 1969 and Timothy Leary was running for Governor of California. He asked John Lennon if he would write a song for his campaign, the theme of which was “Come Together.” Lennon dashed off a song that got played a few times in ads on California radio stations. Lennon and the Beatles then worked on it some more and recorded the version that became track #1 on the Abbey Road album. Leary was a bit irritated that Lennon had made such use of the song that was written for him; Lennon’s response was that he was like a tailor and that if someone orders a suit and never comes back for it you give it to someone else. Some of you will know that the opening line to that song is “Here come old flattop”; what you might not know is that it was lifted (perhaps unintentionally) from a Chuck Berry song so Berry’s publisher sued Lennon for plagiarism. Lennon agreed to record three of the publisher’s songs to settle the lawsuit [Steve Turner, The Beatles A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Song (New York: MJF Books, 1994), p. 304].

Come together, indeed.

It’s pretty ironic that a song about coming together caused so much division, don’t you think?

Well, it’s nothing compared to the irony with which we live in the Church.

After all, the stories of Jesus’ nativity make it very clear that the coming of Christ into the world was for absolutely everybody. The family into which Jesus was born was common, not elite. The first ones to hear the announcement of the birth of the child were shepherds who were considered disreputable by the “reputable” and unclean by the “clean”—but at least they were members of the chosen people of God. At least they were “us” and not “them”; at least they weren’t Gentiles.

But then God gave the good news of Jesus’s birth to some Persian or Arabian astrologers, to people who practiced a different religion and who came from a different culture than the ones to whom the promises of God had come steadily and faithfully ever since the time of Abraham.

What in the world was going on? What in the world was that all about?

What was going on was that God was making it plain that his Son had come into the world not for the sake of a privileged few but for the sake of anyone and everyone. What it was all about was the amazingly gracious if mysterious plan of God that had been in God’s heart from before time.

God’s plan—the critical element of which was the coming of Jesus into the world—was and is a plan designed to bring all people and all things together in Christ. Christ came for all, Christ demonstrates the love of God for all, and Christ died for all. Paul says that the great truth that Jews and Gentiles all had access to God in Christ without having to depend on the works of the law had come to him in a revelation; we can perhaps assume that it came to him as part of his vision of Christ on the Damascus Road [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), pp. 311-312]. Regardless, the good news that in Christ everyone has equal access to God was a basic part of his message. As he put it, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). And they had done so not by following some rules and regulations and not by becoming identified with a certain ethnicity or nationality or religion—they had done so by and only by the amazing grace of God.

Still, after the Wise Men visited the Christ Child and his family, they went back to where they had come from. And that’s what we tend to do: we retreat to our corners and if we come out to meet at all, we all too often come out fighting. Some of our divisions are cultural; it is hard for human beings to cross the lines that have been passed down to us or into which we have allowed ourselves to get settled.

It’s easier for us to talk about what God was up to “back then” or to affirm the general principle that Christ came and died for everybody than it is for us to live out of such a reality in our own day and time. But the Church is meant to be an amalgam and a conglomeration of every type of person on the face of the Earth; we are meant to bear witness here and now to what will one day be the eternal reality.

Isn’t it ironic that Christ came to live and die for all of us and to bring all of us together in him and yet we all too often seem determined to build all the walls we can and strengthen all the divisions we can find?

We will do well to begin practicing right here the unity that Christ came to bring; we will do well to begin by reveling in the diversity of the makeup of our own congregation. We will also do well to be open to an expansion of that diversity. We will furthermore do well to be grateful for the great kaleidoscope of humanity that makes up the Church Universal. We will furthermore do well to practice grace with each other rather than to judge each other in a legalistic fashion. We will furthermore do well to live in the church and in the world in ways that will cause others to know that they will be accepted and embraced in the church rather than be judged and looked down on—how we treat each other lets them know how we would treat them.

Yes, the coming of Jesus was good news for everybody. It is good news even for someone like “them.” It is good news even for someone like you. It is good news even for someone like me.

What is that good news? It is that in Christ we can know and live in light of the fact that we are loved by God. And related to that good news is some more good news: in Christ we can come together, right now, over him …