The Authority of Jesus: A Sign of New Creation and an Invitation to Discipleship

Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning I want to continue to look at the theme of God’s Kingdom and the new creation that both Fr. Eric and I have talked about over the last three weeks. Specifically, I want to look briefly at what we might learn from Jesus about the Kingdom when we see him teaching and acting with authority as he did when he healed the demoniac in today’s gospel lesson. Remember, the stories that ended up in the gospels didn’t get there by accident. The gospel writers had a reason for including them and we need to pay attention to what each story has to say to us, curious as they might sound to our 21st century ears, at least at first blush.

In today’s OT lesson, we get a pretty accurate snapshot of the human condition. The teaching Moses is giving Israel takes place in the desert. God’s people are about to enter the promised land but without their leader, Moses, and this has the Israelites more than a little unnerved. Faced with the prospect of having no human leader, they are naturally afraid and wonder who will lead them into the promised land. Sure, God has been with his people in the desert in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, but ironically that’s been part of the problem! The reason God’s people have wandered in the desert for forty years is because they have consistently refused to listen to God and his prophet, Moses. Moreover, as today’s text reminds us, God’s people are afraid to come into God’s direct presence because they know they would surely die. They are sin-stained and know God cannot countenance sin or evil of any kind in his holy Presence.

This is a classic-love hate relationship between God and his people, at least from our human perspective. On the one hand, Israel knows she cannot survive or take over the promised land without God’s presence and help. On the other hand, God’s people had consistently demonstrated that they would much rather try to do things their own way and resented God meddling in their lives. Consequently, Israel had a history of disobedience and rebellion in the desert that caused her time in exile to extend far longer than anyone wanted. Sound familiar? As Augustine once prayed, “Give me chastity, Lord. But not yet!”

Now we may not be wandering in a physical desert, but many of us remain alienated from God nevertheless. Like our spiritual forebears wandering in the desert and waiting to enter God’s promised land, far too often we would prefer that God just butt out of our lives and let us live in the manner we see fit. After all, we know far better than God about what is good and right for us, don’t we? Of course, we all know this is ridiculous but it illustrates well the plight of the human condition. Badly flawed and with a limited perspective, we are all control freaks to one degree or another, all the while knowing deep down (at least if we are honest with ourselves) that we are not up to the task of living life the way we were created to live it. Simply put, we just don’t seem to want to trust God completely, in part, because we aren’t sure if God can deliver on his promises to rescue us from our hurts and fears and all that can go wrong in life. This flawed human tendency has been exacerbated for us here in the West, in part, because we don’t have a clear idea of what God has in store for us or what it means to live in his Kingdom.

Thankfully, however, God is faithful, loving, and full of grace, and continues to reach out to us to rescue us from ourselves and the sin that enslaves us. We see this truth illustrated in today’s OT lesson when God promises to give his people a prophet who will help guide and teach them so that they can be for God the people he calls us to be. Like Moses, the only person ever to know the Lord face to face (Deuteronomy 34.10), God’s promised prophet would know God so intimately that he could be trusted to be God’s faithful mouthpiece, the primary function of prophets and prophecy. At first blush the text suggests that God would always provide his people with a prophetic voice, as indeed the historical and prophetic narrative of the OT confirms. But as Israel would discover, not all prophets were who they claimed to be and many led Israel astray. Even when they were legitimate, prophets like Moses quickly learned that they and their message were not generally well received. For example, tradition claims that Isaiah was sawed in half by his own people because they did not like what God had to say to them through his prophet. Such a deal. But we can understand the people’s reaction, even if we don’t agree with it. Who among us likes to be told that we are failing miserably, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and being faithful to his calling for us? We may not reach for a saw, but we have our ways of showing God and his messengers our displeasure!

Despite these problems (which are problems with humans, not God), Israel continued to hope for God’s promised prophet and increasingly saw him as being intimately connected with the Messiah, if not the Messiah himself—God’s anointed person who would usher in God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven. We see an example of such thinking illustrated in the so-called four Servant Songs of Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) where the Servant (God’s Messiah) would be fully endowed with God’s Spirit so that he could be trusted to be God’s faithful mouthpiece to guide God’s people. More importantly, this Servant, by suffering for his people and bearing their sins, would be the agent of God’s healing love and new creation so that God’s people would have their exile and alienation from God ended forever (cf. Isaiah 54.1-55.13). In other words, this Servant would signal the beginning of God’s promised Kingdom. Given the human condition, however, it is not surprising that many Israelites forgot or rejected this suffering Servant theme in favor of a conquering and heroic prophet/Messiah, more in line with the successful exploits of king David. After all, it’s a lot sexier and more glamorous to desire a conquering hero than a crucified Messiah, the latter being a contradiction in terms to most Jews of Jesus’ day.

Fast-forwarding the clock, we see this expectation of a prophet/Messiah still percolating vigorously in Israel in Jesus’ day. We recall that this was one of the first questions people asked John the Baptist: “Are you the prophet?” And this brings us to today’s gospel lesson because we have to stop and ask the same question about Jesus. Is he the promised prophet? Well, yes and no.

Yes in the sense that there was clearly a prophetic function in Jesus’ ministry. We saw previously that this was part of Jesus’ vocation when he was baptized and of course Jesus did announce the Good News of the coming of God’s Kingdom. We also see Jesus being God’s mouthpiece in his teaching and that brings us to today’s gospel lesson. Mark tells us that the people were astonished when they heard Jesus’ teaching because he taught them as one who has authority. Notice carefully that Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, simply that he taught with authority. So clearly there was a prophetic function or dimension in Jesus’ ministry.

But thanks be to God Jesus was more than just the promised prophet! Jesus was God himself. Surely if Jesus is the Word of God as John teaches us in his gospel (cf. John 1.1-18), then it is Jesus to whom all the other prophets of Israel had listened. That’s why when Jesus spoke, people listened and were astonished by his authority. But not only did Jesus speak and teach with authority, he backed up his words by deeds of power and authority as we also see in today’s gospel lesson. Even the demons who were hostile to Jesus and God’s good plans for his creation acknowledged Jesus to be God’s Messiah. Here is an authority that really speaks!

More importantly for us, when we see Jesus casting out demons and performing healing miracles of all kinds, it reminds us that we are seeing God himself introducing signs of new creation into his world and we had better pay attention to this precisely because they are signs of healing and restoration that will accompany God’s promised new creation. We have a hard time making sense of “miracles” like these if Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be and if God’s promise of new creation weren’t true. But they make complete sense if we understand Jesus’ acts of power as glimpses of what God has in store for us in the new creation. In other words, Jesus could bring these acts of power to bear in this world precisely because he is who he claimed to be, God incarnate, and this is what Mark is trying to get us to see. Here is God, embodied in Jesus, coming to his people as promised, announcing that his Kingdom is near and bringing all kinds of astonishing acts of healing and redemption to bear on people, culminating in his saving death and mighty resurrection. Mark is inviting us to see these signs as proof that God is trustworthy and indeed in control, putting to right all the wrongs that human sin and rebellion have caused.

And this, of course, will require us all to decide what we are going to do about Jesus and his authority. Are we going to be like the demons who acknowledge Jesus’ authority but who obey him unwillingly or are we going to acknowledge Jesus’ authority and obey him willingly? One choice will get us kicked out of the party while the other will get us invited in. And like it or not, there is no fence sitting. To not decide is to decide. Everyone of us has to make this choice and so we are invited to use our minds to look at the entire record to help us choose wisely. This is ultimately why stories like today’s end up in the gospels. There’s a mind-boggling party awaiting those who choose to give their lives to the One who has the power to heal and redeem us and who promises us the hope of a glorious new creation where evil is defeated forever, where all our hurts and brokenness are healed, and where even death itself is abolished. But to join the party, we must choose to follow this Jesus. And how do we do that? Jesus himself tells us: By denying ourselves, taking up our cross each day, and following him. Nothing less will do.

But what does this mean? What does it look like to deny ourselves each day, take up our cross, and follow Jesus? We see a wonderful example of what this kind of radical lifestyle change means in today’s Epistle lesson where Paul schools the church at Corinth on what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a member of his body, the Church. The issue Paul addresses was specific to the church at Corinth but the underlying principle applies to Christians everywhere and at all times. Paul is telling us that denying ourselves means, in part, that we have to be very careful and look out for the welfare of other believers, something that goes against our grain.

For example, whenever my dad went out to dinner with his minister, he never drank in front of that minister. I asked him about this one time and whether he wasn’t just being a hypocrite. “No,” he replied. Most ministers he knew didn’t drink and so dad, who was not a big drinker himself, refrained out of respect for the minister. Now would dad have destroyed a minister’s faith if he would have had a drink in front of that minister? Hardly. But that misses the point Paul is trying to make. Dad denied himself so as to avoid possibly offending the sensibilities of a fellow beliver. That didn’t come naturally. He had to work at it and so do we.

This principle has all kinds of other applications for us as well. For example, what are we to do when something a fellow believer does offends us during worship? Being typically human, we immediately get all puffed up by our knowledge and start criticizing the other (they should know better, etc. etc.). Every one of us here has done that. But that is not denying self or taking up our cross. Certainly, there are times and situations where the behavior of others is genuinely selfish or destructive to us and we must insist that they stop. Denying self does not mean we become a doormat to a fellow believer or never get our way. But in the course of human conflict, if we are going to follow Jesus, this principle of denying self and looking out for the welfare of our fellow believers had better rise to the front, and quickly. Otherwise, we are no better than the pagan and godless world to which God calls us to minister and be his agents of new creation. When conflicts arise in our church, as they inevitably will, we should immediately read and seek guidance from texts like Matthew 18.15-20 and today’s passage from Paul. Otherwise, we in effect say to Jesus like the demons did, “I know who you are, Jesus, but I choose not to obey you willingly.” And if that happens consistently enough, we are effectively telling God thanks but not thanks to his gracious invitation to us to live with him in this life and in his promised new creation which we see in-breaking all throughout the Gospel.

But when, by God’s grace and the help of the Spirit, we choose to say yes to Jesus’ gracious invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him, we prepare ourselves to live as citizens of the future new creation and in the meantime we are enabled by the Spirit to bring God’s healing love and redemption to people and the world around us who desperately need that love. Sure, there will be scoffers. But there will also be others who look at us and exclaim in astonishment, “Look how those Christians love each other! What’s that all about? Is that what we have to look forward to in the new creation?” When that happens, of course, we will have a further sign of Jesus’ authority in and among us as we struggle to live faithful lives in the power of the Spirit and the hope of God’s promised new creation. And when that happens, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Gov. John Kasich: How Do You Respond to Tebow-mania?

From the Huffington Post. Well said, Governor!

That “something bigger” is the work of God that occurs here and now on earth. We are all given the chance to use our unique gifts to help out those in our lives. When we open ourselves up to that, we’re opening ourselves to letting God show his love to others. It’s in how we treat our spouse. It’s in how we help our neighbors. It’s in our attitudes toward money and how we use it and resources like our time and energy to strengthen our community and others.

Read it all.

Reading the Bible: A Study of Contrasts

From the archives. Sermon delivered the third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2010.

Lectionary texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The last few weeks we have been looking at the theme of God’s people living in exile, an exile that our sin and rebellion has created, and what God has done and is doing about it. We have seen that through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God has begun the climax of his salvation story, of ending our exile permanently. We have also seen that God’s promise to end our exile permanently will be consummated in his Second Coming. We know that in the interim, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on us to help us walk in faith as we await our final redemption, the end to our exile.

Today I want to look at another gift God has given us beside the Holy Spirit to help us live faithful lives and transform us into his very image as we await his Second Coming. That, of course, is his Word contained in Scripture. In today’s OT and Gospel lessons we have a stark contrast of how to read and not to read the Bible, and I want to look at these two cases with you today to see how they can help us in our own reading of God’s Word.

Many of us do not read the Bible regularly for a variety of reasons. Some of us do not seem to be able to find the time. Others of us are reluctant to read it because we are afraid we will not understand what we read and are embarrassed to ask someone to help us. Still others of us have not made reading the Bible a habit and so when we do have time to read, we don’t think to do so. Some of us are reluctant to read it because we don’t want our friends and family to think we are some kind of “holy roller” or religious nut.

But Scripture itself tells us that it is not good for us to neglect God’s word, either in the form of Scripture or in Jesus himself. The Apostles reminded the early Jerusalem church that it was not good for them to neglect the Word of God to wait on tables and they consequently appointed deacons for this task so that they would have time to pursue God’s word (Acts 6:2-4).

Paul tells the Colossians that he was commissioned to be an Apostle, in part, to make God’s word fully known to others (Colossians 1:25). He tells the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God to help them live holy lives. Scripture was part of that armor and Paul likened it to the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that God’s Word is not the work of humans but really is God’s Word, that it is at work in them (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Likewise, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that the Word of God is a two-edged sword, living and active in believers, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12); it is not a collection of dead letters and stories that we can read and casually discard. And the writer of Revelation reminds us about the cost that can come with reading God’s Word. John tells us that he himself suffered exile and was given a vision of the redeemed martyrs who had been murdered because of their testimony about Jesus and the Word of God (Revelation 1:9; 20:4).

All of this reminds us that as Christians we are supposed to be reading our Bibles regularly because Scripture is God’s Word and God’s Word is living and active. It convicts us, encourages us, guides us, comforts us. It helps us live through our exile as we await our final redemption. It has the power to transform us by giving us knowledge of Christ so that we can learn how to be like him. In doing so we are enabled to live the kind of holy lives we are called to live. As we have seen before, living holy lives does not mean we live mistake-free lives, but rather the kind of lives that imitate Christ. The extent to which we can live holy lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is the extent to which our exile here on earth will be ended.

So how should we be reading our Bibles? Today’s OT lesson gives us a positive example while our Gospel lesson gives us a negative one. In the example from Nehemiah, we see a humbled and chastened people who recognize their utter need for and dependence on God. They have returned from their Babylonian captivity and have just completed rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and Temple. They are still surrounded by many enemies who wish to destroy them (apparently some things never change), which makes them feel even more insecure, but they are also in the midst of a religious revival. All of this seems to have increased their awareness of their precarious position, which in turn created an increased sense of dependence on God and made them ready to hear his word.

This points us to the prerequisite for reading Scripture—humility. For God’s Word to be active in us, we must first acknowledge that he is Creator and we are not, that his Word has the power to change us. Like the people in Nehemiah’s day, we must acknowledge that we are a people in exile and we are responsible for our exile. We must acknowledge that we are utterly dependent on the Living God and without him we would have and be nothing. We see this sense of humility reflected in the people’s willingness to hear the Law read as part of worshiping God. We needn’t get too hung up about the particular mode of worship that Nehemiah describes. The important point is to read God’s Word with humility.

But approaching Scripture with a sense of humility is not always easy for us, is it? Especially when things are going really well in our lives. It is precisely at those times that we are tempted to delude ourselves into thinking we are the master of our affairs and don’t really need God. But life has a way of smacking us right in the face and reminding us otherwise, doesn’t it?

Nehemiah tells us next that all the people gathered together, anyone who was able to understand God’s word, which would include children and adults. This reminds us that the Bible is best read together because it helps prevent misunderstanding and misinterpretation and allows us to ask each other questions. Notice that Nehemiah tells us that not only did Ezra read the law but that there were Levites there to help the people understand God’s law and to make sense of it. We do not read Scripture for its own sake but to make sense of it so that it can guide, comfort, and convict us. Are you reading your Bibles as a family? Parents, are you helping your children understand God’s Word and make sense of it? Are you reading your Bibles in the context of small groups to do likewise?

But what if you do not feel qualified to interpret Scripture so that others can understand it and make sense of it? Nehemiah is not telling us that experts need to be present to read the Bible successfully. Rather, he points us to the need for us to have some kind of authoritative help when we read God’s Word. For example, if you are reading the Bible as a family, this might mean you have a reliable study Bible on hand, like the NIV or TNIV study Bibles. If you are studying the Bible as a small group, the lesson from Nehemiah is for you to have structure and a reliable leader’s guide, study guide, and other resources to help you gain understanding from Scripture or to help answer your questions. As Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, each of us is a member of Christ’s Body and he expects each of us to use the gifts with which he blesses us, no matter how modest we think they are, to help build up his Body. When we refuse to participate in group or family Bible study because we do not think we have adequate knowledge, we are essentially calling Paul (and by extension, God) a liar.

Finally from Nehemiah we see that when we read Scripture together and with a sense of humility, we gain a sense of relief from our exile. Why is that? After all, our sins remain as does the messiness our life situations. It certainly did for Nehemiah and his people. As Ezra read the Law and the Levites interpreted it, surely God’s people would have realized that their sins had led to their exile because exile was God’s ultimate curse on them.

Despite this, Nehemiah reminds us that when we read Scripture we are to read it with a sense of joy. Why? Because Scripture is essentially Good News. Yes, it reminds us of our brokenness and the fact that we are still a people living in exile. It also often convicts us of our own sinfulness. But the story contained in Scripture is a story of a God who is faithful and who is in the process of rescuing his broken people through the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds Timothy, even if we are faithless, Christ remains faithful (2 Timothy 2:13), and as Ezra reminded his people, the joy of the Lord is our strength. For you see, we are never really ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ until we acknowledge the bad news of our hopeless condition without him. But when we acknowledge our helplessness and hopelessness, God’s promises burst upon us with glorious Good News. God knows our situation and has acted decisively on our behalf, despite who we are, to end our exile.

And so in Nehemiah, we have seen three essential ingredients for reading Scripture: (1) we are to read it with humility; (2) we are to read it together, as families, in small groups, and in the broader worshiping community; and (3) we are to read it to understand it and make sense of it. All of this will allow the Spirit to work in us and help us gain a sense of joy for all that God has done and is doing for us in our lives. And as Nehemiah points out, we, in turn, are to share that Good News with others.

Turning now to today’s Gospel lesson, we have a lesson in how not to read the Bible. As we listen to Luke describe the scene at Nazareth, we can see some of the ingredients for reading the Bible successfully. We see Scripture being read together in the synagogue. We see an authoritative person (God himself) interpreting Scripture to help the people understand and make sense of it. What we do not have, however, is a sense of humility on the part of the listeners.

Luke tells us that Jesus read from Isaiah. The specific passage was from Isaiah 61:1-2. Any good Jew listening to this passage would have recognized this to be a messianic passage. We see Jesus then apply Isaiah’s words to himself. What Luke does not tell us, however, is that Jesus left out the second half of verse two that talked about God’s vengeance, and his audience would have also recognized that. In effect Jesus was telling the people at Nazareth that he was the promised Messiah but that his First Coming was not a time for judgment but was rather for a time of hope and comfort. In himself, he seems to be saying, God was going to rescue his people in exile. He was reinterpreting Scripture to increase their understanding.

The crowd at the synagogue was amazed at his gracious words and at his interpretation of Scripture. Our lesson ends here today but we must take a sneak peek at next week’s lesson for us to understand where humility was lacking. Luke goes on to tell us that while the crowd was amazed at Jesus’ gracious words, they also began to question his authority. After all, they’d seen him grow up as a boy and they knew his parents. This made them wonder how he could possibly be Messiah. Familiarity apparently bred contempt in Jesus’ day as it still does in our own.

Moreover, they had their own preconceived notions about who and what Messiah should be like. Then when Jesus told them that it was Gentiles rather than Jews who would enjoy God’s grace and blessing, they were furious. You see, they thought they knew this young upstart punk from their hometown. They thought they knew better than God what God’s intentions were for his people and what kind of Messiah he would give them. All this made them furious with Jesus and they tried to kill him. Their sense of pride and self-righteousness blinded them to God’s truth and prevented them from receiving his promised blessing and grace through his Messiah.

Let me be crystal-clear about this. This is not an anti-Jewish polemic nor am I singling them out for special consideration. Their pride was no different from our pride. As Augustine said, “[We] love truth when it enlightens [us], but hate truth when it accuses [us].” That applies to us today as well because we too sometimes want “gracious words” (Luke 4:22) but don’t want to face the truth that is contained in God’s Word (see, e.g., John 1:17).

How often do we read our Bibles, together or as individuals, with some preconceived notion of what it should say or mean to us? How often do we try to reinterpret it to say something that it does not? Every time we do, we, like the crowd at the Nazareth synagogue, will fail to receive God’s blessing because we put ourselves above God and over his text by our sinful pride.

We see the stark contrast in both lessons, don’t we? Nehemiah and his people read Scripture with humility and understanding, and were strengthened and made joyful by God. We too can find that same strength and joy when we read Scripture with humility and understanding. By contrast, the people of Nazareth were in no mood to have their preconceived notions violated and this led them to attempt to murder God himself. Likewise, when we set our preconceived notions over God’s Word, we further alienate ourselves from him and exacerbate our exile.

We have seen that God intends us to read Scripture together and with understanding so that through his Holy Spirit he can use his Word to build us up and help strengthen us during our time of exile. Allow God to use his Word to help you in your time of exile while you await your final redemption. He has given himself for us in a terrible and costly act and has promised to return again in great power and glory to put a permanent end to our exile. As we await his return, we remember that he has blessed us with the gift of his Holy Spirit and his very Word contained in Scripture to help remind us of our hope and joy, and to help transform us into his very image. That, folks, is good news, now and for all eternity. Will you accept his gracious gifts? I pray you will.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Glenn T. Stanton: The Business of Religion vs. Jesus

An excellent reflection on people’s perception of the Church. Stanton’s statement about the Bible calling the church a whore is both wrong and unfortunate. God does not call Christ’s Church a whore. God calls Israel a whore because she was faithless and failed to live up to her calling as God’s called-out people to bring God’s healing love to his good but broken world. That is why God came to us in Christ–to be the true representative of God’s people, Israel, and to accomplish its mission.

Sadly, the Church is also unfaithful at times because we too are as broken as anybody else. But (and this is critical if anyone is to understand the nature of the Church) we are made clean by Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross. That doesn’t excuse our brokenness or means that God is happy with our behavior all the time. Rather Christ’s blood redeems his Church and explains why it is not a whore in God’s sight. That notwithstanding, the overall gist of Stanton’s article is spot-on. From Christianity Today online.

If you want Jesus, you have to take him for who He was. You can’t re-construct a stripped down, organic anti-corporate version of what you think He should be. Jesus’ gospel is a scandal to all of us, the hipsters and the geezers. It’s different than your fabulous pair of pre-worn skinny jeans.

James tells us about religion, that there is some religion that God is quite big on.

So it’s not a question of Jesus and religion or Jesus minus religion. It’s Jesus and what kind of religion. And this is a bit of the problem with the “Just give me Jesus” and the “Jesus Plus Nothing” approach to faith. We’d like to make it all that simple. Jesus never did. He just didn’t. He gives His church certain trappings for good reason.

Does the system of religion (of belief and practice) take you regularly to Christ, compelling you to cast yourselves before him in adoration and upon him in desperation? Or does it give you a false sense of your own self-sufficiency and superiority based on the system itself because it fits with your sense of right?

One is what each of us need. The other is rooted in the original and devastating sin of pride. So no, religion is not the problem. Our rewriting the script is.

Read and reflect on it all.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Today begins a week of prayer for Christian unity (January 18-15). It is a worthwhile endeavor and I encourage any who care about Christ and his Church to make this a priority in your prayers this week.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
our only Savior, the Prince of Peace:
give us grace seriously to lay to heart
the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.

Take away all hatred and prejudice,
and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord;
that, as there is but one body and one Spirit,
one hope of our calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of us all,
so we may henceforth be all of one heart and of one soul,
united in one holy bond of peace, of faith and charity,
and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

–From Common Worship Daily Prayer, 315

David Neff: Why Last Saturday’s Political Conclave of Evangelical Leaders Was Dangerous

From Christianity Today online.

Like it or not, we are in a presidential election year and we Christians have a responsibility to be Christ’s light and salt to the world. That means we can’t sit on our duffs and withdraw from the vital issues of our day. Therefore articles like this are quite timely.

The 150 evangelical leaders who met behind closed doors on January 14 to anoint a Republican candidate for President were wise not to have invited me.

I believe that Christians have an urgent duty to engage the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society. That requires a wide variety of political action. However, one thing it doesn’t call for is playing kingmaker and powerbroker.

Read it all.

Columbus Dispatch: Gov. Kasich Offers a Speech of Faith and Inspiration

Glad to see the governor keeping a healthy perspective about faith and politics. Good for him. Of course, stories like this infuriate his political enemies and/or those who appear to be hostile to the Christian faith as the ugly comments that follow the article demonstrate. If their venom represents what it is to be an “enlightened thinker” and how much better life is without God, I’ll pass, thank you.

From here.

“I can’t figure it out. Somehow the Lord has shined on me,” Kasich said. “And then he allows me to be governor. It’s incredible. So for me, you see, you’ve got to carry out the plan, and the plan is about lifting people. We talk about balancing budgets and all of that, that’s kind of not the deal. The deal is providing an environment so that people can be hopeful, and they’re hopeful when they can work and when they can feel satisfied, when their children can do better and when their marriages are more secure and their neighborhood works.

Read it all.

CT: Celebrating the Unglamorous, Effective Work of Local Politics

Our mission statement at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church is pretty simple: Changed by God to make a difference for God. We Christians can do that in many ways, most importantly in the context of our daily lives.

From Christianity Today online.

And Christians should be invested in local politics for several reasons. Most importantly, we can live out our call to love neighbor by paying attention to the work of local governing authorities and making sure that they are [pursuing] the common good. Second, the smaller the unit of government, the more significant our individual contributions become. A few concerned activists can attend a school board or city council meeting and help influence the decision-making.

This interview of political scientist, Amy Black, gets it exactly right, I think, and serves as an example of how God can use politics to allow his changed people to reflect God’s glory in the world.

Read and reflect on it all. Is God calling you to do this work as part of your discipleship?

Duane Litfin: Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church

A thought-provoking article from Mr. Litfin. What do you think?

From Christianity Today online.

What’s going on here? Could it be that our delight in the security of our standing before God—that is, that all who have “put on” Christ (Gal. 3:27) stand fully accepted in him—has blinded us to a different issue: the acceptability of ourworship offerings? It would be the cheapest of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” to suppose that because we are secure in Christ, whatever we bring to God in worship, however inferior or mediocre, pleases him (Eph. 5:10).

Not just anything will do when we come before God. He is still honored by what is holy, what is our best, what is sacrificial. The kingdom to which we have come, says the writer to the Hebrews, requires us to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe,” because “our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Heb. 12:28–29, emphasis added). A blasé, casual attitude toward worship may indicate that we have failed to grasp this important point, a sign of our being more conformed to this world” than so transformed in our minds that by testing we are able to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2, emphasis added).

Read it all.

Mark Galli: Why the Bible is Not a Book of Moral Laws

Another excellent piece from Mr. Galli. Check it out.

From Christianity Today online:

I find it interesting that when we conservatives defend the “authority of the Bible” or “biblical values,” we usually are trying to get other Christians to submit to some doctrine (like the Virgin Birth or substitutionary atonement) or some ethic (like forbidding extra-marital sex or R-rated movies). We use the Bible as leverage to get others to submit.

Let me be clear. I believe in the Virgin Birth, in substitutionary atonement, that sex should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and so forth. I’m on board with the classic orthodox doctrines and ethics because I believe they are taught by or inferred from the Bible, which I recognize as divinely inspired revelation.

But I don’t believe the Bible is fundamentally a moral power tool. The Bible is not a law book as much as it is a gift book, not so much about living right as about being right with God because of what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.

To be sure, the Bible is in part given for “reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But the goal is not to get people to toe the line but, as Paul puts it, that we all “may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17, ESV). It seems to me that if such instruction is to lead to “good work,” it will need to be grounded in the forgiveness of God, in the gracious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only then will our work be grounded in love, and only then will it will produce the fruit of the Spirit. Otherwise the instruction will turn into mere law.

Read the whole thing.

Oh No! Not Another Sermon About Sex!

Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2012 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 1.3-20; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given our epistle lesson this morning with its emphasis on avoiding sexual immorality, I see that you are all eyeing me warily, wondering if that is the main text on which I will preach. Yes it is, but you can relax. I am not going to lecture you on the evils of premarital or extramarital sex. Growing up in the 60s and 70s and being steeped in the “enlightened” thinking of that era that encouraged us to do our own thing and free ourselves from all those outdated, arbitrary, and old-fashioned rules and mores about sexual deportment, I used to hate hearing the occasional sermon on passages like today’s epistle lesson because most of the time it sounded to me like Paul was obsessed with sex and wanted to rain on my parade, so to speak, so that I wouldn’t have any fun. So I said to myself, “Why not pass on the favor to St. Augustine’s?” Seriously, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Paul (and Scripture in general), and I hope you will agree after hearing what I have to say. This morning I want us to look at what today’s texts point to beyond the issue at hand. Specifically I want to continue to develop the themes of baptism in the Spirit and new creation that we started to look at last week to see what we can learn about being  faithful disciples of Jesus.

In this morning’s OT lesson, we are told that the word of God was rare in the days of Eli. It’s important for us to remember that the story of Eli and Samuel occurred in a dark period of Israel’s history known as the period of the Judges. I don’t have time to go into why this period was so dark but the book of Judges sums up the problem quite nicely. It ends with this rather stark verse: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21.25). In other words, everyone had the freedom to do their own thing.

And we get the implications of this because it seems that increasingly we too are living in an age where we have no king (I’m thinking of Jesus, not our elected leaders) and everyone does as they see fit. This gets to be more than a little worrisome because there seems to be a direct correlation between people doing their own thing and the diminishing availability of the word of God. Why is this? We remember Jesus’ sobering words that it is out of the human heart all kinds of evil come (cf. Mark 7.20-22) so we realize that doing our own thing may not be the healthiest thing for us to do, especially if we see the word of the God becoming increasingly rare in our own lives or society. We remember Paul’s warning that one way God’s judgment manifests itself is for God to give us up to our own evil desires (cf. Romans 1.18-32) so that we see an acceleration of moral decay. This is exactly what seems to have happened to Eli in today’s OT lesson. He had been so busy doing his own thing that it dulled his ability to hear God’s voice so that it took him three times to realize that young Samuel was hearing God call to him.

If we are at all interested in taking our relationship with God seriously and if we care at all about other people, not to mention ourselves, we had better pay attention to what is going on here. As the creation narratives of Genesis remind us, God created us in his own image, not so that we would be free to do our own thing, especially given the human race’s track record, but to be wise stewards of God’s creation and to reflect God’s glory into the world by how we live our lives. Of course we humans didn’t get that memo and decided we would rather play God and reflect our own glory into the world instead of God’s, and it has been going downhill ever since.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, thanks be to God, and this brings us to today’s epistle lesson because Paul is reminding the Corinthians and us about the Good News we have. The presenting issue is sex but Paul is really schooling the Corinthians on what it means to be good stewards of God’s gifts and the hope that we all have as Christians. Before we look at what Paul says, we need to put this passage in its proper context. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul has just taken the church to the woodshed, admonishing them for allowing one of their members to carry on a sexual relationship with his stepmother, apparently all in the name of Christian freedom. And in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul goes on to talk about the proper context for sexual activity, which of course is marriage. Sandwiched in between is today’s text where Paul helps us get our minds right about the proper use of both our bodies and the freedom we have in Christ.

In today’s lesson Paul uses the ancient teaching technique known as the diatribe in which Paul cites the opinion of an imaginary interlocutor and then refutes or qualifies it. In doing so, we notice two critical points he is making. First, Paul takes on the mistaken notion that true freedom means doing anything you want, doing your own thing. Not so, says Paul, because not everything is beneficial for either the individual or the group. For example, if you want to tear apart a church, just encourage the minister to have an affair with one of his or her parishioners and see what happens. Freedom does not mean license to do what we please. We see Paul saying something similar in his letter to the Romans. “What then?” Paul asks. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace might increase (i.e., so that we give God more chances to forgive us)? Certainly not! How can we who have died to sin go on living in it” (cf. Romans 6.1-13)? No, if we are going to be in union with Christ, we have to crucify our sinful desires (cf. Luke 9.23) so that we can become like him and Paul is reminding us about that here and in Romans (and elsewhere).

Second, in using the analogy about food and the stomach and God destroying both, Paul takes on the classic pagan disdain for the doctrine of the bodily resurrection and demolishes it. We all know this argument because it is used in its several variations by many in our own culture today. It goes something like this. What we do with our bodies is of no consequence because when we die, we are through with our bodies forever. That means we are free to eat what we want, have sex when and with whomever we want, and generally do anything to our body that we want. Sadly this is the kind of thinking that can also result when Christians teach that a disembodied eternity is the end game. This is also where we get the rather bizarre notion of “victimless crimes” like prostitution, etc. At the root of this line of thinking is the old gnostic heresy that our body and other created things are not important while “spiritual” things are.

“Not so!” cries Paul. “Don’t you know that your body is not yours, but God’s? Don’t you know that your bodies were bought at a terrible price so that your alienation and hostility toward God could be ended forever? Don’t you know that your body houses God’s Spirit who lives in you? Don’t you know that God intends to redeem you by raising your mortal body from the dead and equipping you with a new one that is fitted to live in the promised new creation that Jesus’ resurrection announced? In other words, Paul is telling us that our body is important and that we have a future and a hope in God’s new creation because of Jesus’ death and resurrection [read 1 Corinthians 15.42-44, 51-58]. Paul is also reminding us that we have God’s Spirit living in us, the very Spirit we saw last week that we receive at our baptism, to help us become the human beings God created us to be, humans that have God’s image restored in us so that we reflect God’s goodness and glory into the world just the way God intended, i.e., the way of Jesus.

If all this is true, then as Paul reminds us here, why would we want to defile our bodies and the Spirit living in us by having sex outside of marriage, the only context God intended for us to have sex when he created us (cf. Genesis 2.24)? Think about it in this way. Most of us would be horrified to open a messy home to a visitor or to purposely offend him while he is visiting. So we take the time and effort to get our houses ready for our friends to visit and we do the things while they are visiting that bring honor and happiness to everybody involved. If we understand how to do these things on a human level, why would we who believe that we have been bought with the price of Christ’s blood want to do the things that would offend or hinder the Holy Spirit living in us, the very seal of God’s promise to us that he has redeemed us in Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 1.21-23)? It just doesn’t make sense. Living faithfully with the Spirit living in us is hard enough as it is. Trying to live faithfully without the Spirit living in us is impossible.

But we will miss the deeper meaning Paul has in mind here if we get fixated on sex or read passages like this as list of Christian dos and don’ts to be properly moral (or immoral). What Paul has in mind here is the greater truth of God’s promised new creation that is ours in Christ. That is why our body and what we do with it (or don’t do with it) matters. We see this truth clearly illustrated in today’s psalm and implicitly in today’s gospel lesson when Jesus essentially tells his new followers that he (and by implication his body) is going to be the new Temple where God dwells and heaven and earth intersect. Elsewhere in Scripture, we see the body’s importance illustrated powerfully in the Incarnation of Jesus. Think about it. The body must be important because God took on our body to save us and restore our relationship with him! The body’s welfare is surely one of the reasons the gospels focus on the healing and feeding miracles of Jesus. The body is important! That is also why bodily resurrection matters because God promises to redeem our fallen and mortal bodies by giving us new resurrection ones. The body is important! We miss this entirely if we focus on what Paul is saying about sex and ignore what Paul tells us here and elsewhere about the fact that God has bought our bodies with a price and has big plans for them. This, BTW, is why Christians have traditionally buried their dead and do not believe in defiling dead bodies in any way, let alone live ones. We believe the body has a future, not in its present condition but in God’s new creation.

When, by the help of the Spirit living in us, we understand this, it will fundamentally change how we read the Bible and see our world. Paul is telling us that while rules matter, we need to think about why we do what we do (or refrain from doing). Putting to death our sinful nature depends on us thinking about and reflecting on what urges and behaviors need to stay and which ones need to go. When we keep the end game of new creation in mind with its goal of a fully restored humanity that reflects the glory of God in his promised new creation, it gives us a framework to help us better assist the Spirit as he shapes us gradually into the image of Christ so that we can become like him. This is surely what Paul has in mind when he tells us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians. 2.12-13).

This knowledge will also help us fight the increasingly prevalent form of gnosticism that is enjoying popularity in our culture by proclaiming the radical love that God has for the totality of creation and made manifest in Jesus Christ. Our culture increasingly wants to consign religion and faith to the “spiritual realm” so that we are focusing more on how to get to heaven than on how to allow God to use us as agents of his healing love and new creation right here and now. If we focus on “spiritual things” or a privatized spirituality, we are much less likely to be a nuisance to the powers and principalities of this world who encourage us to do our own thing, and all in the name of a freedom that kills because it leads us to activities that dehumanize us and inhibit the Spirit’s presence in us. But when we get that our body and all of God’s creation is good and that God has acted decisively on our behalf in the death of Jesus, it changes our focus and makes us look around at God’s good but fallen world. We will be concerned about not only our body but others’ bodies, and not necessarily in a sexual manner. So for example, hunger and injustice and all other kinds of dehumanizing activities will become increasingly intolerable for us as well as a false morality in the name of freedom that can lead only to death.

And on a more personal level, when we understand that the body has a future and is important to God, it will help us deal better with our own bodily sufferings and infirmities and that of our loved ones. When I watched my mother actively die over a three day period, I kept reminding myself, with the Spirit’s help, that this wasn’t the end game for her and that made all the difference in the world. Don’t misunderstand. Watching her die was painful beyond description. But in the midst of death and grief there was the hope of life and new creation. Just as in today’s OT lesson, God’s lamp did not go out for me and neither will it for you if you pay attention to it. Don’t let anyone or anything rob you of the hope that is ours in Jesus.

But to have that hope, you need to do your homework. You need to wrestle with the whole of Scripture and think and reflect deeply on these issues, both as individuals and together as Christ’s body. Otherwise, you can be assured that the powers and principalities will move to cut you off from your very source of life, God’s Spirit living in you. If they succeed, you will be more inclined to do as you see fit, which will not bode well for any of us. But when, by God’s grace, you are blessed with the faith and knowledge of what God has done for you in Jesus and stand firm in the promise of new creation by the power of the Spirit, you will be ready to be the human God created you to be and you really will have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.