Sunday, September 26, 2010

Faith on the Wall

Today’s message is very different from what I would normally preach. Usually, I would pick one Scripture reading, and expound on God’s message through that text for our context, using that text as a vehicle to proclaim something about God, God’s kingdom, and God’s Good News in Jesus Christ.

Today, however, the vehicle of proclamation is expressed through these banners that now hang on the walls of our sanctuary. These banners are more than just pretty decoration for our walls; they are liturgical art in the grandest sense of the word. The arts have a great history in Christian tradition. Stained-glass windows, for example, appeared in medieval cathedrals and churches at a time when the literacy rate was very low, and so those stained-glass windows told the story of faith in pictures, allowing those who could neither read nor write to understand the great story of Christian faith. Glass, paint, gold, stone, and fabric were all used in ways that told the story and helped worshipers imagine a vision of the kingdom of heaven that was beyond what they could have known.

God gave us five senses because God wants us to use them! Worship is just more vibrant and authentic when it is multisensory. I cannot believe that the God who imbued us with five senses intended us to forgo their use when it came to our worship. These banners are not just a decoration on the wall; they are an expression of worship from those who have designed and created them, they tell the story of faith, and week after week, we who sit in this space and look upon these banners will find just some of the things of God communicated to us through these banners.

Therefore, I invite you on a journey, the journey of faith that is depicted upon these banners. We will stop along the way, point out the symbols and the story of each, but then take a step back and think about how the whole set tells a complete story. Then, in the weeks and months and years ahead, continue to tell the story depicted here to anyone who asks.

Creation – Genesis 1 & 2:4b-8

We begin in the back corner with the Creation banner. I figured the Bible begins with Creation, so that seemed like a pretty good place to start! In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In the beginning - the beginning of what? The beginning of all that has ever been, the very beginning, the real, live, actual, honest-to-goodness beginning. There are two creation accounts in Genesis, the first in Chapter 1 and the second in Chapter 2. The point of these stories is not to provide a scientific account of how the world was created; reading the Bible as if it’s a science textbook is a gross abuse of Scripture and viewing it through a lens through which it was never intended to be viewed.

The story of creation gently reminds us that there is a point, stretching back at least 4.5 billion years, where it all started, stretching back beyond physiological change of species, stretching beyond primordial soup, stretching beyond matter and gases and any sort of big bang, and we call that point the beginning. And yet we people of Christian faith confess that even before that beginning, there was God.

And what do we know about this God? This God has been revealed to us in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is only one God, yet in God’s mystery, God is also three persons. They are equal, they are all divine, they live and move and dance in union with each other. And in the beginning, all three persons – the entirety of the Trinity, in other words, were active and present together. The orthodox teaching of the Church has been that God’s nature is unchanging, and God has always existed in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So in the beginning, God – and by God I always mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – created. Did you know that the Trinity is represented in this banner? Take a look toward the top, and you will find three small white blocks of fabric grouped together – these represent the three persons of God , all of whom were present and active in creation.

They are white as a reminder that God created out of nothing. Think about that – there weren’t bits of a pre-existing universe lying around that God scooped up and fashioned a universe. There were no raw materials. God creates out of nothing. The story of creation is this: once there was nothing, but then God created something. Creation displays the power of God, creation reminds us that God transcends us in every way possible, for who among us can create something out of nothing?

This first banner reminds us that God creates. All that ever has been, all that is, all that ever will be, is created by God. God is free to create however God wishes, usually using the very laws of nature and science God has set up in the first place, but by no means is God bound to stay within those laws. But think about that – God creates! And that’s what I want you to remember when you look at this banner – God creates. We live in a world that was fashioned by God. We ourselves are fearfully and wonderfully made. You were not ordered out of a catalog, you were created. And creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good. It is very good!

The First Covenant – Matthew 5:17-18

The second stop on our faith journey brings us here to the Ten Commandments. Let’s remember that all the things on these banners are a symbol, and the Ten Commandments in front of us are no different.

They represent the entirety of the Old Testament law and prophets. Throughout Christian history, there have been those who wanted to throw out the Old Testament. People make a false distinction, saying that the Old Testament is all about law, and the New Testament is all about grace. In reality, both the Old and New Testaments are about law and grace all mixed together.

The Old Testament has played a major role in Christianity from the beginning of the faith. Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest converts quoted from it, alluded to it and understood the Christian faith in light of its teachings. They did not have what we refer to as the New Testament; the Scriptures they knew were the Hebrew Scriptures, in other words, what we commonly call the Old Testament.

The earliest Christians were predominantly Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. The apostles were Jewish. The vast majority of the first several thousand followers of Jesus were Jewish. If you had asked the earliest followers of Jesus if they had renounced their Jewish faith when they became followers of Jesus, they would have looked at you like you had two heads. Christianity is built upon the foundation of the Hebrew faith. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus’ earliest followers would have told you they followed Jesus because they saw their faith pointing toward him, and everything in their Scriptures, teachings, and experience led them to believe with every fiber of their being that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Therefore, it has been the practice of the Church to read the Old Testament Christologically, that is, by finding Christ within its pages. Because God’s nature is unchanged, and because God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it stands to good reason that evidence of the life and work of Christ may be found within the Old Testament.

When you look at this banner that represents Hebrew origins of our faith, you will find a hidden symbol that represents Christ. Down here toward the bottom, do you see two darker patches of purple that sort of form a fish? The fish was an early symbol the followers of Jesus used to identify themselves to one another, marking themselves as among those for whom Jesus came fishing.

So, when you look at this banner, I want you to remember two things. First, we are participants in a faith that is a direct inheritor of a great tradition that predates Jesus of Nazareth. And second, as we read through the Old Testament, we can find glimpses of Christ throughout it. We praise a God who didn’t just pop on the scene 2000 years ago, but was active in the world through God’s people and has been revealing God’s very self to us for a long time.

Baptism – Ephesians 4:4-5

Having established our foundation, being reminded that it is God who creates all things and that our faith is rooted in an ancient tradition, we come to baptism. For each of us, the Christian life begins at baptism.

No one was ever born a Christian. Did you know that? Christians aren’t born; they’re made. Even if you were born to two professing Christian parents, you were not a Christian by birthright. We become a Christian at baptism.

The scallop shell is one of the most ancient symbols of baptism you can find, dating back to the early Church. It would be almost universally recognized by Christians of all times. Early Christian art depicts the scallop shell being used to pour water in baptism. Ancient baptismal fonts feature carvings of scallop shells around their rims. In the architecture of early churches, scallop shells were carved into the walls.

The scallop shell symbolizes baptism for a very practical reason. Baptisms were done outside in natural bodies of water. They needed something handy to carry a lot of water in, and guess what happened to be handy along the seashore, beside lakes, and next to rivers? Shells. And so the shell became a symbol of baptism.

The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. Baptism incorporates us into the Church, which is the body of Christ, and makes us one in Christ.

The Scriptures tell us there is one body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Because of this, baptism is something that only happens once in life. Baptism is less about the decisions we as an individual make than it is about God’s faithfulness. God keeps God’s promises, and as long as God keeps God’s promises, the covenant still stands. Even if we walk away from the grace of our baptism, even if we choose to reject God, even if we choose to live outside the benefits of God’s family, the covenant still stands. We don’t condone rebaptism because the covenant does not need to be remade – God’s promises are still trustworthy, God still got it right the first time, God’s grace is still available. We need to recommit ourselves to the covenant constantly, but the terms of the covenant are still good.

Baptism is all about God’s grace. Baptism is literally inviting the grace of God to be poured into our lives. So when you look at this banner, you’ll notice a river of blue being poured into the shell from the top – symbolizing a river of God’s grace that is offered to us in baptism. Then, three droplets of water below the shell remind us that we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Lest any of us should think that baptism itself has some sort of magical power or is simply a single moment suspended in time, we must remember that baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace has already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God’s grace, and it looks forward to what God’s grace will accomplish in the future. While baptism signifies the whole working of God’s grace, much that it signifies, from the washing away of sin to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, will need to be accomplished over a lifetime. Baptism anticipates a lifetime of further and deeper experiences of God and further acts of Christian commitment.

Whenever you look up at this banner, I want you to see the water being poured into the shell, and realize that in baptism, God’s grace is poured into our lives.

Eucharist – 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

We now come across the sanctuary to the banner which represents the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the beginning of a lifetime of discipleship; Eucharist is food for the journey. Whereas baptism only happens once for each of us – a journey only has one starting point, after all – the Eucharist is a place where we are invited to feast on God’s grace again and again. Christians are encouraged to receive Communion as often as we have the opportunity; John Wesley, in fact, encouraged the early Methodists to celebrate “constant Communion.”

It is no mistake that Baptism and Eucharist are here in the front in a place of prominence, for these are both God’s very special gift to the Church. Baptism and Eucharist are both Sacraments, which we define as an outward sign of an inward grace, and the means through which we receive that grace. In other words, grace is something that happens within us, but baptism and Eucharist use outward, real, tangible things – water, bread, wine – to convey that grace to us.

One of the stories I love from the life of Jesus occurs after his resurrection. He meets up with two of his disciples along the road to Emmaus, but they don’t recognize him. They talk, they share, Jesus teaches, and then they arrive at their destination and have supper together. And when they sat at the table and Jesus broke the bread, all of a sudden they realized who he was. I love the way the text says it: “They knew him in the breaking of the bread.”

We know Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus gives us Communion as a way of knowing him, of experiencing him, of feasting on the very grace of God. The more we are filled with grace, the more that grace overflows from our lives, and the more we grow. It is no mistake that Baptism and Eucharist are portrayed on a green background – green symbolizes growth. Baptism and Eucharist are both about receiving God’s grace, and as we receive grace, we grow.

Receiving grace is a gift, and it’s a gift we should constantly seek. Whenever Communion is available, we should make it a priority to be there to receive it. I look at it this way: who here has a 401(k) or some other investment plan where your employer matches up to a certain percentage of what you put in? So, if your employer matches at 4% of your income, the minimum you should be putting into the fund is 4%. Not putting that money in is like leaving money on the table. It’s a gift that’s available to you, but you have to receive it. Likewise, not taking advantage of opportunities for Communion is like leaving grace on the table, quite literally. It’s there, it’s available, it’s a gift, it’s got your name on it – but you have to take advantage of the opportunity to receive it.

Holy Communion is just as much about our relationships with each other as it is about our relationship with Christ. Just as baptism makes us one with Christ and one with each other, so does Holy Communion keep us one with Christ and one with each other. The elements we use have great symbolic value, and this value is important. For instance, we use one common loaf. The Scriptures tell us and our Communion liturgies echo this truth – “because there is one loaf, we, though we are many, are One, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The use of one large broken loaf and a common cup underscores the aspect of Communion that is sharing and unity with each other.

Now, next Sunday is World Communion Sunday, and so I’ll be discussing the meaning and importance of the Eucharist in much greater depth next week. But for now, realize that the consecrated bread and wine are food for the spiritual journey that produce continued growth in grace.

Ministry – John 13:3-5,12-17

Question for you – what percentage of Christians throughout time and around the world have been called into ministry? You all know I love statistics, so it won’t surprise you to learn that I have reliable numbers on this one. This one is easy – 100%. 100% of Christians, all Christians, each Christian, every Christian is called into ministry.

Now, you may be thinking, “We’re all called to service, yes, but ministry?” The reality is that both “service” and “ministry” are translated from the same Greek word, so we’re all called into ministry.

This banner is about ministry. It’s about serving others in the name of Christ. It’s about serving others just as Jesus did. There are three parts to this symbol – a pitcher of clean water, a basin for the water, and a towel to wipe and dry the water. This reminds us of Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet on the very night he would be arrested. He did this as an example, “You ought to wash one another’s feet as I have washed yours.” Our faith lives itself out in the service of others.

I belong to the Rotary Club, and I know many of you do or have, as well. Rotary is not faith-based, is not aligned with any political party or ideology, but draws together diverse people from the community who want to serve their community. I am proud to be a Rotarian. I am proud to be part of an organization that has done so much good around the world. Do you know what the motto of Rotary is? “Service above self.” Rotary, which has no faith affiliation, has as its motto is “Service above self;” don’t you think the Church of Jesus Christ should be able to do at least this much? And really, following a Savior who gave himself for the world, don’t you actually think we should probably do a little better?

A faith that is self-centered, all about me and mine, preserving my personal beliefs, inflicting my personal agenda on others is not the Christian faith. Baptism and communion are about grace bringing God’s greatest blessings into our lives, but you know what? Blessing always carries with it a great responsibility, because the Biblical tradition shows over and over again that we are blessed . . . in order to be a blessing. The Church is the body of Christ in the world, and we are called to do the things Jesus would do in the world. Over and over again, we see him serving others, and our task is to be his ongoing presence in the world. A faith that doesn’t serve is certainly not Christian faith.

Church membership is not like country club membership. There are no perks to joining. We have no privileges if you join. You won’t get social standing or recognition by joining. You will, however, get put to work. We have an important task, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, and we need all hands on deck.

This banner reminds us that Christ has set an example for his followers to roll up our sleeves and get to work. And as long as there is need in the world for the presence of Christ, our work isn’t finished, and so we will continue to serve, following the example of Christ himself.

The Holy Spirit – John 14:12-17

Finally, our journey through the banners lands here, at the Holy Spirit. The dove is one of the most common symbols for the Holy Spirit, who is also portrayed as wind which blows wherever it will, and as fire that consumes everything.

Now, the Holy Spirit is not here at the end as an afterthought, but rather as an anchor. The Holy Spirit is the unseen force present in all that we have talked about already, and without the Holy Spirit, none of this is possible. So here, we see the dove descending from heaven, coming down, entering into our lives and winging into our church, lifting us to new heights, soaring into new places, going places and doing things we never would have thought possible.

But the Holy Spirit is not only represented as a dove. The Holy Spirit is also represented as fire. In the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on 120 of the first followers of Jesus, we are told that something like a tongue of fire rested on each of them. Can you find the fire in the banner? There’s a strip of fire running from the lower left to the upper right, reminding us that the Holy Spirit is like fire.

Fire gives heat. Fire gives light. So if your heart is cold and dark and lifeless, if the church is cold and dark and lifeless, it just takes a little spark of fire to light it up. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit in our hearts! We need the fire of the Holy Spirit in our church! We should be praying constantly for the Holy Spirit to fall on us! We need that fire to burn away all the things that aren’t of God. Quarrelling, fighting, jealousy, power plays – we need all of those things to burned away.

But we not only need heat, we need light. In places of darkness, we need to see clearly what God wants us to see. Darkness comes in many forms, but the light of the Holy Spirit can expose the things within us that would rather hide in the shadows, and then that light can drive those things from us.

We need the Holy Spirit. Apart from the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can do nothing. We need the Holy Spirit to come into our lives like fire – exposing what would remain hidden in the dark corners, and burning away everything that isn’t pleasing to God. We need the Holy Spirit to come into our lives like a dove, giving us wings and lifting us to new heights.

So, what’s the story of the banners when they’re all put together? First, God is the creator of all that is, that ever has been, and ever will be. The 10 Commandments remind us that our faith has a DNA older than Christianity itself. Baptism is the entry point into the Christian story, a moment of adoption into God’s family and the beginning of a lifetime of discipleship. And if baptism is a starting point, the Eucharist is food for the journey, a constant and ready source of God’s grace into our lives that will never run out. But along the journey, we will encounter others, and Jesus has called us to reach out and serve in his name. Every time we encounter a need, we encounter an opportunity to be the presence of Jesus. But through everything, we need the constant indwelling of the Holy Spirit, animating all that we do, growing us in grace, and giving us wings to soar to new heights.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

God Still Loves You (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Gratitude – it’s where our story begins today. There are certain times of year we are perhaps more attuned to our gratitude than others – for most Americans, our thoughts turn toward gratitude around the fourth Thursday of November – there are 12 hours of consecutive football – what’s not to be grateful for? In my home and in many of your homes, as the family gathers around the table, we may go around the room to tell what we’re thankful for.

My first year of seminary, I was given the privilege of praying for the meal at Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house. As 30 heads bowed in her dining room, I began to pray, apparently not loud enough for my grandmother’s satisfaction, because she called down from the other end of the table, “Can’t hear you down here!” Before I had time to catch myself, I said, “That’s okay, Grandma, I wasn’t talking to you, anyway.” I’m sure that’s only one of many times I’ve been cut out of the will.

Today’s text begins with gratitude. There are some important theological points, some central timeless truths to come a bit later in this text, but it begins with gratitude. And when it comes down to it, anytime we approach God or each other, before we launch into whatever else is on our mind, gratitude isn’t a bad place to start. May we pray.

Today’s text begins with gratitude. Paul’s gratitude stands out all the more because it comes in the middle of hard service. The grateful believe we have better than we deserve. Instead of taking things for granted, we see good things in life as gifts. Instead of assuming we are entitled, we assume grace underlines all we have. Gratitude gives thanks for mercy. Gratitude sets us up for joy in life. The grateful choose to embrace what life gives and enjoy life’s mercies.

The author of this letter sets up a sharp distinction between Paul’s former life as a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence and what happened in his life when God’s grace overflowed into his life with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Paul – no stranger to boasting, arrogance, or ego – is described in terms that would have made him an enemy of God in his former life and among the greatest of God’s servants through his life in Christ.

The author paints a picture for us here of God’s grace, mercy, and love being poured out, flowing out, freely and abundantly, a relentless, unyielding, springtime melt of God’s love flowing into the parched desert places in our lives. We receive this outpouring, this flood of love, this firehose of grace, this 40-oz of mercy, not because we are special, not because we are deserving, not because we’ve done anything to earn it. The text says the gifts of God come to us in our ignorance and our unbelief, and even when we are actively working against God. God is loving, God is kind, God is compassionate – even when and perhaps especially when our actions are sinful.

And that brings us to verse 15 – “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance” – this, by the way, is the author’s way of saying, “Listen up and pay attention!” Five times in the New Testament some version of this phrase is used, and each time, it signals that what is about to come next is important. If you’re working on a term paper, what comes next would be your thesis statement. If you were a lawyer, this would be your central argument. If you were a doctor, this would be the most important thing you’d want your patient to hear. I have a preacher friend who somewhere in every sermon says, “If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this,” and then he makes the sermon’s most important point. So when the author of 1 Timothy says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” he’s saying, “I have something important to say, and this you can take to the bank.”

And what’s so important? “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

Folks, if you remember nothing else I say today, remember this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

But what is sin? A definition that is roundly endorsed by theologians of all traditions and throughout history is that sin is a violation of the law of God. Will everyone agree that’s a pretty good definition? Sin is a violation of the law of God. Before everyone dives into Leviticus and other Old Testament writings to discover the details of specific laws so you can figure out if your neighbor is sinning or not, let’s take a step back. You’ll recall that Jesus was asked what is the most important command in the law, in other words, he was asked to give a summary statement of the central thrust of the law. And Jesus summed it up this way: the greatest command is to love God and love neighbor.

Do I sound like a broken record yet? Are you sick of me constantly coming back to this central teaching to love God and love neighbor? Well, get used to it, because I’ve got plenty more where this has come from. I’m gonna keep coming back to this central point precisely because it’s central – you can hang your entire Christian ethic on this statement: love God, love neighbor. If we can get that much right, I am confident the rest of it has a way of working itself out.

So let me connect the dots. Sin a violation of the law of God. And the law of God is summed up as loving God and loving neighbor. Sin, therefore, is anything that prevents us from loving God and loving neighbor. That’s part of the reason my sermons aren’t really that moralistic – I’m not going to tell you the list of dos and don’ts because I will inevitably miss something. No list of dos and don’ts is comprehensive enough to encapsulate sin because sin can be anything. If it separates you from God or it separates you from other people, then it’s sin. I’m not saying it’s only sin if it feels wrong, because we can sin just as readily out of ignorance as out of malice, as was made very clear in today’s text. But sin can be anything, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the list of sin in our own lives is probably much longer than we’d really like to admit. Sin can be anything that separates us from God and neighbor, it can be anything where our own will is exalted over God’s, it can be anything where our own will is exalted over our neighbor’s.

And if we’re honest, our own wills are stubborn and hard to break, and we constantly do things that damage our relationship with God and with other people, and all of those things are sin.

This can be a harsh word, because for good, decent, respectable church folk like many of us, this isn’t part of how we view ourselves. We don’t murder, we don’t steal, we don’t blaspheme, we don’t persecute, we’re not given easily to violence. For most of us, our sins are milder, subtler, perhaps even more socially acceptable. We are more like middleweight sinners; we can always point out someone whose sins seem worse than our own, while failing to recognize that as a different sort of sin all on its own. The danger is that we can let ourselves off the hook, because someone else will always look worse than we do.

But hear the words attributed to the apostle Paul in today’s Scripture: “Christ Jesus came to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Do you hear that? He doesn’t say he was a sinner. He says he is a sinner. Paul – St. Paul, the Apostle Paul, Paul the evangelist, Paul the church-planter, Paul the pastor, Paul the leader, Paul the attributed author of half the New Testament, says that he is a sinner. Not only is he a sinner, but he’s the worst one out there. And he holds up his own life for us to inspect as exhibit A, and in the next breath he says, “If I was this bad, and God could work in my life, how much moreso can God work in yours.”

In fact, sometimes I think church should be more like an AA meeting. Before we speak on anything, we should stand up, say, “Hello, my name is so-and-so, and I’m a sinner.” In fact, right now, turn around to three people and introduce yourself to them and let them know you’re a sinner.

Everyone in agreement here that you’re a sinner? But don’t stop there. That’s only part of it. Let me remind you, as Paul Harvey would, of the rest of the story: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Salvation, in the truest sense of the word, is an act of commissioning. On our own, given to our own faculties, our own wills, our own abilities, we are commissioned to a life of sin – a life of separation from God and from each other. But through Christ, both in a moment and over a lifetime, our lives are re-commissioned. Sinful living is self-centered living; salvation commissions us for God-centered living. Salvation takes the narrative of our lives – self-centered, focused on me and getting mine – and renames us as participants in God’s redemption story. Salvation examines purposeless, wandering aimlessness and re-commissions us for a purpose beyond ourselves.

And we find a life lived in God’s service to be infinitely more satisfying than simply living for ourselves. Back in our text, the author considers it a privilege to be in Christ’s service. In fact, he’s grateful for the opportunity.

Christ Jesus saves sinners – that is the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel. And we are all sinners. But don’t stop there – go back just a little further. Yes, we are all sinners, we are all prone to live our lives separated from God and from each other, we all are self-motivated toward our own desires rather than those of God, but don’t stop there. We are all sinners, which means that deep within us, our hearts yearn for reconciliation with God. And the key word here is reconciliation – you can only be reconciled to someone if you were once close to them and something that created distance happened. God seeks us and saves us offering us reconciliation, for this reason and this reason alone: while it’s true that we are all sinners, even before we were sinners, we were created by God in the image of God for a lifetime of relationship with God. Sin – that condition of separation – has driven a wedge into our relationship with God, but before we were sinners, we were created in God’s image. So, while fundamentally we have to recognize all humanity as sinners, even more fundamentally we have to recognize all humanity as created by God and in God’s image.

Do you think this realization would change the way the church typically interacted with unchurched people? If we would remember that all people are created by God in the image of God before we are so quick to start pointing out the sins of others, I daresay we just might treat people in a way that drew them to Christ, thereby participating in the very thing for which the author of today’s Scripture passes gives gratitude.

If God has convicted you of sin in your life, then join the author of today’s text in expressing deep, unending gratitude. But don’t stop there. Show your gratitude. Let your salvation count for something more than a personal spiritual cosmetic, more than moving your name from column A to column B, more than some sort of cosmic life insurance policy. If God has worked in our life, convicted us of sin, sought us and saved us, we show our gratitude by playing our part in God’s ongoing salvation story. We join with the Scripture writer in expressing deep gratitude, and then our life itself becomes a proclamation of the Gospel, and we live as an extension of the very saving power which has saved us, and the result is continually-mounting joy, gratitude, and praise to God.

If you have been saved from sin, then your life has been re-commissioned as part of God’s redemption story. This means that every person who claims to belong to Jesus needs to treat sinners the way Jesus did. Jesus ate with sinners. He shared life with them. He went to their homes. He introduced them to a side of God the religious leaders didn’t even seem to know. He taught them about the kingdom of God.

Jesus didn’t walk around saying things like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That wasn’t Jesus’ message! In fact, Jesus wouldn’t even recognize this language today and would be saddened to hear Christians using it as if Jesus said it. From my study of the Bible and how Jesus dealt with sin and sinners, Jesus’ underlying message was “Love the sinner, forgive the sin.” And friends, this is what we are also called to do.

Think back for a moment to the story of Jesus healing the paralytic in Mark Chapter 2. A man who is paralyzed is carried on a stretcher by four friends to a home where Jesus is teaching. Unable to get to him, they go to the roof, dig a hole through the thatch, and lower the man to Jesus, who tells him to walk and also pronounces his sins forgiven. Like most of Jesus’ healings, there are multiple miracles happening at the same time. One that is often overlooked is really quite profound – Jesus reveals the special power we have, as human beings, to forgive the sins of another.

With true forgiveness comes true freedom! When you truly forgive someone, they are freed from the bondage of sin – doesn’t that sound like another way of saying salvation? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and which do you think advances that purpose – loving the sinner and hating the sin, or loving the sinner and truly forgiving their sin, liberating them from its crushing weight so they can live in the freedom God intends?

Continuing in a mindset of “love the sinner, hate the sin” denies our power as human beings to forgive the sins of others that Jesus has so plainly revealed. We must come to a place where we can live by the rule “Love the sinner, forgive the sin,” for this is the place Jesus calls us to live. Time after time we see Jesus forgiving the sins of people around him – even those who finally persecuted and killed him.

Love the sinner, forgive the sin – that’s the place Jesus calls us to live, and that very statement echoes through today’s Scripture reading. If the worst sinner could be shown love and grace, could be forgiven, and find his life re-commissioned in God’s service, then we are called to hold the door open to forgiveness and reconciliation for anyone and everyone, even the person we perceive to be the worst sinner out there, if for no other reason because someone held the door open for me, and someone held the door open for you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who publicly opposed Hitler and the Nazi regime, and for this and other crimes he was placed in the Flossenberg concentration camp and executed by hanging in April 1945, in the waning weeks of the Second World War in Europe. Writing from that concentration camp on the vastness of God’s love and grace, Bonhoeffer expressed such confidence in God’s grace that he had to hold open the possibility that he might someday see Adolf Hitler in heaven.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.

When we were at Carolina Cross Connection, one of the songs we sang frequently described how God can take what appears to be ugly and mundane and ordinary in our lives, and transform it into something beautiful, something good, something new. I wonder if some of our CCC team are here and would be willing to sing that song now?

Do you hear that message? God makes beautiful things out of us. God makes us new and is making us new. God makes beautiful things out of the dust. God makes beautiful things out of us.

Maybe you’re here today and you haven’t been able to believe that God really loves you. If so, I’m sorry. And if that’s specifically because of something Christians told you or did to you, I’m especially sorry. But I also need you to know that God does love you. No matter what you’ve done, no matter who are you, no matter what still needs to be cleaned up in your life, no matter how distant you feel from God, no matter how lonely you feel in relation to other people, no matter what hard feelings and grudges and resentments and judgments you’re hanging onto, no matter who you are and no matter who other people have told you you are, Christ is here for you, and he is here to lead you directly into God’s love, and today’s a great day to rest in his embrace.

Or, maybe you’re here today and you realize that you’ve been withholding forgiveness. You’re a little too attached to those grudges, and those hurt feelings, and those damaged places. But, you’re tired of hanging onto those old fears and resentments. You’ve worn yourself out trying to love the sinner and hate the sin, and you’re ready to embrace Christ’s invitation to forgive – you’re ready to be freed from the burden of carrying that grudge around, and you’re ready to stop devoting all that negative energy to the person you’ve refused to forgive.

Either way, if you need to forgive someone else so they can be embraced in the loving, life-giving arms of God, or if you need to come and rest in that embrace yourself – maybe for the first time, maybe for the 100th time – I simply want to invite you to come and pray here at this altar rail. Don’t worry about what people are going to think – after all, we’ve already figured out that everyone here is a sinner, so it doesn’t look like any of us are in a position to point fingers at anyone else.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. Thanks be to God, whose arms of forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace are wide open and waiting for you.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Good Bread (John 6:24-35)

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must be we do perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us, then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors gave us manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from Heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This past Sunday evening, Ashley came over and we set out to find something to eat. Sunday is obviously a big work day for both of us, neither of us are ever in the mood to cook anything, and we are more than happy to grab something quick and cheap.

It was about 7pm, and what did I want? A fresh made sub from Harris Teeter. That’s all I wanted. Simple, cheap, easy, tasty. I often want a sub from Harris Teeter on Sunday nights, perhaps reminding me of Sunday nights growing up when Dad would often pick up subs from Emil’s following Sunday night programming at church. For whatever reason, around 7 or 7:30 on a Sunday night, I want a sub. I should also know by now that Harris Teeter’s sub shop closes at 7, because on more than one occasion I have driven over, walked toward the sub shop, saw the person cleaning up and thought, “Dangit – they close at 7!”

Not deterred, my problem-solving skills were called into play. I remembered Sub Station II up here on South Boulevard, I’ve had plenty of sandwiches there, and so we victoriously drove across Dilworth, pulled into the parking lot, walked around the corner, and saw their posted open hours expired at 6.

Well now, I was starting to get frustrated. We went back to the car, I sat there for a minute, and then it hit me. My GPS is great at finding all sorts of restaurants, surely it would know where we could get a sandwich! I pulled up the restaurant listing, and sure enough, it listed a Jersey Mike’s in the 1400 block of East Boulevard, just 1.1 miles away.

Now, I drive up and down East Boulevard all the time. I didn’t remember a Jersey Mike’s in that block, but you know that you can drive past something for years and not even know it’s there. Besides, GPS said it was there, and when has GPS ever gotten it wrong?

3 minutes later I confirmed that there is not, in fact, a Jersey Mike’s in the 1400 block of East Boulevard. So, we pulled up GPS listings again, and chose another sandwich shop back over by the Dilworth Harris Teeter, pulled in the parking lot, and were greeted with yet another “CLOSED” sign.

It was now 45 minutes and 3 miles from my home when we first asked, “What do you want to do for dinner tonight?” and we decided to just grab something quick, cheap, and easy. I had no idea it was so difficult to get a sandwich in this town after 7 on a Sunday!

Ashley, ever the one with uplifted spirits, said, “Well, what else do you want to do?” to which I quickly replied, “Hmph, I just don’t care.” By now, Ashley understands this to be code for “My blood sugar is low and I’m beginning to get cranky,” so she gently and effectively persuaded me just down the street to Moe’s, where we treated ourselves to wonderful burritos.

By the time it was all over, it felt like a great quest for food in the wilderness, which is exactly where we meet up with Jesus, his disciples, and a crowd of hungry followers in today’s Scripture reading. It is a day after Jesus has fed the multitude on the side of a mountain next to the Sea of Galilee, which was the story we looked at last week. Out of nothing and in the middle of nowhere, Jesus had performed a great sign, multiplying five loaves and two fish into a great, abundant feast that fed the people to the point that they were full and wanted no more.

But that was yesterday. Today, the people woke up out of the inevitable food coma produced from eating so much the day before, and now they’re hungry again. They get into boats and head across the sea to find Jesus. The Sea of Galilee is small – a lake, really – but it still takes a little bit of effort to get over there to find Jesus.

Can you imagine the conversations in those boats on the ride across the lake? “Mom, I’m hungry! Aren’t we going to get breakfast first?” “Don’t be silly – we’re on our way to find Jesus. He’s our meal ticket, now!”

They find Jesus, they ask him when he got there, and in typical Jesus fashion, he dodges their question, refuses to answer it directly, and instead gave them an answer to a question they didn’t ask. Jesus says, “I know your game! I know what’s going on here! You’re not here because you’re really interested in me, per se, you’re only interested in what I can do for you! So long as I can meet what you’re looking for, you’ll keep coming looking for me, but I know what you’re up to. You’re hungry again, and you expect me to magically fill your belly again just like I did yesterday.”

Have you guys ever watched one of those hot dog eating contests where “champion eaters” compete head-to-head to see who can stuff the most processed beef and pork product down their gullet without ralphing it all back up on the table? Do you know how these champion eaters train for their “sport?” They eat. A lot. As with any training program, it gets progressively more intense as the event draws closer. So, in the days before the competition, do you think these champion eaters starve themselves so they will be famished by the time of the competition, or do you think they eat the greatest quantities of food in the days immediately prior to the event?

They gorge themselves in the days leading up to the competition for one very obvious reason. The stomach is muscle, and like any muscle, it is flexible and can be stretched. It has great capacity for expansion, and the greatest way to expand its capacity is to keep eating and stretching it out, eating a little more and stretching it further, again and again and again until you max out its capacity. If it has been stretched to capacity immediately before the competition but is empty right when the contest begins, they stand a good chance of being able to live every mother’s dream for their son by stuffing 60 or 70 hot dogs in their face.

But the next day, I am willing to bet that they eat regular normal meals again, because food perishes. What fills us and satisfies us today can easily be gone tomorrow.

In our Scripture reading, when the crowd was hungry, they came looking for Jesus to feed them again. Jesus knew that they were just looking for more of the bread that perishes. Jesus says “Stop chasing food that perishes.” Instead, work for the food that endures for eternal life.

Jesus says it is God in heaven who gives us the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. We join the crowd in saying, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Back in the 4th Chapter of this Gospel, a woman at a well asked Jesus for the water that never ran dry, and here the people ask for the bread that brings life to the world. And Jesus reveals himself to be that bread with the promise that those who come to him will not hunger. Those who believe into him – who embed themselves in him, who abide in him, who give their whole selves in trust to him, who are in total solidarity with him – will not thirst.

The author of John’s Gospel doesn’t want us to read or hear these stories on their own, but as part of a larger story, one that resembles several we’ve heard before. This is one way that the author of this Gospel wrestles with the profound question of Jesus’ identity, and what it truly means to have faith in him.

Bread here refers not only to actual bread, food represents more than just the actual food we place in our bodies. Food is a metaphor here, representing all those things we strive after, work for, and fill our lives with, yet we often find that even when our lives are full of these things, we remain empty on the inside.

As I look out over the landscape today, I see that we are in search of food in a wilderness of our own as well. People in our world are either desperate for food at all, hungry each night and hoping for relief, or else we have all the food that we can eat with leftovers, yet our lives are curiously unfilled, or unfulfilled. The rich say to the poor, “How can you still be hungry? There is more than enough food for everyone in the world!” The poor say to the rich, “How can you still be hungry? You have so much already!”

Could it be that Jesus words to those chasing him across the sea those many years ago still have truth today? I think it is no small coincidence that many of the colloquial phrases we have for money have, at their root, an association with food – bringing home the bacon, putting food on the table, putting cheddar in your pocket, making dough, bread-winner. Jesus puts a tacit warning label on the bread that perishes, the breads and foods of the world, the things that we think will fill us up but we find are anything but nourishing. “Work for it all you want,” he seems to say. “Just know that all these things are never going to fill that deepest hunger in the pit of your being.”

I think we all fight the temptation to keep consuming bread that doesn’t satisfy – accumulating property, amassing wealth, new cars, new homes, new clothes, new toys, new hobbies, new pastimes, new social circles, new drugs, new amusements, new activities – but these things don’t fill that pit, and indeed, all they do is create a vicious cycle: the more we get, the more we want, and we find our appetite keeps getting bigger.

And, perhaps you’re like me. Sometimes I think that God is there to help me obtain these things. My prayers can be self-centered instead of God-centered, a laundry list of what I want – things, possessions, security, feelings, experiences – and not often enough do I pray for my will to be conformed to Christ’s. Not often enough do I say, “Change my heart, O God.” Not often enough do I pray for God to change my appetite and replace the taste in my mouth for food that perishes with the taste of food that endures for eternal life.

Perhaps you’re like me. I come to God with all my worldly hungers and appetites, all the vain things that charm me most, and I don’t give them to God. Instead, I ask God to give me more, just like the crowd who had their fill of the loaves, I want more of the bread that perishes, and I resent it when God responds by saying, “You come to me with your wish list for all these things, treating me like some genie in a bottle or blessing vending machine. You come to me with all these wants, when all along I’ve been offering you exactly what you need. Instead of asking for more, how about you just go ahead and take what you need!” Then again, perhaps that’s just me.

Friends, there is a comprehensive menu around us of food that perishes, but Jesus offers us an alternative. True enough, he often meets us exactly where we are, for the crowd that was hungry, he provided a miraculous provision of a feast of bread and fish, but that meal was a sign. It pointed beyond itself to a deep truth about Jesus – a truth we should make a staple in our diet, feast on constantly, and find ourselves nourished as disciples of Jesus the Christ. Jesus continues to tell us the same truth: he is the bread of Life. Whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will not thirst.

The words are words of promise – but they are also words with challenge. People were attracted to Jesus by the gift of bread to feed their bodies. That attraction caused them to seek and find him, expecting more of the same. Instead, Jesus offers something bigger, bread and fish, yes, but something bigger, something more – less easy to grasp and understand, but something which will, in the end, be infinitely more satisfying.

Do you remember hearing this phrase as you were growing up? “You are what you eat.” This produced no shortage of humorous mental pictures for me as a kid, but there is a truth that rings through it. Because, what you eat becomes part of you. If you eat nothing but junk food, all the sugar and fat and nutritionally bankrupt calories in that food become part of you. If you eat fruits and vegetables, their vitamins and minerals become part of you. Now, we all love junk food – it tastes great, it makes you feel good in the moment, it temporarily seems to satisfy hunger. But in the long run, it doesn’t lead to life more abundant, but to a life that fails to fulfill its full potential and is riddled with complications of disease and stress. A life full of nutritious food may not have much appeal at the beginning – flavorless and bland compared to the sugar and fat-laden junk food, but over the long run, it is the path that leads to greater health and vitality, a much more abundant life than we’d ever get by filling up on nothing but junk food.

Jesus’ words here are both a challenge to our natural appetites and an invitation to develop a different appetite.

You are what you eat, and what we eat is intrinsic to our appetites, so if we eat the bread that perishes, we will develop a greater hunger for the bread that perishes and continue to demand more of it and be satisfied with less of it, and this perishable bread will become part of us.

But if we feast on the bread of life, we will develop a greater and greater hunger for the things that are truly from Jesus. We will seek those things that are consistent with Jesus, and our lives will be satisfying and full, and Jesus, the bread of life, will become part of us.

How do we know if Jesus has become part of us? Again, you are what you eat. You’ll know that Jesus has become a part of you if live like Jesus – if key character traits of Jesus are evident in your life. Jesus said a tree would be known by its fruit (Luke 6:44), and fortunately for us, elsewhere in Scripture we find a list of the fruit of the Spirit – the evidence of Jesus dwelling within each of us, the evidence that Jesus is a staple in our diet and has made himself at home in the depths of our belly. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us what a Christ-filled life looks like: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

And, rather than looking for the evidence of these fruit in the lives of others to determine if Jesus dwells within them, if they are actually feasting on the bread of Life, let’s each simply focus on ourselves. I’ve got enough places where the crop in my own life is thin; I’m hardly in a position to point out what I perceive to be the deficiencies in others.

One place we find the bread of Life is here in the elements of bread and wine, consecrated in the community of Christ-followers, they communicate the real presence of Christ to us. Jesus is present in a particular and unique way every time we celebrate this feast, this Communion, this Eucharist together; this is a place Jesus promised to meet us.

This fall, we are beginning a new worship experience on Wednesday evenings – a weekly service of prayer and Holy Communion at 6:30. It will last half an hour, but that very well be the most important half-hour of your week as you reconnect with Christ in a place he’s promised to meet you, and in so doing build better relationships with others who are doing the same.

We call this meal a Sacrament – an outward sign of an inward grace – a tangible pledge and promise of Christ’s abiding presence with us. We call this meal a means of grace – a direct line through which God comes to each of us on our journey: inviting us closer to God regardless of how distant we are, accounting us right before God when we feel out of step, and shaping our appetites more toward the things of God so we can live Christlike lives. All of that happens every time we celebrate Communion, making it one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

Jesus is the bread of Life. Both the gift and the giver are one in the same! The table is set and the invitations are sent, and I guarantee there’s a place for you at this table.