Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Character of Christ: Service Above Self (Romans 12:1-17)

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So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you:
don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

I grew up in a puzzling family – puzzling in the sense that both my immediate and extended family enjoy putting together a puzzle.  Our game closet at home had several shelves just devoted to puzzles, from the four-piece cutouts with handles we all put together as small children, to 2000 piece monstrosities that had everyone scratching their heads.  There was something of a rite of passage to be invited to sit with the adults and work one of those complicated puzzles.

On its own, each puzzle piece doesn’t look like much, but when it’s put together with the others, a beautiful picture slowly emerges that is both bigger and more comprehensive than any one puzzle piece on its own.

I find that to be true in the life of faith, as well.  Today, we are beginning a series of messages called “The Character of Christ,” and for the next 8 Sundays, we will be looking at various aspects of the character of Jesus Christ – who was he?  What was he about?  What does that mean for us?  Over the next several weeks, as we examine these aspects one-by-one, a comprehensive picture of Jesus will emerge.  May we pray.

Why does our picture of Jesus matter?
The picture we have of Jesus is important for a few reasons.  First – and perhaps this is stating the obvious – we are a church!  One founded on following the teachings and person of Jesus!  This is a place where we are trying to get to know Jesus better ourselves, and introduce those around us to Jesus.  So, it would make sense to me that we have a good idea of who Jesus is!

Now, this would seem to be self-evident, but it bears stating lest we become a church where Jesus is conspicuously absent and no one seems particularly concerned.  We lift up the name of Jesus, we point to Jesus, we do what we do in the name of Jesus to remind ourselves that we are not simply a social club or service organization – we are a group of people whose purpose is to follow Jesus and do what Jesus wants us to do.

Second, we need to be clear about who Jesus is so we can better follow Jesus.  When the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Gandhi, he asked him, "Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?"

Gandhi replied, "Oh, I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.  If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

The goal of every Christian is to become like Jesus.  The very term, “Christian,” means “little Christ;” being a Christian means being like Christ.

There are lots of people who get that, including Pope Francis.  Pope Francis is my kind of pope, but I can’t help but laugh at all the press he’s gotten for, of all things, acting like Jesus.  What does it say about the state of Christianity when the world’s most visible Christian acts like Jesus, and it makes the news?  What if – and I know I’m suggesting something out of the box here – what if Christians were so well-known to act like Jesus that it didn’t make headlines when one of us actually did it?

That’s my hope in spending these weeks looking at aspects of the character of Christ – that we not only study his character, but that we try it on for ourselves, starting with service above self.

The Pattern of this Age - Selfishness
Today’s Scripture from the 12th Chapter of Romans warns us to steer clear of the patterns of this world and the values of this age.  Things haven’t changed that much since the Scripture was written, both then and now, chief among those patterns is the tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  If you’ve been in traffic on the highway lately, you’ve seen the evidence that our world is filled with people who think more of themselves than is either wise or warranted!

 We are born with the instinct to look out for “me,” to protect and promote what is “mine.”  Selfishness is not something that needs to be taught, because it comes naturally.  Just take a look at babies – they are selfish and unashamed.  Grabbing for this, clutching to that, letting out a loud complaint if they’re hungry or sleepy or gassy or cold or not so fresh.  I’m not saying that’s bad, some of that is simply there for our own survival, but please, recognize the inherent selfishness that is programmed into our instincts.  You don’t have to teach a baby the concept of “mine,” they know that one very well on their own!  What has to be taught are values like sharing and taking turns.

The problem develops when we never grow out of that infantile selfishness, when, in the words of today’s Scripture, our minds are not transformed and renewed and directed toward fulfilling God’s will rather than our own, which is good, and pleasing, and mature.

It is not unique to our age, but an immature society will reward greed and selfishness.  The evidence of an immature society, one that is not good and pleasing to God, is one in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  Climb the ladder, become king of the hill – we can get so busy trying to keep up with the Joneses, so caught up in winning the rat race, that we never have time to realize that whoever wins the race is still, ultimately, a rat.

Even so, “thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought” is part of the fabric of our society – we’re all looking out for “Number One,” and who’s that?  Me!  “Me!  Me!  Me!”  Yes, it sounds like a vocal warmup, and it should, because friends, that’s the song our instincts tell us to sing.

It’s a free country – no one’s gonna tell me what to do!  I do what I want!

Incidentally, that’s the kind of thing I used to say before I got married.  I don’t say that anymore, not because someone put a ball and chain on me, not because someone took away my freedom.  It’s just that my relationships and priorities have shifted.  I can’t claim that it’s all about me anymore, because there’s now this other person whose needs I have vowed to place above my own.  Funny how relationships have a way of changing our tune, isn’t it?  And, if that’s true in our human relationships, isn’t it even moreso in our relationship with God?

The Scriptures are very clear that for those who are in Christ, we no longer belong to ourselves – we belong to Jesus!  He bought us with his own life, and in our baptism, our old self – the one that’s obsessed with looking out for me and mine – is buried, and we are incorporated into the body of Christ.  As a follower of Christ, my energy and effort goes into fulfilling his will rather than my own.  In Galatians, it says, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20 CEB).

Responding to Jesus’ invitation to give ourselves in service frees us from continuing to sing, “Me! Me! Me!”  Jesus tells us things like “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15) and “the greatest among you will be servant of all” (Matthew 23:11) and we Christians are just crazy enough to believe Jesus and take him at his word.

Servants in the Body of Christ
Jesus Christ came as a servant – one who gave abundantly and served graciously, and he calls all those who would be his followers to give their lives in service, as well.  The Scripture we read today describes what the church can be at its best – a community of mutual love and support, where the gifts of each person are used for the betterment of the whole, where love of God and neighbor is not just taught but practiced.  We are invited to value the unique contributions of others, and the body of Christ grows and reaches out in loving service as each member does their part.

We are invited, right now, as we are, into something bigger than ourselves, the body of Christ, which is capable of doing much more together in Jesus’ name than any single one of us could accomplish on our own.  The tricky thing is that the body of Christ includes a whole number of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.

Yet, following Jesus invites us into a life of loving service, literally giving ourselves to others in Jesus’ name.  Service above self flows directly out of God’s infinite love for us, and it is the keystone characteristic in the overall character of Christ.  Remove his love, which manifested itself in the service of others, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.  Likewise, one who claims to follow Jesus but ignores his invitation to a life of service will have a stunted faith that is but a hollow shell of what God desires.

Inevitably, someone will want to ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?  That’s in the Bible, too, you know!”  Yes it is, and it’s asked by someone who is trying to dodge their responsibility for caring for and serving others.  God’s answer then and God’s answer now is a resounding “Yes.”  If you are a Christian, then you ARE your brother or sister’s keeper.  You are accountable to them and for them.  What is given to you is not for your use alone, but for the good of all.

An alternate title for this series would have been “Things you can’t do while following Jesus.”  If you don’t remember anything else from today’s message, remember this: “You can’t follow Jesus and be selfish at the same time.”

There’s an old Jewish folktale about a man who wanted to see what heaven and hell were like.  He was taken to hell first, and surprised to see a beautiful banquet hall with tables stretching as far as the eye could see.  The tables were laden with the most delicious food you can imagine, but no one was eating.  As he got closer, he saw that, instead of arms, the diners had two long wooden spoons where their arms should have been.  The spoons were so long and had no elbow joints that no one could get the food from the center of the table back to their mouth, and so they all sat there in tortured, miserable anguish.

He was then taken into heaven, and surprised that it looked very much like hell – same banquet hall, same tables, same food, same long spoons where the diners arms should have been.  Yet here, everyone was laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company.  As he got closer, he saw that each person was not trying to feed themselves, but that each person’s spoon-arm was just long enough to feed the person across from them, and so they were all feeding each other, and everyone had their fill.

The man went back to hell and went to the nearest table and said, “If you would just feed each other, everyone will get something to eat, and your problem will be solved!”  One of the diners said, “I will never feed someone else until someone feeds me first.”  With that attitude shared throughout the banquet hall, everyone continued to starve.

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