Blessed Assurance – Lectionary 04/07/2019

Isaiah 43:16-21
            Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Philippians 3:4b-14
            If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Sermon Text

Assurance is something that we constantly struggle with. The idea that someone as mundane or as sinful as ourselves can be welcomed into God’s kingdom, not only reluctantly but with open arms is abhorrent to something deep within us. We are born with our own personal critic deep within, something that is always ready to tell us what we perceive to be plainly true – We are not worthy, we are not loved, and we are assuredly damned.

We the church are simultaneously the greatest peddlers of false and real hope there is. We are uncomfortable with the ideas of condemnation and allergic to doctrines of sin, and this can often lead to us preaching a kingdom so open and non-committal that it is non-differentiable from any other institution. On the other hand, we are so bent on condemning those unlike us, and so bent on preaching against the sins which we consider apparent in the culture around us that we are quickly transformed into an insular group which no one has any chance of being a member of – no one but us, the people who truly get it.

When we commit to being a member of the Church, we are inevitably pushed out of our place of comfort. The true calling of God is more open and more selective than anyone could ever be comfortable with. There is no one who comes into the church and is not scandalized on one side by how open we are called to be in accepting people, and at the same time put off by how much we are to self-regulate in terms of our own conduct. No one by being aligned to a liberal or conservative theology is completely correct in their interpretation, because God’s way is a straight path, moving neither to the right nor left.

This does not mean that being moderate in all things is to be working God’s work. God is a radical person, it is merely a radicalism that transcends the human understandings of issues that traditionally fall along spectrums. It is difficult, at times to express this, but the reality is that a Christ that agrees with us in all things is no true Christ, it is a facsimile that we have created. The sins that are nailed to the cross are then not those sins that we commit regularly, but everything which we ourselves hate. When we create a Christ that mirrors our views so perfectly and came to institute a new age in which we are blessed, then we create a Hell to all people who are not us.

The greatest struggle which we within the church, at least within the American church, is that we often view salvation and the Christian life not in terms of Jesus and Jesus’ works, but in terms of ourselves, our churches, and our culture. When we see an attribute within Christ which we do not like, we simply cover it up with something more palatable to our own tastes. We do not like that Jesus ate with sinner’s who we are not told repented, so we look to the story in which he says, “Go and sin no more,” So we can stay on our high horses. We do not like Jesus feeding the hungry without asking for drug tests or asking them to go and find a job, so we turn to Paul’s teachings to excuse our lack of generosity.

There is nuance in scripture, and there is more that Jesus accomplishes in a single action than anyone can in a single sermon, but we must accept that the radicalness of Jesus is oftentimes plainer than we want it to be. Jesus is clear in Jesus’ work, and this leads to Jesus actively attacking systems that support the status quo simply because it is easy and self-edifying. If we take Jesus seriously, we should be troubled by the scriptures, we should feel like Jesus is speaking to us when he yells at Pharisee’s and tax collectors and rages against the Roman authorities.

The reality is that when we are called to be church, we are called to an uncomfortable, difficult, and sacrificial life. This means that Jesus will constantly call us to re-examine how we live. This need for us to constantly return to the cross, to constantly reevaluate our life and work to better ourselves is why we cannot depend on ourselves for our sense of assurance. The false Christ’s which we create as I said, lead to us crucifying all sins to the cross but our own, and when we do this how has anything we’ve done been atoned for? If we are forgiven as we forgive, building up our doctrines to benefit us in this life will damn us in the next.

What then does it mean to be assured of your salvation? What does it mean to have confidence in the life we are called to? It means that we embrace the hardships we face! Life is not easy for someone who wants to live a Godly life, it demands a lot of us, and we have to take the hardships we face seriously. We are called to give up vengeance, which means we can sometimes be left unsatisfied after we are wronged. We are called to be frugal, which means we cannot surround ourselves with the decadent things we might want. Above all, we are called to live our life as a sacrifice, and if we take this call seriously it may very well cost us our life.

This previous week at Wesley Theological Seminary’s weekly chapel service we were treated to a lecture on Oscar Romero. Romero, a priest who was killed for his political activism while presiding over the Eucharist 39 years ago lived a truly sacrificial life. By all accounts a conservative, Romero was considered by many a step backward when he was appointed Archbishop. However, in the face of government abuses, Romero stood up and shone outward into the darkness of the oppressive regime. He preached against the evils of the government, he preached against the oppression of the poor, and in all things called for people to become transformed into the true Body of Christ. In his mind, this was accomplished in advocacy for and identification with the poor. God was truly present to us in the least of these, and if we wished to see God we must look them in the face and love them.

Romero lived this ministry and it led to his death. Martin Luther King Jr. pursued ministry advocating for the poor and the least of these, and it led to his death. All along the way, on that road to Calvary, they suffered violence and contempt from the powerful who would oppose them. Many times, it was other Christians who called them radical, communists, enemies of the people, simply because they chose advocacy for others over bowing to power. If we render up to God what is God’s, then we are required to give expansively to the disadvantaged, we must be willing even to give up our lives in defense of others.

As Paul reflects on his life, he sees the self-identified sources of glory to be useless. Born to a good family, Paul studied under the best teacher and rose to prominence among the Pharisees. He did what was right, and he fought hard against those he believed were working against God’s plan in the world. However, after God intervened and made Paul see his mistakes, then Paul completely changed his trajectory. We see that by the end of his life, Paul considered all the advantages he was given as a loss – not because it was wrong to be Jewish, to have studied well, to be zealous for God – but because Paul was so married to the particular ways he understood these contexts that he lost sight of what God was truly asking of Paul.

Paul became so convinced by the end of his life that he had no power over the good he had done or his future place in God’s plan, that we see the usually bombastic Paul speak very plainly. I am about to enter into a sharing of Christ’s suffering, even suffering to death. The word used here in the Greek shows that Paul saw this sharing in the same way he saw the redistribution of resources within the early church – this was not a bad thing, it was a consummation. In the same way that taking bread and cup into our body unites us to God’s work at the Passover and at the cross, when we suffer we take part in a different sort of communion. When we willfully drop our advantages so that we can more closely work alongside God, then we will suffer, but that suffering is what unites us both to Christ and to Christ’s people – namely the poor and disinherited.

The real Christ, not the one we make to excuse our own behaviors, but the one who loved us and died for us sits at the right hand of God to this day. If we believe this, we have no reason to fear what persecution may come for those who live out their authentic faith. The worst that can happen to us is that we are united to the death of Christ, and as we are told in today’s scripture – we have reason to hope we would join in Christ’s resurrection. It is only through faith in Christ that we are saved, and this faith must necessarily push us forward to sacrificial living. Missionary Jim Elliot put our willingness to live and die for Christ this way: saying, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

This hope in the resurrection does not make us reckless, nor does it ask us to disconnect from the world we live in now. However, it asks that we crucify the old self and put away the benefits that we are born into. Like Paul, we can take advantage of our birth and our standing in society to further God’s work, but if we use it to oppress others or depend on identity to save us, then we will perish. Instead, we look to the life and ministry of Christ as our benchmark, we commit ourselves to a holy and sacrificial life, and we except that we are a new creation. When John cried out of from the wilderness, “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord make straight his paths,” there comes a promise that the Lord will, “do a new thing; [that] now springs forth.”

Do you not perceive it? Do you not hear God’s work within us, calling us to a new and sacrificial way of being? The path is set before us, God has made a path for us to follow, now we must follow the call and charge onward. We have prepared for our race all our life, and we will prepare for it as long as we live, but the one thing we must never do is stop running it. The Spirit of Lord will guide us, and the hope of the resurrection embolden us. Now may we go forward, may we live and die and rise again as children and servants of the true Christ who lived and died and rose again for us all. – Amen

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