The Faith of Thomas – Lectionary 04/28/2019

John 20:19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Sermon Text

Poor, Thomas. We don’t know why he wasn’t with the other disciples the week before he saw Jesus, but he missed the first appearance of the Resurrected Lord. He came home, no doubt from a long day’s walking and the first thing he hears is the other disciple’s story. “Jesus walked right through a locked door and talked to us! He’s back, and he gave us all God’s spirit!”.

Can we really blame Thomas for questioning that? Imagine if you came home to a spouse or roommate saying someone you saw die had come over for dinner. Thomas responds, fairly reasonably, “I’ll believe it when I see it. No, no, because you guys could just dress someone up like Jesus, I want to see the scars in his hand!”

A week later. Jesus finally appears in front of Thomas, and Thomas does not even wait for Jesus to hold out his hands. As soon as Jesus walks up to him, he is ready to declare his faith. And then what Jesus says what we usually see as the take away of this story, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

If we let ourselves, we can look back at Thomas and shake our heads. We can look him in the eye and waggle our fingers saying, “For shame!” Or maybe, we can be a bit more graceful. Not only can we be graceful, but if we are a little honest, a little vulnerable, I think we might see a bit more of Thomas in our life than we are at first willing to admit.

Thomas was among the disciples who, following Jesus’ death, scattered, and it is hard to tell how far away he went. We know that the disciples made their way to Galilee after the Resurrection, but we can imagine some of them may have taken longer than others. For many of the Disciples, coming to Galilee meant going home, but as for Thomas, we are never told where he came from. He’s listed with Matthew the tax collector, and given his Greek name, it certainly seems like he was not from the same region as the other disciples. Thomas may have gone the long way back to Galilee, maybe to visit home, maybe just to think.

We do not know much about Thomas: where he was born or who his twin was, but we are told a few things about him. The first thing is that Thomas was devoted to Jesus like none of the other disciples. When Jesus was going to raise Lazarus it is implied that some of the disciples were afraid Jesus going so close to Jerusalem would be dangerous. Before anyone could really object though, Thomas stood up and said, “Let us go with him, so that we can die with him.” Thomas was willing to die for Jesus, even early into their ministry.

Thomas was also willing to risk asking questions that would open him up to ridicule, vulnerable questions that were honest about where he was and what he knew. It isn’t hard to think of those times when we in the church hear a sermon preached, read a book, or sit in a bible study, and we hear something we don’t understand and sit there quietly in case we seem like we don’t “get it” as well as the other people in the room. Thomas did not seem to have this fear though, and when Jesus said, “You know where I’m going,” only Thomas was willing to stand up and say, “No we don’t!” Imagine if half of us were so willing to openly question what happens in our life.

I can only think of a handful of times in which I have seen such a willingness to risk looking silly to get to a deeper truth. Sitting in a class just last week, a professor of mine looked out at us all, and quoted the book we had been reading, “God’s coming, bears the impress no longer of Christ’s struggle but of his kingdom, but by a tarrying and abiding in the felicitous moment.” The professor, having read this text, looked out at us, his eyes full of some sort of transcendent happiness. There was a moment of silence, every student waiting for his explanation, and then he opened his mouth and said, “I have no idea what that means.”

Such honesty from someone of authority! That was the sort of thing that we see in Thomas. We are given such little information about Thomas, but every time he appears, he is presented as someone willing to follow Christ to the end, someone who was willing to ask any question he could to understand what Jesus was really getting at. Why do we always hear Thomas talked about so negatively? Why do we look to him as the worst disciple we could ever embody… Well, the second worst.

There was a move within the latter half of the first millennia to make the Bible a bit more palatable. The disciple’s mistakes were made into spiritual lessons or else into lessons in how not to live. It was in this time where Peter’s sinking on the waves went from a testimony of God’s ability to save us to one of our inability to believe. We take the work of God and make it about us. It is this self-centered thinking that makes a story like Thomas’ doubt into a story about Thomas and not about Jesus.

If we read the story as it was meant to be read, we do not see a story about how a disciple failed to acknowledge Jesus, but a story about how quick Jesus was to accommodate someone who was pursuing him. We see in this story that Jesus came to the disciples when Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas showed up later, and when everyone said, “Jesus was here! He really is risen, he showed us the wounds in his hands, the wound in his side.” Imagine you’re Thomas, having walked miles and miles to meet the disciples and they tell you this. Thomas, never afraid of what other people would think about him says quite reasonably, “You all got to see him! I want to see him too! I’m not about to just believe something like this.”

If Jesus really thought that this was an unreasonable request, then he wouldn’t have come back. He would have done his appearances to Peter and the select others he appeared to before he ascended, and that would have been it. Yet, a week later Jesus walked into the room and showed Thomas exactly what he asked for. Thomas was not being unreasonable in his request; he was just asking for the same thing which the disciples had received.

Jesus does say though, “Blessed are those who have not seen but still believe.” What is important about this statement is that Jesus places it as something which happens, not something which we make happen. He is saying, “It is good if you can believe without evidence, better even!” He does not, in saying that it is better to have this, say that Thomas has bad faith.

If we are honest, most of us have a faith like Thomas’. We did not come into the faith purely because someone told us and we believed them. For many of us, something special happened that made us believe in God, believe that Christ really was raised from the dead. Sometimes that was a grandparent who really knew what it was to love, other times it was someone coming to us in our time of need and doing God’s work with us. Whatever it took for us to have that moment, that realization that made us cry out, “My Lord and my God!” That is the moment that Jesus came back to see us, the moment Jesus held out his hands to show us it really was him.

That is one of God’s infinite shows of grace to us. That when we pray to God for a sign that God is still there and still looking out for us, God is ready to give it to us. It may not be the sign we asked for, but it will be there. For Thomas, he asked to touch Jesus’ hands, but in the moment Jesus appeared he only needed to see it. Jonah wanted God to show in fire to his enemies and shade for himself, but God showed up as mercy for Ninevah and a burning hot day for Jonah. At all times and all places, God is ready to show up and make the presence of Christ in our life known to us.

This is not to diminish the moments we feel God as far away. Thomas had to wait a week, but for many of us, God seems to disappear for months, maybe even years. Mother Theresa was known to say that God only spoke to her a handful of times, most of her life was silence. We must not rush people to see God, because, at the end of the day, it is God who moves toward us – not us toward God. We can make ourselves available, we can hold onto our trust that God is there whether we feel it or not, but it is God who will walk through the door and show us what we need to see.

The duty then becomes, for any among us who feel Christ is working in their life. To be that appearance of God for others. We are told that we are the body of Christ, and if we really believe that then we are given the ability to be the presence of Christ in the lives of those who need it. It is one thing to stand on a high hill, to look at those who are struggling to believe, or are in a time of mourning and shout down to them, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” It is something else entirely to go down into the pit with them. If we who now claim to be Christians are not comfortable with sharing the pain of others, with appearing as Christ did to them and loving them as Christ did – then we are no Christians.

To have a faith like Thomas is to be open and honest about our doubt, about our feelings of absence. It is to acknowledge that faith is not just the summits of joy and celebration, but the solemn worship we offer in the midst of our deepest sorrow. It is also a willingness to approach those in pain, and rather than patronizing them or condescending to them, to offer them a love that says, “I know what it is to doubt. Let me sit with you, let me know if you need anything.” That sort of presence is divine, that sort of presence is what Thomas went on to do.

Thomas went further than any disciple, founding churches in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan and moving South into India. This church exists today, it still continues to praise God, and it owes its existence to a disciple who had doubts, who wasn’t afraid to make them known. It also was born of a God who was willing to answer those doubts, to bridge those gaps. Let us always strive to be honest in our doubts, and radical in our love, making Christ known to the world no matter which of the two we do. – Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Promise of Easter – Easter 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Sermon Text

Christ is risen! The darkness of the past is washed away in the light of Christ’s glory. The fullness of God now dwells with the fullness of man in glorified flesh. Scars stand on his wrists, on his feet, and side – eternal reminders of the pain he was willing to suffer for each one of us. Christ who is seated at the right hand of God, Christ who walked among humanity, Christ who lives within each of us, Christ the Lord is risen today.

This rising was not just a return to life, it was not like Lazarus or Jarius’ daughter or any of the other’s who Christ raised in his life. This is the resurrection and in resurrection, the dead person is brought to life, but they are brought to life as glorified and perfected humanity. Christ left the tomb as the same Christ who had died, but, being raised, the flesh of Jesus was now somehow changed. When the disciples saw him, it did not take them long to recognize him, but there was still something profoundly different.

The promise of the resurrection is that, like Christ, we too shall one day be raised in glory. That we, in joining the body of Christ which is the church, are promised that though we die, we will one day rise in a resurrection like Christ’s. The promise of unity with Christ is the promise of rebirth, of something new and profound within our life. What is interesting, and perhaps terrifying, about this resurrection is that while we are promised to enter into glorified, eternal life – it still requires that we die.

Christ suffered on the cross and after laying in the tomb, he has Risen. This death defeated death once and for all, but it did not remove the reality of death from the present age. Jesus’ time within the tomb, and his subsequent resurrection serve for us as examples of what shall be for us, that after we spend our time in the grave Christ will bring us up out of the pit and as flesh and spirit usher us into the New Kingdom, the New Heaven, the New Earth.

The Early Church was ready for Jesus to rush back to bring them into the glory of God. They anticipated that Jesus would come and raise up the dead and that those who were still living would then be somehow raised up while still alive to join in the glorified body of Christ. Then, slowly but surely, the disciples began to die. Stephen’s martyrdom shook the church, but nothing shook the church like the death of James the brother of John. No one imagined a disciple would die, Jesus had said, after all, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Maybe, then, Jesus really meant, “Some.” There would be suffering, some would die, but the resurrection would save us all. Then, more died. Slowly but surely, more of the twelve died. With each passing the church became more confused about what their new kingdom would look like, it seemed to them that Jesus should have come and saved them before any of this happened. Peter was gone, Thomas was gone, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thaddeus, Andrew, Philip, Simon Zealot, and finally after many years, John died on Patmos. Even Paul, the last called apostle was beheaded in Rome, and in his final days, he wrote the book of Philippians, a meditation on what the kingdom would be without the first generation of believers.

Easter, it turns out, is a complicated season. We live in the tension of the reality of the resurrection, we celebrate that God has risen us to better things and promised us the life eternal, but we also acknowledge death. We look forward at the life to come, at the eternity that begins today, but we are all too aware of the darkness the lurks outside the light of our paschal candles. There is death, there is sickness and decay, and if we let ourselves, that darkness will encroach upon us and consume the Joy of the resurrection. It crouches at the doorstep, and we must overcome it – we must overcome it or descend into despair. We are not people who mourn as those without hope, but what does this hope mean? What is Easter in the shadow of fear?

We live out the crisis of the early Church every day. The promises of the resurrection seem far off two thousand years down the road. We live in such a way that death seems overwhelming sometimes. Just today, worshippers gathering to celebrate the resurrection were killed by bombs in Sri Lanka. Most strikingly, a picture of a statue of Jesus covered in blood has been circulated. The image of the resurrection combines with the reality of death, and we are left throwing our hands up and crying, “Why God! How Long O’ Lord!”

To come to the celebration of Easter and not to acknowledge the baggage we bring to the table is to deny some of the deepest parts of ourselves. We must be willing to unpack the losses we have taken, to share with God whatever comes forward. Do not suffer in silence what God is willing to listen to. The beauty of Easter is that before the resurrection came the tomb, that Christ has full knowledge of what it is to suffer and die. Christ does not tell us that this life will be easy, and honestly being Christian should mean that life becomes more difficult for you, but Christ’s command is one of experience – not of despotism.

The passage we read from Isaiah tells us that one day there will be a new Jerusalem. There will be a place where there is no more sorrow, where everything will grow into its fullness and that all things will be well. This was not told to people who were in a good place in life, they were in exile, foreigners in a foreign land forced there by powers they had no control over. The people suffering under the oppression of Empire, the greed of nations, were being told that one day they would return to their land and live a good life. They or their children would return to something better, one day. What is important though, is that God places this work immediately, “I am about to make things new.” Elsewhere in the same book, we see God add to this declaration, “Even now it is springing up! Do you not perceive it?”

It is not always easy to see the promise of Easter, but we stand as the church and we are the testament to its existence. The Saints who went before us, and those who live among us today, all testify that God is risen and working among us. We see Christ in those who suffer, we see Christ in those who heal, we see Christ in the sunrise, in every blooming flower. Whatever brings the revelation of God into our lives, that is something sacred and holy. Because the reality is that we are a people surrounded by death, we see far more suffering than good. We are the disciples, waking on Sunday and being roused from sleep. We hear the call of the women, “He is not here, but he has risen!” and we rush to the tomb.

We stand among the dead, unsure of what is going on. We know that we stand today in a tomb, but here where there should be the chief victory of death, God dead on a slab, we find a folded piece of cloth. The evidence of the resurrection is right in front of us, the spices that had been mixed with the cloths initially hang heavy in our nose mixing with another, unpleasant smell.

Here we have a choice, to sit in the tomb and mourn, “They have taken my Lord!” Or to join in the chorus of those who have already left, who made their way into the garden full of life and already said their praises of a risen God. We enter into the garden and cry our hallelujahs, we live in the uncertainty of a life forever transformed, a world where death doesn’t have the last word anymore. This is the day, this day, Easter day, that the Lord has made completely new. Do you perceive it? Let us rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. For we now know that entering into death, we are born to new life. Dying to ourselves, we are born to Christ. What was has passed away, the new is here. Praise God. Amen.

Question, Listen, Learn – Palm Sunday 2019

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.

The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.”

Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Sermon Text

A week away from the glory of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus is placed on a colt and a procession leads him into God’s city, into His city. Christ is worshipped as the ruler he is for the first and last time. After three long years of ministry, Jesus is lauded as he deserved. In any other story, in anything but a true story, this would be our end card. The Return of the King after centuries of cruel and unfit kings. This is not just a story, this is the start of Christ’s final week among us.

We are prone to rush through Holy Week, we want to get to Easter as soon as possible – not dwelling on the Passion of Friday, the Betrayal of Maundy Thursday, and definitely not on the silence of Holy Saturday. We want to celebrate the Resurrection, but first, we must face our own sin and in the case of today, celebrate what has yet to come.

We celebrate as those who know what followed Palm Sunday, we celebrate as people who know that God will return to us one day. We do, however, risk celebrating Christ’s arrival into the city in the same way that the disciples had before. We risk celebrating the entrance of God into our world as the entrance of a God we have made in our own image. When we see Christ coming to us, do we see him as establishing a kingdom for the reign of God, or our own reign?

This Lent we have spent time together talking about what we must give up in service to God. We must give up our self-made Messiahs, we must give up our privilege, we must give up our greed. We also saw in the Magnificat what we must take on – we must advocate for the poor, we must oppose the proud, and we must ultimately side with God even when it hurts us to do so. Hopefully, each of us has benefitted from our Lenten studies and practices.

As we enter into Holy Week, and as we look at the Triumphal Entry, we have to ask ourselves whether Lent has done its duty. Have we shed our attachments such that we can see God more clearly, given time and space for God to work within our lives and really change us? The beauty of this season is that it, more than any other time of the church year, calls us to be thoughtful, calls us to reflect, calls us above all to repent.

For those who were gathered along the road that day nearly two millennia ago, God was coming as a conquering king. Their waving of Palm Fronds is reflected in 1 Maccabees, wherein Simon Maccabeus retakes Jerusalem during a war and is greeted with hymns and a large processional. The crowd that greeted him was huge, and they were celebrating a King that had cast off an imperial oppressor and given them freedom once more.

The disciples who greeted Jesus did so with an expectation. “You’ve come here to free us from Rome, and you are going to crush them into dust.” Why would they think anything else? No matter how you pictured a Messiah in the first century – as a righteous king, a righteous priest, or as a divine Judge – the end result was always that those who had done you harm were going to get what they had coming to them. When they laid out those palm fronds, they did so because they expected that Jesus – whether he became their priest, their king, or their avenging angel, was going to Maker Jerusalem what they believed it once had been.

Imagine then how uncomfortable this procession must have seemed upon reflection. When they sat down for their meals that night and they did not hear the sounds of battle. When they laid down to sleep and there was no new Jerusalem inaugurated in Roman blood. Then they probably began to wonder about what the procession had really meant. “Why was he on a donkey? Where was his army? He just had a few dirty peasants… Wasn’t one of them wearing Roman clothes? I think some of them might have even been a Zealot!”

Doubt seeped into them and they were faced with a choice – change what they knew about God, or abandon their belief that Jesus really was acting on behalf of God. It’s a decision that we still face today. When something happens in our life and God does not respond the way we expect, it shakes us to the core for good reason. God is the root and essence of our life – from beginning to end God defines how we live. When God acts in a way counter to what we know about God, it leads us to a place where we must restructure our life or else completely abandon what we thought to be true.

For us, it is usually after some kind of trauma that we are forced to redefine God. When someone we love dies or we get a diagnosis that casts doubt on our future. Or perhaps it’s not so dire, and we are passed over for a promotion we had been earnestly praying for, or something else that we saw as a blessing from God is taken away from us. In these moments we come before God and we ask why? Why did you not do what I thought you would? This is never a bad question to ask, the only thing we can do wrong in these moments is not to listen.

When we ask God to redefine Godself for us, we need to be ready for whatever answer comes our way. For those who gathered outside Jerusalem the answer to what God is like would come a few days later on Calvary. God was not there to kill the Romans and institute a kingdom on Earth but to die under the Romans and establish a rule that would transcend both Heaven and Earth. They would be faced with the crucifixion, and really with the resurrection, and would have to make a choice if the real God was one they were willing to follow.

Was a God who suffered with us as important as a conquering God? Was a God who asked you to die like they did worth worshipping? Sometimes the response we immediately have is to say that we were right all along, that this experience was a test and that the God we imagined will still ride into town one day. If we do this, then we miss the Christ that rode by on a Colt. Likewise, we can say that because God is not what we expected, we cannot serve them, maybe even more – they never existed. A God that is not what I imagined is not worth pursuing.

The third option is to doubt and to be troubled but to continue on in faith. We criticize the disciples for duplicity, but they still returned to serve their resurrected Lord. They were the ones waving Palm fronds and celebrating a conquering King, and in the darkness of Friday, they would indeed abandon their God. They still were willing to hear the clarion call of the Resurrection, they took the steps toward God and accepted the revelation God gave them. “I’m not the God you greeted on the entrance to Jerusalem, I never was. I still am God though, and I am still with you.”

The celebration of Palm Sunday would leave the disciples questioning who God was. A thousand thousand things today do the same for us. What we must always do is listen to the answer we are given after we pose our questions. The results may surprise us, they may make us uncomfortable, but no matter what – they allow us to see what God really is like. It is an ongoing revelation, and only when Christ truly returns in glory can we truly behold God as God truly is.

Then we will raise up our palm fronds, we will welcome a King who has set things right not by killing, but by dying. A King who will rule justly over all people, and who will bless us with knowledge of their true self forever and ever. Amen.

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