Monday, March 12, 2018

March 11, 2018 What Faith Can See: Grace

This morning we continue the series of messages that will take us through the month of March and into Easter.  The title of the series is What Faith Can See.  In this series I am speaking about passages in the gospels that demonstrate how difficult it was for the disciples and others to understand the words and actions of Jesus, and how difficult it can be for us as well. 

Today we come to a well-known passage from the gospel of Luke.  In a recent article in the Cup, I wrote about this passage, and at the time thought it should be developed into a sermon.  If you read the Cup article, you can consider that an introduction to Sunday’s message.

Follow along with me as we read the passage.

Luke 18:18-27 –

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!
25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

First of all, how many of you have been troubled by this story, and its implications about money and wealth?  Have you wondered how much of your wealth and possessions to give away?  How many have wondered if this passage teaches that having money makes it impossible to gain salvation?  Or maybe you decided you don’t have to worry because you aren’t wealthy.  Considering the fact that the majority of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, we are the wealthy.  Generally speaking, we tend to have a more narrow vision about many issues, seeing them only in relation to our own nation, when we should be thinking on a global scale, certainly in relation to resources.  In recent years, we have heard much discussion about the “1%,” that is, those who populate the very top echelon of the economic scale.  You will most likely be surprised then to discover that, on a global scale, you might be a member of the 1%.  If your annual income is $50,000 a year, you are a member of the 1%.  If you earn $50,000 a year you are in the top .31% of wage earners in the world and rank 18,652,583 worldwide.  If you earn $75,000 a year you are in the top .11% and are ranked 6,645,709.  If you earn $100,000 a year you are in the top .08% and rank 5,067,405 (

Secondly, you might have heard a well-known explanation about the meaning of the words of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (verse 25).  There is a well-known interpretation for that verse that is wrong.  Absolutely wrong.  I understand that sounds like a bold statement, but this passage is about one topic more than anything else, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes.  The common interpretation for that verse is this – there was a gate in the wall around the city of Jerusalem that was shaped like the eye of a needle.  A camel, or other beast of burden, that was fully loaded with goods could not pass through that gate until it had been relieved of its burden.  In a similar way, we must divest ourselves of our dependency on wealth and riches in order to gain entrance to the kingdom of God.  Have you heard this explanation? 

If you have, put it out of your mind.  Forget that interpretation.  For one thing, there is no evidence such a gate ever existed in the wall around Jerusalem. Even if there was such a gate, why would anyone go to the trouble of unloading their animal, sending it through the gate, carry their goods through the gate, and then loading them back on the animal when there were many other gates in the city that were very large and through which they could enter with no difficulty?  It’s an interpretation that, for practical reasons, doesn’t make any sense (and it also misses the point theologically).  And though Jesus had plenty to say about money, wealth, possessions – and their attendant dangers – that is not the primary meaning of this passage. 

Here is the meaning of this passage – in this passage Jesus is teaching about God’s grace, and the very important truth that God’s grace is freely given to us.  That’s it.  A very simple, concise, and important point that Jesus made.

Let’s back up to the beginning of the passage and walk through it.  First, I would say that the man who comes to Jesus is the kind of person any church would love to have walk through their doors.  He was a good person, he desired to be an even better person, and he had a lot of resources.  He comes to Jesus, very genuinely seeking, I believe, an answer to a very important question – he wants to know how he might gain eternal life.  Jesus answers his question by affirming the man’s knowledge of, and adherence to the commandments.  In reply, the man says he has kept those commandments since he was a boy.  The man has, obviously, been a good, righteous, and conscientious person.  He’s the kind of person who deserved praise for his good life, but Jesus tells the man he is lacking one thing.  Now, wouldn’t you think that is really good news?  Imagine, Jesus tells you that you are doing so well there is only one thing you are lacking in life.  That’s an excellent commentary on this man’s life – he’s only deficient in one area!  But what a big deficiency it is, because Jesus then drops a bomb on him when he says, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.  This was a man who was wealthy, and Jesus challenged him to give it all away!  Sell his real estate holdings, cash in his stocks and bonds, liquidate his retirement accounts, sell his coin collection, gather up all his loose change from under the cushions of his couch (and then sell the couch) – everything.  He is to make himself destitute.

Does this strike you as unfair?  It always seemed somewhat unfair to me, because it’s not something Jesus asked of other people.  Other wealthy people came to Jesus, but he didn’t ask them to sell all they had and give away the proceeds.  Because this was a good and sincere man, we sense some unfairness in what Jesus asks, so we invent qualities about the man to take the edge off the perceived unfairness.  We say things such as, well, he must have been very selfish and Jesus recognized this.  He must have worshipped his money more than he was worshipping God so Jesus wanted to remove that barrier from his life.  Jesus was testing him to see how much he really loved God.  If the test of loving God is selling all we have then I suspect we are all in danger of failing that test.

The deficiency in this man wasn’t his wealth or his attitude about it; his real deficiency was in his theology and we see that deficiency in the question he asks – what must I do to inherit eternal life?  The man’s emphasis was on do, as though it was necessary for him to earn his salvation, when the reality was, he didn’t have to do anything.  To ask what one must do is to imply there is something we must do to earn the gift of God’s grace, and we do not have to earn God’s grace; it is a free gift that God gives to us.

Jesus wasn’t being unfair to the man and he wasn’t targeting him because he was rich. Jesus seized on this moment as an opportunity to teach an important lesson, and Jesus is not just targeting this man with the lesson; he is really targeting his disciples and everyone else who was listening.  It’s a lesson of such critical importance that Jesus makes his point in a very dramatic way.  Jesus was simply laying out for the man what is required if one wants to try and earn their salvation. 

What Jesus was saying is this – if that is how you want to approach salvation, by what you do, then here is what it you have to do.  What have you done? Ok, you have kept all the commandments; that’s great, and is a good start, but if you want to go the route of working and earning your salvation, you’ve got to do better than that.  In fact, if you want to earn your salvation you must achieve perfection so let me lay it out for you.  You’re doing well, but you can do better, so sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor.

Because we are Americans – who live in a culture that teaches us that we have to earn our way in life, that there is no free lunch, and everyone has to work for what they get in life – we might not be all that different from this man in the way that we think.  As much as we talk about God’s free gift of grace, I think it’s hard for us to escape the idea that we have to do something to earn and to deserve our salvation, in spite of the fact that Jesus is teaching in this story about the reality that God’s grace is freely given to us.  That God’s grace is a free gift is very difficult for us to truly comprehend, and as much as we talk about grace and as much as we speak of grace being a free gift, deep down we often believe we must do something to earn God’s grace.  Here is the truth, however – there is nothing we need to do in order to earn God’s grace.  Nothing.  In fact, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace, which is the point Jesus is making to everyone in and through this story.

Writing in Romans 4:4, Paul says that when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  In other words, if we trust in our own good works to earn us salvation, whatever good we do is only what we should have done in the first place.  When we try to earn salvation, the standard is perfection, and when the standard is perfection, it is impossible to ever get far enough ahead on any scale of righteousness in order to earn salvation.  And yet many people will continue to believe they must do some measure of good works in order to earn their salvation.  If you don’t believe you think that way, you probably exhibit it in at least one place – a funeral home.  In fact, I have coined a phrase for what is often expressed in funeral homes – funeral home theology.  I’m sure you have heard this – or perhaps, even said it – when you have paid a visit to a funeral home.  At some point, during visitation, someone will invariably say about Uncle Joe or Aunt Jane, I know where they are right now.  They are in heaven, and I know why they are in heaven – because they were such a good person.  As kind as that instinct is – and as important as it is to affirm the goodness of someone’s life – that is not at all accurate theology.  No one is granted the gift of eternity because of their goodness; this is a gift that comes because of God’s goodness and grace.

The reason Jesus tells the man he must sell all he owns is to drive home the point of free grace to his disciples.  When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God notice the reaction he receives – who then can be saved?  They had been told all their lives that if you are wealthy it is a sign of God’s blessing and if you are that blessed you have also been given the gift of salvation.  So to be told that a rich person couldn’t enter the kingdom of God was mind-blowing to them.  Wealth and salvation went together.  The statement of Jesus went against everything they had been taught.  If a rich person couldn’t be saved, who could?  Everyone listening to Jesus that day had the same thought – if this guy can’t make it to heaven what hope do any of the rest of us have  And that’s exactly what Jesus wanted them to think.  He wanted them to think of it as an impossibility; he wanted them to think there was nothing they could do.  His answer was what is impossible with men is possible with God.  Jesus is saying it is impossible for people to earn God’s grace and salvation.  How do you earn what’s freely offered?  Salvation lies solely in the hands of God; it is not up to us to earn it through any amount of good works.  Salvation is freely given.      
The truth about salvation is this – you don’t have to do anything.  Doing something implies that it is in our power to earn the gift of salvation.  Can I do enough good works?  Is there a threshold of righteousness that I can achieve by being nice to people?  Can I serve on enough church committees?  Can I attend enough church services?  Can I feed enough hungry people?  Can I give away enough money?  Can I help enough people across the street and be nice to enough kittens and puppies?  We often think of salvation as having some kind of a graded scale and at some point we are good enough that we cross that threshold and earn our entrance to God’s kingdom, but Jesus flatly rejects that kind of thinking in this passage.  The point he is making is not about selling everything you have; it’s about the truth that salvation is the free gift of God that is given to us without any need to earn it.

Have you ever known someone who has spent years trying to earn the love of another person?  Over the years of my ministry, as I have listened to many people tell their stories, and one of the most common themes I hear is the sense that they are not loved by someone who is very important to them.  It might be a child, perhaps, who doesn’t feel loved or accepted by a parent.  A husband or wife who doesn’t feel loved by their spouse.  A friend who does not feel loved by a friend.  It’s a sad thing to see, isn’t it?  A person feel unloved and they work and work and work, all in the hope they will be accepted and loved by that other person.

That is not how God works!  We don’t have to earn his love; it is already ours; he has already given his love to us.  God is not watching us and saying oh man, Dave was almost there.  He only needed one more good deed this week. He was doing great until he found Bill’s debit card and used it to buy a bunch of stuff at Guitar Center.  And he could have left a better tip at lunch the other day, and he could have responded nicer to the driver who cut him off at that intersection.  He was this close to earning my love and grace this week.

This passage teaches us something else as well.  This passage pokes a lot of holes in the belief that some people can look down upon others because they are so “good” and the others are so “bad.”  This passage reminds us we are all in the same condition, regardless of our moral achievements.  I may conduct my life on a higher moral plane than others, but it doesn’t mean anything in terms of salvation or in terms of God’s love.  Being a moral person may make us a good citizen and a more productive member of society but it doesn’t earn us salvation.  That’s not to say that being moral isn’t good; I think we ought to be moral people, but we must realize salvation does not come from our personal morality but from God’s grace.  The tendency among religious people is that too often the goal becomes about being better than someone else, which is erroneous.  Again, I am not saying we don’t have to worry about being moral people; I’m saying the point of morality is not to make us feel better than others.  This was the mistake of so many of the scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders at the time of Jesus.  Their emphasis on morality led to an insufferable pride because they believed themselves to be so much better than everyone else, and because they believed they were so much better than everyone else, they believed God loved them more than everyone else.

It’s sad to think that our world conditions people to react with such suspicion about a free gift.  The grace of God is free.  We do not have to earn it and we do not have to be good enough in the eyes of anyone else to receive it.  May we receive that grace with gratitude and share it with others!

Monday, March 05, 2018

March 3, 2018 What Faith Can See: Beyond the Limits of Our Vision

Last August I attended the Men’s Health Fair at Jewish Hospital, as I do every year.  One of the stations I visit at the Health Fair provides eye exams.  After I read the eye chart I was surprised to learn that I have 20/20 vision, which means my eyesight has actually improved in the past few years.  After being told I had 20/20 vision I held up my reading glasses and asked, then why do I need these? 

In reality, our vision is affected by a number of factors.  For me, lighting is very important.  If I have the benefit of good lighting, I don’t need to put on my reading glasses.  Sometimes, however, such as when Tanya and I go out to eat at a nice restaurant, I have difficulty reading the menu.  In nicer eating establishments the lighting is often dim and the menus reflect what little light there is.  Our evening out together is not helped when I take out my phone, turn on the flashlight app, and hold it over the menu so that I can read it.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we don’t often go out to eat at nice restaurants.  Just as my physical vision is affected by a number of factors, so is my spiritual vision.  I might, on some days, have great insight and understanding, while on other days I can be remarkably dense and lacking in perception.

This morning we begin a new series of messages that will take us through the month of March and into Easter.  The title of the series is What Faith Can See.  In this series I will speak about passages in the gospels that demonstrate how difficult it was for the disciples and others to understand the words and actions of Jesus.  At times, such as in the first portion of the passage we study today, the disciples could show a great level of insight and in the very next moment, not so much.

Lest we be too hard on the disciples, and the earliest followers of Jesus, we don’t always do that well ourselves when it comes to understanding what Jesus taught, and we have the benefit of 2,000 years of insight and understanding to help us.  All of us are limited in our understanding because we are conditioned by so many factors, such as our historical time period, by the society in which we live, by our beliefs, by our fears, and any number of other factors.  Despite the fact that we live in a time that is so much more technologically and scientifically advanced, it is not necessarily any easier for us to understand Jesus now than it was for the disciples.  As Jesus was constantly working to open the eyes of his disciples, he seeks to do the same for us as well. 

In our Scripture text for this morning we come to the well-known story of Jesus taking his disciples to the area of Caesarea Philippi, where he asked them, who do people say that I am?  After listening to their responses, Jesus then asked, but what about you?  Who do you say that I am?  Peter gave a response that showed a great deal of understanding, as he said, you are the Christ.  Peter was correct, but only a few moments later he demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about what it meant that Jesus was the Christ.  Jesus, after telling the disciples about his death, was taken aside by Peter, who began to rebuke him.  Though Peter had a great flash of insight to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, he did not understand what Messiahship meant.

Follow along with me as I read Mark 8:27-37 –

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

So how does our faith help us to see beyond the limits of our vision?  In this passage, there are two important ways –

1.  Jesus Wants to Define Who He Is.

One of the fascinating elements in this story is the abrupt change of course that Jesus makes.  Up to this point he is doing things that excited not only the disciples but many other people as well.  He performed many miracles of healing – those who were blind, those who were lame, those who were ill, and many more.  He fed the multitude with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish.  He poked at the religious and political leaders, and enthralled the crowds by doing so.  Up to this point Jesus did things that lived up to the hopes of who the messiah would be.  How could a person not get excited about the miracles, the great teaching, the challenging of so many in authority?  That’s great stuff, isn’t it?  No wonder Jesus had such large numbers of people following him.

And then it comes to this point, and everything changes.  After Peter recognized Jesus as the messiah, Jesus begins talking about the cross, and not just his cross, but the cross his followers would have to bear as well.  To Peter, it was crazy talk!  No wonder Peter was confused.  No wonder Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him!  Imagine rebuking Jesus!  But Peter did.  In Peter’s mind, the kind of talk that Jesus offered simply wasn’t good marketing.  How do you draw a crowd with talk of crosses and death?

So what was Peter missing?  It was, I believe, this – as long as Jesus was doing the things that Peter liked, he was totally with Jesus.  As long as he was performing miracles, as long as he was healing people, as long as he was feeding the multitudes, and as long as he was poking at the authorities, Peter was all in with Jesus.  That was the kind of messiah he could get behind.  When Jesus began to speak about things that were not in Peter’s definition of who the messiah would be, however, Peter not only resisted, he moved to the opposite side!  That’s why Jesus said get behind me Satan.  It wasn’t just a simple misunderstanding on the part of Peter; he had moved over to the side of the opposition, because he tried to talk Jesus out of his mission.  It’s easy to criticize Peter, but what about us?  Whether anyone admits it or not, we also want to define Jesus, don’t we?  Don’t we also like the Jesus of miracles and healing, but hesitate when it comes to the Jesus who asks us to take up our cross? 

Three weeks from today, on Palm Sunday, we are presenting a play about this very idea.  Titled Jesus Was, Jesus Is, the play examines the way in which the Biblical characters saw Jesus in different ways and also their inability to agree on who he was (and by the way, I get to play the part of Paul in that play, and I need to say two things – first, I’m not an actor, and second, remember that some of the things I say are the words of the author of the play and their interpretation of Paul.  You’ll know what I mean when you see the play).

It’s easy to define Jesus as the messiah who will always keep trouble and difficulty at a distance, but that’s not the kind of messiah he is.  It’s easy to wish Jesus would always be the messiah that feeds that multitudes, that heals the blind and the infirmed, that raises the dead; but that’s not always the his way.  He’ll give us strength and walk with us, but he will not always spare us from illness and difficulty and suffering and loss.  We want Jesus to be a messiah who will give us an easy, cushy life, with a constant stream of abundance and prosperity, but that’s not the kind of messiah he is.  We certainly don’t like the idea of a messiah who not only takes up a cross and we really don’t like the idea of a messiah who asks us to take up a cross as well. 

Jesus is going to do the defining about who he is, not us.

2.  Jesus Wants to Define People.

Jesus was very intentional, I believe, about taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi was a center of many religions; it was a buffet of religious beliefs and cultural practices.  In Caesarea Philippi one would find many temples dedicated to the worship of the Greek and Roman gods and it also had a temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperor.  It was the kind of place that was very far outside the comfort zone of the disciples.  In that region, people believed differently.  They talked differently.   They looked different.  They dressed different.  They acted different.

By taking his disciples to this area Jesus was being very deliberate about exposing them to the wide range of differences in people.  Differences are tough, aren’t they?  We are frightened of differences.  We like to be with people who are like us; people who look like us, talk like us, and believe like us.  It’s often said that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, and I guess there is some truth to this.  It’s not because we don’t like one another; we’re just more comfortable being with people who are like us.  As a congregation we have a little bit of diversity.  We’re probably more diverse than a lot of churches, but we could use some more.  To achieve this, we have to think and act consciously about diversity, because it doesn’t happen to us naturally.

Being with those who are similar to us has always been a characteristic about people, even God’s people.  In the early church, there was actually a large gathering to discuss the differences in people.  Acts chapter 15 tells us about the Council at Jerusalem, which I hope you will take some time to read this week.  The Council at Jerusalem was a gathering called by the leaders of the church to discuss what to do about all the Gentiles who were coming into the church.  They were from cities and towns that did not have Hebrew names.  They were people with different kinds of names.  They spoke in different languages.  They ate different foods.  They believed differently.  They thought differently.  Their cultures were different.  All of this made many of those in the church very uneasy, even some of the leaders.  Peter, for instance, had difficulty accepting the Gentiles.  Acts 10:9-48 tells about the vision Peter has about the animals and his being commanded to kill and eat of the animals.  The vision is an analogy to the Gentiles, and Peter’s resistance of them, and God telling Peter to accept them.  The verses after the vision tell the story of Peter’s coming to terms with accepting the Gentiles, but it was not an easy matter for him and it did not happen all at once.  Peter and Paul had a conflict over this issue, with Paul even writing in Galatians 2:11 that when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.  Paul noted that Peter would sometimes change his attitude depending upon whom he was with.  If Peter was with people who were Jewish, he was less open to the Gentiles; when he was with the Gentiles, he was more open to them (Galatians 2:12-14 – 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

The Council of Jerusalem was a very momentous gathering in the life of the early church, because the leaders of the church were considering whether or not they would require certain things of the people coming into the church.  Would they be required to abstain from certain foods?  Would they be required to follow certain religious days?  Would they be required to believe certain things?  Looking back at this gathering, it is hard to imagine that they would even consider imposing so many things upon people who were new to the church, but again, is it any different today?  Just as the early church struggled to adapt to people of different cultures and thus wanted those people to adopt the church’s culture, we sometimes do the same today.  If you haven’t noticed, every church has its own culture and often does not recognize that they expect conformity to that culture from people who come into the congregation. 

I believe that in taking his disciples to an area that was filled with such a diversity of people Jesus was making a very powerful point, and that was that we must not allow our differences to prevent us from welcoming and loving people.  Our differences often keep us apart, but we should never be afraid of those differences and we must not allow those differences to keep us from welcoming and loving people in the name of Jesus.  We love people because Jesus did.  Jesus loved without limits and without constraints.  Jesus had no qualifications attached to his love.  There was no list of regulations to which people had to conform.

Reading through the gospels we find that it is on this point – his love and acceptance of all people – that Jesus received the greatest amount of criticism.  The religious leaders did not appreciate Jesus’ open embrace of people.  He was criticized for associating with “sinners” and had no hesitation in gathering with and loving the outcasts (Luke 15:1-2).  He had no qualms about accepting and loving the woman taken in adultery (John 8:2-11), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-27), and Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector (Luke 19:1-10).  He did not shy away from those with leprosy, as would have been accepted at the time (Luke 17:11-14).  It is easy for us to feel uneasy about embracing and loving those who are different from us, and those whom society deems as unacceptable, but to walk in the way of Jesus means we must love as he did. 

Without realizing it, we often like or affirm people based on whether or not they affirm and agree with us.  Psychologists call this confirmation bias, and it is very much a part of our current cultural climate.  We turn to news outlets that affirm what we already think and believe.  We read books and articles that reflect our point of view.  We associate with those who look like us, talk like us, think like us, and believe like us.  How often do we consciously and deliberately put ourselves in places and situations where we are with people who are different?

This is what Jesus did when he took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi.  He took them somewhere out of their comfort zone.  He took them somewhere where people were different.  He took them somewhere that would make them uncomfortable.  And he did so to make the point that they were not to define people according to their differences, but in the way that Jesus defined them, and that was as people who were valued, accepted, and loved by him.

Years ago, when I was much younger, I had a job that placed me in a setting that I did not like.  It was different from much of my life experience, and some of the people that were my coworkers were very different from me.  In my first weeks on the job I hoped that I could find another place of employment, but gradually I came to understand that God had placed me there, and by placing me there I had an important lesson to learn.  I came to love the people that I worked with, and when I left there to return to seminary, I was sad to leave my coworkers, because I knew it was unlikely that I would ever see any of them again.  I have thought of my former coworkers many times over the years, and when I think of them I thank God for placing me in that job, a job that taught me a great deal about people.  I needed to learn how to love people who were different from me, and in the thirteen months that I worked there I learned a great deal about how to have that kind of love.

Faith can help us to see beyond the limits of our vision.  Faith can help us to see Jesus for who he really is and it can help us to see people in the way that Jesus sees them.  This is the kind of vision we need.  May we learn to see beyond the limits of our vision!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

February 25, 2018 - The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Persecuted

Today, someone, somewhere in the world, will lose their life.  It will not be as a result of hunger or disease.  It won’t be a result of their age or infirmity.  The loss of life will result from religious persecution.  

This morning we complete our series of messages on the Beatitudes, as we talk about persecution.  The final beatitude is, perhaps, the most difficult of all, and it is also the longest – three verses, while the others are one verse each – and four times as long in number of words compared to the next longest.  It is the longest, I assume, because it is the most difficult.  It is easy to like a beatitude that promises us comfort, or mercy, but one that tells us we are blessed when persecuted or insulted is much, much tougher.

For the final time in this series, let’s read the Beatitudes.  I hope that, as we have read through them each week, they have become more etched into our hearts and minds.

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

1.  The Reality of Persecution.

Let’s talk first about what persecution is not.  Persecution is not disagreement or ridicule.  In our hyper-partisan, contentious society, as we have lost much of the ability to talk to one another, some people believe that simply to be in disagreement is equal to persecution.  It is not. 

Ridicule, although unpleasant and unfortunate, is also not persecution.  Members of the early church sometimes faced ridicule, an example of which is found in Acts chapter 2:13.  In chapter 2, Luke writes about the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the church.  Many of the people who were in the crowd that day recognized the divine power of the moment, but not everyone.  Verse 13 says, but some people in the crowd made fun of the believers.  “They’ve had too much wine!” they said.  While unpleasant, and perhaps, at times, bigoted, ridicule is not persecution.  I do not enjoy ridicule and I believe we should always work to discourage it, and I do not want to add my voice to any form of ridicule, because doing so creates an environment in which the seeds of persecution can be planted.

So what is persecution?  Persecution is the denial of a right or rights that are enjoyed by others.  It is the targeting of an individual or a group because of their race, their religion, or some other facet of life, particularly one that sets them apart from the majority. 

According to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, one-third of the world’s popluation (2.2 billion people) live in areas of the world where religious persecution increased between 2006 and 2009. (you can find the report at this link –  And some estimates, indicated in other research, put that number as high as 2/3.  Note that this is not the total number of people who live under religious persecution, but the number who live where it has increased.  Clearly, much of the world’s population live where being a person of faith is made difficult because of persecution. 

While not all countries are experiencing this rise in religious persecution, it is becoming a daily fact of life for people of faith in the most populous countries, with two of the biggest offenders being China and India.  China has been vigorous about cracking down on the house church movement, as the government fears the move toward freedom and independence that are natural outgrowths of the message of the Gospel.  China, which is officially atheistic in its governance, only allows worship to take place in state-approved churches, which probably number somewhere in the amount of 20 million people.  In the state-approved churches there are often government representatives present in the worship service, listening to what is said and monitoring that activities that take place.  In contrats to the state-approved churches, it is estimated that 60 million people – and possibly millions more – worship in the house churches, which operate without government approval and whose leaders are often subject to harrassment and arrest.  The house church movement is booming in China, so much so that in not many years China will have more Christians than any other country one earth, and this in an environment of persecution.  Though we don’t hear about it often, Chinese authorities have, in the past few years, destroyed many churches, often coming in the middle of the night with equipment to tear down the buildings. 

The Middle East, obviously, is one of the most dangerous places in the world for those who are Christian, or members of other minority religions.  ISIS, certainly, has become one of the primary threats throughout the region, but it is often government authorities who aid in religious persecution. When ISIS fighters began to move through Iraq and Syria several years ago, they began a violent purge of Christians from communities that had a Christian presence for many centuries.  In some cases, ISIS gave Christians a matter of hours to flee their homes or face death.  If they fled, they could only take with them a few items, leaving behind their homes and most of their belongings.  The Middle East is the birthplace of our faith, but persecution there has caused many believers to flee from that part of the world.  Some, however, persevere under very difficult circumstances.  I recently saw a picture of a congregation in Syria that had returned to their building to have the first worship service in several years.  The church building was heavily damaged and was in need of significant repair, but the congregation was joyous to be back in their spiritual home.

2.  The Gospel Challenges Power.

Several years ago I read a fascinating article about some research that connected Christian missionary work and the rise of democracy around the world.  The researchers discovered that where missionary work had taken place there was a corresponding rise in the spread of – or desire for – democracy.  This should not come as a surprise.  The gospel asserts that all people are created as free individuals, are meant to live in freedom, and are endowed with a God-given right to worship – or not worship – as their conscience dictates.  Democracy and freedom are what happens when people hear the message that God has created all people as equals and that he desires that they live in freedom.  Paul writes in Galations 5:1 that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, and freedom is a central tenant to the gospel.

We were not created to live under oppression, or to be pawns of political bullies and tyrants.  The early church faced much persecution because this message of equality and freedom made Rome uneasy.  The Roman Empire was not interested in sharing power with anyonee, and they were not about to allow freedom and democracy to threaten their grip on power.  

Jesus was a challenge to a lot of people in power.  He was a challenge to the Romans and to the religious leaders of his own people.  When Jesus was asked whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not his response was not as neat and easy as we generally think (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26).  When Jesus said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God he was presenting us with the reality that both Caesar and God claim ownership over all; there is no power sharing.  For the followers of Jesus, calling him Lord was a capital offense.  That was a title reserved only for the emperor.  To use other titles, such as Son of God and Prince of Peace, were also capital offenses.  Though we don’t often pick up on the political nature of the life and teaching of Jesus, much of what he said and did was a direct confrontation of the power of Rome, and Rome did not abide any competitors.

3.  Faith,Hope, and Love Wins.

The Christian faith was born under persecution.  The theme of persecution is alluded to in many of the writings of the New Testament.  Paul’s letter of Philippians, which was written while he was in prison, awaiting execution at the hands of the Roman Empire, is an amazing document of someone who was facing martyrdom.  In spite of his circumstances, the letter is often referred to as the book of joy.  How could anyone be so joyful in such difficult circumstances?  Paul was able to maintain his joy because he knew that, ultimately, he was in God’s hands regardless of his circumstances and regardless of what happened to him.  The book of Acts tells us the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:8-15), and of how, on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.  But Saul began to destroy the church.  Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).
Peter was no stranger to persecution.  The book of Acts tells us that he was taken before the Sanhedrin for trial (4:1-22), that he was imprisoned (5:17-20), beaten (5:40), and imprisoned again (12:1-19).  In his first letter he writes that in this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine (I Peter1:6-7).  Peter is saying that even in persecution there is some kind of benefit that can be found.  Who among us has not said, I wish I didn’t have to experience that difficulty, but, through that difficulty I learned…?  It is the triumph of faith that can find something good, and even beautiful, even in the midst of suffering and persecution.

This is a lesson that persecutors do not learn – you cannot overcome the power of faith, hope, and love.  These great qualities of faith, hope, and love – the triumverate of Christian values – hold within them the greatest power on earth, and no amount of persecution can ever overcome them.  This is what led the great church father Tertullian to proclaim that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  As much as the persecutors of the church tried to defeat it, they could not do so.  No power held by an earthly kingdom can defeat the power of faith, hope, and love. 

When Tanya and I were in St. Peter’s Square several years ago it was interesting to note the presence of an ancient Egyptian obelisk in that square.  What in the world is that object doing in that location?  That obelisk is one of a number located throughout the city of Rome.  They were brought there by Roman emporers as a way to demonstrate their political might.  To take such an object from another kingdom, another military power, was a way to show Rome’s superior military and political might.

Interestingly, that obelisk was probably one of the last things Peter saw as he was crucified.  And look at what occupies that vast territory now.  The city that was once a symbol of the might and power of Rome has now become one of the centers of the Christian faith.  Not far from that location, at the Colloseum, a cross now stand in the place where the emperor’s seat was located.  It would have been inconceivable, two thousand years ago, for anyone to imagine that a new religion, heavily persecuted by Rome, would not only survive, but thrive.  The vast Roman Empire, which dominated the world, is long gone, but the Christian faith persist.

4.  Our blessing of freedom.

As we gather for worship this morning, and as millions more gather for worship across our country, we must remember that we are historic anomolies.  For most of the history of our faith, people did not enjoy the freedom we enjoy to worship according to the dictates of our conscience.  In fact, for a number of centuries, in some countries, people could not even choose their own religion.  The Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio (the religion of the king is the religion of the people) was the rule for much of Europe for centuries.

For us, we are blessed because –

Not one prevented us from attending worship today, and no one compelled us to be here (sorry, kids, your parents don’t count.  My siblings and I were expected to attend church with our parents; it wasn’t a choice and there were time I did not want to go, but I am grateful that they insisted).
No one will tell us how, or how not, to worship.
No one will tell me what to preach or not to preach.
No government regulators attend our worship.
No one will tell our congregation what we can and cannot do.
We need no government approval for what we do.
No one will threaten us for being here.

As Americans, we enjoy the gift of religious freedom, a bedrock principle of our society, but we cannot forget our brothers and sisters who do not enjoy the luxury of living their faith without the fear of persecution.

Perhaps we cannot fully appreciate what we have always had, but we must always advocate for the freedom of others, especially the most basic right of all humanity – the right to religious freedom.

5.  We are called to the kingdom of God, which is an alternative vision of how to live.

Jesus spoke often about the kingdom of God, and it is very clear from what he had to say that the kingdom of God is very different from the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God often provoked a sharp reaction, because kingdoms of this world do not like competition.  In the time of Jesus it was certainly clear that the Roman Empire did not want competition from any other kingdom.

The kindom of God is one that supercedes all manmade boundaries.  Humanity is so caught up in tribalism, nationalism, and other ways of thinking that draw lines between people.  The kingdom of God does not draw boundaries; it erases them.  Even in our faith we sometimes draw boundaries.  I am often puzzled at the religious language of “turning America back to God.”  I can’t imagine Jesus having a “turn Israel back to God” rally.  It would please me very much to see our nation embrace faith in a greater way, but it is important that we remember that the kingdom of God is not limited to our nation alone.  The goal of the kingdom of God, and thus are goal, is not to improve our society alone.  The goal of the kingdom of God is to bring all people to the love of God.  In this way, the kingdom of God is a radically alternative vision of life that goes far beyond any nationalism or other limiting view of life and humanity. 

When Tanya and I were preparing to travel to Europe several years ago, we talked about the countries and cities we wanted to visit.  Once we chose our destinations, we needed to decide what we would visit in those locations.  I only had two requests.  In London I wanted to walk across Abbey Road and have my picture taken, matching the cover of the Beatles album of that name.  Tanya took the picture of me walking across the road and I had it enlarged to a poster size.  I hung the poster in our basement, just below the Beatles Abbey Road poster.  My poster is in the basement because, evidently, a big picture of me walking across Abbey Road does not qualify as “living room art.”  The second place I wanted to visit was very much a spiritual pilgrimage to the catacombs in Rome.  Tanya and I traveled just outside of the city of Rome and entered one of the catacombs with a tour group.  The early Christians often met for worship in the catacombs because that is a place they could go and not fear being harrassed by Roman soldiers or anyone else.  They were not bothered because the catacombs were tombs, and no one else wanted to go down into those tombs.  Imagine what it would be like to have to go below ground, into tombs carved out of the volcanic rock, in order to worship.  Throughout the catacombs were shelves, where bodies were placed, and larger rooms, where some families had their own tombs.  As we neared the end of our tour I could hear another group behind us.  The group was from Asia, and I had heard their voices echoing down the stone corridors and it really caught my attention when I heard them begin to sing.  They were in one of the larger rooms, a room about half the size of our sanctuary.  I walked back through the corridor and stood outside of the room where they had gathered, so I could hear them sing.  They were in a circle, holding hands, and singing Amazing Grace, in English.  There was a stone altar in the room, and I imagined this was what it must have been like, centuries ago – followers of Jesus, gathere in that tomb, three stories below ground, singing and worshipping.  It was an incredibly moving moment, hearing the voices of those who were far from the birthplace of our faith, and from the place where the early church was persecuted.  It was evidence, beautiful evidence, of how the church has become a global presence.

Kingdoms come and go, but God’s kingdom remains.  Rome’s great empire, a powerful empire that forced the early church into the tombs in order to worship, has passed away, but God’s kingdom and church has not only remained, but prospered.  There are kingdoms in this world still that seek to hinder or eliminate the church and God’s kingdom, but still it persists, and thrives.

Blessed indeed are the persecuted, because the kingdoms that threaten and persecute them will not be the ultimate victors.  The kingdom of God reigns now and forevermore!