Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August 20, 2017 I Love the Church Because...It Is Indestructible

I appreciate very much receiving answers to that statement and I will share as many as possible in the course of the series.  Some of them might be adapted a bit in order to make sure the individuals won’t be identified in any way.  I will begin this morning with one of them – I know our world is in bad shape and many people can only see negativity in everything.  I get so overwhelmed when I watch the news that often I feel hopeless.  But when I come to church I feel renewed.  I feel the love of God and the congregation surround(s) me and that gives me hope for tomorrow.   I know that what comes next is in God's hands.  It is easy to forget that when I see so much pain in the world.  But from the minute you walk in the door of FCC I feel…connected to something greater that myself.  I feel so blessed to be part of that love.  I think that is so well expressed, and I think it speaks for all of us as well.

Our Scripture text for this morning is, I think, the obvious place to start, because it is, interestingly, one of the few places where Jesus used the word church Matthew 16:13-18.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

I thought I would begin this morning by taking just a moment to tell you a bit about my home church.  I was raised in the Wellsburg Christian Church, in Wellsburg, West Virginia, just a few miles from Bethany, where Alexander Campbell lived and where he founded Bethany College, one of our very fine Disciples schools.  Wellsburg Christian Church was founded by Alexander Campbell and his father, Thomas, both of whom served as the first ministers of the church.  The Campbells were two of the four most important figures in the movement that led to the founding of the Disciples of Christ churches.  Walter Scott, a third member of that group of four (the fourth being Barton W. Stone), was also one of the first ministers of the church, so I grew up in one of the central locations in the history of the Disciples churches.

In many ways, there is nothing special or outstanding about that church. It was, in my younger years, a typical small town church.  We weren’t very large (there weren’t any large church where I grew up, as it wasn’t a very churched area in comparison to this area and most of the south); we didn’t have a lot of impressive programs; we never had a youth minister, a children’s minister, or a music minister, only a minister; we didn’t have an impressive building; we didn’t have a big budget; we didn’t have a lot of the things that we often associate with churches today.  In recent years, the church has struggled and has declined, reflecting the slow, painful decline of the town and larger area.  Wellsburg has lost quite a bit of population since I graduated from high school in 1975 and the county – Brooke County – is, according to an article I read in the New York Times, is literally the dyingest county in the entire country.  Brooke County, and Wellsburg, have been hit hard by the economic downturn that accompanied the closing of almost all of the steel mills in the northern Ohio Valley.  The towns, the businesses, and even the churches, all reflect the decline of the area. 

Having said all that, and though I have a great deal of sadness about what has happened to my home area over the years, it still remains very much a part of who I am, and it would be impossible for me to adequately communicate what the Wellsburg Christian Church has meant to my life.  The people of that church taught me in Sunday School, contributed the money that helped to send me to church camp, the adults of the church who served as role models, and one minister, in particular, shaped and molded my life in a way that has been so very profound, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like without those experiences and those people.  When I return home to visit my family it is a rare occasion that I am able to worship in my home church, but I do like to drive or walk by it and, when I can, stop in and step into the sanctuary in order to be transported back in time.  When I walk in the building, climb the steps to the second floor to enter the sanctuary, and sit in a pew, I see that almost nothing has changed, at least in the appearance of the building.  I can sit in a pew and remember where people sat all those years ago.  I can see them in my mind, getting up to receive the offering or to serve communion, or to open the windows on a warm summer day.  Many of those people are long gone, but they remain very much in my heart and mind and the faith has now become part of my faith.  I am so very grateful to that church and to those people who nurtured my faith, who cared for me, and will never be forgotten.

I imagine my experience is true for many, if not all of you, as well.  Whether you grew up in this church or in a different one, your experience was probably very similar to mine, certainly in respect to the people who influenced your life, because here is an important truth – when we look back on the churches that shaped and molded our lives, we rarely if ever speak of a fancy building or impressive technology.  We rarely if ever speak of the style of worship.  We rarely if ever speak of the amazing committee meetings.  We almost always talk about the people and the ways in which those people helped to connect us to God, how they helped to deepen and enrich our faith, and how they shaped and molded our lives.

So, I decided to offer this series of messages for several reasons.  One is because I am, frankly, tired of hearing so many bad things about churches.  I am a member of a number of email lists that send out church news and information about the world of faith and ministry.  More often than not these days I delete the messages without reading any of the articles.  The reason?  I’m tired of the gloom and doom drumbeat of bad news.  I know that there are churches struggling in this day and age, but I also know that the news is not always as bad as it is made out to be.  The church is very much in transition these days (and that is not a bad thing, in my opinion.  We were very much in need of some of the transitions that are taking place) but it is certainly not in danger of dying, as some would claim.  The oft-heard narrative about the decline of the church is, in all honesty, about as far from the truth as one can get.  Yes, there is decline in some places, but even the measurements of those areas do not tell the entire story.  Indeed, on a worldwide scale the church is booming, and it is booming in parts of the world that were once – and in some cases continues to be – hostile to both the church and the Gospel.  China will soon be home to more Christians than all of Europe and by the middle of this century may have more Christians than any other country.  Imagine that!  A country that is officially atheistic is now witnessing some of the greatest in the history of the church!  Throughout Asia the church is growing exponentially.  The countries that comprised the former Soviet Union are seeing much church growth, as is sub-Saharan Africa and South America.  The church is alive and well, of that there is no doubt about. 

I am also presenting this series of messages as a rebuttal to those who claim the church is irrelevant in our modern age.  Once again, nothing could be further from the truth!  I’m not sure who first equated ancient with irrelevant, but those two words are not connected.  In fact, there is much ancient wisdom in our world that remains incredibly beneficial to us, and that is because the human condition never changes.  Technology brings about great change to the way we live, conduct business, and other matters of life, but the basics of human existence do not change.  The literature of the ancient Greeks is every bit as powerful today as it was millennia ago.  The engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians is as impressive today as it was in their day.  And is there a modern writer the equivalent of Shakespeare?  And where are the modern day versions of Beethoven and Chopin?  And we certainly continue to value the words of an old document we call the Constitution, as much as we sometimes argue about it.  No, ancient is neither equivalent to being irrelevant or out of date.  We still have much to learn from the recent and distant ancients.

But the primary reason why I decided to do a series of messages titled I Love the Church is because I love the church!  I was a “pew baby.”  I have attended church all of my life, even in my younger adult years when I was doing what I will simply refer to as some “wandering.”  I love the church!  And I find it amusing that I am often asked a question, a question that is always prefaced by an interesting statement.  Many times over the course of my ministry I have been approached by someone who begins with the following statement – I want to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the truth (do they think I need to be reminded to tell the truth?).  That statement is almost always followed by the question, when you are on vacation, do you go to church or do you sleep in?  Yes, I go to church!  I love to attend church when I am on vacation.  It’s nice to listen to someone other than myself for a change!  I like to slip into the back of a sanctuary and observe what is going on, experience a different style of worship, and enjoy church without all of the things that would normally occupy my mind and attention on most Sunday mornings. I know every criticism of churches. I have heard them all. I have also experienced many of the shortcomings of churches, and I have experienced many of the hurts as well.  Some of those experiences are why I ended up here instead of continuing on my previous path (and I am very, very grateful to be here).  I’ve been a minister for over 35 years, so I have seen, heard, and experienced almost everything possible in churches, both good and bad, and I still love the church, and nothing will ever change the fact that I love the church.

That is a rather long introduction, so let’s turn now to this morning’s Scripture texts, which is one of the most famous in all of the Gospels.  Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, which was home to many competing truth claims.  It is in that context of various religious and political ideas that he draws from Peter the great confession of faith, a confession that continues to serve, after all these centuries, as our great uniting point – You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  The response of Jesus is so inspiring, as he proclaims that upon that confession he will build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

So allow me to offer a few words about the indestructibility of the church.

The Church is Indestructible in Spite of Itself.

I had originally planned to write a message for this series titled I Love the Church In Spite of…, but I thought that sounded far too negative, and I don’t want to be negative in this series, especially since one of the reasons I decided to offer this series was to counter the negativity that is often attached to church.

We all are well aware, however, of the sometimes problematic history of the church, and that history and the failures of churches are very painful to witness and to experience.  There are, for instance, many Catholics who have given up on the church because of the terribly tragic abuse scandal that continues to unfold in very painful ways.  That is certainly one of the most painful and terrible stains on the church in its entire history.  On the Protestant side of the faith we must remember that the struggle of any church, or denomination, becomes in some way our struggle as well.  We are all part of The Church, and what affects one part of the body of Christ affects us all.

I understand, I want to emphasize, that I understand how the depth of hurt does cause some people to turn away from the church.  We all know people who have joined what one person describes as “the church alumni society.”  The amount of hurt and pain out there has added far too many members to that “alumni society,” and I would never minimize the pain and suffering of anyone, but personally, I would never turn away from the church because of its failures, any more than I would consider turning away from my citizenship as an American because of the failures of our nation, which are also numerous and painful.  I might change congregations – and I have done so – because of hurts and struggles that take place, but I will never give up on the church.  It is my responsibility, I believe, to remain a part of the church and work to make it better, stronger, and as Christ-like as possible.

The church needs, I believe, to acknowledge and speak against its own struggles and failures, as well as those outside of the church.  There are failures and hurts all around us, and any institution – the church included – have perpetuated some measure of hurt, but that is all the more reason why we must speak up and speak out.  I think it is, for instance, commendable that members of the Catholic Church have forced it to confront the terrible scandal of abuse that has hurt so many people.  I think it is commendable that some of confronted the church with its role in the history of racism in this country.  The recent events in Charlottesville remind us that racism is still a powerful force in our society, unfortunately, and the church has not always set the best example in how to confront the scourge of racism.

This is why we must remember that while the Church is indestructible, not all individual congregations do survive, or will survive.  One of the reasons why I chose the picture that stands at the top of this message is because it serves as a reminder that some churches do not survive.  Sometimes, the closing of a church is due to sociological factors such as population shifts or the decline of a particular community.  Other times, however, churches close because they cease to be relevant to their communities, and one of the ways in which they become irrelevant is by ignoring the needs that exist outside of their walls.  If a local congregation cannot – or will not – speak against the ills that surround it or work to ease and eradicate those ills, then perhaps it is not only inevitable that the church will close, but perhaps it should close.

The Church is Indestructible Because of Its Anchor.

Listen again to the exchange between Jesus and Peter –
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

One of the great beauties of the church is that in these times of uncertainty, the church provides a sense of certainty.  That is true, I believe, of all the centuries of the church, because all times in history have about them a sense of uncertainty.  For over two millennia now, the church has served as an anchor of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.  When Jesus stood with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, I imagine there was a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty among them.  They were surrounded by many competing ideaologies and philosophies and it would have been very difficult for them to enjoy a sense of certainty and security.  Some of those ideaologies and philosophies would have been very demanding of them, such as Rome and its demand for ultimate allegiance.  Today is not much different from the context in which the disciples found themselves.  We too have many competing ideaologies and philosophies competing for our hearts and souls – and some of them are very demanding – but the church provides an anchor of certainty that reminds us God will be for us and with us whatever kingdom claims control.  We need that sense of the eternal and unchanging now more than ever.  In the midst of competing truth claims, Peter was able to make his great confession of faith, and in the midst of today’s competing truth claims and sometimes overwhelming uncertainty, let us also make our confession of faith and trust in Jesus.

The church has survived for 2,000 years because it is founded upon the eternal, and it will survive – and thrive – until God decides to bring a conclusion to creation.

The Church Will Continue to Change Lives.

My life was changed by a church.  Your life was changed by a church.  How many lives have been changed by this church, or any church, we can never know for certain.  There is no way for us to know in this life, but we can be assured it is a great many.  Some day, in eternity, we will have the privilege to know who they are.

At its heart, the church is about relationships, and it is through relationships that lives are changed.  I will close this morning with a very powerful testimony sent to me.  It is a beautiful testimony to a life changed be a church –

What does the church mean to me…Salvation, in the spiritual sense, but also from an earthly perspective.  I grew up in extreme poverty, without a named father and with a mother who put men and drugs ahead of her children and disappeared for weeks at a time. Although my family situation has sadly become commonplace nowadays, it was foreign to my small town [at the time].  Yes, I was blessed with grandparents who cared for me as their own and made sure my needs were met, but to the outside world, I was an outcast, an untouchable.  And then, one day in 3rd grade, a neighbor offered to pick me up on her way to church.  I don’t think I missed a Sunday for the next 3 years!  Partly out of pity and partly out of love, the congregation adopted me as their own.  They saw potential in me that I couldn’t yet see.  The Music Minister gave me free piano lessons and one of the older ladies from church picked me up every day from school and took me to her house to practice.  The next thing I knew, the church delivered a piano to my doorstep.  The congregation paid my way to church camp.  Even my high school jobs were working for church members.  When I was serving in [another state], they sent me letters and love offerings.  They supported me, guided me, prayed for me.  To them, I wasn’t “just that poor kid”.  I WAS SOMEBODY WHO WAS CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE.  The church helped me rise above the circumstances that I couldn’t control and become the person that I was created to be.  They could have easily turned away, but they didn’t.  Their love and compassion saved me.

Isn’t that an amazing, beautiful testimony?  Our story may be different in the details, but we were changed by a church as well, and that is one of the reasons why I love the church.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August 13, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Greatest Commandment

This week we complete the series of messages titled The Great Commandments.  Next week we begin a series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…

I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, and one of the most touching was several years ago.  The person was someone I had known a long time and she asked me some months before her funeral if I would officiate.  I said I would and then she had an interesting request of me; she was going to write her own eulogy and asked if I would mind reading it.  That was the first and only time I officiated a funeral where the deceased had written their own eulogy.  It was really beautifully written, and made everyone there, I imagine, wonder, what would be my final words?

This morning’s Scripture text is that kind of passage.  It comes from the latter part of John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, and these are some of the “last words” of Jesus.  When you get down to your last words, they are words that matter.  You don’t talk about the weather at that moment, and Jesus took his opportunity to share the core of his message with his disciples; it was a summation of everything he had sought to instill in his followers.

Today’s message is The Greatest Commandment.  Our Scripture text is two portions of John’s gospel, both taken from a long passage devoted to the Last Supper.  In that longer passage Jesus is offering his final words to the disciples.  As it is the final moments that he has with them, and the final opportunity to offer teaching, Jesus uses that time to share what is at the heart of his mission, and that is, unsurprisingly, love.  So I have saved the greatest command in all of Scripture for the final message of our series of The Great Commandments, with today’s message The Greatest Commandment.

Follow along with me as I read this morning’s text –

John 13:34-35
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 15:9-17
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.

Anyone who has heard me preach for very long knows that I, like any other minister, has particular themes that I favor.  One of my regular themes is that of the primacy of love, which was a theme of Jesus, thus it is mine as well.  In these final words that he offers to his disciples, love is the theme that Jesus really emphasizes.

1.  You Can’t Command Others to Love, But Sometimes You Have To.

I know that sounds strange, and contradictory, but doesn’t it also sound strange to command people to love?  In these passages Jesus refers to love as a command.  In 13:34 he says, a new command I give you:  Love one another. In 15:12 he says, My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.  Jesus uses the word command six times in that passage.  Issuing a command is an interesting way to encourage people to love one another, isn’t it?  Is it possible to command people to love one another?  Can we be coerced into love?  Isn’t love, by its very nature, something that must come about through free will, and not a command?  By its very nature, love is voluntary, not commanded or coerced. I am not disagreeing with Jesus, certainly, but I find issuing a command to be an interesting way to talk to people about love.  Imagine if you had to command your family to love you.  If you have to issue a command for them to love you there are some very serious issues in your family that must be addressed.

Here’s what I believe Jesus means, and it goes back to the passage that was our text last week, where Jesus said in Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  Obviously, there are people we love, and people who love us.  No command is needed to encourage that love; we just naturally and easily love some people and they naturally and easily love us in return.  But what about the people for whom our love does not come naturally or easily?  And what about the people who have no interest in loving us?  That’s where the command comes in.  That’s where we need a command that becomes a push to encourage or compel us to step out of our safety zone, out of our area of security, out of what is known.  Sometimes love needs a bit of a nudge; sometimes love needs more of a push, and that’s why Jesus issues a command.  We don’t need a command to love some people, but we certainly do for others.  If Jesus desires that we love our enemies, we probably need a push to do so.

When we consider the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend I think we understand the necessity of a command to love.  Do those white supremacists understand the harm of what they are doing?  Do they understand how their bigotry diminishes the humanity of others, as well as their own?  It takes blunt language to counter that level of bigotry and hatred, and certainly we must say don’t ever use the name of God to justify your hatred and bigotry!  If we ever hope to see such bigotry and hatred disappear in the world it is going to have to come from a command, and this is why Jesus issued a command.  Left to our own ways, it is rare that we will cross the boundaries that must sometimes be crossed in order to counter hatred and bigotry with love.

Jesus certainly knew this.  Jesus faced a great deal of hatred as well.  His enemies had no love at all for him.  No, they had only hatred for him, and that’s why Jesus was so often very blunt with them.  When you confront hatred of that magnitude a command must be put down as a marker that says I’m not suggesting that you love the people you hate; I’m commanding it!

2.  We Must Choose Love Over Law.

When Jesus talked about love, which was so often, I also think he meant that we need to choose love over law.  There are two elements within faith, and often those two elements are in conflict with one another.  Those two elements are love and law, and we must always tip the scale in favor of love. Laws and commandments, as important as they are, must not be the preeminent aspect of our faith; that is reserved for love.

That is the message at the heart of the conversation Jesus had with some Pharisees when one of them asked, teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?  In answering that question Jesus gave his famous answer, love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40; a text I referenced two weeks ago).  That last sentence is particularly instructive, as Jesus says that all the law and all the words of the prophets are filtered through the primary command of love.  In other words, laws and commands are not of much meaning if they are not subservient to, and based upon, love.  Jesus never intended to diminish the importance of the Law, but he did seek to put it in its rightful place.  In Matthew 5:17 he says do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  The Law, unfortunately for some, was raised to a level above love.  This is seen in the exchange Jesus had with some Pharisees, when they criticized the disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  When we forget the intent of the Law and elevate it to a place where it is place above love, we have become trapped in legalism, and Jesus always railed against legalism.

Paul echoes this sentiment in the book of Romans, as he struggles with the way in which the Law does not bring righteousness to him, but merely demonstrates how unrighteous he is.  He reminds us that Abraham was justified not by his works but by his faith, saying that whatever we do, in terms of trying to fulfill law, is only what we should have done in the first place (Romans 4:4 – when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation).  This highlights the difficulty for those who fall into legalism and who want to raise laws and commandments above love – there is never enough that we can do in order to satisfy laws.  Laws, commands, and regulations, as helpful as they can be in giving us a framework of how to live, will ultimately fall short because we can never do enough to satisfy those commands.  Love, however, is the better guide, because it does not makes us subservient to rules and regulations and all of the frustrations and failures that come with trying to be perfect in following them.  Seeking to follow laws ultimately becomes a dead end for us because it does not lead us to love, but only into legalism.  Jesus wants us to act out of love, not legalism.  Paul highlights this in his letter to the Galatians, when he writes in chapter five about not being so bound to the law that love is forgotten.  In 5:6 he writes, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, and in 5:14 adds, the entire law is summed up in a single command:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is a great tragedy that some churches are known more for their pronouncements about law than about love and their attitude of judgment than acts of mercy.  Such behavior and attitudes are absolutely contrary to the way of Jesus.  I understand the temptation to make those pronouncements about laws and commands, because we like the security they offer in times that are anything but secure.  The more uncertain our world becomes, the more we crave certainty, and laws and commands can provide us with a sense of certainty.  Laws and rules also make life simpler in some ways, as they attempt to give an answer for what to do in every conceivable situation.  Read the Old Testament and you will find the laws there cover a multitude of possibilities.  Love does not do that.  Love says, basically, work it out.  It’s easy to prefer the specifics and the security of a law over the complications that come along with love, but that is not the way in which we are called to live. 

Our church is not a legalistic, law-bound church.  We are not a church that pronounces judgment upon people; rather, we emphasize love.  Where some churches desire uniformity, we do not.  Some churches want everyone to be a square peg, and if you are not a square peg you will not find a home there.  Some churches want everyone to be a round peg, and if you are not a round peg you will not find a home there.  We’re not a church of only square pegs.  If you are a round peg, that’s okay; you are welcome here.  We are not a church of only round pegs.  If you are a square peg that’s okay; you are welcome here.  You are welcome if you are an octagonal peg.  Or any other kind of peg.  Or even if you’re not a peg.  And, to be honest, sometimes that costs us, and that’s okay.  Not everyone wants a church like us.  Some people want a church of all round pegs.  Some people want a church of all square pegs.  Some people come and check us out and decide we are not what they are looking for in a church, because we recognize that not everything is black and white; sometimes there is a good deal of gray.  Some people want more certainty than what we offer.  We sometimes ask more questions than we offer answers.

I am growing more and more disturbed with two developing trends in our society, the first of which is that we seem intent upon tearing ourselves apart and the second is that we are dividing into factions and groups that insist upon accepting their particular orthodoxy and their group to the exclusion of other groups and other ways of thinking.  Too many people are succumbing to the pressure to align with a particular group and not veer from it, and once a part of a group one cannot associate with someone in another group.

Love, however, does not divide us in that way.  Our orthodoxy should not be the Republican or Democratic parties.  Our orthodoxy should not be liberal or conservative.  Our orthodoxy should not be urban versus rural, or north versus south, or east coast versus west coast, or, if I could be so bold, UK or UofL, or any other.  Our orthodoxy should always by Jesus and his love.  And I’m not saying that if you favor any of those aforementioned categories you are not following Jesus; what I am saying is, don’t put any of them above Jesus; don’t let them become points of division.

3.  Love Is Super Tough.

When I’m driving in my car, which is quite a bit of the time, I am always listening to the radio.  I used to spend a lot of time pushing the buttons to see what songs were on.  I might like a song, but perhaps there is a better song on another channel, so I would keep pushing buttons.  Now that SiriusXM radio has a Beatles channel I push the buttons a lot less.  I love the music of the Beatles.  Yesterday evening, as I was driving, one of my favorite Beatles songs came on – All You Need Is Love.  Isn’t that a great song?  I love that song.  But let’s be honest, on one level it’s not really true, is it?  Try taking love to the bank when you’re behind on your mortgage and see what happens.  Try applying some of that love to a down payment on a car and see what happens.  Will it work?  Of course not.  Obviously, love isn’t all you need.

But we understand what the sentiment means.  But here’s also a problem with that sentiment – we’ve arrived at a point, I think, where we have so over-sentimentalized and so over-romanticized love that we forget just how tough love can be.  I Corinthians 13:4-7 says that Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  There is nothing easy about those qualities of love.  They are tough.  They are super tough.

Love never fails, that is true, but sometimes we fail love.  Sometimes we fail love because love is tough.  Love is super tough.  Love is incredibly super tough.  Love is really incredibly super tough.  At least it is if you want to step beyond only those who love you.  Here’s how tough love is.  Love can get you killed.  It got Jesus killed.  That’s a scary thought to consider, isn’t it? 

My older brother Ed, and his wife Jodi, are co-pastors at Old Union Church in Jamestown, Indiana.  Back in the 80s, Ed was the pastor at a church in Lafayette, Indiana.  I still remember a newsletter he wrote back in the mid-80s.  He wrote about our tendency to see faith and love as a bit like a vaccination against a disease.  If you are familiar with biology, you probably now that a vaccination actually gives us some of the cells of the disease that the vaccination is designed to prevent.  Be receiving a little bit of the diseased, our body’s natural immune system can prevent us from receiving the full blown disease.  Ed compared this to how we can be about the power of God’s love.  We want a bit of that love, but not the full blown effects of God’s love.  We prefer an inoculation; enough to give us a bit of God’s love but not enough to make us do anything crazy, such as love our enemies or pray for those who persecute us.

Love is tough.  Love is super tough.  That makes it understandable why we only want a little bit of it, because we don’t want our lives made more difficult by living love in the way that Jesus did; it would simply be too difficult and too complicated to live love to that extent.

But God wants to give us the full measure of his love, and he wants us to live the full measure of that love.  That is, after all, his greatest commandment.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

August 6, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Impossible Command?

As I have been reminding you the past few weeks, I will soon begin a series of messages titled I Love the Church Because… and I have asked you to answer that question for me.  I appreciate the responses I have received and I will ask you again to answer that question for me, if you don’t mind.
This week we continue the series of messages titled The Great Commandments. This week’s message is The Impossible Command?  I’ve added a question mark because I want you to answer that question for yourself – is it impossible to follow the command to love our enemies?  It seems pretty tough to me.  When we read these words of Jesus, I think it is very easy to think of that verse as containing an impossible command because, to be honest, I don’t know if anyone really takes this passage to its complete expression.
I also doubt that this is anyone’s favorite passage of Scripture.  You won’t find it on a greeting card.  We don’t put it on a wall hanging or on the front door of our homes.  It if was on the front door of your home you wouldn’t need to put up a No Soliciting sign!  It does not adorn pieces of jewelry.  I will readily admit that it is not my favorite passage of Scripture, although I have read it many times over the years.  I would much rather read – and preach from – passages such as the Beatitudes,
(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. 7 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.)

or John 3:16,
(For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.)

or the 23rd Psalm,
(1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.)

or the Lord’s Prayer.
(Matthew 6:9-13 – After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.)

or Philippians 2:1-11,
(1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.)

or the fruits of the Spirit,
(Galatians 5:22-23 – 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.)

But we cannot overlook the difficult passages in favor of the ones that make us feel good.  Our text for this morning, especially, is one that must be read and taken to heart because it is what we might call the heart of the heart.  If the Sermon On the Mount is the heart of the Gospel, which I believe it to be, then this morning’s text is the heart of the heart.  It is a passage in which we truly see the depth of the love of Jesus.

Follow along with me as I read the passage.

Matthew 5:33-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Now I’m going to read the passage again, but with a difference.  This time I want to bring it into the real world a bit, so to speak.  As I read it this time I will leave some blanks, and when I come to a blank, I want you to insert a name; the name of someone with whom you have had a conflict.  Or it could be a group, or a political point of view.  Insert someone or something that would fall into the category of enemy.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist _____  . If _____ slaps you on the right cheek, turn to _____ the other cheek also.
40 And if _____ wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
41 If _____ forces you to go one mile, go with _____ two miles.
42 Give to _____ who asks you, and do not turn away from _____ who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate _____.’
44 But I tell you, love _____ and pray for _____ who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on _____ and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and _____.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I have preached on this passage a fair number of times over the years, and I’m sure I will plenty more times in the years to come.  I continue to refine what I think about this passage and how it should be implemented in our daily lives, and yet the more I study it and the more I preach or teach about it, it remains a passage that haunts me.  It haunts me because I cannot explain it away or temper it, because I believe Jesus is not speaking in symbolic terms or using hyperbole as he offered these words.  When I read commentaries on this passage, I find that almost all of the writers offer the same basic interpretation – first, they describe the type of slap of which Jesus speaks as being one of insult, not attack.  Assuming that most people are right-handed, to strike someone on the right cheek means it would be a backhanded strike, which is generally one of insult, and Jesus means we are not to take an insult to heart but offer forgiveness.  Second, the taking of a shirt is interpreted as taking advantage of someone who is poor, or of very modest means, and that person should not claim their right to legal redress, but instead ought to give up what is their right.  Third, going the extra mile was an action that could be imposed by a soldier of an occupying army on any member of a civilian population, forcing the person to carry their equipment for a distance of up to one mile, and if such an act occurred one should not be bitter, but offer assistance with kindness and gentleness.
Personally, I don’t really buy into any of those interpretations.  I think the third one – that of going the extra mile when ordered to do so by a soldier – has historical accuracy but I’m a good deal skeptical about the first two.  I am skeptical because I think they too easily explain away what I think is a very direct – and very difficult – command of Jesus.  It’s very easy to say in light of the historical context…(which is a very legitimate tool of interpretation) and then go on to explain away the fundamental message of what Jesus has to say.  While I don’t believe every passage of the Bible is to be taken literally (Matthew 5:27-30 is, for example, an example of Jesus using hyperbole to make his point – 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.)  In today’s text, however, I believe that Jesus meant for his words to be taken literally, and that is very tough to do.

This morning, I want to present three ways of considering this passage, and these represent where I’ve arrived in relation to this passage.  There is much more to say about these verses, but for the sake of time we will consider the following –

1.  We Must Deal in the “What Is,” Not the “What If.”
Part of the problem we have with this passage, aside from interpreting it away, is that we too easily make it about what might happen, that is, we imagine an absolute worst-case scenario that would make a loving, graceful response seem impossible to offer.  For instance, we construct a scenario such as what if someone broke into my home and…(insert worst-case scenario here).    While that could happen, it is very unlikely that it would happen.  When we talk about what might or what could happen, we place these words in a hypothetical situation, so let’s take the discussion about loving our enemies out of the hypothetical and place it in reality, in the here and now, which puts it in an entirely different light.

While it is unlikely that we will have to confront such a difficult situation, I don’t believe Jesus was presenting hypothetical scenarios to his listeners. Jesus spoke about they types of situations that many of his listeners had confronted.  While we are so blessed that the words of Jesus, when it comes to dealing with enemies, are mostly a hypothetical to us, they were a reality to many of his original listeners.  Many of his listeners had experienced horrific acts that few of us can imagine.  Many of them had seen friends, neighbors, and family members abused by an occupying military power – the Roman Empire – and many had seen them forced to go the extra mile.  Some, no doubt, had seen people with whom they had some connection be crucified.  It is very rare that any of us have – or ever will – experience what the audience of Jesus had experienced.  But some things are likely to happen to us, such as hurt, betrayal, and conflict.  Because of those experiences we will find some people are hard to love and might even come to the point of considering them our enemy.

So what if something happens?  What if someone betrays you?  What if someone hurts you?  What if someone turns against you?  What do we do in those situations and any of the other types of situations that happen to us in the course of life?  Well, we certainly should not become prisoners of anger, hurt, and resentment.  And we don’t become prisoners of a desire to strike back or the thought of planning revenge. How do you stop the cycle of violence, revenge, and hatred?  By not participating in it, and that is what Jesus is asking of us.  Holding on to anger and resentment will eat you alive.  I’m not saying it’s easy to offer forgiveness; it’s the hardest thing we are called to do.  What I am saying is that it gives us a freedom where bitterness and hatred and a desire for revenge with only bring bondage.

2.  Enemies Are Large Scale and Small Scale.

One of my bigger questions about this passage is this – was Jesus talking about how we deal with individuals only, or does this passage have some bearing upon how groups – such as nations – deal with one another?  We have very real enemies in this world, and I am not na├»ve enough to ignore that reality.  Members of groups such as ISIS would love to bring harm to us. The regime in North Korea would love to strike at our country.  Those are kind of distant to our everyday lives.

To be honest, I have always struggled to come up with an answer about how these words of Jesus can be implemented on a large scale, in terms of some kind of foreign policy or how we approach military action, but I can say a few things.  First, Jesus is, in this passage, affirming love as the absolute core of his ministry.  Love was central to everything about the life and ministry of Jesus, it is the center of all he said and did, and in this passage he is showing how powerful and how outrageous that love is.  Love, as defined and demonstrated by Jesus, is something that is far deeper and far more consequential than an emotion that can be expressed in a greeting card saying, or in compassion for kittens and puppies, or even as a way of describing the relationships we have with our friends and family. Love, Jesus says, is something that extends beyond the typical, human categories of love.  Love is a wonderful thing, when it deals with people I already love and people who already love me.  I find love to be fairly easy when it involves people who love me.  I find love fairly easy when it involves people I love.  But when I am asked to love those who do not love me, when I am asked to love those who work against me, to love those who seek to harm me – that’s when I begin to wonder if that’s the kind of love I want.  But that’s how Jesus defines love.  In this passage Matthew uses the Greek word agape for love.  Of the four Greek words for love it is the one that expresses a divine love, a love that is deeper than any other expression of love.  Anybody can love those who already love us, but Jesus is asking do you want that agape love of God?  Do you want the kind of love that goes deeper than any other kind of love we have ever known?  Do we want the kind of love that is more powerful than any other force in the world?  If we do, he says, then we must be willing to love even those who hate us.

Second, I’m not sure there is any way to bring these words of Jesus into a discussion of foreign policy and military force.  I believe Jesus was a pacifist who would never condone the use of force in any circumstance.  Jesus lived in a world in which he saw the muscle of military force on a daily basis.  He lived in an occupied land and witnessed firsthand the power of Rome and the way in which that power was often used against his fellow countrymen, but he never remotely expressed any support for the use of force in return.  So what does that mean for us, in our context?  I believe it means we should remind our leaders that force is not always the answer, and that force should never be used lightly.  We are to remind our leaders that many innocents are often the victims of military force and there are no such things as “surgical” strikes that will avoid harm to civilians.  Augustine, many centuries ago, gave us the theological framework for what we now call the Just War Theory, which is a very helpful guide but even that has its faults and limitations (and is, most of the time, erroneously applied). 

Third, there is an inherent conflict between a desire for security and the love of Jesus.  The love of Jesus, to which we are called, is risky, even dangerous at times, because it is interested less in security and more in expressing what the love of God represents, such as grace and forgiveness.  Living according to that kind of love means that security is not the first priority, which can be very difficult to accept.

3.  How Did Jesus Deal With His Enemies?

What is one of the most common objections we hear when studying this passage?  Jesus doesn’t want us to be a doormat is a phrase I have heard many times as an objection to this passage.  But can we really think of Jesus as a doormat?  I certainly don’t think so.  He challenged the religious and political leaders of the day and did not hesitate to do so.  When he entered the Temple after the Triumphal Entry he was certainly no doormat.  To cast the money-changers out of the temple and to boldly proclaim that it is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers (Matthew 21:13) is someone who did not hesitate to challenge those in authority.  When Jesus confronted the teachers of the law and Pharisees (27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  Matthew 23:27-28) it is clear he is not a doormat.  And when Jesus entered into Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry it was not just a sign of humility and Messiahship; it was also a direct rebuke to Pilate, who would have entered Jerusalem at about the same time as Jesus, although Pilate would have come not on a donkey symbolizing humility and peace, but on a war horse and surrounded with soldiers and implements of war.  Does that indicate a doormat?  I think not.

Jesus was anything but a doormat, and demonstrating love is not at all a sign of being a doormat.  There is power in love, and the Romans learned of that power.  For all their might and power, the Roman Empire has long ago fallen.  What remains of the mighty Roman Empire?  Well, there’s some pretty good literature, a language that we still study, and some concepts we have found worthy of adopting into our system of government.  And there’s a bunch of rocks.  They’re impressive rocks, forming the remains of aqueducts, the Coliseum, the Forum, and other structures, but it’s a still just a bunch of rocks, symbolizing the once mighty, but now fallen, Roman Empire.  It’s a reminder that power and force have the illusion of strength but they never, ever have a lasting strength.  Power and force may conquer people, but it will not win them over.  The Roman Empire conquered the known world but it didn’t last.  Love proved greater than the power of the Roman Empire.  And the love of the church is one of the reasons why the Roman Empire persecuted the church.  The Romans understood that if people really took these words of Jesus seriously it would weaken the Empire, and they couldn’t stand for that to happen.  In spite of the violence inflicted upon the church, though, the love of the church outlasted the Empire.  In the Coliseum in Rome there is now a cross that stands where the emperor once sat.  The emperor, who oversaw the persecution of Christians in the Coliseum is long gone, and his seat has been replaced by a cross, the symbol of his attempt to vanquish the faith.

If we want to be like Jesus then, truly like Jesus, here is the way.  It is not an easy way, but it is The Way.