Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sermon: 5 Easter (20 April 2008)

5 Easter: 20 April 2008
(Acts 7:55-60/Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16/1 Peter 2:2-10/John 14:1-14)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In retrospect much of history seems inevitable to me; looking back, I can’t really imagine things turning out much differently than they did. There’s a genre of literature though – alternate historical fiction – in which writers think outside the historical box and twist the outcomes of major events:

A British victory in the Revolutionary War, charges of treason for all the signers of the Declaration of Independence with swift executions following, the colonies remaining under British rule – no United States of America;

A Confederate victory in the Civil war, dissolution of the Union, a continuing slave economy in the southern states;

A German development of the atomic bomb during World War II, Washington D. C. and New York City destroyed, a United States surrender to Hitler;

The crumbling of the United States economy and political structure under the relentless pressure of the Soviet Union – a Cold War defeat for the United States with total Soviet domination of Europe and the demotion of the United States to second- or third-world status.

From our vantage point none of these outcomes seems possible. But, in real time, during the events themselves, history seemed a lot more contingent and a lot less inevitable. As he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock knew that, if war came – as it almost certainly would – the colonists would face the massive power of a disciplined and highly trained British army; a colonial loss was certainly possible. In the long days and dark nights of the Civil War both Lincoln and Grant grappled with the possibility of Confederate victory and its implications for the Union. Werner Heisenberg, the head of the Nazi atomic energy project, was a brilliant physicist capable of producing an atomic bomb and had a significant head start on the Americans; the winner of the atomic arms race was uncertain. The Soviet Union was a “red menace” throughout my formative years and was considered a highly dangerous military and political threat. I still remember our homemade bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I used to sneak in and eat the emergency Vienna Sausages Dad had stored there. Thank God the Russians didn’t launch; we might have starved. Though much later the outcomes seem certain, at the time nothing is quite so clear. It may only be in hindsight that history seems inevitable.

Likewise, we generally treat the history of our faith as inevitable. Who can seriously entertain these alternatives?

Roman legal and military pressure eliminates the new cult of Jesus – followers are executed, churches are destroyed, and the false doctrine of the crucified Jewish messiah is eradicate from both Rome and the provinces

The Jerusalem Council sides with the hard-line Jewish Christians and instructs male Gentile converts to submit to circumcision and all Gentile converts to observe the Sabbath and the Mosaic dietary restrictions

Gnosticism or Docetism or Arianism or some other variant of Christian faith prevails and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan rule of faith never emerges as the symbol and definition of orthodox Christian doctrine

Of course the history of our faith is more secure than world history; we have Christ’s promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church and we have the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to make good that promise. Even so, in real time, in the midst of crises and conflict, outcomes seem much less certain. Ask Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. One hundred years from now the resolution of the apparent impasse between the Episcopal Church of the United States and the world-wide Anglican Communion will seem inevitable; right now, anything but. And so Rowan grapples and prays and worries about the church – as his writings and speeches reveal – all the while clinging to Jesus’s promise.

It was Peter, the author of our epistle text, to whom that promise was directly given.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:13-19).[1]

If anyone had reason to trust in the ultimate victory of the church, it was surely Peter. Even so, read his letters and you sense an undercurrent of anxiety for those resident aliens to whom he writes. Peter is worried about “his” churches, worried about the people of God for whom he’s responsible. Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ will triumph. But, will this church – this local body of believers – survive? That’s Peter’s question. The triumph of the universal Church is inevitable; the survival of the local church is much less certain.

Peter worries that his churches might buckle under persecution, so he writes much about bearing up under suffering, about submission to authority even if that authority is abusive. Suffering for righteousness – as Christ himself suffered – is a Christian grace, one amply rewarded by God. Peter worries that false teachers will infiltrate his churches – both from within and without – and dedicates his harshest and most urgent language toward this threat in his second letter. Hold to the tradition you have received, Peter urges the churches.

This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you 2that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles (2 Pe 3:1-2).

Peter worries that his churches will be enticed to return to the pagan ways from which they escaped through the gospel. Scattered throughout pagan lands and alienated from family and friends by this strange new cult of Christ, the temptation must have been great to return to the former, comfortable things.

Peter worries that his churches just won’t grow up into the fullness of Christ, won’t mature in the faith, like crops that flower but produce no fruit, like runt animals that suckle and suckle the mother’s milk but never seem to grow.

Yes, the universal church – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of our Lord Jesus Christ – will triumph. But what about this local body of believers, this little church right here? Peter wants to know.

I want to know too, because I worry about the local church: the Episcopal Church across the street, the Catholic Cathedral almost next door, the Baptist Church within walking distance, the Presbyterian Church just down the road, and yes, mostly about Trinity Church.

I worry about persecution – not the presence of it, but the lack of it. I worry about the acceptability of the church and the lack of cost associated with being a Christian. Peter knew that walking the way of Christ in a pagan culture would generate animosity and produce hardship for the church. Is our culture really any less pagan than his? Why is being a Christian today in our part of the world apparently so easy, so respectable? Is our faith and practice so low level that it fails to distinguish us from our culture and fails to present a threatening alternative? I worry about the church.

I worry about false teaching. I worry that people think of Oprah as some great religious prophet. Oprah sings the praises of Eckhart Tolle and his “gospel” The New Earth becomes a spiritual phenomenon sweeping the country, when it’s nothing more than new age psychobabble and repackaged first and second century gnosticism rejected by a wiser and more discerning church two millennia ago. I worry that the majority of those reading the book and joining the discussion groups and fawning over this great new wisdom are Christians who should know better but who apparently have no depth of spiritual understanding and thus are easy prey for every new idea that comes down the pike. Paul envisioned such times and warned his protégé Timothy.

3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths (2 Tim 4:3-4).

I worry about the false teaching – not just from outside the church, but especially from within. I worry that Joel Osteen with his warmed-over rehash of Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking might become the new, public face of our faith and that his Christless, prosperity gospel of the “best you now” might pass for Christian orthodoxy. Have the thousands flocking to his church and reading his books thinking they are receiving the Gospel not been taught better, or have they just failed to learn? I worry about the church.

I worry about our girls, about the pressures they will face in the coming years. Some we know – after all, we were once young as they are now – but others we can’t even begin to imagine. It truly is a different world than we knew. Have we – the church – prepared them for the social, sexual, philosophical, and material challenges to their faith? How can we? I worry about our girls and about all young Christians. I worry about the church.

Yes, I worry, but I’m not incapacitated by worry, I’m not dominated by it, I’m not rendered hopeless by it. After all, and most of all, Christ is risen, we’ve been raised to new life in him, and new creation has begun.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pe 1:3-5).

So, in light of this great Easter hope, how do we handle the challenges to the local church and the worries that nag at us? We follow Peter: like him we keep bringing the church around again and again to Jesus and we keep remembering who we are in Jesus. The church will withstand persecution and perhaps even live in a way that prompts it if the church loves and desires Jesus and knows who it is in him. The church will reject false teaching and cling to the truth if the church loves and desires Jesus and knows who it is in him. The church will mature and grow into the fullness of Christ if the church loves and desires Jesus and knows who it is in him. The church will resist the temptations of this or any pagan culture if the church loves and desires Jesus and knows who it is in him.

Albert Einstein once said that, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” At the risk of oversimplifying then, a minister’s chief responsibility is to help those entrusted to his or her care come to love and desire Jesus with heart, soul, mind, and strength and to understand the great calling and new identify they have in him. I didn’t make this up; this is Peter.

2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built
* into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture:‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious;and whoever believes in him* will not be put to shame.’ 7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’, 8and‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,
* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pe 2:2-10).

My role here is simple, if not always easy. I am to hold Jesus before you as the most lovely, most desirable thing you have ever seen: as the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field, the spring of living water in barren lands, the means of grace and the hope of glory, the light shining in the darkness, the dawn breaking over the land of the shadow of death, the answer to every question and the fulfillment of every dream and the satisfaction of every longing of your soul. I am to preach and teach and pray the beauty of Jesus until words fail and only the sacraments of worship – of bread broken and wine poured out and lives laid down in service – will do. I am to bring you around again and again to Jesus, so that you may taste and see that the Lord is good.

I’m not up to this task, but the Holy Spirit is, as Stephen learned.

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56)!

The Holy Spirit opens the heavens up to us as we worship, revealing Jesus at the right hand of God. As the early church believed and as Frederica Mathewes-Green writes, when the body of Christ – when this little church – gathers to worship,

heaven will strike earth like lightning on this spot. The worshippers in this little building will be swept into a divine worship that proceeds eternally, grand with seraphim and incense and God enthroned “high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). The foundations of that temple shake with the voice of angels calling “Holy” to each other, and we will be there, lifting fallible voices in the refrain, an outpost of eternity.[2]

In such moments as these we will taste and know that the Lord is good. And knowing our Lord Jesus, we will come to know ourselves in him.

9 [But] you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pe 2:9-10).

You. This is who you are in Jesus. To whatever degree the grace of God is manifest in the life of the church, it will come from loving Jesus and from remembering who we are in him. Like each of you I’ve struggled with sin; I still do. I’ve struggled with the challenges the local church experiences; I still do. I’ve had many failures and a few victories. Those victories have never come from shame or fear or legalism – from people “should-ing on me” as Brennan Manning says. No. They’ve always come from loving Jesus – from a deep desire to honor the one who is so worthy of honor, the one who is so altogether lovely – and from a longing to live into the fullness of what I truly am in him: a member of the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, God’s own people – a people who have received mercy.

If we love Jesus and know who we are in him, we will obey him and that obedience will mark us in the world as Christ’s own; blessings will come – and hardships. If we love Jesus and know who we are in him, we will seek out his true word and reject the wisdom of the world for the foolishness of God. If we love Jesus and know who we are in him, sex and money and power will lose their hold on us because they will no longer fit with our new identity as chosen, royal, holy people. This is the hope of the local church and the end to our fears.

[1] Unless otherwise noted all scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright Ó1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Frederica Mathewes-Green. At The Corner of East and Now.

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