Monday, February 2, 2009

"Taught by Grace: Our Pattern in the World"

SERMON Dennis Evans 2-1-2009

Based on: Titus 3:1-15; Luke 19:1-10 (actually didn't have time to develope the Luke passage)

In one of the old Peanuts cartoons, I think it was Linus who was telling Charley Brown that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. And Charley Brown says, “How can you be a doctor when you can’t deal with humanity?” And Linus says, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”

In the third chapter of Titus, Paul teaches us to love humanity and to love people. There are some who love individual people, but who are horrified and outraged by humanity. There are some who profess to love humanity, but their plans to care for the human race would hurt many innocent people. Paul knew how to love both humanity, and people, at the same time, and this grew from the special way he experienced and understood the love of God. This is part of the secret of Paul’s happiness.

Paul was a brave and cheerful Christian in the middle of a cruel and callous pagan world. The church of Jesus was young and revolutionary; and dwarfed by a system that was old, and strong, and proud.

The old, established world of Greece and Rome had been, for centuries, the very thing that some wise people today are saying that our own civilization is in danger of becoming. The world of Greece and Rome was, in many ways, a culture of death (gladiator games and the exposure of newborns, etc.).

But there was no more joyful human being in that empire than Paul. Paul saw his world exactly for what it was, but he was not angry, and he was not indignant, and he was not afraid.
For the Christians who benefited from Paul’s advice to Titus, since they lived in the Roman Empire, Paul’s advice amounted to this: love the Roman Empire. “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be ready to do whatever is good.” (Titus 3:1) (Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25-29; 25:10-12)

Paul knew, as well as anybody, that there can be bad rulers, bad governments, bad laws, bad policies and customs, bad traditions and morals. The emperor who ruled at the time of Paul’s writing was Nero, who was a famously bad and foolish emperor; but most of life in the empire went on, as usual, in spite of him.

“To be ready to do what is good” means more than just being law abiding, it means being public spirited. It means to participate in keeping society around you, and the community around you, working in good order. It means being positive-spirited in making things good, and making things better.

Christians are not called to only be specialists in the gospel, and in spiritual things. Christians are called to take part in the life of the world that is going on around them, if it is good. In the Book of Acts (Acts 27), when Paul was being transported, by ship, across the Mediterranean Sea, for his trial in Rome, there was a series of mishaps and bad choices that led, eventually, to the ship being driven off course by a storm, and hitting a reef, and breaking up in a storm. Paul helped, all through that voyage, as a seasoned traveler, giving advice, and (in the end) helping to save the lives of the crew and the other passengers.

The world we live in, the nation we call our own, the community around us, the culture and the society of which we are a part, are like ships crossing the sea. They may be headed for Fair Havens or for shipwreck. Either way, we are called to be involved.
Paul, as a passenger on the ship, did his part to take care of it, and he did this without anger, indignation, or fear. He shared his faith and his hope with others, but he also got to work and pitched in.

He did this without slandering or condemning anyone (even though he was the victim of injustice in his arrest, and even though the trial in Rome might end in his death). He Pitched in peaceably, considerately, and showing true humility toward all, just as he advised Titus to do. (Titus 3:2)
Paul loved the ship and everyone on it. How do we know this? And how did the people who were on board with him know this? It is absolutely clear; because Paul was more than ready to do what was good. And he did it happily, cheerfully, joyfully.

Paul saw the world around him for what it was, and it is as if Paul were saying: “I know what some of you are thinking, about this society of ours; but remember how you and I were just the same. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures: and so on.” (Titus 3:3)

It is as if Paul were saying: “Sure, the empire is like this. Sure, our society is like this. This is the way the world is, but let me remind you about the grace of God.” “But when the kindness and love of God appeared, he saved us not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5)

There is something very special about the Greek word that Paul uses here to describe the love of God. It is a very rare word in the Bible. The Biblical writers most likely avoided this word because it was a very pagan word. The Greek word is “philanthropia”, from which we get our word philanthropy. It is a social word. It is a word about society and the social network. It was a pagan word because it was used in pagan worship to describe the care that the gods would give to the societies that worshiped them. The philanthropy of the pagan gods consisted of the blessings of peace, prosperity, order, justice, good laws, and wise rulers. In the first century this kind of philanthropy described what the divine emperors were supposed to give to the empire. Good emperors showed divine gifts by fighting corruption and injustice, making good laws, righting wrongs, rewarding virtue and talent, maintaining peace and security, enabling trade, endowing the arts, setting the empire in order so that people could live in safety, and have the freedom to provide for their families and improve their lives.

This was what philanthropia was about. Paul used this concept when he told Titus, and the churches that would be taught by him, to take their proper position toward those in authority, and to be ready to do what was good.

Paul tells us that God loves people, and that God also loves humanity. God loves the whole network of tribes, and languages, and nations, and communities.

God loves laws, and justice, and the righting of wrongs, and the rewards for hard work and honest effort. God loves people teaching, and the work of doctors and nurses. God loves work, and the network of people making things, and growing things, and trading things. God loves people voting and being public servants. God loves people organizing to fight fires and run ambulances. God loves people sitting on councils, and boards, and committees. God loves people gathering to sing, and to make music, and to entertain others. This is all part of what was revealed about the kindness and love of God toward all human beings, as Paul saw it. God takes pleasure in such things.
It is also true that, just as each one of us needs to be thoroughly washed and completely renewed, the same is true of humanity, and all of its relationships, and all its work.

This is why it is so right, and so natural, to be appalled by the horrors, and evils, and injustices of this world; human against human, nation against nation. This is why it is so right, and natural, to react strongly to dishonesty, and hypocrisy, and corruption, and abuse, and greed, and the lust for power and control, and the disregard for freedom, and the disregard for life, and even sheer stupidity and wrong-headedness.

All these evils are calls from God to be “ready to do what is right.” But none of these are calls from God to forget to actually love each single human being (as God does) and to actually love the whole of humanity and trying to make it run fairly and in good working order (as God does).
The kindness and love of God for human beings, and for humanity, appeared when Christ came; when Christ was born into a human family and community, and nation, within which he lived, and taught, and healed, and suffered, and was killed on the cross, and rose from the dead.
In doing this Jesus takes away our sins. He takes away the ugliness of what we are when we live without God and God’s love. He takes away the power of sin to control us and rob us of hope. This is part of what God saves us from.

But God does not only save us from something. God saves us to something. God saves us to hope; to an everlasting hope, an everlasting life in which we are truly and fully alive. God also saves us to a life that imitates his life. As his life is motivated by love for each and every one, and also by a love for the whole human business; and as his love leads him to always be ready to do what is good for us, even at the cost of the cross; so he saves us to the same kind of love that is always ready to do what is good.

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