Monday, January 31, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: Church of the Long Haulers

Preached January 30, 2011
Scripture readings: Jude 1-4 and 12-25; Mark 3:13-19

A long time ago I was talking to a member of the church I served on the Oregon coast. Her name was Margaret. She was in her eighties.

One day, when I was at her house, we were talking about this and that, and Margaret began to talk about age and time. She told me that as long as she wasn’t trying to move around too fast, and as long as she wasn’t looking in the mirror, she felt no different than she had felt when she was sixteen. I think this is normal.

More than once, I have had another kind of conversation. It is usually with someone in their twenties. There will be a twenty-something who is very discouraged about their life; about their education prospects or their job prospects. Or they are discouraged by other issues that seemed to be going against them. I try to listen and be encouraging. And, more than once, I have found myself telling a person who is going through this that this will all change, and the reason for this is because they have one special thing going for them. They are still young.

When I say this they give me a funny look because they don’t feel young. I think this is normal, too.

I have been looking at the Letter of Jude and the situation that Jude and his friends found themselves to be in. And it strikes me that Jude was writing to a church that did not feel young any more. Here was a group of people who gathered together to be the followers of Jesus, and they felt old. Their situation seemed to be against them. They felt they were falling apart.

The gospel (the good news of Jesus) told them that they were part of a great thing that God was doing in a dark and tottering old world. The good news told them that they were part of God’s new life in an old world that was falling apart. They were part of a new world that was coming.

But now they were falling apart themselves. Was there anything really different about them? What could they hope for, and what did they have to give to the world; since the world outside seemed to have come inside the church? For the older people it may have seemed that they had been present at the birth of the gospel, and now they were present at its old age and decline.

The reason they felt this was because they found that some of their leaders were saying and teaching things that had not been taught at the beginning. Jude wrote it this way: “They are ungodly men who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign and Lord.” (Verse 4) (The word “ungodly” here translates a Greek word that describes people who have no true reverence for God in their lives.) Changing the grace of our God into a license for immorality and denying Jesus Christ our Sovereign and Lord, works in a couple of ways.

A simple way to explain it is to say that these leaders and teachers claimed that since the Lord is gracious and forgiving, it doesn’t matter what you do or how you live. There are Christians today who claim that it is enough to accept Jesus as your Savior without accepting him as your Lord, or that you can trust him without having to follow him.

Another thing to notice is the phrase about denying “Jesus Christ our Sovereign and Lord.” Sovereign and Lord are God-words. They always applied to the God who made heaven and earth; and, when they are applied to Jesus, they mean that when the apostles’ met Jesus after he was crucified and risen from the dead, they realized that he was one with the maker of heaven and earth. The Father who created us, and the Son who died for us, are (together) the one and only God. It is right to call them both Sovereign and Lord.

The one who owns us by his death for us on the cross is the same one who owns our bodies and our minds because he is our creator. Our faith in the gospel and our life in our body (our marriage, our family, our community, and our world) are all one and the same thing. To use your mind and your body in a way that does not respect God’s design for you is to deny that Jesus Christ is your only sovereign and Lord.

This was basic stuff. It was serious. But the most serious thing of all, for Jude and his first readers, was the fact that there was confusion about this most basic stuff in the church as they knew it. They could see and hear it going on around them in the church that had received its teachings and practices from the first apostles.

It would be an understatement to say that they were disturbed by this and that they wanted to know what to do about it. Jude, in his letter, answers the question of what to do when you see error and confusion about the Christian faith and the Christian life in the church.

What do you do when the church is not at peace with the truth? What do you do when the church is conflicted about its most basic truths; about what a Christian is to believe and how a Christian is to live? Jude tells you what to do.

First of all, though, we need to see what Jude did not say. Jude did not tell those who were holding onto the truth of the apostles to leave or to start a new church.

We need to see that this applies to us as a church that comes down through history from the Protestant Reformation, when the church divided into Catholic and Protestant. The fact is that Martin Luther, and John Calvin, and the other reformers never wanted to leave the church or divide the church. In their heart of hearts, they never left.

They went their separate way only when the church they were trying to reform tried to kill them. The only historical justification for being divided from your fellow Christians, even when they are in serious error about the Christian faith and the Christian life, is when those other Christians try to kill you. I’m serious. This is what I believe.

The Second Letter of John tells us not to join in with those who are teaching a different faith and life than the apostles taught. This means we are not to be partners with them. It does not mean that we are to leave them. The ones who are faithful are never the ones who are supposed to go away. That never happens in the Old Testament or in the New.

What you are to do is “contend for the faith”. Jude writes, “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Verse 3) Contend means: “struggle, wrestle, agonize.”

Personally, I hate contention. I hate conflict. I hate raised voices. I hate accusatory and indignant tones of voice. I hate anger. And I hate hate. If I thought I hated someone else, I would get even by hating myself. But I believe that one can contend for what one believes without ever resorting to any of that.
Now I want to apply this to something that most of us dearly want, and yet something that we cannot always expect. In a world, so full as it is, of anger and injustice and conflict and selfishness and brutality and confusion, I want the church to be a sheltering place and a sanctuary from the world. I want it to be a place of serenity and joy and harmony. I want it to be place where things are sure and certain. I want it to be a sanctuary for truth and goodness; a place where truth and goodness are safe. I am thinking here of the church as a congregation, the church as a denomination, and the church as a whole (all the members, congregations, and denominations as a whole).

Sometimes I find that the church is a kind of sanctuary of truth and goodness, in certain places and times. But I cannot always expect this to be so. It’s not really so even in a single congregation, and certainly not in the church at large.

The church as Jude and his friends knew it was no such shelter or sanctuary. The church of the time of the apostles themselves was no shelter. Read the letters of Paul and Peter and James and John.

The Old Testament church (the chosen people, the family and nation of Abraham, called and set apart by God to be a blessing to the world) was no shelter for truth and goodness. Neither truth nor goodness were safe with the people of Israel.

The church where truth and goodness should have been safest of all was the Church of Jesus Christ in the form of Jesus, himself, and the twelve disciples or apostles. Apostle, by the way, is a word that means anyone who is sent. It is not a term for a particular leader or office (like a president or a treasurer). Apostle is a term for a role one plays, or a purpose or mission one serves. In the New Testament apostle means a person who has a mission to carry the message of Jesus.

Think of the little church of Jesus and the twelve as a sanctuary for truth and goodness. Read the place where Jesus chooses the twelve, and calls them, and gives them the invitation to be close to him. The whole point was for them to “be with him”, and learn from him, so that they would know what to say and do when Jesus sent them out for a purpose. (Mark 3:14) Think of the church as a sanctuary of truth and goodness as you read the last name on the list: “And Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

Jesus sent his apostles out into a dark world, but the darkness was within them. The church that stood the greatest odds of perfection, because Jesus was visibly and audibly present, was not a perfect church.

OK Judas sold Jesus to the authorities, but who did Jesus call “Satan”? It was Peter, the leader of the Apostles, who became the devil one day.

When Jesus warned them that he was going to be turned over to the authorities and killed, Peter took Jesus aside, and Peter rebuked Jesus. So Jesus turned around and rebuked Peter back, “Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man.” (Mark 8:31-33)

The church was never infallible. The apostles were never free from error. Think of the time when parents were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus, and the apostles tried to stop them. (Mark 10:13-16)

The apostles continued to be capable of saying and doing what was wrong even after the resurrection, and to the end of their lives. Paul wrote about catching Peter first serving the non-Jewish Christians and then distancing himself from them. What a hypocrite Peter could be. (Galatians 2:11-14)

Jesus called imperfect people and never expected the church to be perfect, not even as a sanctuary for truth and goodness.

Sometimes the apostles seemed to act as if they thought they were perfect. But those were the times when they were at their worst, and Jesus would see to it that they were set straight. (Mark 9:33-41)

If you think you find the perfect church, it is only an illusion. Preachers like to say it this way: if you found the perfect church and you joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect any more.

The friends of Jude were afraid that the church was getting old and failing apart. How could they go on when they seemed to be going backwards? How could they keep going for the long haul?

It was important for them to know that the church was not a place where God’s truth and God’s way for our life were safe. Jude gave them examples that served as warnings (from the history of the scriptures) that they were not safe: the people of Israel in the wilderness who grumbled at God; the angels in heaven who joined Satan in a rebellion against God. These examples were warnings, but they also served to show that God’s work always went forward. They tell us that, while God’s people are never a safe sanctuary for truth and goodness, God can be trusted to keep truth and goodness alive and safe.

Jude wrote of the bad examples from the past, that they were, “Grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.” (Verse 16) Have you ever, in your life, buttered someone up? Have you ever grumbled? Have you ever followed your own desires? I have! The name of the sin, here, is pride, and if we had the church we wanted we would become proud and we would fall.

If you want to “contend for the faith” as Jude tells you, then you have to contend with yourself as much as with anyone else. If you want a church that contends for the faith, then that church has to struggle with itself, if it wants to find any truth or goodness in itself. It cannot be the sanctuary and shelter that we all want it to be unless it struggles within itself and this is what Jude called his friends to do.

Jude talks about “the faith that was, once for all, entrusted to the saints.” (Saints by the way, are not people with halos. Saints means people who have been set apart for a purpose and people who are called to be different from others.)

But the fact that the faith, “was, once for all, entrusted,” can be a problem. It carries the danger of feeling second hand. It becomes the kind of thing that gets taken for granted. It becomes a matter of assumptions and a matter of talk, instead of a matter of experience.

The Apostle Paul says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10) God has given us something in Christ that is very nearly beyond human expression. It is almost beyond human ability to communicate it to others. Only the Holy Spirit can plant the seed of what we try to share and make it real. Only the Holy Spirit, can make it sprout, and grow, and live in any human life.

Sometimes this discovery seems to happen all in one moment. But really it takes a lifetime to grow and make itself fully known; and, even then, not until we meet God face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2)

Jude gives us ways to contend for the faith. He says to build yourself up in your faith. (Verse 20) The whole letter sheds light on this.

The old comedienne Gracie Allen used to say, “I never know what I think until I hear myself saying it.” Watch the clues of your talk. What do your harsh words say? (Verse 15) Where do your grumblings come from, and where do they lead you. What are the desires that you follow, without caring what affect they may have on others? (Verse 16) These tear down faith.

There are other ways of tearing down your faith. There is the way of wallowing; wallowing in your frustrations, your worries, your hurts, and your doubts.

You can build up faith when you realize that the love of God does not change; and, because of that, there is something you still can do, there is something you still can be, because God enables you to be made new by his grace.

Let God make you new. This is the same as what Jude says, when he says, “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” (Verse 21) Keep yourselves in God’s love.

Jude points us, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!” (Verses 24-25)

This is like a song, and Jude says it all comes through Jesus. Coming into the presence of God no longer fallen; coming to God as if you had no fault: this is what it means for the gift of Jesus (who died for you) to fill you with grace as you trust his extreme and crucified and resurrected love.

We can contend for the faith. We can wrestle for it as a church, as we keep the experience of this extreme grace fresh before our eyes. Everything that will make us able comes through Jesus.

Jude says that he “is able to keep you”. Keeping is guarding. The Lord himself keeps us and guards us all the time.

His faithfulness is unchanging. It is, “before all ages, now and forevermore!” just as Jude says.

This is the gift of God to his imperfect and struggling and contending church forevermore. This is the source of God’s grace and freshness in your life, for the long-haul, through Jesus Christ.

No comments:

Post a Comment