Monday, October 10, 2011

God's Power: A Faith Based Identity

Preached on October 9, 2011
Scripture readings: Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 9:18-27; Romans 1:1-17

When you meet a total stranger, and you want to know something real about them, what is the first question you ask, after you introduce yourselves to each other?

I ask people where they are from. People from small towns and rural communities tend to ask that question first. There are experts who get paid to study this. The experts say that the first question that people from the city will ask is: “What do you do?”

Nowadays, when I am in my home town, I am practically a stranger. I’ve been gone so long. It used to be that, when Maxine Dodge was editor of the Live Oak social column in the Gridley Herald, my activities would get reported in that paper because I worked at the Community Cannery when Maxine was the office manager, and she felt motherly toward me. But Maxine passed away years ago, and so I am no longer mentioned in that newspaper.

But my dad was so active in the community, right up to the end of his life, that I can introduce myself to people as Ken Evan’s son, and then people know who I am. Or I can say, “I was in the Live Oak High School class of ‘69.” Then people will ask me who I went around with in school. So now, in my own home town, my identity is based on the people to whom I belong.

This is what it means to be a Christian. It means having your identity based on someone you belong to. Paul addresses his letter to the Romans and to you, and he establishes your identity based on your belonging. Here is how he puts it to the Roman Christians and to you: he says, “You also are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:6-7)

These words are full of belonging. They are full of the language of relationship: love, grace, peace.

Even Paul’s identity as a servant or (better translated) as a slave of Jesus Christ, is not about the question of what he does. His identity is about the issue of the one to whom he belonged.

In the Greek and Roman world, to which Paul was speaking, a slave could legally be asked to do anything. Even if you once belonged to the nobility, but lost everything you had, and were forced by your debts into slavery, you could be sent to work in the mines if you made your owner mad. Being a servant or a slave had no legal job description. It was a relationship, and what mattered most was the one to whom you belonged.

Paul identified himself as an apostle, but apostle was not the title of a job. It meant someone who was sent on a mission, and that mission was to serve, in whatever capacity necessary; as the representative of the one who sent you.

You and I, in our own fashion, are also apostles. Each one of us is sent about our lives as a representative of Jesus Christ. There are instructions and guidelines for this, but no written job description. We might be asked to do anything, within the limits of the love and the holiness of God.

I tell people that I don’t have a job. I am a minister. I change light bulbs. I visit people in the hospital. I moderate meetings. I write, and fold, and address, and stamp the newsletter. I turn on the furnace and the heaters in the winter time. I preach. I belong to the Lions, and the Grange, and I serve on the Park and Recreation District Board, and maybe some other things as well, because I am a minister.

I talk to people. I have painted the trim on the church. I get the little candles ready for the Christmas Eve candlelight service.

Some years ago, I spent hours, in the middle of the night, talking to a guy who was holding a revolver to his head. I didn’t like doing that at all. I didn’t realize I was going to have to do that when I got a call from his family and went to see him. I only knew he was having a hard time.

Not long after that, I got a similar call from his family, and I called 911, because our elders told me that was the right thing to do. But I did get a friendly call from him, from out of state just a few months ago. He’s doing OK now.

This is just a part of my relationship with Jesus, and with you. It seems to be what I am here for. I am a servant. That is what the word minister means: servant; or, maybe, sometimes, even a slave like Paul. Some people resent being a servant or a slave. Paul didn’t resent it. He boasted about it. How can I do anything else?

Well, what will you boast about being? You are ministers too.

Neither your ministry nor mine, neither your calling nor mine, has any real job description. We have a relationship, and we represent Jesus Christ in that relationship.

Now Paul, in his letter to the Romans, has a lot to say about faith. It is about what we call, and what the Bible calls, being saved through faith.

Paul talks about “the obedience that comes from faith.” (1:5) Paul talks about how one person’s faith can encourage the faith of others. (1:12) He talks about “a righteousness from God…that comes by faith.” And he quotes a line from the Old Testament prophets, “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:17; from Habakkuk 2:4)

We completely misunderstand what faith is when we treat it as a question of, “What do you do?” It would be much better to see faith in relationship to the question of, “Where are you from?”

The answer would be, “I come from God, through Jesus Christ.” To my way of thinking, that would explain what it means to believe and to be a person of faith.

To come from God, and from the Son of God, is to be a certain way, a certain kind of person. If someone from the city wondered why it is that, when I am outside, I turn to look at each car that comes down the road, I would tell them that I grew up in a small town, and people driving down the road are probably people I know.

You wouldn’t ignore a person who comes into your room. You can’t ignore a person who drives down your road: not when you come from a certain place. Faith is like coming from a certain place where you have met the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

That place is called the gospel. Gospel means good news. It is the good news of God (1:3) and it is just as much the good news of the Son of God (1:9). In the same way the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. (8:9)

It is all the same work. It all comes from the same place and the same heart. It comes from the heart of the one God who made heaven and earth. We belong to the God of good news, and that good news is about love, and grace, and peace from the Father and from the Lord, the Son Jesus Christ, communicated to us, in power, through the Spirit.

We misunderstand faith, because we think it is about something we do. We think that faith is a deal, a bargain, or a transaction. We think that we pay God our faith and he pays us with salvation and with the other things we want.

But salvation is not a payment. Salvation is life. “The righteous shall live by faith” Notice he says, “The righteous shall live.”

We misunderstand what righteousness is for the same reason that we misunderstand what faith is. There are so many uses of the word “right”. We make being right a matter of proving something, or judging others. It ought to be a simple thing for us to know that sometimes things are just not right.

When my mom was in the hospital (and even now, while she is getting better) things were not, and are not, quite right with me. I did not like the way my mind and my emotions were working.

I was much too sensitive about things not being the way I wanted them to be. Even little things were not right. Nothing felt right in my gut. I was not steady inside. I think my sisters and I found ourselves understanding each other less, instead of more, the way we needed.

Something went wrong with my brain, so I had more trouble taking things in properly and keeping everything straight. This is not changing the proper meaning of the word “right” to make it mean something else. I was not quite right; not quite right with my self, not quite right with others, not quite right with the world, and maybe not quite right with God.

That is the issue that God has with rightness, and the Bible uses the old word righteousness to describe it. Righteousness is being right in your relationships with God, and with others, and with the world you live in, and with your self. The human race went wrong and took the whole world wrong with it, so now God wants to make us right and to make the world right through us.

This is part of the righteousness of God. It is essential to what God wants to do, what God wants to empower. It is why the Father sent his son into the world. He wants your life to be taken over and co-opted by his good news and set right.

It is not good news about what we have done. It is not even about what we can do or will do. It is about what God has done, and what God can do and will do to empower a new life.

Paul gave thanks to God through Christ (1:8) because God through Christ made a new relationship possible where our lives are made right and righteous. And we can be part of making other people’s lives right, and making this righteousness a part of the world we live in as representatives from God.

God entered the world and became human through Christ in order to form a human and divine bridge, so that we could cross from a life of separation into a life of relationship. The bridge began with God’s becoming human like us; and God’s work led to his carrying our sins, and sharing our fears, and the injustices of the world, and pain, and death on the cross. And the bridge was made complete when God, through Christ, broke the power of sin, and death, and hell in the resurrection.

When Paul says that Jesus, “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead,” (1:4) he means that the Holy Spirit brought the fact of the resurrection of Jesus home to us, in our hearts. When we are called to faith in the good news of God and of his Son, it means that the Holy Spirit confronts us with the great things that God has done, in the humility of his heart. The Holy Spirit brings it home to us, with a power that makes faith possible. We find our hearts and minds opened to a faith inspired and made possible by the Holy Spirit.

Faith is a word of belonging and relationship. It is not a bargain. The Holy Spirit makes the good news of the beauty and the power of the love and grace of God real to us. We see it, and we must surrender to it. It would suck the life of us to ignore it. It would break our hearts to deny it:; and that is faith.

It is like falling in love, but hormones have nothing to do with it. Who would say that falling in love was a transaction? You see a certain human being in such a way that you want to belong to that person and have that person belong to you.

As a result, it is true that you will do things you would never have dreamed of doing before, but you don’t claim the credit for that. If you tried to claim the credit you would not really be in love.

Faith is a word about belonging because trust is essential to it. When you have faith in a ladder, you climb it with confidence. You entrust your self to the ladder. But you are not bargaining. You are not giving the ladder your trust so that the ladder will give you something back and keep you safe.

A ladder, of course is only a thing, but we often put our trust in things. It is like the credit card commercial where they ask you the question, “What do you have in your wallet?”

Maybe you have money in your wallet. Your money represents what you have worked for and what you can get as a result of your work. How much value do you place on what you have earned; and do you think that what you have earned can do much between you and God? Is any love really required for that?

The commercial is about a credit card, and some people think that credit gives you the power, for a while, to buy something you may not be able to afford. Some people make faith into the power to get from God more than you can get by yourself. You get more than you can afford because of the credit someone has extended to you. But that is not about belonging, or about the relationships that matter, unless getting what you want is what truly matters.

What have you got in your wallet? Maybe you carry pictures in your wallet; pictures of people you love, pictures of people who love you.

Those pictures have very little to do with what you deserve, or what you have earned, or what you have the power to get. If your pictures are of people who are there for you because of what you can get, they are not there because of love.

Those pictures are the most valuable thing in your wallet only if they are about belonging and relationships. They, also, are about faith and faithfulness. Those pictures better be the most important things in your wallet.

Faith is about what you value and what you trust. Paul and the writer of Psalm 25 talk about the connection that faith and trust have with not being ashamed. This has to do with what is enough for you.

What is enough for you? What do you value? If you have not received what is enough, if you have not received in life what your heart desires, you may feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Paul had a brilliant and energetic mind. He had a lot of potential and the will to put that potential to use.

He started out on an ambitious career in the religious establishment in Jerusalem. He used the persecution of the Christians to advance his career, and he played an important role in the arrest and the killing of Christians.

He could have become a person of power and he could have used that power for gaining wealth. But he left that life because he met Jesus, and could not say no to Jesus.

He became a tremendous disappointment and an example of failure to many. There were people who came to be ashamed of their former association with the ambitious Paul. He became an embarrassment to them

But Paul was not ashamed of this change in his life. He was not embarrassed by the turn he had taken. He had not stopped being ambitious; only his ambitions had completely changed. It was an ambition that his old associates did not share.

Now Paul was coming from a completely different place. He wanted the good news that he could not earn or bargain for. He wanted the love, grace, and peace of God that he found in Jesus. And he wanted to belong to the people who loved the good news.

Faith is our response to something in God that only God has, and only God can give. Faith is not just an effort or a bargain made by our minds, and wills, and energy. The relationship where faith is alive is, as Paul says, in the power of God, and it is all about relationships from first to last; or it is all about faith from first to last. (1:17)

There is a book I love that was written in the late sixteen hundreds by a Scottish minister name Henry Scougal. The title is “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.” For me, that title (The Life of God in the Soul of Man) describes what happens when the gospel comes to life for us and we respond in faith. It is the power of God.

Faith is our surrender to a relationship of trust in the God of the good news, and that good news becomes our home. This is where we come from now. It is all about belonging and the one we belong to.


  1. aw, so sorry...i wish a speedy recovery to your mother, pastor Dennis.

    it's weird...we feel really strangers when we go back to our home town after a long, long time.
    your dad sure was a great man!
    I was completely hooked by this wonderful write, thanks so much for sharing.
    realizing that your posts always give me strength and hope.

    thank you for being you, pastor Dennis and for continued support!


  2. hello...I'm from Portugal...and I'm a teacher! )portugueseliterature) I apologize for my poor English....
    I live in a small town , 10Km far from my small village. Ahs yes...I feel like I do not belong there any more.

    I see God's power every every litle /big things!

    Thank You , Pastor.

    The best to your mother, Ok?

  3. @ Betty: Thanks for your prayers. So far we think our mother stands a good chance of returning home. But we, and she, experience some anxiety in this direction.

  4. @ Blue Shell: How nice to hear from you. I grew up in a town of less than 3,000 people and now I live in a town of about 300 people. I am glad you see God's power every day. It is the truth. It is how we live as the children of God.
    I grew up in a place in the state of California where there were many people who spoke Spanish, and there were also some immigrants from the Canary Islands whose parents spoke Portuguese. It is a beautiful language. It is like music, a bit softer and sweeter than Spanish. What an honor to hear from you!

  5. Here I am again, Pastor Dennis.
    God bless you and your family in this day.
    I'm going to work. I'm a teacher os portuguese literatura.
    I must go.
    Nice to come here.
    Thank You.