Sunday, July 28, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Holiness

 Preached on Sunday, July 28, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 49:8-16; I Corinthians 5:1-23

Vacation: June 2013
Walking East of Live Oak, CA
There is a glaring example of sin in the fifth chapter of First Corinthians. It really seems too horrible to talk about it and so I am not going to do it. I am not going to speak of it. Yet the presence of a glaring sin in that church in Corinth, and knowing how to deal with it, is at the heart of what it means for us to be the people of Jesus and his body at work.

The normal Greek word for sin is an archery word that essentially means missing the mark. It can mean overshooting, or undershooting, or going wide of the mark to either side.

The sin in the church at Corinth was so glaring that it would be like an outrageous act at an archery competition. Imagine that the presenter of the gold medal is the little daughter of one of the officials. Imagine that one of the archers comes up and (instead of shooting across the field at the bull’s eye) he turns toward the officials’ podium and shoots the little girl.

The glaring sin in the church in Corinth seems like a sin on that outrageous order. Yet Paul compares this glaring sin to some other sins, like greed, and lying, and cheating, and drunkenness. (1 Corinthians 5:10-11)

Actually Paul calls the lies something like slander; and he calls the cheating something like swindling; but is there really any difference? And how can lying (or slander) and cheating (or swindling) compare with the truly outrageous?

Have you ever told a lie?  I have. How do you know that you never will lie again; ever? Or, have you ever allowed anyone to remain seriously uninformed? I have. Can you guarantee that you will never do that again? And yet think of all the trouble it may cause if you don’t quietly leave that person uninformed.

And what can you say about the condition of truth in a world where everyone finds a socially compelling reason to tell a small lie every now and then? And, then, who has any right to complain about the condition of truth in our world? Who has the right to blame anyone?

I have no stomach to talk about the glaring sin in the church at Corinth. Instead, here I am, talking about such a common thing as a petty lie.

I guess I could change the subject and talk about greed and selfishness. But I wouldn’t be changing the subject. I would still be talking about sin. Sin is sin.

On one hand, it seems to be so pessimistic, so gloomy, so negative to lump such little sins together with such a glaring sin. Yet, if we thought that all sin, by its very nature, was serious, then lumping them together would be necessary.

We do this with other serious things. We do this with cancer. There are big cancers and little cancers. There are cancers with good odds of treatment, and cancers with less good odds of treatment.

When we’ve been around that kind of thing much, I think we learn, as Christians, to deal with reports of cancer, or reports of the possibility of cancer, carefully. We give it a balance of encouragement founded in faith and concern founded in faith. We treat the big and the little with careful seriousness.

I had a small growth on my neck and my doctor said she didn’t like the look of it, so she cut it out (a couple weeks ago) and sent it in for a biopsy. The results turned out negative (which means no cancer). Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, I dealt with my waiting period carefully and seriously. I had about a week of wondering if my life was about to change, and just how much. I wondered what I would be willing to do about it. I wondered if I would take it seriously enough. Sure, I would take the treatments, but would I be willing to change my daily life forever in order to deal with it?

Paul was surprised that the people of Jesus who formed the church at Corinth could be proud. (1 Corinthians 5:2) Paul’s letter is clear. They were proud of their maturity, their wisdom, and their spirituality as a church.

I can never read about this pride without being curious about it. Were they ignoring the glaring sin in their church? Were they like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand? Were they thinking how modern and accepting they were?

They were certainly living as if they were “not under the law, but under grace”, which was the kind of thing that Paul often spoke about. (Romans 6:14) By being proud they could claim that they were only following the advice of Paul, himself. But Paul saw nothing of this in them.

Paul could see that they didn’t understand sin, or God’s law, or God’s grace because they didn’t understand God’s holiness. They didn’t understand what it meant to be holy. “Holy” isn’t a word that Paul used in the verses we have just read; but it is in his letters to the church in Corinth.

In the next chapter (the sixth chapter of this letter) Paul gave us a picture of holiness. He wrote: “He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:17)

Sometimes holiness sort of means “being different”. It doesn’t mean being strange, but different in a way that may not be very well understood. It means crossing a boundary into a whole different way of life that you could never have imagined before.

“He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” This represents a huge step in the direction of not being single: holiness means being in a relationship. Holiness is a partnership. It is being a member of a team because of love.

Holiness is like marriage, in which you become a new person because you are joined, in the core of your being, to another person. Holiness is the highest marriage, because it is like being married to God. The Church, in fact, is called “the bride of Christ”. (Ephesians 5:16-18; 2 Corinthians 11:2-3; Revelations 21:2)

In the spirit of marriage, everything else falls into a new place; or else the marriage doesn’t work because you, or your spouse, are not diving into it. Someone has not completely surrendered to it.

I am not married in the conventional sense of the word; but I am married to Christ, and I am (in some way) married to the church. My marriage to Christ makes my life follow a different set of rules.

My being a Christian and my calling as a pastor to the people of Jesus require that I relate to others, and even to myself, in a way might not be very clearly understood by those who do not know Jesus, or what Jesus may ask of those who have positions of responsibility in his church. But this is true of every Christian.

The word “holiness” can make us think of a life regulated by a lot of rules, and commandments, and expectations; but the rules are really only the shape of the marriage without the spark of the marriage. Holiness doesn’t even mean always being in harmony and total agreement with God. Holiness means having in your relationship that you would never part with: having something that just clicks and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Holiness means having the instinct, or the motivation, or the love that is required to be “one with the Lord in spirit”.

The glaring sin in the church at Corinth could have seemed like love. The people who were involved would have pleaded for love as their defense.

We don’t know, for sure, if both the parties were Christian. It seems clear that one of them was Christian. I simply think that the one who was a Christian was held in a higher marriage to Jesus, and that marriage that should have prevented that glaring sin.

I believe that we do not always listen to the spirit of our marriage to Jesus in our other relationships. I believe that I can be very superficial and shallow in my marriage to Jesus, and that is where I, and my marriage, can certainly turn ugly. I make this beautiful thing, the good news of Jesus, ugly, when I don’t live completely in the spirit of my marriage wit him.

But that is not Paul’s greatest problem with the church in Corinth. Strange as it sounds, Paul was not nearly as mad at the glaring sin in the church as he was at the people who were ignoring it or taking pride in it. Strange as it sounds, Paul’s main goal was not for the church to punish the man. His goal was for them to love the man sufficiently. They did not love him nearly enough.

Even when Paul said to “expel” the man, it was not for the purpose of getting rid of the man. It was for the purpose of getting him back. In fact, the story of the glaring sin runs on into Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. In the second chapter of the second letter the church turns out to have listened to Paul, and expelled the man in question, and now Paul was pleading with them to do something for the man they had expelled. Paul wanted them to take him back: to comfort him, and to forgive him.

The problem is, how do you help someone who is messing up their marriage to Jesus; this beautiful and holy thing? How do you make them better?

In the world of the ancient church there was no other place to find the people of Jesus but in the church. In the world of the ancient church, going it alone was not an option. If you were married to Jesus, and even if that marriage was messed up, you need the protection of the friends of Jesus around you. You would miss the family of Jesus even if they were giving you a time out.

The expulsion was nothing more than that. Even the talk about delivering the man over to Satan doesn’t have to mean anything more than what it is like to not have the protection of holy friendships.

A family can be like a little castle with walls and towers, and so can the church, at its best. The only problem comes when the castle’s safety tempts us to stay inside our walls. We are tempted to forget God’s love for the whole world that he has made. We are tempted to forget his purpose in Christ to reach out to the world he loves so much. The church at Corinth forgot that it was the purpose of Jesus to reach out to the man they had expelled.

At first, the church at Corinth didn’t love its people enough even to notice, or to care, when they were going wrong. Then the church at Corinth didn’t love its own people enough to comfort them and nurture them when they were ready to change. They didn’t love them into holiness. They didn’t love them into growth. Paul got very frustrated with his friends, in Corinth in both of his letters to them.

When going it alone was not an option, expelling people was the best way to love them when they were going wrong. It was, as I said, like a time out. There was no real alternative.

There may be different ways today to effectively love the people of Jesus when they are drifting into trouble, or into absence. Ignoring them, or taking pride in ourselves, or not forgiving or comforting them is no good solution. Holiness has rules, but true holiness also has a spark. It has fire. It has a passion and a love that cannot turn the other way.

Paul doesn’t tell us who to judge and how to punish them. That is not his purpose. He tells us to love them enough to find a way to reach them and bring them back. If we don’t see this then we are very much in danger of being like the church in Corinth that was so frustrating to Paul.

If we are holy, if we are married to Jesus, we need to remember the wedding ring of Jesus (which is not a ring, but a mark on his hands). It is like the mark of God when he talks about being like a mother to us. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

I hate to say it (because I don’t like tattoos), but it is as if the Lord has a tattoo on his hands, and it bears the name of every soul and every life he loves. It is a pretty big tattoo, but God is infinite in his love. Jesus is God, coming into the world with a compassion that will not forget even one person that he loves. On the cross, with the points of nails, the hands of God were marked with his love and compassion for us.

This is the mark of our marriage covenant to Jesus. And the Lord says, “I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people….to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!” (Isaiah 49:8-9)

No one knows how to take sin seriously until they know how to love seriously. Paul said, “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief?” (1 Corinthians 5:2) Paul really meant the grief you feel in response to a death.

A long time ago in my ministry, I began to notice the comforters who would come up to a person who had lost a loved one. The best comforters were the people who knew a similar grief, a similar loss, of their own.

They almost didn’t need to say anything. Their presence was healing.

But I saw that, in comforting others, they were reliving their own grief in their own quiet way. Time had given them perspective in their loss and sorrow, but time did not give them forgetfulness. Time had brought more of Jesus to them, but it was the Jesus of the cross and the resurrection, and not a Jesus without wounds. But that is where healing and salvation get their power and become, living things.

It’s the same with the seriousness of sin. Our effective and loving grief for the sins of others can only come from our own experience of our own sins, and the wounding, and the dying, and the rising of Jesus for each of us.

Without that genuine grief and the love that comes from it, we are dangerous. Without that grief and love, we are more dangerous as people of faith than we would be without our faith. But, with the holiness that is built upon love, when we are one with Jesus in spirit, we can find the best and clearest way to say, “Come out! Be free!”

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Identity

Preached on Sunday, July 21, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 44:1-5; 1 Corinthians 3:1-23

Photos Taken June 2013:
In and around Living Memorial Sculpture Garden;
Near Weed, CA
A Presbyterian preacher got a call from a lady who was grieving over the death of her cat Homer. She wanted the minister to conduct Homer’s funeral.

The minister explained that animal funerals were just out of his line so he recommended that she call the Methodist preacher. Later he learned that his Methodist friend had referred her to the Baptists, who had referred her to the Pentecostals.

The next day, the woman called the Presbyterian back and she was at her wits end, because none of the preachers in the area would conduct Homer’s services. She was even willing to donate $5,000 to the church of the minister who did the funeral.

It only took a moment for the preacher to make up his mind. “Well, why didn’t you tell me, in the first place, that Homer was a Presbyterian cat? Of course I’ll do his funeral” (James A. Lang, The Pastor’s Story File, Nov. ’84)

 I’ve never done a cat funeral. If I did one, I would never ask for money. And it would have to be a very simple funeral. Also, if I did a cat funeral, I would never do it in the church because I think that most cats, like so many people I know, wouldn’t be want to be caught dead in a church.

So, if the story about the cat funeral were true, I would see it as an example of all the divisions in the people of Jesus only serving as an excuse to keep from being what Jesus called his people to be. And that is exactly what the divisions in the church were doing in Paul’s time.

Photos Taken June of 2013:
In and around Living Memorial Sculpture Garden
Weed, CA
In Paul’s time there were no divisions that we would call denominations. Technically, no one would have claimed to be separating from the other Christians. They knew that would be a sin unless, maybe, the other Christians were trying to kill them. But that wasn’t happening.

Toward the beginning of his letter, Paul mentions these divisions, and he asks, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) That would shut them up! At least it would keep them from talking back to Paul, if Paul were there.

They weren’t dividing the body of Christ. They were only saying that they liked so-and-so best.

“I like Paul best!”

“You’re kidding! I like Apollos best! He a better speaker by far! At least you can follow his sermons. You can tell he’s got an outline; and it’s the easiest thing in the world to take notes when he preaches. ”

“Apollos! That philosopher! What an egg-head! He’s way too intellectual! I like Cephas best. Good old Peter: there’s no one more down to earth than that old fisherman. And, beside, he’s the genuine article. He really knew Jesus, and I feel like I’m right there with Jesus when I hear him talk. He makes it all so real.”

The church of Paul’s time was not divided. There were only cliques. The church was a lot like being in high school, at least when high school is big enough to have cliques. Paul actually says that thinking like that is for babies.

I was in a clique in high school. Once a week, during lunch, I went to Chess Club. I hated chess, and I refused to play, but I hung out there because that’s where my friends were, and we nodded our heads when our science teacher complained about all the money spent on the footfall program. “They ought to abolish football and spend it on science,” he would say.

And so the business of liking so-and-so best becomes the easiest way to think that you are better than other people. In the church it means thinking you are better than other Christians.

My first church, after I was ordained, was on the Oregon coast where we had a lot of summer people. Of the summer people, one elderly couple was a retired Methodist minister and his wife. They came every summer for a couple weeks. They worshipped with us (even though we weren’t Methodist); probably because we weren’t Pentecostal or Southern Baptist.

One Sunday, after worship, the Methodist minister’s wife was talking to me about churches and she told me about whom she liked best. She said, “I’m so proud to be a Methodist, we are thinking Christians.”

It made me wonder if she thought that we Presbyterians were not thinkers. It also reminded me that Presbyterians would have turned the expression around. I had always thought that it was the Presbyterians who claimed to be the thinking Christians, as opposed to the ones who didn’t think.

 Paul believed that such cliques were sins. Such cliques kept Christians from being all that they could be. They always ended up defining themselves by whom and what they were against just as much as by whom and what they were for.

Paul saw that wherever there was the spirit of “I like so-and-so best” there was usually a deficiency in the Holy Spirit. Paul saw that this thinking sucked Christians into “jealousy and quarreling”. (1 Corinthians 3:3) It was not of the Holy Spirit.

You can see this in congregations. You can see it when new people come into a congregation and the established people want the new people to take their side and join their click.

You can see this in denominational conflicts. Every denomination has its cliques, and the cliques draw the lines for denominational battles.

You can see this in how different denominations see each other. Some stand up for the mind against the spirit. Others stand up for the spirit against the mind. Or, if it isn’t the mind versus the spirit, the cliques are about something else.

You can see this in the people who are so proud to be nondenominational. Even the anti-clique is a clique.

I’m not proud of being a Presbyterian, because I know what’s wrong with them. So I think I enjoy the safety of being in a clique I am not proud of.

All I know is that I’m glad I’m not a Methodist! But then, knowing how easy it is to be blind to our own sins, there is probably a lot of Methodism in me. After all, I was born one, as the saying goes.

Paul saw the cliques in the Body of Christ as a form of self-righteousness, and as a way to prove that they were smarter or more spiritual than the others. Paul says, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise.” (1 Corinthians 3:18)

In the next chapter of his letter, Paul wrote how the people in the cliques were congratulating themselves on how good it was to be them. “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!” “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (1 Corinthians 4:8, 10)

A strange process was going on, where the people in most of the cliques looked at Paul, and Paul’s best friends, and saw that they were always in some kind of trouble. The conventional wisdom told them that if Paul had all that trouble and struggle, then he wasn’t a success, and God wasn’t blessing him, and they would do well to like the other leaders best. Listening to Paul might very well put them in the same boat as Paul.

Paul told them to expect his friend Timothy to arrive soon. “He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:17) Paul claimed to hold the patent to the anti-clique formula

Paul’s “way of life in Christ Jesus” was the way Paul followed the one who died for his sins on the cross. Paul’s identity was that of a person who had been “bought at a price” and no longer owned himself.

Does it sound odd to say this, when we think about the importance of making choices about our life? Paul knew Christians who created an identity for themselves by choosing who they would be and what they liked best, and he also knew that they were (at the very same time) choosing a way of life that wasn’t really “in Christ” at all.

A way that was not the “way of life in Christ” had crept into their choosing who and what they liked best. That was the reason why they were doing so well. That was why everyone approved of them. They liked so-and-so best, and not Christ, and so they were living long, and prospering, and keeping out of trouble. They were not choosing Christ alone, or Christ above all else.

The so-and-so we like best, the so-and-so that defines who we are, may not be a person or an organization at all. It might be about being smart, or being spiritual, or being biblical, or being a survivor, or (in our case, in Washtucna and Kahlotus, up to this time) being the only church. There are ways in which we can make these into the center of our circle; and Christ who takes away the sins of the world is not at the center of that circle.

The so-and-so we like best might be what some of the people in Corinth were proud of. They liked looking good, being liked, being respected, being important, having what others were most likely to want. In a completely different way, the so-and-so we like best might be the chip on our shoulder that says “like it or lump it”.

Paul’s invitation to be a fool really tells us to stop thinking about themselves as a clique, or falling in love with the idea of creating a new identity of our very own. Later in this letter, Paul will say, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) In Christ, our identity is not a matter of who we are, but whose we are.

A clique may be our version of “whose we are”. Our clique, our people, may claim to own us, but only Jesus has actually bought us. Jesus is the infinite God who paid an infinite price for us on the cross. When you consider Jesus (when you truly see his wounds and scars) no one else can truly own you.

Paul will ask, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) Paul wants his people to be thankful for being invited and made into something much bigger (and yet much humbler) than a clique. “You are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:9)

Paul told his people that it might not be the “so-and-so” you like best that is responsible for working on you. God did the choosing.

For years, when I was a kid, I had a minister who hardly believed in anything. He didn’t really believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that Jesus died for our sins, or that Jesus rose from the dead.

I was eighteen before I really came to my senses about this. Then I complained to the Lord about it, and the Lord told me that I should listen anyway and there would always be something in what he said that was the Lord’s message to me.

This goes way beyond whoever might be a leader or a preacher. Just say that you are a fellow worker in God’s field and God’s house; and God’s truth is that you are called to work on others, and they are called to work on you. Pretend that all of you are entrusted with “the secret things of God” for each other. (1 Corinthians 4:1)

In one way “the secret things of God” are simply the great things of the cross that seem so foolish to so many people. They are only secret things for those who have not met the Jesus of the cross. In another way the secret things of God are the way God takes his most important things and works them out in ways we cannot imagine.

In the secret things of God, how do you even know what you are supposed to get out of anything? And if you don’t know what you are supposed to get out of anything, then how do you know who it is that will be the one to make it happen?

You are God’s field. You are God’s house. You and I are like stalks of wheat, or stacks of lumber, or piles of stone; and just what do we know about what God may be up to, and what people God may choose as the ones he works through in our lives?

God’s gift to you may very well be the last person you want to listen to, the last person you want to see; because this has so much to do with pride and ego, and because God has so much to say about pride and ego, and their danger.

Why not just know that you and I are fools? Let’s wait and see what we will learn and how we will grow until God’s time for us comes.

Paul wrote, “I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)

Who will teach us, who will build us, who will make us grow? Really, in the end, it will be God working through the foolishness of Jesus and his cross.

Only then will we even know who and what we are. In the mystery of the gospel, the truth is that none of us truly knows who and what we are.

God knows. And so our assumed identity, the very thing we are most sensitive about (and value the most) is not the most valuable thing about us at all. Our identity is not who we want to be. Our identity is not who we think we are, but whose we are. And this is all wrapped up in the mystery of Christ. We all belong to the hidden things of Christ who has been crucified for us. We are Christ’s, “and Christ is God’s”.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Excellence

Preached on Sunday, July 14, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5

Photos from Vacation, June 2013
Driving from Klamath Falls OR to Live Oak CA
Every now and then some people are able to kick back and say, “Ah, this is the life!” When people of faith do this, they can say two things about it: “life is good” and “God is good!” It’s about the good life.

Paul was interested in the good life (how to live well and how to think well). He paid close attention to this, and his letters to the churches show us how true this was. He wanted to see this good life at work in the people of Jesus.

For example, in his letter to the Philippians Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned, or received, or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the good life. Certainly it’s the life of peace. Surely it’s the life of excellence. If anything is excellent think it, say it, and do it.

Paul had an ongoing problem when he tried to lead people to this good life because (based on his experience and based on everything he knew about Jesus) he had such a strong idea about where this good life came from. Paul believed that the good life came from a cross. But he shared this message with a world that saw nothing excellent about the cross.

The message of this cross was the message of Jesus, and Jesus was such a wonderful guy. But it was God who came in Jesus and died a terrible, tortured, and bloody death on a cross outside Jerusalem.

The purpose of this death was to set a whole world of people free. It was to save humanity from a life that surely can’t keep on going the way it has. (How many times do we look at this world and say that things can’t keep on going this way?) The purpose of the cross was to save humanity from a way of life that ought to be completely unsustainable to a life that is so good that it will never end.

The kingdom of God is the kingdom of this new way of life; this future that God promises to those who believe. The problem has always been that the key ingredient of this kingdom was (and still is) the terrible death of the king of this kingdom on a cross.

As Paul found, the problem was that the heart of this message was ugly, painful, and about human evil. We have never seen a real death on a cross, no matter how well it may be portrayed in the movies. Nevertheless, we still know that the cross was ugly, and painful, and (somehow) about human evil: our own evil.

The serpent in our own heart is slithering all around that cross. Who wants to think about this? Is any normal person really attracted to this?

Paul knew this was a problem. He ran across the conflict over and over again. Over and over again, when the subject of the cross came up, it was never surprising to find that the cross provoked a riot or the imprisonment of Paul and his friends.

Paul wrote this: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) “We preach Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)

The cross is the power of God. It is how God gets his best and most important work done.

The cross is the wisdom of God. It is how God thinks. It is what God loves and values.

The cross is the power and wisdom of God who is passionately devoted to loving us and creating a kingdom that will contain and nurture our new life, our good life; the best of all lives. The power and wisdom of God have designed a life for us where we are assured of living well and thinking well forever. It is a kingdom that will give us the excellence we were created for.

But, because the power and wisdom of God are cross-shaped, the hitch is that our living well and thinking well will have to be cross-shaped as well. It means that our life as a family and our life in the church will have to be cross-shaped.

If it isn’t, then whatever we choose to do and however we choose to think will not get us very far. Without the weakness and foolishness of the cross we will not give a very strong or wise showing in the end.

God’s cross-shaped thinking required a real cross for God to save us: to give us a sacrifice that was so extreme that there is no other way to receive it except by dying to ourselves. In order to have faith in the cross, and to really trust what God, in Christ, has done on the cross, we have to realize that our own need is just as extreme as the cross.

The cross tells us that God’s wisdom has taken a good look at our lives. God’s wisdom has taken a good look at the way our hearts and minds work, and God has seen that we are dying because of our distance and isolation from him. His thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not his ways. (Isaiah 55:8)

There is no life outside of him. The wisdom of God tells him that the only way for him to reach us, and the only solution for what is keeping us away from him, is for God (in all his power and wisdom) to die in our place.

Whatever is wise, or smart, or clever, or strong, or talented, or excellent in us is not enough to compete with the love of a cross-shaped God. “For since (in the wisdom of God) the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased, through the foolishness of what was preached, to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)

In Jesus, God came as a servant. Jesus said, “But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) This is what it means to know this God: to know the Jesus of the cross.

The church of Jesus in the Greek city of Corinth was a great church that was forgetting how to live as the children of a cross-shaped God. The church is the body of Christ and Christ is the head of the church; but the body of Christ in Corinth was acting like my body does. My body doesn’t always do what its head tells it to do.

The church in Corinth forgot who they were when the message of the cross first took hold of them. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27) There is something gallant about this; something excellent.

In Christ, the cross-shaped God hung on a real cross as if he were really weak and foolish, and this is how he served us and saved us. This same God called the Corinthian Christians and us to identify with his strange excellence.

We are called to be weak and foolish for the sake of the kingdom of God; or at least to be willing to feel that way. It is what we feel when we are facing our greatest challenges. It is what we feel when are seeking to live out our most important purposes in life.

I bet the best parents often feel weak and foolish in the face of their children. It must happen whether they are getting up in the middle of the night with their babies, or calming a child in the middle of a tantrum, or motivating their teenagers, or praying for their adult children. Surely such parents (in the middle of feeling weak and foolish) pray to say and do the strongest and wisest things.

Weakness and foolishness apply to friendship because (whether you are a child or an adult) friendship can call you to be more than a friend. It can call you to be a servant. How can you help your friend?

A community can make you feel weak and foolish. How do you get people to work together? How do you get people to drop their emotional responses for the sake of what needs to be done? To maintain a community requires people to serve even when (and especially when) their calling makes them feel weak and foolish.

The family of the church requires its members and its servants to feel weak and foolish with each other in order to go on acting like real Christians together. The calling of the church makes us feel weak and foolish when we think about how to share and live the message of the cross for the sake of those outside the church.

Family, friendship, community, church and so many other relationships: these are just a few of our special callings. The truth is that all of these callings are part of the good life. In every calling, the cross-shaped life is essential for excellence. The cross-shaped life is how we go the distance when we are tempted to take the easy way instead of the purpose of God.

Paul wrote about going to Corinth “in weakness, and fear, and with much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 2:3) This is because he knew that whatever he said or did among the people there (whether they believed or not) was (in the light of eternity) a matter of life and death. It was a matter of showing the way to life. Paul was no coward, but he took his serving seriously.

Our message is “Christ crucified”. It is about a cross-shaped God. The cross can represent so many of the challenges we don’t want to deal with and, yet, the cross is about love.

It is the love that is extreme enough to make a difference and nurture life. The cross is a message about gratitude and thanks for what love is willing to do. If we are weak and foolish, then we have a God who knows us just as well as he knows himself.

We have a God who will take responsibility for us. We have a God of patience. We have a God whose power and wisdom are perfectly matched to our every need. We have a God of grace revealed on the cross.

The cross is the power and wisdom of God. It is the way that God’s best work gets done in us and through us. This is the key ingredient for the good life. The cross is the real meaning and measure of excellence from God’s point of view.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Truth behind Freedom

Preached on Sunday, July 7, 2013

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; John 8:31-36

Photos from June 2013 Vacation
Shaniko, Oregon and the Drive toward Klamath Falls, OR
A warlord in central Asia liked to play the part of a judge. When prisoners were brought to him for a decision he would condemned them, and he would offer them this choice: the firing squad, or the black door. Most chose death by firing squad, even though they were never told what was on the other side of the black door.

A visiting general watched the warlord at his game, and asked him what was on the other side of the black door. The warlord answered, “Freedom, and only a few have been brave enough to take it.” (Timothy J. Helm, “Parables, Etc.”; May ’85)

Jesus promised to give freedom to those who follow him, hold onto him, listen to him, believe in him, trust him, walk with him, and do what he teaches. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

The surprise is that some of the people who had the most problem with this were the very people who believed in him. Why would the people who believed in Jesus, even for only a short while, not want to know Jesus’ brand of truth and experience Jesus’ brand of freedom?

When Jesus told them that they would know the truth, the message was clear that he thought they didn’t know the truth yet. They believed in him without truly know who he was. They believed in him in the belief that he would turn out to be something that he had no intention of being.

As Jesus spoke to them, they felt tricked. They felt that, with Jesus, they were the victims of a bait and switch scheme. When they believed in Jesus, they did it in order to buy a ticket to a destination of their own choosing. Instead, Jesus refused to give out any tickets except to his own destination.

They knew what they wanted. They wanted Israel to beat and rule the Romans. They wanted Israel to be the kingdom of God in the sense of being the boss of the world, and they would be in on the bossing. That was their truth. That was the truth that would make them free to be free with the kind of freedom they wanted. They thought that Jesus could make this happen. They thought that believing would pay the way for this ticket.

Instead, the freedom of Jesus was a ticket to an unknown destination. The only clue about that destination was Jesus himself. Did Jesus seem like the kind of guy who would let them be what they wanted to be, and let them have what they wanted to have?

Jesus was like a black door to them. He wasn’t to be trusted if they couldn’t depend on him to lead them on their own terms. Jesus offered them a truth that was on his terms. They would have to let Jesus always be Jesus and nothing else. And Jesus offered them a freedom that was probably going to turn into the freedom of being like Jesus and nothing else.

The truth was that Jesus didn’t accept the way they wanted to take him. He intended to be something quite different. And Jesus clearly had ambitions for them that were not to their liking. They didn’t understand Jesus and they didn’t understand what Jesus wanted to do with them. Jesus was a black door to them.

Jesus saw a truth about them that they didn’t want to see, and he wanted them to see this truth that they could not accept. Jesus had come to save them from a reality that they were desperate to deny at all costs. In the end they would rather kill Jesus than face the truth and deal with it.

And that is what they did, and yet that is exactly why he came.

The truth they didn’t want to see was their sin and slavery. The truth was that his kingdom would only fight to topple the kingdom of sin and slavery and the power it had over the human race.

In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament sin is often something like finding that you have crossed a line that should not be crossed. It means finding yourself stuck in a place you should not be.

In the Greek language of the New Testament, sin is an archery word in which you miss the mark. You are both the archer and the arrow. You overshoot or undershoot. You veer to the left or the right. In the end, you find yourself stuck in a place where you should not be.

In both cases you find yourself outside of your true home. You find yourself outside your true mark, your true place; the place of the prize, the place you belong. You find yourself outside of true freedom in a place you should not be.

Jesus used the image of slavery for this. The slave looks at free people without having the power to be one. The slave is on the wrong side of a line, or outside the mark. The slave can only look at freedom from the outside.

The Ten Commandments show us what true freedom is, as much as they show us what the outside looks like.

There are the commandments about the slavery of having other gods, and the slavery of making images of God. These commandments are meant to protect the freedom of having a God who is everything that God can be: the God of gods and the Lord of lords. (Exodus 21:1-7, Deuteronomy 10:17)

Deuteronomy says that we have a God of “great and awesome wonders” who wouldn’t be anything less; a God to fear, and love, and serve, and walk with; a God to hold on tight to, with all our heart and soul. How can we be happy with a God who is anything less; a small god who bargains, and negotiates, and changes his mind, even to suite us?

So many times, in our desire to be free, we have made choices that trapped us and hurt others and ourselves. The commandments tell us of the danger of seeking a smaller god who will let us be free. Jesus promises us the freedom given by the infinite God of gods and Lord of lords.

The law of the Sabbath is God’s protection against the slavery of not being able to rest, and not being able to enjoy and take pleasure in his gifts and his world. Sabbath is the freedom of rest, and peace, and appreciation, and thanksgiving. It is about joy and pleasure. (Exodus 21:8-11) It is about praise. (Deuteronomy 10:21) We are truly free when we can stop and count our blessings. In Jesus, God gives us everything we need. Only in Jesus can we be truly free.

The command to honor father and mother protects us from the slavery of thinking that what made you and shaped your life has nothing worthwhile to give you, and you owe nothing to it. The freedom to honor those who have been a father and mother to you, and even to honor those who did the best they could even when that doesn’t seem like much, is the freedom to say that you have something to give because of what was given to you. (Exodus 21:12)

Because of whatever shaped your life, because of those people who shaped your life, you know something that no one else knows. You have something to give that no one else has. This is the freedom to say that God never makes junk.

The commandments give you the freedom that comes from knowing that the lives of all people are holy, because they are made in the image of God. (Exodus 21: 13) Freedom comes from knowing that all relationships are holy and that they are not to be betrayed, because they give us a way of knowing the God who created us for a relationship with him. (Exodus 21:14) Freedom comes from knowing that the truth is holy because God made all things real, and God’s reality is not to be tampered with or broken by lies. God’s reality is the solid ground that we explore and build our life on. (Exodus 21:16)

Freedom comes from knowing that it is good for you to have what you have, and being truly glad for having it, knowing that you can make good use of it. And the same freedom comes from knowing that it is good for others to have what they have, and to be truly glad for their having what they have, and not needing to have it yourself. This is the freedom protected by the commandment, “You shall not covet. (Exodus 21:15, 17)

Slavery means looking at these great freedoms from the outside. Sin, in our deepest nature, makes us such slaves. Knowing the truth means knowing that God sets us free.

God bases his gift of freedom on real actions that he undertakes for our sake.  “He is your God who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deut. 10:21) It is the nature of the God we meet in Jesus to be the instigator, and actor, and achiever of our freedom. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

We are not made free by the inspiration of fine words spoken by the Lord, or by his best wishes for our success. We are set free by the direct actions of the Lord, who led his people out of slavery in Egypt in a real journey through a real wilderness to a real Promised Land.

We are set free by the real, direct actions of Jesus on a real cross, truly dying for our sins. He truly died like a slave, on the cross, to take our slavery away. He took our place so that he was the one looking in from the outside, on the cross.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses lets up on the language of slavery, and he simply calls God’s people aliens. Aliens are also people on the outside looking in. Moses told God’s people to remember the truth that they were once aliens, because the truth about being alien gave them the task of bringing others in; bringing them into the freedom of the people of God.

The Lord did real things for his people and he wanted them to remember this so that they would be motivated to do real things for others. The Lord who came to Israel in Egypt, and who came to us in Jesus, wants us to bring outsiders in. Who are the outsiders you know? Maybe there are people that you know you don’t know, and your job is to find a way to bring them in.

The Lord wants us to make slaves free. Who is living like a slave that you know? I mean, who is trapped, who is drudging, who is struggling?

Part of the glory of God is to do real things to bring outsiders in and make slaves free. This is the freedom of God.

If you want to have the freedom that Jesus died to give you, then be givers of freedom and guides to bring the outside in. Then you will have the freedom of being sons and daughters of God. You will be brothers and sisters of Jesus. No one is truly free until he or she is as gracious as God is gracious.

We are a nation with a story and a mission, to bring the outsiders in, and to set the slaves and the oppressed free (except those for those who were brought here to be slaves but, hopefully we have gotten beyond that). Our founders believed that maintaining a land of freedom was like offering a door to the world.

Freedom was the door to go through, in order to find out who you truly are in the sight of God, and to find the life you were created for, instead of someone else having the power of telling you who you are supposed to be. Because of the influence of the gospel and the Bible in early America, our founders believed that freedom was the door through which people could discover their identity as creatures made in the image of God. We are set free when we hear Jesus tell us, through his cross and his resurrection, who we really are

There were people listening to Jesus (and even believing in him) who decided that this freedom was not for them. They didn’t want Jesus to tell them who the really were. I wonder what became of them.

 Knowing the truth isn’t the same as knowing a thing, or an idea, or a fact. Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus, because Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) What Jesus says about “if you hold to my teachings (or to “my word”)” tells us to hold onto him, because the most important teaching of Jesus are about who he is, and what he will do for us and through us.

Faith is a way of holding Jesus so that we can know him. That is the truth behind all freedom.