Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Keeping It Real

Preached on Sunday, January 31, 2016
Scripture readings: Mark 12:28-34; Romans 12:1-21
Walking Along Lower Crab Creek: Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2016
One of my favorite authors is G. K. Chesterton. He wrote this about the love that God requires. He said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
God came down to earth to be one of us and to die for us to make us “new creations.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The truth is that we do a better job of being that new creation with some people than with others. By pairing up two separate commandments and saying that they are like each other, Jesus told us that it was just as important to love others as it is to love God.
Jesus asks even more of us than that, if we are committed to loving God. In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
This means that God loves his enemies, and so God must love our enemies too. God wants our love to be just as real as his love.
I had a Christian friend in college who told me that he never said “God bless you” to anyone he didn’t know was a Christian, because he was afraid to ask God to bless anyone before he saved them. My friend knew the Bible really well, but he didn’t seem to know that Jesus said that God already was busy blessing those who didn’t believe in him.
Paul said the same thing, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14) We are command to bless everyone, even our enemies.
You know that blessing is more than a matter of words. God’s blessing is always more than words; more than talk. How could we dare to follow him, otherwise? Our own love and our own blessing of others are required to be more than words if we want them to be as real as God’s blessing and God’s love.
I have had Christians be very nice to me in words. I thought they meant it, but I found out by experience, later, that they didn’t mean it at all.
The Bible says, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Love is a relationship. God is a relationship because God is one, and God is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so, in the matter of love, God’s love (in himself) is multi-focused, or multi-layered. Jesus, with his take on the Ten Commandments, wants our love for him (our love for God) to be as real as his. To make it real (as real as his) Jesus insists on our love being multi-focused, and multi-layered.
God made his loving actions so physical and so extreme that he died on the cross to make you a child of his love and this love of his was for the whole world. It’s impossible for God to say “I love you and I bless you” without making that love and that blessing as radical and as real as it can be.
Where would we be in a world where God didn’t love enemies? Paul tells us that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” And Paul goes on to say, “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be save by his life.” (Romans 5:8 & 10)
When you read the twelfth chapter of Romans, you might notice three focuses of love. There are three layers of love that are required for the Christian life. It’s almost like a Trinity of love.
First there is the priority of love for God which we must make into more than words. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God: this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Every outward action of ours is meant to be part of our worship of God.
Second, Paul said, “So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 5:5) So our second priority of love means to belong to our brothers and sisters in Christ, in more than words. We love them with our actions.
At the point of saying, “Bless those who persecute you,” ( Romans 12:14) Paul pointed us to those who are on the outside of the Church. He told us to love them with more than words. We love them with our actions.
By doing this Paul wanted us to see that those who seem to be outside the church are not outside of us. They are not outside our concern. They are not outside our love: the love that loves with more than words. Our love for those outside is a priority in the love that God requires.
Paul meant that we can’t let our neighbors rejoice alone. We can’t let them grieve alone. (Romans 12:15) Paul challenged us to do what everyone can see is right. “Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:17)
Scott and Elmarie Parker are missionaries whom we support directly. They serve in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Scott wrote recently about a particular Presbyterian Church in southwest Syria. He didn’t say the name of the town where this church serves, for obvious reason.
Scott wrote about an Arabic word “hadara”, which sort of means “good culture” in the sense of being a positive influence on the community. That one congregation helps Muslim widows whose husbands have been killed by ISIS and who are neglected by their own families.
Many Muslim neighbors of this congregation are afraid that the Christians will leave. One lady told the pastor’s wife, “You people cannot leave. You are hadara. You are good culture: you are the positive, the life, the hopefulness that keeps our community going.”
Our churches in the Middle East shelter people when they need shelter. They often run their own schools for children (no matter what their faith, and in their schools they respect the faith of all the children and their families). There is a Muslim father who said this: “The Islamic schools are becoming more and more fundamentalist and teaching our children violence and hate. At the Christian school, they are learning a way of love and peace. We will send our children there.” (Scott Parker, “Good Culture: Hadara in the Middle East”; The Presbyterian Outlook; Feb. 1, 2016, p. 12ff) 
We are called to love like that. It is never enough to love God. We must first love each other so that we can be a school for real love and real peace even for those who seem to be outside.
The people around us need to know that we are a family that consistently, year after year, loves each other, and lives in together in a peace that is more than words. This is how they will respect us and be interested in us. When we love like this we will know how to help our neighbors with a power that comes from a love that is real in every way.
In the matter of words, I honestly try to love other people with my words. I especially try to love you with my words.
This is not easy for me, because there was a long tradition, in my family, in which Evans men were raised to be wise-guys. We were raised to say just about anything that came into our heads. Both my cousin Don (who’s a better Christian than I am) and I have been trying to break our part in the cycle of wise cracking for years.
Sometimes I have to apologize for what I say to you. I try to do that from the depth of my heart. But you don’t see me at my worst.
God sees me at my worst. I have to apologize to God, every day, for what I say to him. The truth is that I am probably more real with God than I am with you. But God knows what I was raised to be.
Part of how we practice getting real with God, and with others, is to pray what comes naturally and listen to ourselves while we do it. Prayer is never talking to yourself, but any conversation requires that you be able to hear yourself for what you are. Your love and your life with God can never be real without this.
In this church’s current adult class we have a prayer journal in the material. We are learning to pray in a way that is designed to renew us and renew our church. That is probably the most important thing we are learning. And I hope we can learn to talk about our prayer life together.
I hope we are learning to listen to God. I hope we are also learning to listen to the character of our own heart speaking, when we speak to God. We have to know who we really are in order to be real with ourselves. That makes repentance and a new creation possible. Then we learn to be humbly, repentantly real with God.
For the church to be the real body of Christ we, first of all, have to avoid being like the Evans men at all costs. Then we have to learn to be humbly and repentantly real together.
That’s part of why we confess our sins together. It’s not for pretend humility and pretend repentance. It’s for practicing being who we truly are: the sinners saved by the love of God, all in the same boat together.
Church is not a place but a people: especially a people who know about the living sacrifice of self and about the healing of our souls and our sins. We learn new ideas about our relationships within our marriages and families, about how to be well functioning new creations. Together, we get new ideas for how to help each other in our need and how to compassionately experience and care for the needs of others.
Churches don’t always do this and the result is destructive and hard to heal.
I have seen churches turn people’s lives and families’ lives completely around. These were spiritual turnarounds, of course, but the turnarounds were so real that they went deep in every way.
The whole church loved these people and these families. The whole church took care of them, and didn’t judge them. I’ve seen churches do this work for years and bear fruit.
I know you have tried this. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But sometimes it does work.
This kind of work is only a small part of what we want to be famous for. We want to be trusted for finding ways of taking care of others, and of our communities, and of the world.
How can you make your neighbors gladder than ever when they see you coming? If you ever thought that our community and our surrounding area lacked something, what would that be? Is there something basic that can show how our love is for real?
Don’t just think about this: pray about this.
First of all we need to know the power that makes love real. This power is the radical, sacrificial love of God in Jesus. This power comes when we live together, for real, on the foundation of prayer.
The real prayer is not only the prayer that changes things, but the prayer that changes us, and changes our church. It’s the prayer that makes each one of us to look like Jesus and to love like Jesus. It’s the prayer that makes our church look like Jesus and love like Jesus.

Let us love our neighbors, whether they are in or out of the church. Let us learn how to belong to everyone, just as we have learned how to belong to each other. Scripture says it: offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. That will make us real.

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