Sunday, September 28, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A series on the Epistles, week 3

The Right Answer Really IS Jesus!
Colossians 3: 12-17
September 28, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church, Greetings from Colossae!

We are the recipients of one of the Apostle Paul’s shorter letters. And we need to say, it isn’t even exactly clear whether Paul himself or one of his students wrote this letter to us. But Paul knew about us, and he knew many of us by name, as personal friends. Colossae was the home of Philemon, who was the one addressed in Paul’s very short letter by the same name. Our congregation was in a diverse medium sized city in what is now the country of Turkey. We were an established Christian community, but we had been led astray by some false teachings.

You see, all around us, in our city, were those who followed other beliefs. Some worshiped angels. Some worshiped the stars, practicing astrology and counting the stars themselves as deities. Others called themselves Christian, but they devised all sorts of special diets and secret rituals that were supposed to help them come to an exceptional kind of understanding and connection to God. As far as they were concerned, Jesus Christ alone wasn’t enough; there had to be something more that people needed to do.

In the letter to the Colossians, you’ll find an early hymn of the church, a song that was probably sung together by many Christians in the first century. It’s in what you would call the first chapter, although the letters didn’t have chapters and verses when they were originally written. Those weren’t added until much, much later.

Here’s a little bit of that Christ hymn:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

When you get a chance, read the rest of it. In fact, when you get a chance, read the whole letter – it’s only a few pages in your Bible. Meanwhile, listen for God’s word to you today in this part of our letter that is called Colossians 3: 12-17

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There’s an old, old church story. It might be true, and you’ve probably heard it. 
One Sunday a pastor was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children. He started, "I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is." The children nodded eagerly.
"This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)..." No hands went up.
"And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)..."
The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised.
"It jumps from branch to branch (pause)
and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited (pause)..."
Finally one little boy’s hand went up very slowly. 
The pastor quickly called on the child.
"Well," said the boy, "I know the answer must be 'Jesus'
... but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!"

Remember that squirrel – and the right answer. We’ll come back to it.

As I studied Colossians this week, I kept returning to the hymn to Christ in the first chapter, this poetic and beautiful statement of who Jesus is, what he does, his place in our world and in our lives. That hymn forms the very foundation of the text we are looking at today. Here it is in its entirety, from Colossians 1: 15-20, Common English Bible:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything. Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him— whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.”

And in the following few verses, we are given the application to our lives:
“Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he - Jesus - has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame. But you need to remain well established and rooted in faith and not shift away from the hope given in the good news that you heard.”

Stay firmly grounded – that was the message – don’t be swayed from hope in the gospel. You see, whatever it was that was going on in the life of the church at Colossae, they had drifted away from their purpose, their mission. They had lost track of the reason for their existence and the urgency of their work. So Paul calls them back to the center with this beautiful hymn, which was probably familiar to them, and then he reminds them of certain crucial facts – their identity, their vocation, and their dwelling place – Jesus the Christ.

After he called them back to themselves, to who they were in Jesus, he spent some time teaching and encouraging them in their actions. Some of that was in the negative sense – don’t be deceived; don’t be arrogant; don’t be led astray; avoid sexual immorality, greed, and corruption; set aside the old self, that was headed toward death. And then we come to this very positive instruction, framed in a lovely metaphor of what to wear:

Because God has chosen you, made you holy, loved you: wear compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Forgive each other as you have been forgiven. Then put on love over all of this, like a cloak, you will be covered in love. If you do this, Christ’s peace will control your hearts and you will be thankful people, in whom the word of Christ lives. That’s what you’ll look like. And here’s what you’ll be doing: Teaching one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Singing to God with hearts full of gratitude. And whatever you do, in thought or word or deed, you’ll do it name of Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.

Remember that TV show “What Not To Wear”? It ran for ten seasons! “ What Not to Wear” was the show where friends would nominate a woman whose wardrobe was less than optimal. After she was followed around and observed for a while, and if she agreed to the program, Stacy and Clinton would go into her closet, throw out all the clothes they didn’t like, then give her some fashion advice, and send her shopping for new clothes. Sometimes the subject would do alright, but mostly not. Then Stacy and Clinton would step in, show the woman how to dress, get her hair and makeup done, and she would stun her family and friends at the big reveal. People would gasp when they saw the transformation. Women went from dumpy to dazzling, from frumpy to fabulous. The woman’s kids and husband would cry tears of joy. Friends would be jubilant.

The show tapped into a feeling that many of us have, that feeling that we can look better, and as a result, feel better, just by changing our wardrobe. That’s how fashion works – that’s how they sell us clothes! Stacy London, one of the stars of “What Not to Wear” said it well: “Fashion is an industry to make money. It plays into human psychology. We want to belong, we want to be loved...”

Stacy nailed it – and the fashion industry taps into that place in us, that place that craves positive attention, that place that knows we could be better. We want to belong, we want to be loved. Somehow, if we are wearing the right thing, everything else will fall into place. We’ll be popular, we’ll be attractive, we’ll be successful.

This section of Colossians digs even deeper. It isn’t telling us what not to wear – it is giving us personal consultation on what to put on every single day.

Imagine that your shirt is compassion, 
your socks are kindness,
your trousers or skirt are humility, 
your shoes the footwear of gentleness,
your jacket is patience, your coat is love.

Imagine putting on Christ every day – not just wearing a cross on your lapel or on a necklace, but donning the nature of Jesus like a uniform, like a clerical collar, like a robe of love, every single day.

Throughout human history, what people wear has been a matter of interest. In first century Rome, only the emperor could wear purple; only male citizens who had reached adulthood could wear the toga. In the middle ages, only the wealthy could wear certain colors or fabric, and members of guilds and religious orders could be identified by their dress. The very rich dressed all their servants and often their children in matching uniforms, identified by a family crest or symbol.

It is not much different today. We still identify and classify people based on what they are wearing. Walk into a bank wearing a torn t-shirt and flip-flops – see if you are treated differently. Show up anywhere dressed in a military uniform, and watch the reactions. Wear a grass skirt and a coconut bra anywhere but a luau…I dare you! It really does matter what we wear.

But here in Colossians, whether you are wearing high heeled shoes or battle fatigues, or both! – what to wear is this kind of spiritual clothing that identifies you as a member of the Christian household. You wear it at home, to your job, on the golf course, at a picnic, when you’re vacationing, and when you go to church. You put on Christ, and you are clothed in love.

At the Academy Awards, when the movies stars get out of their limousines and walk down the red carpet with all the cameras flashing, someone always asks them, “Who are you wearing?” And they answer with designer names – Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Celine, Chanel, Givenchy, Versace. I haven’t noticed you all wearing those designers but I hope that anyone who meets us knows to whom we belong.

I told you at the beginning about the preacher and the squirrel, and about the right answer, and I said we’d come back to it. A couple of weeks ago, in the children’s time, Nan and I asked a question that really stumped the kids. We tried coaching and hinting, and they made a lot of guesses, but we weren’t getting there. Finally, Nan called out to Brayden,

“Brayden, what’s always the right answer?” Brayden looked up – I’m not sure if he’d been paying much attention— and he said, “Jesus?” Yes! Because in confirmation and in Sunday School, we joke with the kids that if they aren’t sure about how to answer our questions, they should answer “Jesus.” Because even if they are wrong, they are right! But most of the time, they are right.

Try it with me.

What’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
Who was born on Christmas?
Why do we celebrate Easter?
What living person can we always count on?
Who loves you more than anyone, and always will, no matter what?
Who is the head of the church?
Who calls the church together and makes us one?
Where should you turn when your heart is heavy?
Who are you wearing?

See, as it turns out, the right answer really IS Jesus!
May Christ enfold you, like a cloak of love, and may the love of Jesus dwell in you richly, no matter what clothing you have on. 


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 2

Invisible Strength
2 Corinthians 4: 7-18
September 21, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church, Greetings from Corinth!

As you can tell from your Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote to us in Corinth more than once. Since he founded our congregation, he had a close but difficult relationship with us. You can see from the map that Corinth is a major city between Athens and Sparta, on the Isthmus of Corinth. Our city was a large and bustling place, with ports on both the east and the west. We were a city of wealth and luxury, known for our temple to Aphrodite, and for our contribution to classical architecture called “Corinthian order.”

Romans, Greeks, and Jews lived in this populous city. When the Apostle Paul came to Corinth, in about 51 AD, he stayed for a year and a half, founding our churches and teaching us about the Lord Jesus Christ. After he wrote this letter, the one you call “The Second Epistle to the Corinthians,” he did return to our city. It was there that he wrote his Epistle to the Romans.

Paul had a lot to say to us, and sometimes he was very unhappy with us. You might say our congregation had some issues. We tended to get knocked off course pretty easily, following other teachers who seemed more flashy or more powerful than Paul. He called them “Super Apostles” but it wasn’t because he admired them.

But Paul loved us, and he wrote to us several times, sometimes in sorrow and sometimes more like an angry father. He wanted us to truly know and experience the light of God’s glory, that blinding light that struck him down on the road to Damascus, that light that shone in his heart – the light of the good news of Jesus Christ. That’s the treasure he talks about in this part of the second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4, verses seven to eighteen.

7 But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. 8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. 10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. 11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.13 We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke.[a] We also have faith, and so we also speak. 14 We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. 15 All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory. 16 So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. 17 Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. 18 We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Do you recall the first time something shattered, in your world? I don’t mean figuratively.

I mean something literally broke into pieces, beyond repair.
I have a vivid memory from my early childhood, with my brother John, in the dining room of our house. It was an old house, with high ceilings, wooden fretwork across the doorways, and pocket doors between the dining and living rooms. And there was a plate rail in that dining room, a high shelf on which Mother displayed her antique plates. I think I was about four years old. We were playing with John’s bouncy ball. I say we were playing, but it was mostly John, who was showing me how high the ball could bounce. Mother came in from the kitchen and told us to stop, to go outside before something got broken. “I won’t break anything,” John assured her. Mother was back within minutes, when she heard the sound of one of her antique china plates hitting the floor.

I remember that I was momentarily paralyzed -- in that moment when the ball bounced up and hit the plate, and as it fell, in slow motion, knocked to the floor. It was intact, as it fell, … it would be okay, it won’t break, it won’t break, please God don’t let it break… and then it was in a thousand pieces.

There was no repairing it. Mother had tears in her voice as she scolded John. “I told you not to play with that ball in the house… I told you something would get broken…” You know the speech. You could make it with me. This is why we can’t have nice things!

It was the first time I remember seeing something shatter.
But certainly not the last.

The Apostle Paul is making a somewhat similar speech in this letter to the church in Corinth. They are not, of course, six year old boys playing ball in the dining room. They are grown people, these early Christians, Paul’s spiritual children. And they are breaking his heart, moving him to tears.

For starters, they have apparently grown tired of this gospel Paul preaches. They’d rather not suffer, thanks anyway. They’d prefer a teacher who is more positive, more uplifting. All this talk of the cross, of Christ and him crucified, of suffering and pain.

Persecution? No thank you, we have other plans.
We want to be part of the church that promises prosperity, and we like these fancy preachers in their Armani suits and private jets. They promise us that if we are faithful enough, and if we support them well enough, our lives will be better. We will get what we want. Suffering is for the weak.

We like them better than you, Paul, with your bandy-legs and your suffering, with your “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” all that “I am crucified with Christ.” We don’t want to launch out in ships to preach the gospel to the world. We want our ships coming in to harbor, loaded with blessings like new and better jobs and houses and cars and money and success. If the last are going to be first, we’d like for that to start now.

Part of Paul’s letter is meant to correct this error in the people. We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s talk about Paul’s very understandable defense of his ministry. Ministers identify with this letter – we get it. We’ve stood at the door of the church, with someone shaking our hand, saying, “Sorry I missed last week, but I watched Joel Osteen on TV. He just inspires me like nobody else can.... So watching Joel Osteen on TV - that’s just as good as coming here, right?" 
No, even better – he is so inspiring. Unlike me.

Or this, “I watched that Creflo Dollar on television and he preached for 40 minutes without a single note! He was SO wonderful – telling about all the blessings God has for us. Maybe someday you can preach that well.” 
Yeah, maybe.

My ego wants to squeeze a little harder on that handshake and say, “Um, yeah, pay me a few million more and I’ll preach for forty minutes without notes AND WITH A LIGHT SHOW!”

Even worse is this comment: “I just LOVE that Mark Driscoll. He preaches doctrine STRAIGHT FROM THE BIBLE.” Because, yeah, I’m preaching here from….Reader’s Digest. This is where I should offer a disclaimer saying these three guys are men of God, and I’m not criticizing them. Don’t hold your breath.

But the point is not TV preachers – the point is this insidious teaching that leads people away from two truths that Paul is addressing in his letter.

The first truth: things break.
The second: sometimes broken things cannot be put back together again.

Things break. Sometimes, our lives shatter, smashed into a million little pieces, and there is no way to prevent that. Of course, sometimes things break because we are careless, or mean, or simply because we’ve made bad choices. And other times, everything just falls apart, and there is no calling it back, no do-overs.

We are clay vessels, fragile, common clay, easily broken.
Sometimes broken things cannot be put back together again.
Sometimes life is shattered by tragedy … grief … loss.
Our lives can be taken over by illness … depression…disaster.
It isn’t just a randomly bouncing ball shattering a plate. It seems like the universe conspires against us. And for those who don’t believe, or those who have given up on belief, this affirms their basic convictions. They may conclude that life is random, suffering has no meaning, and quite simply, life is horrible and then you die. They may conclude that God cannot exist, for what God would permit – or worse, inflict – such suffering on people? If God really is a loving God, why would we have such misery in our lives?

We are experiencing all kinds of trouble. We are confused. We are harassed. We are knocked down. Or, in the language of the New Revised Standard Bible, we are afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. We are handed over unto death! Not just Christ, and him crucified, but YOU, ME, handed over to be crucified, to be tormented, and unjustly convicted, and mocked. Maybe none of us have been literally nailed to a cross, but nobody escapes suffering in this life – nobody.

But we have this treasure, in these clay jars. It’s our super power, our invisible strength.
It is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”
It is a brilliant and blinding light, this light that shines through the cracks in these broken clay pots. The light shines from the face of Jesus Christ, whose death is like our death, but whose life is at work in us, even in the face of terrible suffering. Because of him, we can make meaning of our pain. Maybe not when we are in the midst of it – probably not then. But certainly as we take up our suffering, as we touch our pain and reach out to others to support them in their suffering, we begin to find meaning.

In our suffering, in our afflictions, we more deeply understand our happiness. We come to a place of deeper compassion for the struggles of others. We learn life lessons, profound truths about ourselves and the world, the truths that can set us free. We learn the true depth of grace, that unfathomable, mysterious gift from God that comes to us in the most amazing and unexpected times and places. In our suffering, we find the path to creativity, to change, to new life.[1]

Ultimately, we learn that life lesson that will continue to inform our faith in times of trouble and times of joy: what is essential is invisible to the eye. What is essential – our faith, Christ living in us-- is the unseen.

Our invisible strength cannot be seen, except in the ways we live – lives of grace, gratitude and glory. When that light of Jesus Christ shines through us, even if it is just through the cracks in clay vessels, it is impossible to miss!

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

Our invisible strength demonstrates itself in our daily lives as we reach out a hand to those who struggle, as we respond to tragedies, both personal and global, as we offer grace and forgiveness to others – friends and enemies alike, as we live in gratitude for God’s eternal love and mercy, as we give glory to God in Jesus Christ, who calls us to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. That’s our invisible strength. 


[1] Mehrtens, Sue. “The Gift of Suffering,” Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles

Walking in Love
Romans 14:1-18
September 14, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church,

Greetings from Rome!

We are happy to share with you this portion of a letter from the Apostle Paul. He wrote to us often, back then. Our congregation is really a collection of small house churches, like-minded followers of the way of Jesus who gather in private homes on the first day of the week to pray, sing, and eat.

Paul, as you know, was a missionary, who traveled around and founded quite a few churches in the area. He had not even visited us, when he wrote this letter. But he wrote to us to help us as we tried to figure out how to live Christ’s teaching in a diverse urban congregation. Some of us were Jews, others were Gentiles. Each of us came into the Christian community with our own cultures, backgrounds, beliefs and biases. Some of us don’t eat meat, others do. Some of us observe particular holy days, others don’t.

It’s important to tell you, these were not small controversies. We weren’t just arguing about whether traditional hymns and organ music were better than contemporary hymns and guitar music, as we’ve heard some of your churches do. We were arguing about whether or not it is more righteous to eat meat or to be a vegetarian…

Well, okay, that may not sound so important to you. But it mattered to us! We were not in agreement, and as you know, conflict in the church can be devastating. So in this part of Paul’s letter to us, he reminded us of the central point of agreement in our lives – Jesus Christ, and he cautioned us against judging others by our own standards.

He called us back to the truth – that our lives are in Jesus Christ, that the only one who can judge us is God, and that our call is to live together in unity and love, in order to bring glory to God.

We’ve heard that there are controversies in the 21st century church, and that some churches have split after some nasty fights. Our prayer for Christ’s church is that we will heed God’s call to faithfulness, so that the church can be a witness to the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. So listen, please, to this portion of our letter which is called Romans 14: 1-18

Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. 2 One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6 Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. 9 This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. 11 Because it is written,

As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me,
and every tongue will give praise to God.[a]

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

13 So stop judging each other. Instead, this is what you should decide: never put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of your brother or sister. 14 I know and I’m convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is wrong to eat in itself. But if someone thinks something is wrong to eat, it becomes wrong for that person. 15 If your brother or sister is upset by your food, you are no longer walking in love. Don’t let your food destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 And don’t let something you consider to be good be criticized as wrong. 17 God’s kingdom isn’t about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever serves Christ this way pleases God and gets human approval.

Remember when people wrote letters? Or when you were a child, and you wrote letters?

I don’t know if children still write letters, but we did. We wrote notes in school. "Do you like me? Check one." There would be two boxes, "yes" and "no," as if we lacked the imagination to come up with a free response to the question.

We had pen pals. We wrote thank you notes.We wrote to our grandmothers. We wrote to each other. I loved to get mail, so I learned early to write letters with questions. How are you? Did you take a trip this summer? What are you learning in school? How did you like the book I sent? Letters ask us questions, ask for a response.

Romans is a powerful letter. It is an epistle that offers as many questions as answers for Christians. These are questions that hang in the air, awaiting a reply. This letter asks for response, if we are paying attention. It was in reading Romans that Martin Luther came to the certainty of grace, which moved him to his effort to reform the church. John Wesley was reading Romans when he found his heart “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate and began what became the Methodist church.

Today we heard a part of the letter to the Romans that is near the end of the book. Paul has dealt with matters of law and grace quite thoroughly, in his lawyerly way. The law is clear, and we have failed to obey all of it all the time. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The consequences of that failure are separation from God – and death. But you have been saved by grace through faith, not by your own doing. God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a gift – undeserved and irrevocable. The mercy and love of God are beyond understanding - unfathomable.

Now, in chapter fourteen, some questions arise.
Like our childhood letters, this letter asks us – how are you? what have you been doing?
The questions are actually more pointed:
Who are you to judge someone else’s servants?
Why do you judge your brother or sister?
Why do you look down on your brother or sister?
Simple questions, right?

Underlying them are two crucial questions that get at the heart of our life together as Christians – not just in this congregation, but with ALL Christians everywhere. First – since you need do nothing for your salvation, what are you going to do? And second, now that you are completely at liberty in Christ, what liberties will you choose not to take? It should come as no surprise to any person who has been in church for any part of their adult life that the Apostle Paul thought it necessary to admonish Christians not to abuse their freedom in Christ and not to judge one another.

And it should come as no surprise to any of us that we are reminded to practice forbearance with one another. I like that word – forbearance. It’s old fashioned, isn’t it – a mixture of mercy, tolerance, and patience. It’s also a legal term – the forbearance of debt, in the legal world, means that the one who is owed a debt chooses not to enforce it. Think about that for a minute – it isn’t merely the agreement to disagree. It’s the acknowledgement that the debt is owed, and I choose to hold back, to NOT enforce the debt. In other words, when I practice forbearance, it means that I really am right, but I don’t press the matter. In spite of the fact that I am right!

There isn’t enough forbearance in our world these days. Most of us aren’t very good at it. I’m certainly not. One of my favorite pictures on my laptop is a sign that says, “I’d agree with you. But then we’d both be wrong.” I chalk that up to growing up with a lawyer in the house. Forbearance is a bit of a challenge. 

But that’s not just me.
Church is like that – forbearance is, well, it isn’t easy.
Mostly that’s because of other people, right?
It’s other people who are so certain that they know best, that their convictions are the standard for all behavior, and that all the rest of us are idiotic, or misguided, or sinful.
See, because it isn’t me – it’s THEM.
They are either ignorant, or misinformed, or mean.
They are so rigid and intolerant and so convinced of their own rightness.
See what I did there?

Church would be so much easier if everyone would just agree on everything.
But we don’t.
Because we’re people.
Because we’re different.

Let’s establish, right off, that there are some things that we do agree on, some basic agreements and beliefs that make us Christians, that make us church – we believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. and we agree that the Bible reveals to us something about them. But even that is subject to interpretation. There’s actually a book called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”

So, we have these basic agreements as Christians. and there are some more that Presbyterians agree upon. We share some basic convictions.
We believe that God’s love is for all people, no exceptions. We agree that people shouldn’t hurt each other – that child abuse and domestic violence are wrong – no forbearance there.
We agree that mission is important – not just teaching faith, but providing medical care, and education, and food for hungry people. We Presbyterians agree that our form of government works best – for us.
We agree that we do things decently and in order – that Christ is the head of the church, that we don’t make unilateral decisions, and that no one person’s convictions will determine our beliefs, and no one person’s decisions will determine our direction.
We have a process for making decisions that we all agree to follow.
But let’s be honest: we don’t always agree.
When we disagree, we count on God’s leading in our deliberations.
And when that isn’t quite clear, we practice mutual forbearance:
We don’t place obstacles in the path of our neighbors.
We don’t present newcomers with a list of requirements to meet.
We don’t present one another with a list of demands.
We don’t just decide what the church wants or needs and go off on our own to do it.
We don’t hold the gospel hostage to our convictions about flowers or music.
We walk together, and we try to clear the path for others to walk with us.
We don’t place obstacles in the paths of those for whom Christ died.

That all sounds a lot easier than it actually turns out to be.
Because, what if I really am right?
What if the church really DID need that seven-foot tall marble statue I bought?
What if Jesus really DOES want us to sing every verse of every hymn?
What if God and all the angels really DO prefer organ music to piano?
What if it turns out that they are wrong and I was right all along?

Here’s what – it doesn’t matter who is wrong and who is right.
God is the one who decides.
Paul’s questions hit home to the heart of the matter:
Who are you to judge the servant of another?
Who am I to decide what is best for my brother or sister?
How can we judge one for whom Christ died?
How are you, and what have you been doing?

There’s a blogger I like, Glennon Doyle Melton. She blogs at She recently wrote:
“…recently my smart therapist said this:
There are three different levels of looking at and thinking about other people.
The first is innocent and pure.
Level One is the way a child sees other people. Children–before they hit a certain level of age and experience– don’t see faults in others. All is good.
Level Two is when we grow up a little and “wisen up.” Think teenagers. Now we can see the faults of others clearly. And so we think it’s our job to prove how smart we have become by pointing out those faults. When we are operating at Level Two, we assume that anyone who is not pointing out other people’s faults is na├»ve– or just not smart enough to see the faults. We need to educate everybody about everybody else.
Many people operate this way their whole lives.
But when people operate on Level Three, they have wisened up more. Yes, of course, people on Level Three see the strengths and the weaknesses in the people around them pretty clearly – just as clearly as those on Level Two. But Level Three-ers know that usually, it’s wiser and more gentle and more helpful to point out strengths and just let the weaknesses be.”[1]

In other words, the level three folks have resigned from judging and critiquing everyone else. They are retired from being the supervisor of the world. They’ve given up the job of judging. Because somebody already has that job – God. And God is doing just fine with that, thank you very much.

If we were to write a letter in response to this letter to the Romans, I wonder what we would say. Perhaps we would reply like this:

Dear Apostle Paul,
Thank you for your kind epistle.
I bet you’re surprised that your letter is now an entire book of the Bible! Our letter in reply will be much shorter. We are doing well, here in the First Presbyterian Church of Sterling, 2014. We understand that we are the people for whom Christ died, and that we are servants of Almighty God, and therefore servants of one another.
We are always grateful for the reminder that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by our own doing. That doesn’t mean though, that we are going to do nothing. It means that we are set free to walk together in love. We are grateful to have this liberty, to live in the freedom of Christ. We are not sure whether we are the weak or the strong, so we will treat one another with forbearance – with patience. We won’t let our own convictions or liberties create problems for others who might not share our convictions.
Asking ourselves whether Christ’s work depends on us is a good place for us to start, we think. Of course, the answer to that is “no” God’s realm does not depend on us, nor does the church stand or fall based on our opinions about flowers or music or worship or choir robes or even the arrangement of the sanctuary.
Christ’s work and message are complete in him, and we get that. We understand that when we live, we live to the Lord, and when we die, we die to the Lord, so that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. That makes our lives a little easier, since we don’t have to carve out the path for everyone else to walk on.
We just have to travel the road you’ve laid out for us: the road of service, the path of forbearance, the lifelong journey of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
We are on this road together, and we are walking in love.
Thanks be to God!