Sunday, June 26, 2016

Free to Love

Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

As you’ve heard for the last several weeks, the Galatian Christians have been confused by some teachers who have told them, contrary to what Paul has taught them, that they need to follow Jewish practice as part of their faith. Paul has been sorting this out for them, explaining the importance of the law but emphasizing that faith is more important. Now, as his letter is coming to a close, he points the Galatians toward a more concrete understanding. You have been set free from slavish compliance with the law, he says, but you have been set free so that you may place yourself in servitude to a greater law – the law of love. If you live into that freedom, being led by the Spirit, Paul tells us, your life will demonstrate it with the fruits of the Spirit. Let’s listen for the message of Christian freedom in Galatians 5:1, 13-25:

For freedom Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;
only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but through love become slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
If, however, you bite and devour one another,
take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit,
and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh;
for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, 
licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, 
anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, 
carousing, and things like these.
I am warning you, as I warned you before:
those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
 kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus
have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

In our Gospel reading today, we continue journeying with Jesus, heading south to Jerusalem, where he faces potential conflict. Along the way, he visits a Samaritan village, where he is rejected, and his angry disciples ask if the village will now be destroyed. Jesus rejects the suggestion and rebukes them. Next, Jesus turns down some conditional offers to follow him. Jesus speaks in direct and challenging terms about the decision to follow him, no matter what. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up,
he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
And he sent messengers ahead of him.
On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;
but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
When his disciples James and John saw it, they said,
"Lord, do you want us to command fire
to come down from heaven and consume them?"
But he turned and rebuked them.
Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him,
"I will follow you wherever you go."
And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
To another he said, "Follow me."
But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead;
but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home."
Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for the kingdom of God."

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

As I sat down to write this sermon, the news was filled with items about “Brexit” – the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. By some, this move is hailed as “freedom’s last chance,”[1] for England. They see it as economic and regulatory freedom. By others, it is lamented as a loss of freedom – freedom of movement, freedom to live and work in other countries, freedom to welcome immigrants who want to do the same. As we approach Independence Day, we too are contemplating freedom. It’s worthwhile, as we do that, to make a clear distinction between American freedom and Christian freedom. As Christian Americans, we sometimes tend to confuse one with the other. Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps us untangle those ideas.

He begins with a declarative statement: “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”
Yay! Christ has set us free, to do whatever we wish!
Well, yes……sort of….

One of the defining features of the American story is the “quest for religious freedom.” The story we learn in school is that the brave Puritans came to these shores seeking the freedom to worship as they saw fit. And that’s true. However, the freedom to worship they sought was for themselves. They weren’t terribly interested in securing that freedom for others.

Fortunately, the framers of the constitution were committed to that ideal – contemplating other faiths beyond Christianity, specifically including Muslims in their discussions of the meaning of religious freedom. Even then, the Bill of Rights originally applied only to the federal government, and not until the fourteenth amendment was adopted in 1868 did the Bill of Rights apply to all of the states. So, in America today, we have freedom of religion – the absolute freedom to practice our religion as we see fit, or to practice no religion at all.

But what does that freedom mean to a Christian?
Often, when someone wants to justify a certain action or belief that others have criticized, they will say “It’s a free country!” The reasoning behind that is that if something isn’t illegal, it is permissible. This is true, in the abstract.

Does it mean that we can withhold the rights and privileges of citizenship to those who are not Christian? Does it mean that we can impose our beliefs on another American? Paul did say “for freedom, Christ has set us free.” But Paul has set for us, in this letter, a higher standard. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

Elsewhere Paul discusses how for a follower of Christ, freedom is limited by the needs of others in the community – you may be perfectly free to go to a certain place or engage in a certain behavior, but if exercising that freedom harms another, or if your behavior causes a weaker brother or sister to stumble, you are not free to do it. Just like your mother told you – your freedom to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose! As Paul says, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

So if we are to become slaves to one another,
we are subject to the rule of love,
we are free, but not free.

The law of love, the one Christ called the Greatest Commandment, is a demanding master.
It calls us to a higher loyalty than self, than country, than religion. Christ has set us free to love – not to compel others to love, but to love others – whether or not they are lovable – love our neighbors, even love our enemies!

It’s a tall order, this kind of freedom. It comes with an enormous dose of responsibility. In our Gospel story, Jesus’ disciples want to punish those who reject him. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They have utterly rejected the savior – of course they should be given what for! Let’s rain some fire down on these unbelievers! But Jesus honors the free will of those Samaritans, and instead rebukes his disciples.

Others claim they want to follow Jesus, but they are not really available, at least not until they fulfill some other conditions. Jesus lets them go – he neither compels them nor prevents them from their choices.

You can see why those people in the gospel story were hesitant. To follow Jesus was to give themselves over entirely to his leading, to live guided by the Spirit. As Christians, following in the path of Jesus, we are like a train on a track. We can jump the track if we want, but then we are not on a journey, we are a train wreck![2]

To paraphrase Martin Luther, from his treatise on Christian freedom:
"A Christian is the most free - lord of all, and subject to none;
a Christian is the most dutiful-- servant of all, and subject to everyone."[3]

Like the Galatians, we have been emancipated from slavery to sin set free from bondage to self, and given a new identity as free people – free for the purpose of following Jesus, sharing his love, extending his grace, telling his good news.

Those who crafted the documents that established America – the founders – were also purposeful. “They believed that the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and property from what they called the depravity of human nature — from man’s innate capacity to do the kinds of violence that slave-owners, to take just one example, did every day.” They understood that electing representatives to govern was no guarantee of maintaining that purpose. They foresaw that what was needed to maintain the American ideal, was people who were self-reliant, who love liberty. Constitutions are all very well, the Founders often observed, but they are only ‘parchment barriers.’”[4] The true guarantee of American liberty is the American love of liberty.

This freedom that Christ gives us is purposeful – it is directed toward the fulfillment of the great commandment of love. The Christian community was founded for the purpose of protecting us too, from the depravity of our own nature – from the violence and oppression and judgment that lurk within each of us. Paul names some of those negatives as “works of the flesh:” enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is extensive.

Just as our new country required the nurturing of a love of liberty, our new citizenship in Christ requires nurturing the liberty of love. Our new culture in Christ nurtures reliance on Christ, and love of God and neighbor, a new identity. That new identity, as it grows, becomes visible by the works of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Not just one of them – all of them.

Love of God and others, friends and strangers and enemies alike.
Joy in the Lord, in every circumstance.
Peace that passes all understanding.
Patience to wait for God’s time, and patience with one another.
Kindness, even to those who don’t deserve it.
Generosity of spirit and with generosity with every good gift we’ve been given.
Faithfulness, trusting in the God who has been so faithful to us.
Gentleness- the humility of a servant’s heart.
Self-control, resisting the temptation to put let ego take over.

And they all start with love.

Friends, we are so blessed to live in a country where freedom prevails.
We are even more blessed to have been set free in Christ Jesus.
We are free to love.
Thanks be to God that we have been set free.


[1] Gaffney, Frank, AP, “Brexit: Freedom’s last chance in Europe.” 2016/06/22

[2] Olson, Roger, “The Bonds of Freedom. Christianity Today, October 5, 2012

[3] ibid

[4] Magnet, Myron, “The Vision of the Founding Fathers” National Review, July 3, 2015.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Wearing Christ

Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
June 19, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We are about half- way through the book of Galatians, and we are about to see, in this text, the turn in Paul’s argument. He has written to the churches of Galatia because he is alarmed that they have been told they need to add something more to their faith. These former pagans have been told that they must become Jewish, too, and Paul wants to assure them that this is not necessary. In typical polemic Pauline fashion, he uses a kind of verbal shorthand to distinguish the two sides of the argument- “the law” on one hand, and “faith” on the other. This is a false dichotomy, frequently misinterpreted through our Western Christian lens of interpretation. The law itself is not the problem. The problem is that people can so easily derive their identity from so many things other than the grace of God though faith. Paul declares unequivocally where our identity truly rests.

Let’s listen for God’s word in Galatians 3:23-29.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our gospel reading takes us along with Jesus across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus encounters a man who is out of his mind – so crazy he can’t live in community, doesn’t even wear clothes, but instead wanders among the graves, tormented. Let’s listen for God’s word in Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice,
"What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me"-- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)
Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?"
He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.
Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.
So he got into the boat and returned.
The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus ent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."
So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I want you to travel with me, back in time. The year is 428, and we are at the church. It is night – early morning, actually, just before the Easter dawn. The candidates for baptism have been preparing since Holy Thursday. Their teachers have examined them, laid hands on them, and interrogated them. On Friday, they fasted. On Saturday, their sponsors once again, prayed over them, instructed them, and read to them. When the cock crows, it will be time.

Some of them have been preparing for months, even years. Some have given up occupations – charioteers, gladiators, soldiers, brothel keepers, magicians, actors, magistrates, even teachers – were ineligible to be baptized.[1]

The children are baptized first, led one by one into the pool or pond.
Then the adults come.

Imagine this youth, with his grandfather as his sponsor, coming to receive the sacrament.
Can you see him?

He comes timidly, but his earnest face gleams in the torchlight. He removes all of his outer garments and stands silently, barefoot and wearing only his tunic. He is given salt, the salt of wisdom. Then the renunciations – do you renounce Satan, and all his works?

He turns to the West and says “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy work, and all thy pomp and all thy worship.”

Next, the affirmation of faith.

He turns toward the East, toward the dawning light of the rising sun, and says, “And I associate myself with Christ. “I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance.”

He removes his tunic and stands shivering in the pre-dawn while he is anointed with oil -
his nostrils, his mouth, his head and heart,
blessed to be kept holy before God.

Then he steps down into the chill waters, arms outstretched.
Three times he is submerged –
You are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As he rises up out of the water and ascends the steps on the other side, he steps into the embrace of his sponsor, his godfather, and into a clean, dry robe of pure white linen. Now the blessing is on the forehead, the sign of the cross made by the bishop. He receives a cup of milk and honey, the symbol of promise, and he receives, for the first time, the eucharist.

He is clothed in Christ.
All the distinguishing marks of his old life are momentarily gone –
the clothing that showed his status,
the family with which he grew up,
the occupation he is learning,
the origins of his race or ethnicity or language,
even his gender identity –
all left behind with his rough woven cloak at the edge of the font.

Now he wears a shining white linen robe;
his family is the family of faith;
his vocation is to follow Christ;
his new community is the church;
and in this new community 
he is neither Jew nor Greek,
nor slave nor free, nor male nor female.
He belongs, body and soul, to Christ.

What a gift – to belong!

To those who stand at the edge of the font,
Christ beckons, with an outstretched hand.
Come, come into these dangerous waters –
they will wash over you and I will not let them overwhelm you.
When you rise up from this font, you will be clothed in a robe of glory.
To those who wander, naked and tormented, among the graves,
Christ beckons, with an outstretched hand.
Come, come to me and receive healing.
Your demons will be cast into the sea, far away from you.
Come and sit at my feet and learn from me,
for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

To those who stand at the fringes of society, outcast, alone,
Christ beckons, with an outstretched hand.
Come, be welcomed.
Here, there is hospitality, and mercy, and grace.
Here, you will find sanctuary.

To those who peer suspiciously at the church, looking in from the outside,
Christ beckons, with an outstretched hand.
Come, come with your questions and your wounds.
Here there is faithful conversation, words with meaning,
here are not only words of hope but acts of healing.

To those who have climbed the pinnacle, self-centered, successful,
Christ beckons, with an outstretched hand.
Come. Learn to serve.
Give your heart and your strength to something greater than yourself.
Let the waters of baptism drown your ego
and raise you to a new and better height.

To those who wake each morning and seek the face of Christ in the dawn,
Christ beckons with arms outstretched:
Come, let me surround you with love and fill you with peace.
I will feed your hungry heart, and strengthen you for service.
Now you are not a stranger – neither Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free –
now you are a child of the promise,
a member of the family, an heir of the covenant of Abraham.

Come, put on Christ,
be made a new creation,

Come to me, and then go,
go and tell the world what God has done for you.

Thanks be to God!


[1] Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the Early Church 329-330

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Matter of Life and Death

Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7: 40-50
June 12, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Last week we began a look at the book of Galatians, one of the earliest letters from the Apostle Paul to the newly formed churches. In the verses that begin what we call chapter two (remember, Paul didn’t write his letters with chapters and verse numbers) Paul refers to an argument he’s had with other leaders. The argument concerned whether non – Jews -Gentiles – could follow in the Jesus way and if so, whether they needed to follow Jewish practice, tradition and law. There was a strong sense that if a Gentile wanted to join up, they needed to sign up for the whole covenant – circumcision, dietary restriction, and observance of the traditions. Let’s listen for what the Apostle Paul says about that, and for God’s word in Galatians 2:15-21

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our gospel reading is Luke’s account of a woman anointing Jesus. This woman has interrupted a dinner party at the house of Simon, a Pharisee. While they are eating, an unnamed woman comes in and anoints Jesus feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. In Luke’s story, this woman is a disreputable person, and her behavior is considered unacceptable by Simon, the host. So the grumbling starts – Simon says if Jesus were really the Messiah, he’d know what sort of person this is who is touching him. Let’s listen for Christ’s words in his response in Luke 7:40-50

40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." 41 "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" 43 Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." 48 Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" 50 And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

One of my favorite scholars of the New Testament is a woman who is a professor at Vanderbilt divinity school – Amy Jill Levine. She is internationally known, smart, sassy, funny, incredibly knowledgeable. She is also Jewish. I know it – a Jewish professor of New Testament at a Christian seminary! She describes herself as a: "Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt" When I encounter scriptures like the two we have today, I turn first to the writings of Amy Jill Levine.

For these stories to make sense, we need to know something more about the Jewish people and practices of the 1st century. Too often, we Christians think we can lump all of that group together into one population, called in verbal shorthand “The JEWS,” by which we mean crafty and quarrelsome Pharisees who are always trying to set Jesus up for a fall; sneaky politicians who’ve sold out to the Roman empire; and beleaguered hyper-religious zealots who slavishly observe a plethora of excruciatingly detailed and meaningless laws trying to earn favor with the God of Israel.

But weirdly, we exclude the twelve disciples from that stereotype, even though they were Jewish; and we exclude Mary and Joseph, even though they were Jewish, and the women who came to the tomb, even though they were Jewish, and the people who came to hear Jesus, and to follow him, even though many, if not most of them, would have been Jewish.

And weirder still, we exclude Jesus from that stereotype, even though he was
– yes, you’ve got it – Jewish! As was the Apostle Paul.

So let’s not make this disagreement in Galatians about works righteousness or legalism, the idea that Jews thought they needed to work their way into God’s favor. It is important to keep in mind as we watch the early church sort this out that pretty much any faithful Jew knew that God’s covenant did not depend on obeying the law.

In Genesis, God claims Abraham in the covenant, long before the law was given to God’s people at Sinai. And Abraham was certainly not a model of perfect behavior, to say nothing of his grandson Jacob.

Moses was a murderer, but God called him, and even after God gave the law to the people, God’s favor and faithfulness continued in spite of their behavior, not because of it!

Faithful Jews, from Abraham on down, understood that law was a loving gift from God, and that they were saved and brought into the covenant through God’s grace.

We’ve seen that the earliest Jesus followers were Jewish, like Jesus. For them, the question of circumcision and the law was a given – of course they would follow Jewish tradition and practice, just like Jesus did! As much as it might suit us, we can’t make Jesus into a Christian. Professor Levine sums it up best: “the lingering view that Jesus dismissed basic Jewish practices, such as the Laws concerning Sabbath observance and ritual purity, turns Jesus away from his Jewish identity and makes him into a liberal Protestant.”[1]

But now here’s Paul, a traveling evangelist, not a local pastor, with a church full of Gentiles, former pagans, and apparently someone has told them they need to convert to Judaism. The dispute around this has come to some kind of resolution that the Jewish followers of Jesus would remain Jewish, and the Gentile followers of Jesus would remain Gentiles.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is trying to sort this out.
What are the rules for this new community of faith?

In our Gospel reading, long before this dispute about Jews and Gentiles, we encounter this Pharisee, Simon. We can’t make the man into a villain, no matter how we might try. He has invited Jesus to his home, to come to dinner. Clearly he wants to listen and know more. And Simon doesn’t throw the woman out, even though he considers her behavior inappropriate.

In typical Jewish debating style, Jesus turns the conversation to the big issues -- forgiveness, love, and faith. It is not about this woman, he says, not about her actions now or her unspecified sins up to now. What is at stake is this woman’s great love, in response to forgiveness, in response to God’s grace. “Your faith has saved you,” he says. “Go in peace.”

Your faith has saved you.
It’s the theme of Paul’s message to the Galatians.

While the newly formed church is sorting itself out, certain truths remain abundantly clear.
It is through God’s grace and faithfulness that we are made righteous. The law doesn’t justify us. Our good works don’t win God’s favor. We are not saved by our knowledge of the Bible, our sweet smiles, our winning personalities, our generosity, our denomination, our worship attendance, nor our strict adherence to the Book of Order. We are saved, made righteous, Paul stresses, through one thing: God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Our efforts to build walls that divide, to set up fences that keep some people out or others in, Paul identifies as sin. We can’t claim God’s grace and faithfulness as our own if at the same time we are exercising our own will and our own egos. Christ’s forgiveness, at the cost of his life, is a reiteration of God’s ongoing faithfulness throughout history. And it is for everyone – Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints, sinful women and proud pillars of the church.

What Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, Paul repeats in this beautiful and strong statement:“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Christ was crucified, with words of forgiveness on his lips. But he is not dead.
We have been crucified with Christ. But we are not dead.

We are being saved – not through our righteousness, but through God’s grace.
It is a hard and beautiful truth.

We have been crucified, but we are not dead.
The life we now live is by faith in the one who loved us, the one who gave himself for us.

So the church’s worship, our prayers and our songs, our sharing of our gifts, our mission and ministry, our personal acts of mercy, these are our outpouring of love to the savior – not ways to save ourselves, but to express our love and gratitude to the one who has forgiven much.

Perhaps we forget this, in our efforts to get church right. The church, this church, is not called to better marketing, or better budgeting, or even doing more of any of the things we already do so well. Those things are important, but Christ did not die for a better outreach plan.

Perhaps we need to crucify our focus on numbers – on indexes and counting, on administration and budgets. Perhaps we need to put to death our desire to force everything and everyone into a mold of our own fashioning. Perhaps we need to “crucify afresh”[2] our focus on who is in and who is out. Maybe we should nail to a cross our opinions about how other people ought to behave.

Most importantly, and most certainly, we are called to crucify afresh the old life of sin, and live into the new, transformed, life to which Christ has raised us. We have been crucified with Christ, but we are not dead!

We are alive, transformed for vital living,
for tearing down walls that separate us from those whom God loves,
alive to be open to Christ, who is at work in the world,
alive to be radically faithful,
alive to love so that we may be the living signs of grace
in a world that is aching to be forgiven, welcomed, and healed.

For through the law we died to the law, so that we might live to God. We have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives in us. And the life we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and gave himself for us.

It’s just Jesus, plus nothing. And that equals everything.

Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God! 

[1] Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew (p. 9). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[2] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Pastoral Perspective, Proper 6, Feasting on the Word commentary, p. 136

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Glory Be!

Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
June 5, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading for today comes from the first chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. For the next few weeks we’ll be looking at this letter and thinking about what it might have to say to us today. The context of this letter is much like most of Paul’s letters to churches – it was occasioned by an issue in the church that Paul took great pains to address in writing. This particular letter was written not to just one congregation but to a cluster of house churches, and it was intended as a kind of circular for them to share.

Paul is extremely distressed with the Christians in Galatia. He started the churches there, and has an almost parental feeling for them. Now he writes to say is astonished and perplexed by them – in fact, he is really quite angry and dismayed. One sign of his anger is that among all of Paul’s epistles, this is the only one that does not include a thanksgiving in the opening greeting. In every other letter, Paul greets the people with grace and peace, gives a hint of his subject matter, and then expresses thanksgiving to God for them. But not this letter! Paul is not feeling very thankful for them!

Let’s listen to Paul’s words to the Galatians:

11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." 24 And they glorified God because of me.

In our gospel reading, Jesus has gone to the gates of a town called Nain, and has encountered a funeral procession. Moved with compassion for a grieving mother, Jesus reaches out and raises her son back to life. 
Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Luke 7:11-17.

11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!"17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

As I was preparing this sermon,
I ran across a cartoon of the Apostle Paul.
He is depicted at a wooden table, writing a scroll.
His letter reads:
“I Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, greet you in the name of the Lord,
and ask you to keep your dog out of my petunias.”
The caption is “St. Paul’s Letter to the Bergmans.”

The New Testament contains a variety of letters,
and most of them, especially those from Paul,
are along the same lines – encouragement, critique, teaching and preaching.
All of them deal with issues far more serious than dogs in the flower beds.

This letter to the churches of Galatia was written on a very serious issue.
Every so often, there is a defining moment for the church,
a time when Christians are led astray by a leader,
or a message, that conflicts with the teachings of Jesus.
This letter was written for just such a time.

I’m not talking about differences of opinion on carpet color,
or variations in denominations,
or even disagreements in the interpretation of Scripture,
or any of the many ways that people of good faith may disagree.
I’m talking about enormous, cataclysmic heresies.

In 1933, in Germany, the Nazis seized power
and began to pressure the Protestant churches to “aryanize” the church –
to expel any Jewish Christians from ministry,
including clergy whose spouses were of Jewish descent -
and to adopt Nazi principles as the principles of church government.

Many churches succumbed to the pressure,
and many Christians embraced the Nazi ideas.
A movement called the “German Christian” movement
taught that racial consciousness –
that is, the idea of the Aryan Germans as the master race,
was a revelation as important as that of scripture.
In the town of Barmen, however, a new movement was forming –
“The Confessing Church” movement.
This movement insisted in a strong theological declaration
that the only revelation from God
is that which is in scripture, revealed through the Holy Spirit,
and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In 1934 they wrote and published the Theological Declaration of Barmen,
a bold statement to the churches of Germany,
encouraging them to stand firm against the fear mongering nationalism
that Hitler and the National Socialists
were attempting to equate with Christianity.

It is a powerful confession of faith.
“We reject the false doctrine,
as though the church in human arrogance
could place the Word and work of the Lord
in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

It was not so different in the first century in Galatia.
The apostle Paul is furious that these Christians,
most of whom had formerly been pagans, non-Jews,
had been so easily led astray.

They had been taught by him, led by him,
through the authority of Jesus Christ, led by the Spirit, called by God.

Now they’d been told by some other so-called teachers
that Paul had omitted some important teachings –
namely, that these new followers of Jesus must also follow Jewish practice.

How could they now believe
that Paul had omitted such seemingly crucial facts?

Had Paul watered down the truth,
drawn them in with the simplicity of the gospel, only to later add,
“Oh, by the way, you also need to be circumcised,
and follow Jewish dietary laws, and Jewish practices,
in order to be part of this church.”?

By no means.

Paul assures them of his call from God,
his knowledge of Judaism,
and his knowledge of the Gospel.
He sets out his credentials, his purpose, and his aim –
to preach the Gospel, and thereby bring glory to God.
As one who formerly persecuted the church,
as one who knew the law inside and out,
he knew that the gospel message is the saving death of our risen Lord,
and that gospel alone is sufficient.

The book of Galatians will continue to stress this crucial point:

Not Jesus plus something else.
Just Jesus.

We Presbyterians are wary about the drawing of lines.
We are uncomfortable with dogma; we prefer dialogue.
But like the church in every age,
we are always in danger of being misled
by those who want to repackage this gospel,
who want to offer some other message
than the saving death of our risen Lord.

You don’t have to look very hard to find them – just turn on your television.
Surf the internet – do a Google search for Christian teachings.

You’ll find so many messages that would lead you to believe
there is something more to the Gospel than the message of God’s grace.

Some would have you believe that there is a new Messiah, come to save us.
They’d have you believe that God wants nothing more
than to see a particular political candidate in office.

But we’ve seen how badly that belief can go wrong.

Some would have you believe that our nation’s government
should espouse Christian principles and support Biblical teachings,
that this would save our country.

But we’ve seen how subordinating the gospel to the government
worked out in Germany.

Some would tell you that the purpose of the Christian life
is to make you happy and wealthy.

But we’ve seen how well great wealth and power works out
for those self-appointed preachers of the prosperity gospel.

If we aren’t sure how to distinguish the true gospel from the false one,
Paul’s letter to the Galatians will give us clarity and standards.

Moreover, we have the life and teachings of Jesus Christ
with which to measure and evaluate other claims.
Where does the gospel rest? In Jesus.
What does the gospel teach? Only Jesus.
What authority do we follow? Jesus. Only Jesus.

In our gospel story today, we see the central work of Jesus Christ –
to see our suffering and love us,
to look on us with compassion,
to heal us and give us new life,
to raise us from death to life,
and for a single purpose –
that God may be glorified.

That same Jesus calls each one of us,
as Paul was called,
snatching us up out of the jaws of death and defeat,
delivering us to life,
so that we may follow in Christ’s way –
not for our own glory,
but to see the suffering of the people of the world, and care for them;
love them, to look on others with compassion,
to offer hope and new life in Christ,
to walk in that new life
so that God may be glorified.

To God alone be the glory.