Monday, May 29, 2006

Bearing the Word

“Bearing the Word”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Chester Presbyterian Church
Memorial Day: May 28, 2006
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

Scripture Texts:
Acts 1:15-26
John 17:6-19

Theological Thrust: To be a Christian means to bear the very presence of God and to connect with God through others. This is not something we do on our own but something God does through us. We still make choices to make, but those choices are in response to God’s action. At the end of the day God’s will works through all things, even those choices that are not in keeping with God’s will as we understand it.

Sermon Text:
Being a Christian I tend to think of most things in light of faith. I don’t mean to say that I so pure and pious that I do nothing but contemplate the mystery of God. Rather it’s just a natural thing to think about how a movie, an event, or a commercial reminds me of my faith and of God’s activity in my life. So far one of my favorite commercials for this type of activity are the commercials that show silhouettes of various athletes sweating purple or orange because they have fortified their bodies with Gatorade. “Is it in you?” Is the slogan they use. It makes me wonder. When I am working out my faith… when I am reconciling my wants and needs with God’s will… when I’m in the grocery store trying to decide if ice cream is a staple to my existence… what do people see oozing out of my pores?

John’s gospel speaks of God’s word being in the disciples. Jesus is praying to God on their behalf so that they will know that the one who was with God from the beginning is with them now. And when he leaves them physically he will be no less a part of them than he is now. It is difficult to say who wrote the gospel of John, but we do know what the issues were that the community that shared this gospel faced. Most particularly the author is combating the claims of the Gnostics, a movement in early Christianity that focused on a special knowledge of God. The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek, gnosis, and meaning knowledge. Primarily these folks thought that within each of us was a “spark” of the divine that needed to be set free. Knowledge of this “spark” as your true self yielded a variety of responses ranging from not caring about what you eat, drink, and do because none of that effects your inner self to very strict codes of diet and abstaining from relationships outside of the community in order to transcend the earthly self.
Because of this, the gospel of John differs from the other three in its order and in its claims about who Christ is. In John’s account, Jesus is not afraid of, in fact finds it necessary to say, who he is as the messiah. In this very prayer he says that he sanctifies himself so that they may be sanctified, claiming his status as God incarnate not to be boastful but so the disciples will know that he does indeed have the power to sanctify them, make them holy, to set them apart for a divine task. Remember that the Gospel of John begins with an argument about the divinity of Christ and an account of his involvement in creation. He is the logos, the word of God, through which creation is spoken into existence. For the disciples, and for you and me, this means that we can count on the same treatment. It means that this Jesus has the ability, in fact is the ability, to set us aside for a holy purpose.

So John’s Gospel reminds us that God is the source of our purpose and that through this man, this Jesus, God has become flesh to offer us a way to get past the sinfulness, the imperfections, the selfishness that comes with being human and offers us the chance to bear witness to this truth to others. In our text from Acts we have a similar account whereby a replacement is chosen for Judas Iscariot. And though he is often seen as the presence of evil in most passion plays, both of these texts refer to him as someone who did what he had to do. His actions fulfilled the scriptures and in that way were in keeping with God’s will. Of course the Acts passage seems to show his reward these actions, but little is said other than the fact that he died a gory death and needed to be replaced. His share in the work of Christ is not diminished, but his choices have taken him out of the covenanted community.

Now, this next part is kind of funny to me. It’s one of those texts that I would love to have been a fly on the wall to see it really happening. Now I am sure that all of the gathered community appreciated what Peter had to say, and I bet there was a clamor of voices seconding the motion and a unanimous vote. But I also imagine that there were several who were relieved to hear the criteria of first account witness from Jordan to Jerusalem. Being one of the twelve in that time and place was basically signing your own death warrant. I mean no offense by this, but I want to imagine that several of them lined up (after all there were something like 120 people in the room) and that Barrasubus and Mathais were talking in a side conversation about the issue when everyone else stepped back from the line.

I’m sure that is not what happened. It was probably closer to the process of choosing elders and deacons in our congregation. A committee gets together and talks about the members that have shown leadership or promise of leadership, and these individuals are called to ask if they would like to be nominated. One of the comments in the men’s breakfast this past Wednesday morning was that it seemed interesting that they would pray and then leave it up to chance. I also suggested to a member of the PNC that they might like to give up the current process and grab a name out of a bag! (only kidding) The comment that followed was that the choice before the choice (the criteria) made it an easy chance to take. Either choice would have served as well, and the drawing of lots was not a matter of chance but of discernment. Truly, in that time and place, it was nothing to say that God’s will is done even in the role of the dice. Not because their faith was stronger, but because the basic assumption was that God is involved in all things and that the results of any task are the result of God’s will (1). Unfortunately that line of thought in the pre-scientific era led to the idea that God’s will can also be proved by the use of force and by power. In our present day and age not everyone agrees on God’s involvement, but that does not make God any less involved. And what it comes down to for us is the need to know that God is involved, and the need to know that we are responsible parties who are entrusted to make decisions. To believe this does not require us to believe things that seem “iffy” or to assume something as true just because it completes the puzzle. Instead, it is simply an acknowledgement that God’s will is the original cause that all decisions are based on and that our choices are all in reaction to it, whether we acting in accordance with God’s will or not.

I found a good example of this last Friday night when I went rock climbing with one of our college students at an indoor gym in Midlothian. It was “bring a friend for free” night and Treva and the kids are out of town, so I gladly accepted the invitation. That was a moment of grace and providence right there. God’s action. God’s ideas. This student called me up because God set the example for it. Then there was the fact that she had recently injured her leg and could not climb, she could only belay (or hold the rope from the bottom). So, my security was offered by a wounded person who took personal time to ensure my security.

You see, it’s really not that complex of a thing, though I think we tend to make it so (2). Much of the Christian rhetoric that we hear in the public sector is about a personal relationship with Jesus and getting others to have one too. Trouble is, if that does not transform a person into someone who loves their neighbor as themselves, then it’s just a password for a club and has little to do with salvation.

Of course, when we reflect on those who have gone before us on this Memorial Day we remember that life and death choices are still being made by faithful Christians as they have been in the past. And remembering that scripture tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends we give thanks for their faithfulness. In respect for their sacrifices, and in memory of those not only in military service but for those martyred for their faith in Christ throughout the centuries and even today, we really need to take this task of responding to God’s grace seriously and joyfully. Bearing the word is not just a matter of showing kindness.

If we are to bear this word, we must understand that it is not separate from its source. We aren’t just telling somebody about God. We are bringing God to them. Truly, in bearing this word, which is the very presence of God, we are not carrying a heavy burden so much as we are being carried by it. We are not giving so much as we are receiving. For in sharing the presence of God with someone through charity and through conversation about God’s grace we receive more than we could ever give.
Bearing this word is of course no simple task, because it does require our lives and people may hate us for it. Bearing the word is risky, because we are constantly open for conflict and challenge.

But here’s the beautiful thing… no one can live without conflict, and the One who brings order out of chaos will be with us, protecting us from being destroyed. In fact, God has chosen to bring order out of chaos through… you! And you. And you. In fact I dare say through “All y’all” (the plural of y’all of course) even the choir!

And so, friends, there comes a point where we all must make an informed choice and role the dice, trusting that God is involved in the choice before the choice. In fact, there have been many choices that have led up to this day, and you better believe God has been a part of them. For today the lot has fallen on you to follow in the footsteps of the disciples, to have your share in this ministry, to bear the word, the logos, the creative, active presence of God into the world.

So, I ask you, “Is it in you?” You bet it is! Don’t step back from the line, for God is with you, friends. And like the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” All praise to the Father from whom all things come. And all praise to Christ Jesus his only son. And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one. Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love (3). Amen.



REFERENCES
1. Borg, Marcus (2003) The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.
Harper Collins, New York, NY; pp.28-30

2. Dallas Willard (1998). How To Be A Desciple. The Christian Century, April 22-29; pp. 430-439.
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=336

3. Scholtes, Peter They’ll know we are Christians by Our Love.”
CCL# Unknown



WEB RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Text Week: A lectionary based library of on line resources
http://www.textweek.com/yearb/easterb7.htm

2. Judas and Mathias: On Mystery and Destiny, found at Journey With Jesus: A webzine
featuring essays, books, film, and poetry.
http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060522JJ.shtml

3. Deffinbaugh, Bob Thm. Getting Ahead of God, found at Bible.org: An in depth on line
Bible study resource.
http://www.bible.org/author.asp?author_id=9

4. Anderson, Craig B. Community Reconsidered, found at Pulpit.org: An on line version
of the preaching magazine, The Living Pulpit.
http://www.pulpit.org/articles/community_reconsidered.asp

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sinless

“Sinless”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Chester Presbyterian Church
April 30, 2006
Easter 3B

Texts:
1 John 1:8-10
1 John 3:1-7

Today’s texts are two of the truest statements in the Bible.  Taken individually they could almost be seen as a summary of the Gospel.  All of us are in need of God’s forgiveness and if we remain in our sin we can not know and experience God’s love.  Sounds simple enough, but they also seem to represent a double standard.  You have to be without sin to know and experience God, but all of us sin so we can not know God.  The simple answer to this problem is, of course, that faith in Christ cleanses us from our sins when we confess them.  But what about the sins we will commit today, tomorrow, and the next day?  Can any of us really say that we will not sin?  

Can we who are human, and imperfect, and wired for self preservation really say that we are going to put the interests of other people before our own and treat our neighbors as good as we do ourselves... to make sure that everyone has a home as nice as ours... that every person has the same health care options as our own children... to research the companies we hold stock in and those that make our watches, shoes, and clothes and to refuse to support companies that use child labor and who pay their workers less than a living wage?  

My point here is not to make us all feel bad, but to acknowledge what Paul said in Romans 3:23 “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  In other words, we are all in this together, and no one is above reproach.  Of course, the final word on sin is that we are forgiven through Christ.  Unfortunately, this message of hope has often been put to other uses.  Here’s how it looks in some circles of Christian faith.

We all sin, and those who sin can not know God.  If Christ is in you... a phrase I have always found a little ambiguous given that our text says “if we abide in Christ” and not the other way around...  if Christ is in you, you can be forgiven and you will not sin.  We are, however, imperfect and at some point we all sin.  Churches through the centuries have used this shell game of faith (both intentionally and unintentionally) to make people feel like they can be sure of salvation, but they might not actually be saved.  It’s the kind of thing the Reformers rebelled against when they challenged the Roman Catholic Church over the buying and selling of indulgences in order to get a loved one into heaven.  

Today it can be seen in non-denominational circles and some fundamentalist congregations as the “ABC’s” of faith.  All you need to do is Accept, Believe, and Confess, and when it turns out that something you think, feel, or do is not in line with their interpretation of scripture (like going through a divorce, having a different position on a social issue, or some actual moral failure like drinking or cheating on a test or your taxes), then you must not have done one of those well enough.   Now although this may resonate with the idea that we are responsible for our actions and that we can determine our own destiny, it is not really a very “Reformed” perspective and it does more to conform us by culture than to transform us by the Spirit (Romans 12:2).  I’m not saying that we should not Accept, Believe, and Confess in the Lordship of Christ and our need for forgiveness.  I am saying that redemption does not depend on giving the right answer or doing or saying certain things.  Staying with the ABC’s alone reminds me of a game called “You can’t win” that a couple of morning radio DJ’s used to play on a station in Atlanta.

People would call in and be subjected to a series of questions like, “What is the capitol of Paraguay?” that got harder and harder until they were disqualified, usually by the third question.  What I could never understand is why people kept calling!  I guess its human nature to want something we can not have.  A relationship with God is not that way.  It is not tenuous or fragile.  God is not turning from us every time we turn from our neighbor or give a wrong answer on a quiz.  God is not like a parent who is sometimes too busy to deal with us or who sometimes gets too frustrated to talk to us.  There is no question about God’s love or accessibility.  The question is about sin.  What is it?  How does it separate us from God?  Can we be sinless?  Though I’ve been asked to call for a show of hands to see who here is sinless, I will spare us that for now.

Instead I want you to think about how you might answer the question, “What does it mean to sin?” if asked by a five year old.  Were I a bettin’ man I would wager that the many of us thought of actions, and for a five old that would be OK.  But for a youth learning to claim faith in Christ or an adult who is trying to live by Biblical principles in a world that serves its own needs, that’s not enough.  

So here’s the deal.  Christ frees us from mortal sin and from the power of sinful actions.  That means that for those of us who believe in Jesus as the one through whom God was revealed to the world, we know that we will live forever in God’s presence.  It also means that even though we still make mistakes, our natural disposition is to try to do better when those mistakes are called to our attention.  And even when we don’t, those things are not counted against us.  We believe that God takes responsibility for us in Christ, and though we are still responsible... our salvation ultimately does not depend on our actions but on God’s.  That means that everything we do is motivated by and responding to God’s action on our behalf.

Now, that is the “Reformed position” in case you were curious, but we still haven’t dealt with the fact that this text says, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.”  Nor have we really figured out the disconnect between this passage and the fact that “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves.”  In order to do that we need to consider the idea of sin in light of the whole Biblical story of love and redemption.  Two particular places where scripture offers insight into scripture can be found in the examples of Cain and Jesus.

In the story of Cain, the first brother murders his own brother because God prefers his brother’s offering.  The thing that I find most interesting about this story is the word God uses to caution him before the act takes place.  God says to Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  And here’s where it gets really fun!  The Hebrew word for sin is Ar-ar.  It is literally taken from the sound of a wild animal such as a panther.  God tells Cain, “Watch out, son.  That thing will bite you unless you get control of it.”  Cain obviously failed.  He killed his brother (Genesis 4:7).

To see how we might live with this beast I call on the example of Christ given me by the Rev. David Ealy, an African American pastor and dear friend.  One of David’s favorite examples of the question of sin and righteousness is not in the passages that talk about the sinlessness of Christ, but rather one in which Jesus shows us how to recognize when we are not acting in response to grace and how to correct our course on the way.  It is the story of an unknown Syrophenecian woman.  This woman is not a Jew and he lets her know in no uncertain terms that he is not here for her when she asks him to heal her daughter and he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Here Jesus is making a claim that she is not worthy of healing because of her race.  Wow!  Jesus making racial slurs, calling her a dog!  Who knew.  But that’s not where it stops.  When she says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus realizes that this is a person who gets it.  She understands who he is and what he is about even better than he does, and for that her daughter is healed (Mark 7:24-30).

What I am getting at with these two stories is that sin is not simply a set of things to do or not to do.  It is an orientation.  Sin is acting like we are the ones who determine our course rather than seeking for God to guide it.  If Jesus had kept the course of saying, “I am not for you.” Then he would have sinned.  But being the embodiment of God’s will, such as he was, he could not turn from her, having been corrected, because it is God’s character to recognize those who suffer and call out for God’s name.  Because she recognized the one true God, Jesus did not turn from her need.  He followed God’s will.  He did not sin because he allowed his relationship with this woman in need to correct his actions.  And because we were made for relationships and called into covenant community, the place where we are devoured by sin or given the information needed to master it is often one in the same – the church of Jesus Christ.  Of course it doesn’t stop there.  All of our relationships offer the opportunity to know God or to deny Christ as Peter did.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the true saints of the modern era of Christianity, and I think his thoughts on this topic are the one’s I like the best.  He wrote prolifically while Nazi’s ruled Germany and died in a concentration camp.  Concerning sin and faith, Bonhoeffer interpreted these things as both corporate and individual.    For him “the individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality, and the ‘social spirit’ becomes real only in individual embodiment.”  In other words, each of us are who we are because of the community we are a part of.  At the same time the community isn’t some vague concept, but an expression of all of us together that can only be seen in each one of us (1).  

So sin and faith are not simply individual, they affect everyone.  What that means, in light of our text, is that everyone has individual relationships that are broken (or at least a little cracked).  It means that our relationship as a community of faith with a world filled with poverty and heart ache is not what it could be.  And it means that if we want to know God’s presence, the broken places are both the things that separate us from knowing and experiencing God’s love and also the places to start looking for it.  

So rest assured, we are all accounted for through Christ!  If someone asks you to raise your hand if you are without sin, you may comfortably do so.  This is not an “either/or” thing.  It is a “both/and.”  Our eternal salvation is set, and God has taken control of sin.  All we have to do now is work out the salvation we need today, tomorrow, and the next day by seeing others as equals, bringing them into community, and bringing healing not just to the ones we think are God’s children but everyone, especially those we do not want to be involved with, knowing that they are God’s children too, and that in their healing we can find our own.  So let us open ourselves to God’s presence through the relationships we share.  Let us be formed and reformed by God’s Spirit and to God’s glory.  Amen.






REFERENCES
  1. http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=2737&C=2485

Additional Resources for Further Study
  1. http://www.textweek.com/epistlesrevelation/1john3a.htm

  2. http://www.textweek.com/epistlesrevelation/1john1_2.htm

  3. http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0062.htm

  4. http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0061.htm

  5. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/spohn/knowledgeofself.html

  6. http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/


Zach’s conversation with Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) can be found at http://daio.typepad.com/daio/.