Sunday, April 15, 2018

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

A Sermon Based Upon 1 John 3: 1-10, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Easter, April 15th, 2018 
(2 of 6)   Sermon Series: 1 John

Almost two dozen years ago, in 1994,  a campaign of vicious genocidal slaughter began in Rwanda. In just three months, 850,000 Rwandans were killed.
Baptist Theologian and ethicist David Gushee asked how such brutality could have occurred in "the most Christianized country in Africa." Churches, seminaries, schools and benevolent organizations were scattered all over the country. Ninety percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians. "And yet," Gushee writes, "all of that Christianity did not prevent genocide, a genocide which church officials did little to resist, in which a large number of Christians participated, and in which, according to African Rights, 'more people died in churches and parishes than anywhere else.'" (David P. Gushee, "Church Failure, Remembering Rwanda" in The Christian Century, April 20, 2004, p. 28)
Pondering the failure of the church and Christians to prevent Rwandan genocide, we are reminded that Germany was a pervasively Christian nation, yet the vast majority of German Christians were loyal to--or at least silent in the face of--Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Christians were complicit in the Holocaust.  White South African Christians were the architects of apartheid.  Most American slaveholders were Christians, and America was predominately Christian when the Indians were push off their land onto reservations.  Also, we must not forget that during the Crusades, Christian soldiers, marching behind the banner of the cross, killed thousands of Muslims and Jews.
Who knows how much damage has been done by Christians who have failed to live by the ways of Jesus?  Reflecting on Rwanda, David Gushee concluded with one more sobering note: "The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees - they guarantee nothing."
Why is that?   Why is it that saying you are Christian, or wanting to be a Christian does not make you a Christian?    The answer comes directly from our text today from First John. 
Near the end of these verses, John reminds the churches what being God’s children means.   He strongly asserts that, “no one who abides in him sins…”(6).  Before that John also argued, “…”He” (Jesus), “was revealed to take away sins…” (5).  Then, as the final part of his argument, he concludes with all pastoral tenderness, in verse seven: “Little children, let no one deceive you.  Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous” (7). 
The argument John makes is simple, almost too simple.   How in the world can a person live without sin?   Is this realistic?    And this is not all John says.  He continues with an even stronger tone, saying: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil….”(8).  Why would the nice, elderly pastor talk like this? 
No one knows what specific situation, sin or sins, which motivated John to write, but he gets more personal and direct than others New Testament writings.  While the apostle Paul named himself ‘chief of sinners’ and wrote about receiving God’s grace and living in by the Spirit, John seems to say that you can actually overcome sin altogether.   This chimes a distinct tone from the rest of the New Testament. 
Either John speaks ideally, or he is referring to specific sin that resulted in a constant sinful attitude of constant rebellion against God in the churches he addressed.   By the content of this letter, there seems to be a kind of ongoing destructive and specific behavior that threatened the life of fellowship in the churches (CH Dodd).  It sounds like John’s is a pastor who is confronting the hard kind of truth that can occur in free, open, voluntary churches, because not everyone who claims to be Christian obeys Jesus' command. 
In chapter two (1 John 2:7ff), John names this command as the primary command of love, specially Christ’s  “to love our neighbors as ourselves" (Matt. 19:19).   The greatest threat to the mission of the church in the world is that some who name Christ as Lord still haven’t fully understood the lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that ‘Everyone is my neighbor’. 
The truth is, we can never be sure of the motivations that bring people to church.  As one pastor in Asheville told his congregation: “We are here in worship for more reasons than we know, probably for more reasons than we can imagine.  Besides, Christian people are influenced, not just by Jesus Christ, but by social, economic and political systems and by assumptions, ideas, loyalties and feelings that are at odds with the core of the gospel” (Guy Sales).  In other words, it cannot be assumed that Christians are actually following Jesus.  Unfortunately, everyone who says they like Jesus do not always live or love like Jesus.
The “right” and “righteousness” God wants us to have, John clarifies, is to love like Jesus loves.  The central theme of this letter is that ‘we shall be like him’.   John believes that a new age has arrived, when humans can reach their full potential in Christ’s love.  That is the clear message of our text: "When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." God intends to work in us, with us, and on us until we fully reflect the spirit and character of Jesus.  John believes our hope in Christ’s perfect love should be perfecting us now.      
It is urgent, for the sake of the church and of the whole world, that we are people who are unswervingly committed to obey the loving way of Jesus. People who are using the energy of their lives to become more and more like him will be agents of reconciliation and understanding, of healing and hope, of love and mercy in this world where people can get lost in hate and hurt. To put it simply, "Jesus people" will make the world a better place.  We make the world a better place because we love each other, and we show the way to the only hope the world has, which is God’s revelation of perfecting love in Jesus Christ
It is with a great declaration about God’s love, that John begins this text.  “See what love the Father has given us…!”   This exclamation brings an important question into focus:  What do you do and I do with the love that has been given to us?  Love can be hard to talk about. Feelings can be difficult to express, even to those we love.  While words of love are important, the most important thing is what we do with it.  

Building on Christ’s ‘commandment’ to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ in John’s gospel (John 13:34), this letter clarifies that ‘Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light,…But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.”  (2:10-11).   Since God has lavished his great love on us in Christ, there is no excuse in the church for people not learning how to love.   John reminds believers that if they have God’s forgiveness, they know him, have conquered the world, and God’s word abides in them, they should love each other (1 Jn. 2: 12-17).   Love is not only the great commandment, but displaying God’s love is the greatest work of the church.

If I understand what John implies about love, is that being able to love is a gift.  Love does not automatically come our way.  People can be ‘wired’ to be unable to feel, know, or express love. 

Think of the notorious Charles Manson, who died at the end of last year after years in prison.  He had a warped mind, and he was a person unable to love, who attracted other sick people into his ‘family’ of hate and violence.  If you research Charles Manson’s life story you will find a child born to a 16 year old mother who was in and out of jail.  Manson was named ‘no name’ at birth and never knew his father. Living without love at so young an age, Manson spent much of his school life in truancy and reformed schools, and his young adult life was spent in and out of prison.  The one moment of time he was able to spend with his mother, he called the ‘highlight of his life’ until she abandoned him again. This proves that, while Manson wanted love, the lack of love was starving his moral soul to death.

If you were to get into the mind of other serial killers or mass murderers, and if you analyzed their backgrounds, in most every case you will see people who have not known or are unable to love.  Such people have been permanent damaged in their soul, so that they live as people of hate, all because they lacked the gift of love from parents, from homes, or from society.  This is the kind of ‘darkness’ John means must be challenged by the light of love among God’s people.  Love is not just a matter of religion, or a volunteer option of morality, but love is a matter of light or darkness which for the church and for the hope of the world is also a matter of life or death.

So, here is where it all comes together for John.  He says that because the Father shows his love to us, we are now part of a God’s family, which means, we are God’s children, now 3:2).8  Since we are loved, we have the gift of love, so we have the great prospect of having our lives transformed by God’s perfecting love.  John’s point is that this ‘perfecting’ by love begins now.  Now, we are loved.  Now, we are God’s children, and now, we are to be loving toward each other and becoming like Christ in his love.

Guy Sales, pastor of First Baptist Asheville, says that growing up in a Baptist church he “got the impression that God was mainly concerned about life after death.”  He thought that “nearly the whole point of salvation seemed to be to stay out of hell and get into heaven.”   But he adds, that if that was true, “conversion would ideally have been followed, not by baptism, but by a funeral”.  But that is not what happens, Baptism is a sign of death, but it is a sign of a kind of spiritual ‘death’ to self that should led us to live a new life in the light of Christ’s love. “God's concern is that we become like Jesus Christ-people who live with a passionate concern that the will and way of God be done on earth as they are in heaven.”

In her autobiography, Gertrude Stein described an exchange she had with Pablo Picasso. Even though he had painted a portrait of her, he did not immediately recognize her. Stein wrote: "I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, somebody said that she does not look like it, but that doesn't make any difference, she will."
You and I are supposed to be living in the light of love that is growing into the image of Jesus.  Even though their may be days we do not seem to be very much like him, we will be one day ‘be like him’. In the end, as Carroll Simcox beautifully put it, "You and I shall be our real, complete selves for the first time ever. We think of ourselves now as human beings. We really aren't that - not yet. We are human becomings… If you are living in Christ, believing in him and trying to follow and obey him as the master of your life, you are by his grace, becoming ever more and more like him." (Carroll Simcox, in James W. Cox, ed., Best Sermons 5. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1992).
To say that God is in the process of making us like Jesus Christ does not mean that God is cloning us into exact replicas of Jesus of Nazareth.  The wonderful and gracious truth at the heart of the gospel is that the more we become like Jesus, the more we become our truest selves.  "To be yoked to Christ is to be a soul companion so we become the authentic person God intends for us to be” As we discover deeper dimensions of Christ-likeness, we uncover more and more of our honest-to-God selves (Don Wardlaw, in Thomas G. Long and Neely Dixon McCarter, eds. Preaching in and out of Season, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)  .
How can we become as fully human as Jesus? Genuine transformation is not a self-help exercise or a do-it-yourself project. It is God's work. Transformation happens as God convinces us we that we are loved-that, like Jesus, we are God's beloved children.  It is God’s tender and strong, reassuring and challenging, nurturing and empowering love that makes us who we are and who we will become. God's arms of welcome and affirmation are always open to us. We are God's children. We are loved.

It is this kind of love that was missing in Tina Turners’ relationship with her husband Ike that she sang about in the song that I titled this message after.  The brokenness in his abusiveness toward her, in spite of him pretending to be a Christian, caused Tina to leave Ike, and the Christian faith, as she turned to deal with pain in Buddhism.  That’s what happened when the church fails to realize what love has to do with it.  Love has everything to do with it, or Jesus means nothing.  But because Jesus does mean love, when we live in him, and give ourselves to him, Jesus means everything  because God is love.   This is the kind of love that not only changes everything, it also changes us. Amen.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Not Settling for Less

A Sermon Based Upon 1 John 1: 1-2:2, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Easter, April 8th, 2018 
(1-6)   Sermon Series: 1 John

Have we been settling for less in our lives?    

Late last year, when many women were declaring abuse from notable men, my first immediate thought was ‘what took them so long’?   I’m not saying anything against those women.  I’m upset about what happened to them.  I don’t blame them.   I think it is unfair how our society has been dominated by powerful and abusive men. 

But can’t you also imagine how many years those women lived their lives while denying to themselves what had happened to them?  Can’t you imagine living all those years knowing you were treated unfairly and wrongly, even abused, but to you feared to say anything?  Can’t you also imagine how long our society has been satisfied to sweep such bad behavior under the rug, to be less it ought to be, even pretending to be something it isn’t?   Beginning with Bill Cosby, and continuing with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacy, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, and also recordings revealing this same mentality in the President of our United States, we are very much a society that lives beneath its aspirations and claims of goodness and greatness.

So, what’s new?  Haven’t we always been people like this—people living beneath our potential and possibilities?   Isn’t it part of the human struggle to be people who will, if given a chance, settle for less than who we have been created to be?    A blog at Psychology Today warns that if we aren’t careful, “we can become an accomplice in our own dissatisfaction with our lives when we settle for less...”   But “when you begin to make decisions that reflect what your desire and need from your life and your relationships, you will begin to feel better about yourself.  The better you feel (about yourself), the easier it becomes for you to reject mistreatment.  When you resist the need to settle you will be rewarded with (new) opportunities.

Those are good words, not just to help women know how to resist being mistreated by others, but they are good words for all of us.   We all need to make decisions and live our lives in ways that we receive what we need in both life and relationships.   We need to learn to live so that we can feel better about ourselves; so we can stop settling for less than the ‘the life we deserve’, as the psychologist says.

Interestingly, long before we had modern psychology to help free us from human shortsightedness, we had, and still have, the Bible.   Today we begin a series of messages from one of the most eloquent parts of this Bible, the letter of 1 John.   This small book will be out guide through the remaining six weeks of Easter, until Pentecost Sunday. 

The Bible, particularly these opening verses of First John, has a very important angle on this psychological reality of living beneath oneself.   The Bible labels this ‘sin’.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”(1:8).  

Now, let’s all take a deep breath!  This is some very strong language, especially in a society that thinks that it has outgrown the need for such direct language like this.    What I must say here, in light of all that has been being revealed about our society these days, ‘Welcome to the real world?’   It is exactly the real world, that the Bible hasn’t been hiding from us, and was written to keep us talking about all along.   This is the real world of human falleness, human brokenness, and yes, even human evil, and “sin.”   “For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom. 3:23).   This may be the important, and most realistic assessment of human existence.   We are all sinners.  “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  Sin can, and will, kill you.  This language is the most fundamental, observable, and realistic declaration of the Bible.  

Such honest, candid, and direct talk is difficult for many people today.  Especially when people suffer great emotional and relational pain, people may try to avoid any kind of difficult, painful talk.  We can imagine this like when we were children, and wanted to avoid having our mother’s put healing ointment on our cuts or wounds.  I said: “Mom, please don’t get the red stuff!”  But there is healing power in this ‘burn’, by mother would remind me.   I still didn’t want it.  I didn’t want the hurt.  That’s our natural, human resistance to pain, even the pain of doing what it takes to bring healing. 

Back in 2009, when I had several surgeries on my foot and it became infected, there was a large hole that would not heal on the side of my foot.  It was infection.  It was resisting the antibiotics and would not heal over.  The doctor took a small swabbing stick, and stuck it directly into the large whole and stirred.  It looked like he was stirring cake batter, but this was inside my foot.   The pain was almost unbearable for a few moments.  He told me this ‘stirring up’ of everything, would promote healing.   It did, but hurt.  It made mom’s ‘red stuff’ like a ‘walk in the park’.

Even among those of us who hold up the Bible as the most important, painful, but also healing revelation of truth, still find it easy to avoid the truth and denial such a plain and simple appraisal of human life.   But ‘we’ need to realize, John was writing to churches.  He was not writing to perfect people called Christians, but he was writing to real people, people who were still sinners, but were trying live better, to become Christ-like, so they needed to be reminded again, that even in the most painful place and most painful truth,  this is exactly the place we can also find our greatest place of healing and hope.    
It can be hard, very hard, in a society that has gotten so used to pretending to be something we aren’t, where people can hide their private lives and flaws behind their public lives and successes, to go to this painful place of truth, and receive this biblical message that ‘sin’ is in any and all of us.   But we need to also see that John is not offering us a pity party, nor is he trying to create emotional distress, for the sake of inflicting pain and suffering.  No, the primary message of John is that he is preaching a message of ‘cleansing’ hope.   Before he unloads the world ‘sin’ on his readers, he tells them that there is healing and hope.   He says, “the blood of Jesus….cleanses us from all sin (v.7a).”

The ‘cleansing’ of our hearts from ‘all sin’ and brokenness, is the main reason John is writing this letter.   John says, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete’ (v.4).   The expression we would use today might be that he writes so that we can find ‘joyful fulfilment’ in our lives.   It is only by acknowledging exactly what our human problem is, that we can deal with the problem, and understand, even today, what Jesus has done, and what the death and life of Jesus still means, to help us get clean and find redemption from the sin that can still destroy us.  Just as we can’t avoid talking about sin, all our sin, when we talk about the sins that still destroys lives, we also shouldn’t avoid talking about what Jesus’ death and life means for the ‘cleansing’ and the ‘conquering’ of, what the Bible names as ‘unrighteousness’ (9).  

Strangely, and I mean very strangely to us----because of how our world, and even how we too in our church, often avoid the truth---the Bible starts bringing us ‘joy’ and ‘fulfilment’ by taking us to the hardest, most painful, but also this most realistic place.  It says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”   It says even more strongly, “If we say that we have not sinned…his word is not in us.”   But it also says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. (9)   

What the Bible means here is that you can’t take a great step forward, until you first take some difficult steps back.  You can’t find healing without some pain, and you can’t find great joy, until to face and find the truth.  And the greatest truth is not your sin, nor is it my sin, but the greatest truth is that ‘he who is faithful and just will forgive….and cleanse…’ (9).  We must never forget that this is the greatest truth.    The reason sin must be admitted, is not condemnation in us, but it is commendation of the Christ is for us, so that no one, and nothing can be against us.   This may sound to good to be true, but you can’t receive God’s great healing truth, without honest facing of the hard truth.  This is what both the Bible and the psychologist mean, when they say,  ‘our joy’ should be complete’ or we must ‘resist the need to settle for less.’   The ‘more’ life has for us, can still be found, when we God’s ‘more’ given to us,  God’s ‘all’ given to us,  yes, even strangely ‘expressed’ as given to us  in ‘the blood of Jesus His Son, who ‘cleanses us from all sin’ (7).

Do we still need such violent ‘language’ like this to help us understand how much God loves us and wants to cleanse and heal us from our sin and brokenness?   This is part of the discussion that is currently going on in theological schools and universities in America and around the world.  Can the violence that Jesus suffered at the cross really be part of what God has done to reveal his forgiving and redeeming love?  

If John were to answer the question as to whether Jesus’ suffering, pain and death can bring healing and life, John, and the gospel, would answer, without hesitation, ‘yes’.  What about us?  How can the church still say, preach, and promise, in a world that remains just as sinful and violent as ever, that there has been and still is, healing and salvation in the terrible ‘pain’ and ‘dying’ that Jesus suffered on the cross.  How can we preach, ‘by his bruises (stripes), we are healed’ (Isa. 53:5), when people even think the Bible has settled for less, and when the healing doesn’t seem to be here, even in the Bible?  

Even among those of us, who take the Bible at its word, how do we explain such language in a world that believes it has moved beyond the need for all this violent, bloody religious language?   How do we talk about ‘the blood of the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:9) when the dominating world thinks it has moved beyond talking about sin and talking about God demanding blood, the killing of lambs, and even God the Father murdering his own Son, so that we can all be saved.   The world now thinks it is nicer, better, and kinder than the God would establish a plan of world salvation, though the violent death a man, we call God’s Son.   Who would want to believe, accept, or settle for any religion that has at its center such an ugly, cruel, agonizing, violent loss of blood, and death?

While it is a ‘hard’ discussion to have, it is still the hard truth, the Bible does not avoid.   John’s letter does not try to hide the hard truth, and is even bold enough to name this  ‘hard truth’ ‘the word of life’ (1:1).   John says ‘we declare to you’ not what we ‘made up’, but ‘what we have seen and heard’ (2:2).   Even in ‘what we have seen with our eyes, looked at, and touched with our hands’, we have ‘fellowship’ with the ‘Father and with this Son Jesus Christ’.   Even in this ‘blood of Jesus his Son’ and in this violence in Christ’s cross,  there is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (2:2).

Now, there is something very ‘real’ about this kind of Jesus, and this kind of talk, even if we don’t like it, and we shouldn’t like it.  If you learn to like this biblical talk of ‘sacrifice’, of ‘blood’ and of ‘suffering’ at the cross, we are taking it the wrong way.   The salvation is not in the violence.   God did not do the violence.   God did not murder Jesus.   This is to understand what the gospel says all wrong.   You mistunderstand the ‘blood of Jesus’ when you take it as a demand for violence (redemptive violence), so that God can or will forgive sin, and you can also misunderstand the ‘blood of Jesus’, when we start to celebrate this language as good, great, and saving, without understanding that it is not God, but ‘human beings’ who also have the ‘blood of the innocent’ on our hands.   John is celebrating the cleansing power of the blood, but there is no cleansing in blood, without confessing ‘our sins’.   The blood is shed, because of human sin, not because of God’s wish.  God gave his Son as a ‘sacrifice’ only because humans life and human sin, puts this demand on a loving, forgiving, and faithful God.

There is, of course, much to be discovered in the biblical message of sin, confession, forgiveness, and cleansing through ‘the blood of Jesus his Son’.  There is as much truth about humanity to be discovered here, as there is truth about God’s faithful love.   What John wants us readers to know, and what we must never avoid, is that at the center of our redemption, our saving, and our cleansing, is the real, difficult, hard, and unavoidable truth.   Jesus died.  Jesus suffered.  Jesus bled out.  But because our God is ‘faithful and just’ he will ‘forgive our sins’.  Just as God gave forgiveness, and revealed his forgiveness and the atonement of all sin through the death of Jesus, God still reveals his forgiveness and the atonement of any sin, even while we are sinners, because, ‘Christ died for us!’

Again, what John wants us to know, throughout this letter, is that this is the ‘real Jesus’.  We must never settle for less than the real Jesus, is we want find God’s cleansing and healing.   I had a professor in college, who could not stand to hear songs in Baptist hymnals about the ‘blood of the lamb’ or about the ‘sacrifice’ of Jesus on the cross.   He thought that we needed to move beyond this language.  He sincerely believed that this kind of language could cause us to continue to promote violence, hate, and demand pain and suffering, so that God would love, God could save, and God might forgive.  When I first heard that professor, going after the language I grew up with, I was shaken and confused.  I wondered,  “Why would this guy not like a song, like ‘There’s Power in the Blood’?   How could he be a Christian professor and strike out biblical language and songs about Jesus’ blood and sacrifice?

What I have since realize, is that that professor, was not so much against the language of ‘blood’ and ‘sacrifice’, but he was trying to help us see how we can misunderstand and misuse it.   It’s kind of like misusing sex in our world.   Sex is not bad, and we must never make it bad.  But sex is sacred, just like our talk about Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus ‘blood’ must remain sacred, special, language.  

If we want the real Jesus, and not to settle for less than the real, true, suffering and saving Jesus, we have to continue to talk about the ‘hard’ stuff, like the blood, the sacrifice, and the violence of the cross.   But, at the same time, my professor’s approach was mistaken, but his warning was right.   We must be careful to respect, understand, and not misuse this very sacred language of the cleansing ‘blood of Jesus’.  

When John speaks of the ‘blood of Jesus’,  we must realize that this does not mean that Jesus had to die so that God could ‘use’ or ‘abuse’ Jesus in our place.   The Bible does say that Jesus died for us, and took our place and died in our place, but Jesus Jesus did not suffer a violent death because God wanted this.   God did not make Jesus’ suffer to love us, but God was in the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, making his love, the love he already had for us, clear and plain in Jesus Christ.   “Even while we are sinners,  Christ died for us.”  “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.”   The language of this cruel blood sacrifice not the language of what God did to Jesus, but it is the language of what God was doing in Jesus; it is the language of suffering love, not because God demands the violence, but because God’s love does not stop, will not stop loving us, even when we hurt him or we hurt each other.  At the cross, God reveals to us that his love does not stop,  even when we reject this love or when we reject God’s truth.  God’s love does not stop, but can be revealed, even in the ‘blood’ of Jesus’ cross, ‘if we will confess our sins’.   The blood works, because God is in the Christ of the Cross, and this God is ‘is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanses us from all sin’ (7). 
This is still ‘hard’ and ‘painful’ language, but is the ‘truth’ of what happened in Jesus’ death and sacrifice.   Jesus did not die to start a religion of ‘blood’ spilling and violent sacrifice, but Jesus gave his life, shed his blood, and met the violence in the world head on, for being the final, last, and ultimate ‘blood’ sacrifice, ‘once for all’ (Hebrew 10:2,10). 

This is what John means when he says ‘the blood cleanses us from ALL sin’ (7).   Notice that John does not say that Jesus’ blood excuses us from our sin(s), but John says that ‘if we confess our sins’,  this God ‘who is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (5), will ‘forgive’ and will ‘cleanse’ us ‘from all unrighteousness’.   The point John now makes is that, if we don’t want to settle for being less, that we can be, we must not settle for any less Jesus, than this true and real Jesus who suffered, and for any less life than the life that does not settle for the right kind of life.

It to declare the message of this ‘right’ kind of life, for both the church and the world, that this letter of John has been written, and can still be read, understood, and be challenging to us.   John opens his letter, declaring, ‘the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us…’.    ‘We declare what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us….’   ‘We right these things, so your our joy may be complete.’  Then, after all this amazing, bold, language, John gives us the most practical outcome of his message, ‘If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking (or living) in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.’   In other words, when we lie to God, we are lying to ourselves, and we are living a life that is less than ‘what is true’.  “But,”  he concludes, ‘If we walk in the light, as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’ (7).  
I find it most interesting, most revealing, not what this text says, but what it doesn’t say, and how it doesn’t end.   John does not major on that when ‘we walk in the light, as he is in the light’  we will have fellowship with him, with God, or with Jesus.   John is not this, because God has already done, what needs to be done, to establish fellowship with us.   No, the great problem that remains in this church, and in many other lives too, is that we still need to ‘have fellowship with one another.’   It is the life in the light that is the real life that we should aim for, and we must never, ever settle for living any less kind of life, than the kind of life ‘confesses’ our sins, both to God, and also to each other.  Any life without confession of sin, is a life also lived without forgiveness of sin, and this is always, settling for a less kind of life.

When the news about North Carolinian news reporter, and Duke graduate, Charlie Rose’s sexual misconduct became public, it was astounding to watch his female co-hosts struggle to reveal and know the truth about their co-anchor.  Charlie Rose had helped to bring ‘real news’ to America on CBS This Morning.   But now, the ‘real news’ was coming out about Charlie Rose.   His co-anchor,  Gayle King, expressed her feeling,  “I’m not OK”.  “This is not the man I know, but I’m on the side of the women!... “Charlie Rose does not get a pass!”  What do you say when someone that you deeply care about has done something that is so horrible? How do you wrap your brain around that? I’m really grappling with that.”

We are all, always grappling with that, and with the reality of human sin, failure and brokenness.   But John challenges us, instead of denying our sin, to confess our sin, and to allow God’s healing ‘faithfulness’ and ‘justice’ to bring God’s life-giving ‘word’ of ‘light’ and ‘life’ to us.   I could imagine that even Charlie Rose, who was a world-renowned reporter, after what was done in darkness came to light, was not just trying to ‘wrap his brain around it’, but he was also trying to find a way to unwrap his heart from it.   The only way through the pain of sin, is to confess and to be cleansed by God’s heart of love for us, even while we are sinners.

Do you want ‘walk in the light’ as ‘he is in the light?   Do you, do we, settle for a life of not doing what we know we should do, and not doing what we should do?   To begin to walk in the light is to stop deceiving ourselves.   Self-deception never leads us to life.  When we settle we settle for less than the love and forgiveness God has to give, and when we settle for less than the life we still have to live,  this is to miss the ‘joy’ that will make life full again.   Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

While It Was Still Dark

A Sermon Based Upon John 20: 1-10,  NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter Sunday, April 1st,  2018 

Welcome to Easter 2018.  Spring has sprung.  Life continues.  Warmth is renewing our part of the world.  Easter is a beautiful time of year. 

Traditionally, Easter has been the day to celebrate life’s promise and renewal.  While I can’t remember Easter bonnets, I do remember ‘Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail’.  I also remember shopping with mom, putting on new clothes, dying colorful eggs for my Easter basket.  I also remember full churches, glorious, uplifting music, and family gatherings which including hiding and hunting all those Easter eggs.

Easter can be celebrated in many ways, but we never fully understand the promise of Easter until we find ourselves walking through some of the darkest moments of life.  In it is that desperate, disquieting place, we will come to grasp the impact of Easter’s greatest promise.

John’s version of Easter is personal, opening with Mary Magdalene coming ‘to the tomb’ while it was still dark.    The darkness was more than physical, because Jesus had been falsely convicted and was cruelly crucified.  It was then, three days before, that for the first followers of Jesus, everything went dark.

Between Friday and Sunday, it was during the stillness and silence of the Sabbath that Jesus’ disciples were getting used to the dark.   Maybe you haven’t been in this kind of ‘dark’ before, but you might just imagine what it feels like when you lose power during an ice storm.  If the emotional weight of spiritual darkness is anything like this, we would want it to be quickly over.  We would want to move on, and fast. Is this what Mary wants as she approaches Jesus’ tomb all alone?

The ‘darkness’ of loss, grief, and heartbreak is difficult to bear.  Life without the one who matters most to us is difficult to imagine.  When my father died, I wondered who I could talk to, discuss problems, or gain advice from.  I had to get used to the ‘dark’ of not having his voice, his presence, or his companionship.  I had to get used to ‘never again’. 

My mom struggled more than me.  She was already frail, but Dad’s death, accompanied with the loss of her health and finally her home too, caused her to lose all desire to live another day.  In was Christmas and she couldn’t light a single candle of hope in her heart.  We tried to give her love, a place, and encouragement, but she seemed to lose all focus.  She died one year and one month later. 

Darkness can kill you, especially if you don’t face it with hope.   Was Mary coming ‘to the tomb’ to face her loss, or was she finding it hard to let go?   We really don’t know.  Maybe it was both.  We do know that when she found the stone moved, and the entrance to the tomb opened, she did muster the courage to look straight in.  In a way, this is the task all of us face, when we too must face and learn to walk toward the tomb in unwanted darkness.

But there’s something worse than physical loss in this ‘darkness’ that Mary was walking through.  Jesus’ death had been so cruel and unjust.  It was more than the loss of a friend, a religious leader, or even a great teacher.  Luke’s gospel reminds us that the disciples were disappointed over the loss of a dream.  On the Emmaus road two of Jesus’ disciples were overheard saying, “…We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel….” (24:21).   When they lost Jesus, they lost hope in the future.   They felt that Israel’s tomorrow was gone.  Instead of good overcoming evil, evil had overcome all the good that had been awakened in Jesus.   This was a foreboding darkness of soul, mind, and spirit.   It wasn’t just Jesus the man who had died, but hope for changing their world had died with him on the cross.

What do such depressing, dark feelings of grief, loss, and disappointment have to do with Easter?   This is something I tried to explain to my mother, as we were sitting around her dining table, writing thank you notes after my Dad’s funeral.   She stopped writing and blurted out: “I just don’t know what I’m going to do!”  I answered, “Oh, yes, Mom, we know what we will do.  We will do what we have always believed!  This is the time when what Dad believed, and what we have always believed, and still believe matters most.”
When it gets dark, you had better have your faith close to your heart.   When you can’t see, can’t think, or can’t feel your way forward, only what is deeply embedded within will guide you when you can’t see your way through.  The dark will throw you off your game.  The dark shake you to your core.  The dark is not a good time to figure everything out, but it is the time when you must tape into what will give you the resilience to keep walking, to keep going, and to keep on living, even when you can’t find your way.

Faith gives this kind of strength to us, but the question is what gives us this kind of faith?  What kind of faith will help us see beyond what we face?  Easter does not avoid the dark, but we are to take Mary and the other disciples by the hand, and walk straight through whatever happens, so that we too can discover the hope that Easter faith can give.
When Mary saw found the stone had been removed, she immediately thought the worst.  We do this too.   We often look at the dark side especially when all light is hidden.  Mary thought the body had been stolen, so she ran to tell Peter.  Peter and another disciple rush to the tomb.  Pausing at the entrance, they see the ‘linen wrappings lying there’ but don’t go in.  When they finally muster up the courage, they enter and not only see the ‘wrappings’, but they see the face ‘cloth’ lying in a ‘place by itself’ (20:7).  

With this discovery of the rolled up wrappings, John says something unique.  No other gospel writer says anything about a (face or head) ‘cloth’ rolled up, folded, lying by itself.   This detail has special meaning for John, since no other gospel mentions it.   John wants us to see the specific place in the dark, where hope began.  Seeing the wrappings lying on the floor, and the face cloth neatly ‘rolled up’ and ‘placed by itself’ bears testimony against any theft of the body.  Who would steal a dead body and leave these expensive wrappings?  What thief would take time to fold the grave clothes?   Of course, we are not yet to the full revealing of the resurrected Christ, but we are already headed toward hope.    These intentionally placed wrappings are the first pointers toward what is yet to come.  Big hope is already breaking loose in some very small ways.

When a doctor at Wake Forest Baptist Health was sharing with chaplains and pastors about his work with terminally ill patients, he told us surprisingly, that he spent a lot of time talking to about miracles.  “If you are really listening to the patients”, he told us, “you will need to be prepared to talk a lot about miracles.”   I was not expecting this from a physician, especially not from one who was also a teacher of physicians.   

That doctor reminded me that giving hope is always like unwrapping a miracle.  “Every sickness can’t be cured,” he said,  “but it can always be healed.”   Healing is always a miracle, and it is up to us to unwrap the miracle of hope.  Hope is God’s promise of love to us, no matter what comes to us, whether it is incurable disease, death or disappointment.  Hope is God’s promise that shines in every darkness.  But to find this way to all healing, we will always need to ‘unwrap’ the miracle of God’s promise.  Only God’s promise remains above and beyond the cure because is the healing that is always outside of what we know now. 

Whatever these folded, rolled up, neatly placed grave clothes meant for John’s readers, in John’s story they point to the first evidence of concrete hope.  These wrappings were positioned as if the body had vaporized straight through them.  They point to hope’s most calculated probability.   These wrappings point to love’s possibility and love’s promise.  Even while Jesus own disciples were still standing in the dark, they were already standing in the twilight of a brand new day.    
I do not intend mere theological double speak when I say, that only love promises us life, because love is life’s source.  These wrappings left in the tomb, point us to love’s greatest promise, which will always be life.  If love can’t promise life, then what is love for?  And if life doesn’t promise love, then what is life for?  

These wrappings were the very first marks of God’s loving promise, pointing to the life that always comes from God’s love.   Think of it this way.   While Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus, still had his wrappings on because he would need them again, these wrappings  where intentionally left by Jesus.  They were left, because they are God’s loving promise that in Jesus resurrection something drastically changed forever.  Even though Mary and Peter were still looking into the tomb, they were always seeing what love has now unwrapped and unleashed into the world. 

Ironically, only the smallest gesture, the slightest expression, or the simplest word of hope can point you toward the Easter’s promise.  

Not long ago, I saw a heartbreaking news report of how a dying young mother left notes, and even recordings and videos of encouragement for her young child that she would never watch grow up in the world.   That child would never remember her mother alive, but the mother wanted her child to just how much her mother loved her, and she wanted her child to also know how valiantly her mother fought the good fight to live.  So, when she realized she was going to lose this battle, she was determined not to lose hope or love for her child.  She wanted her child to have this special gift of love and hope from her mother.  Different messages were supposed to be viewed each year on her daughter’s birthday and on other special occasions right up to the day of her marriage.  Can you imagine what it would be like to receive and unwrap such ‘love’ messages from her deceased mother whose love never died?

Easter is not a message from the dead, since Jesus appeared to his disciples.   Easter is, however, our living hope of life over death.   Easter is the promise of love we still receive from the Christ who lives, who reigns, and who is victorious over death.   The living, indwelling, resurrected Christ is the source of our hope of life.  There can be no full- proof, guaranteed, scientific knowledge for eternal life, because science has neither the capacity to trust, nor can it see beyond now.  Only with eyes of faith, can we humans find our way to navigate through the dark of death toward the hope that “no eye has seen nor ear has heard‘.  Easter is the trust of God’s loving promise of life; life that came to you once, and will come back again.    

E. Stanley Jones, the famed Missionary to India, told of visiting the Mosque of Saint Sophia in Istanbul.  This mosque, located in the former early capital of Christianity, was built over the ruins of one of the largest churches of the ancient world.  All the Christian symbols were destroyed and Arabic architecture and markings were put in their place.   One day, as Jones craned his neck, looking up into the building’s dome, he grabbed a companion by the sleeve and cried out, “Look!  He’s coming back!   Through the decaying plaster and paint that was centuries old, the image of the ascending Christ was becoming visible again. “You can’t wipe him out!” the missionary said, “He keeps coming back!”  (Setzer, Encounters..., p. 149). 

If you are walking in the dark this Easter, you need to see the Christ who keeps coming back.  You can see him, not by sight, but by faith in his promise like ‘the other disciple’ did when he went looked into the tomb and ‘believed’ (2:8).   Faith is the only way to see your way through the dark.   You don’t have to ‘understand’ because the disciples still didn’t either (20:9). It is not understanding that gives us faith or hope, but as Augustine said, it is faith that comes first; ‘faith that seeks understanding’.   

This kind of ‘faith’ is not mere belief, but faith means trust.  You don’t find your way through the dark by believing in something or having understanding of everything, but you find your way by trusting Him.   It is love that trusts and believes in the promise of resurrection.   

When a young apprentice artist took his painting of Jesus to his teacher, his teacher responded, “You don’t love him enough, or you would paint him better  (Barclay)!”  

Loving and trusting Christ is what Easter still means.  It does not mean believing in a day, having your own faith, or believing in some form of soul immorality.  No, Easter, means that Jesus has left the ‘cloth’ in its place, so that you will seek, love and trust him.  Only by trusting and loving him, can you ‘come to the tomb’ and find your way to the light of life, even ‘while it is still dark.’   Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

“The Crucified God”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark, 15: 1-20, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Passion/Palm Sunday,  March 25th, 2018

Chris Keller tells of his Father’s slow death to Alzheimer ’s disease.  It was a dreadful end to a long, good life.  The worst part of it, Chris says, was two or three years into the decline, when his Dad realized something terrible was happening, but could no longer fathom what it was.  One night, as his son was visiting, his father paced back and forth from wall to wall, anxiously insisting that there was somewhere else that he was supposed to be; a forgotten meeting or appointment.  Desperately, he pleaded, "Can you help me?"   Chris responded, "Dad, I wish I could, but I don't know how."  “For the very first time,” Chris said, “my father looked at me with something like contempt.”  

At breakfast the next morning with my mother, just the two of us, I said, "We are living in a nightmare."  As the disease progressed, it became easier to live with--until death came, finally, as a friend.   

At his Father’s funeral, Chris said: "Alzheimer's slips in on cat feet.  Dad never quite knew what got him. This disease is as fully terrible as advertised.  Then Chris quoted Scripture, which comes from the cross, right after our text for today:  “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:33-34 NRS).

Here in the midst of this kind of darkness; the darkness of human suffering accompanied by feelings of forsakenness, we find the core of the Christian mystery, where darkness turns to light.   Hope comes from the man who suffers the nightmare of the cross.

Today, on this Passion/Palm Sunday we approach again the ‘nightmare’ of the cross once again.  The cross invites us into the divine mystery.   Here, in Mark’s gospel, we find the Jesus who could ‘rebuke the wind’ and ‘still’ the waves (4:39), being ‘bound, and led away and handed over’ to the Governor, Pilate.  
      “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks.  “You say so.”   This ambiguous answer makes religious leaders accuse him more.  But Jesus doesn’t defend himself with a single word.  
       “Have you no answer?” Pilate says.  “See how many charges they bring against you.”   We read that, “Jesus made no further replay.”  Pilate was amazed.   He knows what this means.  This man is signing his own death warrant.  

Everyone knows that Jesus was crucified on a cross.  The Romans crucified thousands.  This is a terrible fact of recorded history.  We know that of all the thousands who were cruelly crucified, only this one had gospels written about him, had a following that developed almost immediately, and has impacted human history more than any other person.  What is not recorded anywhere, except in the New Testament, is what this means.   What is it about this dying, suffering, and crucified Jesus that made his dying and death, the most significant religious symbols filled with meaning and redemptive hope?

Once a pastor asked a group of children what God looked like? The kids rounded up the usual visual images of God: old man with white beard, king on throne, etc. Then a shy little girl, almost too afraid to answer, slowly raised her hand. She said, "I think of God as the one who has a thorn in his head."     When we think of Jesus death, what kind of image pops up our heads?   How many of us think about God dying on the cross?    We think about Jesus, God’s Son dying for us, and we preach, as the Apostle Paul said, “Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2), but what about God dying for us?   Paul said: “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19), but a ‘crucified God’?  How can the eternal God die?   If you try to explain something like this to a child, you realize what it means to enter the deep, dark, and divine mystery of the cross. 

But let’s enter another way.   Back in 1966, when I was only nine years old, Time Magazine's Easter cover story posed a shocking question on its cover with red letters posted on black: "Is God Dead?" I was too young to read or understand the article, but I do remember hearing preachers talking and even joking about it in sermons.  They quipped: “If God is dead, then who was it I talked to when I prayed this morning!” 

At that time, most churches were alive, vibrant, and Spirit-filled.  Everyone laughed at the preacher’s joke.  Today, churches are not laughing so much.   As congregations face decline and challenges, some tottering on the edge of death themselves, this question invites sincere conversation: "Is God really dead?"  Was this just a bunch of ‘liberal’ mumbo-jumbo, or was it an attempt to have an honest discussion about this coming reality, which is now here?

Several years later, when I was in college, I learned that the term ‘death of God’ was first formulated by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.   Nietzsche’s father was a pastor in a small German village.   When Nietzsche became a philosopher, he wrote about what he observed taking place in modern culture, as the belief and thought of God had lost its power.  We should see his point.    Now, in universities, and even in lower education, talk about God has been banished from science and history, and is widely ignored in ethics and philosophy.  Secular knowledge rules the modern mind, leaving religion "to the priest, the pastor, or to personal opinion."  It may not be true to say that God has fully died, but as Chris Keller said, when Alzheimer’s, the disease of forgetfulness took over his father, we can see that in our society, ‘the death of God’ has also ‘slipped in on cat’s feet’.

These are not nice thoughts, just like the cross is not very pretty to look at.   What has happened in our world, and our public lives, is not that different from what happened when Mark’s gospel tells us how Jesus was ‘bound,’ ‘led away’ and ‘handed over to Pilate’.   Just as Jesus was betrayed, denied and accused, people today blame the world’s problems on religious faith, and demand that faith prove itself, defend itself, or make some convincing argument, but many too, hear no definite answer.   Just as people had enough of Jesus then, modern-minded folks have had enough of religion and church now.   Many walk away, busying themselves elsewhere, and some are downright anti-religious.  They see religion as just too dangerous or senseless.   They think the world will be better off without any belief that can’t be proven.   The only belief that matters now is only what I want or choose to believe. 

When the modern world first began to remove God from the center of western culture, way back in the 1800’s, there was an British Anglican Priest, who became a catholic Cardinal, named John Henry Newman, who first started to warn that when God is forgotten in public places, and not talked about or reverenced in schools, there would be an unwholesome trickledown effect everything else--- on education, on morality, on science, and also on economics.  "If there be Religious Truth at all,” he said, “we cannot shut our eyes to it without it having a bearing upon all truth….” What bearing might this be?   

Cardinal Newman’s warning came about the same, when Nietzsche also predicted the rise of the ‘mad man’ or the ‘supermench’; that is the prideful, power-hungry human who thinks they can replace God.   While Nietzsche himself was agnostic about God, he found no cause for celebration in announcing God’s death.   Nietzsche doubted that civilization would endure very long without God.  His thoughts about the ‘mad man’ practically predicted the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the Nuclear Warhead, though no one saw it coming.   The Russian Dostoevsky also saw it, when he wrote that “without God, everything is permitted."   Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, one an atheist and the other Christian, agreed that God's death was dangerous for humanity.   If God does not matter, it will not be long until nothing else matters; nothing except what a hungry, hurting, evil human wants.   Nietzsche feared, it will only be the human with the most money, the most power, and the most madness, and who has lost all reverence for God, who will be the one who determines our future.     
This talk of God’s death in our culture is certainly heavy talk; perhaps too heavy for a sermon.  But folks, this is the week before Easter!   This is Passion Week when we remember, commemorate, and sometimes re-enact what the world did to Jesus, when Jesus was falsely accused and crucified.   And Jesus told his followers to ‘remember’ him and not to forget.  So, isn’t Passion Week an invitation for us to think about what the world does to Jesus now?   Even the book of Hebrews observed only a few years after Jesus was crucified, that people who were falling away from the faith,  were ‘crucifying again the Son of God and…holding him up to contempt’ (Heb. 6:6).  How do we keep practicing our faith in a world that keeps on killing God?   One thing must do is keep holding on to our faith.   Strangely enough, it is the cross and the death of Jesus that stands at the beginning, and remains at the center of our faith, not at the end of it.  In other words, the more the world betrays, denies, accuses and even crucifies Jesus again and again, the more we should realize how Jesus’ death is the key to understanding who God is and what faith and life should mean.    

In one of his very first letters, the apostle Paul called the cross ‘the wisdom of God’ that is ‘foolishness’ to the world, but that it is also ‘the power of God to us who are being saved’ (1 Cor. 1: 18ff).  This interpretation by Paul was original, incredible, and unique.   However, Peter was already on to it, only 50 days after Jesus crucifixion, when he preached: ‘…this man, (was) handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed….’ (Acts. 2:23).  This means that the very first disciples were already on to the saving and redemptive truth about the cross, even while Jesus’ own killers were still around and holding power.   

Today, and I mean this very week, on the same dark Friday commemorating when the crowd screamed out ‘Crucify Him!” and Pilate ‘handed him over to be crucified’, we will call this day, of all days---and I mean this dark and most depressing day---we will, in fact, call this Friday “Good Friday!”   Why in the world would anyone want to call the the day Jesus died, good?   Might the naming of Christ’s crucifixion as good, mean that something ‘good’ might still come out of a culture that wants God dead?   

Of course, Jesus’ death was not ‘good’, at least from face of it.   My very first book of Theology was written by the great Baptist theologian, Frank Stagg.  Dr. Stagg taught me that Jesus’ crucifixion and death always had two sides to it.   This is exactly what Peter was talking about in his sermon on Pentecost, when he says that Jesus was ‘crucified and killed’, but that this was also ‘according to the definite plan … of God’ (Acts 2:23).  Looking at it from one side, Dr. Stagg said, the cross was a ‘life taken’, but looking at it another way, the cross was ‘a life given’.   The bad way of looking at the cross will always be before us, as people still despise and reject the truth that Jesus spoke and lived, which includes the truth about Jesus himself.  But the good side of the cross is always before us too, that is, how Jesus lived and taught what is truth, just as he himself said ‘he was the way, the truth, and the life’, no matter what people did to him.  Jesus never gave up on the truth!   But what is this truth?   In other words, what is truth about Jesus’ crucifixion that gets better, even when people are at their worst?

Could the heart of the truth still be right here, not just at the cross, but also on the cross, since ‘God was in Christ…’, even there, even here, on this ugly cross?   Let me explain.   Long before Nietzsche, a very religious Martin Luther, the great German reformer, had also said that God was dead, but Luther meant something else entirely.  Luther meant that in Jesus Christ the Lord above had descended into history.  As a human being, God lived by history's rules.  One of those rules of life is that, in one way or another, everybody dies.  Jesus Christ was no exception.  But on the cross, it wasn’t just that Jesus the man died, but through Jesus Christ the man, God also died.  God gave himself up for us.   God himself pain for our sins.  God showed his love for us.   In other words, Jesus the revealing of  “The Crucified God.”  

So, rather than doom or gloom, Luther meant that the ‘death of God’ is gospel, which is ‘good news’.  Echoing the apostle Paul, Luther meant that in Jesus’s rejection and crucifixion, God suffers and dies, gives himself up for us, so that he can ‘reconcile us to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19).  As Paul later explained it to the Romans, ‘God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’ (Rom. 8.32).  But now, how does this ‘plan of God’ work out?  How can killing God in the flesh, or even our own ‘modern’ killing of God too, which God allows, also turn out to be the ‘wisdom of God’  which might give us ‘the power of salvation’, rather than the power to simply destroy ourselves?

I want to point you to the answer, by drawing your attention to a Jewish Rabbi.  But this is not the Jewish Rabbi named Jesus, but a present-day Jewish Rabbi, who today leads the oldest Synagogue in Los Angeles; a reformed Synagogue with over 10,000 active members.   Rabbi Stephen Leder recently appeared on the news because he wrote a book about human suffering entitled, “More Beautiful Than Before”.  The subject of that book is to explain that when we humans face our pains, our hurts, our suffering, and even our wrongs or innocence too---facing them with both honesty and courage,  Rabbi Leder claims that even the most negative experiences of pain and suffering could make us better people than we were before.  

Where did that Jewish Rabbi, get an idea like that?   We know, don’t we.  We all know that this can be true, don’t we?  This is the truth that was revealed in Jesus Christ, and in his redemptive suffering on the cross.   When we look at the cross, just like the Israelites were told to look at the ‘serpent in the wilderness’, we can find life.   When we look straight into the pain, the evil, and the ugliness, we not only see what people did to Jesus, but we might also see what God does, and how we can change, with God’s help.   For with God’s help, not only can our suffering be redeemed, but our sin can be redeemed too.   By looking straight at the ‘snake on the pole’ or at ‘the crucified on the cross’ we finally, and fully see what we can overcome, what we must learn, and how God can save.  We would never see what matters most or what we might more beautifully become, had we not gone through the wrong, endured the suffering, or even caused the pain.   At the cross, we still “see the light….”
For example, let's think for a moment about biology.  Many Christian still struggle with whether or not traditional Christian faith is compatible with evolution.  One of the great problems some evolutionary people have with faith is that God allows suffering.   One of the problems some Christians have with evolution is that it leaves us to suffer without hope.   But what if we could look this again, and see evolution pointing us to faith, and see faith discovering an evolving journey through pain and suffering that enables us to be ‘more beautiful than before’?   

In a book entitled Genes, Genesis and God, the philosopher Holmes Rolston studied Christian faith and evolution by side.  Rather than conflict, he found harmony.  In both faith and science, the problem of pain and suffering is important.  In both, we see that pain, while it can be terrible, can also be creative and redemptive.  As theologians have long known,  much of the good in the world would be lost, or have never come about, if all evil, suffering, pain had been prevented (Aquinas).  

Across the board, nature "uses pain for creative advance”, Rolston discovered.   Physical and emotional suffering are unexpected gifts in evolution, and perhaps the ability to suffer is a gift of God too, because they increased creatures' chances of survival in life.   If you didn’t feel pain, you would die quicker.  People who lose the ability to feel pain, whether it be emotional or physical, don’t thrive or survive very long.   Pain serves a ‘purpose’, as an evolutionary progress, and as a divine purpose,  giving us eventually the ability to think and to love.   In short, we can’t learn to love fully, unless we also suffer fully.   The person who learns to love, lives to love.   Or, as the Tennyson wrote: ‘It is better to have loved and to have lost, than to never have loved at all.’   We could not love at all, if evil and suffering had been prevented.   Even what the world did to Jesus, is what it took to fully release God’s love in the world.

All natural suffering in life is religious, and it can be creative.   In this way, all life is Christ-like; or "cruciform"—that is cross-like.   Human life has been given, through the natural processes, the ability to suffer evil; even the capacity to do evil, so that we also gain the ability to learn, to heal, to be saved, and most of all, the ability of love.  This also why, at the center of our faith, just like at the center of all life, is the suffering and painfully creative death of Jesus, who reveals God and his love to us as the center of the ‘good news’. As Isaiah wrote, it is ‘by his stripes, that we are healed."

The cross is exactly what it seems--terrible and evil, red and black--the nightmare. Nothing in the gospel dissipates the nightmare; rather, but this is also a nightmare that serves God's purpose as the way to reconciliation and redemption.  Without the evil of the cross, great good would have been prevented.  Without the rejection of truth at the cross, the truth of God would not have been fully revealed.  This is why Paul called the darkness of the cross the foolishness that is also wisdom and the weakness of the cross,  also its power’.  
By the light that shines in the darkness of God’s cross, that we find our way home.  In the suffering and rejected Jesus, we face our own pain, know our own sin, and we turn toward the God who loves and heals us, who can make us more ‘beautiful than before’.  As the scholar Rolston concludes, "the secret of life is that life is a passion play."

Isn’t this why Jesus allowed himself to be ‘handed over to be crucified?’ When Jesus submitted himself to the cross, by his suffering he revealed more fully, the loving, saving and redeeming God, who lives in Christ, dies in Christ, but still lives in Christ, because God raised Jesus from the dead.  "The mystery hidden throughout the ages has been revealed,” Paul told the Colossians (1.26).   A non-preacher said it better,  "Surely this man was God’s Son." 

So we, when we look again at Jesus on the cross,  we should also see a God who is so loving and strong, that he will allow himself to be crucified again and again,  so he can always return and we can see the ‘way, the truth, and the light’.   Because God’s love can be killed, but doesn’t stay dead, we still have choice.   We can either decide for the hopeless future, as Nietzsche imagined it, and live as if “God is dead”, or we can go with the gospel, which says, that ‘God was in Christ, (on the cross, and in the suffering too),  reconciling the world to himself… and proving his love for us. When we choose this Christ who reveals the loving, suffering, saving God, we choose good news, because we choose this God who will love us, through thick and thin, even if it kills him.   And it did.  He died, to show you his undying love.  Amen.