Sunday, April 27, 2014

FIRST PETER: “Hope Alive!”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 1: 3-9

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Easter,  April 27, 2014

  " ….By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, (1Pe 1:3 NRS).

What does hope look like?

A middle--aged man was on a Caribbean cruise enjoying his first real vacation in years. On the first day out to sea he noticed an attractive woman about his age who smiled at him in a friendly way as he passed her on the deck.  This pleased the man greatly. That night he managed to get seated at the same table with her for dinner.   As the conversation developed, he commented that he had seen her on the deck that day and he had appreciated her friendly smile.  When she heard this, she smiled and commented, "Well, the reason I smiled was that when I saw you I was immediately struck by your strong resemblance to my third husband."

At this he perked up his ears and said, "Oh, how many times have you been married?"

She looked down at her plate, smiled modestly, and answered, "Twice."

Certainly, hope looks differently to people.  To an Olympic athlete, hope might look like a gold medal.  To expectant parents, hope will look like a healthy baby.   To someone undergoing medical tests, hope looks like a clean bill of health.   And for someone facing the end of life, hope can look like life that never ends.  

Hope is many things to many people, but it is overall, a hope that sustains life, motivates us to get up in the morning, and gives us reason to believe not only in today, but also in tomorrow.

ONLY FROM A LIVING GOD 
In today’s text from First Peter, to certain Jewish and Gentile Christians living in the middle-east of  ancient world, hope looked like ‘the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Pet. 1.3).   This is the ‘hope’ that gave them, as our text says, a “new birth”, and a new “power” for “salvation” “through faith”, which resulted in an “indescribable” and “glorious joy” in life.  This experience of ‘blessing’ and “hope” is present all through this passage because it was a newfound “faith” that promised the “salvation of (their) souls.” 

Can we ‘rejoice’ in such a hope today?   We are removed 2,000 years from that time and some 6000 miles from that place, and with so much more to have and to hope for in our lives than those people ever dreamed of, one could wonder what we would ever need with such a hope.  Can the ‘resurrection of Jesus Christ’ be such a ‘living hope’ for us?  For most people today, hope is what can be realized ‘here and now’.  Hope must have much more relevance and be closer to us than something that seems so far away. 
Several years ago, I had to visit a doctor in Charlotte to have surgery on my leg and foot.  During my extended surgeries, I got to know him fairly well, as his brother was a Priest in New Orleans.   One day he asked me if I had ever heard of the “Elevation Church” in Charlotte.  He said, even though he had become Protestant and Presbyterian, he was taking his five sons there to that contemporary “Southern Baptist” church, mainly because of the music.   

If you’ve been watching the news the past few months, the pastor and the Elevation Church have been getting quite a bit of press, because of the Pastor’s 1.7 million dollar mansion which many consider excessive, even for a mega church pastor.  Pastor Furtick has also been criticized for falsifying his books as best sellers, in order to boost sales.   Still, despite the negative publicity, the church has grown to 14,000 members, sometimes claiming to have record over 3,000 Baptism a year.  They even are known to have mass baptisms event, which the pastor calls “mass miracles”, but others call ‘mass’ manipulation or marketing.   You can judge for yourself by going the church’s website to get a ‘how to guide’ for making a miracle happen.   Unashamedly, the church tells how to plant people in the crowd, how to use videos of excited baptism candidates to motivate others, and how to stage a simultaneous event so you can do your part to “help God pull off a miracle.”  (http://www.wcnc.com/news/iteam/How-Elevation-Church-Pastor-Furtick-produce-spontaneous-baptism-246072001.html).

While some prefer the kind of ‘miracle’ humans can manipulate, that is certainly not what our passage means when it refers to ‘a living hope’ which came through ‘the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’   There is no thought of marketing or manipulation here.  There is nothing anyone could have done to manufacture such an event as this.   The ‘resurrection’ Peter speaks of is a ‘living hope’ exactly because it is a miracle only God can do, and there is no human being who can help God pull it off.  (Even the Bible does not say that Jesus raised himself, but it says “God raised him from the dead.” 1 Cor. 6.14.)  If human beings, even if Jesus could have made this , or any miracle happen in his human flesh, then it was not a miracle at all (That’s why when Jesus healed, he always said, “Your faith has made you well).   A miracle that is manufactured by us, in the flesh, is not only a manipulation, it is complete and utter nonsense, no matter how hyped, how well marketed, or how seemingly successful it appears.  The difference in a ‘living hope’ which the Bible speaks of and a hope that will die out is whether or not it is truly from the living God.   As our text declares, the ‘miracle’ of resurrection is a hope made possible only by God and ‘his great mercy’.

YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL NOW
Not only is the ‘living hope’ something only God can do, our text also tells us that a ‘living hope’ is about something we don’t yet have, and really can’t fully have in this moment.  What kind of miracle is that; a miracle you can only have part of?   To understand this, pay very close attention to Peter’s words and how he speaks of ‘a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time….”
(1.5).  A living hope is not about a salvation so great, so all-encompassing,  so comprehensive of all our lives, that you can’t fully have it all now, fully claim it all now, or fully realize it all now.  The kind of hope that remains alive and active in us is about ‘salvation’ that we are still hoping for, because if you already have it all, it ceases to be hope.  If you already have all God can or will give you, hope does not live, but hope quickly dies.     

For hope to be a living hope, it ultimate goal and gift must always remain ahead of us.  It must give us reason to go on, reason to get up in the morning, and reason to endure the struggles, even when this life, or the evils of the world, work against us.  A living hope is so great we can’t fully have it all now, but it what we greatly desire, sorely need, and are often even desperate for.  That kind of hunger and need is the carrot before the rabbit that keeps ‘hope alive’ in us.   But unfortunately, this kind of deferment for the sake of ‘hope’ does not fair very well in our culture of ‘instant gratification’ which says, “I want it my way” and “I want it now”.   But unfortunately, when you want it, you get it and when you have it, no matter how wonderful and good it might be, it no longer lives as hope, but it is taken for granted, can even become a burden, or even a curse, instead of an much awaited blessing.  

Right now, as I write this message, the Power Ball Lottery is at 400 million dollars.  Who wouldn’t want to have such a windfall?   Thousands, if not millions of people will make a mad rush to the stores and outlets to purchase tickets, dreaming of what they could do if they had all that money.
But the reality of having that kind of money is something most people don’t want to consider.  Back in the winter months, while I was exercising one afternoon, I turned on the T.V. to the Dr. Phil Show and watched as he interviewed two young people, who claimed to have been abused by their wealthy parents.  Their parents locked them up like animals to control them.  They ridiculed, pressured and refused the food, to force them to conform or to keep them subdued. 

At one point in the interview, Dr. Phil asked them, if as children, they knew they had money, and the young man said,  “No, all I wanted was a Father like the other children said they had; one who would play with me, read me stories, take me places and tell me he loved me.”   You could see the emotional scars these children wore, all because their family were heirs to the Duke fortune and were part of a family who had unlimited wealth, having everything anyone could ever hope for, and more.   But having it all did not bring blessing, it brought out the worse in people, and it caused feelings of hopelessness, and it brought a curse.  (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/01/29/4648968/duke-family-fortune-heirs-tell.html#.Uwc-j_ldV8E).

When we have everything we want, but too little of what we need, we lose hope.  This can be true is so much of life, so now, let’s consider what is a ‘living hope’.   According to Peter,  a living hope is primarily two things.   First of all, Peter would tell us that a living hope is about ‘a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (5).  The great salvation we have in Christ is not a salvation that is given to us all at once.   In the original language of the New Testament, salvation is always presented in three tenses of time:  “I have been saved, I am being saved and I will be saved.”   We often forget about this second and last tense.  We often treat ‘salvation’ like a commodity we can buy at the store or order at McDonalds.  We move too quickly from getting saved to being saved and forget that salvation is much bigger than what we can have all at once.   Salvation that brings us hope is something we must ‘work out’ to fully realize as we wait for what can only be realized beyond the limits of this life.  Peter reminds us again, that much of our ‘salvation’ in Christ will not be revealed until ‘the last time’.   Peter goes on to explain this ‘last time’ as the time when “Jesus Christ is revealed’ fully and completely in the world, which will only through death comes or when Christ returns.   As hard as this might be for many to contemplate, the best part of our salvation is yet to come, and if we want to have it, know it and realize it, we have to endure, we keep believing and keep serving until the ‘end’, and of course, we have to wait.   That might sound ‘inconvenient, but it is this ‘waiting’ that keeps hope alive in us.  And as Langston Hughes once wisely wrote,  “If hope dies, life (becomes) a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”

Waiting for what will come is hard, but it’s not the hardest part about hope.  The second thing Peter underscores is that a living hope is about ‘the genuineness of your faith….(that is) tested by fire’ (7).   What Peter is talking about his readers know all too well.   Peter speaks of having to ‘suffer various trials’ which will most effectively prove whether or not hope remains alive in us.   This is really a foreign idea for much of our culture isn’t it?   To understand that hope is something which only comes alive when we wait for it, and thrives when we hurt or suffer, sounds very strange.   Why would God allow any good person to suffer, to hurt, especially when they are innocent, or when they are good, or they are his followers?  As one person complained, “If God allows this to happen to his friends, I’d rather be his enemy!” 

While a lot of the suffering in this world can be attributed to evil, the fact that we all have to suffer pain, and will probably suffer more if we try to do the good, appears to be an apparent injustice sewn into fabric of our human situation.   One Philosopher attempted to deal with the problem of pain and evil, responding specifically to the thousands who died in the great Lisbon Earthquake defending God by saying, “This is the best of all possible worlds”.  What he meant was that you can have the gift of life, without suffering pain.  Just like you can’t have water to drink, that doesn’t have the possibility to drown you, or you can’t have fire to cook your meal or keep you warm, unless it might also burn you, and most of all you can’t feel love and freedom, unless there was also the likely possibility of hate and evil.  Life in a physical or bodily form is not possible in any other way than that it must include hurt, pain and suffering.  

That’s a well-known and sophisticated philosophical argument, but  Peter  does not argue philosophically, but understands ‘suffering’ as a “test by fire”, in that the suffering we have in life now, will result in more joy, more praise, and more glory and honor, when Jesus Christ is finally revealed.   In other words,  using the image of a refinery that produces gold through fire and pressure, Peter believes that the pain and pressure of suffering proves our faith is true, and causes us to live our lives in expectancy and hope, instead of living in excessiveness and despair.  In other words, we are made into better  people because we must suffer, than we would be if we didn’t.   

LIFE CAN BREAK US, BUT HOPE MAKES US
A living hope, which is hope alive in us ---alive in us even when we don’t get what we want or need---is the only kind of hope that makes life worth living and grants us hope even when we hurt or when we must die.  Only this kind of “living hope” can make us into the person we need to be for life; a person of faith, of hope, and of love.  

Pay special attention to how Peter summarizes his living hope near the end of our text, when he writes:  “Although you have not seen him, you love him…..”  In short, hope teaches you to love.  Next, Peter says: “Even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”   Hope builds faith that enables the deepest joy of living.   Finally, Peter says in verse 9: “For (in hope) you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  This ‘living hope’ comes alive right now in both you and in me, as it gives us the hope to become the ‘soul’ we can in Christ.  In this way, hope makes life worth living, because hope teaches us to love, teaches us to believe and gives us reason to rejoice in this life of pain and death, because the ‘resurrected Christ’ has already begun to give us the ‘outcome of faith’ already at work in the ‘salvation of our souls’ as we wait for the new, eternal, spiritual body, which only God can give.   In other words, life can and will finally break us down, physically, perhaps even emotionally, but at the same time, hope is already at work in us spiritually, making us into all that God wills us to be, working in us and working on us, from the inside out, to finally give us ‘an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (v. 4).

We all know that the word “inheritance” refers to the birthright, the heirlooms, or the wealth or property that is passed down through the generations of a family.  But in the Hebrew sense, ‘an inheritance’ referred especially to the inheritance to possess the land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants.  But the Christian inheritance is even greater.  As the great Biblical Scholar William Barclay once noted, Peter uses three powerful word pictures: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading to remind us just how much greater is the hope Christ gives.  It is a hope that can never be taken away from us, and more than this, Peter also says that this kind of promise of hope now ‘protects’ us ‘by the power of God’ until all our salvation is finally revealed.   Again, Barclay reminds us that “protect” is military word, meaning that in Christ “our lives are garrisoned by God who stands sentinel over us all our days.” (The Daily Bible Study Series,  “The Letters of James and Peter, Revised, Westminister Press, Philadelphia, 1976, p. 174).

In uncertain times, when you don’t know who you can trust, or when stock markets, economies, and incomes rise and fall, your hope can only be ‘protected’ or safe than when you put your greatest hope in God. This does mean that this life should be written off, but to the contrary, the God who created this world is at work, even in the brokenness, pain and losses of life to bring about the greatest gains, gains that we can hardly imagine to be possible.   The possibilities of what ‘can be’, even when all seems lost, began all the way back at the crucifixion of Jesus, then came alive through Christ who rose from the dead and ascended to as God’s right hand man to assure us that in God, hope is never lost.  Hope in God never disappoints, because, as the old creed says, “God is the creator and maker of heaven, and earth” but not only this, but God is also redeemer and the guarantor of what is yet to come. 

I recently read how during the Christmas holiday, Gardner-Webb University’s president, Frank Bonner and his wife Flossie, enjoyed a trip to New York city.   Dr. Bonner said they had a wonderful time, in spite of the huge crowds, and that the people, contrary to what many would think, were courteous, friendly, and helpful.  So, he says, “the concept of rude New Yorkers is an absolute myth.”  He found that “New York is one of the world’s great cities”, but also in the midst of that city that can be magnificent and uplifting, is much that is also disturbing.   You can walk through the opulence of the stores on Fifth Avenue, then out on the sidewalks lie the homeless wrapped in blankets struggling to survive against the bitter cold.  And of course, there is also the 9/11 Memorial, where you can study the engraved names of over 3,000 innocent victims of terror, and also reflect upon the depths of the human capacity evil.  How do you process all this?  Bonner and his wife attended the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and found the only answer.  The greatest cause and reason for good in the world---indeed the only true hope for the problems of our human condition---is the saving grace, undying goodness, and redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
(From “Presidental Persecptives” by Dr. Frank Bonner, in Gardner-Webb The Magazine, Vol. 49, No. 1, 2014).

But how does that hope, that sometimes seems so far away from our world, our time and our place, get to us?   How does it become hope alive in us, not just for those first believers?  Peter knows.  He says, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice….”   Preacher Tom Long reminds us of just how excessible this hope is to us,  even when we think it might be far from our own situation.  He also tells of being in New York (or it could be any large city) and reading “Madison Avenue” like Saturday adds from all those large, powerful, “miracle-like” inspiring churches boasting all their assets; their choirs, their friendliness, their gifted preachers, their multiple ministries and even their ample parking.  They are the kinds of churches people will leave a church for, if they can, because they seem to have it all.  “Other churches”, Long says, seem to pale in comparison, or as Long says, they seem “to have nothing, absolutely nothing”  That’s how the church was that first Easter too.  The church made of 11 disciples, and a few women had “absolutely nothing.”  (Quoted from a sermon “The Church With Nothing” by Tom Long, in Whispering the Lyrics, CSS Publishing, 1995, p. 89f.)

That’s also how The Church of First Peter felt, as it suffered: It also felt like it had absolutely nothing.  But when Jesus walks into such an empty place or an empty life, through bolted doors, and when Jesus interrupts frightened, scared or anxious disciples, suddenly, immediately, and instantaneously, immediately the church that has nothing, has everything.  This ‘church’ that is suffering the loss of so much,  now begins to realize that what it thought it once had, means nothing compared to what is now made accessible to them through the risen Christ.   Only God can give hope like that.  Life can try to break us, but hope in Christ is what ‘protects us’ and will make us what we could have never been, without God’s help.   Hope gives ‘new birth’ to life, and for those who keep loving and keep believing in Jesus, it gives us a living hope. 

The words from William Barclay’s poem, echo Peter’s living hope once more:
“I see thee not, I hear thee not, yet art thou oft with me;
And earth hat ne’er so dear a spot, as where I meet with thee.

Yet, though I have not seen, and still must rest in faith alone,
I love thee, dearest Lord, and will, unseen but not unknown.

When death these mortal eyes shall seal, And still this throbbing heart,
The rending veil shall thee reveal All glorious as thou art.      Amen.








Sunday, April 20, 2014

“The Unsecurable Tomb”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 27: 62-28: 10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter Sunday, April 20, 2013

Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." (Mat 27:65 NRS)

When President Abraham Lincoln was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery, 2 miles outside of Springfield, Illinois, his coffin was placed in a white marble sarcophagus in a burial room behind only a steel gate locked with padlock.   But two years later, in 1884, when it became known that a notorious Irish crime boss by the name of “James ‘Big Jim” Kennally was planning to steal the body and hold it for ransom, Secret Service agents foiled the plot and secured Lincoln’s coffin in the basement of the tomb, moving it around some 16 times and encasing it in a brick vault.  A few years later, in 1901, Lincoln’s son Robert Todd had the remains exhumed again and then placed them into a permanent crypt where the coffin would be secured in a steel cage, encased under a concrete floor 10 feet deep.  At the time Lincoln’s body was re-interred, 23 people were present to view his body one last time, fearing that, through the intervening years, the body might had been stolen.  Amazingly, it is said that Lincoln was perfectly recognizable.  The flag he had been buried with had rotted, along with his gloves, and there was yellow mold on his suit, but it was theorized that Lincoln had been embalmed so many times on board his week-and-a-half-long funeral train, that he had been practically mummified.    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funeral_and_burial_of_ Abraham_Lincoln).

While thieves did try several times to steal Lincoln’s body, in today’s Easter text the opposite is happening.  Here, strangely enough, some of the enemies of Jesus go to Pilate with a odd request to ‘secure’ the tomb ‘until the third day.’    They did this because Jesus predicted he’d ‘he rise again’ and they were afraid ‘the disciples” might “steal the body” and claim it to be true.   That’s a rather funny suggestion, when you think about it.   The last time we heard from the disciples, they were in deep denial and scattering in the darkness ‘like sheep without a shepherd’.   But even so, the Pharisees don’t take any chances.  They want to make sure that this ‘imposter’ stays in the tomb where they placed him.   Any form of ‘deception’ which claimed that “He has been raised from the dead’ would make matters worse.  Pilate grants their request and orders his guards to ‘go’ and ‘make it as secure’ as they can.   A tomb that was normally left open for visiting mourners was ‘made secure’ by ‘sealing the stone with a guard’.

YOU CAN’T BE TOO SAFE
Along with the Pharisees and Pilate, we are all thinking more about safety these days.   We want our cars to be safer with better technology.  We want our homes to be built with bigger and better locks.  We want to put up surveillance equipment, install alarm systems and do whatever it takes to keep our families safe.   Last fall, Crime Prevention expert Larry Handy visited both our churches to share how our seniors could better protect themselves from personal attack and prevent attempted robbery.   He showed us all kinds of common sense ways to ‘be safe’ and prevent crime; from parking our cars in well lighted areas, showing what items a woman could use as defensive weapons from a purse, and giving instruction on how to escape an abductor.  These were good lessons on prevention, helping us to do smart things to stay a little ‘safer’ in a very unsafe world.  But of course, there were some, like me, who wanted to know how to go big time, like finding out what kind of gun to carry or what kind of pepper spray to use, but the detective wisely warned us that if you carry a gun pepper spray, you’d better keep the spray up to date, and hope the bad guy doesn’t have a bigger gun than you.  These weapons might make you feel more secure, but they might not make you any safer.   

We all want to be safe, and to protect ourselves and our families, but why are these people in the gospel story, trying to protect themselves from a ‘dead’ man?   Security and safety is an issue that keeps popping up, and the word is used here no less than three times.   What’s going on?   If you remember, when they came to arrest Jesus, they came with the security of swords and clubs (26.48).   That’s a little overkill for arresting a ‘prince of peace’, don’t you think?   Then, quickly thereafter, all the disciples flee in the darkness to protect themselves (26.57) and to find safety.   Peter also wants to be safe, so when he is recognized as being one of Jesus’ followers, he denies it three times (26.69ff).  We also know that Pilate’s wife even tries to protect her husband, telling him to ‘have nothing to do with that righteous man’ (27.19).  Even though this governor commands armies, she still wants to keep her husband safe.  And now, even after Jesus is safely dead, the chief priests and Pharisees know ‘you can’t be too careful’, and evidently Pilate agrees, so he gives them guards, instructing them to ‘make (the tomb) ‘as secure as you can’.   One wonders.  What was it about Jesus that made everyone so nervous? 

Most of you have heard of C.S. Lewis and his series of books entitled “The Chronicles of Narnia.”  After the Oxford Scholar became a Christian, he wrote a series for children, representing the truths of the Christian faith in ways that children would never forget.   At the center of the series of books were four children, who entered a mysterious wardrobe to travel to the hidden kingdom of Narnia, only to encounter a Lion named Aslan.   Upon hearing about the Lion, the youngest of the children named Lucy, asked a friendly beaver about the Lion ruler:  “Is he safe?”  Lucy asked.  “Who said anything about safe?  Of course he isn’t safe,” Mr. Beaver answered, “But he’s good.  He’s the King I tell you.”  C.S. Lewis was right, wasn’t he?   A king can be good, but because if he’s really the king, he’s never safe.   (As quoted by: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/aslan, from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, by C.S. Lewis).

We have a hard time imagining Jesus as being as dangerous because he is good.   But we can imagine just how dangerous ‘good’ and ‘light’ can be to those want to do wrong or who want to hide their misdeeds from the light.  Can’t you remember those people in class who were nicknamed ‘goody two shoes’ or others who tattled the misdeeds of others to the teacher?   Many people, including a few politicians don’t like the Press and the media for exactly the same reason; they don’t want everything to come out in the light.   But strangely enough, Jesus is not someone who has come to simply expose all our misdeeds.  Jesus has even bigger fish to fry.  Jesus , but himself says he is has come to be the “light” who is the “way, the truth and the life...” In other words, following Jesus is not an option for those who want eternal life, but Jesus claims to be the only true option.   It is this very peculiar and particular nature of the Christian gospel that still makes people upset and nervous.  Jesus does not in any way say he is a way, a truth, or a life, as one option among many, but Jesus says rather sharply, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and he makes the point even clearer: “No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14.6).   

There are many people, even Christians, and not a few professors of Christian theology, who still wish Jesus hadn’t said it like this.   They wish Jesus was a little kinder, a lot nicer, and even fairer to other religions, other beliefs, and made all of us feel better by saying that our faith is just another personal matter, an opinion, and not really a matter of public confession that is a matter of life and death.   And if you want to see just how much trouble Jesus can cause, just watch a Christian teacher lead a Christian prayer at school, or listen to a Christian public official pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ at a local town council meeting.   If you don’t believe Jesus can cause problems, just let a preacher preach that that if you are going to be serious about following Jesus, then you’ve got to let go of a few things, change your schedules around a bit, or seek first the kingdom, and then these others things can be added.   Putting Jesus first will not make attendance go up, but big crowds do not mean big faith.

BUT WITH JESUS NOTHING IS EVER SAFE
So, let’s make sure we can make the tomb as secure as we can.   We don’t even have to have this Easter stuff.  Let’s bury Jesus once and for all.  We can live without him.  Can’t we?   That’s what I once asked a reporter for the Berlin Morning News.   He came to my apartment for a long interview. He came to ask about why I came to eastern Germany, when most everyone wanted to leave.   We talked for several hours about my mission work, we discussed the dreams and realities of communism, and we talked about our respective countries, Germany and the United States.  Then, I finally asked him.  “Are you a Christian?”  He answered that he used to be a Christian, but he wasn’t anymore.   He said: “I can live without Christ!”  “Yes, I can understand that, but can you die without him?”  He paused for a moment, and then without surety or certainty he answered:  “Well, I uh, at least I hope I can?”

The Pharisees and Pilate wanted to make the tomb ‘as secure as they can.’   It wasn’t a dead Jesus they were worried about, but they should have been.   Whatever their fears or intentions, it didn’t work.  It doesn’t work for Peter to follow Jesus from a safe distance.  It’s doesn’t work for Pilate to wash his hands and think everything is over.  It also doesn’t work for the Chief Priests or the Pharisees to think they could silence Jesus once and for all.   Because, as Matthew tells us, all these attempts to keep everything secure runs right up against an earthquake.    How do you keep yourself safe from an earthquake?  You might hide under a table and avoid having the ceiling fall on you, but what will you do if the ground opens up under your feet?   And that is exactly what Easter means.  It means that when God raised Jesus from the dead, the ground of everything we once thought we knew about life and death has been pulled out from under us.  These armored ‘guards’ at the tomb are mere mincemeat for an angel whose face is made out of lightening.  Now, in the very first shock of Easter (no pun intended), even before Jesus appears, we already have two things none of us should ever feel safe around, ‘lightening’ and an ‘earthquake’. 

YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who show up at the tomb and would have been just as insecure as the guards, if the angel had not spoken up, saying: “Be not afraid, I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised….This is my message for you” (28: 5-7).  Those women were the first to experience Easter; not as a wish, a dream, nor as a rumor.  They witnessed Easter for real.  They left the very ‘insecure’ tomb “quickly with fear and great joy!”  With very mixed emotions these women didn’t hide, but they did run.  They ‘ran to tell his disciples’ that “He is risen” just like he said.   But how did they know?   How did they know not to let ‘fear’ return to overwhelm their joy?  

This is exactly how it is for us.  We too, can receive the Easter message with faith, hope, and also joy, but then tragedy comes, heartbreak happens, and the fears return to overshadow our faith and our hope.   How do we keep Easter alive in our hearts?  And besides that, how do we know that Easter is “Good News”?   Do you recall that great hymn that goes “America, America God Shed His grace on thee!”  That is our hope isn’t it?  That no matter what we go through in life, God gives us his grace.   But it could be otherwise, couldn’t it?   Mary Hinkle Shore tells of attending a communion service, where it was customary for people to come forward and receive the bread and the cup.  Mary says that once, when she was handed the cup, that the minister spoke the words, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”   It was the way the said the words with a pause that struck her.   She suddenly realized he could have said, “The blood of Christ, shed against you.”   (From Mary H. Shore,  “The Insecure Tomb”,  www.day1.org)   How do we know that the risen Christ is for us, not against us?   How do we know that Easter is a celebration of God’s love for us, not a reminder of his judgment upon those who crucified then or reject Jesus now?   And how do we keep the faith, hope and joy, even when life appears to go against us?   We know the same way the women came to know, as they ran from the tomb. For it wasn’t just an empty tomb, nor it the earthquake or the voices of angels that gave them hope.  It was Jesus himself who met them on the road.   He said, “Greetings!   And the Scripture says they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.   In that moment, they heard Jesus himself say to them, and to all of us: “Do not be afraid!”   That’s when Easter really began.

We know that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, and they recognized his presence, that a new courage and freedom came upon them.   In the story of the early church, the disciples were filled with boldness to speak the truth and were not afraid of those who would scoff at their faith or take their life.   This leads me to ask, “What might this kind of freedom mean to you?”  How different could your life be if you too, could find yourself worshipping not a dead and buried Jesus from the past, but a living Lord, who walks and talks with you along life’s way?  How might such a living Lord, change how you view life, how you see a stranger, or how you live even in the midst of uncertain times? 

Of course we still live in a very dangerous and frightening world.   We need to take care of ourselves and we need to take care of each other too.  But more than anything else, we need to meet a living savior, who gives us the power to walk in faith, not in fear.   “Do not be afraid!”  This is what the risen Jesus still says and his assuring voice and presence is what makes Easter not just a holiday, but a holy day filled with  promise and hope. 
---Do not be afraid, even though you must face life without your loved one! 
---Don’t be afraid, even though the way can still be dark, Jesus goes ahead of you, just like he did those women.  He is the one we can still meet, on the road of life.
---Don’t be afraid, although the world is moving under our feet in this shaky world, they are shifting and shaking because the kingdom of God is on the way.

----Don’t be afraid, for God is not your enemy, he is closer than a any brother.   And if he is for us, and he is with us, what can there ever be that we cannot overcome in him?   Finally, don’t be afraid, for your life and your security are where they have always been, hid with God in Christ.   Christ is Risen and overcame so we can live our lives without fear and fully and completely free, indeed.  Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"So Great A Salvation"

A Sermon Based Upon Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 1-4
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Passion Sunday, April 13th, 2014

“Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:1-3a NRS).

Escape what?   
Back at the beginning of February, the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was fresh in the America public mind.  Hoffman was noted as ‘perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired Actor of his generation.’   He won an Academy Award for his starring role as renowned literary figure, Truman Capote, was nominated three times for supporting roles in other films and also known as a Broadway star and director, taking on some of the most challenging and ‘burdensome’ roles.   In his final appearance on Broadway in 2012, Hoffman portrayed one of the most demanding, but most esteemed roles; that of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s title character in “Death of a Salesman.”  No one could portray “all-American optimism” mixed with the realities of “uncertainty” and “doubt” than Philip Seymour Hoffman, wrote one critic.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2014 /02/03/movies/philip-seymour-hoffman-actor-dies-at-46.html?_r=0).

Philip Seymour Hoffman could not ‘escape’ his addictions.  According to the NY Daily News, when they discovered his 46 year-old body in his rented New York apartment, they also found a heroin syringe with the needle still sticking in his arm.   It is reported that they seized 70 baggies of heroin, at least 50 of which were still unopened.  They also seized 20 hypodermic needles and five prescription drugs, including one drug used by heroin addicts to help kick a habit.   Hoffman became addicted to heroin all the way back in High School, when his talent was first discovered.   He has been fighting that addiction all of his life, being sober at times and then crashing again.  

For those who don’t find or respond to treatment, there little hope of escape.   Names of the gifted and talented who did not escape stand out in our minds;  names like Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison who all eerily passed away at the same young age of 27.   Others who could not escape, both sooner or later, have famous names Corey Montieth, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ List_of_drug-related_deaths).  Despite their talents, gifts, success or wealth (or perhaps partly because of them) they could not escape. 

Whatever you do, as you reflect upon this tragic death, don’t right off Hoffman as just another ‘drug addict’.  He was a devoted family man.  He was not only extremely talented in his work, but he related well to people and was much loved by those who worked with him.  When Phil Hoffman was only nine, his parents divorced.  Hoffman gave his energies to sports, but due to a neck injury, he started acting.  It was about that time, that young Phil Hoffman started drinking and became addicted.  Anyone who knows what addiction is, knows that it is a way to ease the unhealed pain of the soul.  The emotional and physical pain Hoffman experienced without healing,  along with the wealth that gave him easy access to the forbidden, left this gifted young man with no way to escape (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/03/philip-seymour-hoffman).

HOW CAN WE ESCAPE?
It is estimated that perhaps 10 to 15% of the human population, have what is known as “addictive personalities” and don’t know when to stop (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/look-it-way/200903/the-addictive-personality ).  I would reason that the figures go even higher, because the addiction problem is tied very closely to an emotional ‘co-dependency’ problem, which affects about 96% of the population (http://www.nytimes.com /1990/02/11/books/chances-are-you-re-codependent-too.html ).  The so called “Drug Czar” and right wing morality champion Bill Bennett, was also an ‘addictive personality’, hooked on both food and gambling.   His so called ‘War on Drugs’ was not simply about the ‘addiction’ of others, but it was more about a more common human struggle of the unhealed soul.   The truth is, people like us, that is, people who know pain in life, can get hooked on most anything: going to sporting events, lottery tickets, profanity, being political, and even on good and meaningful work, whom we innocently label as ‘workaholics’.  And guess what?   You can even go to Church too much, not just every Sunday, but why not twice a day, or 3 or 4 times a week?  Some people think that the more you go to church, the more faithful you are too God.  Some preachers don’t tell them any different, but encourage it, because it boosts attendance.  Some of the newer, contemporary churches are known as 7 day a week churches, becoming the only way to keep the ‘addictive’ society in church these days.   In other words, the way to grow church today, it seems, is to trade one form of addiction for another. 

Several years ago, the church I pastored, had a supportive relationship with a local “halfway house” for men who struggled with alcoholism.  That “halfway” house had a success rating higher than most other private or government sponsored institutions.  We had residents to speak to our congregation as part of their recovery effort.  What I noticed, from hearing their testimonies, is that the recovery strategy was to replace the very harmful addiction these men had with alcohol with a less harmful addiction to work and religious faith.  You could see that their new habits, like strict religious devotion and over regimented lifestyles, were just as overboard or excessive as their alcoholism.  But that kind of extreme discipline worked as a rehabilitation program because it fit their personality, until grace and health could reshaped their souls.   As I listened to these men speak, I was filled with more compassion for them and came to see them not as ‘those who struggle’ with an addiction, but as fellow strugglers in life.  It made me remember what I heard someone say when I was in clinical training for being a pastor: “We are all dysfunctional, but the only question that remains is level of our dysfunction.”

When the writer of Hebrews wrote ‘WE must pay greater attention’ so that “WE don’t drift away from what WE have heard’, and when he asks the rhetorical question: “How shall WE escape if we neglect so great a salvation’, he uses the word ‘WE’.   He is not talking about a problem that troubled some people, or a problem that put ‘other’ people at risk, but the writer of Hebrews is talking about a very human struggle that puts everyone at risk: “How shall WE escape…?”  What he writes about is a matter of life or death.  Why else would you listen to a really long sermon?  I’m not talking about this sermon, but the book of Hebrews is one, single argument, which makes for a very long sermon of 7, 281 words; almost 3 times longer than a normal sermon.  Why would we still be considering such an archaic, ridiculously lengthy argument?    

Of course, no one would have the attention span to listen so long, unless it was a matter of life and death.   If we ‘neglect’ or ‘lose’ our salvation---salvation from addictions, salvation from our worst selves, and salvation from our own best efforts to stay alive---such ‘neglect’ it is a matter of life of death.   For if we ‘drift’ away from the truth---the truth about ourselves or the truth about life---how can we escape the endless struggles, addictions, conflicts, and threats of life?   How can we escape the threats which can leave us forever and always vulnerable and susceptible to negative powers and influences which can take away both physical life and can rob us of our soul?   Our human ‘soul’ makes us more than living cells of protoplasm, but contains the ‘spirit’ and ‘image of God’.   Our soul reminds us that we are indeed made ‘just a little lower than angels’ and have been ‘crowned with glory and honor’ (Psalm 8) and that our lives are gifts that matter. 

But no matter how gifted or invincible we think we are, we are still at risk.  We are at risk of many things, but we are surely all at risk in our struggle with sin, death and the devil.  Jesus too said that his ‘spirit was willing’ but ‘his flesh was weak’ (Matt 26.41).   We are weak too, even if we think we are now very strong.  We are all ‘weak’ and ‘dependent’ creatures in need, which is a truth we will not always be able to neglect or deny, even if we are doing a pretty good job of it this moment.   

IF WE NEGLECT
Who would ‘neglect’ the loving rescue that would enable release you from destructive behavior that leads to a demoralizing, diminished life or destroyed life?  Why would someone with so much to live for give into powers that rob you of our loved ones and your own life?   But it does happen, doesn’t it?   Even talented, smart, and much loved people, neglect the rescue that is offered.  Hoffman neglected going back into rehab.  He neglected doing what rehab had taught him before.  He neglected the support from AA and NA.  He neglected to listen to ‘tough love’ from his girlfriend and he neglected his children, who needed him.  Why do people ‘neglect’ to do what they know they need to do?  We may write off Hoffman’s tragedy to the power of addiction, or the negative lifestyle of an addictive personality, but the truth is that even the ‘addictive personality’ has to neglect working against their own weaknesses, as do we all.  Even though we may not have an addictive personality, no matter how smart, how well grounded, how gifted or how blessed we are, we too can ‘neglect’ to do the things we know are good for us, right for us, or necessary for us to maintain our lives, our love and our faith in the future.

The writer of Hebrews speaks of ‘neglect’ because there was a real potential for ‘neglect’ (2.1) of the ‘heavenly gift’ (6.4) in the early Christian community.   And strangely enough, the writer of Hebrews says the kind of ‘neglect’ which put the Hebrew Christians at most risk was not what they were doing wrong, but it was what could fail to get right.   What they were about to ‘neglect’ or fail to get right was unthinkable, unreasonable, if not outright ridiculous: They were about to leave Jesus.  These Jews who had once decided to risk all and to follow, were now wondering whether Jesus was worth it, whether Jesus made any real difference in their lives than did Moses and the Law.   Of course they wouldn’t outright denounce Jesus, but perhaps they would pay less “attention” to him (2.1), or ‘neglect to meet together’ to worship him (10.25), or just ‘shrink back’ from going forward in faith (10.38).  

Let me simply say two things about the ‘neglect’ that was possible them, and still possible now.   First, our neglect of some very small things can lead to the neglect of a much bigger, more important things.   Later, in chapter 6:1 of Hebrews, the writer encourages ‘us to go on toward perfection (completion), leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ….”    This writer is not saying these ‘basic teachings about Jesus’ are unimportant; things like ‘repentance’, ‘baptism’, ‘laying on of hands’, ‘resurrection of the dead’, and ‘eternal judgment’ (6.2).   But he is saying these things are ‘basic’ and ‘foundation(al)’ for even greater things in our life.  Because we repent of dead works, good works should come alive in us.  Because we are rightly instructed in Baptism, baptism becomes a model of how we live our lives sacrificially every day.  Because we lay hands on and bless others, blessings of grace, goodness and love will grow in our communities, and because we believe in resurrection and eternal judgment, we change how we live our lives right now.   This major point Hebrews is making is by neglecting these basic things, the bigger and better things won’t happen. 

Several weeks ago, while I was working on this sermon, I received a phone call from a person working to raise money for a worthy cause.   The call was, however worthy, interrupting and intrusive to me.  So as they lady began her well-rehearsed speech, I interrupted her, asking, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, are you making this call on my behalf of on behalf of my work?’   If she had answered that she was calling as ‘on behalf of my work’ I would have taken the call.   But if she had answered that she was calling me as an individual, I would ask her to call back again.   But when I interrupted her prepared sales pitch with a question, she became confused.   After I repeated my question, “Is this call for me, or about my work, she paused, then finally responded, “Thank you sir,  someone will call you back later”, and she hung up.   Evidently she was not well trained in the most basic skill needed in sales, how to talk to a real person who asks real questions and expects real answers.   Because she was not trained in the most basic way, she missed moving to the ‘greater thing’ she wanted to accomplish, which was raising funds for her cause.

SO GREAT A SALVATION    
So, one problem of ‘neglect’ in the book of Hebrews is the neglect of the most basic, foundational, and simplest truths we have received from Jesus.  When we pay less attention to them, neglect to meet together for worship, or when we draw back from going forward in faith, we start to go backwards.  And though we might think we are only neglecting small things, the neglect of the most basic, can lead to the neglect of the most important thing that matters most----the neglect of following Jesus.   This is the ‘neglect’ the book of Hebrews is most concerned about: Neglecting our ‘great salvation’ can take us to the worse thing of all:  losing the very ‘faith’ that saves us (12: 39). 

I know that to hear a warning about ‘losing salvation’ is controversial, especially for Baptists.  Southern Baptists once fired a greatly respected and accomplished Baptist teacher, Dale Moody, for teaching that Hebrews proclaims that “Apostasy” is possible.  Moody taught that Hebrews reveals that if we neglect our faith in Jesus, it could result in losing salvation, just as many Jews lost their salvation by when they refused to go forward with God.  Interestingly, every major Baptist group in the world, outside of Southern Baptists, believes that we retain our ‘free will’ to ‘fall away’ from Jesus, even after we have ‘tasted’ and ‘shared’ in the ‘heavenly gift’ of His blessings.  Some still prefer the non-biblical slogan “Once Saved, Always Saved” than to be warned by Scripture, which says, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt (Hebrew 6:4-6 NRS).    

I know that’s very scary language, but this is not meant as an accusation or threat, but as a warning.   It is very important for us to realize that it does not mean we can slip and fall out of God’s love or lose your salvation accidently.  Remember Jesus explained that the Father shelters us in his hand, and nothing can snatch us out (John 10.28).   Neither does it mean that when you neglect God in your life, that God will neglect to forgive you (1 John 1.9).  The God of the Bible and the God of Jesus Christ does not work that way.  The God of the Bible sent Jesus to die for us ‘while we were sinners’ (Romans 5.8) and this certainly means that he still loves us, even if we fail, even we fall down or even if we sin again.   I think that the slogan “Once Saved, Always Saved” intended to convey this angle of assurance.  Even Hebrews says that Jesus’ sacrifice was made ‘once and for all’ (7.27).   But even though nothing can ‘snatch’ us out of God’s protective hand, this does not mean we can’t walk out on our own.  Who would want to do that?   Some of the Hebrew Christians did.  And even though it sounds like madness, there are still those who would neglect ‘so great a salvation’ that they leave Jesus behind by his Lordship over their lives trading him for some substitute. 

The point of Hebrews is making is not that we lose our salvation accidently, nor that we lose it by committing a sin, but the point is that we can lose salvation by neglecting the very ‘source’ (5.9) of the ‘great’ salvation’ we have been given(2.3).  We put ourselves at risk when we ‘fall away’ or ‘neglect the “Son”,  whom God has “appointed’ to be the ‘reflection of God’s glory’, the ‘exact imprint of God’s very being’, who ‘sat down’ in the God’s place of power, and now ‘sustains all things by his powerful word.’( 1. 2-3).   All this overwhelmingly religious language is simply a reminder to them and for us, that Jesus is the true way God has chosen to ‘speak’ and to ‘save’, and if we neglect, leave, or deny him, we lose everything God has to give. 

Several years I came across a testimony of a Christian pastor, who admitted that as a teenager, they left Jesus.    They grew up Presbyterian, graduated Harvard, got involved with Unitarian churches, and eventually became a Unitarian pastor and then ministered to faith and hope without Jesus.  They talked about all the great lessons of faith, and even challenged people in the matters of faith and life, but they left Jesus out of it.   It all went well for a while, but then one day, this preacher had to admit something:  They swallowed hard and admitted they missed Jesus.  They missed the stories, the songs, and the worship of Jesus.  They missed the great fact that Jesus is only one who says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son….”  They missed everything taught them in their childhood.   But now, suddenly, after leaving Jesus they now apprehended just how important Jesus is to faith and they realized how much they needed his presence in life.  It was sort of like like the person who wrote, “Everything I ever needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten.”  They realized,  that everything they ever needed, for life and for salvation, they had received from Jesus.

Is Jesus really the ‘reflection of God’s glory’?  And do we really risk losing everything if we neglect him?  During the hype and height of Nazism in Germany, it is frightening to look back at the German Churches, and to see how they neglected and eventually surrendered their faith in Jesus and put faith in Adolf Hitler.  It could have been otherwise.  In those days, most people in Germany were members of the two state churches: Lutheran and Catholic.  So where was the voice of sanity against Hitler’s insanity?  Most of the Church, gave in to the rhetoric or to the fear, and only a few stood up to say, “Only Jesus is our Lord and the Kingdom of God is our goal, not Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich (Kingdom).”  Although there were a few who realized what was happening, they were either too late, or outnumbered by the majority’s opinion and by Hitler’s ruthless tactics.  But what those few faithful Christians also realized was even more sobering, according to Eric Metaxas, an evangelical writer, who has recently written a biography of one of the Christian pastors who did oppose Hitler.   That pastor noted that because the of church and the people’s neglect of Jesus as being God’s only true word, even Christians would share in the judgment that was about to rain down from the skies above.  In fact, he even prayed for defeat of his nation, so they would pay for the suffering they had brought to the world (From Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson, 2010,  p. 387).       


In this world, there are many distractions,  ideas, opinions and even faiths that can lead you away from “Jesus”, but  Hebrews says only Jesus, is the ‘reflection of God’s glory’, and the ‘exact imprint of God’s very being.’   This does not mean that God cannot or does not speak to us in other ways, and even through the hungering for truth in other religions.   But whenever God speaks, whether in nature, through religion, in the Bible or in our hearts, God will never speak contrary or greater than he ‘spoke to us by a Son’ (Hebrews 1.2).  Hebrews reminds us, and it also warns us, that if we deny, if we leave, and if we neglect the ‘word’ that has spoken the truth, and if we ‘fall away’ there remains nothing else that can save us.  There is no other way of ‘escape’ from the inevitable reality we all face, for there is no truer ‘voice’ for God or way to the heart of the Father, but through his Son, Jesus.  Don’t neglect the “great salvation” you still need in him.  Amen.      

Sunday, April 6, 2014

“PERSEVERE: Staying with Jesus”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 5: 10-12; 16: 21-26
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5rd Sunday of Lent, April 6th, 2014

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.    Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mat 5:10-12 NRS).

We had hardly unpacked our bags as newly appointed Baptist missionaries in Germany, when we got an urgent letter from our Mission Board.  Our supervisors informed us that since America had declared war upon Iraq, there was a real possibility that we could be targeted or taken hostage for political reasons.   If, God forbid, that such hostage taking would take place, the Mission Board, nor the United States Government, would agree to pay ransom nor would promise to negotiate our release.  For our own safety we were advised to protect ourselves to be as inconspicuous as possible and to dress and speak like the nationals.  After I finished the letter, I took a deep breath and realized this was real.  I recommitted myself and my family to God’s care.  My only other thought was this:  How do you make yourself inconspicuous when all you can say is Guten Tag?  

Few of us have ever had our lives threatened because of our faith or nationality.  Fortunately, no real threat ever came to us while we lived and worked as missionaries in Germany.  Even though Christianity was mostly a memory there, there was enough of a memory left, that most everyone was kind, polite and respectful.   Like most of you, I have lived my whole life without religious persecution, but that does not mean that I do not know what it means to suffer for or struggle because of my faith.   Even people who live in a land where freedom of religion is protected by the constitution, if you profess something to be true, you may undergo moments of doubts, discouragement, and perhaps some discrimination, if not occasional aggravation or harassment.  In other words, because you claim something to be true another person doesn’t, you may have people hate you for no reason, speak evil of you without a cause, or even falsely accuse you.  This is why most people, even in a ‘free country’, understand that the most polite way to keep faith is to keep it personal, making it a very delicate, private matter not to be discussed in public places without caution.

Maybe this is part of the reason this final beatitude about ‘being persecuted for righteousness’ sake’,  takes up more space, has a blessing that is repeated times, and is longer than any other.  Trying to live right and do good is not easy.  It can be a struggle and will probably be a battle much of your life.   And if you try to stay true to Jesus, Jesus warns that you will suffer for it; and even in certain parts of the world, you could be imprisoned or killed for it.  So, here’s the question: If righteousness in Jesus is so demanding and can even be dangerous, why stay a Christian?  Why persevere? Is this way, this truth, and this life how you want to spend your very short life?   Does faith have a currency of value to us today?  Why stay with Jesus, when you could do your own way and have the ‘good life’?

A CROSS AT THE CENTER
It is important for us to realize, first of all, that the main symbol of Christianity is not the star of Bethlehem and not the empty tomb, but the cross.  It was probably unimaginable to ancient Romans that the cross might one day become a symbol of a world faith.  In the Roman Empire, the cross was what the electric chair, guillotine, and hangman's noose are in our world.   The only difference was the cross was a slower, more painful, and extremely humiliating form of capital punishment.  
The cross was barbaric because it was intended for barbarians.   Until its abolition by Emperor Constantine in the year 337, crucifixion was used within the Roman Empire to kill slaves, rebels and those condemned for especially abhorrent crimes.  The victims were almost always noncitizens of low social rank. In areas like Judea, crucifixion was intended to deter resistance to Roman occupation.  After the Roman siege of Jerusalem, many Jews were scourged, tortured, and then crucified opposite the city walls.   Josephus, the Jewish historian says soldiers “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different positions.” The usual process was to strip a condemned man all dignity by removing his clothing and then nailing him to a post or tree.  The usual cause of death was not loss of blood but hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and heart failure.   Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples that he himself would be killed by crucifixion, yet this was a prediction they ignored or refused to think about.  To the contrary, Jesus’ disciples had witnessed the excitement and welcome Jesus received wherever he went.  They saw firsthand his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the son of David.”  How could they imagine that only days later he would be dead on the cross and they would be in hiding?   

After Jesus was dead and buried, the disciples were also slow to believe the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection.   But when those doubting disciples came face to face with the Resurrected Lord himself, it turned their world upside down.  Resurrection is only reasonable explanation for such an unimaginable change of perspective concerning the cross.  What had been a symbol of Caesar's ruthlessness, now, became for Christians the sign of Christ's victory over death.  After the resurrection, the cross viewed in such a transfigured light, that the apostle Paul came to oddly declare, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6: 14).  (Based on Jim Forest in, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, (pp. 138-139). Orbis Books, 2011, Kindle Edition).

Today, we live on a sort of ‘glory’ side of the cross, as the cross has become a great symbol of God’s salvation accomplished through the death of Christ on the cross.   But we should not think this means that now, God’s salvation is about security or always playing it safe with life.  To live a ‘righteous’ life will not always bring earthly security, nor will it always make you rich, healthy, happy or safe.  Jesus explained clearly that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Mat 16:24-25 NRS).   Having assurance in Christ is not like having insurance.   If anything, because we follow this Jesus who died on a cross, we ought to be reminded that safety is not what Christianity was or is about.   Jim Forest, tells of a New Yorker cartoon which illustrated a young couple being shown a house that is nothing more than a castoff army tank. “It's a little small inside,” the real estate agent admits, “but you can't beat it for security.” 

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
If being “saved” does not mean being safe, what does salvation mean?  In this final beatitude, Jesus says that the blessing of faith can come even when you find yourself “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  How do we understand such a blessing, and why would we ever want it?   Perhaps a clearer understanding might begin with some a definition.  The meaning of the word ‘persecuted’ is explained in this text as having people “revile you” (to insult or berate) and “utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”.   The point is that if you choose to walk in the spiritual footsteps of Jesus in this world, and if you try to live rightly, you can and will find yourself stepping into a battlefield, an ongoing spiritual war, an ever- present conflict between good and evil, and between right and wrong.  As the apostle Paul so graphically described it to the Ephesians, you will enter a “struggle”, that “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12 NRS).  This might sound melodramatic, sensational, or theologically heavy for most people.  Few spend much time thinking about their lives with such ‘drop-dead’ serious, life and death, light verses darkness terminology.  Most people are just trying to get through the day, make a living, get home, raise their family, and have a little fun once in a while.  Probably we would never think about life this way at all, unless we run into a problem.  (It’s kind of Like Lindsey Lohann or Justin Bieber living such an insolated and insulated life that they don’t realize they might have a problem).  It can be so very ‘innocent’, so ‘unnoticeable’ and even seemingly ‘unmentionable,’ where this struggle with ‘darkness’ shows up in us. 

When I reflect about my own struggle with ‘darkness’ or  my struggle ‘against spiritual forces’, I think about a particular event with one of my childhood friends, whom I went to church with.   We were walking through a popular department store dreaming and wanting some new toy off the shelf that we had no money for.   I can remember him telling me he could get that toy out of the store without getting caught.  Now, what you have to realize, here is that I had a Father in the store business.   I was taught not to steal, but I also knew something about what stealing meant to the shop owner.   The truth was that in that moment we both knew that it was wrong to steal, but we were also fixated on how much fun it would be to have that toy or how exciting it might be to get out of that store without getting caught.  I was not going to help him do the deed, but I did not insist on him not doing it, and I even helped (him and me, I thought) by being a lookout.  I did not come up with the idea, but I was participating in ‘darkness’.    

You might say that this was just childhood ignorance, since we were both children and neither of us realized the full consequences of our actions.  Perhaps.  But consider another familiar situation.  What if you were out on the ball field at play with your classmates?   It could be softball, or any game.  On that ball field is less adult supervision and things happen that could not go on in the classroom.   What if, someone among your classmates wears glasses, isn’t athletic, is shy, or is uncoordinated, or weaker than all the others?  What if, one of stronger ones in the group starts picking on them or worse, pushes them around and threatens to hurt them?  You could take up for them, or you could just watch what happens.  Will you risk being ‘persecuted’ along with them, or will you have the strength to stand up to that bully.  

Of course, Bullying is just a fact of childhood, right?  We know that children can bully each other, but adults don’t do such things, right?  During the time of the Nazism in Germany, Adolf Hitler ordered the military to annihilate all the disabled, diseased, and so call inferior, weaker people who were only considered a drain on the economics and welfare of the greater society.  By then, Hitler had gained total power over the life and death of the German people.  Everyone was afraid of Hitler because he had gained total power to decide who lives and dies.  What started as simply a proud people wanting success for their leader and overlooking some of his mad ways, became the expected way for that politic to get ahead in the world, to prove its strength.  The politic was able to do this, not because it began as an evil deed, but it began as an unopposed evil thought, which believed that in the grand scheme of things, if you trust in your own strength without God, only brute force, only the survival of the fittest, and only the and success of the strongest, the best, the brightest, and the best looking, really matters.     “If only it were all so simple,” wrote Russian novelists, Aleksandr Solzhenitzen. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, 1973).   No wonder Jesus advised his disciples to make sure that before they looked at the “splinter” in the eye of another, they first considered the “log” blocking their own vision (Matt. 7.4).  In other words, we all struggle with darkness and we all struggle with knowing what is righteous and what is unrighteous.  And even if what is ‘right’ is clearly obvious beyond all arguments to the contrary, the question still remains: will do actually do it?   

It is the few people who realize, struggle with, and come to ‘know’ what is right and really try to do it, and even to promote good in their world, who will be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  They are the ones who will be caught in the middle and will be ‘persecuted’ for going against the ‘natural grain’ of how things are.  They are also the ones who show us all how things should be, could be, and hopefully one day, will be, when God’s kingdom fully and finally comes.  In the grand scheme of things, and in the end, “Theirs will be the kingdom” says Jesus, because they are the ones who have ‘hungered’ and ‘hurt’ for God’s kingdom all along.  All along, sometimes at great personal sacrifice and costs, they were willing to be different and made a difference.  Like Jesus, they are the righteous ones who see what needs to be done, and do something, even if it hurts.   They give themselves to making sure that, God's will is ‘done on earth, as it is in heaven,” and that the righteous kingdom keeps coming and breaking into this world, through their own faithful witness and their redemptive work in the name of Jesus Christ.    

STAYING WITH JESUS
Don’t take this call to ‘heroic’ suffering for righteousness’ sake and for God’s kingdom to mean that Jesus desires suffering.  Jesus does not summons the ‘persecuted’ to ‘rejoice’ along with the prophets because they suffer with them, but to ‘rejoice’ because their “reward will be great in heaven.”   In a culture that grows more impatient, so that delaying gratification is not at all what we want (We want it, and we want it now!).  And when the idea of rejoicing over what can only happen later, rather than sooner, sounds ridiculous, how could we ever adopt or even consider, the ‘delay of joy’ as a part of our life, hope and worship?  How could we ever agree with the person who inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.,  who said, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope (Reinhold Niebuhr).” We probably won’t agree to such a delay in your joy at all, unless something happens that causes us to reconsider.  Following Christ is certainly not the choice for anyone whose goal in life is security.  “You had better buy the tank,” as Jim Forest told us. “The windows are tiny and there is no guest room, but it will probably keep out thieves. You will have the well-guarded if lonely feeling of being in a safety deposit box inside a bank vault.”

So, at the conclusion of this beatitude, and all the beatitudes, we come to most basic issue:  What does staying with Jesus have to offer us when so many other more immediate joys claim to offer us so much more?  What kind of uncommon, common sense would make you want to stay with Jesus because, your reward is not here and now, but ‘your reward will be great in heaven?’  Could I convince you to hunger and thirst to do right, even if it hurts?   Probably not, but what I can do it give you at least one last good reason.   It comes from a classic movie which everyone should see.  “Last Holiday” is an ironic British comedy written by J. B. Priestly and released in 1950.   It unsuccessfully remade in 2004, but in the original black and white British version, Alec Guinness plays George Bird, a salesman as cautious as a civil servant, who has never married because what women see in his face is dread of life, not an attractive quality.  A persistent headache has made him consult a doctor. After medical tests, Bird has been told to come back the next day for the diagnosis, but by the time he returns the files have been mixed up. The doctor has someone else's results in Bird's folder and so informs him that he has an untreatable illness and will be dead in six weeks. In fact, all Bird needs is an aspirin.  

But the doctor's error transforms Bird's life.   He quits his job that very day, empties his bank account (there is no longer any point in saving up for old age), and books a room in a luxury hotel, a coastal resort for the affluent.  He had never imagined setting foot in such a place until he spotted the graveyard racing toward him. A day later he begins his last holiday.  No longer needing to play it safe, Bird can say and do things he previously would never have dared– there is nothing left to fear.  For the first time in his life women find him attractive. Bankers, corporate executives, and government ministers are soon lining up for his advice, offering partnerships and vice-presidencies.  Everyone senses in him a mysterious quality, a detachment and freedom that make him a figure to be reckoned with. The viewer alone knows just what that mysterious quality is: Bird's death sentence has been his liberation.  He is no longer a prisoner of the terrifying future.  He living his life more seriously, more soberly, becoming more intentional about doing what is good and right than ever.

However, the people in the hotel where Mr. Bird is staying are far from a happy group.  In many ways their holiday hotel is a well-appointed purgatory. Bird becomes something of a Saint Francis in his efforts to help his fellow guests become less selfish people, though it takes only his being late to a meal in his honor to sour their affection for him. What they don't know is that the guest of honor has just been killed in an auto accident while off on a mission of mercy. The doctor with the wrong file was right after all, not in his diagnosis but in the basic fact that George Bird– not to mention every one of us– is going to die and there's nothing we can do about it. The physician's only error was that it took less than six weeks to happen  (As told by Jim Forest in,  The Ladder of the Beatitudes (pp. 155-156). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition).

‘Last Holiday’ could point us to what Jesus meant when he says “great is their reward in heaven.”   True joy in life comes not from playing it safe, but from stepping into a life in which we are no longer in charge, in which you and I hold on to nothing.  We too can even be made free now, free as a bird like George Bird, by the news of our own mortality and our only true hope.  What normally keeps most of us from living this, any or all the beatitudes is mostly fear– fear of the unknown, fear of others, fear of the contempt, fear of poverty, and ultimately, the fear of death.   Fear can make any of us a people of little faith, who don’t do anything. “If you had faith even the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus tells us, “you could move mountains” (Mt 17: 20).  Jesus wasn't referring to Mount Sinai or Mount Tabor but to more intimate barriers and obstacles of our faith: our own mountains of caution and disbelief, our mountains of fear.    

But the main word throughout these beatitudes is not ‘reward,’ but “blessed.”   Truly it is only the poor in spirit—who realize that they have nothing to lose, but everything to gain, who are blessed.  Truly, it is those who have had significant losses and mourn, who have the blessing of learning life is about ‘loving’ and ‘being loved’ or it is nothing at all.   Blessed are also those who hunger for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure of heart, who make peace, who are as willing as the prophets to risk punishment for the sake of God's kingdom, because the ‘blessings’ of God do not come when we go after them, but God’s blessings come when we desire and do what is right, because now, through Jesus’ filter of truth, we can clearly see what God’s surprisingly ‘great’ salvation means.   For Jesus, salvation is not a living a life of playing it safe, but God’s salvation comes by living a life that does God’s will no matter what, because in the beginning, at the end, and also now, in the middle of life, God’s will is all that matters. 

I want to conclude with words that reminds us what matters most.  These words are not found in the Bible, but were written on a wall of Shishu Bhavan, a children’s home in Calcutta, India, which was once operated by Mother Teresa’s order, the Sisters of Charity.   They tell remind us what it means to bless others with the blessing God gives us, because, at the end, and in heaven, only God’s blessing matters:
“People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People who really want help may attack you if you help them. Help them anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt. Give the world your best anyway.”    Amen.