Sunday, September 28, 2014

“That’s The Spirit!”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 8: 2-17.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   September 28th, 2014


But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you...”  (Rom 8:9a NRS).

During my seminary days in the early 1980s, I took a summer-long class on pastoral education, which including working as a chaplain at large, regional teaching hospital.   My work included working in different areas of the hospital, but I spent most of my time visiting patients on the cancer floor along with being on call over the entire hospital several times that summer. 

On one occasion, while on call, a doctor requested that I come to visit one of his patients.  To have such a request was a rare event.  Most doctors were trained in Science, not theology.   They seldom understood what we were doing and had little time to think about it.   Most thought only they had 'gifts' of healing, but this particular doctor was stumped.   He told me that he had a certain patient who would not respond to his medical treatment.   Since the doctor had ruled out anything seriously physical or psychological, he wondered if there might be anything that might be connected to a ‘spiritual’ problem. 

Sure enough, after several visits together along with hour-long spiritual discussions, the patient’s sense of well-being began to improve, so that he began to respond to treatment.   As we talked, there were things in his life he had difficulty coming to peace about.    In order to be free to heal, he needed to find freedom in his soul.    I can’t remember all the things we talked about, but I do remember that much of our conversation had to do with letting go and trusting God with things in his life he could not control.   Several weeks later, when I attempted to make another visit, I realized the patient had been discharged.   Seeing his doctor in the hallway, I asked about him.   The doctor said he left doing remarkably better.  He told me, that from now on, he needed to take the work of hospital chaplains more seriously. 

The human person not only has a body, but theologically speaking, a person also has a soul and/or a spirit.   Some of you may remember the American drama film back in 2003, entitled 21 Grams.   The title of that movie was based upon the early 20th century research of Dr. Duncan MacDougall in Massachusetts, who believed that he could measure the change of body weight at the time of a person’s death.  The result which Dr. MacDougall felt was most accurate was that when a person dies, they lose “three-fourths of an ounce”, hence, “21 grams; the calculated ‘weight’ of a human soul  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_MacDougall_(doctor) .

MacDougall’s research is considered ‘flawed’ and ‘unscientific’, but I do think that he was on to something that can’t be measured by scientific means.   The spiritual side of life and love belongs to a different way of knowing; a way of knowing that is not directly observable, but still can be quite obvious.  I love the final line in the novel, “The Book Thief”, by Australian writer, Markus Zusak, which has the narrator death contemplating the worth of humans, saying, “A last note from your Narrator: I am Haunted by Humans”.   It is exactly this ‘spirit’ within humans, which is capable of choosing good or evil, which confuses and confounds any who would contemplate it.

In the ancient, biblical world, Paul took this “spiritual” side of humanity for granted.   He even goes on to suggest that God’s Spirit connects with our own spirit (8.16).   Along with the ancient Greek philosophers, Paul believed that the spirit is the mark of the eternal within us.   Still today,  there is a return to spirituality for the sake of healing and mental, emotional and religious health.  In our text today, Paul begins his discussion by saying the “law of the Spirit” which flows from Jesus Christ gives us eternal life, not just when we die, but now, when we will “walk…not according to the flesh, but according that the Spirit”(1.4).   Whatever angle we take on this, Paul’s most basic idea is that the Christian life is a life lived from the inside out, from within, and from the heart being “led by the Spirit.”   This “Spirit” cannot be measured, but can be known and must be followed if we hope to overcome the power of sin, the world, the flesh and the devil. 

THE SPIRIT THAT LIBERATES
It is the “….Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that ‘sets you free from the law of sin and of death” (8.2).   The Spirit of Jesus is a liberating Spirit.    Jesus says, ‘the truth shall set you free’ (John 8.2) and it God’s spirit is also known as ‘the Spirit of truth’ (Jn. 4.23; 14:17; 16:13).   Truth brings freedom and liberation from sin.  But what kind of ‘truth’ can do that?  This ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ in the Spirit comes through the truth about God’s forgiveness and grace, rather than condemnation.   If you are forever condemned by your sin, you can never get free of it.  But if you are forgiven, you are set free for a new way of life.  

But here we must not misunderstand Paul’s meaning.   The “Spirit of Life” does not liberate for the sake of freedom alone but the Spirit liberates for the sake of living a whole new quality of life.  This is what Paul means when he speaks of those “who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit  (vs. 4).   It is for the sake of “life” that the Spirit liberates.  The Hebrew idea of ‘walking’ in the Spirit is an idiom that of how a person lives each and every day.   In other words, to ‘walk’ in the Spirit means that we are to ‘live’ in the Spirit---the Spirit of Christ, that is.

Unfortunately, not all who claim to follow Christ realize this.  It is said that the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy claimed to have been converted to Christianity, but he failed to understand that he also needed to be Christ-like in his daily life.   Even after he affirmed Christianity as the true faith, he continued to have a terrible temper, was rude to people, held grudges, and sought vengeance.   Tolstoy was not ‘liberated’ from his sin.  He came to believe in Jesus’s moral teachings, but he did not believe Jesus to be divine, nor allow the Spirit of Jesus to free him of all his old, bad habits.  He just could not trust and believe enough to practice real Christianity.

This is not an unfamiliar problem.  Any of us can come to believe something with our mind or heart, but still fail to change our actions and behavior.    I might want to be baseball player, but if I don’t practice baseball, I’ll not become good at it, no matter how much I believe in it.  In the same way, I might want to be a better husband or father, but if I don’t work to change my bad habits, it will be very difficult for me to be the person I want to become.   The Spirit might ‘liberate’ from our past, but this does not necessarily change us for the good we want to become.  The work of the Spirit may indeed be miraculous, but it the work of the Spirit does not come in a single instant or moment.   If we want to live in the Spirit, we have to be liberated for the purpose of living a whole new way of life.  But how do we do that?

THE SPIRIT THAT ENLIGHTENS
“Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit…” (8.5).  In Paul’s discussion about the liberating Spirit, his major emphasis is the there is a great difference between the ‘mind of the Spirit’ and the “mind of the flesh”.  The ‘mind of the flesh leads to death’, he says, but the ‘mind of the Spirit leads to life and peace’ (8.6).    

Here, we must not misunderstand what Paul means.  Paul is not against the ‘flesh’ of our bodies nor the ‘earthly’ reality in which we live.   It the misuse of the flesh and the limited focus upon the ‘earthly’ that can mislead and destroys.   A healthy focus on the spiritual and the eternal can help us live a more constructive, positive, and beneficial life here on earth.  As the great evangelical thinker C.S. Lewis once said, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither (Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, p. 134).

The point we most need to take from Paul’s discussion here is that we are what we think.  The life of a Christian begins in the heart and in the mind so that we eventually become what we set our hearts and mind upon.  Writing to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus’  (Phil. 2: 1-5).  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes even more directly and specifically about the Christian mindset, saying:  “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…” (3:2).   Another translation read, “Keep thinking about things that are above…” (Net Bible).   The things Paul tells us to ‘keep thinking about’ are things like ‘having a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing one another, and forgiving one another.’  These are all things we must do “with” our flesh, but we can’t do them “in the flesh” alone.   To do these things we need the Spirit’s help. 

Also, when Paul wrote to the Ephesians he also speaks of having  the ‘eyes of the heart enlightened’ (Eph. 1.18) to know ‘the greatness of his power toward those who believe.’     In the New Testament the contrast between living in the light and living in the dark is similar to what Paul means by living in the Spirit verses living in the flesh.   Paul is no more against the physical flesh than he is against the physical dark, but both are powerful pictures what can go wrong in human thinking and what needs to go right. 

For, as we all know too well, our minds can play tricks on us.  We all know this.  When Comedian Robin Williams took his life, Dr. Phil said in an interview that he wished that he or someone would have been there to talk Robin out of it.  Something dark was going on in his mind and thinking (clinical depression), and Robin could not get out of it alone.  Paul says that this is part of the work of the Spirit, which works through people to bring the ‘truth’ of God’s love not only to liberate the soul, but also to ‘enlighten’ the mind so we all can live a more fruitful and abundant lives, no matter what demons we are struggling against.  

One other point to ponder is that Paul also says that those who have a ‘mind set on the flesh’ have a mind that is ‘hostile toward God’ (8.7).  Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t care about the flesh, or use our God given minds, but the point is that our minds and our bodies need the ‘law of God’ which is both the law of love and the law of the Spirit.   God loves the world, and is not against the world.   But this ‘fleshly’ world God has created needs the rule, guidance and redeeming power of God to overcome the negative impluses of “sinful flesh”.   

This ‘power’ over sinful flesh comes through the Spirit, aka, ‘the Spirit of Christ’ (8.9) now made available to all through the death (8.3) and resurrection of Jesus (8.11).   As Paul writes, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus….will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you….” (8.11).  Here again, the point not that this world is all evil, or that you only get God’s power to go to heaven when you die, but when the Spirit of Christ is in you, you get the power in “your mortal bodies” before you die.  This is the reason the Spirit ‘enlightens’ our minds, so we can live “life” now, in this world and in our mortal bodies ‘through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

THE SPIRIT THAT LEADS
The conclusion of all things ‘spiritual’ is not merely to move us beyond our ‘flesh’, nor to make us so ‘heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good’ (C.S. Lewis), but the Christian life as a spiritual life is a life that empowers us to ‘live’ fully and freely in our ‘flesh’ now so that we obtain the ‘glorious’ hope of outliving our own fleshly, earthly lives.   “Indeed” Paul concludes, ‘we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (8.17).  This is where Paul is going, and he hopes we will be going in that direction too.  But it is a direction of life and living that is impossible without the work of the Spirit in our lives.   This work of the Spirit is the Spirit who ‘leads us’ (8.14), Paul says, to be ‘children of God’, by adopting us, testifying within us, and making us all “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Jesus  Christ” (15-17): For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (8.14). 

To be ‘children of God’ means that we are fully alive human beings, people who not only granted the gift of life after we die, but we also are given the gift of life and power to live before we die.   This is so wonderfully illustrated once more by C.S. Lewis, in his children’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.   The White Witch had turned many of the inhabitants of Narnia into stone, but Aslan, the Christ figure, jumps into the stone courtyard, pouncing on the statues, breathing life into them.  Lewis writes:   The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. Creatures were running after Aslan and dancing round him till he was almost hidden in the crowd. Instead of all that deadly white, the courtyard was now ablaze with colors: glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds...” (As quoted by Brent Younger).

Surprisingly, Lewis’ summary of what was happening in Narnia is a description of what a church should look like: "The courtyard no longer looked like a museum; it looked more like a zoo."  The church of Jesus Christ should be so alive in God’s Spirit, that people ‘in the Spirit’ have lives marked by God-given liveliness, soul, joy, Spirit.   I know that sounds scary (I’ve even heard recently that a Lutheran Pastor got fired for even mentioning the Holy Spirit).  It especially to some who have a misunderstanding of what it means to be ‘spiritual’ or filled with the Spirit.  To help clear that up, once and for all, I’d like to end with how the  late Johnny Cash expressed the reality of being ‘spiritually’ or ‘heavenly minded’ with his Christian song, “No Earthly Good.”
Come heed me, my brothers, come heed, one and all
Don't brag about standing or you'll surely fall
You're shining your light and shine it you should
But you're so heavenly minded, you're no earthly good

If you're holding heaven, then spread it around
There's hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded, you're no earthly good

The gospel ain't gospel until it is spread
But how can you share it where you've got your head
There's hands that reach out for a hand if you would
So heavenly minded, you're no earthly good

If you're holding heaven, then spread it around
There's hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded, you're no earthly good   

What Paul wants us to understand is the exactly where Johnny Cash was going with his song, but said in an opposite way.   Paul wants us to be so ‘heavenly minded’ that we overcome ‘deeds of sin’ in our bodies and are empowered to be of great earthly good.   When you live that way, you know you’ve got the right Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

“Living In Color”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 7: 14-8:6.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   September 21th, 2014


“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8:1 NRS)

I grew up when Westerns were king.   Some of you remember when they dominated Black and White TV and Hollywood Movies: Roy Rogers, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke,  and all those John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies.   It was a different world and a very different way of looking at our world.

In most every Western, eventually the good guy wins and the bad guy loses.  All you had to do was figure out which ones are the good guys, and who was really on the right side of the law.   Life was a still great challenge, but it was simple and not complex.   Each Hollywood Western was the way America explained itself saying, “A man’s got to do, what a man’s got to do!” 

But things have changed.  The Buffalo are gone.  The railroad is finished. The red men now have lawyers.  The sun has set on Monument Valley.   Once John Wayne was said to have commented in frustration,  “They tell me everything isn’t black and white,” to which he answered, “Well, I say why the Heck not?” http://puffin.creighton.edu/fapa/Bruce/0New%20Film%20as%20Art%20webfiles/HowtheWestern%20was%20lost/How_the_western_was_lost.htm

In our text today the apostle Paul would be sympathetic, but would whole-hardheartedly disagree with John Wayne ‘s western-style of philosophy.  If the Christian life is only a matter of ‘black and white’, we’re all in trouble.   Paul sees himself as basically a good guy, but he’s wrapped up in a human body that is sometimes incapable of good and too capable of bad.  Instead of the one coming to the rescue, he’s the one who is tied up on the railroad track as the whistle is heard and the ‘train of truth’ approaches.  He cries out in all honesty and desperation:  “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” 

WHAT THE LAW CAN DO
Normally, the law and the lawman was righteous and good in the typical Hollywood western.  In a similar way, Paul would agree that the “law” is good and has an important role to play in the Christian life: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin…” (7:7).    He uses the commandment “Thou Shall Not Covet” as an example.  If it had not been for the commandment he would not understand that coveting is wrong.

If you take a trip to Washington DC, and walk up the steps of the Capital Building, you see 9 of the world’s great lawgivers in relief form.   The most dominate figure in the middle is Moses, who mediated the Ten Commandments.   The point is that we are a nation that is built upon law and it even hints, if not suggests, that the final source of law comes from God.

Assad Meymandi, is a medical doctor with a PHD, who lives in Raleigh, though he is a native of Iran.   He is also an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.   Last year, he wrote in the Raleigh Paper: “America is not great because of its prosperity. It is not great because of the proverbial American Dream of a brick home with a two-car garage. It is not great because it gives us security, opportunity and order. It is not great because of its advanced technology and its number of Nobel Laureates in science, medicine, literature and humanities….   America is great because it is a nation of laws and because of its absolute commitment to uphold and maintain the supremacy of the rule of law….

….”On the local scene, a couple of years ago, with astonishment and awe”, he wrote, “ I sat and watched the court proceedings of former Gov. Michael Easley on television. Astonishing, because a former chief executive officer of a sovereign state was being sentenced.  Awe, because of the unshakable and uncompromising supremacy of the rule of law in America…. 

He concludes: “America, from time to time, may go down financially and our state might have a $3 billion budget deficit, but nowhere on earth are the sanctity and supremacy of the rule of law so cherished and enshrined in the nation’s psyche as they are in AmericaGod has blessed our beloved nation, the United States of America, and we are blessed to be Americans….

Although Paul is speaking of the law mostly in religious terms, and while Dr. Meymandi’s assessetment is primarily political, they do intersect.  You cannot be a people, a nation, a religion, nor a decent human being without some sort of rule of law.   No nation, nor any people, no matter how free, how liberated or how religious we are, or will ever be able to sustain themselves without law.   The law is foundational, basic, and most necessary to all or any human life and existence.  

But still according to Paul logic, the law has a big problem.  It does not really deal with, nor does it curb our ‘desire to sin’ or break the law.   Paul says, that this is not the law’s fault, but the problem is still sin.  The power of sin still uses the law to awaken all kinds of sin (7.9).   The very law or commandment that promises ‘life’ proves to be ‘death’ because it does not get rid of our desire to sin, but can in fact, increase it  (7.13).    Again, this does not mean that the law is bad, because Paul still affirms that the law is necessary (7.7) as it is ‘holy and just and good’ (7.12).  The law is a great spiritual resource (7.14) not because it gets rid of sin, but because it shows us just how strong the power of sin is at work in each and every one of us (7.13).
  
WHAT THE LAW CANNOT DO
Even though the law is good, spiritual, and holy (God’s and human), it still doesn’t stop evil desire that brings death and destruction.  Our human situation, both moral and spiritual, is exactly what Paul wants us to see as he takes us into one of the most autobiographical texts in all of the Bible.  Even though Paul has the law, knows the law, teaches the law, and tries to live the law, he says, the law cannot give him a new desire to do good:  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”  (7.15).   Here we see within Paul’s own desire to do good an inability to perfectly do good in every situation.  The law has its limits.  Even though the law is perfect, the human person can never follow the law perfectly.  The law can affect us externally, in that it can make us realize our need to do right; but it cannot affect us internally; it can’t make us always want to do right.  If we only live by the law, we will find that ‘sin’ keeps raising its ugly head.

An interesting thing happened in Vernon, Vermont, several years ago, when a driver by the name of Bryan Condo stopped at a stop sign, saw a police car coming down the street, rolled down his window, waved for the police officer to stop and then asked the officer to arrest him for drunk driving.   It seems that Bryan Condo had been out drinking, and he had four times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.  But instead of pretending that everything was OK and that there wasn’t any problem, Bryan Condo decided to admit that he had done wrong.   ("Drunken Driver Pulls Cop Over, Asks To Be Arrested," Associated Press, 8/10/04).

What I can tell is that the law alone did not make Mr. Condo do what he did– to admit that he did wrong, he messed up, that he sinned.   There was something else at work in him that made him want to fess up on the spot.   We can say that Paul, too wants to fess up.  As Paul looks at his own life and at the lives of others, he realizes that deep down inside, most, if not all of us want to do what’s right.  Deep down inside, most, if not all want to do good and we want to live the kind of life that God intends for us.  But the problem, Paul realizes, is that there is often a difference between the good that we want to do and what we actually end up doing.  And the source of that problem, Paul reminds us, is the law of sin.  Even though we might have the best of intentions, even though we might have the loftiest of goals, sin has a way of sneaking in and turning something good into something worse than good.

When Paul concludes in exasperation, he is being brutally honest with himself and with us.  He has been a teacher and follower of the law, but the law has not enabled him to move his life from black and white into living color.   In other words, if he only has the law, he is neither set free from sin, nor from death.   If he only has the law, he remains the person he always has been, though he sincerely tries to obey.   If he only has the law, he remains enslaved and captive to an even greater ‘law’ in his heart and mind, the law of sin.   The point is that even God’s law cannot change him, transform him, or give him a new level of living that helps him overcome his fears and flaws so he can fulfill his greatest potential.

WHAT LIFE IN JESUS WILL DO
But what the law could not do, freeing him from the power of sin, and the desire to sin, Paul is now thankful that God has rescued him “through Jesus Christ.” (7.24-25).    It sounds good, but how can this be real?  How can we get the man in Vermont to change so that he is able to curb his desire to drink and drive?   How can we get the person we can be to be able to overcome our own weaknesses, shortcomings, and to live life on a higher level?  This is what the Christian life is supposed to be, a life that gets us from the darkness of sin, and even beyond mere black and white, into a life that is lived if full color and hope.

We have no condemnation     The Christian Life doesn’t begin where you think it should.  It does begin with admitting your weaknesses, but it does not begin with admitting all your wrongs.   The Christian life begins by finding God’s pure, unmerited, and unconditional love.  “There is no more condemnation!”  Any religion that does not begin here and is not founded on Jesus Christ, but has reverted back to legalism.  No condemnation means simply this: None! Nada!  Zilch!  Zippo!  Zero!

Now this is a strange way to start a religion.   Only God can do something like this.  In John’s gospel we get clarification that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17), and furthermore, John writes, that ‘those who in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already….” (3.18).   The point here is not that God wants to condemn everybody that does not believe, but the point is that those who do not believe live in condemnation already.  The only way out of ‘condemnation’ is through belief in God’s love shown to the world through Jesus (John 3.16).   

The Christian life is founded not upon what we’ve done or could ever do, but it’s founded upon what Jesus did and only Jesus could have ever done.  Shown us God’s unconditional love on his cross.     Tony Campolo tells about getting a phone call at home. A voice said, "We need a minister.  Our friend died, and we need a minister to do the funeral."
        "When's the funeral?" Tony asked.
        "Tomorrow."
         Tony said, "I will be there." So the next day, he put on his preacher suit and went over to the cemetery.
          He was walking up to the graveside to do the service as people were gathering. Not knowing the man who died, he was putting together some thoughts as he walked. Just when he resolved to do this, he looked up to smile at the people who were gathered. There were about a dozen men. No women, all men. Something began to dawn on him, so he asked, "How did your friend Jerry die?"
            One of them said, "He died of AIDS."
            Tony said, "Did Jerry have any family?" 
            "They haven't talked to one another in years. We looked in on him when he got sick. I guess we were the closest thing to family he had."            
            Tony said, "Did Jerry have a church background?"
           "Sure, Preacher, all of us grew up in a church. That's why we wanted a Christian minister."
           Tony said, "Well, it's my privilege to be here. I thought I would read some passages from the Bible."  One man said, "Could you read that passage from John 3:16?"   Tony said, "Sure." He started, "God so loved the word that he gave his only begotten Son," and suddenly the rest of them chimed "so that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life."

Somebody else spoke up, "How about that passage about many rooms in the Father's house?"    Tony said, "Sure," so he read from John 14: "In my Father's house there are many rooms...." By the time he said the first half of the Bible verse, all the guys were joining in, "and I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also."

Someone else said, "I remember where Paul says, 'Nothing shall separate us from the love of God,' " and most of them started completing the verse. Tony said, "Here I was, a straight guy, with a dozen gay men, doing a funeral for their dead friend.  Every single one of them knows the scriptures. They grew up memorizing those words. We stood there trading verses for about half an hour. It was incredible!"

Finally he said, "All of you know your Bible. Where do you guys go to church?" And they got very quiet.  They didn't say a thing.   Tony said, "Friends, I'm going to give you one more verse, and then we're going to have a prayer. The verse is Romans, chapter 8, verse 1: 'Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.' "  That verse was still hanging in the air, when one of the men said, "I wish I knew a church that believed so strongly in Jesus that it would take me in."

"No condemnation." I believe it says, "No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."   Is there anybody here who really believes in this verse?  It is not easy, and it does not mean we have to agree with everyone nor condone sin.  But the Christian life does begin without any condemnation.  We can come to Jesus just like we are.  We can repent of our sins, and we can even come "while we are still sinners" (as Paul said in Romans 5.8).   God does not condemn us, no matter what.  

We have the power of the Spirit   When you know that you are not condemned, but are loved, a new power can be released in your life.   And when you are not condemning, but are loving, a new spiritual power can also be released in you.   We are not motivated by hate or condemnation, but the Christian life is motivated by the Spirit of God's love.   

I witnessed that power first hand back in the 1980's.   This was that time when the AIDS epidemic first started and no one knew what it was, nor how contagious.  I was a chaplain at Baptist Hospital, and I was the one who was asked to go and see an AIDS patient who was dying.  It might be risky, they told me.  They said, I did not have to go.  I prayed about it, and I decided to go in.  I dressed up in all the protective gear; including gown, gloves, and mask.  He was angry and might spit at me, they said.  That could have been as dangerous as a loaded gun.  I went in anyway.   Where did the power come from to do this?  I'll tell you this; it didn't come from me!   I did not have the power not to condemn.   I did not have the power to go in.  But I went in and prayed for the man anyway.   And when I got home that night was afraid to tell my wife about it.  It wasn't me that was so brave.   Telling her scared me to death!


The only way I can explain why anyone would live a life that followed the Spirit that takes us beyond what is right and wrong; beyond what the law says should or shouldn't be done, and then it is a Spirit that moves us to offer forgiveness, love and grace, no matter what.   The only kind of power that would inspire us to do something like that is the same kind of power that kept Jesus on that cross, no matter our sins.  "Even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...."  Paul says (Rom. 5.8).    Jesus is the one who started this crazy way of living without condemnation, I just hope he was not the last.   Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“A Matter of Death Then Life”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 6: 1-14.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   September 14th, 2014


“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:11 NRS)

On the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City, is St. Peter's Lutheran Church.  Not long ago, a small group of tourists went for a visit.  They were astonished by what they saw.  The baptismal font (what mainline churches call their baptismal basin for sprinkling) is off to the left, by the main entrance into the sanctuary.  That in itself is appropriate, for baptism is the entry into the Christian life. 

But this particular baptismal font is unlike what you normally see in a Lutheran Church. It is a large deep pool. It's elevated, about chest high.  A casual visitor might confuse it for a hot tub, large enough for three or four people. But there are no spa jets inside, and the water, always filled and ready, is quite chilly.
       The tour guide asked the pastor of that church, "How do baptisms get done at St. Peter's Lutheran?"
        "Just like anywhere else," he replied.
        "Do people get dunked in the Lutheran church?"
        He answered, "Some do.  Others stand outside the font, and water is sprinkled on their heads."  "The most important thing," he added, "is that, however we do the baptism, sprinkling or dunking, we have to use enough water to kill people."
(From a sermon by William Carter, entitled,  “Thank God, We’re Already Dead!” at www.sermons.com).

When you were baptized, did the pastor use enough water to ‘kill you?’    Paul says our “baptism” is more about ‘death’ and ‘life’ than it is about water.    One eight year old was being told she was being ‘buried with Christ’, and she answered,  “Well, that’s not very nice!”  She’s right.  It doesn’t sound nice, it sounds nuts and even a bit weird.  Maybe that’s our problem, says Lynn Sweet, we’re not weird enough.   Baptism is about killing off our old life, so we can begin a new life in God. 

WE MUST NOT CONTINUE TO LIVE IN SIN
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may increase”? (6:1, NAS)  Paul begins his discussion about “baptism” and the Christian Life, by saying that we should not keep on sinning.   Since God loves you, forgives you, and gives you his grace, then the logic could be that if you sin more, you have more grace, right?   Wrong!   Paul is serious about sin and if you want to live the Christian life, you must get serious about sin too.   Even after love and grace has become real in our lives, sin is still a powerful, tempting, addictive, and dangerous pull against the person we should become.  
Remember Tennessee William’s play, “A Streetcar Named Desire”?   When the famous author, living in New Orleans, was finishing his play, he had been tinkering with several different titles for his masterpiece.  He made his final decision one day, when he realized he was living between two streetcar lines.  One Streetcar was going in the direction to a place called Desire.  The other Streetcar was going in the opposition direction toward Cemeteries.  This, Tennessee Williams thought, was a perfect picture of the human condition.  We live our lives between Desire (Sin, the wayward desires of our hearts) and Cemeteries (Death, the wages of sin is death).  We are enslaved by Sin and we dominated by Death and trapped between Desire and Cemeteries. That’s how Tennessee Williams saw it (From Fleming Rutledge, “Not Ashamed of the Gospel”, Eerdmans, 2007, p. 190-191).

Paul takes sin seriously too, but many people don’t.   What about that Father in Georgia, Justin Harris, who left his 22 month old son, Cooper in his hot car?   Accidents do happen, but it looks premeditated the dad was sexting other women while at work that day.    Or do you recall the recent Penn State Scandal concerning Peter Sandusky, who assaulted young boys while doing charity work?   A most recent article in Huffington Post Sports section says that even as terrible as this was it “dwarfs” others issues going on in college sports today.  

Our society worships “sports” and many see it as an avenue toward success.  While there is no doubt that play and sports can be good physical and mental discipline, the problem is, however, that you not only need to discipline your body, but you also need to learn to discipline your mind and heart, which can be an even greater avenue toward being a successful human being.   Developing the inner discipline,  strengthening your moral compass and training in self-control, is just as important, if not more important than the strength training, athletic ability, and physical discipline.  A good example is what is currently happening in American Football.   The rising concern about concussions and head injuries comes from the inability of a sport to control, discipline, and restrain unnecessary roughness and violence.  

Back in 2012, the Washington Post, published an very interesting article by columnist, George Will.   His first two lines caught my attention:  “Are you ready for some football?  Are you ready for some autopsies?”   He goes on to tell us what happen on opening day of NFL Training Camp as it coincided with the closing of a casket.  Well the Funeral was actually back in April, but the investigation of why 62 year old Ray Easterling, an eight-season NFL safety committed suicide by gunshot, was that the autopsy found moderately severe chronic traumatic encephalophathy (CTE),  progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head.  

We all know what the uncontrolled, increasingly violent level of play is doing to both players and the sport, and it’s not just the hard hitting, it’s bigger than that.   Another thing Will noted is how the sport has ‘grown’, and I’m not talking about its popularity.  Will says that back in 1966, “Bear Bryant’s undefeated Alabama team had only 19 players who weighed more than 200 pounds.  The heaviest weighed 223.  The linemen averaged 194.  The quarterback weighed 177.  Today many high school teams are much bigger.  In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 pounds or more.  In 2011, there were 352, including three 350 pounders.  Thirty-one of the NFL’s 32 offensive lines averaged more than 300 pounds….”  And on top of all of this, various studies indicated high mortality rates among linemen resulting from cardiovascular disease.  For all players who play five or more years, life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less.”  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-f-will-footballs-problem-with-danger-on-the-field-isnt-going-away/2012/08/03/ff71ec48-dcd0-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html

 “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." (Gen 4:7 NRS).  That’s what God said to Cain, just before he murdered his brother Abel out of envy and jealousy which ended in an act of terrible violence.   It not only ended Abel’s life, is destroyed Cain’s life as well, making him a fugitive and wanderer the rest of his days.    This powerful warning about sin comes early in the Bible.   It is the kind of warning that comes through Tennessee William’s play which is about the dangers of undisciplined desire.   If we don’t take the ‘mastering’ of sin seriously, we are in serious trouble.  This is why baptism is a matter of death and life.

WE MUST CRUCIFY OUR OLD SELF
Have you noticed I titled this sermon, a matter of death, then life, instead of the usual way of life and death?   There is a reason for this.  If you want to live the Christian life, death comes first.  You must get serious enough about sin that your ‘crucify’ your old self.   

Now, of course “crucify“ is very strong language.   But when Paul speaks of the “old self was crucified” he is not speaking literally, but figuratively, yet still seriously.   He says a follower of Jesus must deal with sin first, before he or she can live the Christian life.   Later on, in Romans 8,  in all the beauty of the King’s English, Paul reminds us to first “mortify the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8.13, KJV) and to the Colossians he said even more emphatically, “Mortify your members….! (Col. 3.5, KJV).   In newer translations “mortify” means “put to death.”  

Though the language sounds harsh we need to understand that Paul is indirectly quoting Jesus from the gospels:  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; (again) it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30).   Both Paul and Jesus speak in direct, graphic terms, but please don’t take them to be about physically ‘hurting’ oneself.  They are speaking of helping yourself by undergoing a kind of spiritual “surgery” where the procedure brings release, freedom and healing.   But how?  How do we perform spiritual surgery to “crucify” desires to sin?’’   Let me simplify:

Name it!   Have you ever heard the old adage, “Where there is a will, there is a way?”  The phrase is not biblical, but the idea is.  This is in fact, what Paul does over and over in his letters.  He makes lists and writes down the “sins” that need to be eradicated (See Rom. 1.29-31;  1 Cor. 6: 9-10;  Gal. 5: 19-20;  Eph. 5: 3-6;  Col. 3.5-6, and 1 Tim. 1: 8-11.   Paul puts into our consciousness a sense of what is right and what is wrong.   He wants to create a “will” and a “desire” in us, to will to change by teaching us what is God’s will.  Maybe we should rephrase the old adage, “Where we know God’s will, there is a way!”   Before you can “crucify” your sin, you need to name it and you need to name as God has named it.

Claim it!   But then you have to claim it, as your own.  This is the difference we saw between President Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  President Clinton resounded, “I did not have relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky!”  President Carter said, on the other hand, “Yes, I have looked at a woman and had lust in my heart.”  Now, we know that what President Jimmy Carter admitted was not good for him poltically.  But the truth is when Jimmy Carter claimed his sin, he did not act on his sin and that was good for him spiritually.  President Clinton, well, we all know the terrible truth about that.  The point I’m trying to make is that if we want to crucify the flesh, after we name it, we’ve got to claim it as a real struggle in our own life.   You can’t suppress it.  You can’t deny it.  You can’t run from it.  The power of sin, as Paul said, is real and overwhelming.   We are not all tempted by the same sin, but we are all tempted by some kind of sin (1 John 1.8), because we are people who live in weakness of our flesh.  If we want to conquer it, and control it, we must confess (1 John 1.9)  and claim it.  

Lame it!    After we’ve named it and claimed it, then we must “lame it”!   This is what Jesus means when he says, “If you right eye offends you, pluck it out!” and “If your right hand offends you, cut it off!” (Matt. 5.29-30).   This is much more drastic than that children’s song, “Be careful little eyes what you see!”  or “Be careful little hands what you do! For the Father up above, he is looking down in love.  Be careful little hands what you do!   After sin has gotten hold and taken over in our adult lives, we have to challenge it more directly, as God told Cain, “Sin desires to have you, but you must master it!” (Gen. 4.7).

We can take control and lame the power of sin in our lives, when we, as Paul says, “have been united with (Christ) in a death like his….." (6:5).   Paul’s point is that our sins are killed off through our spiritual union with Christ's death.   By uniting with Jesus we are able to live in the freedom, joy and love of Christ as we let the old life die.  In a book on leadership, Garry Wills writes about Harriet Tubman, the remarkable slave woman who led African slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad.  That invisible railroad came through North Carolina, primarily through the Sand hills and Greensboro, and was primarily run by the Quakers.   The story goes that when the slave leader Harriet Tubman was a teenager, she tried to stop the beating of a fellow worker. Her master hit her on the head, and the blow broke her skull. Harriet lingered near death for weeks. For the rest of her life she suffered from occasional catatonic spells due to the injury. But the injury also set her free.   As Wills notes, "The blow that cracked Tubman's skull struck off her psychic chains. She had already died once; she had nothing to lose." (As quoted in a sermon by Bill Carter from Garry Wills, Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 41.)

By uniting with Christ we can free ourselves from the desire and dominion of sin’s power.  But how do we take that very first step?  How can we overcome sin when we still live in the flesh, still face temptation daily, and when all of us still live in a world where sin dominates “to make (us) obey its passions (6:12)?   How can Paul expect us to “put to death, whatever is earthly….” (Col. 3.1) and how can we “consider ourselves dead to sin” (6:11)? 

WE MUST CONSIDER OURSLEVES ALIVE TO GOD.
We come now to the final initiative, which is truly the first and last action we must take to join with Christ in drowning out the sins of our life:

Tame it!    Coming ‘alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (6.11) is not some kind of gimmick, trick, self-help program, or easy 4 step method.  When Paul started this whole conversation by asking “shall we continue in sin”, it was like asking are you going to ‘stay on’ or ‘remain’ in this place?   Thus, the ‘sin’ we must remove is not like overcoming a bad habit, but it’s, as N.T. Wright has written, like “freeing ourselves from a dark ruling power that can only be escaped by moving into a whole new country. (N.T Wright in “Commentary on Romans”,  Abingdon Press, Vol. X, 2002, p. 537).     

When you move into a new country the language is different, the food is different, the landscape is different, the people are different, the roads are different and even way people work and play is different.   I’ll never forget when we moved to Europe, we knew we were definitely in a different country when we arrived at our destination on a Saturday afternoon.  We went out to find some diapers for our 2 year old daughter and were shocked to find that every single store in the country had closed at 12:00 noon on Saturday and would not open again until Monday morning.   Hello!  We knew unmistakable that now we were in a different world with different values, different standards, and very different ways.

The great evangelical mind, C.S. Lewis, understood that ”God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there.  There is no such thing.”  (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/cslewis151474.html).    Again, gaining the power over sin is not a strategy, a procedure or any kind of special technique, it is about establishing a living ‘relationship’ in a new kind of ‘world’ where Jesus Christ is not only your savior but he is Lord of everything you do and everything you want to do.  When you are continually with him, the desire for everything else dies because nothing compares to what you gain in Christ.

So let me conclude with a question: What would make you want to live a life like this?  Why would we want, as Paul explains it, to “present (ourselves) to God” (6.13) , crucifying our old self (6.6), living ‘under grace’ (6.14) so we can be ‘instruments of righteousness’ (6:13)?    Could we imagine that even a child might understand? 

In one of her short stories, Flannery O'Connor tells about a four-year-old boy named Harry Ashfield.  He lives in an apartment with parents who neglect him.  Their lives are more concerned with drinking, partying, and recovering from hangovers. A cleaning lady takes young Harry to hear a preacher down by the river. Harry has never heard anything like that preacher. As the preacher stands hip deep in the river, he speaks about Jesus and a kingdom of God where every child is safe. Little Harry starts paying attention.
         "Hey, preacher," cries out Mrs. Connin, the cleaning lady. "I'm keeping a boy from town today. I don't think he has ever been baptized."
          The preacher says, "Bring him over to me." Turning to Harry, he adds, "Have you ever been baptized?"
          Harry asks what that means. The preacher says, "If I baptize you, you'll be able to go into  to the kingdom of Christ. You'll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you'll go by the deep river of life.  Do you want that?" That sounded pretty good to Harry. He wouldn't have to return to the neglect of his parent's apartment. 
          "You won't be the same again," the preacher said. "You'll count." And he takes the boy, swings him upside down, and plunges him into the water. The child comes up, gasping for air. Then the preacher says, "You count now."

At the end of the day, Mrs. Connin takes Harry home. Everything is different for him now. He wants no part of his parents' parties.  He is no longer comfortable being cooped up in their apartment while they ignore him.  All he wants is to go back down to the river, where he can jump in and go looking for the kingdom of Christ.”   
Flannery O'Connor; "The River," A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), p. 44.

When your heart takes the plunge into God’s river of grace, your life starts to count for something and you figure everything differently.   Sin and death no longer rule your life or your future.  Everything was a matter of living and then dying, but now, it is all a matter of life.    Amen.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Peace Like A River

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 5: 1-11.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   September 7th, 2014

…..Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Rom 5:1 NRS)

The story goes that Batman and Robin decided to go camping. They set up their tent and are asleep. A couple of hours later, Batman wakes his faithful friend. "Robin, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
             Robin, who is used to these midnight lessons, replies, "I see millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?" asks Batman.
             Robin ponders for a minute. Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it's evident that God is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.
           What does it tell you, Batman?"
           Batman is silent for a moment, then speaks: "Robin, you're an idiot, it means somebody stole our tent while we were sleeping.”

We don’t always see the most obvious.   Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.  The truth can be as plain as the nose on our face, but we still can’t see it.   And it may not even be our fault.  Who’s to blame for not being able to see the nose on your own face?  But as this funny joke about Batman and Robin joke can remind us, we can be misled and deluded by many things, even important things, so that we fail to know what is most important of all.

God’s peace is one of those ‘most important’ things we must know.  Along with God’s grace, it is one of the foundational realities which enables living the Christian Life.   When the apostle Paul began his letters, his greeting was always two-fold:  “Grace to you and peace from God…” (Rom. 1.7; 1 Cor. 1.3; 2 Cor. 1.2; Gal 1.3; Eph. 1.2; Phil. 1.2; Col. 1.2; 1 Thess. 1.1; etc).   I find it rather strange, that in my many books of theology found in my personal library, many of which write about the Christian life, seldom is this simple word ‘peace’ mentioned in any important way.  There are a couple of exceptions, like a book on Christian Ethics (By Stanley Hauwerwas) entitled, “The Peaceable Kingdom” and a book entiled, “Just Peacemaking” (by Glenn Stassen).  In them you can find all kinds of important words like grace, justification, propitiation, and reconciliation, but seldom do you see any direct mention or direct discussion of the kind of “peace” that only comes “from God”.    Perhaps it is taken for granted, but can we live the life God has called us to by taking God’s peace for granted?

DON’T TAKE PEACE FOR GRANTED
Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, but he does not take either ‘grace’ or ‘peace’ for granted.  He starts his letter with a wish for both: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”  (Rom. 1.7).   Our text from Romans 5 is the fourth time Paul mentions ‘peace’ in this letter, but it is not the last.   He will mention peace 6 more times in this one letter.  Paul does not take God’s peace for granted.

But we can, and we do.  We do not always realize the importance of having peace until we are at war.   When the Soviet Union quickly went to war with Afghanistan, it was a war in the mountains and hills that nearly broke the mighty Soviet army, who limped home in defeat.  When the United States went quickly to war in Iraq, we won the war quickly, but the cost of winning that war so quickly keep coming in, as Iraq is even more fractured and dangerous today, than it was when the thought there were weapons of mass destruction.   If you recall, Jesus himself once said before you go to battle, you’d better ‘count the cost’.  The cost of losing the ‘peace’ can be a terribly great cost.   We dare not take peace for granted.

This is even more important when we consider what it means to have ‘peace with God’.   When Paul speaks of having ‘peace with God’ he is speaking about a peace God makes possible ‘through’ Jesus by giving us ‘access’ to God’s ‘grace.’  Yet, even though God gives us access to his grace and peace, does not mean we are always able to access, ‘obtain’ or ‘stand’ in it, to use Paul’s own language.  God’s peace can be right in front of us, but we can’t still fail to seize it or realize it in our own lives.  As Paul says later, we must ‘pursue what makes peace’ (Rm. 14.19) so that ‘the way of peace’ doesn’t remain ‘unknown’ to us (Rm. 3.17).

In the news recently, came the unsurprising revelation that the very popular Robin Thicke and his wife, Paula Patton are getting a divorce.    Are you surprise?  Known for making dirty music videos with nude women, dancing obscenely with Miley Cyrus, and publically cheating on his wife, not seeing his wife for four months, is it any wonder?  It is believed that Thicke has released a song “Get Her Back” that openly hints he’s been trying to win his wife back.  He said in an interview on NBC and elsewhere, that his cheating is not the real reason his wife is leaving: “There’s a lot of different reasons, there isn’t just one.  There’s a long list….I changed, and I got a little too selfish, a little too greedy, and a little too full of myself.” (http://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/98530/20140707/robin-thicke-divorce.htm)   A televised interview was even more revealing when asked about all those terrible things his wife and others are saying about him, his answer was:  “It’s worst that that!   I am those things and even worse”.

You can take your life for granted, you can take love for granted, and you can take the peace you have in your heart, life and soul for granted too.   Just a month or so ago, a deputy from Yadkin County Sheriff’s department wanted to meet me at church to inform us about some new crime prevention resources.  While we were talking, she shared about a book she’d read entitled “The Quiet Room”.   It’s a true story about a young woman who one day, while finishing up summer camp as a counselor, started hearing voices in her head and was eventually was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.    Lori Schiller tells that one night, while she was feeling a little confused over a boy she’d like at camp, suddenly a sense of darkness came over her and she hear a voice booming in the night:  “You must die!  You will die!”   The voice in her head would not let up.  She got up out of bed and started running, running, and even jumping for hours, even until the sun rose.  The voices cursed her, calling her names and telling her she was worthless.  Eventually she and voices collapsed in exhaustion.  But they didn’t go away.  The came to her again and again.   The ‘peace of mind’ she once was had was gone.  It took her years of medical treatment to tame the voices that once ruined her peace  (From Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett,  The Quiet Room,  Warner Books, 1996, pp 4-6).  

LASTING PEACE ONLY COMES FROM GOD
While we should never take ‘peace of heart’ or ‘peace of mind’ for granted, for we never know when we might lose it, there are many different ways to think about the meaning peace.    If you grew up like I did, during the days of the Vietnam War, you’ll recall all kinds of confusion about “peace” as many protested that war violently, others burned their draft cards, and many, even the those who supported the war, struggled with whether or war is ever a ‘just’ cause.   A major ‘peace movement’ grew out of that war, which was for some an excuse to be anti-government, but for others it was a real desire to ‘Give Peace a Chance’, as John Lennon sang  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Give_Peace_a_Chance).

Peace is the desire of most, but just what kind of peace, and at what cost?  Sometimes we forget that the political reason Jesus was crucified under roman authority was for the sake of keeping the ‘peace’  (Matt. 27.24).   The Roman Peace was known as the Pax Romana, and lasted for over 200 years, beginning at the time of Augustus (27 BC) to the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 AD).  If it had not been for ‘miraculous’ long period of peace, the apostle Paul would not have had the Roman roads to travel upon to share the good news.   But do you know how this so called ‘peace’ was won?  It was a result of imperial might and muscle, violence, bloodshed, and putting the fear of spear into the hearts of people.   Surely that is the way to one kind of peace, “Peace Through Strength” as one American president has called it.  But that kind of ‘peace’ is not the dream of the Bible, nor is it the lasting peace Paul means.

The Biblical word for peace has different meanings too.   The Old Testament word, “Shalom” means wholeness, completeness, and returning to the ideal state of the world as God created it to be.   Even the most religious city in the world, Jerusalem, is named after this desire for peace.   The Hebrew name Jerusalem is made of two Hebrew words: Shalom (Salem) or peace, and Jeru (to rain down), which refers to a place where God’s peace rains down.  As you can tell by reading the newpaper, this is wishful thinking, because Jerusalem today is one of the most conflicted and threatened places on the face of the earth.  Is God’s peace that elusive?
When Paul writes “we have peace with God” he is not talking about the same kind of peace that remains elusive, abstract, or impossible in the world.   This is not the kind of peace that the world never has, but this is kind of peace that only comes from God.   Even the word the New Testament uses,  eirene (used as a common Greek name today, Irene), does not simply mean the cessation of conflict, fighting or war, but it means the presence of something that brings or gives peace no matter what is going on.  This is why Jesus was able to say to his disciples: “My peace I give to you… not as the world gives .  Don’t let your hearts be troubled” (Jn. 14.27).   God’s peace comes as a gift from God no matter the situation we may find ourselves in.

God’s peace is different.  The Christian Life is built upon a different kind of ‘peace’ than the world gives and then quickly may take away.   A ‘lasting peace’ is the kind of peace that can only come from God.   A great example of the difference of God’s peace comes right from our text in Paul’s own words.   When Paul speaks of having ‘peace’ in the same breath of saying that he can even ‘boast in our sufferings’ because he knows that ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and (that) hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”  (Rom. 5:3-5); when Paul talks like this you know immediately that he is talking about an entirely ‘different’ kind of peace than the world gives.

 God’s peace works differently.  The other thing we can quickly observe about God’s peace is how it works differently, not through strength, but through God’s love.    “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly….God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us….”   (Rom. 5:6,8).   The peace of God is different because it is based upon a whole different way of looking at life, looking at the world, and looking at us.   It is a peace that is based upon what God has done to show his love to the world, and to us, even while we were his ‘enemies”  (5:10)’.   That is how God’s love is different and works differently than any other kind of peace.    In the Christian understanding of ‘peace’  true, enduring peace comes only from God, because it is a peace that is grounded upon God’s loving forgiveness revealed through “our Lord Jesus Christ’  (5:11).

OUR PEACE IS KNOWING GOD’S PEACE
One of my favorite religious sayings is said to have come from Laotse, who was perhaps Buddha’s teacher, or maybe even was The Buddha.   The saying goes:
If there is to be peace in the world,   there must be peace in the nations.
 If there is to be peace in the nations,   there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,   there must be peace between neighbors.
 If there is to be peace between neighbors,   there must be peace in the home.
 If there is to be peace in the home,   there must be peace in the heart.
I never think about peace without thinking about this wonderful saying, but there is something missing in it.   Did you catch it?   It doesn’t tell us where ‘peace in the heart’ comes from?   For a Christian the only source for the peace the human heart desperately needs, and peace that the home, the community, the cities, the nation, and the world needs, is the ‘peace’ that comes from God’s heart. 

How do we get to the peace that is in God’s heart?   This is what the ‘cross’ is about.  This is what makes Christianity different than any other religious faith.  The cross of Jesus Christ reveals to us the peace that is in the very heart of God.   This is why, when Paul talks about peace, he must speak about Jesus dying ‘for us’ on the cross.   Three times, at the end of this text as Paul explains ‘having peace with God (5.1), using the word ‘reconciliation’ (5.10, 11).  He is reminding us again that ‘while we were (still) enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son’ (5,10).   This means that the source of our peace does not come from our hearts, but it comes from God’s heart: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world unto himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5.19).   When God ‘sends his Son into the world’ it is not to ‘condemn the world’ (John 3.17), because when God shows us his heart and the heart of everything, it is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” (Jn. 3.16).    The source of our peace comes from what God does for us, when he gave us his Son. 

How does God’s peace with us, become our peace with God?   God’s love ‘has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…given to us’ (5.5), says Paul.   Because Christ died for us even while we were sinners (5.8),  Paul says, “we will be saved through him from the wrath of God….” (5.9)….we “will be saved by his life” (5.10)…”But more than that, Paul concludes,  “we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have NOW received reconciliation” (5.11).  

If you want peace in your heart today, right now, will you take God’s heart of reconciliation into your own heart?  A Jewish book called Wisdom says, “…the peoples saw and did not understand, or take such a thing to heart, that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect, and that he watches over his holy ones” (Wisdom 4.14).   Will you understand what the peoples did not understand?  Will you take ‘such a thing to heart’?   Without knowing God’s heart of peace, we can’t be at peace.   But because though Jesus, God reveals his heart and ‘proves’ that He is at peace with us, we can ‘have peace with God’,  we can live at peace in ourselves, and we can be at peace with each other.  

Rock guitarist Jim Hendrix led a promiscuous life, indulging in drugs and behaving outrageously on and off the stage.   At the end of a concert in 1970, Jim smashed his guitar.  According to Robert McGee and Donald Sapaugh in “Search for Peace”, the audience screamed and applauded, but suddenly the frenzied applause stopped. Jim had fallen on his knees and was staying in that position motionless. He broke the stillness by asking, “If you know real peace, I want to visit with you backstage.” But apparently nobody responded to his startling invitation. Several days later, he died from an overdose of drugs. Peace, real peace eluded Jim Hendrix.

But "God can take life's broken pieces and gives us unbroken peace" (Wilbert Gough).  Horatio Spafford found out. He was a real estate baron and an extremely wealthy man. He was a tremendous Christian and a close friend of Dwight L. Moody. He lived in Chicago, and during the Chicago fire of 1871 he lost his business. In that fire his only son was killed. It seemed like his life was covered by a canopy of dark clouds.

His wife was under tremendous stress, and so he sent her and their four daughters to England, which was her home country, for a vacation. He told them he would join them two weeks later. He put his wife and four daughters on a ship to send them across the ocean.  But as they were in sight of land on the other side, a terrible storm hit, and all four of Spafford's daughters drowned. Only his wife survived. She sent a telegram to him with these two words: "Saved alone."

With the heaviest of hearts, Horatio Spafford got on that ship, made his way across England, got his wife; got on board the same ship to come back. On the way back he asked the captain to show him the spot where that ship went under and his daughters drowned. When the captain got to that spot and showed it to him, he went out on deck and wrote these words:
When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
(As quoted from a sermon by James Merritt,  “How to Keep Your Head When Others Lose Theirs”).

Spafford could only have written that song because he knew the Prince of peace, the Lord Jesus Christ.  In contrast to Jimi Hendrix, through Jesus Spafford knew that God was not against him, even when fires came and the storms howled.   Through Jesus, Spafford knew God’s heart and could face those difficult moments and the future.  Through Jesus, Spafford was able to have peace because even when he did not feel peace, he still had “God’s peace” in his heart.  Oh, the peace I find in Jesus, peace, no power on earth can shake;  peace that makes the Lord so precious, peace that none from me can take.

If you want peace, real peace, eternal peace, everlasting peace, you can come to the Prince of peace, the Lord Jesus Christ and you can give his ‘peace a chance’.   He’s still the one who knows and shows God’s heart.  Amen.