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Sunday, April 28, 2019

“In This I Rejoice”

A Sermon based upon Philippians 1: 1-19

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Second Sunday after Easter, April,28th,  2019

There was a church secretary who took a most unusual phone call. The caller asked if he could speak to "the Head Hog." Well, she quickly defended the dignity of her pastor, and with an irate tone said, "I want you to know that our pastor is held in the very highest esteem around here, and we address him as Rev. H. C. Herald. Currently Rev. Herald is not available to speak with you."

The man then responded, "Well, I am sorry. I just learned about your new building program and my CPA recommended that I donate $1 million to provide a good tax shelter for me." The secretary quickly responded, "Wait just a minute, I believe I see the fat pig coming down the hall right now."

When we care about each other, we can ‘kid’ each other.  Years ago, Dale Carnegie wrote a best-selling book, in fact, one of the best-selling books of all time, entitled ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.  In that book he says the most important thing about running a successful business, is how well we relate to people.   

This relates well to church work too; maybe even more so.   The church, is the quintessential ‘people business’.  So, the greatest way for a church to be a church, that is to be ‘winsome’ and ‘influential’ as a church, is to really care about people.  And caring about people starts when we really get along with and care about each other.

Today, we begin a new series of messages from the New Testament book of Philippians.  Philippians is one of Paul’s most personal and passionate letters to one of the churches he founded.  Philippians is a joyous, optimistic, happy letter that gets ‘up close’ and personal with people.  That is quite ironic, since at the time the apostle Paul wrote this letter he was sitting in a prison somewhere, probably Ephesus, warmly remembering the people in his life.    

I thank my God every time I REMEMBER YOU.  (v. 3)

Recently, I had the honor of preaching back at a church in Shelby, N.C, where I had served as pastor in the late 1980’s, just prior to going overseas.   I got to see people I hadn’t seen in many years, and we all spent time together, catching up with each other and sharing memories.  That was such a special time together, and it made me realize more and more that ministry is much less about what you accomplish, than it is about caring about and caring with people.  The most important thing I did, was not preach, but to get to ‘sit down’ and share stories of life past and life present.  Stories about surviving cancer, about living alone, about recently retiring, about a child being ill, about a daughter going off to college.  Being with ‘people’ is the work of the ministry.  People with people is what makes it all worth-while.

It is the ‘joy’ of working with people that causes Paul to ‘pray with joy’ (4).  Now, that’s not always the way it is, with Paul or with us either.  Sometimes, working with people can be quite challenging, stressful, and depressing too.  “What do you love about your work?”  a business owner was asked.  His answer: people.  “What do you hate about your work?”  His answer was also: people.  And it was sometimes that way for Paul too.  Just read 1 Corinthians.  But here, in Philippi, Paul remembers a church he has known ‘from the very first day’ (v. 5) and it brings him warm memories, along with a deep sense of joy.

When I was at that church in Shelby, they had old photographs of the past; and it one of those photographs, Teresa and I were sitting in the front of a ‘river raft’, along with 4 other church members, getting ready to plunge down an 8 ft. waterfall head first.  If you could have only seen the concentration, or was that ‘fear’ on my face.  Today, I’d call it ‘terror’.   But even now, God has turned that ‘terrifying moment’ into a joyful memory that I got to share with some wonderful people who still have a special place in my heart.  Oh, yes, when Teresa first looked at that photograph, she asked, ‘Who was that handsome young man sitting beside of her in the raft?’

In this world, filled with so many new gadgets and preoccupations, it’s easy to forget that the most important part of our lives is not the places we go, the possessions we own, all the possibilities we have, but the most important part of life is the ‘people’ we get to share and spend our time with. 

Humans, in a way more sophisticated than any other creatures on this planet, are ‘social’ animals.   We are not made to be alone.  We cannot survive or thrive very well alone.  We were not made to ‘live on an island unto ourselves’.  As the Joan Baez song goes, (one of the first songs I sang in High School choir based on the 17th century poem of John Donne).

“No man is an island,  No man stands alone,

Each man's joy is joy to me ,Each man's grief is my own.

We need one another, So I will defend,

Each man as my brother, Each man as my friend.”

“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you." (v.3)   Every time Paul thought of the people in Philippi, his song could have been: "What a fellowship, what a joy divine….  When these precious people, those sweet saints came to mind, an attitude of gratitude welled up in Paul’s heart.   People who loved and cared made up the church.  It was a church the Holy Spirit produced.  When people lived in fellowship with God’s Spirit, people had a sweet, sweet, fellowship with each other.  Dwight L. Moody once said, "There are different ways of being together."  We can be rusted together by ritualism, frozen together by formalism, linked together by liberalism, or even chained together by conservatism.  But what we should be is melted together by the fire of the Spirit because we have a blazing love for the Lord and those Jesus loves.

“…Because of your PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL (Phil. 1:5 NIV)

This ‘living’ love ‘in the Lord’ is not a self-centered love, but it is an ever-expanding love that starts at home, but reaches out into the world.  Paul writes: “I am happy because you have joined me in spreading the good news.”  (Phil. 1:5 NIRV). 

Paul’s point is that Christian love is a reaching, enlarging, including, and embracing love.  If you live in fear of being with others who are different from you, it is about your own weakness in faith rather than theirs.  The love of God is a love that moves out toward the world, toward the neighbor, whoever that neighbor might be.  The heart of a true Christian breaks when we, like recently, hear of a white man who was on trial because he shot at a black teenager who simply came up to his door, after his car broke down and needed to call for help.  You might understand caution with a stranger, but why did the man have to shot toward him, while he was already running away?

Maxie Dunnam, a Methodist evangelist, recalled the time thirty years ago when he and his wife, along with their two small children, were driving from Gulfport, Mississippi to his parents' home, about one hundred miles away. It was sleeting and the road was becoming icy on that unusually cold night. It was close to midnight out on a dark, lonely highway, when it happened.  Their car stalled.

There wasn't much hope of anyone stopping to help them at that hour of the night. The children were getting colder, and Dunnam and his wife were getting anxious. After what seemed an eternity a car came to a screeching halt beside them. Maxie told the driver that their car had stalled, and without asking any further questions, the stranger told them to get in his car. The stranger even helped them with their luggage, and went out of his way to take them to a friend's home in the nearest town where they could spend the night.

Dunnam noticed the man's accent was different from his own. He obviously was not from Mississippi. The man who helped the Dunnam family that night was David Ben-Ami, Rabbi of Temple B'Nai Israel in Hattiesburg.   A few months later Dr. Dunnam read an article in the newspaper about the trials and tribulations of Rabbi Ben-Ami. His troubles began when he befriended ministers of other faiths. The Rabbi visited pastors who had been thrown in jail for demonstrating against racial injustice. He befriended a white Presbyterian minister who had been involved in this struggle for equality, and he had assisted in distributing turkeys to needy Mississippi families of all races.

Rabbi Ben-Ami's congregation was upset and had asked him to leave.  Can you imagine a congregation asking their Rabbi to leave because he, by example, was teaching them to love people?  What was that congregation so afraid of?  If you recall, Jesus was a Rabbi who was run out of town for the very same thing.  What were the people in Nazareth so afraid of?  Many good people today, who are in Synagogues, in Churches, and in Mosques too, are good people, but are people who live in fear of each other.  What are they, we afraid of?  Is it about them, or is it about us?   (Maxie Dunnam, PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 62-63).

A reporter once asked a white teenaged girl in Philadelphia why she participated in a riot to run a black couple out of her neighborhood.

"I wouldn't want my kids to get to know the blacks," she said.

"Why?" the reporter asked.

"Because they might get to like them!" she answered.

That's the danger, isn't it? There is so much fear, unfounded fear, in our world even today. We see it in the Middle East, in Central America, in Europe, and we see it in our own neighborhoods too. Recently I watched the story, July 22nd on Netflix, which is the story of how a right-wing radical in Norway, just before 911 in the U.S., terrorized Norway by exploding a Fertilizer Bomb at the Prime Minister’s headquarters, killing 8 people, and then driving to a Summer Camp to shoot and kill 85 children at a Summer Camp.  Why did he do it?  He believed that he was saving Norway.   He believed that Norway was just for the original Norwegians, and not for anyone else. 

How sad is such a narrow-minded, bigoted belief!  Why can all people believe, and I mean really believe, at least one truth that is found in all our Bibles, The Torah, the Old Testament, or in Kor’an, and is also found in secular science.  Why can’t we realize how we are all descended from one mother and father. We are all part of one, big, human family?  We are not Norwegian, German, French, English, Russian, Asian, Greek, Arab, Jew, African or American.  We are human.  We may not all be from the same tribe, but we are all from the same human family; the family God loves.

Since I’m adopted, and don’t know my ‘birth family’, my wife once considered giving me a gift of having my DNA tested to discover my ancestry.   After watching how general most of the results are, she changed her mind.  She said she’d support me me doing it, but she now thinks its worthless.   She thinks people who search out their unique Ancestry are not using science or money most productively.   She reasons, “Who needs to know who their most recent ancestors are, when in the end, we all come from the same human family”? 

She makes a good point.   Benjamin H. Alexander, Research Chemistry Professor at The American University in Washington, D.C., notes that through molecular biology research and DNA tracings scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard University have agreed that there was once a woman whom they call Eve who lived approximately 200,000 years ago is the mother of us all.  Research shows that her genes are found in every human being living on earth today. Therefore, all six billion people on the planet are blood relatives. This mutual Eve is the 10,000th great grandmother of all of us.  Don’t we need to affirm that all humans have a common origin in God’s purpose?

However, we read our own DNA, or however we interpret the Bible, the common truth in all science and in every Holy Book, is that this earth will remain broken until people realize our need to be reconciled with God and with each other.  As followers of Jesus, we don’t believer everyone must think or believe like us, but we do want every person to love, like God loves us and God loves them.   As Christians, like Paul, we not only ‘remember’ warmly the love we share together, but we also ‘share’ a love that burns for others, a love that reaches out and unapologetically ‘joins’ and ‘partners’ with others to spread the good news that Jesus is the Savior who loves.   

It is this ‘sharing’, this ‘partnership’ or this ‘fellowship’ (v. 5, 7) ‘in the good news’ of the gospel of God’s love for the whole world, that brought Paul such great joy.   Isn’t this what was so amazing about Saul becoming Paul?   Saul was a narrow-minded, bigoted, prejudiced, Jewish Rabbi who murdered people who didn’t agree with his own faith, but after meeting Jesus Christ in a vision,  became a Paul, a Jewish follower of this different kind of King-Jesus, who reached out beyond his own religion, and beyond his own world, with a faith of love for all the world.  

Should this outward-reaching faith of love, which is based on God’s universal, global, and world-reaching love, be our own joy, as a church, too?  If we want to be a church of joy, we must be then renew our own faith to focus on this God who does not just ‘love the Jew, but also loves the Greek, the Gentile, the Arab, the Asian, and loves the whole world. 

This ‘gospel’ we are called to partner around and share with the world is the ‘good news’ to and for everyone who will believe.  It is a faith based on love, that declares trust in a particular God who became flesh and died on the cross to sacrifice to prove his love for the whole world because he ‘so loved’ this world.   This kind of particular God who ‘is love’, does not intend to negate other religions, nor does he come to move against other faiths, but God’s love, revealed in Jesus the Christ, magnifies and clarifies how God’s love can be found in any religion and in any faith, and at the same time, can expose the bad that can also be found hiding in any human religion or any faith, including Jewish or Christian faith.   What Jesus did that is so universal is to love, like God loves, and his point was not to destroy, but to ‘fulfill’, by revealing and renewing what was already universal and most needed in all the world: love.

This is the reason Jesus’ love isn’t just a love for few, but it is a love for all people anywhere, everywhere, without condition.  If the faith of Jesus Christ is only reduced to being just for Christians, or for only a particular kind of Christian, it then becomes a smaller, lesser and self-centered love, not a bigger, greater, God centered love. For when you put conditions on God’s love, or you limit Jesus’ sacrifice for sins, you make yourself god, and you make room for hate.      You make God small, not great, and you limit God’s love to your own terms, rather than extending or enlarging a love that forever belongs to God alone.  It was a ‘partnership’ or ‘fellowship’ of ‘enlarging’ or ‘expanding’ love, a love big enough that it could only come from God, that brought joy and gratitude into Paul’s heart, even though, at the time, he was imprisoned for sharing and preaching that kind of love.   It was the hope that this ‘gospel’ of love ‘might abound more and more’ (v. 9), because it was already becoming ‘clear to the whole palace guard and to everyone else’ too, as ‘Christ is preached’ (v. 18), out of ‘goodwill’ (v. 15) toward all, that caused Paul to ‘rejoice’  and to ‘continue to rejoice’ (v. 18). 


Because the ‘good news’ of God’s gospel is a about an undying, caring, sharing, and giving kind of love, it is the kind of ‘love’ and ‘good news’, it is miraculous, amazing-grace kind of love, that when you give it away, it also comes back to you.

Many Christians, in these days of traditional ‘church’ decline, wonder how in the world the church will survive?  One thing for sure, you don’t save, grow, or build the church by saving, growing, or building a church, but you save the church by reaching how to help and bring people to God’s salvation.  Most importantly, you don’t reach to them on your own terms, but you must learn to reach out to them on their terms, in their struggles, in their understanding.   This is the problem many traditional churches are having today.   They are trying to grow the church by growing a church, when they should be reaching out to people in their situation and condition of need, and letting God grow the church through those people who will become partners in the gospel.

When I visited Shelby, I got to share briefly with a former pastor, who had recently been an associate pastor, and then returned to that church to become the pastor of a large village church nearby.  He was trying to lead the church to reach out into its community, by using more contemporary methods.  But then, as changes started to occur, he ran into resistance in the church; leaders who told him that his focus should be on the church people, not on ‘them’ the outsiders. 

I don’t know the whole story, but what I do know is that either the church eventually asked him to resign or he left.  Fortunately, the pastor’s wife has a very good job, and he had a way to stay afloat.  Now, less than a year later, he has joined the staff of one of the fastest growing, contemporary churches in Shelby.  It was a church formed out of combining an old traditional church and a new contemporary, church start.  Now, my friend is the eldest of the 8 or so ‘pastors’, he said.  He had to even go out and by new clothes, and shoes, so that he could try to fit into the younger culture of that church.  The church has recently raised a million dollars, beyond their present budget, so they can focus, not on themselves, but on continuing to reach out into the needs of their community.  The other church, that let him go, continues to face a future of stagnation and decline.

That’s a ‘sad’ story, that fortunately has a good ending for the pastor, but what about the church where he left?   Why are people afraid to try new ideas?  Why couldn’t the church have done two things at once?  Why did it have to either be that he pastor focused only on the church, and not the needs of those outside of the church?  What was it not both/and, but had to be either/or? 

People are afraid to let go, aren’t we?  We are afraid to let of who we are, what we have, what we do, in order to reach out to where other people are.  We are afraid to become partners in this gospel that calls us to love, on God’s terms, at their point of need.  It is so much easier to remain in our safe place.  Isn’t that what the Jewish community of Jesus’ day wanted to do?  Isn’t that why the Judaizers wanted to take the church backward, rather than forward?  Isn’t that why Paul had to keep facing riots, beatings, insults, and prison.  We need to remember that is wasn’t the pagan world that kept attacking Paul, but it was the traditionally religious who kept complaining to the secular authorities, so that the authorities had to try to silence and stop Paul.  They did finally stop Paul, but there were others who came along beside of Paul and continued to share the good news until the gospel finally got to us too.

But here’s the question I want to close with:  Why are we afraid to ‘share’ and ‘show’ the gospel in new ways, when God assures us, that he is also not finished with us either.  Isn’t this the assurance Paul gave the Philippians?  Because they were continuing to move forward into the world with the gospel, and were partners with Paul in the gospel, they could be sure that God wasn’t finished with them, and that they could be ‘confident’ that ‘he who began a good work in them, would carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ’ (v. 6).

That’s a beautiful promise, isn’t it?  It reminds us that when we move ahead in him to go out to them, but that he is still not finished with working in us too.   I wish we could catch that kind of promise for us, too.  It’s the kind of understanding that could help us focus more on them, than on us, and find the promise of a future too.   I once witnessed ‘how’ this kind of ‘confidence’ works and is contagious.  Many years ago, when I was visiting Wilmington, I visited Winter Park Baptist Church, which was one of the first large traditional churches to risk focusing on outsiders, more than themselves.  The church was lead by a former Newpaper reporter, who had recently become a Christian and a pastor and wasn’t that far removed from those ‘others’. 

I visited the early service, and it was a very interesting, well-done contemporary approach to worship.  But what I noticed, was when I looked around, that most of the people there were white-haired, like I am today.  I went up to one lady and I asked, “Why do you come to this service?  Do you like the music?”  The music is not bad, but I didn’t come for the music.  I came because of the young people, who make me feel welcome and young.  It was if she was saying:  They make me their grandma. They come for advice. It’s here that I realize that God is not finished with me yet.

Isn’t that what ‘sharing’ the gospel, such a wonderful task.  It wasn’t us against them, but it was all together, helping one another, reaching out to others, and loving one another.  Isn’t that how God still gives us his promise and his hope?   Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

“By This Gospel You Are Saved”.

Easter sermon based upon 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter Sunrise, April, 21 2019

In his book, Contexualizing the Gospel Brian Harbor reminded us that in the ancient world, many Messiahs came and went, but who today recalls their names? 

Do you remember Simon Bar Giora?   In 69 AD he rallied Palestinian Jews to march against Rome.  40K soldiers responded.  They called him Messiah, Christ.  They marched.  Even coins with his name have been unearthed, saying “Redemption of Zion”.  He lost.  Rome burned Jerusalem. Jews were scattered in Diaspora.

Do you remember Simon Bar Kochba?  In 135 AD this other Simon was called by Jews in Palestine the Christ, Messiah.  People had high hopes.  They rallied behind him.  But Rome dashed in and put him to death.  Who remembers Simon Bar Kochba, except scholars?

Finally, go back to 30 AD.  Certain Jews experienced a very different kind of Christ.  He was a compassionate preacher, healer, and also a prophet, who exposed the evils of his own world, but taught people to love anyway.  But those evils rallied against him, and put him to death.  But instead of dispersing his followers, they began to grow, preach, and teach that he was the true Messiah—the true Christ.  But he was a very different kind of Christ.  Today, he has followers on every continent of the world, who say that this Messiah is their Christ.  “He came unto his own, and his own rejected him; but as many as received him, became sons and daughters of God too.”

Today, on Easter Sunday morning, while all these other Messiah’s are long forgotten, we come here not only simply to remember, what happen differently to this one called Jesus of Nazareth, but we come here not to remember him, but we come here because the hope of Jesus as the Christ , our Savior is alive in us.  This hope has been passed down to us, just like it was passed down to Paul the apostle, when he said, to the Corinthians: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4 NIV).  Paul goes on to say that this Jesus, who was ‘raised’ then appeared to Peter, one of his disciples, and to the other disciples as well, and finally he appeared as many as 500 others, many of whom were still living as Paul writes.

What is most amazing about Paul’s message, is that this Messiah, this Christ, and this Jesus of Nazareth would have been forgotten too, just like all the other would-be-Messiahs, had it not been for Easter morning.  Easter morning makes everything look different.  Before Easter, on Friday, everything went dark.  During the late Thursday evening, Jesus was arrested, then falsely tried and convicted of blaspheming God.  Then, during the early morning, he appeared before the Roman governor, who wanted to release him, but the crowd cried out against him.  Then, by 9 am, Jesus was crucified between two thieves, just like thousands of other people were in those days.  Who remembers any of them?  Can you name a single one of those thousands of people the Romans executed as a criminal?

So, here’s what I want help us understand today.  Easter, because those 500 or people experienced it, caused them to see everything differently.  They not only established a spiritual community based on the Easter hope which they had, with the help of the Holy Spirit, their hope became the Christian faith, and for us, the churches that still live in that hope of everything Jesus taught, lived, and arose to pass on to us. Because of this Easter experience, we join them in the kind of faith that both sees life, and also lives life, differently because of Easter.   

What I want us to consider why does Easter matter?  What difference does Easter still make?

WE SEE GOD DIFFERENTLY.   People believed in God before Easter, but after Easter God is understood in a whole different way.  

Before Easter, God was a distant; perceived to be removed from our human struggles and suffering with sin and death.  He was a God who really didn’t understand.  But now, because of Easter, we know that God understands.  Jesus called God Abba, Father, and Jesus instructs us call him Father too.   And as God’s Son, taking upon himself human flesh, in Jesus, God suffers death just like we do to reconcile us to him. 

While God did not remove death from this world, God comes to transform death and he promises us that nothing will ‘separate us from the love of Jesus Christ….neither death nor life…. Nothing!
Perhaps the most important difference in our human understanding of God, through Easter is that God is ‘for us’, not against us.   Some people still think God is out to get them (or us), but what Easter proclaims to us that has come not only to save us, but through the resurrection of Jesus, God shows us his promise to bring about a whole new creation.   God not only loves us, he wants to point us toward the world that is still coming and the future that is still coming.  God is not any kind of God who is out to get us, any of us, even sinners, but God is up to something.  Through Jesus Christ, God ‘proves his love for us’ and reveals, once and for all, that he a saving God, not a condemning God,  who wants to save us for what God will do next.

WE SEE JESUS DIFFERENTLY TOO.   Because we can now see God differently, as a God who is for us, not against us; through Easter we can also see Jesus differently.   As I said before, everything Jesus did, taught, lived, and died for would have been forgotten, had it not been for the Resurrection.  But when God raised Jesus from the grave, God not only proved his love for us, but he vindicated everything Jesus was about while he lived his short life on earth.

Isn’t this what the 4 gospels are about?  Isn’t this what the ‘apostles’ teaching’ is about?  Isn’t this what ‘discipleship’ and Sunday School, and also Worship is about?  Everything we do in the church today, is because God put his stamp of approval on everything Jesus said, did, lived and died for.   And what was that?

When Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, Jesus revealed a whole new way of interpreting the law.   Jesus said, ‘you’ve heard it said, but I say to you….  Blessed are those who mourn….Love your enemy…Do good to those who hurt you!   Those are just a few of the very strange teachings Jesus gave us.  We would call them all ridiculous, and some still do, except that God put his stamp of approval on all Jesus said and did.   He did this through Easter.   Through Easter, we are all challenged to live the truth that Jesus lived.

Another thing different about Jesus is that we know not only what he said was true, but we know that God accepted Jesus, the sinless one, as the sacrifice for all sin.  Because of validating and vindicating Jesus, God says that sin is not a problem; unless we want it to be.  We still have a free choice, but because of Jesus, when we put our faith in him, sin is forgiven, sin is forgotten, and sinners are transformed by God’s love. 

The final thing different about Jesus, is not just what God approves of, and who God as excepted as the final sacrifice for sin, but the truth of Easter tells us that we too can put our trust in Jesus.   Just as Jesus trusted the Father and put himself into God’s hands, we too can trust God to the very end and put ourselves into God’s hands.  Because God was faithful to Jesus, we can know that God will be faithful to us, and we can trust our lives into this very faithful God.

Some time ago someone spoke about how it’s hard to trust anyone or anything anymore.   We used to trust the military, then came Vietnam.  We used to trust the politicians, then came Watergate.  We used to trust the engineers, then came the Challenger explosion.  We also thought we could trust in our Broker, then came Black Monday.  We thought then, that we could trust in the preachers, then came Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart.  In a world that is broken, fallen, and still rebellious, who can we trust? 

 Who can we trust who will never let us down?   We can trust in Jesus.  Jesus never stopped loving the world, and neither does God.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes (trusts) in him, will not perish, but will have eternal life.”   If we can’t trust in Jesus, and we can’t trust that God raised, him; there is nothing, no one else to trust, because we all fall short of God’s glory.  But Jesus doesn’t fall.  Jesus is faithful to the end, just like God will be faithful to all who put their trust in him; not in this world.

Finally, because we can now see God differently,  and because we can see Jesus differently, WE CAN NOW LIFE DIFFERENTLY TOO.   When the woman sang in that sad song, “Is this all there is?”  We now can answer, from our hearts, from the truth in our lives, and from our trust in Jesus and in God’s hope, that THIS LIFE IS NOT ALL THERE IS!  

The Bible calls Jesus’ resurrection ‘the first fruit’ and the Holy Spirit given to us through the resurrected Christ, the ‘earnest’ of what is still to come.  Now, every time we face the darkness of death, we can face it like going to sleep at night, trusting that one day, we will all wake up in the world that is still coming.  “Our Father, who art in Heaven… Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done, On earth, as it is in Heaven.”  Because of Easter, when we pray, we pray differently.  When we live, we live differently.  And even when we die, we also know that we die differently.  We live in hope and we die in hope, because God’s new life, new world, and new creation is still ahead of us.  In Easter the Kingdom rule of God has already started in our hearts, and in our lives too, when we follow, trust, and live out of this Kingdom hope.  But we still live toward the Kingdom, that is not yet hear, but is coming. 

It may sound strange to say that God only gave us part of his promise at Easter.  The best part is still to come.  But isn’t this the best way we can live.  God gives us hope, promise, and peace, and God transforms how we can live, treat, and love each other, but God still gives us something to live for because we have something to live toward.   Promise.  God tells us, in Jesus resurrection, that with life, the best is yet to come.

A child’s SS class Teacher was telling her young class about Easter, telling them the story in ways they could understand.  She told them about how Jesus was a good man who did many good things to help people.  Then, she told them how bad men went against Jesus and decided to kill him.   Now, some of the children who were in the class that day, had parents who never went to church, except on Easter, so they didn’t know this story.  One of those little tenderhearted little boys, named Petey, looked at the teacher and started to cry, asking why they did this.  Why did such a good person have to die.  When another little boy, who did come to church, saw that his friend Petey was going to cry,  he said to him:  “Don’t worry Petey, he comes back in the in!”

Isn’t this the message of Easter for all of us, no matter what we are facing in life?  Life can seem unfair.  Sickness, illnesses can overcome us.  Someday all of us have to face obstacles, even death that we can’t overcome in this life.  But we don’t have to worry,  Jesus came back.  Jesus comes to us, in Spirit of peace, hope and love, still today.  And Jesus promises, that if we trust him, we can trust that we will come back too.   As Paul told the Thessalonians: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thess. 4:14 NIV).  Did you hear that?   “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”  

When you believe that Easter is not just about what God did when he raised Jesus, but that Easter is also about what God will one day do in Jesus, for all who have fallen asleep in him.  You see that God looks differently.  Jesus looks differently.  Life and Death looks differently too.  And all this started, when God raised Jesus from the dead, but this God isn’t finished yet.  That’s how Easter makes everything different.  Jesus is not a long-forgotten Messiah, because God is still promising us, more to come.   Trust him.  Follow him.  Live for him.  Hope in him.  Even if you are old, especially if you are old, Hope in God.  As Robert Browning wrote:
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, 'A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!” I like that.  That’s why I believe, in God, in Jesus, and in Life!  The Best is not past, but the best is yet to be.  Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Cross Has Two Sides

A sermon based upon Hebrews  13: 1-3; 8-16
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Passion/Palm Sunday,  April,  14 2019

There is an old Jewish story about how one day the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave Rome. 

Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community.  So the Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community.  If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the
Jews would leave. 

The Jews realized that they had no choice. They looked around for a champion who could defend their faith, but no one wanted to volunteer.
It was too risky. So they finally picked an old man named
Moishe to represent them.

Being old and poor, he had less to lose, so he agreed. He
asked only for one addition to the debate.  Not being used to saying very much, he asked that neither side be allowed to talk. The pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope
sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.
Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger.
The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head.
Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.
The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine.
Moishe pulled out an apple.
The Pope stood up and said, 'I give up. This man is too
good. The Jews can stay.'

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope
asking him what happened. The Pope said:
'First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity.
He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that
there was still one God common to both our religions.
Then I waved my finger around me to show him, that God
was all around us.  He responded by pointing to the ground, showing that God was also right here with us. 
I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God
absolves us from our sins.  He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?'

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around
Moishe, amazed that this old, almost feeble-minded man had done
what all their scholars had insisted was impossible!
'What happened?' they asked.

'Well,' said Moishe, 'first he said to me that the Jews had
three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews.
I let him know that we were staying right here.'
'And then?' asked a woman.  'I don't know,' said Moishe. 'He took out his lunch and I  took out mine.'
That old Jewish tale illustrates the old adage that says: “There are two sides to every story.”   In fact, there are two sides to just about everything.  Just like every coin has two sides; heads and tails, there can also be two sides to morality; right and wrong, good versus evil, the dark versus the light.   “I’ve looked at life from both sides now…” goes a popular folk song.

When you think about it, even round things, like the moon, the sun, or the earth have two sides-- the side in the light, and the dark side.  Also squares, rectangles, and octagons---although they can have multiple sides, just like stories, ideas, or morality can become more complicated too.  But even will all their extra layers and complications, they can still be reduced to front or back and right side up, or upside down.  Maybe you can’t see this when all the angles are exactly the same, but if just slightly change only one of the angles, even a multisided rectangle, a pentagon, or an octagon, will it then also be understood two have two most basic sides---a front and a back, or an up and a down.

Now, I’m not trying to get scientific or silly here.  What I am trying to illustrate is that in life and reality there is always more than one dimension of truth or reality.  Understanding the truth about the cross of Jesus Christ, has at least two sides, but it can be multi-dimensional too.   The cross is that big; big enough for every person and every purpose too. 

But this day, on this Passion Sunday (or is it Palm Sunday, this day is two-sided too), I want us to consider the cross from at least two angles, both Jesus’ cross and also our cross.   Jesus said clearly in the very first gospel, the gospel of Mark; Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mk. 8:34 NIV),.  This cross, also called the disciples cross was not just a cross to wear as a decoration, but also a cross to bear as a cross of vocation and calling to obey the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In our Scripture text from Hebrews, we are reminded that just as Jesus suffered to outside the gate of Jerusalem, so that we can be made holy, we too, as Jesus’ followers, are to go outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb. 13:13-14 NIV.  Those are certainly strong, sobering words for us all to consider and take seriously as we approach Holy Week.  These words reminds us that there are two sides to the cross: On one side of the cross Jesus suffered, but on the other side, he calls us also to suffer for the truth and to live for God’s truth, even if it hurts. 

This other side of the cross is not a popular message in a world that only wants what it wants, when it wants it.  But this side of the cross that we die on, has as much saving power, and is has as much to do with God’s saving message as the side Jesus died upon.   We acknowledge both sides of the cross when we sing: At the Cross, At the Cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away….   And do you know what it means, when the writer Issac Watts said: I first saw the light?  In the very last verse he explains: But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe...   He continues: Here, Lord, I GIVE MYSELF AWAY, ‘Tis all that I can do.’  That line takes us straight to the other side of the cross, but first let’s remind ourselves of this side of the cross.

When the writer of Hebrews writes: …so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate (Heb. 13:12 NIV), this is the picture of the side of the cross we are all most familiar with.   The Apostle Paul put it in its most classic expression in Romans:  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8 NIV).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says even more dramatically:  but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, (1 Cor. 1:23 NIV).

Here, we must remember that, the cross was, and still is, considered a bunch of foolishness.   Most logically, when you study closely what happen to Jesus; his teachings were rejected, his healing gospel was rejected, and he himself was rejected, as God’s Son.   For as John writes, in the most descriptive of all, “He came unto his own, but his own received him not.”

What is most amazing about the New Testament message, is that Peter, Paul, Luke and others, came to see this terrible tragedy and defeat as the purpose and plan of God.   As Simon Peter preached at Pentecost: This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross (Acts 2:23 NIV). Here, already see two sides of the cross (Stagg).  On one side the cross was ‘a life given’ by God ‘for us’, but on the other side, Jesus’ death was ‘a life taken’ innocently, and cruelly, by people who had their own evil plans. 

The question the first disciples came have when Jesus died, which was only resolved through Jesus resurrection, was why did God’s plan allow this senseless suffering and murder of his Son, Jesus Christ?   This is already, another side of the cross, where the senseless suffering and death of Jesus because a message of God’s purpose and healing hope, when Jesus’ suffering was then preached as God’s way of human salvation and redemption through the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24;47; Acts 2: 39; 13:38; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). 

But here again, perhaps as much as it was for them, the mystery of the cross continues, as we may wonder to ourselves, again in this Holy Week: How does God forgive our sins, through such a terrible, bloody, dispictable death of Jesus suffering on a cross?  While even the greatest scholars of theology can’t fully answer ‘how’ this kind of divine forgiveness was accomplished in Christ’s death, the most reasonable and most biblical answer always has to do with God’s love.  The mystery of love, which answers, For God so love the world, that he gave… is the only answer to sin and suffering that can ever make any sense.  Again, here, we go right back to what Paul wrote to the Romans: But God demonstrates his love for us… Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us (5:8-9).”  This the only way we are ever allowed to fully understand the cross, that Jesus was God’s love in the flesh, submitting to death so that God’s love and forgiveness could be preached and proclaimed.  Amazing Pity, Grace unknown, And love beyond degree, Watts wrote.  This is the only way Jesus’ suffering and premature death makes any real sense. 

When Jesus’ death is about God’s love, not about God’s wrath, not finally about God’s absence, and not finally about God’s judgment, only in this way can we see the side of the cross that Jesus died upon.  This is the side which reveals to us, a new possibility; that even in the ugliest suffering and death, there can also be present an undying love that not only suffers senselessly, but Jesus reveals a love can also be selfless and sacrificing.  Through Jesus, God offers redemption to us, and for us, through faith in the only kind of love that could ever overcome suffering, sin and senselessness.  It is only the kind of love fully demonstrated in Jesus Christ, that can transform any situation of life, because it is a love ‘for us’, that can also transform us.

The power of love is exemplified through the story of a family who was out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the highway. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back: “Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! Stop the car! There’s a kitten back there on the side of the road!”
The father says, “So, there’s a kitten on the side of the road. We’re having a drive.”
“But, Daddy, we’ve got to stop and pick it up.”
“No, we don’t.”
“But, Daddy, if we don’t, it will die!”
“Well, then, it will just have to die. We don’t have room for another animal. Our house is a zoo already. No more animals.”
“But Daddy, are you just going to let it die?”
“Be quiet, Kids, let’s just have a pleasant drive.”
“We never thought our father would be so mean and cruel as to let a helpless little kitty die.”

Finally, the mother turns to her husband and says, “Dear, we are going to have to stop.”   So, reluctantly, Dad turns the car around, returns to the spot and pulls the car off the road. “You kids stay in the car. I’ll see about it.” He gets out to pick up the little kitten.

The poor creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed and full of fleas; but when Dad reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy, the little kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Ssst! He picks the kitten up by the loose skin of the neck, brings it over to the car and says, “Don’t touch it; it’s probably got leprosy.” Back home they go.

When they get to the house, the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and intercede, “Can we let it stay in the house just tonight, please, please, please? Tomorrow we’ll fix a place in the garage.” The father says,
“Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a menagerie.” They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a pharaoh.

Several weeks pass. One day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and there is the cat. He reaches down toward it. When the cat sees his hand, it doesn’t bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? Is it? No, it is NOT the same as that frightened, hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road. Of course not. And you know as well as I what has made the difference.
(Fred Craddock, “Praying Through Clenched Teeth,” in The Twentieth Century Pulpit, Vol. II, James Cox, Ed., (Nashville, Abingdon, 1981), pp. 51-52)

The ‘difference’ love makes, which points us back to the difference God’s love can make in our lives brings us to the other side of cross of Jesus.  

The first letter of Peter points to what this other side of the cross means,  when he wrote: He himself bore our sins" in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; "by his wounds you have been healed." (1 Pet. 2:24 NIV).   Here, Peter points to the same ‘side’ of the cross our text in Hebrews points to, when the writer challenges: Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore (Heb. 13:13 NIV).  How can the healing, saving, and the forgiveness of God, also be made real in us, as we bear the disgrace he bore’

Morgan Guyton, tells about an incident he had one morning while setting up for summer camp. There was a scrawny old white guy passed out on the sidewalk where the children would be playing.  He was asked to wake him up and send him on his way. So Morgan went over to him and lightly tapped him on the shoulder. ‘He lunged away as if a rattlesnake had bitten him. He started screaming cuss words at me, so I decided I would just turn around and walk away before things got violent.

And then he said it. “Where's your f-mercy, man?” Yes. He said the F-word. And he said mercy, too, the word Jesus often spoke about.   Morgan then says then, I froze in my tracks. Here was an angel of the Lord who had just dropped the F-bomb on me. I didn't know what to do, but I thought God was commanding me to do something, so I turned back around and sat down on the sidewalk in front of him.

Then I noticed a black man I'll call Wayne, who was a church volunteer. He greeted the homeless man cheerfully by name and told him he could come back later for some food. The homeless man responded with a tirade in which he said the N-word probably thirty or forty times. My heart was in my throat, Morgan said: I was terrified about what would happen if a black person was called that word to his face. My own racist presumptions made me wonder if Wayne was going to react with violence. But Wayne stayed completely calm. He never raised his voice, and he never stopped smiling.  

As Morgan reflected on this incident in the years that followed, he says that he realized this was what God had called me over to witness. Wayne was a perfect embodiment of God's mercy. No matter how many flaming arrows Satan shot at him through that awful word, every single arrow was extinguished in Wayne's shield of mercy.  I've come to realize that the mercy Wayne embodied is an antidote, not just for the hate of a racist homeless man, but for a church that loves sacrifice a lot more than mercy. Wayne's beautiful witness became a part of my salvation.
(Guyton, Morgan. How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity (Kindle Locations 433-438)).

Folks, here is a perfect picture of what Hebrews means, when it calls us to the other side of the cross, going outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore (Heb. 13:13).  This is an example of what Peter also meant when he also wrote that If you suffer for what is right, you are blessed (1 Pet. 3:14).  And isn’t this what is most missing in our world, right now, as people speak so negatively to each other, are so hateful, are so violent, and so uncivil, and so selfishly motivated by this world?  Isn’t the heart of the problem that fewer want to go outside the camp  of what they want for themselves and are willing to also bear the disgrace, and bear the a cross, like Jesus bore? 

But what if this is the only way of salvation?  What if Jesus’ way is really the only way, the only truth, and the only way to life?  When Jesus calls us to take up the other side of the cross, which is our side of the cross, Jesus is also calling us to ‘die to ourselves’, and ‘to die to our sins’ and to come and live our life abundantly.  It may sound strange how it works, to say that we gain our life by losing it, or that we lose our lives by saving it, but this is exactly what happens, isn’t it?

On the news recently, a video camera in a prison cell showed a young woman writing in the pain of drug withdrawals, throwing-up, and then being forced by guards to clean up her own vomit.  The scene was cruel and gruesome; and it all was made most tragic by the fact the girl was not found dead until 5 hours later.  She laid there, on camera, struggling, suffering, and then dead.  There will probably be a law-suit by the family, which will prove the prison to be negligent.  But this does not change how all this started and why she was here?  It all started because this young girl, rather than take Christ’s way, to endure, to bear the burden, an allow others to help her bear the burden, chose to ‘self-medicate’ through drugs; so that in her trying to find life, she lost it.

The thief comes to kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, and have it fully (abundantly), Jesus said (Jn. 10:10).   When Jesus comes and asks us to ‘deny ourselves’ or to ‘die to ourselves’ he is not trying to kill us, forsake, or refuse us, but Jesus is trying to give us a full life.  He is trying to save our lives, when he calls us to find our lives by living in and for him.

Isn’t this what Paul meant, when he announced that he too was ‘crucified with Christ’, and ‘no longer lives’; but now, ‘the life that he lives, he lives by faith in the Son of God who gave himself for him’ (Gal. 2:20). 

What Jesus did for Paul, is what Paul says Jesus can also do for us.  Jesus does not call us to the bear the cross, bear the disgrace, or to bear the senseless suffering, because Jesus wants to kill us or negate us, but Jesus calls us to bear the disgrace because only by following Jesus on this cross, can God give our life back to us in a this broken world.   For only when we ‘crucify the flesh’ can we fully live by the Spirit (Gal. 5:24).  This is how God, through the cross of Jesus, calls us, as the song says, ‘to give’ ourselves away, which is ‘all we can do’ (Issac Watts).

On the news, last year there was an interesting report about what it seems that today’s educators are doing by ‘coddling’ students, giving in to their demands, their wants, and their requests, rather than challenging them to live and to learn.  One example is what happen two years ago, when students at the University of California at Berkeley demanded the cancellation of speeches by conservative commentators Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. Shut it down. Shut it down!  They shouted, and they did.  The same kind of thing happen on a Vermont campus, when controversial speaker political scientists Charles Murray visited, and students demanded that he be stopped and dismissed.  No one was supporting these opposing views, but what noticed and feared is that it seems that many educators have invented a intellectual world where students only hear what they want to hear, so they can believe only what they want to believe.

One of the reasons, the way of Jesus, which is the way of the cross, is so important for our world is that without the willingness and desire to ‘bear the burden’ of someone else, even someone’s else’s stupidity; and without opening our heart to listen, even to the opposition or even allowing ourselves to be challenged with other views; is that when we lose the ability to bear the disgrace; that is, to do even the hardest things and to be willing to suffer for the good; if we all refuse to do this, all we have left is a world where we exist only for ourselves, and then, slowly, and sometimes suddenly, love dies.   Only by sharing life with Jesus and by taking up his cross, which is now your cross, will you a life that is full and abundant.

In Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, an uncle tells of what he wants for his nephew:  “I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won’t turn into a Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he’ll know when he’s chickening out on himself . . . I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument. I want a little guts to show before I let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason he was born a human being and not a chair.” (Be Your Whole Self pp 62—63)

Folks, on this Passion/Palm Sunday, the logic of both sides needs to be clear.   We cannot afford to “chicken out” on God or on ourselves. We must know  that God loves us and that love forgives, but we must also know that to know love, is to also to become love.  When love happens to us; then life happens.  And when life happens because we love, even though we may suffer outside the camp too, just like Jesus loved outside the gate; when we bear the other side of the cross in life, and suffer love like this, as we do good to others, so that we, as Hebrews says, ‘offer to God a sacrifice of praise’; when we not only bring glory to him now, we will bring glory, and live in glory forever and ever.  This is the glory that comes to those who live on both sides of the cross. Amen.