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Sunday, July 26, 2020

“You Are God’s...Building”

A sermon based upon 1 Corinthians 3: 1-16
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday August, 9th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

Bill Self, a retired Baptist pastor, tells about taking his two grandsons to their swimming lessons.   He thought this would be the routine trip, but he was wrong. The pool was enclosed in a rather large building, and the sounds of all those excited children of different ages and abilities were deafening.
He also noticed something else unusual.  All the noise was coming from the shallow end of the pool.  The only sound coming from the deep end was the sound of experienced swimmers swimming with discipline and confidence. There was no yelling, no crying, no complaining, no evidence of fear or frustration.  They were following the instructions of their leader.
Then, Dr. Self gave his church a lesson he observed in that Swimming Hall.   He said, “After a lifetime of (church) ministry, I have concluded that all the noise comes from the shallow end of the pool, from those who haven't learned to swim with confidence or are not secure enough to venture into the deep water.”*
This was certainly true in Corinth, Paul’s most notorious church.   The book of Corinthians is filled with a church making a lot of noise.   It’s coming from the ‘shallow end of the pool’.  Paul’s own description is that most in the church were  still living like infants when they should have already been on solid food, growing up to become God’s mature people doing God’s work in the world.  But instead of growing up and going deeper in their faith, they were still a bunch of babies splashing around, making all kinds of unpleasant noise in the shallow water of a childish faith..
Pastors see this a lot; in both people in and in churches.   In a recent copy of a Christian Magazine (Christian Century, Jan 2020), a British Pastor named Sam Wells, tells of getting a very nasty letter from one of his members.   That woman scolded him over and over because he wasn’t like their last pastor.  Shame on you, she says.  Don’t sleep easy in your bed tonight.  Roll up your sleeves and do some of the dirty work around here.”   She thought she was so smart, but she didn’t have a clue.  She was splashing a bunch of water in his face, but it wasn’t doing anyone any good.

Interestingly, that letter came to Pastor Wells on the very same day he got a call from another church member.  He had gotten to know this person very well, because he had only recently performed the funeral for his vivacious daughter who tragically died too young.  The call was to ask his pastor to go by and see his brother, who was really struggling with his niece’s death.  “You have been there for me,” He said.  “I wondered if you could go by sometime and talk to my brother.”   

It was then, that the pastor recalled the sermon he had preached at the young girl’s funeral.  It was based on a line from the Song of Solomon, chapter 8, verse 6: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grace.”  He preached this is as pointing to the Christian faith...saying that no matter what happens to us in life or death, we too, are a seal upon God’s heart.  The way we know that, he said, is because Jesus love for us was ‘as strong as death’.  Jesus did the ‘dirty work’ we can never do.  Jesus ‘rolled up his sleeves’ and revealed the marks of love on his hands and side that are in God’s heart.

What that shallow swimming, milk-drinking, fleshly, jealous woman could not understand is that doing the work of ‘love’ is the hard ‘dirty work’ of God’s church.  It’s not just the job of a certain pastor, working in the cookie-cutter image of another.  No, it’s all of us participating in how we work, how we talk, and in how we express ourselves, doing the deeper work of love, understanding, and having compassion with and for others.  But of course, you don’t understand this when you are living a shallow, fleshly, self-focused life.  You have to get out there into the deep to understand.  You have to mature.  You have to move beyond living only for yourself to live for God. 

When Paul talks about people ‘still of the flesh’ (3) and still being ‘fed with milk’ and ‘not ready for solid food’ he’s talking about not growing or going deeper in faith to live in tune with God’s indwelling Spirit.  We see this a lot in some churches these days, don’t we?   Churches and Christians who are content to hold on to their ‘bottles’ and pacifiers, living in shallow places.   Sometimes this comes from empty places in their own lives, living with old wounds that still need healing.  Often that person can’t move forward, get stuck and can’t  get on with life, because they haven’t dealt with the pain, the loss, or hurt in their past.  They may get this ‘flesh-focused’, ‘infantile’ spirit very honestly.  It’s may not be all their fault, but because they are afraid and unable to face life and take responsibility, they become ‘dishonest’ with themselves and with others.  They often hide in passive-aggressive behaviors, acting very compassionate, but at the same time sneaking around, and then unexpectedly lashing out and attacking.  And it’s all because of the pain and hurt they don’t want to bear alone.  They want to take somebody down with them so they become hateful, vindictive, and some, like the lady in England become ‘clergy killers’.

I’ve spoken about my cat, who is still a kitten in some ways, because she was abandoned by her mother and didn’t have a normal ‘kittenhood’.  We rescued her, but she’s still in recovery.  She’s stuck in some very infantile, kitten ways.  When the dog is walking, the cat will hide, then suddenly spring out and jump on the back of the dog.  The cat’s behavior keeps the dog walking on pins and needles, wondering when it will get attacked next.   It will keep on happening until the dog ‘puts her foot down’, shows her teeth and snaps back with true authority.  

Because church’s are rescue stations, if a church doesn’t have strong, mature leadership, a can be held captive to people’s pain,  living in constant, crippling fear and dread’ of the weakest, loudest, most infantile member, who ‘attacks’, ‘yells’ and ‘splashes’ against others who don’t agree with them.  This must have been part of what was happening in Corinth, because the church was broken into factions, with each one screaming they were best, struggling to move forward.

Negativity is one way to to spot an infantile faith,  but not the only way.  As Paul says in this text, this didn’t start out as ‘jealousy and quarreling’ but was simple ‘human inclinations’ (4).  This arguing over ‘preachers’ had a lot more to do with what was entertaining and fun, rather what was edifying.  People in Corinth said Apollos was the best preacher.  To the infantile mind it’s all about who can tickle the ears, not what the truth is.  We see this a lot in today’s world.  If you want to succeed in growing a church you have to get out of the spiritual growth business and get into show business.   And in some of these very ‘noisy’ churches, you can find increasing attendance, but you don’t find discipleship increasing, Sunday School growing, Small groups based on spiritual growth or godliness growing.   You might find a lot of attenders, but less and less of these people are able to swim in the deep or maintain a steady diet of solid, healthy food.    

Also, if you look closely, there’s also not a lot of Christlikeness and commitment in these places either  Many of them don’t even look much like church’s anymore.  And I’m not simple talking about architecture or ascetics, but I’m talking about community and connection.  It’s easy to draw a crowd to these buildings, but the crowd most often looks just like them.   Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus have taught churches how to draw a crowd.  But it's still very tough to build a Christian, family-oriented, multi-generational, community cross-sectional congregation, and even harder to build a person into a Christian.  One pastor, with tongue and cheek, put it this way: "Our people are deeply committed in every area except three: they way they live, the way they think and the what they value in life.  Other than that, they are deeply committed to the Jesus."

Jack Hayford, a California pastor, recently said in an article, "They come for the show, but they refuse to grow."   As Bill Self concluded, “People breeze in and out of our churches as though they are going through a fast food restaurant, or are at a salad bar, selecting the items they want, taking nothing that is unpleasant or challenging and, at best, paying only the minimum.  They think they are getting a good deal, and they might be feeding their flesh, but they are starving to death for the kind of food that will feed their souls.”

Throughout my ministry, I seen all kinds of ideas on how to grow a church.   Early in my ministry the charismatic approach was a hot item.  Churches all around were trying to grow by feeling, expressing the Spirit in emotional ways. But it spilt up a lot of congregations too, breaking up well established relationships.

Later on, fundamentalism took over the Southern Baptist Convention.  The way to grow was to be ultra conservative focus on the childlike literal reading of Scripture.  Conservative churches grew larger and faster than traditional, socially liberal or even  moderate churches.  The way to grow was to lose your head.

In more recent years, the trend has been toward building mega churches with contemporary music and non-traditional approaches.  This has led to a decline in both traditional fundamental, liberal or moderate churches and whole denominations.  These ‘contemporary’  churches focus on reaching and ministering to young people and worshipping in buildings that don’t look like traditional churches.  They reject most any thing that looks like traditional, establish, or historic Christianity.

When I was a missionary pastor in Europe, we got word that a revival broke out in Canada that was drawing large crowds and gaining much attention.  The movement was called ‘The Toronto Blessing’.  People were working themselves into ecstatic fits the as non traditional, spiritual music was being played and they would get up and dance, not just alone, but often together. This sparked revivals and the growth of Charismatic churches across European culture, in which people were reported to be ‘slain in the Spirit and spoking in tongues.  The movement was strongest in old cultures where the established cathedral like churches were already dying.  It shocked me when the leadership in our little house church actually entertained the idea that this might be an approach to be considered.  ‘I don’t dance’, I joke.  They didn’t laugh.             

When I realized how many methods, gimmicks and styles churches use to try to grow, I though about the fair, which came to my hometown every fall.  When you walked down the midway, you’d hear the pitch man say, "Step right up! Pay your money, knock out the balloons with the darts, and you'll win the wonderful prizes!" No one ever knocked them out or won the prize.  Another man would entice us to take the baseball and knock down the bottles. The next man would say, "Pay your money and come in to see the tallest person, the shortest person, the fattest person, see all the freaks, including the man with the reptile body."
It reminds me of what I found many American churches doing when I returned from Europe in 1996.  In Greensboro, where I landed, churches, including mine, had taken a ‘consumers’ approach to church.  If you wanted contemporary music with a praise team, not a choir, or you wanted to play golf all day, come early, without a tie or coat, or even in shorts in the summer.   The preacher would preach wearing jeans.  But if you wanted a more traditional approach, come at 11 wearing a tie, coat, singing hymns with a choir.  The preacher would put on his coat and tie.  Come, pick what you like.      I once visited an ‘a la carte’ church in California that had nine different worship styles going on at once.  A lot of churches are doing this ‘niche’, satellite approach today: “Come to our church. Our preacher doesn't wear a tie. Our preacher wears golf shirts and jogging shoes."
"Come to our church! We wear shorts and sandals."
"We're fundamental.". "We're liturgical." “We're liberal." "We're moderate."
"We're denominational.". “We're mainline.". “We're dispensational."
"We have video.". “We have snare drums and screens." "We're into political reform and are politically active”." “We have a religious superstar preaching today
Everyone is proudly ‘hawking there wares’ like carnival barkers, pushing their style, their religious product, but when you get inside you find, just like the carnival, that no one knocks out the balloons or knocks down the bottles.  No one wins the prize. No lives are really changed. The church of the big idea, the church of the big action, and the church of the big show somehow leave us empty.  Something is missing. 
Paul tells us what too many churches have forgotten.  It’s not the style, the approach or the method that matters.  Paul says, ‘only God gives the growth’.  The real growth.  It’s not numbers, it’s maturity he means. 
Are many of today’s churches functioning as if there is no God?  I’ve heard of a few new types of churches that are actually secular, non-religious, and agnostic, if not atheistic.   There approach is to take God out of the picture all together and just have community and good works without a particular god who complicates things.  This is where the culture seems headed, so I’m not faulting the leadership or desire to grow and reach out in this churches, as much as they are trying to survive ‘‘as if there is no God’ because God is absent in the hearts of the growing majority of people. 
What kind of future does a ‘church’ have when it’s being built on the wrong foundation?   This is the main issue Paul was addressing in this letter.  Churches that are built only on ideas or actions or style are doomed to die.  This is why Paul says,, "I gave you a good foundation,  Jesus Christ.  You build on Jesus Christ. Because if you build with gold and silver or straw, it will fade.  You must build on Jesus Christ."   Only a church built on Jesus will remain.
In Matthew 16, Jesus said, "On this rock (the confession of Peter) I will build my church." During his last week of ministry, he said to his disciples, "I am the vine. Ye are the branches." In other words, if you stay connected to me, you will grow and bear fruit. If you get severed from me, you won't grow and bear fruit.  If you want to live and grow, remain in me, Jesus said.  Only through Jesus does God give true growth and life. 
I love to go to the Wilkes County to buy apples from my Mr. Weston.   His family harvests beautiful apples every year starting in late August through September into early October.   The Weston’s have apples only a few weeks every year but they have a lifetime of investing in cultivating the trees and pruning the branches. He has a year’s worth of work invested in helping the trees to reach their optimum maturity.  Apples do not come out of nowhere. They come from apple trees and it takes a lot of work to get apple trees to produce great apples.  You can’t ‘fake’ a good, nourishing apple.
You can’t fake true faith either.  And the fruit of the Christian faith does not come full-blown out of nowhere. It comes out of a branch that is connected to Jesus Christ. It comes out of a church that is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  I am not speaking against methods, against actions, or against ideas,  IF those methods, IF those actions, and IF those ideas flow out of a vital, current, connection to Jesus Christ.  But we live in a world in which some people don’t realize where apples’ come from, and so even think you can get apples without a tree.  
Some people also think you can have successful methods, ideas, actions and the excitement of life and church without having any kind of real connection to Christ or to the tree Jesus died upon.  As one theologian said, too many people today think you can have ‘God without wrath’, ‘people without sin, ‘a kingdom without judgment’, and a ‘Christ without a cross.’  But without the real Jesus, all we really do when we try to establish a niche for our church market is to cover empty hearts, shallow commitments, and a self-serving mindset.  
What we ought to do, however, is to start the right way to establish and grow a church.  Build on the true foundation by having a strong commitment to Jesus Christ.  What do you think would happen if we tried this?  For without the church's foundation being Jesus Christ, there is no substance, no power.  If the Spirit of Jesus is not there, no gimmick will make anything lasting happen.  It might fly for a while, but like that helicopter flying Kobe Byrant in the fog, a church in the fog will eventually hit a wall and crash too.
But there is an alternative.  The Scripture makes it clear that the church is supposed to be Christ's body on earth.  And the way to get Christ in the church body is by inviting Christ to rule our hearts.  If the church of Jesus wants to survive the spiritual fog of these challenging, changing, and difficult times, the church needs a passionate commitment to Jesus, not to wave political, ideological, or stylistic flags.

If we rediscover Jesus Christ, our worship will be revitalized. We'll not be concerned about style as much as we'll be excited about content.  We must rediscover the beauty, the majesty, and the power of a strong commitment to Jesus Christ. When that happens, we will not get bent out of shape about style. The central question will be, "Did we meet Jesus?" not “Did I like the sermon or the song”?  When we have Christ’s Spirit dwelling in us we will say like Peter and the disciples, “Lord, is it I, rather than “Lord, I want my opinion or style supported?”   

To say that Jesus Christ is the root and foundation, the cornerstone, the vine, calls the church to understand that we are Jesus people first of all.  We are members of his body, and if the church needs power and strength to make a difference, in a darkening world, it needs to rediscover Jesus.  When we rediscover Jesus, our mission will be sharpened. We will want to give a cold cup of water in Jesus name. When we rediscover Jesus Christ, we'll be liberated from so many other questions of process or style..

The Doonesbury cartoon is a serious comic that appears on the editorial pages of many  newspapers. In one cartoon, Mike, the central character, was looking for a church, so he interviewed the pastor of the Little Church at Walden.
He asked, "How did you get your church started?"
The pastor replied, "I took a survey in the community, and they all wanted aerobics, so we started an aerobics class. Then they said they all wanted basket weaving, so we started basket weaving. Then they wanted jogging, and we started jogging. And the next thing we knew, we had a church. It's getting so big now that we have a whole denomination."
In the last frame, Mike, who knows nothing about the Gospel, scratches his head and said, "So that's how religion is spread."
No, the gospel is spread because Jesus Christ changes lives. Anything else will die. It may have its day, but it will die.  
When we rediscover Jesus Christ, our belief will be strengthened and focused. When the church rediscovers Jesus Christ, the people might come for the show, but they will stay to grow. The only noise we will hear in a church will be people swimming from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool because they feel safe in deep water of God’s redeeming love. 

*This sermon relies heavily on ideas from a sermon preached by Bill Self of Atlanta.  Any mistakes or weakness are my own.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

“The Promise of the Spirit”

A sermon based upon Galatians 3: 1-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday July 19th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

Back in 2014, 17 year old Massachusetts teenager Michelle Carter, convinced her 18 year old boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to get back in his truck and to take his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning.  What made this case so unusual,  and cruel, is that she did by texting, knew where he was, told him to get back in the truck even though he said ‘he didn’t want to die’, and she did not notify anyone with any kind of call for help.  Then, this winter, after serving 3 years for involuntary manslaughter, Michell was released for being a model prisoner.

Out this whole terrible ordeal, came a new law in the state of Massachusetts, known as Conrad’s Law.   This new law allows prosecutors to charge anyone who encourages, coerces, or manipulates another person into committing or attempting suicide, even if the victim previously considered it, or attempted it. The point of this law, at least as I see it, is to say that ‘words’ can be weapons.  Even words which aren’t texted, or written, but are alive with the ‘spirit’ of intent, can be deadly, and criminal too.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that there is a ‘spiritual’ power in words, which can have both emotional and physical results.  Most of the time we don’t even notice the realm of the ‘spiritual’.   We tend to focus only on what we can see, what is physical, material, and visible.  This is naturally what we notice, until something tragic happens.  When Michelle convinced and even coerced her boyfriend into taking his life, we see that there is more going on.  Why didn’t she call someone for help?  In court proceedings, we’re told that she was encouraging him because he was ‘tortured’ by his life, and she told explained that in death the pain would be over.  With her words, from the ideas in her words, and her beliefs too, she convinced Conrad death would be better than life.

Sometimes, we forget that there are real, but invisible ‘powers’ in our beliefs, our ideas and of course, in our words, whether spoken, written or texted.  This power is often intensified by our relationships.   We don’t always realize this ‘power’, because it belongs to a very different realm of reality that remains mostly hidden to us; which we name as the realm of the spirit and the spiritual.   The Bible understands this reality and constantly reminds us of it.   The Bible speaks not only of these ‘spiritual powers’ as ‘elemental’, but sometimes evil too.  But here, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds his readers, and reminds us too, that God’s is the Holy Spirit that can redeem, save, heal, and deliver us from the most negative spiritual power of sin (Gal. 3:22).   And at both the beginning, and at the end of our text from Galatians, Paul speaks of the positive ‘promise of the Spirit’ that comes to us, resides in us, ‘through faith’ in Jesus Christ (3:14).   What was going on in Galatia is still very important for ‘growing in the knowledge and the grace of Jesus Christ’ and for understanding God’s work of ‘sanctification’ in us today.  For if we ‘grow in the grace’ of the Lord Jesus and we grow in the knowledge of God, we must grow spiritually, allowing God’s Spirit to ‘dwell’ in us and to ‘rule’ in our hearts.   In other words, ‘growth’ in ‘faith’, as Paul describes it in our text, means growing in the ‘promise of the Spirit’.

There was a ‘spiritual’ struggle going on in Galatia.   As you can see there’s some very strong language here.  It could have been a good plot for a Movie.   Paul, who was God’s new missionary to the Gentiles, was having to stand up against Peter, one of Jesus’ most important disciples.  

The problem was that Peter had lost his vision of the Spirit’s promise.  Judaizers had convinced him to renege on forcing ‘circumcision’ upon Gentiles as a legalistic requirement for God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  God had spoken to Peter in a vision, if you recall, as he was told by God’s Spirit in a dream that God was ‘no respecter of persons’ and that Gentiles could come to God’s table by grace, not works of the law.   

When group of Judaizers came to Galatia, wanting to take the church at Galatia backward, forcing this ancient, old ‘legalistic’ requirement upon them, Paul saw it as contrary to the work of God’s spiritual promise which was now being given to the whole world through faith in Jesus Christ.  Had the Judaizer’s won, Christianity would have never risen above being a small, restricting, Jewish sect.  It would have gone ‘dead in the waters’ of the Mediterranean.   Paul understood then, just as we must understand now, that with the promise of the Spirit, Christian faith eventually dies a slow, but terrible death.   The way of the Spirit is always ‘forward’.  When we follow Jesus we are moving ahead; and there is no looking back.

A good example of what was happening in Galatia can be compared to a famous story about the tight-rope walker, Charles Blondin (1824-97).  Blondin, Frenchman, set up a rope across Niagara Falls and walked across several times.  He was so confident in his abilities that he walked it both forward and backward, performing various tricks along the way, like sitting on a small stool and eating a meal.  But the most famous trick was when he asked for a volunteer to be carried over on his back.  In what must have been one of the most supreme acts of trust ever placed in a human being by another, a brave, or perhaps foolish man stepped forward, and was carried over on the great tigh-rope walker’s shoulders.

Now suppose about half-way across, that volunteer had said to Blondin,  “Look here, this is all very interesting, but I really don’t trust you any more.  I think I’d better do the rest by myself.  Let me down and I’ll walk from here without you.’   Can you imagine the retort and reprimand he got from the ‘master’ walker?   Can you imagine the fear he would have put into the eyes of his friends and family?  Had he lost his mind?  How could he ever walk the rest of the way by himself?

This is exactly the reaction Paul has on hearing that his beloved Galatians are thinking of getting circumcised.  Have they lost their minds, even their faith in Jesus Christ?  This is why he calls them ‘mindless’ or ‘bewitched’!  Are they thinking straight?  Having begun this journey of faith in the Spirit, are they now going to start walking in the flesh?   Having begun this way by faith, or they going to start trying to keep the law, which is something even the Jews could never do?  How foolish?

Do we still have a ‘dog in this fight’?  Can we too be a people who start out ‘walking in the Spirit’, but for some reason or other, feel a need to turn back to ‘legalistic’, black and white, simplistic and elemental tendencies of rules, laws, and regulations?   Years ago, when in college, I read a book entitled, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing”.  Dean Kelly, the author explained that churches that give simple answers to complex problems and questions often grow faster.  Most people like to have simple answers.  Many people like to be told ‘how’ to live!  Living in the ‘grey’ areas of life is hard work.  I once heard of a church that grew very large, after they pastor stood up and made them a clear list of how they should live their everyday life; what to eat, what to wear, and what say, and what to believe.   He put everything in black and white and expected everyone to sign on the dotted line.  You’d think Americans born in liberty, would reject such a thing.  Today, I hear they don’t have hardly any extra seats.

Legalism still works.  If you will do this, and if you will jump through this ‘hoop’ you will be saved.   There is, of course, always some truth to it.   Moses did give Israel the law.  God did call Israel to be a ‘priestly nation’ and to be a ‘light to the nations’.  Abraham, the Father of all Faith was circumcised as his promise to God, and God’s promise to bless him, and the world.  The law of God was a good, saving, healing law.  And ‘legalism’ can still work.  But it works only for a few.  And even these ‘few’ can never keep all of the law.  And in the end, Paul says, the law not only limits God’s grace, but the law, even God’s good law will prove to more of a ‘curse’ than a blessing.   This is not because of the law being bad, but it’s because of the power of sin.   In the end, the law is very good at bringing out the truth of our sin, but it’s not very good at helping us in our struggle with sin.   But this is getting a little ahead of Paul’s argument.   Let’s get back to ‘why’ Paul believe the way of the Spirit is more conducive to our spiritual growth and life, than the law ever could be.

After reminding the Galatians that they received Jesus through ‘the Spirit’ rather than through the ‘works of the law’, he moves on to make another point.   He not only reminds them that their own saving experience with Jesus is based on ‘believing’ and ‘trusting’ in Jesus through the Spirit, but he reminds them that this also how it was before Moses, and before Abraham made his covenant promise through circumcision. 

Before Moses gave the law, and before Abraham made his covenant,  Paul says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (3:6).  Paul’s point here is that the one who has faith in God is the one God has always considered righteous.  Righteousness never began with any ‘work of the law’ but even the ‘works of the law’ where always done because of faith.   Faith is the key to being right with God, not legalistic rituals, regulations, or requirements.   Even the best of God’s laws, were always, from the very beginning ‘works of faith’ before they were ever ‘works of law’.   Those who ‘believe are blessed with Abraham who also believed (9).

Paul is putting the promise of the Spirit above ‘works of the law’ because God wants us to have faith and trust in him.   Faith is where God is going in his saving work among us, the Gentiles.  And Paul brilliantly argues, faith is also how God originally began with Abraham.  Just like the Gentiles do, and Abraham was a Gentile before he began a Jew, and as a Gentile Abraham ‘believed God’, or ‘trusted God’ and this is what made Abraham righteous.  

It was never the law that made Abraham righteous, just like the law still doesn’t make people righteous.  People only follow the law because they are already righteous in their heart.   Righteous people were given the law to help them deal with their human limitations and their sinfulness, but the it was still faith that made them righteous---the law was only ‘teacher’ and a ‘reminder’ of what God expected of his people, so they could take the blessing of faith to the world, but the law was never the blessing itself.  Having faith in God, trust in God was the blessing then, and it is still the blessing now. 

Faith and trusting God is the source of righteousness, goodness, and how God’s salvation in released by grace, through faith, in the Spirit, into the human heart.  ‘Works of the Law’ only end up as a ‘curse’.   It curses us, not because the law is bad, but because we can never perfectly keep the law.  ‘The law doesn’t rest on faith’, but it rests on works.  Christ came to redeem us from the ‘curse of the law’ which will eventually condemn us, rather than save us.

Now, before I come to Paul’s final point, we need to at least understand that Paul is not, in any way against God’s law, nor is he ever against people who keep God’s law.  He is only against those who try to force this law on others, or who say God only saves through the law.  Jesus never said he came to ‘abolish’ the law, but that he came to ‘fulfill’ God’s law.  It is love, and trusting faith in God’s love, that fulfills God’s law.  But even when we love, and even when we have faith, we are still sinners.  And as sinners, who live our lives in a continual struggle with the flesh, we still need good laws, and we even need the spirit of Moses’ laws; but not the ‘letter’ of those laws.

A good example of our need for law, is what happened at Oxford University during WWII.  Inside the beautiful, unique circular library at Oxford, there is a wonderful circle of green grass.  When it was originally built, there was a large circle of iron fence built to keep people off the grass.  But during the war, that iron was removed and made in to armaments.   After the war was over, for several years, there was no fence, and people enjoyed the beauty of the grass, having picnics, tours, and continually walking across the grass.  Today, the iron fence had to go back up.  It takes away some of the beauty of the circle of grass, but the fence is necessary to preserve the beauty inside the circle.   And that’s exactly what the law can do, it can prevent abuse, it can deter destruction, and it can also preserve life.  

But what the law cannot do, like that iron fence can’t do, is give us the greatest most beautiful reality of all; the law can’t give create life; either physically or spiritually.  Only the creative power of the Spirit gives life.   The Spirit works, people respond in faith, and this is how the the Spirit works the greatest ‘miracles’ in life; and the greatest of all miracles is the miracle of grace that gives birth to ‘faith’.  

“Those who rely on the works of the law live under a cruse’, Paul says, but ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law’, and from now on, since ‘no one is really ever justified or made righteous by the law’,  ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’.

Paul’s argument about the Spirit, that brings us grace, faith and redemption from the curse of the law and from the power of sin too, is what ‘the promise of the Spirit’ is, and this is how Abraham’s blessing is poured out all over the world,  ‘by grace, through faith, and through the power and the promise that is in God’s Spirit.  

This is also how we keep going forward in God and it’s how we grow and are ‘sanctified’ and ‘set apart’ as God’s people in the world.   What we do in the world, whether they be works of love, or even maintaining God’s Spiritual law, are made possible in the world because of ‘who we are’, first of all.   What we do, the ‘miracles’ of good, which are ‘miracles of the spirit, are only possible because of the promise of God’s Spirit, who is alive and at work in us.  God’s Spirit gives spiritual life in us through Jesus Christ, and then we live ‘by faith’ through the Spirit of Christ’s love and life in us.
This is how the Christian life works, not only for God’s people, but it’s how God’s Spirit can also already be at work in lives of those who are not yet Christian, but who are opening their heart to the living, freeing, forgiving Spirit of love loose in the world.

Once, when the well-known prime minister of Great Britain, Margret Thatcher was visiting an old folks home, and she was speaking to a resident there and asked her,  “Do you know who I am?”   The resident replied, “No, dear, but you should asked the nurse over there.  She can tell you who you are.”

Late last January, Arla and Warren Cutts visited some of us to her home to watch a Christian Movie everyone should see.   “Overcomers” is a Christian Movie by the Kendrick brothers about ‘who we all are’ and who we need to realize that we are, so we can be loved by God and love others.  That’s the message of the movie, which tells of a young girl, the only member of the Christian School’s track team, who is being raised by her grandmother, because, as she was told her parents were dead.  But the main part of the story is that her father isn’t dead, and ends up, from his hospital bed being her coach, because once he was a track star himself.  What the story is mainly about, however, is not how she gets to know her father before he dies, but how this struggling young girl gets to know God, as her loving, heavenly Father, who loves her, just as she is.   One of the most moving scenes is how the girl is told to read the first two chapters of the book of Ephesians to learn who she is, in Christ.  She writes in her notebook: “I’m Blessed”.  “I’m Beloved”.  “I’m Redeemed”.  “I’m Chosen”.  “I’m a child of God”.  It’s a tear-jerking moment, when this girl, who was left without father, now has two fathers; who are both ‘coaching’ her to become the person she can be because of love.

This is exactly what the law can’t do.  The law can tell us what to do.  The law can tell us what we don’t do right.   The law can condemn us for not doing it or it might even commend us for doing the right, but the law can’t tell us who we are, nor can it tell us that we are loved, which is based on nothing, as the song says, ‘but Jesus’ blood and his own righteousness’.  The righteousness of Jesus is to show us, through his death, that God loves us, and that we are God’s child, chosen, loved, and blessed, before the law, and even before the ‘foundation of the world’. 

This is the ‘promise of the Spirit through faith’.   When we believe in love, and when we receive God’s grace,  we gain a ‘promise’ that gives birth to ‘trust’ and ‘faith’.  Paul was not going to give up on grace, faith, or the Spirit, because it did for him what the law could never do.   It was the Spirit of God’s grace, that gave him the saving, redeeming knowledge of God’s love.  No law, not even God’s law, could ever replace love.  In fact, faithful love is even what the law was originally about.  

Are you a legalistic person?   What out!  That can make you unloving and unlovable.  That is a step backward, rather than a step forward.   There are so many seemingly unsolvable problems in today’s world.   But do you know why seem to be so unsolvable?   They are problems that go to the core of everything.  And they are problems that will never be solved by human laws, just like God could redeem the world only through law either.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave...”  No law made God do that.  Love did.  This is where ‘Spirit’ gives birth to ‘faith’ that saves.   This is also where God’s Spirit gives us the strength to grow in that same love.   God’s love is what gives us the ‘promise of the Spirit’ to move forward in faith.   Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

“This Is the Will of God...”

A sermon based upon Exodus 19: 20-23;  1 Thessalonians 4: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday July 26th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

The immortal Babe Ruth had remained the home run king of baseball for almost 40 years; since 1935.  Then came Hank Aaron, who was to break the record many had declared ‘unbreakable’.  

Babe Ruth’s record had been tied by Hank and then in 1974, on April 8th, in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, this young upstart from Alabama came to the plate.   As the pitcher released the ball, Hank moved the bat to meet it just over the plate.   A loud cracking sound could be heard in the stands and over the airwaves. The ball began to soar like a jet plane on takeoff, and it landed in the stands.

The people in the stadium rose to their feet, put their hands together for an unrehearsed applause.  Hank Aaron had just hit home run number 715, breaking Babe Ruth’s old record of 714.  

The people came to the stadium that day because they wanted to be present when Hank Aaron broke the record.  They came to see the man.  They wanted to see him for themselves; to be present when history happened.   

In the ancient world, long before there was baseball, we read in Exodus 19 how Moses brought the people of God ‘out of the camp’ to take their ‘stand at the foot of the mountain’ to meet and see God (19:17).   We read how Mount Sinai was ‘wrapped in smoke’ because the Lord had descended on the mountain in a ‘fire’.  The people wanted to see God, and so did Moses also wanted to see God directly, but God said no!  God told Moses; “Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy” (19:23).

Why did God say ‘no?’  Even when Moses himself asked for God to ‘show his glory’ directly, God said, “I will make my goodness pass before you, ...but you cannot see my face and live  (Ex. 33:18ff).” 

In the middle of today’s text, we find a big, loud, fat ‘no’ from God.  ‘Abstain!...”  “Control your body in holiness and honor... (v. 4).  What Paul is talking about is something our world still gets very mixed up about.  Sexuality.  Pornography.  Fornication.  Sex-Out Side of Marriage.    God says ‘no!”; and who wants to hear a ‘no!’  Who likes to think that anything good can come out of a ‘no?’   But the Bible is full of them.  Even from the Mountain of God, the voice of God resounded over and over, “Thou Shalt Not...!  Thou shalt not this, Thou shalt not that!   No, No, No! 

The Bible seems to be saying, from beginning to end, that ‘if you want to find your best life, you have to learn to respect and handle the ‘no’s’.  Before you can say ‘yes’ to all the good, and the best you can have, you have to rightly deal with the ‘no’s’.  Life doesn’t come through saying ‘yes’ to everything.  You have to say ‘no’ before you can say ‘yes’.

Even, in New Testament times, when Jesus came to preach the ‘good news of the Kingdom, the first word was ‘repent’ (Mark 1:15).  Repent means to turn around, but it is still type of ‘no’.  Before you can say ‘yes’ to the fulness of life, you still have to learn to say ‘no’ too, in Jesus too.  It is out of the ‘no’s’ that God gives us his ‘yes’.   

It was even out of the ‘no’ the world said to Jesus, when his own rejected him, that God gives his ‘yes’!  He came unto his own...his own rejected to him...but as many as accepted him, he gave power to become children of God’ (Jn. 1: 11-12).  Even after the ‘no’ the world gave to Jesus, Paul went on to explain, after we come to understand the ‘no’,  it’s always a yes (2 Cor. 1:19).  Paul says, ‘the promises of God in Jesus are always a ‘Yes!’ 

It is only through the no, that God’s yes fully comes.   And perhaps, outside of the coming of Jesus, the greatest way God gives us his ‘yes’, is through, yet another, unrepeatable ‘no’.  This ‘no’ that becomes God’s ‘yes’, goes all the way back to Moses and God’s ‘no’ at the mountain.   Why did God say ‘no’ to allowing people to see him on the mountain?   Why can’t we see God and live?  The answer is in the question itself;  God wants us to live.   This answer is fully unveiled later, after God more fully ‘reveals’ himself and his presence on earth, once in a tent, and then later in the temple that Solomon built as God’s ‘house’.  Then, finally, in the Bible’s unfolding story, God finally and most fully reveals himself in the greatest temple of them all,  in the life of Jesus’, God’s own Son.   

But this story about God’s temple, God’s dwelling place, goes beyond the temple, and beyond Jesus’ too.   For about the same time that the Roman’s destroyed the second temple (70 AD), similar to how Babylon had destroyed the first, we see once again where God’s ‘no’ was going all along, and how it was always a no that was about becoming God’s ‘yes’.  This became known just as the New Testament was coming together.   In both Jesus’ words and Paul’s words too, both point to God’s great final ‘yes’ to the world.   If you remember, Jesus is reported to have said, about himself, “If you destroy this temple, in three days I will rebuilt it…”  (Mark 14: 58; Matt. 27:40; John 2: 19).   Jesus was talking about himself; about his own death and resurrection.   But even his own death and resurrection wasn’t just about Him.   We discover what all this ‘no’ business was about, when we finally turn to the writings of Paul, in something Paul tells the Corinthians in one of the very first letters.  

In this very first letter we finally understand why God said ‘no’ to allowing people or Moses to see him directly, and why God allows his ‘temples’ to be destroyed and also why God allowed his Son to die on the cross.   We also see here, exactly why God doesn’t want us to say ‘yes’ to just anything, and why certain ‘no’s’ have to come first.   Here, writing to the Corinthians, Paul spells is out.  This isn’t long after the Holy Spirit has been released into the world, that Paul writes:  Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?...God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple (1 Cor.  3:16).

 Now, we can see why God gave all those ‘no’s; on the mountain, in the 10 commandments, in the destruction of temples, and finally through the death of God’s own son, and in the new morality based on Christ’s love.   Every thing God has been about is revealed in this, as Paul writes again in the same letter:  Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in you body” (1 Cor. 6: 19-20).

“THE WILL OF GOD..”. (v. 3)
In our text today, which is a letter written even before Corinthians, Paul writes, “This is the will of God; your sanctification...” (4:3).   In the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Old Testament, it wasn’t just the temple that was ‘sanctified’ or ‘set apart’, and made ‘holy’; but it was the people themselves.  This was the original will, purpose, and dream of God. 

When you go back to Exodus 19, before we read about the ‘fire’ on the mountain, we hear God’s original dream, wish, or will being revealed to Moses.   We need to read this brief text in its entirety:  
“ Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called  to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:
 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.
 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine,
 6 but YOU SHALL BE FOR ME A PRIESTLY KINGDOM AND A HOLY NATION. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites."   (Exod. 19:3-6 NRS).

When I was a teenager, we had a tragic event in our community, when a neighbor’s child was killed by a driver who passed a stopped school bus and hit the child.  The father was a new deacon in our church, and I went with my Father to the home to be with the Family in their time of great shock and sadness.  It wasn’t long until our interim pastor came, and I was there when I heard him say something I never want to hear anyone say.  This is what a pastor says, when they have no theological education or understanding.  He looked at the distraught and broken couple straight in the eyes, and as if he stuck a knife in their hearts, he said:  “Now, I know this is hard, but you now, you must learn to accept the will of God.”   It would have been much better if that pastor would have stayed home.   That family left our church.  They went back home.  They never returned to our community.  And I don’t blame them.

That pastor should have read the Bible more closely, especially here, where we have one of the only times Paul tells us exactly, precisely what God’s will is, and what God’s will means.   God’s will is not about God controlling us, taking our freedom away from us, or taking things or life away from us, but God’s will is about becoming ‘free’ to be everything God has created us to be.  Jesus said that he came to give us ‘life’ and to give us life that is ‘full’ and ‘abundant’ (Jn. 10:10). 

If you go to Charlotte Memorial Hospital, you’ll see the symbol of a Tree.  It’s a Tree that is one of the oldest symbols of healing and life.   This symbol of healing life, not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually, lies at the heart of what Paul means by this big word ‘sanctification’.   To ‘sanctify’ something or someone, means to ‘set them’ or ‘it’ out for a special purpose—for God’s purpose, for God’s dream, and for God’s mission, which we should call the ‘fullest’ and most ‘abundant’ ‘life’. 

In the original plan for human life, spelled out for us in Scripture, God gave his creation ‘life’.  In Genesis, we are told that God breathed into humanity ‘life’ and that this is not only physical life, but God gave humans his own ‘image’, so humans could flourish with good and constructive life (Gen. 1:28, 2:15). 

But we also know, is one of the most important narratives in the world, what happened after that.   God’s dream and purposes were delayed and deferred because of human rebellion, sin, and disobedience, which resulted in violence, death, and human alienation from God and from other humans.  

As a result of this brokenness, humans were no longer freely accessible to the life-giving God, but had to come back to God’s original plan and dream through forgiveness and cleansing.  From Genesis 12 to the New Testament, we have a story of how God called his people Israel to be examples to the world of God’s forgiving, cleansing, and redeeming love.  It was out of Israel’s call to be God’s holy people, that God’s Son, who is also Israel’s Son, became the final and fullest expression of the way back to God’s original plan.   Jesus, came as God’s Messiah, to restore the image of God in us so we can life our lives to their fullest.   

Also, when you read what Paul has been talking about in this short letter to the Thessalonians, you’ll find Paul talking about how, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, God continues to call a people to live ‘in power and in the Holy Spirit’ (1:5).  Paul goes on to describe this ‘power’ as how he has been ‘pure, upright, and blameless in conduct’ (2:10) toward them, and he then urges them, to ‘live lives worthy of God who calls (us) into his own kingdom and glory’ (2:12)...For what is our hope or joy, or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus...?  Is it not you?  Yes, you are our glory and joy! (2:19-20).   And then, just before our own text, Paul returns his great hope for the Thessalonians, saying, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another, just as we abound in love for you... May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (3:12-14).”

The major concern of Paul’s letter is not ‘the coming of the Lord’, as some might think, but his major concern is that God’s people ‘increase and abound in love for one another’ and that their hearts be ‘strengthened’ in holiness’ when the Lord comes.   In Paul’s language, the word ‘holy’, the word ‘saints’, and the word ‘sanctification’ all comes from one single root idea --- found all the way back to the call of God’s people, to be made ‘holy’ as God is ‘holy’  (Lev. 11:45).   This is God’s will; ‘our’ sanctification.   To be ‘sanctified’ does not mean to be made some kind of ‘super’ ‘perfected’ saint, but it means to be restored, redeemed to live the kind of life humans are suppose to live.  And Christians are called to live this kind of ‘holy’ separated, different kind of life, not just for our own joy and fulfillment, but for the sake of the saving and full redemption of the world.  As Peter himself said,  Conduct yourself honorably,…so they may see your honorable deeds and also glorify God when he comes as judge (1 Pet. 2:12)

It’s a tall order, isn’t it?   God doesn’t live in ‘temples’ made with human hands, but God lives in us, who are living ‘temples’---temples of God’s Holy, indwelling, life-honoring, redeeming Spirit.   This is what this big word ‘sanctification’ means; that God lives God’s life and God’s saving redemption through a people---this is how God’s saving comes into the world.  God became ‘God with us in Jesus’ and now, through Jesus live as ‘living stones’ and examples of life as God intends.  

This is exactly what Peter means, when he adds to Paul’s understanding, going back to God’s original plan for Israel, saying that to be ‘sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ is to become obedient to Christ (1 Peter 1:2).  “You are a chosen race; a holy nation; God’s own people,” Peter writes to the church.  Then, in 2 Peter, we have some of the strongest words about sanctification, as God’s will to be a people who are growing in the grace.   Peter writes:  Like newborn infants, long for the spiritual milk, so that you may GROW INTO SALVATION (1 Pet. 2:2).  The newer translations translate the Greek correctly, that salvation is not complete in us, unless and until we ‘grow’ into God’s salvation.  Being Holy—as God is holy, and being ‘sanctified’ in the Holy Spirit, is something we are given to ‘become’ and ‘grow’ into.  This is God’s will; your sanctification..., which is our ‘growing up’ in the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ.

Where all this talk of ‘abstaining’ from misusing our bodies to being ‘sanctified’ and made whole and ‘holy’ in both ‘body’ and ‘soul’ is going is how Paul concludes, with a brief discussion of what it means to ‘love’.  What the person who is obsessed with the ‘flesh’ and possessed by their own ‘passions’ can’t do, is love.  Think of a Jeffery Epstein living on an island, abusing young girls, keeping them captive like animals.  Think of a Harvey Weinstein, abusing women like objects and trying to wiggle out of it, but never have true love in his own life.   We can think of so many ways, that our world is ‘obsessed’ with talking about ‘sexual freedom’, but has no clue how to talk about, understand or live in love.

In his closing comments, Paul speaks of ‘loving’ others, in the most unusual, unexpected way.  He doesn’t give us graphic, philosophical explanations of love, but he concludes very simply, to love each other ‘more and more’ (v.10) and then, he encourages them finally, ‘to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you,  12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess. 4:11-12 NRS).  

That’s certainly, not the normal way people describe love, is it?  But it does go right back to how Jesus described ‘love’; ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF.   What Paul is describing, is exactly that, what it means to be a person who truly begins by rightly loving their own life.  What every psychologist knows is that a predator, and any person who hurts and abuses others, is a person who, for some reason or other, can’t love themselves. 

Recently, on the news, as the Grammy Awards were approaching,  a fairly new pop-star was being interviewed on the morning news.   She was a very different looking star, with a very different kind of name, Billie Eilish.  She has greenish tints to her stringy hair, that she changes the color too often.    You can tell she’s has a different kind of approach to things.  I’ve never heard her sing, or what she sings, but I did like something she said.   In the interview, she revealed that she had suffered in her life.  She had been a ‘cutter’; in other words, she had been unhappy in life; unhappy to be herself and she would ‘hurt’ herself.  She ‘never thought that she’d ever be happy again.” 

I don’t know the details, but I do know she’s found a more positive direction and she’s found that to have a life, you must also learn about love, and love begins with learning how to love yourself.   Now, when she’s on stage, and Billie encounters others in the audience that may have been hurting themselves, she said, “I tell them, don’t do something to yourself you can’t take back.”  “Please be good and nice to yourself.  Take care of yourself. “ .

Interestingly, the Jewish faith grew up in a world filled with primitive people’s cutting and marking themselves.  It was something the ‘priestly’ and ‘sanctified’ people of God were called to remove themselves from doing (Ex. 21:6).  And nothing opens us up more to ‘self-love’ than living a ‘quiet life’, ‘minding your own affairs’ ‘working with your own hands’ and seeking to get along with and love others, even ‘outsiders’ (v.12).  In the psychological world they call this, developing self-love and a good sense of self-esteem.  It’s exactly this kind of thing that ‘abstaining’ from the wrong kind of passions will help you do; seeking to grow in godliness will help you develop, and what all kinds of ‘sanctification’ and ‘holiness’ is about.  It’s about becoming the kind of person who can love, because you know love, because his name in you is, Jesus.  Amen.