Sunday, March 29, 2009

From Sinners to Saints

This the fourth of four sermons from the Lenten Mission.  The text is Romans 8:28-39.

FROM SINNERS TO SAINTS: What God is (Ultimately) Doing

We live in a culture of instant gratification. We have “instant” foods and microwaves to heat things faster than could be imagined just a few decades ago. A sign at the counter in MacDonald’s tells us their goal is 90 seconds. Convenience has become a standard expectation. Having to park too far away from a store (or even our church) can stir feelings of indignation. We expect open lines at the grocery store and get irritated when they back up and no opens another register. We are accustomed to being comfortable. We have heating and air conditioning to keep our rooms within quite narrow tolerances, and we can get quite agitated if the temperature is not to our liking.

It’s amazing to me that there are so many Christians who do not perceive these are spiritual issues. They contribute to other practical expressions that we recognize as wrong — like young people not waiting to have sex until they are married — but somehow not much is said about the connection a culture of instant gratification that nurtures children (negatively) from an early age. We are seldom challenged that many of our expressions of indignation are rooted in the sin of selfishness. We are vulnerable to an attitude that thinks: if an all-powerful God loves us, then he should make our lives comfortable.

This chapter of Paul’s letter has one of the best-known verses in the Bible: all things work together for good.... (8:28). On the surface it appears that God is at work to make our lives comfortable and convenient.... but that is not consistent with the rest of the Bible, the life of Jesus, the teaching of the Church, or the example of the saints. What is God doing?

Last time we saw that right now God is working even (or especially) through suffering so we can both know him intimately and be transformed to be like Jesus. That is what Christian Faith is all about — taking people who are sinners (who are enemies of God apart from the death of Jesus for our sins) and turning those same people into saints. God calls every one of us to be a saint! He has provided everything we need to experience that transformation. He is at work right now in every person who owns the name of the Jesus Christ to make that a reality.

There is a very human “side” to faith. We are invited to have faith. We are encouraged to exercise faith. We are exhorted to remain faithful. Most of know we do a poor job of being faithful to anything that looks like sainthood. We know that we are quite insufficient to such a lofty goal, so we decide that the fullness of Christian Faith is for “special” people, not “regular” people. And when the conditioning of our culture hits us — that everything should be easy, convenient and comfortable — it seems that being a stellar Christian is just too much.

But think about what Saint Paul is saying here. We are all called to be like Jesus. That is why God created us. That is why Jesus died for us. That is why the Holy Spirit comes to live in Christians.

We are told that faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8). Christian Faith (and living like Christians, since what we do flows out of what we believe) is not all up to us. We need to understand that salvation is so unilaterally from God that if he has not chosen and acted to save us, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but the fact that God has chosen to do this is meant to give us great confidence and security. This is the major emphasis as Paul concludes this section of the letter.

I admit it is very difficult for us to understand the interface between God’s commitment to save and our own responsibility in salvation. We are told here, clearly, that God has purposed things from the beginning that affect even the details of salvation, all the way to who will be saved. At the very least we can know that those who God knows, from the beginning, as being the recipients of his salvation will be saved. We also need to know that the fullness of salvation means sainthood. God starts it and God finishes it:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (v29,30).

Glorification means “being like Jesus,” and being like Jesus is a great way to understand who a saint is — a saint is someone who has been so transformed by God’s saving work that a person who was once a sinner is now “like Jesus.” This is why, when the life of his Spirit works in us, we can have a confidence beyond ourselves. Salvation is God’s work,

The real emphasis in the New Testament is not on how “human” we are, but on how Christ-like we can be. C. S. Lewis said, “‘Putting on Christ’ ... is not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; and it is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity.” As I have said, a common theme among the early Church Fathers was that Christ became like us so we could become like him. Christ is the pattern of a whole new humanity for the promised age-to-come. St. Augustine tells us:

God became a man for this purpose: since you, a human being, could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, you might now reach God through a man. And so the man Christ Jesus became the mediator of God and human beings. God became a man so that following a man—something you are able to do—you might reach God, which was formerly impossible to you.

This is the context in which we are to understand the very popular verse of Romans 8:28 — And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. This is not an all-purpose promise for everyone that “things will work out for the best.”

First of all, the promise is for “those who love God” (as defined by Jesus, who said Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father... Jn 14:21). Paul’s language for this earlier in the chapter is the person who is controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit and if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (v9). Secondly, there is a specific goal toward which “things work for good.” It is not our temporal convenience and happiness. The goal is according to his [God’s] purpose, and that is explicitly defined: to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.

This is exactly why the purpose of the Church is to make saints — to reproduce the likeness of Jesus. From the first stage of repentance and faith to a mature Christian’s dying breath, our purpose is to be God’s purpose for us: to be like Jesus. Let’s hear again from C. S. Lewis:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of— throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building up a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

We so easily lose sight of this. Distractions pull us away. Sometimes we choose wrong things. Sometimes we just get suffocated with good things that choke the life of God’s Spirit. Sometimes there are assaults of various kinds we would never ourselves choose. Satan wants to convince us that God is not with us or that God does not care. There is no denial here of difficulties for the Christian. It is in just such things that God works for the good of those who love him. Someone has said, “God permits what he hates in order to accomplish what he loves.” Paul invites the question.... and answers it: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (v35).

These are some of the things that unsettle us and, when we focus too much on their immediacy instead of the big picture — the “seen” rather than the “unseen” — we find ourselves perplexed with questions we cannot answer. Go back to the humble confession in v26: we do not know what we ought to pray... When we focus too much on our circumstances, we find ourselves in situations where “we do not know” and then we get discouraged.

Do you know what to do when you “do not know?” We are supposed to go deeper. We are to dive into the sure things God has said and done. At first this takes us to more foundational questions, but then we get answers, and they are here in these verses:

— If God is for us, who can be against us? (v31)
— He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (v32)
— Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies (v33).
— Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (v34).

The answers are implied with a force that is apparent to anyone who believes that God has acted for our salvation. Jesus is praying for us right now. These are some things we can know....

God is going to accomplish his purpose! What is that purpose? It is to have a people, through his Son, who are like him because they are like his Son. No matter what happens in the meantime — trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword — we can believe that if God is working his Spirit into us in all these things, then we can know him even as we are foreknown. And one day we will be like him.... from sinners to saints.

How? Why? For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (v39).

Imagine a colony of grubs living on the bottom of a swamp. Every once in a while, one of these grubs is inclined to climb a leaf stem to the surface. Then he disappears above the surface and never returns. All the grubs wonder why this is so and what it must be like up there, so they counsel among themselves and agree that the next one who goes up will come back and tell the others. Not long after that, one of the grubs feels the urge and climbs that leaf stem and goes out above the surface onto a lily pad. And there in the warmth of the sun, he falls asleep. While he sleeps, the carapace of the tiny creature breaks open, and out of the inside of the grub comes a magnificent dragonfly with beautiful, wide, rainbow-hued, iridescent wings. And he spreads those wings and flies, soaring out over those waters. But then he remembers the commitment he has made to those behind, yet now he knows he cannot return. They would not recognize him in the first place, and beyond that, he could not live again in such a place. But one thought is his that takes away all the distress: they, too, shall climb the stem, and they, too, shall know the glory (Bruce Thielemann, Christus Imperator).

Hear it again: God has acted for our salvation. God is going to accomplish his purpose! For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Through his Holy Spirit, God is working the life of Jesus Christ into all of who embrace him as Savior and Lord. Even now we can be a tangible presence of Jesus to other people around us. It’s because God is at work.... accomplishing his purpose.... turning sinners into saints.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Salvation Now

The following is the third sermon, based on Romans 8:12-27, from last week's mission:

SALVATION NOW:  What in this world is God doing?

The pastor of the largest congregation in the U.S. extends his influence by television broadcast and writing best-selling books such as Your Best Life Now. Numerous megachurches across the country attract people through high-tech entertainment offered in a context called “worship” and sermons (if such a traditional word is used) that often focus on self-help and the pursuit of happiness. The insinuation is that being a Christian is “fun” — that Jesus adds sweet icing to the cake of life.

Paul’s letter to the Romans and the witness of the Church throughout history is that Christian Faith turns the values of the world up-side down. It takes faith to believe this (and again, true belief will always affect the way a person lives). The result is hardly ever something that can be called “fun.” The world-spirit hates the implications of Christian Faith (such things as God’s authority, things that are absolutely right and wrong, the reality of sin and the call to admit it and repent, the implications of death being necessary for spiritual life, and the difficulty of dying to self).

The gospel is the good news of salvation, something a world that has gone insane with evil (1:18–3:20) desperately needs. The good news is that God has given his Son, Jesus Christ, to do what we could never do for ourselves (3:21–31). So, if God has forgiven us — if the death of Christ makes things right with God (the emphasis of chapter 5) — then why do we need to worry about sin? Chapters 6 and 7 elaborate on that, but one way to summarize it is that there a corruption (sarx, “sinful nature”) in our human existence that fights the life of God that comes to us in Jesus through his Holy Spirit.

In chapter 8 Paul develops what we might call life in the Spirit. Early in the chapter Paul says: The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace... And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (8:9). How does a person experience the life of the Holy Spirit (or, in other words, live a Christian life)? Paul answers that question: You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (8:6).

The question is what controls you? A good word here is “mind-set.” Our mind-set affects our attitude and our value system. It is the orientation out of which we think and act. It is our world-view. A Christian mind-set understands that God is the center of everything. Truth is what God says; not what people popularly think. A desire to please God is inherent in a person who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean, in day to day life, for us to enter into God’s salvation? What does salvation in the “now” look like? Is it the happy face on the pastor of America’s largest congregation? Is it finding a church that makes us “feel good?” Or, to look at the issue I’m addressing from the opposite perspective, how does Christian Faith interface with the brokenness and evil and pain that is in our world? What does God’s salvation mean for those who would follow Jesus right now, in this world with all its threats and suffering? There is no realistic Christian Faith apart from this issue. So, what in this world is God doing? God is calling us to know him and to be like him. And those things are totally embodied in Jesus Christ.

Being a Christian is serious stuff. Being a Christian is based on the necessity of the Son of God dying for our salvation. Being a Christian is believing that trying to live according to our own desires is deadly. Being a Christian is embracing God’s desire for us to be like his Son.

This is not to say that Christians will be perfect — far from it. Sometimes Christian identity will be displayed in someone who, in a moment of weakness, gives in to sin, but then cries out to the Lord for forgiveness and prays yet again to be delivered from sin. And the more sensitive a person is to the Spirit, the greater the consciousness of sin — even to “little things” that many people would excuse as “normal.” Augustine made this observation: “It is human to err; it is devilish to remain willfully in error.” The bottom line here is a person who is honest about sin and desires to please God instead of living for one’s self. There is a sense of belonging to God like a child to his father — being welcome and yet being accountable. This is how we can know the life of the Holy Spirit at work in us.

Now it might seem that as long as we turn our hearts to the Lord then the power of the Holy Spirit would always enable us to rise above all the “stuff” that tries to pull us down. This is not the case, and this is why it is important for us to know what God is doing.

As we identify with Jesus (6:3,4).... as we consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11).... as we invite the Holy Spirit to control us (8:6,11).... we find the life of the Spirit of Jesus working in us just as the Spirit worked in him... if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (8:17b). To belong to Christ is to share not just his sonship — his blessings (8:15), but also his rejection and death.

What does it mean to “share in his sufferings”? One thing is to be realistic about suffering. Any given week is full of examples of ways people suffer.... Every day, all around us, there are people — and many of them are Christians — who face failures, disappointments and depression. All of this and more is suffering. If we are not grounded in a biblical view of evil and if we do not have a Christian understanding of suffering we will never be able to mature in our faith (and we will face the danger of spiritual shipwreck by a discouragement — and a resulting disobedience — that abandons faith).

There is a reason people suffer. There is a reason something is always going wrong somewhere in the world. Our world is “fallen” — it is not what God intended when he first created. Nature, for all its wonder and beauty, is not perfect (we should remember this when “nature” is used an excuse for sexual immorality). The “curse” that Adam and Eve were warned about if they disobeyed God has happened: the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it... (8:20).

Nature is broken beyond the ecological damage done by humanity. The psalms use anthropomorphic images for nature in response to God’s salvation: all the trees of the forest will sing for joy (96:12b); the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing together for joy (98:8). Paul says here that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (8:22). Perhaps it is not too farfetched to see earthquakes, volcanos, hurricanes and tornadoes as emotional eruptions by a universe that actually experiences the devastation of sin.

For those who can see it, the Bible truly gives us pictures of reality. We live in a world that threatens and hurts us; that is its nature because although it was created by God, it has also been affected by the curse of sin. At the same time we are invited to trust a God who has already acted to save us and who promises us a world where everything will be put right. We need to understand that, for now, these two things stay in constant tension. Jesus himself said, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33b). We want to ask why it’s this way. God reveals himself as One who has the power to create this universe and who has the kind of love to give his Son to die for us. So why does God allow suffering to continue?

Some things have to be experienced in order for us to understand and for them to become an actual part of us. This is a crude analogy, but the purpose of backpacking is not merely to reach the next campsite; the purpose of hiking is the trail itself. A backpacker would scorn a ski lift ride to the top of the mountain where the night’s lodging is planned. On a far grander scale, history is the stage for the unfolding of God’s purpose. Suffering is one way we learn the true value of God’s ways, and suffering along the way is the proving ground of arriving at God’s primary desire us.

There is a danger of trying to use a false “spirituality” to secure our temporal comfort and security apart from any real desire for God. This is the heresy of the (so-called) “health and wealth gospel” that is so prominent among television preachers. According to them, God supposedly becomes the magic genie who will make life pleasant. Yet God knows that when life is too pleasant we become self-satisfied and self-confident; we forget him. The “good life” seldom leads to godliness. God wants people to see that their desires for good are ultimately a hunger for him. C. S. Lewis called it “a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy” (“The Weight of Glory”). In his book, Mere Christianity, he says:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

Yet we so easily get distracted and sidetracked by whatever is close and immediately appealing. The enemy of our souls is so good at counterfeiting. The twistedness of our broken world puts things backwards, enticing us to believe lies that promise life but only deliver death. There are people who are persuaded that suffering is having to miss a favorite TV show!

One reason Jesus had to suffer was to show us the true nature of sin. Christ on the cross is what God thinks of sin. Christ on the cross is a picture of what sin is and does. God has designed salvation so that, not only does Jesus take upon himself the suffering of sin, people who follow Jesus experience some of the suffering so that we know the horror of sin. There is deep witness to this in the church. Let these testimonies sink into your mind and soul:

Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations (Augustine).

The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his (George MacDonald, 1824-1905).

It would be just another illusion to believe that reaching out to God will free us from pain and suffering. Often, indeed, it will take us where we rather would not go. But we know that without going there we will not find our life (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out).

Do you know what suffering does in a Christian? It drives a Christian to prayer. When we are pulled into the heart of the reality that something is wrong in this world — when the wrongs of this world touch us so that we hurt so deeply that it seems all we can do is groan — we find that God is there. The word “groan” appears three times here in short succession (and only six other times in the New Testament). We are told that sin is so bad and so pervasive that creation groans (8:22). On top of that, Christians groan (we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly (8:23). But we do not groan alone: the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (8:26).

It seems there is a popular stereotype that the ministry of the Holy Spirit always produces joy and victory in Christians. Or the Holy Spirit is the one who makes worship alive and thrilling. Both of those things are partly true, but that is not the whole story. The Holy Spirit also meets us in the depths of our despair. Here we find the Spirit active not so much in the heights of spiritual rapture as in the depths of our human inability.

If we are honest, we all have moments — maybe days, or longer — when we feel “I can’t do this.” Maybe it is the weight of our own burdens: physical, relational, emotional or a gigantic struggle with sin. Maybe it is the weight we carry for someone else that we love so deeply that their pain is our pain. All we know is that our groaning becomes one with the deep pain of the whole world and we are afraid there is nowhere to go, no way out.

In those times, Christians pray — pray as they maybe never have before, and pray as they never thought they could. It is in that kind of praying that we find a depth in God that can come no other way than by suffering. It is there that we taste a bit of what Jesus did for us. It is there that we know — we experience — how desperately we, and the whole world, need to be saved.

It is in those times that we understand something of what God is doing. We get drawn into what he has already done; that is why we have hope and that is why we pray. We also become aware of what God has yet promised to do — what he must do if salvation is real and is going to be complete.

Right now, we are only “half-saved.” We are “on the way.” Suffering is not yet over. The redemption of our bodies (the resurrection) is still something for which we wait eagerly (8:23). Full salvation is coming, and in the meantime God is working on us.

One day a man received a call at this rural office saying that Jessica, his 8-year-old daughter, had fallen and cut her lip and that his wife was driving her to the doctor's office. Jessica and a friend had been playing hide-and-seek in the dark; she tripped in the bathroom and cut her lip wide open on the side of the counter. He raced over to the doctor’s office to meet them and the doctor said he'd need to sew up the lip, that there would be some pain, but that some day she'd care about how her lip looked. For him to be able to do a decent job, she'd have to stay perfectly still. The father talked to his daughter and explained what would happen — that it would hurt until the shot numbed it and that she'd see a lot of activity going on around her, but that she had to stay still, so he was going to stand behind her head, put his hands on both of her shoulders to hold her steady, and that she was to look up at him while he talked to her the whole time. He told her to keep her eyes on him, that he wished he could take the pain away but that even more, he wanted her to be whole.

That is so much like what God does for us in remaking us to be like Jesus. We feel the hurt and pain and think God is pressing down on us when he's actually staying alongside us and holding us still. He doesn't enjoy seeing us in pain but knows that it's the only way for us to become whole, and that as long as we keep our eyes on him and listen to his words, we'll find healing and wholeness.

God has started something incredible and wonderful in the people who receive his salvation. He has promised its full conclusion, but it is not yet full reality: hope that is seen is no hope at all — who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (8:24b,25).

Waiting patiently is so hard. I am terrible at it. Do you know one reason we can be patient? God is working his Spirit into those who belong to him, and the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (8:27). What is God’s will? The last section of this chapter takes us there (and we’ll look at that tomorrow night).

But in the meantime.... And that is where we are right now, “in the meantime” — living in two worlds: this seen world that is passing away and yet also in a world that is unseen but promised (and here for those who have faith to see it). If we have this faith it is because the Father is working his Spirit into our life — the Spirit of Jesus, who lives in all who belong to him.

What is discouraging you? What suffering weighs on your soul? Can you see it in the context Paul gives us as he started this section? I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (8:18). What is God doing right now? He is not giving us our “best life now” — that is not what God has promised. He is working his Spirit into all who belong to him even in the midst of this world and all its suffering. And God’s Spirit is life.... a salvation that is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Peace With God

The following is the second of four Lenten sermons I preached last week. This one is based on Romans 5:1-11


Not too long ago when I was filling my Jeep’s gas tank, a man on the opposite side of the pump greeted me with some pleasantry and I replied in kind. He then asked me what I did. I’m never sure quite what to say, so I said I was self-employed. He wanted to know of what sort, so I said “Christian ministry.” He asked, “What specifically do you do?” I went through some of the list that is on my Heart for God brochure — Bible teaching, retreat speaking and spiritual direction, and he responded by asking of my church affiliation. I said, “I’m Catholic.” He wanted to know if I did this full-time, and I answered by saying I did this as an early step of semi-retirement. (Now down South this might not have been so unusual, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such a protracted conversation at the gas pump north of the Mason-Dixon!) So he asked, “What did you retire from?” and I told him that I had been an Evangelical pastor for thirty-three years.

His response was first of all a facial expression; he looked as if I’d slapped his face. Then his voice caught up with his face and he said, “No way! You were an Evangelical pastor and went into the Catholic Church? I bet there’s story there!” I assured him he had understood me correctly, and yes, there was a story (and I’d like to remind us that anyone who belongs to Jesus Christ has a story to tell; it will always be a story grace, and only each one of us can fully tell our own story). I am presenting this part of Paul’s letter to the Romans in the context of my story.

Romans 5–8 is often seen as the “heart” of the letter. Much in this section of Romans is familiar territory to many evangelical Christians. This is the essence of what I preached for my thirty-three years. It’s about the salvation God has provided through his Son, and when (if?) we stop to think that someday we all will die and face God, there is nothing more important.

To establish context, here is a basic recap of the emphases found in the first four chapters. In most of the first three chapters we find everyone is a sinner, and God’s wrath is directed at all sin. Because of our helplessness to be anything other than a sinner and our own hopelessness — the text says powerless — to be able to do anything about it, God has done something to put everything right. This is the gospel — the good news — that transforms lives, so much so that it was Paul’s passion (1:1–17).

What is the good news? God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The awful offense of sin that separated us from God and made us his enemies — objects of divine wrath — has been resolved. God gave his Son as a sacrifice for sin. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21). God is not our enemy.

How is a person to respond to this? What does God want? All of chapter four is an answer. God wants people to respond like Abraham — simply believe that what God has promised is true (understanding that what we believe will affect what we do). Those who believe enter into a right relationship with God because God has already done everything to make it possible.

Now this is where issues of interpretation in the broader Christian community begin to break down. Some people argue that God has let everyone off the hook regardless of whether they want it or not (unconditional, universal salvation). Some argue that God has not let everyone off the hook, but only the ones he chooses and then sovereignly manipulates to live with a recognition of his saving activity (conditional, limited election). Some see only an issue of forgiveness — that if a person will simply confess one time the right “formula” about Jesus’ death for sin, then that person receives blanket forgiveness and an irrevocable “pass” to get into heaven. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is more than God doing something for us; salvation is fully understood as what God, through Jesus Christ, does in us. This is where Romans 5 begins to take us.

It is imperative to understand that what is said starting in chapter 5 is based totally on what God has already done through the death and resurrection of Jesus. What we need to do is respond to God, believing that what he has done in Jesus is true. When we do respond to God with that kind of faith, other things begin to happen. This part of Romans 5draws us to those things that can happen in us because of what Jesus has already done.

Before looking at the “theology” that is here, think about this analogy. Sometimes I watch local news and weather on an area TV station. The station I watch has a drawing each day for a viewer to win a free lunch. Let’s say that my name is selected one day, along with the standard instruction that I am to call the station within a certain time to verify my win. Let’s also say that I do that — I “believe” that I have won, I trust that the station has paid the price for the meal, and all I have to do is go to the restaurant named, present my name and get a free meal. Now, if I stop at that point, do I get fed? No — upon believing I have been selected and believing the integrity of the TV station to have paid the bill, I still need to go to the restaurant, order and eat to receive the benefit of my free meal.

There is a sense in which salvation is like that free meal, only it is a series of meals in which, unless we eat what is provided, we will starve because there are no other nutritious meals available. Jesus has paid for the meals. God invites us to come eat. That is the only way to get the nourishment we must have to live. But whether we actually come to the table — and keep coming to the table to maintain life — is our choice. Those who keep going to the table get the food necessary to live, and thus they are “saved.”

Some Protestants say this emphasis leads to “salvation by works” because it stresses something we need to do. This misses the foundational point: If God does not provide the meals, there are none. Because God does it, it is all the graciousness of his provision; our part is merely to respond — and yet our response is crucial. This is because of what God himself desires in our salvation, and that is where our attention is directed as chapter five begins.

Again, notice that the basis is what God has done: having been justified by faith. God is the one who saves. It was his decision and his provision. We are the ones who “activate” that salvation as we respond. The worst expression of Evangelicalism, although it is quite popular, teaches that a person only needs to respond once to have assurance of eternal salvation. The New Testament is clear that saving faith is an ongoing response, and that is what the Catholic Church provides with the Sacraments, particularly Reconciliation and the Eucharist. A good thing about the Evangelical emphasis is the focus on the foundation of what God has done through Jesus. I find it quite helpful when the two are juxtaposed.

There is a crucial balance about salvation in these verses (and throughout the New Testament, but the targeted focus is so clear here). What we find is:

1) past action — what God has done
(having been justified, v1a — our sins forgiven through Jesus’ death);
2) present action — what God is doing
(we have peace with God, v1b — God is now our friend);
3) future action — what God will do
(we shall be saved, v9 — the whole drama is not yet complete).

When the emphasis of these verses (both this section of Romans and the essence of salvation) is taken to be justification alone — the forgiveness of our sins — a great rupture occurs in the biblical teaching of salvation so that our legal standing with God gets removed from what God is doing in his whole act of saving us.

Let me attempt another illustration. Let’s say you are in a city that is soon about to be fire-bombed — it is infected with some horrible plague. You have been warned by the authorities to get out, but you yourself have been weakened by illness. The purging is now imminent. The only way out that is fast enough is a car, but yours has major engine trouble, won’t run and can’t be fixed. Not only that, only a few routes to safety are passable and you are not sure which ones they are. Now let’s say that a government agent — someone who has been telling you to get out (to the point that he has angered you because you didn’t think it was that bad) pulls into your drive in a nice new car, tells you that it’s yours — he is giving it to you — and you can drive to safety. Not only that, he offers to ride with you to show a safe route, having just driven in himself. Now, you “believe” the car can get you to safety. You even “believe” this person is genuinely offering you the car. Having that at your disposal, are you now saved? Not unless you get in the car and drive out of town according to his directions. You have to receive the gift that was offered (your salvation has begun); you have to drive out of town in communication with this person who has offered to be your guide (your salvation is then in process); you do that and finally get to a safe place (your salvation is complete). At what point did your salvation become “real?”

What I am saying — more importantly, what Paul has written under the inspiration of God’s Spirit — is that assenting to the availability of real forgiveness is, by itself, no salvation (yet this is so much the emphasis in the Evangelical teaching of salvation). God intends a life for his people, and getting rid of the guilt of sin is merely the first step. Forgiveness frees God to be our friend instead of our enemy, and once God is our friend there are good consequences.

The emphasis in these verses is the blissful consequences that fall to Christians because of what God has done. Three key words are peace, hope and joy. All of these things are ours because God is now our friend — instead of being our enemy because of our sins (which have been “paid for” by Jesus’ death on the cross).

I will say it yet again. The forgiveness of sins alone is not the main point of Christian faith. It is a foundational point. It is an inceptive point. It is a motivating point. It is a real and important point, but it is, in a sense, a sub-point. The big point is our relationship with the God who is Life — a relationship that God desires and is bought with the blood of his Son.

This is implicit in the phrase we have peace with God. To be crass — yet I think the point needs to be made: God did not forgive our sins in Jesus so we could merely ignore him, continue to live our own ways, and yet not have to worry about his coming wrath on sin. Peace with God means the old barrier is down. Peace with God means there is nothing to restrict God from being our loving Father and us being his delightful children.

This emphasis further comes into view as we are told that entry into God’s salvation — having our sins forgiven and being at peace with God — is our access into this grace in which we stand. In other words, a beginning or the start of the journey. Paul is just getting started in his presentation of what God is doing in those who choose to journey with him.

It is a journey with God — a God with whom we are at peace — because the destination is clearly expressed: in hope of the glory of God. Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s glory. The purpose of God’s salvation is to make us like Jesus — God’s design when he first created humanity in his image. Charles Wesley writes in one of his hymns, changed from glory into glory ‘till in heaven we take our place. The early Church Fathers said that Jesus became like us so we could become like him.

Peace with God gives us confidence that God is with us all the time, whether we “sense” it or not, working to accomplish this larger purpose of us being like Jesus. This “peace with God” is not the same thing as “the peace of God,” which Paul offers as part of the Christian life when he writes to the Philippians (4:4–6). The “peace of God” is a felt gift that can be ours because of the more basic relationship through Christ that establishes our “peace with God.”

This is something that finds expression in our daily lives in the here-and-now. One of the most amazing evidences of real faith is the phrase that’s here: we rejoice in our sufferings. This is Christian salvation at work, showing itself to be true, showing itself to be powerful in transforming our lives. The point is this: if being forgiven is not changing you, you have not yet entered into the effectual reality of God’s forgiveness and life.

There is a progression here, but I should make the stages more explicit — starting with the first one which is justification (our forgiveness through Christ’s substitution). So here are some facets of salvation starting with the foundation:

1) we are justified (forgiven) by Christ’s death for our sin;
2) we have peace with God — the enmity of guilt is gone;
3) we are introduced to a grace that begins to change us;
4) we have hope — a goal of becoming like Jesus;
5) hope enables us to have joy in the midst of suffering;
6) Christian suffering is a reminder that this world is not all there is, and so there is reason to persevere;
7) Perseverance produces character—strength to be different;
8) Character produces hope because we can see that God is changing us — salvation has real expression in this life.
And it all starts with the reality of forgiveness giving us peace with God so that we are free to receive the life of our heavenly Father through the Spirit he gives us (v5 is the first mention of the Holy Spirit in Romans).

There is more than one way to understand what is so popularly called “saved” in Evangelical circles. It is common to be asked, “Are you saved?” Evangelicals love to ask Catholics this question, and because the way Catholics talk about faith is so different, a common assumption among many Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Protestants is that Catholics are not true Christians. This was likely the reason for such shock from the guy at the gas pump. There are three biblically correct ways for a Christian to answer this question about being “saved.”

The first is, “yes, I have been saved.” This answer looks to the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross when everything that needed to be done for salvation was done, once for all.

The second is, “I am being saved.” This recognizes our individual need to enter into what Jesus has done for us in an ongoing way so salvation is being worked into us, so that we are being changed.

The third is, “I shall be saved.” This recognizes that God’s work of salvation is not complete in us until we are like Jesus, even to the point of having a resurrection body like his. This is where the Catholic doctrine of purgation comes in — all that is unlike Jesus in us needs to be cleansed so we are suitable for the full presence of God in heaven.

Now regarding being “saved,” all three of these facets are true, and we cannot have one without the others. Here is the great thing the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul:
— if you believe that Jesus died for sin,
— if you are responding to God’s work in your life,
— if you can stay with it when life gets hard, then...
— you are giving evidence to being at peace with God.

Does the average Christian do this perfectly? No! Does the enemy of our souls whisper (or shout!) accusations and point to our imperfections and failures? Yes! So what is the answer to this?

One of the most incredible promises from God is in Romans 5:10 — For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

You see, Jesus died so we could be forgiven. Please do not think I have intended to short-change forgiveness in this sermon. God’s forgiveness secures a complete salvation. Because Jesus has died for us, we follow him into his resurrection life in us. We have peace with God. Neither our stumblings nor our sufferings can stop the work of God when we respond to him. In fact, those things only work to drive us closer to him. We keep going back to his forgiveness because we have been given peace with God, and peace with God frees him to pull us into his highest purposes for us. That is why he made our forgiveness possible.

Helen Roseveare was a British medical doctor who worked for many years as a missionary in Zaire. During the revolution of the 1960s, she often faced brutal beatings and other forms of physical torture. On one occasion, when she was about to be executed, she feared God had forsaken her. In that moment, she sensed the Holy Spirit saying to her: “Twenty years ago you asked me for the privilege of being identified with me. This is it. Don’t you want it? This is what it means. These are not your sufferings; they are my sufferings. All I ask of you is the loan of your body.” The privilege of serving Christ through her sufferings overwhelmed Dr. Roseveare. After she was delivered, she wrote about her experience with God: “He didn’t stop the sufferings. He didn’t stop the wickedness, the cruelties, the humiliation or anything. It was all there. The pain was just as bad. The fear was just as bad. But it was altogether different. It was in Jesus, for him, with him.” (Philip Ryken, The Message of Salvation, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001). So many martyrs and saints have testified to this through the years of the Church.

I found other several quotes in this context. I am stringing them together so the force of what is here in Romans can break into our consciousness. God wants to come to us and for us to come to him, and he gives us forgiveness in order to make peace for an intimate relationship with him.

"Too often we try to use God to change our circumstances, while he is using our circumstances to change us." (Dr. David Osborn, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary, quoted in Compass, a periodical of Quiet Waters Ministry, April 2003).

“Our trouble is we want the peace without the Prince” (Addison Leitch).

"Peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of God” (J. Oswald Sanders).

"The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his” (George MacDonald ).

Eugene H. Peterson writes: “Suffering is not evidence of God's absence, but of God's presence, and it is in our experience of being broken that God does his surest and most characteristic salvation work. There is a way to accept, embrace, and deal with suffering that results in a better life, not a worse one, and more of the experience of God, not less. God is working out his salvation in our lives the way he has always worked it out — at the place of brokenness, at the cross of Jesus, and at the very place where we take up our cross” (adapted from the Foreword of Alan E. Nelson, Embracing Brokenness: How God Refines Us Through Life's Disappointments (NavPress, 2002).

When we believe this, we have entered into God’s salvation. As we “see” this at work in our lives, we have incredible hope and joy. It is because, through Jesus, we have peace with God. That is our hope of full salvation. That is Christian Faith.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lenten Sermons

Last week I was preaching a series of Lenten Mission services (what Evangelicals often call "renewal services"). I used four texts in Paul's letter to the Romans as a base for the overall theme: From Sinner to Saint. Over the next few days I'll post each of the four sermons. The first is below:


Everyone knows something is wrong with our world. Some people focus on war or other political actions that contribute to suffering and death. Some people focus on nature — pollution and animal rights. Some people focus on social values, and there is a big division here: there are those who think even more personal freedom is best, while others believe personal freedoms need to be curbed and controlled. The issues here range from entertainment to foundations of society like marriage and family.

Everyone knows something is wrong in our own social communities when local papers can have four articles about adults sexually abusing children in a single daily edition. We have grown accustomed to hearing about drive-by shootings and teen-aged killers. A common response is relief when those things mostly happen even in Harrisburg or Lancaster and not in our own little—and we think “safe”— little boroughs and hamlets.

We know that the media has “gone downhill,” but it’s happened so progressively that we just accept it as part of the way things are. Yesterday’s immorality has become today’s morality. For 35 years, the Motion Picture Production Code served as a moral guideline for American film-makers. The code, to which film-makers were required to adhere, included this paragraph: "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin."

Movies today seem to stir lust intentionally. Many viewers skim over a description of “brief nudity, sexual situations and profanity.” It is almost uncommon for a television series not to have a homosexual character. Casual sexual encounters and unmarried couples cohabitating are standard fare. The amazing thing is that, with so many professing Christians in this country, there is no public outcry that such a thing is wrong and will not be tolerated. In fact, it is just the opposite. Popular opinion offers a view that to condemn these “freedoms” as wrong is intolerant, and intolerance is the ultimate “wrong.”

We live in a time and place in world history where popular human opinion is considered as close to Truth as it’s possible to get. This has been slowly growing in Western culture for two centuries. Since the Enlightenment there has been a steady erosion at the foundations of how humans perceive one another and how we perceive ourselves. There is an assumption that, before anything else, human beings are individuals. Gone is the idea of humans as the glory of God’s creation. Individualism has diminished each of us, but Enlightenment thinking is only one tangible expression of a far deeper problem — sin.

Sin is bad word in our society, not because it points to evil, but because people think the concept of sin is itself evil. The word “sin” implies right and wrong, accountability, authority — in other words, a sovereign and personal God. Popular thinking today has been warped by the one thing that twisted human beings and their cultures for thousands of years: personal autonomy — doing what I want to do. We have seen a gradual change over the past several decades in our society from emphasizing individual responsibility to emphasizing, almost glorifying, individual rights.

This is where Paul starts the substance of his letter to the Romans. In his opening he has shared his enthusiasm for the gospel of Jesus Christ, but Paul knows that good news can be nothing special apart from a thorough understanding of the bad news. Beginning at 1:18 and going through 3:20 Paul elaborates on the nature and extent of sin. His point is that sin is awful and sin totally infects humanity, but it is not enough merely to generalize. Paul gives context to these basic concepts.

That is what we need. If there is no problem, then there is no need for help. If we can admit our problems (and this is true across the board, from AA philosophy to daily interpersonal relationships), then we can be open to solutions. Before we can feel the need for God’s salvation, we need to feel the grasp of sin in our lives. And I say this intentionally — God’s salvation, because our sin will twist even “salvation” among people in the faith community. Faith has become self-improvement instead of responding in repentance to a holy God who is calling a people transformed by his righteousness out of this world.

Even in the Church today there is a tone, an attitude, that says, “What about me?” This is sin, and Paul knows we need to understand something about it — God hates it. Yet not only that. Because the very nature of sin is opposition to God, there are horrible repercussions on people who persist in sin.

Let’s face it: there is language here that people just do not want to hear, and few people in our culture today are willing to accept it. Paul does not mince words, and he goes straight to his foundational point: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (v18). Everything that follows in this section simply unpacks the implications and nuances of this verse that explodes like a bomb in the climate of today’s world.

A thorough exposition of these verses could give considerable attention to each phrase in these verses. I am choosing to let most of the verses speak for themselves for two key reasons. First, the essence of what the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul is quite clear. We do not need to go into contortions about what this means. It means what it says. The second thing I want to do is give exhortation about how we are to understand what we find here and what to do about it.

How are we to understand these words that so graphically express the nature and extent of sin? The first thing is to understand them in the context of the Church. There is a clear message from the Church that is both clear and continuous. Christian Faith that is historical and orthodox has always called sin for what it is.

People tend to get disoriented as they assess the hot issues of their own time. History gives perspective. That is one reason God has given us revelation in a historical context. Someone has said: There is only wisdom for Christians: to look with a cool and very skeptical eye at all the things their own age is, precisely, most certain of. Even a secular journalist like Ted Koppel recognized this:

What is largely missing in American life today is a sense of context, of saying or doing anything that is intended or even expected to live beyond the moment. There is no culture in the world that is so obsessed as ours with immediacy... We have become so obsessed with facts that we have lost all touch with truth (Ted Koppel in a speech to the International Radio and Television Society, quoted in Harper's, Jan. 1986).

God is calling us to the one truth that is based in his very character. God himself is the standard, and anything that is outside of God’s Truth is godlessness, it is sin, and it is the object of his wrath.

Humanity’s problem, though, is that life outside of God’s Truth is exactly what characterizes life in this world. Starting with one disastrous decision by the first man and woman, mankind neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (v21). And this is the recipe for disaster. G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, “When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” This is exactly what Paul says here: Though they claimed to be wise, they became fools and God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity... (v22,24). Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not be done (v28).

There is a progressive regression here. The root problem starts out with idolatry — not bowing to God and giving him his rightful place (which is modeled by embracing what is right according to God’s character). When people choose a god other than the God, they are cut off from the only way to live according to truth. It is much worse to have a false idea of God than no idea at all.

The “other god” that people choose is self. “When men stop worshiping God, they promptly start worshiping man, with disastrous results.” People want to do what they want to do. The old slogan, if it feels good, do it, is a great description of sinful self. One of the most pervasive expressions of sinful self is sexual immorality. The gift of sex that God gave in his good creation, because it is so powerful and was meant to be so wonderful, has become a means to itself. People discover that sex has the ability to make one feel good, and it becomes an obsession.

There has been a gradual slide in our society for decades in the area of sexual ethics. First it was divorce. There was only one state that offered a no-fault divorce in 1957; now it is assumed to be the law of the land. The thinking of the culture affects the Church; divorce is hardly an issue in most Christian communities today. After divorce was normalized, cohabitation apart from marriage and out-of-wedlock births were the next target of normalization (with the “convenience of abortion” thrown in to avoid the intrusion of children into the pursuit of happiness). When I was pastoring I had a few couples come to me who were raised in a church yet “shacking up” (as it was once called), and wanting to have a big wedding celebration blessed by the church — and they were oblivious to the problem! The Church is not teaching its people the basics of a holy God and sinful behaviors.

The current agenda is the normalization of homosexual behavior. It does not take a college degree to understand what God’s Word says here:

Because [they exchanged the truth of God for a lie], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (v26–27).

I want to be clear where I stand on this. I stand with the clear sense of the biblical text. I stand with the witness of the historic, orthodox Church. I stand with what cannot be understood in any other way than God’s revealed truth. All of us who claim the Name of Jesus should understand this. We all need to know our commitment to Jesus Christ is at stake here. Years ago, in another battle for biblical truth, a popular Evangelical writer gave this quote:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. When the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

Dostoyevsky reminded us in The Brothers Karamazov that "if God does not exist, everything is permissible." We are now seeing "everything." And much of it is not good to get used to. Many Christians in the workplace are having homosex crammed down their throats, but they are forbidden to be overt with any witness to Jesus Christ.

It should be apparent to anyone looking on, but sin blinds us to the truth that going against God’s laws results in horrible repercussions. In another letter Paul warns that A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature [the flesh] will from that nature [the flesh] reap destruction (Gal 6:7b,8). This is exactly what Paul is saying to the Romans over and over.

At the end of v27 we read: receiv[ing] in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Some people have asked, “Is AIDS a punishment from God on homosexuals?” The answer usually given even by the Christian community is no, and that is right if the image is of God sitting in heaven zapping particular people because they committed certain sins. Yet we need to remember that, in principle, sin brings death — any sin. That was the warning from the beginning. Disobeying and dishonoring God brings repercussion. That is built into the fabric of creation. There is a reason AIDS and herpes and syphilis and gonorrhea are threats to people who ignore God’s ways (and I mention the sexual context because Paul is explicit about it in the text). It is precisely because people ignore God’s way that one repercussion is pain and death.

There are signs of what is coming apart from a broad-based seeking of God. A few years ago a Dutch group launched a new political party, proclaiming: “We are going to shake The Hague awake!” The Charity, Freedom and Diversity (NVD) Party says it wants to lower the legal age for sexual relations from 16 to 12 years old and eventually scrap the limit altogether. “A ban just makes children curious,” Ad van den Berg, one of the Party’s founders, told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper (Reuters, May 30). The NVD will also lobby for mandatory sex education for toddlers and sex with animals. The Party also believes broadcasting pornography should be allowed on day-time television, with “violent pornography” limited to late evening hours (The New Oxford Review, September, 2006).

As our culture goes from bad to worse from one decade to another right before our eyes, it is a testimony to the blinding nature of sin that so few people see it — or at least see it in a way that raises major alarm. Oswald Chambers, a popular Christian writer from a previous generation, gave a great formula for discerning wrong in his writings: “Beware of any belief that makes you self-indulgent; it comes from the pit, no matter how beautiful it sounds.”

Please remember why a passage like this is in Holy Scripture. Even though we have turned away from God, our Creator loves us too much to abandon us to the destruction of sin. God has acted to be our Savior. Jesus Christ, God the Son, died to make things right. His death shows us God’s response to sin. The cross of Jesus Christ not only shows us the love of God, it reveals the wrath of God against sin.

While the cross is prominent in many Protestant churches, the crucifix is not common at all. When I began attending Mass in 2003 my attention was often drawn to the large crucifix above the altar. So often I would find myself thinking, as I looked at the imposing form of Jesus on the cross, “that should have been me.... it was my sin that put him there — my sin and yours.

Sin, of course, is not limited to sexual immorality. The issue of homosexuality is important right now because that is a key arena where the battle is being raged. I will repeat something I said earlier — There is only wisdom for Christians: to look with a cool and very skeptical eye at all the things their own age is, precisely, most certain of. Yet we need to have a sensitivity to all sin, and that means hearing what God’s Word says in an encompassing way. There is one attitude to sin expressed in a two-fold prayer: Lord, have mercy on me; purify my heart. It’s like breathing in and out: Lord, have mercy on me; purify my heart.

The scope of this comes into view as Paul concludes this section:

[God] gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless (v28b–31).

There are “little sins” we excuse every day. God hates them, and there are repercussions.

There are people who think they believe in the love of God through Jesus, but they pay no attention to the things that sent the Son of God to his death. Some think that Jesus died to give us all a free ride. God’s salvation is meant to transform our lives. The early Fathers of the Church were clear: He became like us so we could become like him. We cannot embrace the love of God apart from accepting the truth of the wrath of God.

C. S. Lewis observed: "There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'All right, then, have it your way.'" The message from God through Paul is clear — God abandons stubborn sinners to their willful self-centeredness.

The Church has set Lent apart as an intentional time to hear God’s Truth and be honest about our sins. It is when we are honest about sin that we begin to discover just how amazing and relevant both the Church and salvation in Jesus Christ really are.

Listen to what God is saying! (You may be surprised by how much better you understand the mess our world is in....)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Incarnational Preaching

This past weekend I was invited to speak at a workshop for our diocesan deacons on "the passion of preaching." The following is one of my presentations:

When we speak of the Incarnation it is understood that the reference is to the divine Son of God taking on human nature — fully God and fully Man, the divine and the human.

Incarnation is the very fabric of Christian identity. The Church is incarnate, both divine and human. Scripture is incarnate; as Peter says, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pet 1:21).

This theme is stated and modeled throughout the Bible, from Moses taking down what God says to the prophets claiming that their message is the word of God to Paul saying all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2Tim 316).

It seems to me that preaching is also incarnational. It has both a divine and human expression. The divine gives preaching its calling, its gifting and a life-force that goes beyond human explanation. It is because preaching is infused with the divine that Saint Paul can say, Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (1Thess 1:5). The divine — the Spirit-infused — part of preaching is what can give the preacher confidence. Speaking through Isaiah God said,

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa 55:10–11).

Surely this is why Paul can also tell the Thessalonians: when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe (1Thess 2:13).

The confidence, then, we have in preaching is that preaching is declaring and applying the written Word of God. The writer to the Hebrews says,
The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).
When done in the power of the Holy Spirit it is rightly explaining the word of truth (1Tim 2:15, NRSV). It is the infallible record of the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).

This means that the Bible is trustworthy. It is authoritative. It is without error in all that it teaches. [There is also the issue of interpretation, and one of the things that compelled my turn to the Catholic Church was recognizing that the Church in which and to which the New Testament was written, and the Church that had the authority to finalize the canon, was the Church that housed the Great Tradition of interpretation. The Bible alone — sola scriptura — breeds division over interpretation. Everything I am saying today about Scripture and preaching assumes the integral symbiosis — the inherent mutuality — of Scripture and Church.]

The Bible is true. The existence of truth has fallen on hard times in our post-modern world. Many are unsure that any final truth exists, and if it does, many more question our ability to know it. We are witnessing the unraveling of a society that despairs of, or rejects the authority of, truth. This only raises the importance of the Church proclaiming the truth that is rooted in Scripture. One way we do this is by preaching.

[I should say here that, especially because of the skepticism about truth, we in the Church should all the more be concerned to live the truth as well as proclaim the truth. While God can surely use preaching that tells the truth without practicing it (God spoke once even through a jack ass), the Lord of the Church intends for us both to live and proclaim the truth. It is when the Church fulfills the witness exhorted by Jesus — all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another (Jn 13:35) — that we can expect the question Peter’s letter prepares us for: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have (1Pet 3:15). Preaching is meant to nurture a distinctive people of God, people who let [their] light shine before men, that they may see [the] good deeds and praise the Father in heaven (Mtt 5:16).]

Declaring truth creates a divide. It divides those who believe it and those who do not. True belief also creates a divide for the way people live. This is not just an intellectual issue. Preaching is not merely the proclamation of concepts. Faith does not stop with the confession of the Creed. Preaching is at the crux of life.

Preaching helps identify and establish conviction. Jesus said this about John the Baptizer: What did you go into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? ... No (Mtt 11:7,8). Preaching needs to be done by people who will not be swayed so that the preaching can cultivate people who will not be swayed by the winds of popular opinion.

The biggest obstacle to preaching is nonchalance about truth. For some that is simply a skepticism that truth is real or knowable. But underneath everything is the opposition of The Lie. It is the lie that was told in the Garden of Eden. It is the lie that the Psalmist recognized, people who have the attitude that God either does not see or does not care (e.g., Psa 10:2–11). The lie is told by people described in Peter’s letter, scoffers who follow their own evil desires and make fun of any promised coming of our Lord (2Pet 3:3f).

Of course we recognize open scorn and defiant rebellion against God, but the Lie is more insidious than that. People come under the influence of the lie through advertising — all kinds of “stuff” promising to make life good. “Stuff” cannot make life good. “Stuff” can make life materially pleasant, but “stuff” cannot give meaning and purpose and, most of all, love. Bigger, better, and more — whether it’s money, sex or power — is part of the lie, and it surrounds us and competes with our preaching.

Part of preaching is telling the truth about the lies (and again, we have to be living it — modeling it — if the truth is to have full effect). But we do that, in spite of the fact that truth divides (and creates enemies — just think of the prophets and Jesus and the Church’s martyrs) because we also know that the truth heals. We preach in hope. We preach a new heaven and a new earth where all that is broken will be healed. We preach Jesus, who suffered the worst this world and its lies can do, and who still came back from the dead never to die again. We preach his promise that if we follow him to the cross he will lead us from the grave. This is what it means to preach the Truth.

And yet we preach while still broken ourselves. This is the other side of incarnational preaching — the human side. Having already achieved eschatological sainthood is not a prerequisite for preaching. All it takes is a person with faith, commitment and, ideally, the approval of the Church (of course, there are many “Christian preachers” running around, but Paul did tell the Philippians, But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice — Phlp 1:18). [I don’t care to go further down that bunny trail, but it’s good to keep a larger perspective in mind.]

The incredibly positive thing about the human side of preaching is the way it can add credence to the message. The message and the method are one. The message is Christ crucified for sin and risen from the dead to new life. The reason this is our message is because it is what Jesus did — the message and the method are one. This means that Christians are called to model the message, and if Christians in general are to follow their Lord in death and resurrection, all the more are those who proclaim through preaching to show in their own lives the death and resurrection of Jesus. The message and the method are one.

The Bible is full of people who proclaimed the Word of God and did so by modeling a weak, broken or even persecuted life. Noah was ridiculed. Moses suffered the rebellion of those he led to freedom. Elijah had to hide from Ahab and Jezebel. Jeremiah was despised for his message and finally lowered into a well and left to die (until delivered at the last moment). Jesus is the ultimate example of rejection. Paul refers extensively in his letters to all he suffered for the gospel. Perhaps one way to summarize the importance of this weakness is to hear the implications of Paul’s word to the Corinthians: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels , that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us (1Cor 4:7).

And yet it is that very expression of weakness that testifies to the truth and power of the gospel. How can we dare believe the apostolic record? It is because those men claim:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard (1Jn 1:1-3a, NRSV).

Acts tells us that the very people who put Jesus to death saw the courage of Peter and John and realized they were ordinary, unschooled men... and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (4:13).

The apostles did not turn the world up-side down by proclaiming Jesus risen from the dead — and pay for it with their lives — by spreading a carefully protracted lie. They were agents of Truth going against the “father of lies,” and they modeled the message they were proclaiming. The message and the method are one.

Preaching today is an extension of what the apostles started from the very beginning. Preachers today follow in their train. Apostolic preaching is incarnational because the Spirit of the risen Son of God indwells the human vessel who confesses Jesus with his mouth. God breathes his life into the human preacher so that Jesus is proclaimed. It’s the glory of preaching.

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