From a Series on Galatians: Standing Strong

Delivered at New Hope Baptist Church, 10 July 2016.

Note: The nation mourned the 5 Dallas officers killed at a Black Lives Matter rally on Thursday night, 7 July 2016. A sniper killed the officers as they protected the protestors. The protestors ran from the gunfire while the Dallas police and Brent Thompson, a Dallas DART officer, ran into danger.

Scripture reading: Galatians 2:1-10.
Sermon text: Galatians 2:11-21.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

Brent Thompson.

Lorne Ahrens.

Michael Krol.

Michael J. Smith.

Patrick Zamarripa.

Seven names, representing seven lives lost this past week.

One lived as a convicted felon with a rap sheet that extended back over a decade.

One served a cafeteria in a school; he had memorized the names and food allergies of over 500 children.

Five served Dallas as law officers, killed as the nation tried to process the killing of a man pulled over for a broken tail light.

On Friday, as I attempted to work on this sermon, I posted a Tweet: “As a bi-vocational pastor, Friday and Saturday serve as sermon prep. Right now, my heart’s too heavy to write; I can only pray.” Then, I revisited the sermon I preached on 1 May 2011, the Sunday after the April 27 tornado that devastated our city. On that Sunday, in that sermon, I said something that applies to our situation today:

“Proclaim the gospel.”

You can learn elsewhere all you want about the situations we mourn today. You can watch videos, read biographies, and pore over detailed accounts. If you’re so inclined, you can turn on your television and listen as foolhardy, paid, partisan pundits bloviate and pander to their fans.

Here, in this service, in this sermon, you’ll hear the gospel that will change lives, that can heal societies, and will comfort us with the promise of an eternity marked by peace and immortality.

Today, St. Paul’s message to the Galatians holds special poignancy. I promise you the Apostle didn’t have situations like this week in mind. Instead, he wrote to fractured congregations thrown into turmoil by people so focused on their own issues that they missed the larger picture.

Today’s sermon will focus primarily on one verse from the sermon text. I’ll reference the other verses as I focus on this verse: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

St. Paul faced the problem of Christians who arrogantly taught that grace alone could not save a person’s soul. These people taught that the path to salvation ran through Judaism. They taught that only Jewish converts could receive the grace of God. Therefore, grace relied first on a person’s conversion to Judaism, not on a confession of allegiance to Jesus and belief in His resurrection.

St. Paul steadfastly insisted that God’s grace came through Jesus alone, through faith in Christ’s atoning work and resurrection alone. The Holy Spirit indwells everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection (Romans 10:9-10). Every person who makes that confession becomes a part of the Bride of Christ through Baptism and participates in the life of the Bride: Worship, study, fellowship, and encouragement.

I suppose you agree with me so far. I suppose you think that the confession of Jesus ensures your eternal life, so you have no reason to worry about anything else.

If you think so, you’ve missed an incredibly important part of the Christian life. In fact, I’ve come to believe you’ve completely missed the point of salvation.

Jesus talked about the “Kingdom of God” and commanded His disciples to carry the news of the Kingdom of God everywhere they went. For most of Church history, Christians also believed it their duty, their privilege, to bring people to salvation and thereby change their families and communities into examples of godly living that would exalt Jesus and, in the process, lift others from sin.

That hasn’t happened in the America of today.

We’ve allowed racism to divide Christians along racial lines and prevent Christians from ministering to others because of their skin color. We’ve considered ourselves too good to go to certain communities, and we’ve allowed fear to prevent us from ministering to other areas of our communities. We’ve discriminated and mistreated others and ignored Jesus’ clear command to love our brothers and sisters. In this decade, we’ve reaped the results of our mistreatment of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

Now, we sit on the precipice of social collapse. If you’re here today, your response to this sermon will determine the world your children and grandchildren will inherit.

I want us, for a moment, to ignore the pundits. I wish to heaven that everyone in our nation, especially Christians, would turn off the talk radio and TV for a week and devote ourselves to prayer instead.

To put it bluntly, this past week has convinced me our society needs the gospel more than ever, so much so that I believe our nation has reached a crisis point unlike any in my lifetime. Church, if we continue to waste energy on our petty differences, our arrogant judging of others, and our proud, dogged insistence on getting our way, our nation will fall from within.

The time has come to state our sides. If you call yourself a Christian, choose worship. Our fellow citizens need to see Christianity at work, and they’ll look to our sanctuaries to determine who they’ll watch.

“OK, John,” you say, “I’m here, in this sanctuary. What do you want me to do, and how will you use this passage to prove it?”

I’ll state it boldly: Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Gay lives matter. Immigrant lives matter. Lives matter, and the gospel alone will change them, and they’ll not find the gospel anywhere if they don’t see it here. Stop with the excuses, and let St. Paul tell us how we’ll change our society before our nation collapses.

For one thing, the Jews considered themselves the most law-abiding citizens of the Roman world. They kept the Jewish law to near perfection. The Pharisees ratcheted the observances several notches above the typical Jew. Yet, Paul intermingled with the Gentiles. Even more surprisingly, he didn’t expect the Gentiles to keep the Jewish law.

Today, we sometimes judge people because they don’t live to our standards. Honestly, I think my standards work better than others’. However, I cannot hold others to standards I can’t meet myself, and I cannot ostracize myself from others because they do not live to my standards. I must remember “I am crucified with Christ.” Christ lives in me. Christ lived to perfection, yet He chose to live among humanity. I, too, must live with others and seek to bring others into my life, especially those who disagree with me or who fail to live as I wish.

This especially refers to worship with believers. I don’t care if you agree with someone on every issue or not; you must worship with other believers. St. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ.” In his way of thinking, St. Paul saw the crucifixion as the history-changing event that made possible the joint worship of Jews and Gentiles in a body that transcended laws and race. If St. Paul could worship with a Roman occupier, I can worship with people with whom I disagree. If St. Paul could worship with born-again homosexuals in Corinth as God changed their lives, so can I (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). I can worship with people regardless of race, political party, sexual orientation, or anything else we’ve used to divide ourselves from other sinners. I, a sinner saved by grace, will worship with sinners who need to hear the gospel that leads to salvation, and I will worship with sinners who have received the gospel for salvation. I will continue to preach against the sins listed in Scripture because I have no authority to change God’s mind on sin. However, I will love every sinner God brings to this congregation. I will preach grace to all, and I will accept everyone who accepts the grace of God as my brother or sister in Christ. Those who claim who say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ,” must unite in worship and proclaim the gospel of Christ. Let’s get the sinners into the church, and then let’s love them as God changes them into godly believers who carry the gospel in their lifestyles.

There’s another thing that I see. When St. Peter — the Rock on which Christ built the Church, the first bishop of Rome — withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles, St. Paul called him out in front of the entire congregation of Antioch. St. Paul told him flatly that he had sinned by withdrawing from worship and fellowship with his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ.

To the world, worship defines us as Christian more than anything else we do. When he first converted to theism, C.S. Lewis began attending worship to the horror of his fellow academics at Oxford. He wrote in Surprised by Joy, “As soon as I became a Theist I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays; not because I believed in Christianity, nor because I thought the difference between it and simple Theism a small one, but because I thought one ought to ‘fly one’s flag’ by some unmistakable overt sign.”

As with St. Paul, today, I take my stand: I will no longer tolerate the excuses of anyone who willingly refuses to worship with Christians. You need the Church. You need to humble yourself and learn to deal with other sinners. You need to hear the gospel, you need to worship with sinners, you need to confess your sins before God, and you need to hear the teachings of the Church through Scripture. If you think you’re too perfect to worship with us, then find a church as perfect as you so you can worship. If you’re willing to accept that you live by grace as we do, then join us and help us reach our communities for Christ through worship and service.

I have one last thing to say. This nation has a chance, at this moment, to turn from violence and fear and walk forward in faith and grace. We, the believers in Christ, serve in a Body that has outlasted nations and that will outlast every human civilization. We have the benefit of 2,000 years of history to help us through this time of trial. If we want the United States to continue to exist, the Body of Christ in America must live crucified lives. We exist as an eternal body, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. We must lift the banner of Christ above the banners of nationalism and partisanship. We must see the gospel as more than a life-changing event in a person’s life; we must see and enact the gospel as the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. We must serve as salt and light in our families and communities (Matthew 5:13-16).

New Hope can’t change the nation, but we can change our families and communities, and faithful worship will play a key role in that process. We will begin that process today by standing strong, together, united in faith; united in our confession of our sins and the forgiveness we have received through Christ; and united in our love for one another. The time for pettiness has passed; we have no time for arrogance and gossip. Our nation will rise or fall on the faith of families and communities. Beginning today, New Hope will forgive each other, love each other, worship together, and follow St. Paul’s words: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

People of God, live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave Himself for you. Live by faith in the Son of God, and love those He has loved and for whom He gave His life. Stand strong in the love of God and resist all attempts by the godless and powerful to separate us from one another. Join us in service in our congregation and let’s turn our part of our nation “right side up” through the love of Christ.

Sermon on Romans 7: “O Wretched Man”

Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Series on Romans: O Wretched Man!
30 August 2009

Scripture reading: Romans 7:1-12.
Sermon text: Romans 7:13-25.

“Heaven is not the goal; it’s the destination…. The goal of Christianity is spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.” Todd Hunter, Todd Hunter, Bishop-elect for The Anglican Mission in the Americas, founding pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, CA, quoted in “Christianity Today,” October 2009

When I read this, quote I thought it fits exactly the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter 7. Transgression and rebellion; justification; grace. As we’ve read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we’ve read his explanation of human rebellion against God; how God used Abraham to bless the nations, first through the nation of Israel and then through Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God; and, that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are justified before God and have peace with our Creator. For many people, the question after our justification becomes, “Now what?” When we receive grace from God instead of justice, should something happen in our lives? What happens next?

St. Paul had already explained to the Romans that the Law of Moses had guided Israel in its own covenant with God. Unfortunately, many Jews mistook the Law as a means of separating themselves from other nations rather than as guide to their calling as a holy nation. The Law that should have distinguished God’s people instead led to their condemnation when they broke it.

In chapter 7, St. Paul continued his discussion of the Law and its shortcomings. Many Jews in the early Church continued to adhere to the Law and tried to insist that Gentile believers do so as well. St. Paul gave his readers great news: When we died to sin through our faith and baptism in Christ, we also died to our obligation to the Law. Although believers may continue to struggle daily in a sinful world, we rest in the assurance of our new lives in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul opened this chapter by building on the argument of chapter 6 by reminding his readers of Christian freedom from the human bondage to sin: “The law is binding on a person only as long as he lives.” Since we have died to sin as signified in our baptism. St. Paul switched to another example of freedom by reminding his readers of the law regarding marriage. “A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.”

St. Paul had to reach beyond both Jewish and Roman law to Jesus’ teachings regarding marriage. Both Jewish and Roman law made provisions for divorce, and in both cultures divorce was quite easy for husbands. However, women under Jewish law could not divorce at all, a restriction Jesus extended to both sexes (Matthew 5, 19). Under Jewish law, a woman was bound to her husband until one of them died.

The same applied to those under sin. As St. Paul had said in chapter 6, only death freed one from slavery; now, he reminded his readers that only death freed a woman from marriage. Once Christians have died to sin, we “belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”

Using another example, St. Paul turned to the legal codes familiar to those in the Roman Empire. According to St. Paul, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”

Every civilization recognized the necessity of rules to enforce human civility and established some sort of law code to reign in human passions. Law gives us boundaries to guide human relationships. Law gives us freedom as long as we remain inside those boundaries, but stepping outside those boundaries leads to consequences.

The Mosaic Law provided for more than mere guidelines for human relationships and obligations; it also established the rules of Israel’s obligations to God. The Law was not “sin;” instead, it served to define sin for a holy people. St. Paul used the example of covetousness — desiring what someone else possesses — as an example. “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” St. Paul continued by saying, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

However, the Law could accomplish only so much. The Law could define sin, but it could not enforce the attitude behind the actions. The Law could define proper worship, but it could not enforce the faith of the worshipers. The Law, in other words, could not overcome the human tendency to sin. Every human ever born has fought this tendency; only one Person has successfully overcome it. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”

The next passage of verses remains a difficult passage for interpreters. Most of the early Church Fathers believed that, in verses 15-25, St. Paul used a common Greek technique to describe the unbeliever’s quandary with sin: A desire to do the right thing, but failing. The early Church Fathers held that Christians would never face a fight with sin such as described by St. Paul.

St. Augustine, however, finally recognized another possibility, one now accepted by most Western interpreters of this passage. His own experience, as well as the experience of every Christian in history, provides us with the justification to allow this passage to speak as St. Paul wrote it: Christians constantly face a fight with sin. This passage describes a common problem with the Christian life, one I believe Hunter elegantly addresses in the quote I used to start this sermon.

St. Paul admitted that at times, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How many times have we faced this issue? We know what we should do in a situation, but we find ourselves doing the opposite and hating ourselves for it. St. Paul admitted, “ I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

What’s the problem here? Hasn’t St. Paul said in the previous chapters that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ? Hasn’t he stated we are justified before God through our confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and our belief in His resurrection? Hasn’t he gloriously proclaimed us dead to sin?

Yes, to all these questions! However, we must realize that our spiritual lives still begin and exist in a physical context. “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” This is no excuse for our behavior, but it does recognize the fact that Christians are physical beings, with all the desires and passions that come with the physical body. A born-again believer still faces issues with hormones and body chemicals. We must learn to overcome these instinctual urges.

It bothers me to hear someone say, “Just repent of your sins, be born again, and everything in life will be all right. You’ll never have to worry about that bad habit again. You’ll have heaven to look forward to, where you’ll never fight sin again.”

Yes, it’s true that, in the new Creation, we’ll never face sin again. However, as Hunter said, heaven is a destination, not a goal; Christlikeness is the goal, and no one reaches that goal without a serious battle with the sins that beset us (Hebrews 12:1). We pray every week here at New Hope, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation.” We all continue to sin in this life even as we fight it.

I love the way C.S. Lewis describes the power of temptation and repentance:

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later…. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist” (Mere Christianity, Book 3, ch. 11).

I don’t know about you, but I take great comfort that Christ knows the power of temptation. It helps assure me that He understands — and, because He knows I am not yet Christlike, He knows I will sin. He knows that I well understand St. Paul’s lament: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

So what do we do when we sin? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus, the One who understands the power of temptation and who died for our redemption from sin, promises forgiveness to all who confess their sins and turn to Him for help.

C.S. Lewis also beautifully describes the help Jesus gives when we fall:

You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us toward is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again…. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection (Mere Christianity, Book 3, ch. 5).

I love the way Father Hunter concluded his interview:

“In most of post-World War II evangelicalism, we asked people to cross a finish line. So it went: apologetics, apologetics, apologetics, then, okay, you get it now, you need to make a decision, and you get to go to heaven when you die. What I’d prefer to see is apologetics, enculturation, saying the prayers, and then you come to a line, but it’s a starting line: Are you ready to become a follower of Jesus? Can you now see the big intention of God for the earth and what He was doing through Christ and Pentecost and creating the people of God? Are you willing to join that family and take up that family’s cause through following Jesus?”

It’s not a question of if we’ll fall; we will. However, we’re already in the race, and Christ, through the Holy Spirit, promises to help us cross the finish line. When we fall, call on the One who knows the power of temptation and, through His resurrection, promises us eternal life in a Creation where sin and temptation will never haunt us again.

Sermon: “Now What?”

12 August 2012

Scripture reading: Ephesians 4:17-24.
Sermon text: Ephesians 4:25-32.

“Now what?”

I saw the latest Bourne movie on Friday night. Following a thrilling motorcycle chase that involved spectacular stunts and ended with a horrific crash, the hero and heroine sailed off into the South China Sea on an old boat. My daughter, who really likes neat endings, expressed her frustration: “Now what?” What happens to our intrepid couple? Do they survive? Do they marry? Do they stay under the radar of the government agency trying to destroy them? We won’t know until someone produces the next Bourne movie.

I’ve noticed that over the past few decades, many Christians haven’t answered this question any better than the writers of the Bourne movies. We’ve focused our attentions almost solely on the salvation of those around us to the point we conduct special services, host special events, even write special prayers for people to repeat after us, all in the hopes that others will be born again. I still remember reading about one poor soul who said he was saved 4 times while walking across the quad at his university because he repeated a sinner’s prayer with 4 different evangelism groups on his way to class.

Don’t misunderstand me: I see nothing wrong with evangelism. In fact, I encourage it. However, any focus can become an obsession, so much so that we forget the rest of the picture. Salvation involves more than spiritual freedom and deliverance from eternal condemnation. Salvation involves a lifestyle that, when properly lived, brings joy to the Christian and conviction to unbelievers. The joy experienced by believers should flow out of their lives into the lives of everyone around them, convicting them of their need for salvation and drawing them to the only place they’ll find it: The cross and empty tomb of Jesus, Our Lord.

Following his call for church unity around the gifts of God to the Church — those God has called to serve the saints — St. Paul shifted gears in his letter to the Ephesians. St. Paul began describing the lifestyle the Ephesian believers should demonstrate in their society. Some of the qualities we read here appear in other works of philosophy in the ancient Greek world. None of these qualities would have appeared totally foreign to the Ephesians. However, the ability to live by this lifestyle would come only by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, whose presence in the Christian would shine through the characteristics we read in the Scripture reading and sermon text for today.

St. Paul began by telling the Ephesian believers, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” Here, St. Paul adopted the term “Gentiles” to denote unbelievers. Ephesus boasted the world-famous temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and of fertility and childbirth. The Greeks and Romans in Ephesus would have worshiped an entire pantheon of deities, with each deity overseeing a specific area of life. According to St. Paul, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” The pagans remained separated from God because of their ignorance, but many of them refused the truth of Christ because of their hard hearts.

St. Paul continued by saying, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Almost every ancient civilization witnessed sexual immorality of some sort. Repeated exposure to immorality both lessens the inhibitions to participate and increases the temptation to participate. Every civilization has eventually had to confront the damage caused by immorality. Never forget the lesson of history: Immorality demands a heavy price.

St. Paul then reminded the Ephesians, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!” The Ephesians didn’t learn of God in immoral pagan temples; they learned of Him in the Jewish synagogues. Then, when St. Paul came to Ephesus, he first visited the city’s synagogue and preached Christ to the attendees there. After the synagogue threw out the Christians, St. Paul taught the believers in the hall of Tyrannous (Acts 19:9) for 2 years. Throughout the Roman world, Gentiles disgusted with the immorality of their pagan religions had found their way to the synagogues, drawn there by the righteous lifestyle of the Jews. St. Paul didn’t take these Gentile “God-fearers” back into immorality; he brought them farther away from it through a living relationship with a living Christ.

Instead, St. Paul said, the “truth is in Jesus,” who called Himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As the truth of Jesus permeated their lives, the Holy Spirit would help them “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” The Ephesian Gentiles had once lived in spiritual death, but St. Paul had already written that Christ had “made alive” all who believed in Him (Ephesians 2:4-7).

I believe St. Paul’s next words tell us plenty about how the Holy Spirit will transform us. He had already written to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Now, St. Paul told the Ephesians “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Salvation does not instantly change us; rather, the Holy Spirit begins “making new” our minds.

Renewing our minds involves a new mindset, a new mentality. This involves a process of carefully selecting what we put into our minds. This also involves a conscious effort to use our minds to accomplish God’s plan for our lives. Many people seem to believe that the salvation lifestyle does not involve any mental preparation. God wants us to develop our minds for His glory. When we allow the Holy Spirit to guide our minds, He also guides us into “true righteousness and holiness.”

Believers will “put away falsehood.” Because we are “members one of another,” we will “speak the truth” with one another. The truth may sometimes hurt, but it will always strengthen us and guide us into righteousness.

The salvation lifestyle also helps us learn self control. “Be angry and do not sin,” St. Paul wrote; “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Few things bring shame on a person like a bad temper. No family wants a reputation as quick-tempered. Few things “give opportunity to the devil” like a temper tantrum. Few things give proof of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power like control of our anger.

St. Paul then turned to other practical issues in the Christian life. He told the thieves to “no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Christians should perform “honest work” so we can help others. We should also encourage others to work for this purpose as well.

According to St. Paul, we must also prevent using “corrupting talk;” the words we speak should “build up” or encourage other people. The media today constantly spread words that belittle or discourage others; some people go through their entire lives without hearing an encouraging word. We should seek to build up other people with our words; every word we speak should remind others of their true worth before God, who created them in His image.

We must also “not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” We should bring joy to the Holy Spirit. We bring joy to the Spirit by avoiding “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander;” our words will bring joy to the Spirit. Also, we should “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Can any of the actions we read here show Jesus’ work in us? I think of all the actions listed by St. Paul, forgiveness ranks as the action most needed in our world today. We will always face the temptation to resent those who harm us, but we must forgive them as Jesus forgave us on the cross. Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). God, who is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4), has forgiven us of our sins and adopted us into His family (Romans 8:15). If our holy God can forgive us, we must forgive others.

This may sound like a lot of things for us to do; this sounds like a long “to do” list for Christians. I have great news for you! Jesus told His disciples the key to keeping all these actions: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:27-39). When we keep these commandments, we will naturally fulfill St. Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians.

To everyone who has asked the question “what now,” I have the answer: Love. Love, as Christ has loved us; love, and we will naturally speak wholesome words to one another. Love, and we will do honest work so we can provide for others. Love, and we will exercise self-control so we do not offend others. Love, and we will prepare our minds for the work of God in the world.

Love sent Christ to the cross and through death to a glorious resurrection. Love will bring us through the trials of this life to the eternal joys of a new heaven and new earth, a creation in which we’ll never have to wonder what comes next.

Sermon for Good Friday: Behold Your King

I’ve read sci-fi and BYTE Magazine author Jerry Pournelle for years, both as a science fiction buff and as a computer geek. Several years ago, someone started a discussion on Jerry Pournelle’s site regarding the question: Is it good for emperors to go into battle at the head of their armies? Someone pointed out that in the history of our Republic, only 2 of our presidents — George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower — have fought in battle, and both of them fought prior to their elections. We have never witnessed a U.S. president personally leading our forces in battle during a war.

This is a good thing, because the record of kings/presidents/ emperors in battle is not very good. Shakespeare wrote of several, but two of the most noteworthy both died: Macbeth and Richard III. There’s a good reason to keep your leaders away from a battle. Battles are deadly, and people in the front tend to get shot at first.

On the other hand, soldiers tend to fight harder for leaders willing to accept the same risks their troops face. In ancient Rome, rare was the emperor who didn’t come up the ranks of the army. Almost no emperor could rule without the title Ave Imperator, which designated someone as worthy to lead the armies of Rome. I think we all remember the reception President Bush received in Baghdad at Thanksgiving. The very fact the president was willing to risk flying into Baghdad, even though the visit was short, greatly motivated the troops stationed there. It also did some good for morale at home to see our President cared that much for our fathers, sons, and friends in Iraq.

We’ve all heard the Church compared to the army of Christ. We know Christ is our head; through the Holy Spirit, He gives the orders, we follow the orders. This setup works really well, as the growth of the Church from fewer than 200 to more than 2 billion today attests.

But the Church has succeeded for one reason: Our King was willing to shoulder our risks, even though it killed Him. Literally.

The Scriptures tonight demonstrate the twisted humor of Pilate and the Romans. In the preceding chapter (which I encourage you to read), the Jews have accused Jesus of declaring Himself a king. Pilate, after questioning Jesus, decides the charges are false and decides to release Him. To elicit the Jews’ sympathy, Pilate has Jesus whipped; the Roman soldiers, hearing this man has called Himself a king, taunt Him. “Hail, king of the Jews!”

But then the Jews play their trump card: “if you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.” They knew Pilate was on the hot seat with Rome for his treatment of the Jews and the trouble it caused. Caesar wanted everything quiet in the East, and Pilate wasn’t exactly helping attain this goal. Pilate faced a choice: risk the Jews’ accusation making its way to Rome, or crucifying an innocent man. Ever the pragmatist, Pilate chose the latter, but not before getting one last dig at the Jews: “Behold your king!”

By this point, Jesus looked like anything but a king. Isaiah had prophesied saying, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” To call Jesus “king” was the ultimate in ironic cruelty. Or so Pilate thought.

I once received a Good Friday e-mail from the Practical Christian Life list yesterday. I’ll quote from it here:

In those terms, we may say that God has paid his dues, has earned the right to talk to us about suffering because he has endured it with us. He endured not only physical pain, but the torments of doubt and uncertainty and fear. In the Garden of Gethesemane, waiting for the soldiers to come and arrest him, he was clearly in great distress of mind. Some people think that this shows a character flaw — that a truly great man, or a truly wise man, would say, “I never worry about things I can change, and I never worry about things I cannot change,” and so would not have been bothered by the prospect of torture and death. I reply that a man who did not let such things bother him would have very little to say to the rest of us.

And I take comfort in this; I take comfort in the fact that my King was not just bothered by the prospect of torture and death; He was terrified of them. He knows my fears; He knows the temptation to run and hide, to try to weasel out of trouble. And He faced it and won.

I found this passage in C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcom Chiefly on Prayer:

The beginning of the Passion — the first move, so to speak — is in Gethsemane. In Gethsemane a very strange and significant thing seems to have happened.

It is clear from many of his sayings that Our Lord had long foreseen His own death. He knew what conduct such as His, in a world such as we have made of this, must inevitably lead to. But it is clear that this knowledge must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father’s will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously known that it would not. That is both a logical and a psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope — of suspense, anxiety — were at the last moment loosed on Him — the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the ultimate horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible…and doubtless He had seen other men crucified…a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.

But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps he would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.

At the end, I know, we are told that an angel appeared “comforting” Him. But neither “comforting” in sixteenth-century English nor “ennischuon” in Greek means “consoling”.  “Strengthening” is more the word. May not the strengthening have consisted in the renewed certainty — cold comfort this — that the thing must be endured and therefore could be?

Again, this fact comforts me, strengthens me: that Jesus experienced that which we all face as we carry out His orders. For at the moment that Pilate sarcastically declared, “behold your King!”, Jesus was on the verge of winning the greatest battle ever fought. Within a matter of hours, Jesus would win victory over death. Not even the Roman emperor could even attempt to fight death.

What do you face tonight? Fear? Behold your King. Uncertainty about life? Behold your King. Are you waiting for God to answer your prayer, but you’re afraid of what the answer will be? Behold your King.

Christians everywhere tonight have heard the words, and I urge you to look to the cross, witness Jesus’ sufferings, and take the words to heart: “Behold your King.”


“Empire and Battle,” available online: Site copyrighted by Jerry Pournelle, 2004.

Isaiah 52:14.

James Keifer, “A Good Friday Meditation on an Unlikely Text.”

Sermon: “Go; Bless”

Scripture reading: Romans 4:1-17.
Sermon text: Genesis 12:1-3.

Cowards never cross into Canaan.

I grew up to the strains of Sacred Harp music. I clearly remember my great-grandfather and mother singing one of my favorite Sacred Harp pieces, “It’s a Mighty Rocky Road.” The song describes the road of life as the “rocky road,” the road that will take believers to eternal life. Those who choose to travel the rocky road must obey God every step of the way, even when it seems the path makes no sense.

God can take us to new places of blessing when we obey His call in our lives. God called Abram from the comforts of Ur and commanded him to go to an unknown land. When Abram obeyed the command, God blessed him beyond his expectations. God also blessed all humanity by keeping His promises to Abram. Jesus, the divine Son of God, came to earth as a direct descendant of Abram.

We know Abram better by another name he received later in his life. You probably know him better as “Abraham,” the name God gave him after he demonstrated his faith in God in Genesis 15. (God renamed Abram (which means “exalted prince”) to “Abraham” (“father of many nations”) in Genesis 17:5). I’ll refer to him as “Abram” in this sermon to maintain scriptural accuracy.

We know the dates of Abram’s life (2166-1991 B.C.) and the cultural context in which he lived. Abram lived in Ur during the last golden age of the Sumerian civilization, which lasted from roughly 2100 to 1900 B.C. During this time, the Sumerians achieved a level of sophistication unknown to most humans in history. Ur boasted indoor plumbing, paved roads, and other amenities we consider “modern.” We need to remember these facts because the memory eliminates a common excuse I hear today: “God wouldn’t take me away from all this and put me somewhere more primitive.” If you hear this line from someone, you can reply, “Just ask Abram.”

In 2091 B.C., God spoke to Abram and told him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God commanded Abram to leave more than just the lifestyle he enjoyed in Ur. God also commanded Abram to leave “your kindred and your father’s house.” God called Abram to leave everything and travel to “the land that I will show you.” Abram received no clear destination, giving him no choice but to rely on God for directions to his destination.

God then made Abram a series of promises if he obeyed the call. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” At this time, Abram and his wife Sarai (better known as “Sarah”) had no children of their own. In fact, Sarai had already turned 65 when Abram received his call. Yet, God promised to make a “great nation” of Abram. This implied that Abram and Sarai would one day have children of their own.

God also promised Abram that He would “make your name great.” Abram could already claim a great pedigree. His family descended directly from Shem, Noah’s godliest son. Abram could look into his ancestry and see many men who had made a name for themselves. God now promised He would insure Abram’s inclusion in that list.

Next, God promised Abram, “you will be a blessing.” Actually, in the Hebrew text, this reads more like a command itself. God commanded Abram to bless all those he would meet on the journey. The book of Genesis records how God used Abram to bless many people in the land of Canaan.

After promising these blessings, God then made a promise of protection to Abram. “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” When you look at Abram’s life, you can see how God fulfilled this promise. Many Canaanites befriended Abram because he enjoyed the protection of God. The people who aided Abram received great blessings.

On the other hand, those who tried to oppose Abram found themselves removed from God’s blessings. Genesis tell the stories of kings who opposed Abram or who tried to take Sarai from Abram. Without exception, God cursed every one of those kings forced them to turn to Abram for relief.

God made one last promise to Abram in His call: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram may have wondered how God could use him, a Semite leaving civilization and going who knew where, to bless all the families of the earth. God gave no details, only a promise that obedience would lead to blessings for all humanity. As Adam’s disobedience had cost humanity a relationship with God, Abram’s obedience would play a role in restoring that relationship.

Abram traveled the rocky road to Canaan, wondering where God would take him. He arrived in a land filled with pagans whose religion required child sacrifice and who fought each other on a regular basis. The people there quickly discouraged the cowards. At times, Abram wondered if God knew the rocky road. At times, Abram wondered if God understood the dangers of the rocky road. At times, Abram wondered where the road would lead him. The song reminds us: “His soul shall ascend where Jesus is, to be there forever blest.”

This brings us to the greatest road ever traveled. Jesus, the Christ, descended from Abram through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Jesus traveled the rocky roads from Galilee to Jerusalem, knowing a crucifixion — a lynching — awaited Him at the end of the road. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world. On Easter Sunday, Jesus rose again from the dead, defeating sin and death. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God fulfilled His promise to bless all nations through Abram.

Jesus’ death and resurrection empowers God’s work in the world today. Following Jesus’ ascension into heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit into the world on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit calls people to believe in Jesus’ sacrifice and victory. The Holy Spirit also set the Church on the road to evangelize the world.

We receive our first call from God when we sense the Holy Spirit’s convicting power in our lives. At that moment, we realize our separation from our Creator and that we cannot remove the separation on our own. Jesus, the divine Son of God and Abraham’s Descendant, said to His disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Like Abram, we must obey God’s call when we sense the Holy Spirit leading us to believe in Jesus and confess Him as Lord of our lives.

Once we believe in Jesus and confess Him as Lord, He then sends the Holy Spirit into our lives to lead us and guide us on the rocky road of life. The Holy Spirit guides us through Bible study, through prayer, and through corporate worship.

Many people say, “I don’t want God to call me away from what I know.” These people really mean, “I don’t want to give up anything for Jesus. I want to go to heaven without leaving anything here.” It doesn’t work that way. When we confess our allegiance to Jesus as Lord of our lives, we relinquish to Him full control over all we have and all we do. As our Lord, Jesus may exercise His right to command us whenever and however He chooses.

Those who obey the call of God find that the promises of Abram still stand. God still protects His people, but He also uses our sufferings to bear witness to Jesus, to strengthen us, and to prepare us for the glorious eternity He has prepared for us. God still uses His people to bless the nations of the world. St. John the Evangelist wrote that he saw people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” engaging in eternal worship (Revelation 7:9).

As I’ve worked on this sermon, it has occurred to me that people sometimes want to backtrack on the road. Some people look back wistfully to a “golden age” in which everything worked perfectly. For those people, I have news: Ur doesn’t exist. The Church still lives! We have outlasted civilizations, nations, and philosophies. We have journeyed longer on the rocky road than kingdoms and empires. We, the people of God, have no right to go back; we must press forward, in spite of the perils and danger. Again, cowards will never cross into Canaan!

As we travel this life, we’ll travel rocky roads. Those roads will take us to a unfathomable depths and exciting heights. We’ll often find ourselves realizing that we’ll never see the results of the stops on the journey. At the end of the road, we’ll experience the fullest completion of the promises God made to Abram centuries ago. In that eternity, we’ll enjoy the blessings of the journey with God as we experience true joy and peace in the presence of our Jesus, our King and Guide on the journey of life.

Sacred Harp: Rocky Road

I’m enlisted on this road,
I’m almost done traveling,
Enlisted on this road,
I’m almost done traveling,
Enlisted on this road,
I’m almost done traveling,
I’m bound to go where Jesus is.
My soul shall ascend where Jesus is,
To enjoy the peaceful home of rest.
I’m bound to go where Jesus is,
And be there forever blest.

It’s a mighty rocky road,
I’m almost done traveling,
A mighty rocky road,
I’m almost done traveling,
A mighty rocky road,
I’m almost done traveling,
I’m bound to go where Jesus is,
And be there forever blest.

Sermon: “Come Together”

“I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” — Nicene Creed

Delivered at New Hope Baptist Church, 24 January 2016.

Scripture reading: Luke 4:14-21.
Sermon text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

A friend of mine from divinity school unintentionally launched a firestorm this week when he quoted St. Cyprian, a martyr of the third century A.D. St. Cyprian wrote, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother” (“Treatise 1, On the Unity of the Church”).

It didn’t take long for the usual “I don’t need a congregation” crowd to swarm around the post. You know what I mean: “I don’t need to go to church because of the sinners there.” “I don’t dare go to that church because of the hypocrites.” “I behave better than the people at church, so why should I go?” Let’s not forget one of the favorites: “I can worship just as well at home (or in the woods, on a body of water, etc.) as I can in a building with those people.”

I have a simple answer to those objections. “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” No one can muster an acceptable excuse for withdrawal from the body or for refusal to support the body.

The Apostles wouldn’t accept excuses.

The saints and martyrs wouldn’t accept excuses.

I won’t accept excuses. I’ll go further: If you can go to Walmart on Sunday, you can make it to church on Sunday.

Every believer needs a church. Every believer needs to attend worship, even with the sinners and hypocrites. (More precisely, I’ve never met a perfect person. Everyone needs a church with sinners and hypocrites so he’ll feel at home.)

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). When I stand with St. Cyprian, I stand with Scripture.

St. Paul knew about separation from the Body of Christ and its consequences. He had seen the wreckage caused by dissension in the church; he had witnessed the results as Christians argued over minutia while others quit in disgust. The Corinthian church had excelled in dissension before St. Paul wrote his letters. In case you wondered, St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, wrote a letter to the Corinthians in c. A.D. 96. The reason? Dissension. Old habits die hard, as the saying goes.

In last week’s sermon text, St. Paul had discussed the reasons for God’s gifts. St. Paul wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). As I wrote last week, “God will give you the gifts He needs in your congregation.” In this week’s sermon text, we find the reasons why God expects us — yes, expects us — to work within the context of the Church in general and our congregation specifically.

First, God constructs a congregation as a body. The Psalmist David wrote, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). St. Paul wrote, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

God calls all people to salvation (John 3:16-17) and desires all people to believe in Jesus (2 Peter 3:9). When people confess Jesus as Lord and believe in His resurrection, the Holy Spirit joins them to the Church. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit begins working within us and guiding us to find other Christians. I’ve never met a new believer who didn’t seek for a congregation in which to serve and grow. An international friend told me of the difficulties he experienced trying to find a congregation who would accept him; he persisted until the congregation realized he had truly become a believer in Christ and hadn’t shown up at their door as a government spy.

A congregation doesn’t consist of only one person. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” One person alone cannot perform the work of a congregation, nor should he try. “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” A functioning congregation will draw people into its body and help them find places of ministry within the body and community.

St. Paul also taught that every member bears a gift worthy of respect. You’ll find no unimportant members in a congregation. “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” Pride leads people to desire power or prestige within a congregation. The Holy Spirit who leads us to the congregation will use the congregation to mold us and bring us closer to Christ. As we draw closer to Christ, we’ll see ourselves compared to Him and humble ourselves before Him. We’ll seek to serve each other humbly, to submit to one another, and to uplift one another as we exalt Christ.

Lastly, St. Paul taught that we need each other. We’ve all heard the saying, “Misery loves company.” St. Paul wrote, “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” Christians help one another through times of suffering and trial. We help each other. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

As we help one another through our burdens, we’ll lift each other, especially when joyful events occur. “If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Again, I’ve often seen pride cause resentment when people see the attention shift to someone else. Humility helps us rejoice in the success or blessing of others, giving us joy even in the midst of trials.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” St. Paul wrote. Yes, God has “appointed in the church” people with special gifts and responsibilities. However, those gifts and responsibilities do not bring honor to the person; they bring honor to God. Those given gifts and called to these responsibilities must use them to bless the congregation, not themselves, and they must use them to bless the Church.

For unbelievers, I call you today to believe in Jesus, confessing Him as Lord and believing in His resurrection so you may receive the Holy Spirit and follow Jesus into eternal life. Don’t fall for the old “I’m better than those hypocrites” line. We know our faults and failures. We also know our standing before God: Justified and forgiven through the blood of Christ, living in hope of eternal life through Jesus’ resurrection.

For believers, I call you to follow the desire of the Holy Spirit and join the congregation to which God has brought you. I call on members of this body to use our gifts to bless our congregation and our communities. I call on us to proclaim Christ through our faithful attendance, through our love for one another, and by our love for those God brings into our lives. I call on us to come together to bless one another and bless everyone we meet. Let’s suffer together, rejoice together, and fellowship with one another, showing the world that God our Father loves the Church, our mother. We have our flaws, but through the grace of Christ, we’ll carry on until Jesus returns for us and takes His Body into eternal rest.

Sermon: “Reaching Higher”

I delivered this sermon to New Hope on 11 February 2007. The sermon addresses the topic of “glossolalia,” or speaking in tongues. I encourage you to read the entire sermon before making up your mind.

Sermon text: Jeremiah 1:1-10.
Sermon text: 1 Corinthians 14:1-20.

The Church exists to glorify God, and only to glorify God. We bring glory to His name by fulfilling the task of carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. For millennia, the Church has accomplished this task through ministry, proclamation of the gospel, and through baptizing new believers into the Body of Christ.

The work of spreading the gospel benefits from a unique aspect of the Church: We have never claimed the Bible exists in purity in only one language. We have never required anyone to learn Greek or Hebrew to read the “true” Bible. We can trust our Bible in English just as the original believers could trust their Bible in Koine Greek.

This advantage also implies a great intellectual challenge: The translation of the gospel into the languages of the world. A few weeks ago (28 January 2007 p.m.), we studied the confusing of the languages at Babel in Genesis 11. The results of pride on that occasion has complicated our task, but we continue undaunted in carrying the gospel to people of every tribe and language. We may be tempted, as was Jeremiah, to tell God, “we do not know how to speak.” However, as with Jeremiah, we find that God accepts no excuses; He accepts only obedience.

However, at certain times in the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit has “helped” the Church through a great gift: The gift of “tongues.” The most obvious example of this gift appears in Acts 2, when the Church began at Pentecost. In a great miracle, God blessed Galilean and Judean Jews with the ability to speak numerous languages with no previous study or experience. As a result, the Church spread into numerous nations from this one event.

Unfortunately, this great gift has brought great controversy from the first days of our existence. When St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, he had to address the abuse of “tongues.” Chapter 14 contains the greatest and most specific treatment of this gift.

As Southern Baptists, we tend to ignore this gift at worst, or belittle it at best. Some in the Convention and in other parts of Christendom confidently claim the gift no longer exists. In light of events in the Southern Baptist Convention (2007), I believe our belittling and cessationist tendencies have returned to haunt us. We can no longer ignore the fact that a large segment of Christianity emphasizes this gift, even to the point of teaching that only those with this gift have received the Holy Spirit at salvation.

Therefore, I want to address 4 questions today:

  1. What is the gift of “tongues” in the Bible?
  2. Are tongues necessary for salvation or for the reception of the Holy Spirit in a new believer’s life?
  3. Does the gift of tongues still exist?
  4. Lastly, should the Church give greater emphasis to the gift of tongues?

First, let’s consider the terminology relating to tongues.

The word “tongue” in the King James Version can refer to either a known human language or to an ecstatic utterance that no one understands, including the speaker. The events of Pentecost in Acts 2 lead us to believe that the believers’ words sounded like gibberish to most people except to those who heard in the “gibberish” the gospel in their own language.

The Greek word translated “tongue” in chapter 14, “glossa,” means just that: “tongue.” For that reason, the term for ecstatic utterances is “glossalalia.” In Koine Greek, this word refers to both the organ we call the tongue and to language. In the King James Version, the word is translated consistently as “tongue.” (The only occurrence of the word “language” in the New Testament in the King James Version is Acts 2:6, where the translators used the word as a translation for “dialektos.”)

When St. Jerome translated the New Testament from Koine Greek to Latin, he used the used the word “lingua,” the root for our word “language.” St. Jerome’s action, however, doesn’t help us much as the word “lingua,” like the word “ glossa,” can also refer to “tongue.”

As you can see, a great deal rides on the translation, especially in languages such as English that distinguish between “tongue” and “language.” If the word refers to “language,” then it may eliminate ecstatic blabbering as a possibility in the translation, because a language requires structured, consistent use of sounds.

In recent translations of the Bible into English, most versions, including the English Standard Version (my preferred version), the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version, translate this chapter using the word “tongue.” On the other hand, the new Southern Baptist translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, translates “glossa” as “language.” (Perhaps the translators wanted to eliminate any ambiguity as to their doctrinal preferences in this chapter.)

We can see where both definitions — ecstatic utterances and language — can apply to Corinth. Corinth was a major sea port of the Roman Empire, and Corinthian Christians would have routinely encountered people from across the Roman Empire and from the Black Sea. Those blessed with the gift of languages such as believers at Pentecost could have ministered to people from many nations on a routine basis.

On the other hand, St. Paul seems to imply that the other definition dominated the church at Corinth. Many Corinthian believers claimed the “gift” of tongues and attempted to display them every time the church gathered. For that reason, St. Paul tried to give some guidelines on the use of “tongues.” It is difficult to see these restrictions placed on those who spoke natural human languages, especially the restrictions on women. (Interestingly, in many cultures, women make better translators than men, leading to some rather amusing gaffs by men learning the language from women.)

I believe we may safely assume that St. Paul is referring to ecstatic utterances in this chapter.

Secondly, many people claim that only those with the gift of “tongues” have received the Holy Spirit and therefore qualify as true believers. Is this really the case? Are those of us who have never spoken in tongues really bereft of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

While event in Acts seem to imply that speaking in tongues always followed conversion, this belief lacks historical validity. For centuries, the Church believed that those born again received the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion. St. Paul wrote the letter to Corinth in A.D. 55. When he wrote to the Romans in A.D. 57 and to the Ephesians in A.D. 60, he didn’t mention tongues in relation to the spiritual birth.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas refers to St. Augustine’s statement that in his lifetime, the gift of tongues no longer appeared at the moment of conversion. St. Augustine lived at the turn of the fifth century A.D.

In the eighteenth century, a religious renewal we call the Great Awakening swept through the New England colonies. The minister Jonathan Edwards, who some call America’s greatest theologian, oversaw this awakening in his church and in the surrounding areas. Edwards wrote several treatises on the awakening, explaining it to skeptical ministers in both the American colonies and in England. In A Divine and Supernatural Light, Edwards wrote:

The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, and exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties….

When it is said that this light is given immediately by God, and not obtained by natural means, hereby is intended, that it is given by God without making use of any means that operate by their own power, or a natural force God makes use of means; but it is not as mediate causes to produce this effect. There are not truly any second causes of it; but it is produced by God immediately.

We are there abundantly taught, that the saints differ from the ungodly in this, that they have the knowledge of God, and a sight of God, and of Jesus Christ.

It is rational to suppose, that this blessing should be immediately from God; for there is no gift or benefit that is in itself so nearly related to the divine nature, there is nothing the creature receives that is so much of God, of his nature, so much a participation of the deity: it is a kind of emanation of God’s beauty, and is related to God as the light is to the sun. It is therefore congruous and fit, that when it is given of God, it should be nextly from himself, and by himself, according to his own sovereign will.

Edwards, then, believed that, as St. Paul taught in Romans and later letters, that the Holy Spirit comes upon us immediately at conversion. Otherwise, we would not recognize the work of God in our lives and would lack the protection of the Holy Spirit St. Paul clearly taught we enjoy.

Thirdly, does the gift of tongues still exist?

Remember that I pointed out Corinth’s advantage in tongues in relation to its purpose in the Roman Empire. The gift of languages would have greatly aided the church’s ministry. However, in A.D. 90, the Bishop of Rome, Clement, wrote a letter to the Corinthian church exhorting them to peace and cooperation. (Apparently, the Corinthians had a merry tradition of disunity that continued for decades after St. Paul’s death.) For this gift to claim such prominence in St. Paul’s time, St. Clement never mentioned tongues at all. Apparently, the gift had ceased in Corinth in the roughly 5 decades since St. Paul’s letter.

I mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologica earlier. St. Aquinas gave us the reason St. Augustine stated the gift had ceased: “whereas even now the Holy Ghost is received, yet no one speaks in the tongues of all nations, because the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations: since whoever is not in the Church, receives not the Holy Ghost” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, “Of the Grace of Tongues, Reply to Objection 3”). In other words, St. Augustine saw no reason for the gift since the Church had reached every tribe surrounding the Empire.

If the gift ceased at that time, is it back? Could God have sent the gift back in our time?

We’re currently witnessing one of the greatest expansions of the Church in her history. The gospel is spreading faster in Africa and Asia than anywhere else in the world. I’ve heard of missionaries in these areas who speak of experiences where they utter some saying that was interpreted by those around as the gospel in their native language. I’ve heard too many cases to discount them; however, I also know from personal experience that language study is difficult, demanding, and exasperating work. While I believe God can give the gift of languages to someone, I also believe He expects most of us to go about language study the old fashioned way: the daily grind of intense study.

I’ve also noticed that the part of the Church growing fastest, the Pentecostal movement, is also the part that most emphasizes the gift of tongues. I’m unprepared, however, to believe this vindicates their emphasis on tongues, especially since most Pentecostals tend to emphasize the ecstatic utterances definition over that of human languages. As St. Paul pointed out, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (14:23)

I really believe St. Paul wanted the Corinthians to spend more time ministering to the outside world than demonstrating their experience with ecstatic utterances.

This brings me to my last point: should the Church give greater emphasis to the gift of tongues, and should we seek this gift today.

Recently, I read C.S. Lewis’ sermon “Transposition,” which he delivered on Pentecost, 28 May 1944. In this sermon, Lewis discussed the limitations of our physical bodies in responding to spiritual events. Ironically, Lewis started the sermon with a mention of glossalalia: speaking in tongues. I’d recommend you read the sermon, simply because Lewis has such an excellent point, which is: We respond physically to spiritual experiences, simply because we have no other means to respond.

This sermon caused me to think a bit about a discussion with a former student. I’m somewhat convinced, reading Lewis, that we seek the ecstatic because we desire a “repeat” of our conversion experience, especially if that experience was a joyful, emotional one. Some seek a repeat of conversion in music; my student mentioned a worship leader transposing between chords, sending the congregation into ecstasy simply from a higher chord in a song. Others seek to repeat the emotion through gossalalia.

Our spiritual experience at conversion caused a physical and emotional experience, and some part of us urgently — longingly — desperately, even — desires to repeat that experience.

Is this logical? Should we constantly seek to repeat the reaction to the greatest event in our lives, the event that signaled our spiritual birth?

St. Paul says, “No.” The Corinthians longed for a repeat experience, so much so that they elevated glossalalia above any other spiritual gift. Paul urged them to seek a higher gift: prophecy. Unfortunately, my personal experience tells me that prophecy doesn’t always bring an emotional “high” anywhere near my own conversion experience. Prophecy — the gift of proclaiming the truth of God’s word, not the foretelling of events — is difficult work. Prophecy requires immense preparation, and the proclamation of unpopular truths will certainly cause opposition. In my knowledge, no one was ever martyred for glossalalia. We can’t say the same for prophecy, Jesus reminds us. People have died in the prophetic service.

I see this error in the Church today: refusing to seek “higher ground” because we seek a repeat of an emotional experience instead. We plan our services to elicit emotional responses equivalent to our conversion. Then, worship leaders and congregations are sadly disappointed when the experience fails to repeat itself. “The Spirit just wasn’t here today.” Well, Our Lord tells us He is present when 2 or 3 are gathered in His name, regardless of whether the emotion appears or not. Still, disappointed worship leaders work harder on next week’s service: new songs, new chording, new arrangements of music, new slides in the Powerpoint presentation, new testimonies; anything to bring about an emotion approaching that of conversion.

I’m realizing that the desire to repeat an emotion, an experience, explains more than the problems afflicting the Church today. People seek to repeat the emotion of first love, the “high” that comes when you first meet someone, the infatuation. Then, when the infatuation fades — as it inevitably does — people panic, not realizing that infatuation transforms itself into true love that does not fade but lasts forever. Unfortunately, people so seek the infatuation they leave the one for whom they are no longer infatuated, failing to see the devastation in their wake as they leave relationships God never intended to be broken.

Yet, St. Paul calls us higher. “I would rather that you prophesy,” he says. There are events that cannot — should not — be repeated. We are called to seek higher gifts, regardless of their emotional value. Man cannot live by bread alone, but he also cannot live on emotion alone. Glossalalia is a gift. I will not join my SBC “brethren” in denying its existence or denigrating its value; however, glossalalia is a sign of the Spirit’s presence, not the sign. We have no leeway to think Cornelius and Company stopped growing and spoke in tongues the rest of their lives. I’d like to believe Cornelius and his household went on to proclaim the gospel throughout Caesarea and the Empire, wherever they went.

I believe we fear reaching higher, for the greater gifts. Lewis said in his sermon “The Weight of Glory” that “we are far too easily pleased.” Too many people are willing to settle for glossalalia when so much more is waiting on those willing to ask for it. “Ask and it shall be given,” Our Lord tells us. Paul told the Corinthians, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking (1 Corinthians 14:20).” As we grow, we must seek higher gifts. Perhaps we’ll keep the gifts we were given, perhaps not. I’ve found that God never takes anything from us without giving something far greater.

Higher gifts are difficult, and in spite of our desire for them, we have no guarantee God will give us the exact gift we crave. I didn’t ask for the gift of prophecy, of proclamation; it was given to me by grace. However, I propose a spiritual “Montrose’ Toast:” “He either fears his fate too much, or his desserts are small, who dares not put it to the touch, to risk or lose it all.” Ask high! Aim high! Montrose spoke of risk in a military sense, but Our Lord says He wants to give us good gifts. There is no risk in asking God for greater gifts. God promises great things to those who seek them.

Conversion is great. Spiritual growth is greater. Those who content themselves with the emotion of conversion, or with any pale substitute like glossalalia or musical stimulation, will find they rob themselves of great gifts from the Father of Lights. Let’s not settle for the former things when God has great things, greater blessings, waiting for us.

Trinity Sunday: “Go”

The Trinity ranks as the greatest mystery of Christianity. Here’s another Trinity Sunday sermon, preached on 15 June 2014.

Scripture reading: Psalm 8.
Sermon text: Matthew 28:16-20.

We live in a nation of restless souls.

The children of immigrants founded America. Immigrants, either voluntary or involuntary, built our nation. People from around the globe still travel here to escape ancient prejudices, recent debts, and class restrictions, believing in the dream of creating new lives for themselves and their children.

Even native-born Americans wander. We live in the most mobile nation on the planet. Americans think nothing of moving across the continent for a better job. We travel worldwide on vacations. We constantly look for something to fill our hearts, clear our minds, or bring excitement to our lives.

I see an opportunity here. As I see it, we have everything necessary to fulfill one of Jesus’ greatest desires: The desire of His people to go and proclaim the gospel.

Today, the Church celebrates “Trinity Sunday,” the Sunday on which we clearly teach one of the greatest the mysteries of the Christian faith: One God, Three Persons, each completely independent yet completely One with one another. Our belief in the Trinity separates Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. I believe it also gives us a fuller picture of God and helps us understand how God works in us to carry out His desire for the salvation of humanity and all creation.

After His resurrection, Jesus met the disciples in Galilee. St. Matthew recorded that Jesus had “directed” the disciples to go to a certain mountain in Galilee where He met them. We don’t know to which mountain St. Matthew referred, but we know the disciples obeyed Jesus and met Him there.

On this mountain, Jesus appeared to His disciples. St. Matthew wrote, “when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” The disciples recognized Jesus as worthy of worship. Remember, all the original disciples believed in one God. As Jews, they had recited Moses’ teaching their entire lives: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). To the Jews, God and God alone deserved the worship of His people. St. Peter had already spoken for the disciples in his great confession of Jesus’ identity: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus’ resurrection further convinced the disciples of His deity.

Notice that although all the disciples worshiped, “some doubted.” I don’t think this should surprise us. Those of us who have lived inside the Church our entire lives often take for granted what we ask people to believe about Jesus. We ask people to believe in a man crucified by the Romans who then came back to life after lying dead in a grave for 3 days! Even the original disciples had trouble understanding what had happened, and they saw Jesus face to face after His resurrection. People sometimes need more tangible evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, of His life within His Church. More on that later.

As the disciples worshiped, Jesus told them,  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Who gave Jesus, the Son of God, this authority? Only the Creator, God the Father, could grant this authority. Jesus had actively participated in the creation of all things, but as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, He had “emptied Himself” of His heavenly attributes to dwell among us (Philippians 2:7). At His resurrection, Jesus received the authority of all creation, an authority He had possessed since the foundation of the world.

Because all authority rests with Jesus, He can command His people to carry the gospel, the good news, of His death for humanity’s sins and of His resurrection, by which He defeated sin and death. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus sent His disciples throughout the world, empowering them through the Holy Spirit to teach all He had commanded them and to make disciples of all who believed their message.

Once people believed the message of the gospel, Jesus told the disciples to baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Everything proceeds from God the Father; salvation comes from the finished work of God the Son; conviction and belief comes from the work of God the Holy Spirit, who draws us to the cross of Christ for salvation and indwells us that we may know what God expects of us and how to live as Christ commands us.

Through God the Holy Spirit, Christ could truly say, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The omnipresent Holy Spirit constantly reminds us of Jesus’ presence in our lives.

One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; One Church, composed of all who believe the message of the Apostles; one great command, to go and make disciples.

How does this command apply to us today, at New Hope?

For one thing, I believe that we cannot go anywhere until we’ve arrived at the place where God can use us to carry the gospel. Too many Christians today have come to treat church as an option or an obligation. I don’t want you to see worship as an option; for a Christian, worship comes with the privilege of calling yourself a child of God. I want you to see worship as an opportunity to praise God for your salvation. I want you to see worship as an opportunity to pray for those around you, the hurting, hurtful, sorrowful, stubborn people who need Jesus.

You cannot worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:23) without genuine conversion and repentance. For too long, too many Christians have desired Jesus’ salvation without accepting His command to live holy lives. I see a serious problem here. How can we go and tell others of Jesus when we refuse to live godly lives ourselves?

“Why would you say this, John?” I’m glad you asked. Let’s go back to Jesus words. In the English translations, the word “Go” appears as a command. Greek has an imperative tense, but Jesus didn’t use it when He said to “go.” The tense Jesus used here better implies, “As you go.” You cannot make disciples unless you go out as a disciple yourself. “As you go” means you will always show the people around you, in your everyday life, what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

That poses a problem for many. The people around you may hear you say all kinds of good things about your God and your church, but they also see how you live as you go through your life. I said earlier that people need tangible evidence, clear evidence, of Jesus’ resurrection. Your lifestyle must provide that evidence. Christian, your life, your actions, your words, your desires, will prove Jesus’ resurrection more than anything else I can mention. Does your lifestyle assist the Church in making disciples? Do your actions bring people to Jesus, or do they drive them away?

Let’s take this to the congregational level. We’ve all enjoyed celebrating our big anniversary this year. I enjoyed the celebrations last week. However, we cannot rest on what we’ve done over the past 175 years without looking ahead and moving forward. Jesus has commanded us to make disciples in this community. Have we done everything necessary to reach our communities and our area for Christ? If not, what must we do?

First, I issue a call for repentance. We’ve treated church as an option, and then we wonder why our children decide not to worship at all in their adulthood. Church will rarely rank higher in their priorities than it does in ours. If you treat worship as merely an option (or even worse, an inconvenient obligation), you children will see it that way as well. Our children and our community see the lives we live outside the walls of our sanctuary. We must show them we believe in Jesus’ salvation through our own lives. If you’ve allowed something else to come between you and God, pray for genuine repentance and forgiveness. Only then can the Holy Spirit guide you to go and make disciples.

Secondly, I issue a call to our congregation to minister to our communities. The communities of our area have grown exponentially in the past decades. Had the churches in our areas grown as quickly, we would all have grown exponentially as well. Why haven’t we? What has hindered us from reaching those who have moved here? We, too, must repent for not reaching those God has placed around us. We must do whatever we find necessary to minister to the people around us and bring them to the cross of Christ, our Redeemer.

Lastly, I call on you to look ahead and decide what kind of congregation we will pass to our children. Will the people of New Hope one day celebrate our sacrifices or mourn our timidity? I’ve never met a timid person in this community. I believe God has given us a holy calling, a glorious calling, to build a congregation worthy of passing to succeeding generations.

I know we’ve had our fun celebrating our past. I know many in the Church today, especially in America, believe the world will eventually get too bad for anyone to do anything about it. Yes, I’ve read the Scriptures, and yes, I know that times will come in which it appears the saints have lost. Those times have come in the past, and the Church has triumphed. Jesus assures us He possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. Forget everything you’ve ever read about how bad it will get, because you’ll never read anywhere where Jesus gives us the option to surrender. Go, and live in victory! Jesus has won, and so will we!

We’ve sat and celebrated. Now, we must go to the cross in genuine repentance and receive the forgiveness of our sins as we confess them to Christ. Go, and make disciples by showing everyone that you have become a disciple yourself. Go, and in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, bring your community to the cross and empty tomb of our Lord for salvation and service in the name of God.

Trinity Sunday: “Called for His Glory”

The Church celebrated Trinity Sunday this past Sunday. This sermon comes from a series on Romans from 2008.

Scripture reading: Isaiah 6:1-13.
Sermon text: Romans 1:1-7.

Each year, the Church dedicates the Sunday following Pentecost to one of the most crucial — but yet most misunderstood — doctrines of the Christian faith: The Doctrine of the Trinity. Our belief in 1 God in 3 Persons separates Christianity from both Judaism and Islam, the other monotheistic faiths of humanity.

Some scholars have tried to prove that the early Church didn’t truly understand the Trinity, even going so far as to claim that Jesus Himself did not understand His relationship with the Father. Given the teachings of Christ included in the Gospel of St. John, I find it difficult to believe that Jesus misunderstood His identity when He claimed to be the Son of God the Father. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), “That they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:11, 22); these statements clearly depict Jesus as claiming perfect unity with the Father, the God of the Jews.

Today’s sermon text also contradicts any notion that the early Church failed to grasp the concept of the Trinity or the importance of the doctrine. St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in c. A.D. 57, or roughly 24-25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension and possibly before the composition of at least 3 of the Gospels (St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. John). The opening words of St. Paul’s letter provide clear evidence that he both perceived and understood the working of the Trinity in the salvation story that the Church proclaims to the world.

Few books can claim the impact of the book of Romans on Western Civilization. Romans was instrumental in St. Augustine’s conversion. After reading Romans 13:13-14, Augustine wrote, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (Augustine’s Confessions (London: Penguin Books, 1961) p. 178). Martin Luther would read Romans and become convinced that salvation was accomplished solely by justification through faith. This insight would lead him to challenge the Roman Catholic Church and centuries of doctrines. John Calvin would read Romans and become convinced that God’s sovereign plan unfolded in time in spite of the worst attempts of evil to confound it.

St. Paul wrote Romans while he was in Corinth. St. Paul wrote Romans to prepare the Roman church for his visit on his way to Spain (15:28). St. Paul was writing to a church he did not found; therefore, he could not exert any authority over them without an introduction.

The letter to the Romans is Paul’s longest letter. The letter itself is a tightly written argument for the necessity of God’s righteousness in life, for the love of God demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice, for the inclusion of the Jews in God’s salvation plan, and for the continued presence of visible proof in Christians’ lives that a spiritual birth has occurred in their lives. Today, we also see that St. Paul clearly taught the doctrine of the Trinity through his masterpiece work.

Many people wonder why Christians so emphatically cling to the doctrine. When we begin reading the letter to the Romans, we find several reasons why the Trinity speaks so dearly to believers.

First, St Paul reminded the believers at Rome of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. St. Paul called himself a “servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” St. Paul recognized Jesus as his Lord and King. Saul the Pharisee had believed in God; he had often quoted the Shema, the declaration of Moses that Jesus called the first commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). When the Christian movement began sweeping through Judea, Saul attacked the believers as heretics. However, on the road to Damascus, Saul encountered a living Jesus. Saul quickly realized that Jesus lived again, changing his perception of the God he had loved and served his entire life.

Saul — now known as Paul — realized that Jesus had set him apart for a special purpose. First, Jesus called him as an “apostle,” or “sent one.” An “apostle” in the Greek world served as a messenger with a special message to those entrusted to his mission. St. Paul knew his message: the “gospel of God.” At this point, God the Father entered the conversation with the Roman believers.

God the Father had revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s descendants as the God of the Covenant. He had first made a covenant with Abraham: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:17-18). God had confirmed this covenant with Isaac and then with Isaac’s youngest son Jacob. On Mt. Sinai, God again confirmed His covenant with Jacob’s descendants through Moses, calling Israel — the tribes descended from Jacob — as a “ a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Throughout Israel’s history, God had sent prophets proclaiming His coming. In time, the prophets began predicting a strange event in history: God would come to the earth as a human, more specifically as a descendant of David, Israel’s greatest king. Practically every major prophet from Moses forward prophesied regarding the coming of God in flesh.

Unfortunately, these prophecies also included those of Isaiah that God would suffer and die for the sins of His people and for the sins of all humanity. St. Paul reminded the Romans that Jesus’ resurrection following His sacrificial death firmly established His identity as the Son of God, just as He had claimed (John 10:36). Christians from the resurrection forward clearly proclaimed Jesus’ identity in this way, beginning with some before His death (cf. Martha, John 11:27) and emphatically afterward (John 20:31). After his own conversion and calling, St. Paul himself had “proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20).

St. Paul also reminded the Romans of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation history. Jesus had promised to send another “Comforter” or “Advocate” to indwell believers after He ascended to the Father (John 14:16-17). On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came into the world and empowered believers to carry the gospel of God to all humanity (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit goes everywhere that believers go, giving us the courage and wisdom to proclaim Jesus as the “Son of God” through His resurrection.

Once we hear this proclamation — Jesus has died for our sins, risen from the dead, and now offers freedom from sin to all who believe in Him as Lord — we receive “grace.” Grace refers to the undeserved merit we receive from God, who forgives us of our sins against Himself and against others and declares us as “justified,” or having the standing to approach Him knowing He has forgiven our sins.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we, too, have received the “apostleship” to carry the news of Jesus’ resurrection to those in our lives. The Church has spread around the world to tell people of every nation and language about the freedom from sin we experience through the work of the Trinity in our lives. St. Paul carried this message throughout the Roman Empire, calling people to believe in Jesus and live in “the obedience of faith for the sake of his name.”

St. Paul then addressed the Roman believers directly, reminding them they were “called to belong to Jesus Christ;” the Holy Spirit had worked in their hearts to convict them of their sins and bring them to salvation through their confession of Jesus as Lord of their lives. One of the Church Fathers, a man known as Ambrosiaster, stated that the Roman Christians accepted Christianity without any notable miracles and without any apostolic proclamation of the faith. Most likely, Jews from Rome were present at the events of Pentecost and carried the new faith back to Rome itself.

St. Paul opened the main portion of the letter with a new form of the customary salutation in Greek letters: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Greek letters often opened by wishing “grace” to the recipient of the letter, but St. Paul added “peace” to his salutation. St. Paul reminded the Romans both of the grace they received through their salvation and the peace with God that their confession in Christ had brought.

I believe these verses remind us today of the Trinity’s work in our own salvation.

First, we must remember that when we confess Jesus as Lord, we must live according to His expectations and commandments. We cease our service to self and sin and begin serving our new Lord, who calls us to proclaim His resurrection to the world. The gospel consists of the good news that while all humanity suffers from our sins, Jesus has paid the penalty and conquered both sin and death through His crucifixion and resurrection.

We should also find encouragement in the prophecies regarding Jesus’ coming. These prophecies remind us that God the Father, in His omniscience, knows what we faced in life and what we will face in the future. He has already prepared for what we will face later today and for the rest of our lives. This fact should lead us to trust Him even more in our lives. If we can trust God for our salvation from sin, we can also trust Him to provide for us and guide us in life.

The Holy Spirit Himself (remember that the Holy Spirit is God, not an emotion!) also works in us. He helps us to live godly lives as a witness to His work in us. He also works in unbelievers to draw them to Jesus, pointing them to the only true source of salvation: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The God we serve — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — cares deeply about you. Everyone who confesses the Son as Lord finds peace with the Father and experiences the calming presence of the Spirit. The joy of our faith revolves around the love of God for us, a love that extends beyond the love of the Persons for one another to encompass us as well. You’ll find no stronger love than the love of the Trinity for one another and for all believers in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Belief and Academia: “The God We Know”

I delivered this sermon on 29 May 2011 during the Easter season on the Church calendar. As an academic by nature, training, and career, I believe Christians bear a responsibility to interact with the knowledge of our culture.

This belief — a belief I believe constitutes a calling in my life as much as my calling to the pastorate — makes St. Paul’s appearance at the Areopagus one of my favorite passages in Scripture.

Scripture reading: Psalm 66:8-20.
Sermon text: Acts 17:16-34.

Whenever Christian missionaries go into new areas and encounter new tribes, they almost always find some clues they can use to tell the people there about the God we serve. The missionaries find something in the culture of the new tribes they can use to build a means of communicating the truths of Scriptures. This method has worked for centuries.

The philosophical traditions of Greece began over 700 years before the birth of Christ. The philosophers of Athens possessed the wisdom of the Greek civilization. Their teachings and beliefs continue to influence us today. However, the Greek philosophers needed to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their studies would not bring salvation; they would not bring them a relationship with God. God wanted the gospel in Athens, and He used a lifetime to prepare St. Paul for the task.

St. Paul the Apostle was born in Tarsus, schooled in Tarsus and Jerusalem, and converted on the road to Damascus. In the passage from Acts, St. Paul finally arrived in the intellectual center of the Roman Empire: Athens. Six hundred fifteen miles separates Tarsus from Athens. For St. Paul, this distance represented a lifetime of study and preparation for the task he carried onto the Areopagus.

St. Paul’s sermon on the Aeropagus, before a group of Greek intellectuals ignorant of the gospel, holds lessons for the Church today. As with St. Paul, we find ourselves in a culture ignorant of the words of Holy Scripture. We find ourselves in the position of teaching the basics of the faith to people eager to seek God but unable to overcome their pride and seek God’s forgiveness. Like the Greeks, many today want to find their own paths to God. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” St. Paul had to explain the way to the Greeks. We must do the same today in order to bring the gospel to our community and — through the Church — to the world.

Fortunately, we also live in a culture that retains at least a small semblance of cultural understanding of Christianity. Unfortunately, most people know more about the fringes of Christian culture than the real truths of our faith. As we tell people about our God, we must find a way of connecting with them and revealing the reasons we believe in Jesus and follow His commands to love God and love others as ourselves.

St. Paul began his preparation for Athens early in his life. Tarsus, his hometown, boasted great schools in its own right. According to Strabo, a Greek philosopher of the first century A.D., “The people at Tarsus have devoted themselves so eagerly, not only to philosophy, but also to the whole round of education in general, that they have surpassed Athens, Alexandria, or any other place that can be named where there have been schools and lectures of philosophers” (Geographica).  St. Paul would have received rigorous preparation for his later studies in Jerusalem. This training would have included an education in the Greek philosophical tradition. Then, in due time, St. Paul traveled to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, the greatest Jewish teacher of his time.

This training helped St. Paul throughout his service to the Church. His standing as a student of Gamaliel opened doors into the synagogues of the Roman Empire, where he proclaimed the fulfillment of the prophecies through Jesus Christ to both the Jews and the Gentile “God-fearers.” His extensive knowledge of the Old Testament guided his teachings to the congregations of the Empire. His encounters with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and through prayer guided his interpretations of the Old Testament in his writings.

St. Paul also knew his Greek philosophy. For centuries, scholars have remarked on the similarities between St. Paul’s writings in the Epistles and Stoicism, the most popular philosophy of the Roman Empire. The Romans especially appreciated Stoicism for its emphasis on emotional self-control.

Therefore, St. Paul was the ideal candidate to take the gospel to Athens, the academic and philosophical capital of the Roman Empire. God had carefully chosen His representative to the Greek philosophers. The question becomes, Why did God care so much for the conversion of the Areopagites?

Some people may not understand this, but God loved the Greeks as much as He loved the Jews. God didn’t send Jesus, His only Son, to die only for the Jews; Jesus told Nicodemus, one of Judaism’s leaders, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God had also worked for centuries to prepare Greek civilization for the gospel of Jesus. Their philosophical roots extended back before 600 B.C. to a man named Thales. The Greeks had pioneered the contemplation of the tough questions of life: Who are we? Why are we here? These questions led the Greeks to answers tantalizingly close to the teachings of the Old Testament.

When St. Paul first came to Athens, he found an intellectual city with a religious twist. In the intellectual centers of the Western world today, most scholars scoff at any religion, especially Christianity. However, the Athenians worshiped any god or goddess in the Empire. One of their philosophers, Epimenides, had sought to cleanse Athens of a plague over 600 years before by building an altar to “an unknown god.” This altar was meant to appease any god the Athenians hadn’t yet honored with a temple or an altar. As he walked through the city, St. Paul came across this altar. This altar, and its inscription, gave St. Paul the clues he needed to begin proclaiming the true God to the Athenians.

When St. Paul began teaching of God and Jesus Christ in the marketplace, some of the philosophers of the Areopagus heard his teachings and realized this was a “new thing.” The word the Epicureans and Stoics used to describe St. Paul aptly describes their chief reason for listening to him; they called him an “idea-picker.” They didn’t realize that St. Paul wasn’t picking for new ideas; he was proclaiming the way to a new life.

It is interesting that when we consider the philosophies of Western civilization, the philosophers responsible for St. Paul’s appearance represented the extremes of Greek philosophy. The Epicureans’ philosophy emphasized indulging in the sensual pleasures of life. Their teaching is best exemplified by the saying, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” (If that sounds familiar, read 1 Corinthians 15:32).

The Stoics, on the other hand, taught reason, self-control, and discipline. Unlike the Epicureans, the Stoics sought to avoid any extremes in life. They believed in moderation of all pleasures.

This brings us to St. Paul’s lessons on the Areopagus, or “Mar’s Hill.” What did St. Paul say, and how does it help us today?

First, St. Paul recognized the Athenians’ desire for God. St. Paul had found an altar to an “unknown god;” he realized that the God of his fathers was unknown to these people. However, their philosophies sought to find a path to God; their religions had attempted to find Him. The philosophies and religions had failed. Now, the true faith had come.

Secondly, St. Paul started with what the Greeks understood. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” St. Paul didn’t attempt to declare something new when he had found a foundation on which he could build. He built on this foundation in proclaiming the nature of the Jewish God.

The Old Testament tells us much about this God. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “[God] selected one particular people and spent centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was — that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. These people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process” (Mere Christianity, “The Shocking Alternative”). The Old Testament also tells us of God’s care for all humanity. In His call to Abraham, He told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

St. Paul told the Greeks of this God; there was no room for Greek polytheism in the true religion. St. Paul told the Greeks that this God had created the universe and had created all humans from one man: “he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” St. Paul also explained the Greeks’ desire for religion and worship: All people “ should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” The Greeks had been seeking for centuries; now, He had come in the teachings of St. Paul.

St. Paul’s use of Greek philosophy continued with a quote from the very philosopher who had build the altar to the unknown god: Epimenides, who had said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” This line comes from a hymn to Zeus, the king of the gods in the Greek pantheon. St. Paul established his credentials before the philosophers and used their own writings to bolster his case. The second line of verse 28 comes from Aratus, a philosopher and poet from St. Paul’s native province: “For we indeed are his offspring.”

We must also notice St. Paul’s clear boundaries in his presentation. While St. Paul used Greek teachings in his presentation, he refused to compromise the gospel. St. Paul declared God’s nature as a spirit (John 4:24); that He called all people to repentance; that He would judge all people who refused to repent; and that He had made a way for all people to repent in Jesus Christ: “of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Did everyone accept the gospel that day? Of course not. Nor should we be surprised when people refuse to accept the gospel today. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” We find the same reactions to the gospel today. However, St. Luke records that “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” God’s preparation of their hearts through their culture gave them the faith to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Don’t you see a resemblance between the civilization in which St. Paul lived and ours today? We live in a society where religion seems prevalent; everyone wants to worship something. However, we also realize that most people want to find their own way to God. And, as in St. Paul’s time, many of our intellectual elite scoff at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, somehow ignoring its historical reality. St. Paul himself would later write to the Corinthians, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

However, St. Paul’s sermon should also help us reach our society.

First, we must never forget that we have a God to proclaim to the world. We have a God who has revealed Himself through nature; David the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). We have a God who has revealed Himself through His deliverance of Israel; time and again, we find the words in the prophets that the fulfillment of their prophecies will demonstrate His identity (Isaiah 49:26; Ezekiel 5:13, among others).

Ultimately, we have a God who revealed Himself in His love and care for humanity through His Son, Jesus. Jesus said to St. Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In Jesus, we see God as He truly is: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Because He loves them, God cares about their problems; He cares about their issues, and He cares about their joys in life. God cares enough about them to send Jesus to die for their salvation and rise again for their victory over death.

We must consistently but lovingly proclaim the necessity of salvation through Jesus alone. As St. Peter said, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). We must, however, notice that St. Paul did not try to scare the Greeks to salvation. St. Paul didn’t preach about hell; he instead proclaimed the gospel to them. The gospel is simple: Jesus has come, Jesus died for our sins, and He rose again for our victory over death. Those who come to Jesus through fear will most likely not develop the spiritual endurance to grow in their faith. We cannot frighten people into the Church, but we must never compromise the gospel of Christ.

I see another lesson here in St. Paul’s experience at the Areopagus, one that lies close to my heart. This lesson means so much to me I can’t pass up an opportunity to repeat it. I’ve spent all but 11 years of my life in the academy, either as a student, staff member, or instructor. I know God has called me to scholarship just as I know He has called me to the pastorate. St. Paul would never have reached this point without serious intellectual preparation. Historically, the Church has always encouraged intellectual development. Modern science arose in the Church; the Church created the modern university system beginning in the eleventh century.

Unfortunately, many Baptists have often disparaged intellectual activities and actively discouraged our youth from academic studies in certain fields. We must train our youth intellectually as well as spiritually. In St. Paul’s case, Strabo had more to say about Tarsus than my earlier quote. Strabo also wrote, “But [Tarsus] is so different from other cities that there the men who are fond of learning, are all natives, and foreigners are not inclined to sojourn there; neither do these natives stay there, but they complete their education abroad; and when they have completed it they are pleased to live abroad, and but few go back home.” I think it’s a horrible fact that studies find over 60% of churched teens who go to college leave the Church.

We must prepare our youth for serious studies beyond home. We must begin by rigorously teaching them the Scriptures, both in church and in home. We must then encourage our youth to undertake serious studies, especially in the sciences. Our faith relies on an intellectual foundation even more than on emotionalism. St. Paul would later write to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The development of the minds of our youth matters even more now than in the time of St. Paul.

And, of course, in the wake of last week’s fiasco regarding (yet) another Rapture prophecy, we need to confront something within the Church itself. We need to realize that we live in a rational faith based on the historical reality of a Resurrection. The Church suffers badly whenever the “fruits and nuts” take center stage, and here in America, it seems far too few of us have taken seriously the responsibility of calling them down. The Spirit never causes dissension or confusion, and He never brings glory to an individual. The Spirit always glorifies the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Don’t mistake the emotion of a moment for the presence of the Holy Spirit, and don’t ever allow anyone to preface their latest zaniness with “The Spirit led me to.”

God has given us tremendous opportunities to reach our society for Christ. We honor Him by preparing ourselves through serious study on behalf of the Church. Only the Holy Spirit can draw people to Christ; however, He uses us to reach them with the gospel. Our preparation enables us to serve the gospel and see others born again into the life of our faith. We must proclaim the God we know to a world who needs to know Him.

For further reading:

Lecture on Cosmology and Religion at the University of Alabama by Stephen Barr, Ph.D., Professor of Particle Physics, University of Delaware.

Stephen Barr, “Much Ado about Nothing: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe,” “First Things”

Stephen Barr, The Design of Evolution “First Things”

Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. 2003: University of Notre Dame Press.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.