Sermon: Go, and Bless

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: Welcome to Grace

I’ve noticed that few Evangelicals really understand grace. This sermon, I hope, helps us to receive it — and, just as importantly, practice it. — JA

Welcome to Grace

Scripture reading: Psalm 119:33-40.
Sermon text: Matthew 5:38-48.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot not imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back on God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV.ix

We all have our favorite passages of Scripture. We love reading where Jesus tells us, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1), “I with you always” (Matthew 28:20), or (probably our favorite) “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). We love these passages because they give us hope and comfort.

Then, we encounter the other passages, those we had rather avoid. Even the most devout believers will occasionally read something that convicts them and challenges them to do something they had rather not.

Today’s passage covers a set of verses most of us don’t want to hear. Few of us want to hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and I’ve heard more explanations for “be perfect” than I can count. Interestingly, almost every explanation I’ve heard of this passage — except for the explanation in the C.S. Lewis quote above — tries in some way to say, “Jesus didn’t really mean it.”

We’ll get to that passage soon enough. However, we need to realize that Jesus’ words today give us far more hope than any of the comforting passages I’ve already mentioned. Christian, I have great news for you: One day, you’ll become the perfect image of God He created you to become —

And you will owe it all to grace.

Jesus opened this section of the Sermon on the Mount with a reminder of Moses’ teachings regarding justice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Most of us today have heard this saying, usually when uttered by someone praying (or hoping) for God to put holy smite on someone who just wronged them in some way. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone use this phrase in a rational moment; it usually appears in the heat of the moment and at a decibel level approaching that of a jet engine.

We think of this kind of justice — often known by its Latin rendition, lex talionis — as cruel. Why should someone want to render exact payment like this in a justice system? It helps to know the history behind this version of justice.

In the ancient Mesopotamian world of tribes and clans, before the state assumed the role of arbiter in crimes, at least one member of every family served as the “blood avenger” who enforced the peace between families. If someone murdered or wronged a family member, everyone expected the blood avenger to avenge the murder or injustice. Lex talionis prevented the blood avengers from exceeding the bounds and inflicting more punishment than necessary to avenge the crime.

Jesus began with the Mosaic injunction of lex talionis and then redefined the law to describe God’s ideal: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” What did Jesus mean?

We must understand that Jesus did not refer to a judicial system. Instead, we must remember “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). If our true enemy does not exist physically, then we cannot treat other humans with disrespect; we cannot wish vengeance on others if we love them as ourselves. Even as we work to end injustice, we must do so without descending into vengeance.

This leads us to Jesus’ more difficult teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

“Wait,” you say; “I can do this!” Of course we can. We love to love those who already love us. Anyone can hate his enemy, the one that despises you and seeks your harm. I can always manufacture “warm fuzzies” for those I love, and I don’t have to work at all to viscerally hate my enemy.

Then, Jesus gave His interpretation. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

That hurts. It turns out Jesus expects us to love our enemies as much as we love our neighbors. It seems Jesus really means this “love” thing.

I don’t know if I can do this; in fact, I don’t think I can do it on my own. I have no problem loving those who love me, but to love those who hate me? Why did Jesus say I must love those who work to cause harm to me?

Jesus said this because He did it; He lived as He expects us to live. Jesus lived among sinful humanity, in spite of our hatred and rebellion. Jesus loved even those who killed Him. Jesus never met an enemy He didn’t love, and we had best thank God for that love; that love led Jesus to die for our sins and rise again for our salvation.

In short, welcome to grace.

By grace, Jesus died to save us. By grace, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We had rebelled against God, but Christ died for us anyway. By grace, He calls us to believe in Him as the Holy Spirit draws us to the cross for salvation.

In Jesus’ teachings, we see how He wishes us to treat one another. God knows the injustices we inflict on one another, but He still loves each human, so much so that He offers grace to us instead of condemnation and judgment. Because God has loved us, we come to love each other so much that we do not insist on our own rights, but we willingly forego our own rights for the good of others.

Do you see the implications? If we treat each injustice as an opportunity to minister to everyone around us — even our oppressors — we begin to open avenues to proclaim the gospel to those who mistreat us.

These teachings may sound incredibly difficult to us, but Jesus’ next words seem impossible: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I’ve heard a lot of interpretations of this verse. Some people want to interpret the Greek word “teleios” as “mature” so it sounds more as if Jesus didn’t mean “perfect,” but given the rest of the sentence, this doesn’t work. We can’t see a holy God as merely “mature.” (The Message sounds even worse: “Grow up,” as if God ever displayed juvenile tendencies.) No, Jesus said “perfect,” and He meant it.

Only Jesus Himself ever lived a perfect life, and perfection didn’t save Him from death. Why would Jesus expect perfection if no one has ever attained it? I can see at least 2 reasons why Jesus would seem to do this to us.

First, let’s go back a few verses, to the sermon text from two weeks ago, where we find these words: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees had tried to reinterpret holiness to mean adherence to their traditions rather than adherence to the spirit of the Law. The zealous protecting of the Jewish Law by the Pharisees had degenerated into legalism, so much so that the Pharisees demanded obedience only to the letter of their laws.

Legalism never works, no matter what day it rears its head or what group expounds it. If you’re expecting God to owe you a favor because you keep someone’s set of laws, you’ll find yourself in deep trouble. None of us will ever attain salvation by obedience; we will attain it only by grace, by coming to Jesus for forgiveness of our sins and spiritual rebirth. “You must be born again,” Jesus said to one of the foremost Pharisees (John 3:7).

Secondly, and more importantly, I believe C.S. Lewis accurately described the salvation lifestyle in the passage I quoted earlier. God loves us, but holiness defines God’s nature and character. God cannot and will not tolerate sin. We serve a holy God. Out of love, God forgives us of our sins when we confess Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection (Romans 10:9); out of love, God then adopts us into His family (Romans 8:13-17).

Then, by grace, God begins perfecting us. As Lewis puts it in the same chapter of Mere Christianity:

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

Christian, I believe we can read this passage and instead of despairing at our imperfections, we find we can take comfort and hope from Jesus’ words. God will perfect all His children. No, we won’t like it; yes, we’ll experience pain in the process. We will, however, find the ultimate result worth everything we experience in this life.

In the meantime, we find we must live to a higher standard than the world’s. We must understand that our every action can help someone to immortal joy with our Creator. We must understand that when God said, “Love your neighbor,” He meant it, even if loving our neighbor brings us harm. We must work in this life to fight injustice. We must work now to spread the gospel so that everyone around us will one day, in a new creation, experience the perfection God has prepared for all of us. God has shown us grace, and He expects us to demonstrate grace to others on a daily basis.

Christian, I give you words of comfort: We live in grace. We live in hope. Through the grace of God, we have received forgiveness; through His grace, we can show grace to others. This week, live in grace in such a way that, when others ask why you love them, you can say: “Join me in grace.”

Sermon: What Must I Do?

Scripture reading: Matthew 5:1-12.
Sermon text: Micah 6:1-8.

“Tell me what you want.”

Perhaps you’ve heard those words in an argument. Perhaps you’ve used those words in an argument. Few things can spark a conflict like ambiguity, especially when those arguing debate their expectations of one another. I’ve heard people say, usually in sheer exasperation, “Just tell me what you want.”

As strange as it may seem to us — or, perhaps not so strange — people have, on occasion, said the same thing to God. I’ve noticed that most people who want to know God’s expectations really want the bare minimum of His requirements. Human nature apparently drives us to demand in frustration the minimal expectations of God. We want to make Him happy with us, either to escape judgment or to keep Him satiated.

Let’s face it. Most of us, at some time or another, have demanded God to tell us His exact expectations so we can get Him to leave us alone.

In our more honest moments, we’ll all admit we’ve felt this way. We fear God’s judgment, so we want to make sure we don’t cross the line between happiness and fury. On the other hand, we often want to surrender to temptation to do something, so we want to know just how close to the line we can get without triggering punishment.

This mentality, unfortunately, dates back to the Garden of Eden. Even the chosen people of God, the Jews, demonstrated this mentality. Today’s sermon text both demonstrates humanity’s tendency toward sin and also God’s true expectations of us. I would love to tell you that we’ll find the exact line we can toe, but instead, God gives us freedom to live fully in His pleasure.

The prophet Micah began his ministry a few years before Isaiah in the eighth century B.C. He prophesied to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, as did Isaiah. While the king in Jerusalem mostly remained faithful to God, the people had wandered into idolatry and disobedience of the covenant of Moses. The book reads like a judicial indictment that culminates with today’s passage. In this passage, we clearly see the expectations of God for humanity.

The passage opens with the convening of a court: “Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case,” the Lord said. The word for “plead” here literally means “to fight.” God would give Israel an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with their God.

God called witnesses to this debate: “Plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.” Humans, with our short lifespan, would not qualify as witnesses. Only the mountains and hills, those features next to which humans appear as whispers, could serve as faithful jurors in this case.

God went straight to the point. “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” God wanted to know what He had done to exasperate the Jews. How had He mistreated them to cause them to reject Him as their God?

God made a powerful argument that He deserved Israel’s worship. “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” When Israel needed to remember the care of God for His people, they could begin by remembering the Exodus. God had redeemed His people from the greatest superpower on earth at that time. No one would have believed the Egyptians would allow Israel to walk away from the burdens of slavery, but God had intervened to rescue His people and send them from Egypt to establish a nation. God had given “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” to the people to lead them on the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

God reminded them of an incident on the way to the Promised Land. “O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.” You’ll find this story in Numbers chapters 22-24. Balak, king of Moab, had hired Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, God had used Balaam to bless the nation and prophesy of Israel’s greatness in the centuries to come.

Did this reminder of their history bring Israel to repent? Did this walk down “Memory Lane” cause the Jews to remember their love for God and turn back to Him in gratitude for His blessings and grace?

Unfortunately, the Jews persisted in their idolatry and greed. The Jews stubbornly insisted on living according to their interpretations of God’s law, in spite of the consequences. The Jews had no intention of returning to God and obeying the covenant; they decided to persist in their sins. Instead of repenting, the Jews insisted they had done nothing wrong. The fault, they declared, lay with God; He hadn’t told them what He expected of them. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” they piously said. “What will please you? What do you want? Tell me what you want!” Did God want “burnt offerings” of “thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

The Jews revealed the level of depravity they had reached with their next statement: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Of all the idolatrous practices of the pagan Canaanites, nothing elicits more revulsion than child sacrifice. The Canaanite god Moloch required child sacrifice. In contrast, Moses had specifically forbidden child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31). The sacrificial system required the Jews to sacrifice animals, but it prohibited child sacrifice.

An outburst like the one in Micah deserved a response, and God answered. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I know we say things in the heat of an argument that we wouldn’t ordinarily say. I’ll not deny my personal guilt. And yes, I’ve debated and argued with God. Anyone who reads the Psalms will find plenty of laments and outbursts as the psalmists try to goad God into acting for His people.

Still, this passage reminds us of something. We can raise our complaints to God, but we cannot make excuses to God.

God told Micah’s audience what He expected, and the same expectations apply to us. “Do justice.” We must act rightly with everyone we meet, and we must work to guarantee justice in our society.

“Love kindness.” God didn’t put a caveat on this command that limits kindness only to our fellow citizens, or to fellow Christians, or to people of our race or language. “Love kindness” applies to everyone God puts into our paths.

“Walk humbly with your God.” This command brings us back to Epiphany, the proclamation of Jesus in our lives.

Humans don’t like humility. I don’t like humility. The list of mortal sins begins with the original sin: Pride. Pride caused Adam and Eve to desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Pride caused Cain to kill Abel. You can trace every injustice, every crime, every genocide, every problem we face in our society to pride. Pride creates a rift between us and God, and only Jesus can heal the rift.

Jesus came into the world as a baby. You can’t find a more humbling and helpless way for the Son of God to enter humanity. Jesus never ruled a nation; He never wrote a book; He never sat on a throne.

Instead, Jesus walked humbly with God. He spent time in prayer with His Father. He spent time in the Scriptures. He spent time among other people, even those the religious elite considered the dregs of society. (Don’t worry; He spent time with the religious snots, too.) The longest set of His teachings in Scripture tells us what He expects of us, and you can summarize it with 3 commands: “Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Then, the only crown Jesus ever wore bloodied His scalp as the Romans rammed the crown of thorns on His head. He suffered the most humiliating death known to humanity as He hung naked and helpless on a cross. Like all people, Jesus had to submit to death.

The story doesn’t stop there! Jesus rose from the dead, conquering sin and death for us. Now, we can turn over our pride to Jesus, and He accepts us into a family of faith. We come to Jesus, confess Him as Lord, and believe in His resurrection (Romans 10:9).

Our walk with God begins with that confession. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, God Himself, into our hearts so He can help us do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. The Holy Spirit directs us in life so we’ll meet people who need justice. The Holy Spirit directs us to people who need someone to show kindness. The Holy Spirit reminds us of our need to walk with God through worship, prayer, and fellowship with other believers.

I believe the Church must work to bring justice, kindness, and humility to our society. We cannot site idly by while others face injustice, regardless of their race or region. We must show kindness to others and serve them humbly. Only then will they see Jesus in us.

This week, I urge you to demonstrate the qualities of God in your life. Christian, I call on you to do justice for the oppressed and downtrodden. I call on you to love kindness and show kindness to all those you know and meet. I call on you to demonstrate humility to others. Serve God by serving those who need you so you’ll hear the words of Our Father Himself: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Go forth, and serve God by serving others. Love God by loving others. Proclaim Jesus in your life that others will know what God expects of us.

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.