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Monday, August 31, 2015

“Fully Receive the Word” (1 Thessalonians 2:13-20)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

[prior to reading the text]

        Last week, we received spiritual prescriptions that contribute to us living spiritually healthy lives in relation to God as disciples of Jesus and as a church that stands on the foundation of faith.
        The first prescription is to read 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, and Acts 17.
          The second prescription is to the welcome the madness that is in the world, and we do this by creating an environment of love and grace as we invite broken people to come to faith in Christ.
          This morning, we receive additional guidance for a spiritually fulfilled life.  Our Bible passage is 1st Thessalonians 2:13-20.
13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters,[d] became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets,[e] and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.
17 As for us, brothers and sisters,[g] when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!
        In 1st Thessalonians 2:13, Paul says the people in Thessalonica received the word of God not a human word but as God’s word, which works in us.  Note, Paul did not hand out Bibles – the New Testament had not been written and bound books were not available.  We hear the phrase ‘word of God,’ and we think Bible.  Paul meant his preaching.  When he went to Thessalonica and preached to the Jews in the synagogue, he felt that his sermon was the word of God. 
          Something similar should happen here.  When you come to HillSong or to another church, here is what should happen.  The experience should be one in which you encounter the living God.  I don’t say this because my words are necessarily the Word.  I do my part.  I study.  I pray.  I try to write a sermon that is interesting, well-informed, and includes a message that meets a need people have.  But, you receiving the word of God is not contingent upon my competence as a preacher.  Some weeks I do well, some weeks, I really stumble and stink.
          Some weeks, I finish, and I sit down, and I think, “Boy, I am glad that’s over because my preaching was just awful.” Inevitably someone will come and say through tears, “That’s the best sermon you’ve ever preached.”  Do you know why that happens?  God was at work in that person on that Sunday.  They need to express the overwhelming sense of the holy they have had.  How do they express that?  They don’t know.  So they complement me.
          Sometimes people listen very carefully and give me feedback that is directly tied to something I said and I am grateful in those moments whether the feedback is critical or affirming.  But sometimes, people have actually been dealing with God and did not really hear me at all.  They have to react and the easiest thing to do is say something nice to me. 
          I’ll admit it does feel good to hear affirmations and ‘attaboys.’  But, this morning, I think the word in 1st Thessalonians is calling us to go beyond the easy and immediate reaction.  We need to step toward a more life-changing engagement with the word.  And by the phrase “the word,” I mean the sermon, the Bible, and the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking into hearts as we go through the entire Sunday morning exercise of worship at church. 
          We need to fully receive the word and that requires full engagement of each of us.  Be aware of your life – the good, the bad, the ugly.  Be aware of your spirit.  Are you happy, in a good place right now?  Are you going through difficult times?  Is your life kind of inert, it feels dull, boring?  Is this a season of radical change?  Does all the new that’s pouring to your life leave you feeling unsettled and unsure of what’s next?  As we sit together as a community of faith and encounter God’s word, know yourself, your emotions, your dreams, your situation.  Bring all of it before God.
          When Paul preached at the synagogue in Thessalonica, obviously Jews were present.  Greeks were too.  Non-Jews attended because they found something in the Jewish faith to be attractive.  It was a world of Roman power, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.  Many there knew that the tense situation in Jerusalem.  Certain groups were intent on using military force to evict the Romans.  It would be a suicide mission as Israel was a meager force in the face of the might of the Roman army. 
          The Jews and Greeks who gathered at the synagogue in Thessalonica knew of this.  They heard Paul claim that Jesus, who was crucified, a shameful, loser’s death, had been raised and was the Messiah.  They knew this message was way outside of anyone’s expectations, whether they be Greek, Jewish, or Roman.  How could Paul, a Jew, make such a far-fetched claim?  Yet, he did.  A few Thessalonican Jews believed him and wanted to become disciples of Jesus.  So too did a few Thessalonican Greeks.  Many others got so mad they kicked Paul out of town. 
          In writing the letter 1st Thessalonians, Paul picks up on this ongoing story of struggle and persecution.  When he says, “You received the word as God’s word,” included in this is the acknowledgement that to follow Jesus is to suffer.  Verse 14, “[You Thessalonians] became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews.”  Please remember, in both churches, the Thessalonican and the Judean, many of the Christ-followers were Jews. 
          Bible scholar Calvin Roetzel writes how suffering brought “the suffering churches of Thessalonica and Judea together into a community of shared suffering.”  In this passage, “Paul emphasized the bond between himself and his readers.”[i]  He suffered.  They suffered.  Christians in other cities suffered.  And ultimately, God can identify with all of this because on the cross, Jesus suffered. 
          Suffering of course is not the heart of the faith Paul taught; just the opposite.  In 1st Thessalonians he is moving to show that God welcomes suffering people.  If you are having a tough go of it, that is not a sign that you’re cut off from God.  Sin cuts us off.  If you’re suffering, God understands and so too do all God-followers.  The answer to the cross and to your pain and mine is the resurrection.  We are united in that we are broken and that we have hope that God will clean up our mess, fix what is broken, heal what’s hurt, and make us new. 
          We won’t receive the word fully unless we attend to it fully and that means bring everything before God when we come into the worship.  The preacher stand to preach and we’re all here – with all our junk.  Our hearts are fully present and so too are our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  Our challenges are linked to those who languish in poverty just a few miles from here.  Our story is a part of the story of the faithful believe drowning in a sea of apathy and atheism in post-Christian Europe.  We are connected to the Christian starving in solitary confinement in a North Korean prison.  It is all connected.
          When Paul told the Thessalonians they were receiving the Word as they heard Him speak and when I say here that God’s word is spoken during my sermons, there is a lot more going on than just a guy as microphone offering commentary on the Bible.  God is bringing us all together in Christ. 
          N.T. Wright says it this way.  “I believe [Paul] regarded [his own] work as being to set up cells loyal to Jesus as Lord across the world where Caesar was lord, raising small but significant flags which heralded the dawn of a different empire, a different sort  of empire.”[ii]  We see several things happening.  One is we, in our brokenness are invited in to find what we need, whatever it is, in a community that is based on faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of all and Lord of all.  Our hope is in Him.
          A second thing at work in this Word of God is the unity we have with one another, with churches and with people from almost 2000 years ago – Thessalonia, Jerusalem, Paul, Silas, and with churches around the world today.  We who have our hope in Christ are connected to all others who have their hope in Christ because we’re all broken and we all have hope of healing from the same source: the crucified, resurrected Lord.
          A third thing in Paul’s letter which Dr. Wright so astutely observes is that we who are healed and connected through the Word we have received are commissioned to announce that Jesus is Lord.  We are to look at the governments of today and the situations of the lives we lead and we are to be today’s heralds of a new kind of empire.  The word we have received heals us and then propels us just as it did Paul to announce the Gospel, the good news of life in Christ.
          I preach this same message just about every week.  I use different words and the themes vary, but the idea that we meet God in Christ, are healed and made whole, and then are sent into the world in His name is at the core of what I think the Bible says we are to be as His followers.  So discipleship and proclamation is always a part of what we do and say.
          Last week we received a prescription of 3 Bible readings and one orientation – an orientation of welcome to all people.
          This week the word is in the form of exercise or spiritual therapy.  I got to doctor in hopes a magic pill that will my shoulder pain disappear.  No, he says, you don’t get medicine.  You have to go through physical therapy.  It takes time and commitment and it is hard work.  But I can tell you, it is worth it!  I didn’t like the exercises, but 6 weeks later, my shoulder was working properly again.
          This spiritual version of physical therapy is demanding.  (1) We need to come to worship with the family of God – the church.  We need to come every week.  (2) When we come – whether here or elsewhere, whether with me preaching or with Heather or Nathan – we need to be fully present.  This doesn’t mean we hang on every word Rob speaks.  We need to come fully present to God. 
          To be fully present, we have to give God our attention.  Distractions happen, but we keep our minds and hearts open to God as the Bible is read and the preacher speaks.  Fully attentive, fully open, prayerfully waiting, we are ready to receive what God has for us.  In that moment, when we sit fully ready and the Holy Spirit awakens us to new truth and revelation God has for us, that is when we receive the word as God’s word.  It may be directly related to the preacher’s sermon; it may not.  Either way, we have received God’s word.
          Finally (3), we carry what we have received into the world so that we are ready to share the healing and to invite the lost and hurting world around us to the hope that we have in the resurrection of Jesus.
          Come, be fully present, and carry with you what’s been received.  These three spiritual practices need to be done regularly for spiritual health and the transformation of the heart. 
          N.T. Wright marvels at this message we proclaim.  He’s amazed that it actually does anything.  He says, “I have often reflected on the strangeness of the task to which Paul devoted his life: telling pagans that there was a single creator God rather than a multiplicity of gods was bad enough, but adding that this God had made himself known in a crucified Jew, who had then been raised from the dead was bound to cause hoots of derision and, if Acts is to be believed, sometimes did.   Yet Paul found that when he told this story, when he proclaimed that this Jesus was indeed the world’s true Lord, people (to their great surprise, no doubt) found this announcement making itself at home in their minds and hearts, generating the belief that it was true, and transforming their lives with a strange new presence and power.”[iii]
          Yes, it is strange.  Come every week.  Listen so presently and intently you meet God.  Go out and share that God in Christ is the answer to the world’s problem.  We don’t have to participate in this exercise to breathe or have a heartbeat.  But to truly live, we do this.  And, as the apostle says, we have joy.

[i] C. Roetzel (2003).  Paul: A Jew on the Margins.  Westminster John Know Press, Louisville, p.32.
[ii] Wright (2005).  Paul in Fresh Perspective.  Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p.170.
[iii] Ibid, p.100.

“Welcome the Madness” (Acts 17:1-15; 1 Thess. 1:1-10)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

           I was discussing our church with my dad.  He is a committed Christian, a deacon of many years in his church, a veteran Bible study leader, and someone whose theology is very practical.  As we talked and I described where I believe God wants us to focus, I admitted I was having trouble bringing my ideas together. 
When I told him we’d be looking Paul’s Thessalonian letters, he said without hesitation, “How a ‘Prescription for Life’?”  Brilliant!  Thanks Dad.
          Pharmacist and students in the pharmacy school worship in our church family.  Among us are doctors who write prescriptions for patients.  And every one of us has been to the doctor and had a medication prescribed. 
Over the next seven weeks, we will hear ideas, actions, and life-orientations prescribed from God’s word.  The purpose of this Biblical medicine is spiritual fitness.  We want to be healthy in our faith.  We want our witness to the Gospel to be robust.  When we say, “Jesus is Lord, his coming signals the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, and people can have life in his name,” we want to know what we mean.  We want to know the implications of living out such statements.  We need to understand what it means to follow Jesus.

The first prescription in this program is an assigned reading.  Read 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, and Acts chapter 17.  This prescription has unlimited refills.  You cannot take this too much. 

In 1st Thessalonians 1, the three authors, Paul, Silvanus (called Silas in the book of Acts), and Timothy, express their profound thanks for the church in Thessalonica.  Specifically, they write, “We always give thanks to God … remembering … your work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).  If you are familiar with 1st Corinthians 13, often referred to as the Love Chapter, you recognize the ending - faith, hope, and love.  These virtues, absolutely necessary for a disciple of Jesus, are highlighted in 1st Corinthians 13 and also here in 1st Thessalonians 1.  The church in Thessalonica was marked by these virtues and by actions that were fueled by their faith, their hope, and their love.
The New Testament is full of letters written by Paul in association with Silas and Timothy.  These are the earliest New Testament documents with 1st Thessalonians being the first New Testament book written, sometime between 10-20 years after the resurrection. 
The book of Acts tells the narrative of the early church.  When you follow the prescription and read 1st & 2nd Thessalonians and read Acts 17, you will see the story told in different ways.  Luke, the author of Acts and one of Paul’s travel companions, had an audience in mind when he wrote and he highlighted certain elements in the story to appeal specifically to his readers.  These matters aren’t emphasized the same way in 1st Thessalonians because there, Paul, Silas, and Timothy write in a different style to people in a different situation.
In Acts, Luke takes the account of the growth of the Gospel in Thessalonica to promote the way of Christ to his readers.  We, a 21st century congregation, read 1st Thessalonians and Acts to enlarge our understanding of the faith.  The way of Christ is the way of holiness. 
With that extremely short introduction, we turn to Acts 17.  and as we do, keep in mind those values in 1st Thessalonians 1:3 – faith, hope, and love.
After Paul and Silas[a] had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah[b]to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah,[c] Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers[d] before the city authorities,[e] shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.
10 That very night the believers[f] sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. 

          Take note of Jason.  The church was obviously small – small enough to assemble in one person’s home.  In first century Thessalonica, the houses were smaller than what we see today.  It was not a large community.
          However, by the time Paul riled people to the point they would lay hands on him with harmful intentions, the church probably did have 20-30 people or maybe more.  Jason was wealthy enough that he had a home large enough to accommodate such a group.  Imagine your home with 20-30 guests who come every week.  He had financial means.
          Another indicator of this is the way it ended for Jason.  The synagogue leaders and the street toughs they brought together were able to manhandle Jason, drag him from his home, and convince city officials to formally arrest him. These opponents from the synagogue were savvy enough to work the crowd and the political system.  But Jason was just as resourceful. 
          Whether he was supported by someone wealthy or on his own he could work the system, he managed to get bail, pay it, and be freed from incarceration.  The last we see of him, he is free after being roughed up.  We know the church in his house grew and thrived because of what we read in 1st Thessalonians. 
          These Thessalonian Christians, probably led by their host, Jason, were minorities.  Thessalonica was a pagan city whose residents either did not understand or acted openly hostile toward Monotheism.  The synagogue was monotheistic but opposed to those who saw Jesus as the Messiah.  The church, and by association, Jason was in a precarious position.  And they flourished.  How?
          This is the second prescription.  They and he welcomed the madness.  They knew that after Paul left, after Jason was bailed out jail, after everything cooled, the tensions with their neighbors would simmer with the potential to boil over again.  They knew this and yet they did not throw in the towel on Christianity.  Instead they lived the faith so vibrantly, Paul and his colleagues held the Thessalonians up as the model of a true church.
          First Thessalonians 1:6-9:
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions[b] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.

        As we read 1st and 2nd Thessalonians and Acts, we invite the craziness, the pain, the confusion, and the truly lost people in the world to come in among us.  We open our arms because the Holy Spirit has filled us with grace.  We open our hearts because we know what a mess each of us were before Christ came into our lives.  We open our lives because that is what Jason and the Thessalonians did in welcoming Paul, Silas, and Timothy.
          The chairwoman of our board of elders, Patricia, is not going to be arrested for her commitment to God in the life of HillSong.  Our Sunday school teachers will not have their property vandalized because they teach the Bible here.  I am not going to have my words censored.  Persecution today doesn’t look like that, at least not in the United States.  It does in other places, but not here, not in Chapel Hill.  Opposition to the Gospel does not come in the forms that it did in 1st century Thessalonica.
          But it does come.  The same enemy who riled up those street toughs to give Jason the heavy-handed treatment is lurking all around us.  The devil doesn’t want to see our church proclaim the Kingdom of God any more than he wanted to see Jason’ home be the base for the Christian witness in the city of Thessalonica.  Our enemy will try any number of strategies to get us off the track Christ has laid for us. 
          Knowing this, knowing that people lost in sin are in chaos, we enter the mess and we do so willingly.  We embrace the madness because we have faith in our Lord.  As verse 9 says, we serve a “living and true God,” as opposed to the empty ideologies and philosophies espoused by people in our era of history.  We have that faith.
          We also have hope.  Verse 10, Jesus is resurrected and has already rescued us from the wrath to come.  The end of the age will be a time when everyone who has ever lived has to face up to the eternal consequences of rebelling against God and living in sin.  However, the risen Lord calls all who are his to join him as sons and daughters of God in the resurrection. 
          We have faith, we have hope, and we can welcome those who are burdened with the madness of a life without God because we have love.  We know it was love that sent Jesus to the cross to die for our sins.  That love beats in our hearts.  That’s why as a church we are ready to be a safe harbor for lost people, a place of welcome, comfort, and peace for those whose lives are chaos.

          So this it then, this is our prescription for life? 
We are to take 2 doses of Thessalonians, one portion of Acts, and we are to embrace people whose lives are falling apart? 
Well, … yes.  This is a partial description of the disciple life.  We’ll add to it next week. 
Until then, you have the doctor’s orders, and this comes from the Great Physician.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“Intruders” (Jude 1:3-22)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

          Who or what is stealing your joy in Christ?  It happens to every person who decides to follow Jesus.  A temptation becomes that distraction competes for our loyalty.
          To follow Jesus, to be a child of God, is to submit our lives to him.  But the evil one things into our lives, things that demand space that belongs to God.  The devil conspires with our own tendency to sin.  This unholy alliance preys on the hearts of women and men. 
When successful, the tempter convinces us to marginalize our faith.  God gets a little bit of us, not leadership in all areas of our lives.  Maybe we devote a couple hours on a Sunday, maybe three Sundays a month to God.  Maybe less.  And we tell ourselves we are Christians and we are church goers. 
Our call is not to check off “Christian” on the census form.  Our Lord calls us to submit everything in our lives to Jesus.  The enemy attempts to grow other interests, not always inherently sinful pursuits, but distractions that as they grow in our minds cause Jesus to shrink.
What distraction is diluting your faith and intruding upon your walk with Jesus?
In the late first century, church leaders were active in Israel, Northern Africa, and Europe.  Churches had been planted by the Apostle Paul and by others.  By 100 AD, a couple of generations had passed since the crucifixion and resurrection.  Most of the Apostles were dead.  The next generation was carrying the Gospel and the church into the new century.
One interesting development in this time was the conversion of Jesus’ siblings.  James rejected Jesus during the Lord’s earthly ministry.  Then, Jesus appeared to James after the resurrection and he became not only a follower, but one of the strongest leaders in the church.
A younger brother, Jude, also became a post-resurrection disciple and church leader.  I believe the epistle positioned just before the Book of Revelation, the letter from Jude, was penned by one of Jude’s disciples. 
James learned the faith from Jesus and then led the Jerusalem church and perhaps mentored his younger brother Jude.  And eventually Jude grew old and became a mentor.  This letter, I believe, comes from one of his students, one who wrote down his teacher’s words.
The epistle of Jude is written to combat religious competition.  He says intruders infiltrated the church.  Outside agitators distracted the Christians under Jude’s influence.  In some cases, members even questioned Jude’s voice and began to turn their allegiance away from him and away from the Gospel. 
Today intruders vie for our attention – attention we know belongs to God.  Some examples are obvious.  An addiction demands a person give more and more of himself – his attention, his time, his money, and his mind and spirit.  The disciple life can’t keep up with the alcohol or the drugs or the porn whatever the addiction is; gambling; shopping. 
There are other intruders.  Perhaps you become so convinced of a political movement that it demands of you ultimate commitment and ultimate loyalty.  Civic involvement is not necessarily bad, but it becomes a tool of the devil when participation in government and politics take precedence over following the lead of Jesus in our lives. 
Exercise can be an intruding idol.  You start a new work-out program and you get stronger and lose weight and feel good about yourself.  You receive compliments on your toned physique and a new group of friends, work-out buddies, forms around you.  Exercise is wonderful and we should all do it, but not to the point that of religious fervor.
          He works out religiously
I never miss Downton Abby; I watch it religiously
She goes into the library every Tuesday morning, without fail.  She does it religiously. 
The only thing worthy of religious allegiance is the worship of God in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Anything else that commands the top priority and moves Jesus to second or third place in our lives is intruding on the fellowship we have, a community that stands on who we are in Christ.
Jude says these intruders are headed for oblivion because they fail to believe in what God is about and who God is (v.5).  Destined for destruction; this is anyone who is cut off from God and without knowledge of Jesus or is not following Jesus as Lord. The only path to life is the way of Christ.  Anyone who doesn’t know and follow Jesus is lost. 
Jude stacks the Biblical allusions.  Those who intrude upon our life in Christ are the Egyptians who pursued Israel only to be swallowed by the Red Sea.  They are fallen angels who rejected God’s authority and now sit in chains awaiting judgment.  They are the sinners who died in the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah. 
Jude does not hold back in his insistence upon the importance of the life we have in Christ.  What we have is different and the world will never recognize it. 
In an editorial columnist David Brooks writes about culture wars.  They centered on divorce and then abortion and now same sex marriage.  He rightly points out that fundamentalist Christians have become militant over these issues.  The word ‘militant’ means aggressive and combative, here refering to attacking rhetoric, not the literal taking up of arms.  Brooks has a point. 
The words ‘fundamentalist,’ ‘evangelical,’ and even ‘Christian,’ have become confusing.  Take a poll in which you ask people on the street to describe an ‘evangelical Christian.’  You might hear.  Well, an evangelical Christian is someone who always votes republican, opposes women’s rights, and hates homosexuals.  I bet there is a greater chance that you’d get that than to hear someone say, an evangelical is someone who loves you and will help you with your problems as he shares the grace and love of Jesus with you.  Brooks is right when he points out that the siege-like mentality of some in the evangelical community has been so intense that many outside of Christianity don’t really understand what evangelicals are supposed to be about.
Our society is not a Christian society.  Democracy is the best we can do here and now.  But it is not Christian.  The Kingdom of God is not a democracy; it is a theocracy with the entire population submitted completely to the Lordship of Jesus who rules with love, grace, and mercy.  In our society, as Christ followers, we are ‘other,’ something different.
David Brooks does not understand this.  Neither do a lot of Christians.  Brooks’ solution is for Christians to put aside the culture war and to wage a different war, one against poverty – societal poverty, moral poverty, sexual and relational poverty, and material poverty.  There are so many ways America is falling apart; in every category of life, there is confusion and deconstruction.  Brooks recognizes that society is in decay and Christianity can help turn the tide toward a better way of living. 
Much of what he says is right.  But what he misses is why.  The reason followers of Jesus can, in Brooks’ words, serve as “messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion, and grace”[i] is Jesus is the source of these things.  But even if we announce these wonders given by the Lord and invite the world to Him, love and grace and the rest will not be realized until people give their lives to follow Jesus.  I agree with Brooks that Christians should be known for grace and love not known for what we opposes.  I agree that we need to be more compassionate and loving.  More than that, we must be known for our absolute devotion to Christ.
When people or groups or ideas or any other phenomenon intrude into our worship space and into hearts, Jude says these invaders become “blemishes on our love-feasts.”  Would you describe your church life and your relationships in the church family as a love-feast?  If our eyes are fixed on Christ and our hearts are bent to Him that is what it feels like.  And all other things -   family relationships, good things like exercise, civic engagement – these are done by Christians under Jesus’ watch.  Our participation in the world around us is done as expressions of our discipleship.
Jude calls the intruders “waterless clouds.”  Desperate for refreshment, we see these deceptions hoping they’ll provide something, cool and wet and cleansing and refreshing all we end up dry and unsatisfied.  Again, Jude was addressing false teaching that crept into the churches under his watch.  The threat we face is the reduction and thinning of our faith as other pursuits try to occupy God’s place in our lives.  Nothing will give us what God gives us. 
The answer, says Jude, is to build ourselves up in faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.  We learn how to do this in our life in church, in small groups, worship, and in individual relationships.  We diligently attend to these things in order to grow in Christ. 
Jude also says we are to have mercy upon doubters, those who aren’t sure which way they will turn, toward God or away, and upon the lost.  Through our love and witness we can snatch people from the fire.  These intruders can become our brothers but only if we remain sure of the Gospel and share it with great compassion, patience, and love. And upon hearing that gospel the intruders become broken in their sin and realize that their only hope is Jesus.
Recall the shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina.  A white young man went into an African American Church prayer meeting and killed 9 people. His motivation was racial hatred.  The fall-out from the tragedy has included the removal of the Confederate Flag from the statehouse steps in Columbia. 
Recently two groups came out to protest on the same day.  On one set of steps up to the statehouse was a group of African Americans there to protest racial violence.  On the other set of steps to the same statehouse, a group of Nazis, white supremacists, demonstrated with their twisted message that America should be a nation of Caucasians in which all other races pay a tax or be force to leave.  It is so hideous and stupid and antithetical to the Gospel, it’s not worth mention.
The actions of State Trooper Leroy Smith are.  He is African American and was working security at the rally of the Nazis.  They hated his existence.  He assured their safety.  One of the Nazis, a feeble, elderly man, was struggling in the South Carolina summer heat.  Trooper Smith gently took him by the arm and walked him up the steps, out of the heat, and into the air conditioned statehouse. It was an act of kindness done for someone wearing a racist t-shirt. 
Why go beyond his duty to help someone who hated him?  He said it comes down to one word: love.[ii]  I don’t know if he is a Christian, but his action is the epitome of what Christians are called to be. We are messengers of God’s love, defined by Christ, motivated by compassion to perform works the world around us will appreciate but never understand. 
We hold on to this calling as we fend off intruders by knowing the truth and standing in love as we live into our identity, a people born again, raised to eternal life with Christ Jesus.  

[i] D. Brooks, Raleigh News & Observer, July 6, 2015, p.14A.
[ii] Dan Berry, New York Times, July 26, 2015, p.14A.

Called to Divine Life (2 Peter 1:3-11)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

       Did you catch the end of verse 4 in 2nd Peter chapter 1? 
       By grace, God gives all that we need for life.  This grace comes through knowledge of God which is itself grace given by the Holy Spirit.  That grace continues as we grow in through Bible study, prayer, and participation in church life.
       Then we come to verse 4 where we learn that in Christ we escape the corruption of the world around us.  Sin degrades this good world God created.  We lack the power the stop the destruction humanity’s sin brings.  But God promises that in Christ we escape the death and destruction, says 2 Peter 1:4.  The good news is we are freed from death’s clutches. 
       But what is that statement in the last part of that verse?  We escape death so that we may become participants of the divine nature.  What does that mean?
       Do we become gods?  That is what I think is Mormons believe.  It doesn’t mean that.  Our friends in Orthodox Christianity have a concept called theosis whereby they believe we become so materially united with God it is as if we become gods.  I don’t understand orthodox theology enough to try to discuss theosis.
       I can’t say we become God, but, I have 2nd Peter 1:4 before me.  Through knowledge of God, which is given freely by God and not something we earn – through that knowledge we have all need to participate in the life of God.  We are called to the divine life.
       The Christian life does not strive for moral improvement.  That’s not our goal.  I had lunch with the campus rabbi at Duke University and I asked him, a 21st Reformed Jew, what is the mission of Judaism?  He said it is to “be a good person.”  That was his answer to the question, what is your mission?
       That is not our answer.  The destination for Christ-followers is not to become good persons.  Neither is our goal to get to heaven when we die.  If you became a Christian because you wanted to be assured of an eternity in Heaven, I am happy to disappoint you.  That’s not our goal.
       As followers of Jesus we do things that contemporary culture would attribute to “good persons,” and when we are in Christ, our eternal destiny is secured.  But neither moral purity nor eternity in Heaven are goals for us.  Those things are byproducts of following Jesus in everything.  Those things come with giving our lives to Him and living with Him as our absolute Lord.  Our aim is life in Christ.  As Peter says it, “we become participants of the divine nature.”
       Every person is called to this.  In a moment I’ll talk a more about the special call to elder ministry, but it is important for the entire church to hear the call to life with God.  The phrase in 2 Peter 1:4, “participants of the divine nature,” shows this involves major change for us.
       Recall John chapter 3 where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that one must be born again.  The change from life without God to life in Christ is as radical as moving from the womb to the open air. 
It is seen in baptism; one dies in sin and is raised to new life, eternal life, free from the corruption of sin.   We step toward this life in our baptism and fully realize at the second coming of Christ when we join him in resurrection.  Between baptism and second coming, we live the divine life as we are still in the fallen world.    
       This life is lived out as the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence in us.  God enters our hearts and live there.   
       We live this life our relationships.  The list of virtues beginning in 2 Peter 1:5 gives shape to life in Christ.  It starts with faith, which is supported by goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and it continues on, each virtue expanding the previous one; self-control, endurance, godliness, and mutual affection (or brotherly love). 
The ultimate expression life in Christ as we see it in our relationships is love; self-giving, altruistic, agape love.  When it says we participate in God, it means we live in this kind of love.  God fills us with it.  We share it with all around us, friend and enemy alike. 
       We are all called to the divine life.  Throughout that life individual discovers new ways to answer the call.  Today, Emily, Tiffany, and Heather answer by accepting the invitation into ordained ministry within the church.
       They are set apart as those who will have spiritual insight in terms of prayer, pastoral care, spiritual vision, and worship in the life of the church.  In simple terms, elders pray for the church, visit the sick, oversee the care for those entrusted to them, and, come alongside the pastors as the pastors set the vision for the church.  Elders also help the pastors lead the church to the throne of grace by serving communion and assisting when we have baptisms.  In all these ways, elders answer the call to fellowship with God and live the divine life. 
In a few moments, we as a congregation will gather round and lay hands on Emily, Tiffany, and Heather to affirm that we believe God has called them to this ministry.  As we do that we are, in one small way, ourselves answering the call because we are participating in the life of the church.
What other ways do we live this glorious fellowship, this divine life?  Worship, prayer, missions, fellowship in the church family; these are obvious.  At a deeper level, when you and I seek out our vocation and our identity in Christ, we are doing what is described in 2 Peter 1.  The power to do this is in us – God has given it.  When we choose to live the new life we’ve been given and leave the old life, the one bound for death, behind, we are living into eternity and divinity. 
For sure, such a life is all-consuming.  Christianity is an intense thing, an extreme life.  We are determined to show the world agape love.  We insist that God, not the world around us, is who defines us.  We are his.  We live – every facet of our lives – in Christ.
Upon leaving church today and re-entering the world, think deeply upon your identity in Christ and your vocation in Christ.  Let that pondering be something that overwhelms you this week.  Be consumed with the longing to grow into who you are in Christ. 
This obsession to answer the call to divine life leads us to all we could hope for and infinitely more.  As Second Peter 1:10-11 says,
10 Therefore, brothers and sisters,[g] be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. 11 For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.