28 October 2014

Sermon – “Three Marks of Faith” (Romans 15:1-13)

Hardly a week goes by without one person or another offering me something to read. It may be a book or a newspaper article or a posting on the Internet. Let me say very genuinely that I greatly appreciate this input. And here is the reason why: It gets me reading things that I likely would never have been exposed to were I just left to my own devices. I find myself broadened, enriched and often challenged by this reading.
One of my best sources is my wife Karen, who reads far more widely and voluminously than I do. This past week she sent me a short piece that she found on the web entitled “10 signs you belong to a great church”. They were compiled from the Bible by a young pastor in Nashville, Tennessee. Here is what he included in his list. See if you can recognize Messiah in any of them: sound doctrine; striving for relevance; putting Jesus before religion; Christ-centered worship; a passion for discipleship; a heart for the nations; an investment in the next generation; small groups; thriving community; and lastly, transparency.
If you go to the web or search through a list of Christian books you will likely come up with dozens of such lists with very little effort, and while they may offer a smaller or a larger number, by and large most of them correspond on the majority of points. In this morning’s reading from the New Testament Paul is getting ready to wind up his long letter to the Romans. Over the course of fourteen chapters Paul has taken us through the monumental themes of the Christian gospel: from the fallenness of the human race to the glorious hope of the redemption of all creation through Christ’s death and resurrection, from the privileged position of the Jews with their possession of the Law to the inclusion of people of all races and nations in the gracious promises of God. In the latter chapters, from twelve onwards, he moves on to the practical implications of those doctrines, the difference they make to our lives today—all that is involved in presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to God and being transformed by the renewal of our minds.
Now in chapter 15, as this great letter is about to come to its close, Paul offers not ten but just three indicators of what it means to be truly living for Christ, to be “strong” in the faith, as many of the Roman believers liked to think of themselves. We can summarize them by thinking in three directions.

Outward in service

The first of them is outward—outward in service towards others. In the opening verses of this morning’s passage Paul instructs the Romans that we are not in the church to please ourselves. Rather, he says, “Each of us must please our neighbors for good, for the purpose of building them up.” Then he goes on to cite the example of Jesus: “For Christ did not please himself.”
When we put our trust in Jesus we enlist as followers of the one who came not to be served but to serve. Many people look for a church that fills their needs. And on a certain level there is a legitimacy to that. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in a church where the gospel is proclaimed with power and relevance. There is nothing wrong with looking for a church where the Holy Spirit is clearly present in the worship. Yet we also need to be in a church that challenges us, that occasionally takes us outside our comfort zone, that calls us into the service of others.
We can easily be tempted to think of a Christian as someone who has had a particular experience—being born again or being baptized in the Holy Spirit. I do not want to underplay the importance of those experiences. Yet they are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are beginnings, intended to lead us into the path of service.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who first referred to Jesus as “the man for others”. As Jesus was the man for others, Bonhoeffer maintained, so his followers, you and I, live under the call to be men and women for others.
Our relation to God is not a “religious” relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable—that is not authentic transcendence—but our relation to God is a new life in “existence for others”, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation…[1]
Paul has already stated much the same principle in chapter 12, where he calls upon us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, and then in the verses that follow goes on to show how that works in acts of humble, practical service: prophesying, teaching, serving, encouraging, giving, leading, and acts of compassion.
As I look around here at Messiah I see so many examples of this kind of service—and so much of it goes on beneath the surface, without those who render it ever calling attention to themselves. This, our passage this morning teaches us, is a sign of authentic discipleship.

Upward in worship

The second direction in which we are called to look is upwards. Paul’s desire for the Romans is that they may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, quoting from the Old Testament Scriptures, he goes on to use five different words to express the same truth.
In verses 6 and 9 it is “glorify”, which makes us think of the divine glory that enshrouded the top of Mount Sinai with clouds and thunderings such that the whole mountain shook. In Hebrew the word is kabod, which originally had the sense of weight or heaviness. So it is that true worship often drives us to our knees, as we encounter the unspeakable presence of the Eternal One.
Paul’s second word, in verse 9, is “confess”—which really means to speak out. We often use it before the recital of the creed. “Let us confess our faith as we say…” It tells us that our Christian convictions cannot remain a private experience. It was Jeremiah in the Old Testament who said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20:9). So we cannot contain the praise of God within ourselves.
The third word, in verse 10, is “rejoice”. Christian praise will always be joyful. I specifically requested that our opening hymn, “All people that on earth do dwell,” be sung this morning because it contains words that I love: “Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell”. There is a place for mirth, for spontaneous, unrehearsed joy in our worship. We see it from time to time when the smaller children start dancing during the livelier hymns. What a shame that the rest of us are held back by our adult inhibitions!
The next word is simply “praise”. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew verb hallel embedded in our English word “Hallelujah”, “Praise the Lord!” Here we recognize that in worship we join with the angels and of all those strange heavenly beings who stand around the throne of God, worshiping him day and night.
The final word our New Revised Standard Version Bible renders once again as praise, but the word means “to extol” or “to commend”. Just as a salesman commends the quality of whatever product he is trying to sell to you, so our praise expresses the excellence, the beauty, the wonder of who our God is.

Forward in hope

Thirdly we look forward. In the church as much as in almost any area of life we struggle with the temptation to hark back to “the good old days”, some ideal period in the past. It may be the time when we had a significant spiritual experience, when we first came to know Christ as a living reality or when the Holy Spirit came upon us in a fresh way. Others look back to some golden era, say the 1960s when the church was still in its ascendancy in this country, or perhaps all the way back to the early church before things began to be corrupted in the Constantinian era.
But notice Paul’s concluding words in this morning’s reading. Are they, “May the God of nostalgia fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in nostalgia by the power of the Holy Spirit”? No, Paul writes of the God of hope. As followers of Jesus we believe that the best days always lie ahead of us. That is certainly true in an ultimate sense, when we will stand transformed in the new heaven and the new earth. I believe it is also true in a more immediate sense, as we look to the nearer future. Paul himself has declared this in chapter 8, when he affirmed that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”. 

In the Tate Gallery in London there hangs a most remarkable work by a man who in his time was hailed as England’s Michelangelo. George Frederic Watts has faded into obscurity, but his painting “Hope” remains a classic piece of Victorian art. Painted entirely in drab colors of brown, gray and green, it depicts a blindfolded woman hunched atop a globe. Clutching a lyre that has but one string and with her ear practically touching it so that she can hear its feeble melody, she gently plucks it with her finger. G.K. Chesterton scoffed that the painting might more appropriately have been entitled “Despair”. But Watts defended it, saying, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.”
(The painting, I might say, is a favorite of President Obama and inspired the title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope.) The point is, though, that genuine hope does not depend on the surrounding circumstances. It is easy to hope when everything is going well, when all the indicators are positive, just as it’s easy to invest in the stock market when it is gaining points every day. No, the real test of hope is when the chips are down.
Paul on the other hand, speaks about “hoping against hope”. He cites the example of Abraham, who did not waver concerning the promise of God. He writes about the hope that is not dashed by disappointment and suffering, but which actually springs out of it and grows stronger in the midst of it. Why? Because we have experienced the reality of God’s unquenchable love through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so we look and move onwards.
And so today, as we leave this second-to-last chapter of Romans, may you look outwards to the needs of others, upwards to God in praise, and (in Paul’s own words) may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1]     Letters and Papers from Prison, 381

Sermon – “Majoring on the Majors” (Romans 14:1-12)

With a total of 48 places of worship, Centerville holds the record for the greatest number of churches per capita in the nation. Originally, in 1899, only one congregation existed, simply known as “Centerville Community Church”.
However, 1911 a dispute arose over whether or not the offering should be taken before or after the sermon. Thus occurred the first split, with the dissenting congregation forming “Centerville Reformed Community Church”.
In 1915 another controversy divided the members of Centerville Reformed Community Church, this time over the issue of placing flowers in the sanctuary. Some approved while others objected. As a result CRCC split and Trinity Reformed Church of Centerville was organized with 25 members.
Several more splits took place over various issues between the years 1915 and 1929. In 1931 another clash erupted among the members of Seventh Reformed Covenantal Church of Centerville over an issue that no one can seem to remember, nor do any records indicate. Suffice it to say, that approximately half the congregation walked away, and 9 people formed Third Westminster Trinity Covenant Reformed Church of Centerville.
Since then several more divisions have occurred, the most recent being this past weekend, when a disagreement arose amongst the members of Second Street First Ninth Westminster Covenant Reformed Church over the observance of the Lord’s Day. The issue in question was whether or not it was acceptable to check one’s email on the Sabbath. Those who objected have now formed “The Totally Reformed Covenantal Westminsterian Sabbatarian Regulative Credo-Communionist Amillennial Presuppositional Church of Centerville”.
“I think we’ve finally got it right now,” said Paul Davis, teaching elder at TRCWSRCCAPCC. “We now have a church with 100% doctrinal purity.”
The story of course is fictional. Yet it is not far from the truth. We Christians can be a fractious lot. In this country there are well over two hundred separate denominations of Christian churches, and that does not include the more than 35,000 non-denominational congregations scattered across the land.[1] Studies indicate that there are as many as 19,000 major, scarring church conflicts in the U.S. each year—an average of 50 per day.[2] Until recently we Episcopalians could look down our noses at other denominations, as there had not been a split of any consequence among us since 1873. Today that is no longer the case, as the recent disaffiliation of entire parishes and dioceses and legal costs in excess of $20 million will testify.
Sad to say, even since its earliest days there have been conflicts in the church. Pentecost was still a recent memory when complaints began to arise that the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in favor of the Aramaic-speaking widows. In later years a major dispute erupted between Peter and Paul over the question of circumcision. Paul described himself as opposing Peter to his face and calling him to account in the presence of the whole church. In fact, when you read through the letters of the New Testament, whether from Paul or Peter or John, nearly all of them deal in one way or another with issues that were causing controversy in the church.

The Periphery

It is almost surprising that we have to get all the way to the fourteenth chapter of Romans before we come face to face with an issue that was threatening to divide the church there. The controversy centered on a couple of things. The first of them had to do with food. It is difficult to pin down the precise nature of the dispute. I tend to agree with those who think that it was related to the observance of kosher food laws. The Roman church was made up of a wonderful diversity of Jewish and non-Jewish believers. No doubt there would have been those among the Jewish believers who desired to continue to follow the Old Testament food regulations. Because it was difficult to guarantee that meat was truly kosher, it is quite possible that some would have decided to abstain from eating it altogether.
The second issue had to do with the observance of particular days. Paul was likely referring to the Sabbath and to the annual Jewish festivals—important to believers of Jewish heritage no doubt, but of little or no interest to many of the Gentiles.
It should have been possible for these two groups to live and worship and serve Christ together side by side. Yet that was becoming increasingly awkward. Tensions were mounting. Those who had no interest in the food laws or Sabbath observance had begun to look down on those who did as weak in the faith. And those who did observe them wrote off the others as half-hearted Christians, slack in their obedience to the Scriptures.
The problem with the Roman church was not that there were differences, but that those differences were leading to a critical spirit, judgmentalism, and division—and to make matters worse, the differences had nothing to do with concerns that were central to the Christian faith. In our translation Paul describes them as “opinions”. The New International Version renders the word “disputable matters”. It has to do with personal views that are not necessarily based on fact, matters that are generally open to debate.
The differences may be real, and Paul acknowledges that. They may be based on deeply entrenched convictions. Nevertheless, he says, even though that may be the case, we must not allow secondary matters to blind us to the basic truth that God has welcomed us all—and that therefore we are under a divine obligation to welcome one another. Paul will make the same point again in the next chapter. “Welcome one another,” he writes, “just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The issues may have changed in the intervening twenty centuries, but we still face parallel situations in the church today. In his book Reinventing Evangelism Don Posterski makes the very helpful distinction between what he calls “treasures”, “baggage” and “garbage”.[3] In the first category he places such things as worshipful liturgy, evangelistic fervor, social service, biblical preaching, a commitment to global mission, the practice of prayer, and holiness in lifestyle. The baggage he defines as aspects of church life that relate more to the external form than to the essence of spiritual life: things like raising your hands in worship or crossing yourself, traditional hymns or contemporary praise, dressing up on Sunday or coming as you are. The third category, garbage, is stuff that somehow gets incorporated into church life but actually detracts from our fulfilling Christ’s mission and that we would be much better off without—things like religious jargon, personal kingdom-building, begging for money, self-righteousness and exclusivism. We continually stand in need of the wisdom to be able to distinguish among the three, and then to treasure the treasures, be soft on the baggage, and toss out the garbage.

The Center

What Don Posterski writes in his book is not that far from a helpful little catch phrase that began to have currency in the church about four hundred years ago: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”. The challenge for the church in every era—not least in our own—is to distinguish what are the essentials and the non-essentials. It seems to me that this has been the problem facing the Episcopal Church and much of western Protestantism for the past fifty years. Whether it is questions such as the deity of Christ or his virgin birth and resurrection, or the hot-button issues of today surrounding human sexuality, we are facing increasing division and acrimony. How do we deal with them?
About a month ago Charlie Clauss wrote a very helpful little on-line article entitled “Radically Centered”. He used the idea of mathematical concept of sets and applied it to the church. Here is some of what he wrote:
A church community can be a fuzzy, bounded, or centered set. A bounded set is a set with clearly defined criteria to membership in the set. One is either “in” or “out”. A centered set eschews the language of in and out and concentrates instead on a person’s relationships with a defined center. Orientation to, and distance from, the center are what matter. A fuzzy set is just that: it has neither boundaries nor center. It is just a collection of people.[4]
Charlie goes on to commend the church as a centered set and this is something that makes eminent sense to me. We are not in the business of determining who is or is not a Christian. C.S. Lewis wrote about the futility of this option sixty years ago in Mere Christianity:
There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand… And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass.[5]
The challenge that Jesus lays before us is to be a centered set: to lift him up in such a way that people are drawn to him as their Savior and Lord. It seems to me that this is our governing philosophy at Messiah and we have articulated it in our vision statement: “Bringing people together from many nations and every generation to worship Jesus Christ and take his healing into the world.”

The Goal

All of this brings us back to what Paul writes in verses 7 to 9 of our reading this morning:
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
There is a place for baggage in the church: those traditions and practices that have become important to us, perhaps because they evoke precious childhood memories, perhaps because they have helped us to avoid sin and remain true to Jesus. Yet we cannot allow them to cloud our vision, to become our primary focus. The key thing is to be sure that we are serving him.
It is Jesus, not traditions, who through his death and resurrection has brought us to life. It is Jesus, not opinions, who will greet us at the end of our journey and welcome us as his bride to the wedding supper of the Lamb. It is Jesus who must stand as unrivaled Lord over all things in our churches as well as in our personal lives.
I conclude with words from theologian C.E.B. Cranfield, who writes,
[This passage from Paul] is a reminder to each member that, whether his faith leads him to adopt the practices of the strong or the practice of the weak, it can, and must be allowed to, set him free for an obedience which (according to his own particular way of faith) is firm, decisive, resolute, courageous, joyful.[6]
May that be the experience of each of us today.

[1]     http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#denom
[2]     http://www.peacemaker.net/site/c.aqKFLTOBIpH/b.1320145/k.23DE/The_High_Cost_of_Conflict_Among_Christians.htm
[3]     See pages 102-105.
[5]     Page 173
[6]     Romans, A Shorter Commentary, 343

Article: “My Healing Journey”

Saint Luke is the patron saint of doctors, and as I write his feast day (October 18) is just around the corner. So it seemed appropriate to use this space to reflect on God’s care and provision through my recent surgery and convalescence.
I first learned that I was going to have heart surgery in the middle of May. A couple of years before that, my doctor had detected a heart murmur on his stethoscope and had referred me to a cardiologist who had been giving me regular echocardiograms. There had been a gradual deterioration in my mitral valve and now it had reached the point where surgery had become necessary.
That came as quite a blow to me, as in all outward ways I felt perfectly healthy and was rather proud to be involved in a rather strenuous exercise routine without ever becoming weak or tired. (This shows how appearances can be so deceiving!)
In any case, that diagnosis was followed two days later by one of our monthly services of prayer and healing. Phyllis Bruce and the other members of the healing team put a good deal of prayer and careful preparation into that service each month and it was evident that night. The opening song was “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart” and throughout the service Phyllis spoke repeatedly about how the Lord desires to bring healing to our hearts. Of course Phyllis was not speaking about our physical hearts but metaphorically, and she knew nothing about the news from my cardiologist. Yet I felt that the service was meant for me, and through it the Holy Spirit certainly ministered to me that night.
In July I had my first visit to the Mayo Clinic. For two days I went through a number of tests and interviews. In many ways everything was still rather unreal for me, as I continued to feel the picture of health. It was another blow at the end of that time to meet with my cardiac surgeon and discover that there was evidence of blockage in the arteries supplying my heart. As a result I would be undergoing full open-heart surgery.
Five weeks later I was at Mayo again, this time in preparation for the surgery itself. This began with an angiogram—and that was when the third blow came. “Mr Newton,” the doctor told me, “we have decided to admit you immediately to the hospital.” He then informed me that my main coronary artery was 90% obstructed and two others were at 80%. And so I spent the next two days in the hospital waiting for my surgery, all the while feeling as healthy as a horse.
However, it was clear that the Lord had been looking after me all along. Had my doctor not been concerned about that heart murmur years before, we never would have come to know about those blockages, which in reality were considerably more life-threatening than the mitral valve problem. Not only that, but to be here at the Mayo Clinic with access to some of the most advanced health care that the world has to offer.
Well, I suppose the rest is history. The surgery and my recovery have all gone smoothly thus far—and I am not in any doubt that a huge component of that has been your prayers for me. There were times, especially in the hospital, when that support was palpable. So again (and not for that last time), thank you for those prayers. I can’t tell you how much it means to me—and how good it is to be back among you.