Monday, September 17, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "In Persona Christi"

Luke 6:27-37 27 

“But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. 37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week Two: They Think the Church is Judgmental and Negative 

The man’s crime could not have been more brutal—he had murdered another man by beating him to death with a tire iron. He was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

But increasingly inconvenient facts started to trickle out into the media about this killer. He was the victim of a lifetime of sexual abuse, beginning at the age of six. His mother would simply beat him in response to his sexual abuse. He was raped by one of his middle school teachers. He was raped while in juvenile hall. And the final straw came when he was raped again, this time, by a lay leader of the local Episcopal church, and this time, the day after the rape, he beat and killed his rapist.

There are no heroes in a story like his, only antiheroes and villains…save for one.

Recently, after learning of all of the sexual abuse this man had endured in his life—and perhaps coming to terms with what her own husband was—the murder victim’s widow signed onto her husband’s murderers request for a commutation of his sentence from death by lethal injection to life imprisonment without parole.

Her’s is far and away the most remarkable and amazing perspective of this whole ordeal, simply because it is the most profoundly Biblical--be merciful, just as your Father is merciful, says Luke.

Be merciful.

This is a new sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church. In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts. And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases. In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us. And none of those stereotypes are good. Each week over the next six weeks, we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it. And so we began the series last week with a message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda.” This week, the message’s theme is, “They think the church is judgmental and negative.”

As Dan Kimball describes her, Maya is a hairstylist who came from a family of what I call CEOs—Christmas-and-Easter-Only churchgoers. Dan writes that Maya “hadn’t thought a lot about Christianity or church until a close friend of hers became a Christian. Then not only did she have to think about it, but Christianity became a negative thing to her.” She says:

“Before my friend became a Christian, you could talk to him. It was normal. He became a Christian after he met a girl, and then through her got converted. But after his conversion, you couldn’t talk to him anymore. Every conversation was about condemning something about my lifestyle. All he did was keep telling me all the things I was doing wrong. I shouldn’t be smoking. I shouldn’t be drinking. He didn’t like the way I dressed or the music I listened to. I was mad at the church for turning him into this kind of very negative person.” 

She continues:

“You ask why I don’t go to church? Why would I want to become a negative person like most Christians are? That’s why. The world is negative enough without having the church make me more negative. I saw what it did to someone very close to me, and I don’t want to become like that.” 

I don’t want to be like that…it is just as easily something someone would hear walking into a church rather than never attending one, because, if we are honest with ourselves, far too often the church tries to define itself by what it isn’t rather than what it is, by defining itself by what it is against rather than what it is for. And that simply isn’t how Jesus taught.

Nevertheless, if you were to take a straw poll on what the most disturbing chapter in all of Scripture would be, honestly, I think the sixth chapter of Luke would make the top-ten list. Not only does it have these radical, simple, powerful commandments to love and be loved, to give without any thought of reward, and to not judge or condemn or forgive, but immediately prior, it has Luke’s version of the Beatitudes—blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the weeping—but in Luke, Jesus also follows that up by saying, “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now.”

And Christianity—the Way of Jesus Christ—sure would be a whole lot easier to follow and to practice if Luke just happened to spill a vial of white-out all over this particular piece of papyrus in his Gospel. But then what we’d have wouldn’t be Christianity. I’m not sure what it would be, but it sure wouldn’t be Christianity. That’s how crucial this chapter is to Christian spirituality.

I’ve shared this thought with a couple of y’all before, but sometimes I find myself wondering if part of my job…not the best part of the job, but the part that comes with the territory…is watering down the Gospel in order to make it livable, to make it convenient for a 21st-century world that still possesses the Pharisaic mentality of holding onto power, status, and material wealth.

Yet, Christianity is not meant to be a feel-good exclusive sort of club where you show up once a week, pay your dues, listen to some mealy-mouthed dope of a preacher recite bland niceties about chewing with your mouth closed, and go about your merry way without any change in mentality or lifestyle. That sort of lukewarm Christianity is not sustainable. More importantly, that sort of lukewarm Christianity is not Biblical.

But that is the type of neutral Christianity that we might be tempted to associate as the only viable alternative—not offending anybody—to being a judgmental church where I pound on the pulpit and rail against the evils of dancing, tattoos, and The Simpsons.

And to be completely honest, I have zero patience with either of those brands of church. I have zero patience with them because I think Jesus would have had zero patience with them.

Think of how much judgment there is still in a presumably open-minded world—we are judged by what we wear, how we talk, who we fall in love with, where we live, and much, much more. And Jesus says not to judge, and that judging invites judgment.

It is radical in its simplicity.

Never has something so simple been so apparently difficult for someone else to follow.

Because to recognize Christ is to recognize a paradox—the reality that even in our enemies is the Christian—which literally means “Little Christ.” Even our enemies live in persona Christi—in Christ’s image—and so Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and Messiah, resembles not just those who love us, but those who hate us. To hate them in return is to hate Jesus Christ Himself.

There is one other wholly annoying truth about this reality—I’m not just talking about friends and enemies. I’m talking about people who we see as less than us, and if you say never do that, I know you’re lying. I know it because I’m guilty of it, because I do not always give to people who I know cannot repay me. I drive by the people who stand begging at the corners of the Triangle Mall. I throw away charitable requests for money. I have not, as Jesus famously commanded, sold all of my possessions and given the proceeds to the poor.

And I expect to be judged for that, for one of my own ultimate shortcomings. After all…judgment—my judgment—does indeed, as Jesus says, invite more judgment. And that judgment I know will come from a divine God who will welcome me into Heaven with one arm, and with the other arm, guide me to each and every vulnerable person I ignored while I was alive, and demand that I beg their forgiveness. And perhaps the most important part of that experience will likely be that I truly, truly doubt that God would demand that they in turn apologize to me for daring to ask for my help.

Such are the ways of a God who demands everything from those to whom His church, and His Son, have given so, so very much.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 16, 2012

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