Sunday, September 8, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Dying and Rising With Christ"

Romans 6:1-11

So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? 2 Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? 3 Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. 5 If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. 6 This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, 7 because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. 8 But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. 10 He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. 11 In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week One

The webfeed wasn’t the greatest, but if you squinted, you could make it out: a pair of arms, one rotating after the other, bracketing a swim-capped head.  That was all you could see of her on the feed.  That was all you could see of history being made, of Diana Nyad, a courageous 64-year-old woman who finally, after four abortive attempts, became the first person to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, sans shark cages or safety tethers.

And as I watched her swim, it began to dawn on me: her emerging from the Gulf waters, triumphant, is not so different from what we would consider a baptism: an immersion into waters so miraculous that they forever change the person we are, because in being baptized, in being immersed, we reflect the image of Christ Himself—not only in His baptism, but in our being buried in the likeness of His death, and lifted up against in the likeness of His resurrection.

And it’s a funny thing, resurrection…we have witnesses to the empty tomb, to the angels who appeared, to the risen, bodily Jesus.  But now we have far, far more witnesses to the resurrections that happen today—not from death into life, but from limitations into immortality.  We live and die with our successes and our failures, and in this way, we do indeed die and rise with Jesus.

This is a new sermon series that revolves around a new book, by a fairly new pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after planting the Revolution church in New York City (as part of the same movement he began in Phoenix), he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  And so we begin this series with the chapter in Jay’s book entitled “Dying and Rising With Christ.”  He writes in it:

Afraid of God’s wrath, we’ve created an elaborate system to prove to ourselves exactly how far we are from those who deserve hell.  In other words, we’ve made sin our ultimate concern.  We’ve built rules and regulations so we don’t go anywhere near sinning.  And in doing so, we’ve recreated the law…

A few years ago, I would have read this chapter, thrown the book across the room, labeled the poor idiot who wrote this chapter a heretic, and preached a sermon about Jesus dying for our sins so (as long as we believed in him) God wouldn’t throw us in hell. 

But today I wonder if Jesus died for our sins in a completely different way than we think.  Maybe it was so we could understand exactly what the kingdom of God is like.  Maybe it’s not about giving God his pound of flesh so we would be spared hell.  Maybe it’s about showing us a way of dying to ourselves and rising again…

Jesus died and rose again after three days.  Saul died, blinded on the road to Damascus, and rose again.  Perhaps this dying and rising is what atonement is really about.

There’s an old joke about a person who goes into a completely empty sanctuary as a first-time visitor on Sunday morning—they are the first ones there for worship!  And they pick a seat and make themselves comfortable.  The second person to enter the sanctuary is a lifelong member and, seeing the new person, walks up to them and, in the completely empty sanctuary, says:

“You’re in my seat.”

We laugh because there is some degree of truth to this, right?  If y’all really wanted to mess with me when I first started, you would have kept switching your usual seats on me like I was a substitute teacher.  Although Jean did try to tell me her name was Alice for my first month here.

But church is a place where, let’s be honest, we like our rules.  We love ‘em.  We love rules that are written down, codified into bylaws and constitutions, doctrines and creeds, and we love rules that are simply adhered to because, well, that’s just what we do.  We love coming into church and knowing that everything is going to be a certain way.  Seriously, what would y’all do if I just got up one morning and said to all of you, “Okay, today we’re going to try snake handling?”

But when we indulge in those tendencies too much, bit by bit we have done what Paul is warning us about here in Romans—and what Jay is warning us about at first in his book: we are re-creating the law.  It’s not the same law as before, sure—there’s nothing about our church that says you can’t eat shellfish, or wear polyester, or pierce your slave’s ears.  But that does not mean that we are not in thrall to a law—it is just a different law than that of the Old Testament.

And that law is all-encompassing.  It really is all-inclusive.  It covers not only unofficially assigned seating on Sunday morning, it covers what sins are safe to confess in church and which ones aren’t.  It covers who we can accept and who we can’t.  It is, in effect, one great big seating chart: it says that those of us who live by the rules get to sit up front like the good pastor’s pets we are, and everyone else can just hang out in the spitball-throwing section behind us.

And so, despite Paul’s admonitions, we die to the law once more.  Because we still try to seek personal glory and satisfaction in the law.  We refuse to, as Jay puts it, die to ourselves, because why would we want to die when we have such a privileged spot in the kingdom of God already?

That was the dilemma that some of Jesus’ opponents faced in ancient Israel.  Not the Pharisees, who got way more ink in the Gospels, but the Sadducees, a rival temple authority faction that was even more reactionary than the Pharisees.  And the Sadducees had it made: they were a part of the elite, the 1%, the made-in-the-shade-with-cherry-lemonade crowd.  Life was as good as it would ever possibly be in that time and place.  So the Sadducees just stopped believing in any afterlife.  They decided that in their worldview, there was no heaven and no hell.  Because why would you hope for heaven when you could already have everything you wanted here, on earth?

When we start talking about legalism and rules and church, people often say that they are worried about us—the church—becoming like the Pharisees.  I’m not.  I’m worried about us becoming like the Sadducees, with no hope of heaven or promise of eternal fate, good or bad.

And so the Sadducees, in putting limits on the possible, by labeling it as impossible, shut themselves off from a fantastic new source of God’s grace: His Son, Jesus Christ.

Imagine being told to settle for the possible…actually, don’t imagine it: recall it.  It has surely happened to you at some point.  But then, something happens that completely changes what we believe to be attainable.  A man walks on the moon.  Or a doctor discovers a vaccine for polio.

Or a 64-year-old woman swims literally from one country to another.

And here we are, content in the rules and laws of our own little kingdom that we have built for ourselves, and we think, perhaps with inspiration but more likely with a dash of fear and trepidation, “Imagine what this kingdom will look like tomorrow!”

And when we get to that point—where we fear that what we find glory in will be lost to us—we are already dying inside, because we moved from creating and building something to holding onto it.  We are interested only in our piece of the pie, not in how the rest of the pie tastes.

Perhaps this should not surprise us.  After all, one of the biggest differences between us and Jesus is that while He was more than equipped for both the dying and rising parts, we really only come out of the box equipped for the dying part.  We’re good at that.  We’re good at dying.  It’s probably partly why we resist it so fiercely: we know that we can slide into it so damn easily.

But unlike Jesus, we aren’t naturals at the rising bit.  We don’t resurrect automatically after three days.  Resurrection, the act of being reborn, can be years or decades in the making because, yes, while we can have those born-again moments, those God experiences that cause us to cry out, “I have been to the mountaintop and I cannot unsee what I have seen, for I have cast mine eyes upward and saw the face of God,” at some point, we come down from the mountain again.

We return to the valley.  We fall back into the abyss.  Instead of being lifted up after our baptism, we plunge back under the cold water instead.

Put a different way: we’re good climbers, we Christians.  But we haven’t learned how to fly just yet.  We’re good at getting ourselves up for those brief, fleeting moments of ecstasy and divine communion, but we don’t know how to stay there, not for any sustained length of time, anyways.

Maybe we aren’t meant to, or designed to, or intended to.  But I doubt it.  Because in place of our need, our craving, to be in God’s presence, we build up these laws and these rules instead to comfort us, to act as a security blanket in what we perceive of as the absence of God’s grace.  We say that we are in because others are out, we make ourselves the kingdom while relegating others to exile, and in doing so, we make it all the more difficult to do what it is that Jesus—and Paul—is, in fact, calling us to do: to let Christ in to do the rising for us, to show us how it’s done.  And then, as He would say to us, we can then go, and do likewise.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 8, 2013

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