Sunday, November 10, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Mere Christianity"

Philippians 2:5-11 

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 

6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 

7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

9 Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (CEB)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture With C.S. Lewis,” Week Three

We’ve all seen the ads, right?  A cute baby—or a little boy or a little girl, or if you’re a pet owner, a cuddly little puppy—and the subtitle below it that says something to the effect of, “Have you considering adopting?  Adopt me!”  And it’s cute, and it’s heartwarming, because it’s this little miniature being that oozes adorableness and we’re supposed to go weak at the knees and instantly dial the adoption number and sign up for our very own child/pet starter kit.

Okay, now take that same ad and take out whatever cute person or animal your mind’s eye put in there, and then put in a fully grown adult.  Put me in there if you need to!  It’s a little less appealing now, right?  Adopt a fully-grown man with terrible allergies and an affinity for single-malt scotches?  C’mon.  But that’s what is happening: young adults—folks around my age—whose biological parents are gone will form emotional bonds with another adult of their parents’ generation, and those bonds will be so strong that they will legally become that person’s child.

And I can already hear the question you may want to ask me: why on earth would someone do that?  Here, I’ll let one woman, Cassie, says this, about being adopted—at my age—by her 67-year-old roommate, Mary Alice, after leaving her biological mother at age 14:

I come from a very broken background.  While living here, I saw the dynamic that Mary Alice had with her son, Chris.  It was like, “Wow, ok, this is a family.  This is a mother.”  I had seen families on television.  But a family unit, until then, was something of a mystery to me…When I thought of a mother, I thought of a person to bring you Kleenex during a heartbreak, to bring me chicken soup when I was sick.  She was that.  She is that.  When you don’t have a sense of identity and you find it, you’re comfortable in staying there.  People who have had that their whole lives, who know where they belong, who feel warm, comfortable, and loved, they don’t question what it would be like not to have that.

And it really is a profound experience when you get down to it: someone choosing to make official a fundamental change in identity because of a loving relationship that has suddenly and amazingly formed.  It’s like getting married, or, dare I say it, like becoming a Christian!

This will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us…that still sounds crazy to say.  But yep, this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas.  This is a series that I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right spot in the calendar until now.  And it’s a bit different than my usual series, which are often about a book of Scripture or a book by a contemporary author, or some other theme…this series is centered around a person: Clive Staples Lewis, the 20th century Christian writer and apologist who wrote a great many books you may have heard of: the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Mere Christianity.  He’s a popular fellow in a great many Christian circles, and so I decided to use him as the proverbial guinea pig in this new experiment of mine in taking a slightly different approach to a sermon series.  We began the series by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Last week, we turned to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters,” and now we arrive at potentially Lewis’s most famous nonfiction book, “Mere Christianity.”

“Mere Christianity” is actually a series of books—or talks, really—in one.  Lewis gave a number of talks on BBC radio from 1942 to 1944 at the invitation of the BBC’s director of religious programming, and those talks make up the content of “Mere Christianity,” which is designed to be a primer on basic Christian beliefs and practices; rather than take on major controversies, Lewis aimed to offer a crash course of sorts on the foundations of Christianity, and to offer that course in language as accessible as possible while also being precise with his word choice.  An consequence of Lewis’s comprehensiveness was his reporting on aspects of Christianity that he himself struggled with or disagreed with and would have preferred to leave out altogether from his interpretation—yet he does not, and he writes why in his section on social morality, charity, alms, and his vision for a truly Christian world, saying this:

…I am going to venture a guess as to how this section has affected any who have read it.  My guess is that there are some leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far.  If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society.  Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.  We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or a Judge.  I am just the same.  There are bits in this section that I wanted to leave out.  And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way around.  A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to really want it until we become fully Christian.

Until we become fully Christian.  That state alone honestly is probably an impossibility—let’s begin with that right now.  Even pastors—those of us Christians who have turned pro—aren’t that, because we are more than just pastors.  I’m also a son, a brother, a fiancĂ©, a coach, a friend, an American, and, sometimes, an inveterate wiseass with an R-rated vocabulary.  I am all those things, just as you are all the things you are, and not always do they fit nicely one on top of another.  Instead, they create a Venn diagram where hopefully they overlap as much as possible, but sometimes, they just don’t.  And those moments that they don’t is what I’ll talk about today.

Last week, I talked about how Paul defines Christianity as a lifestyle—not a doctrine or a set of beliefs, but something that we choose every day when we get out of bed to practice or to not practice.  Paul tells us all these things that we are to do as Christians, and as for the “how,” Paul does what any preacher worth a flat dollar does—he just says, “Hey, Jesus did it.  Be like Him.”

Except Paul does it with poetry, and in doing so, as New Testament scholar Ernest Saunders writes, he “really invents the Christian meaning of the secular Greek word ‘tapeinophrosyne,’ commonly translated ‘humility.’  The dictionary meaning is…lowness of rank.  In Christian use, however, it characteristically refers to the “littleness” of the child, in a favorite image of Jesus.”

Okay, Jesus as a child we get, right?  He’s the Son of God.  But Jesus as “little” is something I want to balk at.  I *want* Jesus to be big, bigger than anything else I could ever imagine!

And therein lies the paradox that this poem speaks of.  Jesus was—is—in fact made of stuff far bigger than we could ever imagine: He is made of God’s own divine substance.  But in order to do what He did, He had to sacrifice all of it, empty Himself of all divinity, in order to take human form.  Saunders calls it “the scandal of the Gospel.”  He says: “God declares himself not in stupendous power, nor celestial majesty, but in an insignificant poor man who gives up everything including his life for the sake of others…He made himself of no account, worthless, insignificant…a Somebody who was willing to become a Nobody.  That’s the paradox of Jesus.  Only a few have been able to take him seriously…we can deal with majesty, but we are nonplussed by humility.  We understand pomp and circumstance; we are puzzled by voluntary poverty.  Power we can comprehend; love is a mystery.  Yet it is that strange kind of world over which God is truly king, modeled before our very eyes in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”

All of those things that Saunders lists, though—majesty versus humility, power versus love—they all have a common denominator, and you could boil it down to the same format that he uses: we understand control, but we remain mystified by surrender.  Our approach to God is, let’s be honest here, often a conditional one.  We say something along the lines of, “Hey, big guy, I sure could use your blessings for X, Y, or Z right about now.  I mean, I’m not sure what you want me to offer to you—I don’t feel like I have the time or money to give to you and your church, and I’m not ready to change anything about how I give of myself to others, or treat others decently…I mean, I am what I am, right?  You created me, so really, it’s your problem!”

We don’t need a show of hands here, but how many of you have had a prayer—at some point, any point in your lives—go a little bit like that?  I’m willing to bet that is all of us, myself included, and if you say no, you’ve never done that, then I’m pretty sure you might be fibbing.

And perhaps nowhere is our need for control so destructive as when we approach Christianity and Scripture and Jesus Himself to validate what we already think is true, rather than what is actually true, and  if it turns out that the Gospel repudiates what we want to be true, well, we find a way to wriggle out of it.  I’ve had “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” type of people tell me about how Jesus’ command to the rich man to sell everything he owned and give the proceeds to the poor doesn’t apply to them because Jesus was saying it to a specific audience, therefore, they don’t need to follow it.  And I just want to be like, “Did you just try to find a loophole for something your Lord and Savior says to do?  Okay.  Okay.”

In other words, we approach God with an agenda, and that agenda is ours, not His.  But what happens then is nothing short of a miracle: God says, "You know what?  I still love you!"

Because I am not fully Christian myself—I am all these other things I listed earlier, plus I am at least something of am materialistic capitalist—I have not sold everything I own and given it to the poor.  I have not done what Jesus says to do, even though I call myself a Christian and a pastor.  But, as they say in twelve-step groups, you first have to admit you have a problem, and that you are powerless over it.  Then the real transformation can begin.  And so it is with Christianity, too.  Only when we surrender our little power to the grace and mercy and love of God do we really, trul change.

But when we do...that is when the amazing stuff can really begin.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 10, 2013

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