Sunday, July 6, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Message"

Acts 3:11 to 26

11 While the healed man clung to Peter and John, all the people rushed toward them at Solomon’s Porch, completely amazed. 12 Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. 14 You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. 15 You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes. 

17 “Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. 19 Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then the Lord will provide a season of relief from the distress of this age and he will send Jesus, whom he handpicked to be your Christ. 21 Jesus must remain in heaven until the restoration of all things, about which God spoke long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, The Lord your God will raise up from your own people a prophet like me. Listen to whatever he tells you. 23 Whoever doesn’t listen to that prophet will be totally cut off from the people.[a] 24 All the prophets who spoke—from Samuel forward—announced these days. 25 You are the heirs of the prophets and the covenant that God made with your ancestors when he told Abraham, Through your descendants, all the families on earth will be blessed.[b] 26 After God raised his servant, he sent him to you first—to bless you by enabling each of you to turn from your evil ways.” (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Three

The Vietnam veteran’s voice came out in a rich, just slightly gravelly timbre that befitted someone of his age as he told the story on cable news about how he had come to be fired from his job at a local Cracker Barrel restaurant.  Basically, he had given someone in need a corn muffin.  And they let him go.

Now, as he freely admitted, this was not his first breaking of company rules: he had given away food (coffee, actually) to a customer previously, but still, it was hard not to think of it as a million dollar punishment for a five buck crime.  As the pundit who was interviewing this man openly wondered, “Wouldn’t it be easier if they had said, ‘just give us ninety cents for the corn muffin and we’ll call it even?’”

To which the veteran replied, point blank: “I’d have paid it!”  Because, as he put it: “I think a moral issue comes in, and I said that when the manager let me go, I said, ‘don’t you think there’s a moral issue here?’”

I love that question.  Don’t you think there’s a moral issue here?  Because really, it’s question of competing moral issues: obedience versus charity.  Both are universally laudable virtues, but when push comes to shove, which one are you going to emphasize over the other?  It’s like that with plenty of dilemmas that we come across in our lives, and I think that the virtues or moral issues that win out in those decisions are often what most closely define our faith.  They are what tell us where our deepest, most rock ribbed, foundational values truly lie.  They can be incredibly illuminating.  And they are what Peter ultimately puts on display here in his second ever sermon, which is in many ways a condensed and refined message of his first, and one that is clearly meant for public consumption.

This is a new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Last week, we got another first: Peter’s first healing in the post Jesus world, done at the Beautiful Gate, and this week, we hear Peter’s second ever sermon, delivered in the immediate aftermath of the healing he has just performed in God’s name.  And this sermon is slightly shorter than Peter’s inaugural sermon (although the latter was lengthened by Peter quoting from the Old Testament prophet Joel).

Before pressing onward and upward, though, there are a couple of things here in Peter’s message here that require further commentary: one is that, if you were to take his words (“you rejected the holy and righteous one…you killed the author of life”) out of context, it sounds as though he is blaming the Israelites for the death of Jesus, and plenty of anti Semites throughout history have indeed taken verses like these out of context and twisted them to fit their despicable prejudices.

But Peter is himself a Jew.  And he follows these pronouncements up by noting that not only did the people “acted in ignorance,” but that the only person who didn’t was Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, who “had already decided to release (Jesus).”  Pilate knew the inning and the score, and still did what he knew was wrong (as evinced by his washing of his hands in full view of the people) because, quite simply, without a moral compass, it is easier to do what is wrong and convenient than what is right and more difficult.

And the other issue is that Jesus (and, by extension, Christianity itself) does not represent a replacement for Judaism (the big, fancy word for this belief is ‘supersessionism’).  Jesus, Christianity holds, represents a fulfillment, a continuation, and an extension of the Jewish covenant with God.  Why this becomes controversial is where you get more fundamentalist preachers arguing that Jews must convert to Christianity or be condemned to hell, which (aside from being wholly and understandably offensive to most Jews) flies in the face of all the promises God makes to His people in the Old Testament, and it flies in the face of what Peter is doing here: citing the greatest of Old Testament authorities, Moses, as support for belief in Jesus as a natural extension, rather than crude replacement, of that Old Testament covenant with Yahweh, and saying, point blank, “You are the heirs of the prophets and the covenant that God made with your ancestors when He said, ‘Through your descendants, all the families on earth will be blessed.’” (A reference to Genesis 22:18.)

So what is Peter really getting at here, if he’s neither trying to cast blame or invent new theology?  Really, it is a lot simpler than either of those things: he is putting forward what he believes his most important criteria and values to be in discerning who Jesus Christ was and is, and what we are supposed to do as a result of those values: change our hearts, change our lives, and turn to God.

A change of heart may be visible to God, but by itself it isn’t often visible to each other, and each other is who we end up having to lead to God in the first place.  Us leading God to Himself?  Not so much, in spite of our tendency to, I think, make God in our own image rather than the other way around.  Peter isn’t trying to get God to believe in Himself, he’s trying to get us to believe in God.  And to do that, Peter boils down the entirety of his faith in God through Christ into something more bite sized, more digestible, more tangible.

The great Disciples preacher Fred Craddock is fond of saying that Christianity is like having a million dollar cash bill…it may be worth so, so much, but you can’t use it for anything or give it to anyone for them to use for anything.  The only way you can use it is to break it down into smaller hundred dollar bills…in other words, to break it down into something more bite sized, more digestible, more tangible.

That is emphatically not the same thing as dumbing it down…something that I despise whenever I see it happen (far too often, sadly) in churches.  What it is would be each of us discerning and deciding how our faith is best expressed and putting that proverbial foot forward at all times in our lives.

And here is where I want you to be perhaps a bit brutally honest with yourselves: what is it that your faith boils down to in Scripture?  Don’t say “All of it,” because then I’ll know you are lying.  I’ll know it because “all of it!” isn’t the honest answer for me or for just about any other Christian I know.

In other words, what is the message you find most important to put out there in regards to your faith?  What is your sermon, such as it is, that you would offer to a crowd of people who have spontaneously come to hear your words, as the crowd has done with Peter here?  Is it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind?”  (Matthew 22:37) Is it, “Love your neighbor as yourself?” (Matthew 22:39)  Is it, “Do to others as you would have them do to you?” (Matthew 7:12)  Or is it, say, “I wish that those who unsettle you would castrate themselves,” as Paul writes (hopefully tongue in cheek) in Galatians?

Because honestly, I look around the country, and the world, and I see a lot of Christians who would rather castrate their opponents than pray for them and love them as themselves.  That’s the message that then gets put out to the rest of the world.

It’s not great PR for us, but even more importantly, it’s not great PR for a God who does not share our prejudices and our foibles, our hates and our hang ups.  If we are to achieve what Peter is exhorting for us here, to turn ourselves and subsequently turn others towards God, then we cannot simply say we have done it, we have to actually mean it, and act like we mean it.

We aren’t always doing that, and that is why so many people outside of the church look at the church and think that we have our priorities completely out of whack.  When 22,000 children die around the world each day due to poverty, when 1.1 billion people have inadequate access to clean water and another 870 million are malnourished, and when 800 women (99 percent of whom are in developing countries) die every day in childbirth, and the unchurched people see Christians putting the most time and energy into fighting insurance plans that pay for a woman’s contraception?  No wonder the church has a bad rap nowadays, we no longer act like we mean when we quote Scripture verses like, “Do to others…”  I have to think that this is the moral issue that our veteran protagonist spoke of in defending his decision to give away a bit of food, even though it cost him his job.  Doing to others by default means putting everything else second, including yourself.

So what message shall our church bear forth to the world?  We have a mission statement and a vision statement, to demonstrate the love of God through Jesus Christ in all our relationships with one another.  ALL our relationships with one another.  It means we are committed to putting one another first.  It means that our faith is relational, communal faith, a faith that professes love before condemnation and welcome before exclusion.

That is the message I believe that so much of our faith boils down to once we do in fact turn to God.  That is the message that, I hope and pray, will one day truly save both us and the world entire.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 6, 2014

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