Sunday, August 23, 2009

Singing the Lord's Songs

Ephesians 5:15-20

I. The Call to Sing Praises to the Lord

Do you know what is great about church? It doesn’t matter whether you’re tone deaf or a professional singer, you get to sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord! In Ephesians we hear this admonition: Be filled with the Spirit and “make melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Psalmist also invites us to praise the Lord. Listen to the invitation found in the 150th Psalm, as it appears in The Message:

Praise God in his holy house of worship,
Praise him under the open skies;

Praise him for his acts of power,
praise him for his magnificent greatness;

Praise with a blast on the trumpet,
Praise by strumming soft strings;

Praise him with castanets and dance,
Praise him with banjo and flute;
Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum,

Praise him with fiddles and mandolin.
Let every living, breathing creature praise God!
Hallelujah! (Psalm 150, MSG)

Yes, let every breathing creature praise God whether you’re using your voice or every instrument under heaven, from guitars to the organ!

This morning you get to help with the sermon. That’s because we’re going to sing the biblical story. We’re going to sing this story because God wants to hear our voices. We’re also going to sing, because singing helps cement the message in our hearts as well as our heads. This is important, because biblical illiteracy is a growing problem in the church. We simply don’t know the biblical story as well as we probably should. So, this morning we’re going to do two things – We’re going to make a joyful noise to the Lord by lifting our voices to God, and we’re also going to take to heart the biblical story – in five movements.

II. Singing the Lord’s Songs

I want to set the stage by stating two seemingly contradictory assumptions. On the one hand, the Bible is an anthology of sacred literature written and compiled over a long period of time, representing different theologies, experiences, and circumstances. On the other hand, the Bible also tells a coherent story about a relationship between God and humanity. It has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. At the beginning God creates the universe, while at the end God puts everything that’s gotten broken along the way back into its proper place.

There are a number of ways to tell this story, but I like the way Disciples biblical scholar Gene Boring lays it out.* Being a Disciple, Boring borrows a tool from one of the founding fathers – Walter Scott. Scott was known for developing the five-fingered exercise to summarize the way of salvation as stated in Acts 2. Boring suggests that we create our own five-fingered exercise to remember the biblical story, using five words, all beginning with the letter C: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation. And if we’re going to remember this grand narrative, what better way to cement it in our hearts and minds than to sing it. So, let’s begin with the first movement:

  • Creation
We’ll start at the beginning, at Creation, where the opening words of Genesis state:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be Light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (Gen. 1:1-4a)

The story continues on until it culminates in the creation of the man and the woman in the image of God. After each act of creation, God pronounces that “It is Good!” And since it is Good, we should celebrate with a blast from the trumpet and then celebrate with a song from the heart. Let us, then, hear the trumpet and sing:

“This is My Father’s World,” (59, vs. 1, 3)**
  • Covenant
Although God declared that everything in creation was good, as the story continues, things go terribly wrong. That’s because we decided to do things our way. God could have rejected us and left us to suffer the consequences of our actions, but instead God chose to make a way for us to get back on track. And to do this, God decided to make a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. God said to Abraham:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. (Gen. 12:2-3).

The rest of the Old Testament tells us how God formed a people so that God could bless humanity. Let us, therefore, celebrate God’s decision to make this covenant, first with Abraham and then with Moses by singing:

The God of Abraham Praise (24, vs. 1)

  • Christ
As Christians we believe that Jesus is the culmination of this covenant. Jesus is the seed of Abraham, through which God blesses the nations. So, as we turn to the New Testament, we see God taking the next step toward reconciliation with creation, by inviting us to share in a covenant relationship through the Son of God. As the opening verses of the Gospel of John puts it: The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The message of the New Testament is this: God has been uniquely revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With that in mind, let us sing the story of Jesus in three movements: Birth, Death, and Resurrection:

Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing (150, vs. 1)
Were You There? (198, vs. 1,3)
Christ the Lord is Risen Today (216, vs. 1)

  • Church
The resurrection is not the end of the story, it’s simply the beginning of the rest of the story. If we turn to the book of Acts, we see God sending the Spirit to empower a rag- tag band of disciples to carry the message of Jesus, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving out from there to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Although the Spirit-empowered church would face great persecution, it not only persevered, it grew and expanded to the ends of the earth. This story is our story, because together with them we proclaim that “God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5). Let us celebrate this call to be agents of reconciliation by singing:
Surely the Presence of the Lord (263)
“Community of Christ” (655, vs. 1)

  • Consummation
Even as every story has a beginning, it also has an ending. With this in mind, Jesus declared to John, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 1:8). Up to this point we’ve sung the songs of creation, covenant, Christ, and the church. Now, it’s time to look forward into the future and ask: Where is God taking us?

We may not know the details, but scripture says that a day will come when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yes, as the Lord said to John:

“I’m A to Z, I’m the Beginning, I’m the Conclusion. From Water-of-Life Well I give freely to the thirsty. Conquerors inherit all this. I’ll be God to them, they’ll be sons and daughters to me.” (Rev. 21:6-7, MSG).

This is our hope! So let the trumpet sound again so that we might sing:

Jesus Shall Reign (95 , vs. 1)

Having rehearsed the biblical story, from beginning to end, let us make melody in our hearts, and sing praises to the God who reigns over all. Indeed, let us not cease to sing praises to the Lord our God with every breath we take!


*This idea comes from the final chapter of Eugene Boring's Disciples and the Bible, (Chalice Press, 1997).
**Hymn numbers are taken from Chalice Hymnal (Chalice Press, 1995).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tasting the Bread of Life

John 6:51-58

On Monday nights, Guy Fieri takes us on a road trip to all the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” across the land that serve great food, at great prices, but without the frills. While Cheryl thinks that he just goes to greasy burger joints, that’s not entirely true. Yes, he does go to places that like to deep-fry things, but he also goes to some rather surprising places – like a drive-in in Boise that serves prime rib, or a place down on Woodward Avenue called the Fly Trap that’s known for its Asian cuisine. The Food Channel, which carries Guy’s show, exists because we like to eat, and as Alton Brown puts it on his show, we like “Good Eats!” Now, I’m not sure what either Guy or Alton would make of this morning’s text. I’m not sure that Alton Brown would declare Jesus’ offer of himself as true food and drink to be Good Eats.

While Jesus told the tempter that there’s more to life than bread, bread is still an important biblical image. In John 6 Jesus tells us that he is true food and true drink, and that if we consume these elements then we’ll experience eternal life. While this is one of those biblical passages that’s difficult to deal with, especially if you take things too literally, when read in context – both biblically and historically – there is much that is spiritually empowering in this chapter. Now, John 6 begins with Jesus feeding a great crowd. When the crowd returns the next day demanding more bread, perhaps remembering Moses and the manna from heaven, Jesus offers them something else, himself, as the true bread of heaven. As you read this passage you will begin to understand why some early critics accused Christians of cannibalism.

1. Finding Life in God’s Presence

At the heart of this passage is the question of the nature of life. According to John, Jesus says to the crowd: If you eat my body, which is the bread of life, you will have eternal life. But what does this mean for us? What does it matter for us to talk about eternal life today?
To put the question in context – what does this passage have to say to the biggest political conversation of our day – health care reform? There are, of course, pros and cons about any reform proposal, but the issue that’s getting the most press has to do with a provision in one of the bills to pay for a conversation with one’s doctor about “end of life” care. This provision has led some opponents to suggest that reform would lead to euthanasia and “death panels” deciding what kinds of medical treatment you will get. Some of them even raise the specter of Nazi Germany’s eugenics program. Now, all of this is misinformation – deliberate or not – but the issue I want to lift from this debate is how we understand life and death. You see, the reason why opponents have had such success with this tactic is that most of us not only fear death, but have an aversion to talking about it.

As a pastor, I’ve witnessed this on more than one occasion – a person is nearing death and wants to talk about it, but their loved ones will have nothing to do with the conversation. They either change the subject or give false assurances that everything is going to be okay. This fear of death is one reason why we often go to such extremes to put death off for as long as possible, even when nothing can be done, except to prolong the agony.

So, as we hear this text, what does it say about life and death? We needn’t court death to recognize that death is both a natural part of life and inevitable. While it’s right for us to grieve our losses and take advantage of appropriate medical treatment that will prolong life, John reminds us that our lives are defined by our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In speaking of eternal life, John doesn’t just have the next life in mind – he also has this life in mind as well, for eternity begins now, as we live in relationship with God. This is, I believe, what Jesus is offering us by presenting himself as the bread from heaven, the bread that will sustain us forever.

2. Abiding in Jesus and Abiding in God

The word that we hear in this text is this: if we ingest the flesh and blood of Jesus, we will receive true food and true drink. If we will receive this true food and drink, by faith, then Jesus will abide in us, and we will abide in him. Although the phrasing is a bit different, this idea of abiding in God’s presence is also found in 1 John. There the passage reads: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b). Another way to put this is that if we walk by faith we can experience union with the God of Jesus Christ, who is love in its fulness. If, as it would appear, John 6 has the Lord’s Supper in mind, then it would seem that John wants us to understand that as we share in the elements of bread and cup, we can, if we act in faith, experience oneness with God, which will change our lives forever.

But, how does this happen? Although some Christians take this passage quite literally, and insist that when we take bread and cup, we’re literally ingesting Jesus’ physical body and blood, I believe we would be better served to take this passage more as a metaphor, so that when we share together in the bread and the cup, we can experience God’s life-changing presence anew.

Or to put it another way, as we receive these signs of the body and blood of Christ, we can receive into our lives the life that is God’s, so that even as the Spirit indwells us, God will be present in our lives.

There is imagery here that may be easy to miss, because we tend to forget that our food was once alive. But the ancients understood, that whether it’s animal or vegetable, when we eat something, we ingest life, so that we might have life. Or, as Gail Ramshaw puts it: “All life depends upon the life of another” (Gail Ramshaw, in New Proclamation, Easter Through Pentecost, Year B 2003, Fortress, 2003, p. 148) This is as true of a vegan as it is of a carnivore. So, by sharing in the flesh and blood of Jesus in the symbols of bread and cup, we receive into our own lives the person of Jesus, so that our lives might be sustained both in the “here and now” and in the life to come.

3. Abiding through Word and Sacrament

Because this passage has long been understood to speak of the Lord’s Supper, it is important that we consider what it has to say to us about what happens in worship. Reflecting on John 6, John Calvin said that the true church was marked by two things: The Word rightly preached, and the Sacraments rightly administered. Our passage speaks of the sacrament, and in the verses that precede this one, we hear about the teaching of the Father, which Calvin believed spoke of the centrality of the Word of God in worship. In many ways both Word and Sacrament are sources of the Bread of Life that will sustain our lives for eternity. Although some Christians emphasize one or the other, Calvin believed that you needed to have both, if you were going to truly abide with God and live changed lives.

We Disciples are known for our emphasis on the Table, but we too, like Calvin, have understood that Word and Table go together. Our Founders were committed to a Reasonable faith, one that was informed by the Word. They also believed that it was essential that we come together at the Table to reflect on that Word, and allow the Spirit to seal that Word into our hearts, so that we might live transformed lives.

Calvin believed that if we receive by faith the Bread of Life, which is Christ, then we can experience new life. While he didn’t believe that we actually ingest Christ’s literal body and blood, he did believe that when received by faith, the Spirit of God would deliver to us the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is what these emblems represent. That is, as we partake of this means of grace, ministered to us through bread and cup, we receive into our lives, by the power of God’s Spirit, the forgiveness that transforms and empowers the life of the believer. Having received forgiveness, God is able to abide with us, so that we might abide in God – who is, after all, love in its fulness. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV:14).

Let us, therefore, receive by faith these life changing signs of God’s grace that are ministered to us by God’s Spirit as we attend to the Word of God and to the Table of Grace. For it is in this Word and at this Table that we are able to experience abundant life. Therefore, as we receive this gift of God, may we live boldly and without fear – even in the face of death itself.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2009

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Living for Jesus

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The first stanza of the gospel song “Living for Jesus”goes like this:
“Living for Jesus a life that is true, striving to please him in all that I do; yielding allegiance, glad hearted and free, this is the pathway of blessing for me.”
This song gives a good basic definition of what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is nothing more and nothing less than a follower of Jesus. And, if we’re going to live for Jesus, then Jesus should come first in our lives. When we say Jesus is Lord, which according to Paul we can only say by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3), then nothing, not family, not friends, not nation, not one’s job, can take first place in our lives. This isn’t an easy demand to fulfill, which is why Paul said that it takes the Holy Spirit. Singing the song is one thing, but following through is another.

The text for today says rather bluntly: “Don’t live like the Gentiles.” As you hear this word, it’s helpful to remember that the recipients are likely Gentiles. So why this statement? Well, according to the letter, Gentiles, left to themselves, are hard-hearted and alienated from God, and you the reader, well that’s the way it was for you. But not anymore; now you’re a follower of Jesus, and so you should live like one.

This call to live for Jesus is set up for us in verse 24, which reads this way in the Message:
Take on an entirely new way of life – a God fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you. (Eph. 4:24 MSG).

In other words, there’s an old way of living, and a new one! As a follower of Jesus, we’re supposed to live into this new way of living.

I. The Old Way and the New Way

So how do we live into this new way of life? Our text offers four suggestions that focus on being renewed from the inside out.

  • Put Away Falsehood and Lies
Just tell the truth. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Don’t let deceit define your life and your relationships.

  • Be Angry, but don’t Sin
While Jesus equated anger with murder, and James said “be slow to anger,” Ephesians says – don’t let your anger lead to sin. You may get angry from time to time, but don’t let it control your life. That’s because, if you let anger control you, you become vulnerable to evil. This is the lesson that Luke Skywalker learns in the Star Wars movies. If you give in to anger or let bitterness and wrath take hold in your life, you will fall prey to the dark side, which is evil. And when that happens, you end up destroying your neighbor and yourself. So, when you get angry, let go of it before you go to bed!

  • Give up Being a Thief
Now, I don’t know if any of you are thieves, but the point is well taken – we should get honest jobs, when they’re available, and give generously to those in need. Why? Because we belong to each other.

  • And, finally, Let there be no more evil talk
It’s easy to fall prey to this temptation. Whether it’s a joke or a juicy bit of information, what seems innocent can easily embarrass or dehumanize another person. I think back to when I was a kid. We used to tell Pollock jokes. Looking back it seems so innocent – we didn’t now anything about Poland or Polish people, but for some reason being Polish meant being stupid. I’ve since learned better, but it’s easy to laugh at the expense of someone else. Humor may be a good thing, but not when it destroys. Gossip is another seemingly innocent kind of speech, but it too can be destructive. So, if you’re living for Jesus, just make sure that your speech is appropriate. Make sure that what you say builds up people, rather than destroys them.

Therefore, if you’re going to live for Jesus, don’t grieve the Spirit, who indwells and empowers God’s people. Put away bitterness, anger, clamor, wrath, and slander, and replace that which destroys with a new and different spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We can do this, because God has forgiven us.

II. Therefore, Being Forgiven, Let Us Imitate Christ!

Living for Jesus can seem like an impossible task, unless we understand that God is at work transforming our lives from the inside out. One of the names for the early Church was “The Way.” That’s because the gospel offered a new way of living. But, instead of being a list of do’s and don’ts, this new way of living focused on living a life marked by love, mercy, and grace. Or, as the author of the Ephesian letter puts it:

“Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.” (Eph. 5:1-2 MSG).

Mother Theresa understood what it means to live for Jesus like this. She knew what Jesus meant when he said, “when you do things to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” She said: "Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment." This is the way she tried to live; she tried to make every person feel worthy of God’s love and mercy. She didn’t ask anything of them, she just cared for them. If we live for Jesus, then let us be like him by showing kindness, being tender hearted, and showing forgiveness to our neighbors.
  • Show Kindness
Showing kindness means more than simply being nice. It means putting the needs and desires of the other before your own. This is what drove Jesus. He reached out and touched people, making them whole, without any regard for himself. He touched the leper, even though he knew that touching the leper would make him ritually unclean.

  • Be Tenderhearted
According to the gospels, Jesus was tenderhearted. He knew how to listen and how to care for others. He wept for Lazarus, for Jerusalem, and for his disciples. He felt compassion for the people, which according to the gospels is why he fed the multitudes. As we live for Jesus, let us pray that the Spirit will soften our hearts to each other’s needs and that the Spirit would help us feel the pain of those who suffer. May we understand and recognize what keeps people separated from God and the church. May we grieve with those who grieve and rejoice with those who rejoice.
  • Finally, Show Forgiveness
Lew Smedes, one of my seminary professors wrote that “forgiving is the only way to heal the wounds of a past we cannot change and cannot forget.” Although we can’t undo the past, we can let go of it. As Smedes puts it
“when we forgive, we bring in light where there was darkness. We summon positives to replace negatives. We open the door to an unseen future that our painful past had shut. When we forgive, we set a prisoner free and discover that the person we set free is us.”1

To forgive is to offer a word of freedom and a second chance. That’s what Jesus did when he forgave Peter after Peter denied him three times, when he called the tax collector to be his disciple, and when he forgave the woman caught in adultery. It’s important that we remember that without forgiveness there can be no church. Indeed, without forgiveness we’re doomed to destruction, because given time and opportunity, we will hurt each other. If we’re unable or unwilling to forgive then there’s no possibility of having lasting relationships inside or outside the church.

And so having attended to this biblical text, may we again hear and abide the message of “Living for Jesus.”
Living for Jesus, a life that is true, striving to please him in all that I do; yielding allegiance, glad hearted and free, this is the pathway of blessing for me.”

1. Lewis Smedes, Forgive and Forget, (Harper One, 1996).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
10th Sunday after Pentecost
August 9, 2009