Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Good Witness -- A Sermon for Easter 6A

1 Peter 3:13-22

What makes for a good witness?  From Perry Mason to Law and Order, a good witness is one who
promises to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, usually with the help of God. 

According to Peter, a good witness is one who gives an account “for the hope that is in you,” and to do so with “gentleness and reverence.”  This witness will be given even the face of suffering.  

As is often the case in Scripture, Peter tells his readers not to be afraid or intimidated by those who would oppose them.  Simply do what is right before God and you will be blessed.  Peter then points to Jesus, who endured suffering, died, but then God raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand so that the one who was judged will sit in the judgment seat.  

Few Christians living in the United States have any need to fear suffering for our faith.  We might experience some inconveniences at times.  And, if you’re a pastor, some people believe that you will put a damper on a party.  But, there’s nothing to fear from those who would persecute us.  After all, Christianity still has the upper hand in America.

Why is this?  Well, even though Christendom, which is the merger of Christ and Culture that began in the 4th century with Constantine, is crumbling, there are enough remnants of it to keep us quite safe here in America. 

We might not have much to fear, but we do have a witness to share with the world.  As followers of Jesus, having been baptized into his death and his resurrection, we have a message to share that concerns the realm of God.  This realm that we are called to proclaim extends beyond all loyalties – including to family and to the nation. When we’re baptized, we become part of God’s realm.  We get a new citizenship card, with a certain set of expectations.  Those expectations center on living a life that is in tune with the ways of God. 

1 Peter 3 offers us an incredibly rich text, with many jewels that can be examined closely.  There is the conversation to be had about fear and suffering.  There’s the question of Christ’s death and his resurrection.  There’s that seemingly odd reference to Noah and to Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison.  Then there’s the reference to baptism as well as to the ascension of Jesus.  There are so many sermons packed into this brief passage of scripture – but alas I can’t preach them all this morning.

Therefore, this morning I want to focus on verses 15 and 16.  Peter, or more likely someone writing in his name near the end of the first century, sends a circular letter to congregations in Asian Minor, telling them to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”  And, do this “with gentleness and reverence.” 

The word “defense” – in Greek – is apologia.  For those who enjoy studying etymology – here’s the root of our word apology.  Now, when I think of this word “apology,” I usually think of having to say “I’m sorry.”  As a child my mother would say, “Now Bob, apologize to Mark and Paul for waking them up at 11:00 in the morning.”  Of course, I wasn’t sorry.  I wanted to play basketball and they were wasting away the day!

But, that’s not the kind of apology that Peter has in mind!  So, what does he have in mind?  

Some Christians hear this passage as a call for Christians to prove our case for the Christian faith before a skeptical world.  This is called apologetics.  Back in high school, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Walter Martin, who was known as the “Bible Answer Man.”  He was the king of apologetics, and I hoped that I could be his successor!  If you don’t know who Walter Martin is, perhaps you know the name Cliff Claven – he was the master of all kinds of trivia on Cheers – that’s kind of what a “Bible Answer Man” is like.  But, Peter isn’t asking us to memorize Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict so we can win debates about the truthfulness of the Christian faith.  For one thing – it rarely works.  And for another, Peter has other, more practical things, in mind.

I will say this, however, I’m still concerned about the need to move toward a fuller understanding of the Christian faith.  That is, I do think that theology is important.  In fact, I’ve been trying to make that case this past week on my blog, which means that the “Bible Answer Man” might still be alive in me.  As Disciple theologian Joe Jones puts it:
Friends, it matters what you believe about God.  It matters to your own spiritual formation whether you believe God’s aim for the world is ultimate destruction of the many and the salvation of the few.  It matters whether you believe God called America to be a light to the nations and therefore America is always justified in the purity of its motives and its own going to war against enemies of God.  It matters whether you believe Muslims are included in that category of the neighbor and strangers we are to love. 
Think about it.  It may be that our spirituality is at stake in what we believe or do not believe.  It matters whether we are formed in Christ or malformed by the spirits of the world. [Joe Jones, A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Churchp. 36].
Yes, it does matter what we believe about God and about God’s relationship with the creation.  We are called to love our neighbor, but this love flows out of our love for God.  But, I don’t think that Peter is calling here for a theological debate.  No, I do think that he is pointing to the way we live our lives before God in the world.  As Addison Hodges Hart puts it:  
Ours is not an argument, but a life to be promoted – and only in the way that life is lived openly will it be accepted as credible.  This is a point that cannot be stressed enough.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are given flesh and blood as “evidence” through the witness of Christian lives. [Hart, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, p. 129].
  In this letter, Peter calls us to live faithfully – offering a witness that is gentle and reverent -- even if this means putting our lives in danger.  

This word of encouragement follows a rather controversial section of Peter’s letter, where he encourages the congregation to not buck the system u
nnecessarily.  He tells wives to obey their husbands and husbands to care for their wives as “weaker vessels.”  That should seem old-fashioned to us, but Peter’s point is this:  fit in where you can, but in the end, do what is right. 

Remember how in the Book of Acts, Peter, James, and John are hauled before the religious leaders and told to stop preaching the gospel.  They responded – who should we obey – God or human authorities?  As far as they were concerned, “we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:13-20).

How then, should we live before God and in the presence of our neighbors?  How should we express our faith in a way that is gentle and reverent?  How do we provide a witness to the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives?  In other words, what makes us different because we follow Jesus?  

Since this is Memorial Day Weekend – a time when the nation is called to remember those who died in service to the nation, perhaps we can begin answering the question of what this witness looks like, by thinking about the way Jesus would have us relate to our country.  Remember the prayer we prayed earlier in the service – does it not call on us to give our allegiance to God and to God’s kingdom before all other loyalties?   And did not Jesus tell us to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God? (Mark 12:17). 

While I’m proud of the country I live in, I know that we must judge it by a higher standard – God’s standard.  Being a dual citizen – I must make my decisions based on my prior loyalty to God’s realm, even if that conflicts with my loyalty to the nation I love.  That is because, as Peter puts it, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, with “angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”

So, when I’m asked to make my defense of my faith – I don’t have to offer up a complex philosophical explanation for the existence of God.  But, Peter does tell us that we should be able to point to our lives and let that be a witness to the presence of God in our midst.  As we move into the fullness of this reality, it’s good to know that we do so within the amazing grace of God who loves us fully and without qualification.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 25, 2014

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Under the Shepherd's Care -- Sermon for Easter 4

1 Peter 2:19-25

The reading this morning probably could have begun with verse 18: 
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 
You can understand why the creators of the lectionary omitted this verse. I doubt any of us approve of slavery, but back in the first century a sizable portion of the Roman population were slaves.  So it makes sense that Peter would write to Christians who’d been enslaved and advise them to keep a low profile and do what they were told. If they experienced suffering, then they should look to Jesus who also suffered.  Even though he suffered, he did so for the right reasons.

Although none of us are slaves, slavery continues to exist even in Michigan.  We call it human trafficking, and its one of the issues that the MCC is working on.  We’re working to assist victims and bring perpetrators to justice. Because the contexts are different, we’re not encouraging the victims of human trafficking to endure their suffering.  We’re working to put an end to it.  

One of the questions I try to ask of a passage like this is: What word from God can we hear in this passage?

Peter talks about suffering, justice, and the shepherd of our souls.  He draws on Isaiah 53 to interpret Jesus’ sufferings on the cross.  According to Peter, even though he was without sin, he suffered the consequences of our sins.  How he did this is a matter of great debate within the Christian community, and so we’ll have to leave the issue of what theory of atonement best represents the biblical story to another time and place.

But, what does Jesus’ example of suffering say to us as we try to live the Christian life in a world where suffering for what is right is a possibility?  Sometimes when we stand up for what is good and right – we suffer injury, receive threats, lose friends, and sometimes churches lose members.    

The community that received this letter lived on the margins of Roman society.  Many were poor.  Many were slaves.  And if you lived among the elite, you might get cast out.  It wasn’t easy being a Christian back then.  There were no legal protections.  There were no rewards awaiting you.  So, it’s no wonder that Peter told Christian slaves to mind their ways.

Of course, the Roman Empire wasn’t Christian, so we shouldn’t have expected it to operate according to Christian principles.  But how did Constantine’s decision to legalize Christianity and give it most favored status affect the church?   We’ve given a name to what happened – we call it Christendom.  In many ways the church traded persecution for subservience to the state.

Although our nation’s founders rejected state establishment of churches, a form of civil religion developed that favored Protestant Christianity.  This unofficial status quo continued on until it began to evaporate in the 1960s.  Since then, even though we still don’t really suffer for our faith, it’s not as convenient to be a Christian as it once was.

 Many observers have noticed similarities between the world in which early Christianity emerged, and our present post-Christendom age. In many ways being Christian is counter-cultural.  You might even say that we’re “strangers in a strange land.”

Although I can still get a meeting with the local mayor, and even get him to listen to me, when push comes to shove my voice is simply one among many.  And usually the loudest voice gets the most attention.

We may not have the same social status as we did a generation or two back, but we can still share a prophetic voice with the community.  We can still work to bring healing and hope to our communities.  That’s what Jesus did in his ministry, when he stood up for those who were being pushed to the margins of society and brought healing to those who suffered.

Of course, Jesus also stepped on quite a few toes, and in the end he paid the price on the cross.   What Peter does here is ask us if we’re willing to follow the example of Jesus and pay the price of standing up for what is right and what is good.

One way in which can do this is to build an alternative community that lives out Jesus’ vision of the realm of God.  This involves recognizing that while we live in the world, we are not of the world.  As Paul put it – we shouldn’t be conformed to this world, but instead we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).  Paul also wrote to the Corinthians and told them that since they had been reconciled to God and to one another in Christ, they should take up the ministry of reconciliation – a ministry that has both vertical and horizontal dimensions (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  Some people call these two dimensions evangelism and social concern.  I just call it the gospel of reconciliation.

So how do we create this alternative community?  What does it look like to live in the world, but not be of the world?   One Second Century Christian leader put it this way.  Speaking of his Christian brothers and sisters, he wrote:
 They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. [Epistle of Diognetus, in C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers - Enhanced Version, (Kindle Locations 4976-4978).]
We may be citizens of this country, but we’re also aliens.  That’s because our first allegiance belongs to God and not country.  When we say the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday, we’re offering our pledge of allegiance to God and God’s realm.  We do this when we pray – “let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!”  

While we share life in all its fullness with our neighbors, there should be differences in the way we live that life.  If we do this – if we conform our lives to the Gospel, then life might not always be easy for us.  Though I prefer to have people think that I’m just a normal guy – when we don’t conform to the world’s standards of behavior, then we might seem a bit odd!

The path set before us isn’t an easy one, but we don’t go it alone.  And even if we go astray, we have the promise that the Good Shepherd will welcome us back into the fold.  This shepherd, according to Peter, is the guardian of our souls.

Consider with me for a moment the words of Psalm 23.  Remember how the shepherd leads the sheep “through the valley of the shadow of death?”  When the sheep follow this shepherd, whom they trust implicitly, because they know his voice, they “shall fear no evil, for thou art with them.”  

This is, of course, Mother’s Day.  As a child, I learned to put my trust in my mother, who was always there for me.  In fact, she’s still there for me – even when she doesn’t agree with me or I with her!

As a follower of Jesus and a child of the living God, I can put my trust in the Good Shepherd who will be there for me.  Or as we read in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples:

2 The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. 5They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.  (John 10:2-5)
We can endure suffering with grace when facing injustice, if we put our trust in the Good Shepherd who has laid his life down for the sheep.  He is, of course, not only the shepherd, he is also the Lamb of God who bore the sins of the world on the cross.  He took our injustice upon himself and transformed it, so that we might be healed.  We may have gone astray, but like the Prodigal’s father, he is there to welcome us back.   And as our opening hymn puts it:
The care the eagle gives her young, safe in her lofty nest, is like the tender love of God for us made manifest. (Deane Postlethwaite, Chalice Hymnal 76)

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday of Easter
May 11, 2014 

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Sacramental Revelations -- Sermon for Easter 3A

Luke 24:13-35

     Two disciples, one named Cleopas, journeyed to Emmaus.  Although we don’t know why they were taking this trip, they know that Jesus had been executed, buried, and according to some reports, had been raised from the dead.

Could they be fleeing the city, fearing they might suffer Jesus’ fate?  Were they ready, with Jesus dead, to give up the whole Jesus enterprise?  Or, were they heading home to await further instructions?

No one seems to know where Emmaus is located, but maybe we don’t need to know where it was. As Frederick Buechner puts it:  
Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred:  that even the noblest ideas that men have had -- ideas about love and freedom and justice -- have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.  Emmaus is where we go, where these two went, to try to forget Jesus and the great failure of his life.  [Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, p. 85.]
They may have been fleeing failure, but it was on this road that their lives would be changed when they encountered Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread.

These two disciples were talking about the events that transpired over the weekend, trying to make sense of things.  Even though they’d heard reports of the empty tomb, like Thomas, in the Gospel of John, they needed more proof.  But it wasn’t just a sense of doubt that they were dealing with.  They were experiencing a sense of loss, a sense of absence.  You might say that they were walking in darkness, their dreams shattered by a cross.

As they were walking, a stranger joins them.  It’s Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  He asks them why they’re so sad, and they answered:

You mean you don't know what happened in Jerusalem over the past few days.  Are you the only person around here who doesn't know that Jesus, the one we considered a great prophet of God, was crucified?  

They hoped he would redeem Israel, but we were mistaken.

It seems that Good Friday had damaged their faith.  They weren’t ready for Easter’s glories.  As they walked down the road, the stranger began to preach a sermon.  He explained the Scriptures to them, showing how the Messiah would suffer, but then enter the realm of Glory.  He interpreted the Scriptures, from Moses to the Prophets, showing them how the Messiah fulfilled the Scriptures.  But, they still weren’t ready to understand – more was needed.

When they arrived at the village, according to Luke, Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on.”  But the two disciples, seeing that it was getting late, urged him – begged him – to stay with them.  And he agreed. 

As they sat down to eat, the Stranger took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them.  Do you see a pattern here?  Is this not what Jesus did on the night of his betrayal as he shared a final meal with his disciples?  Is it not what we do each Sunday when we gather at the Table of the Lord?

As he broke the bread, their eyes were opened.  Finally, they recognized him, and as they recognized him, he vanished from their sight.  As they pondered what had just happened, they said to each other – “Were not our hearts burning within us while was talking to us on the road?”

When do our hearts burn within us?  When do we feel the presence of God in our midst?  John Wesley reported just such a moment in his journal. 
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley may have gone unwillingly to the Bible Study – but in that moment, reading Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans, his heart was “strangely warmed.”  He experienced a sense of assurance, that his sins were gone and was saved from the law of sin and death.    There is a pattern in this story of the Emmaus Road encounter.  First there is the teaching from the Scriptures and then the sharing of a meal at the Table of the Lord.  We call this sharing in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

As we ponder this pattern, we also see that while the two disciples set the table, it was Jesus who served as the host at the meal of revelation.  In sharing this meal, their eyes were opened, and their hearts were warmed, even in the midst of their despair.  

Do you ever feel the absence of God?  Are there times when you feel like you’re walking in darkness?  Do you wonder if you will ever truly experience the presence of Jesus?  In other words, do you understand where Cleopas and his friend were coming from when they sat down at the Table with the Stranger?

What Luke tells us, is that it is in this act of hospitality that we find the beginnings of a Eucharistic theology.  Theologian Molly Marshall writes:
The promise of this text is that Jesus will meet his beloved “in the breaking of the bread.”  The hospitality of the traveling companions becomes the doorway to grace.  The willingness of the stranger to enter their space suggests trust and hope – and Jesus more than repays their convivial overture.    [Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, p. 422].
When se set the Table and gather around it, we open the doorway to receive God’s grace.  This is risky, however, because, as Molly Marshall tells us, the identity of the Guest is not yet known and “the tables might be turned.”  And they are turned – in this story – because the Stranger becomes the host.  It is the Stranger who gives thanks and shares the bread with his two companions.  In other words – you never know who you will meet when you sit down to dine with strangers.

When I was in Nashville, I was invited to share a meal at Monell’s Restaurant.  When you go to Monell’s you will likely dine with strangers, but by the time you’re finished with the meal – you’re no longer strangers.

When we gather at the Table, we often come as strangers.  We’re strangers to each other, but the host knows our identity.  And in the end, after we break the bread, the blinders come off, and we recognize our host.  It is at that moment that everything begins to make sense.  We begin to recognize that we’re not alone – despite that sense of divine absence.    The Scriptures speak of two realities.  There are some who come seeking God. They experience a deep hunger for the presence of God.  As the Psalmist puts it:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Ps. 42:1-2).
But others of us come to the Table, like Wesley – unwillingly – or like the two disciples, fleeing from a source of despair.  The good news, is that even when we try to flee, God continues to seek after us.   As the Psalmist puts it:   “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”  (Psalm 139:7).

As we come to the table, there is the possibility that we will experience a revelation of God, because the Table of the Lord is more than a memorial of a death on a cross.  It is the living reminder that Easter triumphed over Good Friday, life over death.  In breaking bread and drinking of the cup we share in a life given for us, and we proclaim the life-giving benefits of God’s presence with us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  

There is a term for this.  It’s called “real presence.”  Though you won’t literally find Jesus in the bread or the cup, when you come to the table and share in these symbols of life, the promise is that he is with us – until the end of the age.

I’ll admit it I don’t always feel that presence.  However, I find hope and strength in the promise that no matter what I feel at the moment, Jesus is here at the Table.  Even when I go through the motions, distracted by the concerns of the day, taking in just juice and a piece of bread, Jesus is still here with me.  And Luke continues:
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions together.  They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the Bread.  (Luke 24:33-35)
 Sacramental Revelations, in Word and in Supper, can warm our hearts and empower our witness to the Good News of God’s grace and love for the world.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
May 4, 2014
Easter 4A