Sunday, May 31, 2015

We Are Children of God -- Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year B

Romans 8:12-17

I’m not a fan of reality TV, so I don’t ordinarily keep up with the Duggars or the Kardashians. Of course, they’re hard to ignore when they break into the regular news cycles.  While none of us are participants in reality TV, many of us share snippets of family life with the broader public on social media. Sometimes we might even share too much information about our family life with the public! But, whether or not we share the contents of family life with the world by way of Facebook or Instagram, isn’t family life fun? 

It’s good to remember that families come in all shapes and sizes, so that in some way we’re all part of a family of some kind! 

Some people dream of being part of the perfect family. It’s probably not the kind of family we see portrayed on reality TV, but it could be the Cleavers or the Huxtables.  I realize I’m dating myself by mentioning these two TV families of yesteryear, but they do live on in reruns. In many ways Cliff and Ward aren’t that different. They’re the wise fathers who know what’s best for their not always perfect, but generally happy children. As for June and Clair, while they might be very different kinds of women, they provide family stability. For many people these two families projected an almost perfect picture of family life, which many of us dreamed about growing up.  

Of course even on TV there were families that didn’t fit the “normative” nuclear family model. Think about Andy Taylor and his son Opie. In that family, Opie doesn’t have a mother but Aunt Bea comes in and takes care of things. On My Three Sons. Steve Douglas didn’t have a wife either, at least for the first several seasons, but he did have Uncle Charlie to help him raise his three sons, one of whom – Ernie –  appears to have been adopted. I’m not sure whether you would call the Simpsons a perfect traditional family, but there’s a lot of love in that picture.  There are actually lots of different kinds of families on TV.  

Whether our real life families are perfect or not, and many are far from perfect, they help form our identity – for good or for bad. I am who I am, in part because of my own family background. That includes both my relationship with my father, which was never close, and with my mother, with whom I remain very close. How I related to my father has influenced how I relate to Cheryl and to Brett.  Yes, we are products of our families. Maybe that’s why so many people are interested in tracing their genealogies. We want to know where we come from. 

While some TV families seem nearly perfect, there aren’t many such families in the biblical story. Most biblical families have as much dysfunction to them as does ours, and maybe even a lot more. Just think about the children of Adam and Eve, or Isaac and Rebecca. Life in Jacob’s house wasn’t perfect either, but maybe having four wives didn’t help the situation.  Even Jesus seems to have had some problems with his family. Remember when his mother and siblings came to get him because they thought he was crazy? (Mark 3:31-35).

When we think about family, is the church family? After all, Jesus said of his followers: “here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35). If we’re part of Jesus’ family then does this family help form our identities? 

What does Paul mean when he says:  “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Now, it’s clear that we’re not God’s biological children. We don’t have any divine DNA within us. Paul does say, however, that we are God’s children by adoption, and according to Roman law, being adopted was as good as being the biological child of a family. Therefore, we get to call God Abba! Father!  This Aramaic word Abba is probably best translated as “Daddy.” It’s the most personal and intimate form of address a child can use for a father.  

Not being adopted, I don’t have a full understanding of what it means to be adopted. I know that some adopted children struggle with their sense of identity. They want to know where they come from and maybe even why their birth mothers gave them up. That’s understandable, but at the same time most parents love their adopted children as if they were their biological children. Steve Douglas didn’t treat Ernie any differently than he did Chip or Rob. 

In Roman society it was important that families produced an heir. If you didn’t have a child of your own to inherit your property then you would adopt a child, even if this child was an adult. According to Roman law an adopted child had all the legal rights accorded to biological children. So, when the Emperor Augustus needed an heir, and his own descendants were either dead or disinherited, he adopted Tiberius as his son and heir even though Tiberius was already 46. When Augustus died, Tiberius succeeded him.  

Paul drew on this Roman legal system when he penned this part of his letter to the Romans. He wanted them to know what it meant to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Living in the Spirit is life-giving, but it is also identity forming. To be a child of God meant, according to Paul, that you would be one of God’s heirs. Since God already had a child – Jesus the Christ – our adoption means we’re brothers and sisters of Jesus, and we’re also joint heirs with Jesus of God’s bounty. Therefore, as joint heirs with Christ, even though we are adopted into the family, we too can call God Abba, Father. So, if you’ve ever thought about what it would be like to be part of a royal family, this would seem to be even better!

There is a reason why this passage appears as part of today’s Trinity Sunday lectionary readings. Even though it doesn’t offer an explicit Trinitarian formula, all the elements of that formula are present. Here we encounter God the Father, God’s son the Christ, and the Spirit. Through the actions of God, who is made known to us in Christ and witnessed to by the Spirit, we are welcomed into God’s family through the act of adoption.  

Now, there are two things to know about when it comes to being joint heirs with Jesus. First, since he suffered, so will we.  Since he was glorified, we get to share in that glory.  I think Paul wants us to understand that being a child of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. We don’t get to hang out in the palace surrounded by servants. Where Jesus goes, we go. When Jesus suffers, we suffer. But, when Jesus is glorified, we share in that glory.

Being adopted as God’s child and heir changes our status in life. Paul writes that because we have the spirit of adoption we’re no longer bound by the spirit of slavery. That means we no longer need to live in fear. This is good news because we live at a time when fear is rampant. Our society seems to be enslaved by fear, and politicians, creators of consumer goods, and even religious groups use this fear to enslave us.  The good news is that we’re not subject to that fear. We’re God’s children, and so we don’t live in fear.  Yes, it’s good to be prudent, but not fearful.

I think many of us like to watch Leave it to Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, because they seem to hearken back to a simpler time. Wouldn’t be nice to go back to the way things were in the 1950s and early 1960s? Of course, reality isn’t quite so simple. Father didn’t always know best and society was often less than just. That vision is tempting, but it’s life-giving.

The good news is that we can live life with boldness because we’re children of God, and children of God don’t live in fear. Yes, there might be suffering along the way, but suffering doesn’t have the final word.  When we think of the Christian story, we shouldn’t stop with the cross. We need to move on to the Resurrection. As for this family thing – no matter what our family background is, we are God’s children and therefore, we’re joint heirs with Jesus of God’s grace and love. This promise is what forms our lives so we can embrace life in all its fullness.  

So, don’t live in fear. Live in hope because you are a child of God who can cry out Abba! Father!  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
May 31, 2015

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living Bones -- Sermon for Pentecost Sunday B

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Do you need a vacation?  Is life pressing in on you? Do your bones feel dry and lifeless? It’s a holiday weekend, the sun is out, summer is near at hand, shouldn’t we all be sitting by a lake enjoying a bit of sunshine and relaxation instead of sitting here listening to the preacher talk about dry bones? Don’t answer that last question!!

There’s a song from my childhood that goes like this:  
“When you're weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all; I'm on your side.”
The words of this song echo those of Jesus: 
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
 So, when you’re struggling with a heavy load and tears are in your eyes, do you hear Jesus calling out? “I’m on your side.” 

This is a holiday weekend when we are invited to remember those who have died in service to their country. It’s also Pentecost Sunday and we’ve come to celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the church, empowering it to share the good news of Jesus with the world. 

When the Spirit came upon Jesus’ followers that Pentecost Sunday, they were a bit weary and unsure of their future. They were like dry bones scattered across a valley.  Yes, they stood in need of the breath of God’s Spirit so that their souls and their bodies might be revived.

God called on the prophet Ezekiel to speak a word of hope to the people of Israel who had lived as strangers in a strange land for decades. Many of these exiles had given up hope of ever returning home. The children and grand children of those who were sent into exile had never set foot in the land of their ancestors. This was the only land they knew and many had begun to settle in for the long haul. Besides, even if they did return, things would never be the same as they were before the end of the monarchy and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Yes, Israel was little more than a collection of dry bones scattered across the valley floor. God set Ezekiel down in the middle of this valley, and then asked Ezekiel:  “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered as we might answer: “O Lord God, you know.” Ezekiel can’t fathom how this might take place, so only God could know for sure.    

Maybe you you’ve heard that American churches are in decline. Many think that the best days of the church in America are in the past.  The only group that appears to be  growing is the one known as the “Nones” or the “Non-affiliated,” who don’t belong to anything. This cohort, which is strongest among the young, likely believes in God. They might even think that “Jesus is just all right with me.”  They just don’t think that the church is relevant to their lives. These statistics can be a bit disheartening. You might feel like the things you’ve invested your life in no longer matter.  You wonder about the future and what it holds for you and those who will come after you.

I think Ezekiel understands our concerns. He understands that we carry a heavy burden, feeling like the world around us is spinning out of control. It’s changing so fast that we can’t seem to keep up. What worked yesterday, doesn’t work today. When this happens we’re tempted to give up, hunker down, and just try to survive a little longer. That is probably how the Jewish exiles felt, living so far from the land they called home.  Once they were a people to contend with and players on the world scene. Now all that was gone. At best they would return home as vassals of a foreign state to a land that was devastated and had no hope of future glory.  Surely God had abandoned them. This is the people about whom the Lord inquired of Ezekiel: “Can these dry bones live?”  

So, God said to Ezekiel: “prophesy to these bones,” and say to them: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.”  Ezekiel did as God commanded. He prophesied to the bones, telling them that God would breathe life back into them. Then in a scene best pictured through Disney animation, with a full orchestral score reminiscent of Fantasia, we begin hearing the rattling of bones. Then we watch as bones begin to connect to bones – the knee bone connected to the shin bone and on it goes. But this isn’t just about putting skeletons back together. Soon sinew and flesh and skin are added to the bones. These dry bones had become bodies, but they still lacked one thing. There’s no breath in these bodies. And so God told Ezekiel – prophesy and command the winds to come and fill the bodies so that they might live. And the great winds came out of the four corners of the earth, and breath came to these bodies so that they would live once more.  Yes, life returned to Israel, and with it hope for a new day. God wasn’t finished with this people, so God said to this people who were filled with the Spirit of God: “I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken to you.”

Getting back to Pentecost, that group gathered in the Upper Room was a bit like dry bones scattered across the valley floor. They too were feeling uncertain about the future. Yes, they’d received a promise that the Spirit would come and empower them to share the good news beginning in Jerusalem and going on to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), but they weren’t really sure what all this meant for them. Just then, like a mighty wind the Spirit filled the house and the people gathered there, empowering them to share the good news of Jesus and his kingdom with the world gathered around them (Acts 2:1-13). 

We may feel like we’re living in exile, our bones dry and our spirits weary. We’re not sure about the future. It’s unlikely we’ll return to the glory years. Our influence on the community might not be quite as large as before. But still there’s this question posed to Ezekiel, to Peter, and to us: “Can these bones live?” 

Although Israel never again counted itself among the great powers of the earth, they did discover that God was present with them. They learned to depend on God and they gathered together scriptures that spoke to this relationship. They also grew less dependent on Temples and monarchs, and more dependent on God. Jesus emerged out of just such a context centuries after the end of the exile. Israel answered the question of “can these bones live” by living in partnership with God. On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on the church like a mighty wind, it took up its calling to be God’s people in the world, witnessing to God’s love present in Jesus. The dry bones became a living church.

From the day of Pentecost on until today, when the church is living in the Spirit of Pentecost, it bears witness to God’s power and God’s love for the world. Beginning in Jerusalem that day, the church moved out into the world until it reached the ends of the earth. There was quite a harvest of people that first Pentecost Sunday – about three thousand in all were baptized, according to Luke. But that was only the beginning. A man named Philip took up a ministry of preaching in Samaria and baptized a group of them, welcoming them into the church. Then God picked him up and dropped him out in the middle of nowhere, so that he could preach to an Ethiopian Eunuch, baptizing him in the name of Jesus (Acts 8:4-40). Even Peter got into the act, going to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile and a soldier, to preach. He did this after receiving a vision from God that opened the door to sharing the Gospel with those living outside the spiritual boundaries of Israel. When he did this, the Spirit came upon them as it had come on the Day of Pentecost, so what else could Peter do but baptize them and welcome them into the family, which was also becoming increasingly diverse (Acts 10). As Bruce Epperly put it in our online conversation Tuesday evening, it was like they were making it up as they were going along.  

The message of Ezekiel and of Pentecost would seem to be this: The Spirit can bring dry bones to life. Even when it seems as if there’s no more hope available, the Spirit can breathe life into our bones, inspiring us and empowering us to continue the journey across the “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” and on into a new land of opportunity and hope. May this be true for us as well.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday, Year B
May 24, 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Participants in the Divine Nature - Salvation Series - Sermon #5

2 Peter 1:3-11

All good things must come to an end, and so while there is much more to say about salvation we come to the end of our journey this morning. Over the past several weeks we’ve discovered that salvation is a complex idea. Because it can be seen as otherworldly it can seem irrelevant and even off-putting. Let’s stick with the here-and-now. But, as we’ve seen salvation is about more than Jesus dying for our personal sins so we can get to heaven. Salvation includes reconciliation, liberation, healing, and taking on a new identity in Christ.

As we celebrate Ascension Sunday, it’s appropriate that we focus on salvation as union with God, or as we read in 2 Peter, in Christ we are becoming “participants in the divine nature.”  

Eastern Christianity tends to be more mystical than western forms. They place great emphasis on becoming one with God, and they use the Greek word theosis to describe this union. Theosis can be translated as deification, or as St. Athanasius, a fourth century theologian, put it: “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” [On the Incarnation - Enhanced Version(p. 62).]

Now, to say that we “might become God,” doesn’t mean we get to rule the universe or even get superpowers. This isn’t a story about the Justice League of America or the Avengers. But it does mean that our purpose in life is to be joined with God in God’s fullness.

Paul puts it this way: in Christ we put on immortality. Our future is linked to Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality,” so that death may lose its sting (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).  

So what does immortality entail? If we don’t get superpowers, will we at least be like Dr. Who, so that whenever our current body begins to perish we regenerate and get a new body. In the case of Dr. Who, he takes the memories of past identities with him into the new body, but this new body helps define a new identity. So, while the eleventh doctor is younger and hipper, the twelfth doctor is older and wiser. No, that’s not what Athanasius nor the author of 2 Peter has in mind!

This idea of theosis reflects the idea that is more present in Eastern Christianity than in Western Christianity that our purpose in life is to become like God. That is what we are moving toward. It’s what we were created for. Unfortunately, along the way the image of God in which we were created has been distorted and needs to be healed. Not only that, but because of this distortion death has entered the picture. This is the corruption that 2 Peter speaks of. I was going to use an analogy drawing from the realm of computers, but I thought better of it. I was going to say something about how computer programmers will write new code to fix a corrupt system. But I quickly realized that I was in over my head. So, I’ll pass, and stick with theology. 

Gregory of Nazianzus, another fourth century Greek-speaking theologian, turned to the idea of healing. He wrote:  “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” [“Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism”].  Jesus, Gregory believed, was the Word of God who took on human identity and in doing so healed humanity from the inside. You might say that Jesus was a divine antibiotic. Analogies do have their limits, but in Christ that which became distorted has been restored. As theologian Veli-Matti Kärkäinnen puts it: for Eastern Christians, “a person becomes the perfect image of God by discovering his or her likeness to God, which is the perfection of the nature common to all human beings” [One with God: Salvation As Deification and Justification (Unitas)p. 20]. 

Western Christians tend to think of God creating a perfect world that went bad.  Eastern Christians, however, believe that humanity started out innocent, not perfect, and that life is a process of discovery where we grow into spiritual maturity. They sometimes use the word synergism to describe this process. God takes the initiative, but we play an important part in the movement toward experiencing divine perfection.  While the cross plays an important role in this work of salvation, Eastern Christians want to emphasize the incarnation as a whole, from birth through death and on to resurrection and ascension. Early Christian theologians like Irenaeus and Athanasius believed that by living faithfully in relationship with the Father, Jesus undid the mess we’ve made of things. He brings perfection to our imperfections, so that we might move toward fully participating in the divine nature.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that he abides in them and they abide in him, and therefore, they abide in God. He tells them that he is the vine that gives life and they are the branches that bear fruit (John 15:1-17). Paul speaks similarly of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). But in 2 Peter we find that particular virtues emerge out of our faith in Christ. Each virtue leads to the next. So we start with faith, which leads to goodness, which leads to knowledge, and then on to self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and finally love. Peter writes:  “For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). 

Salvation is a journey of discovery that leads toward full participation in the divine nature. The Good News is that the Word of God took on human flesh, to help us find our way into the fullness of God. Bruce Epperly calls this a “holy adventure.” It starts with faith and it ends in love, and as we read in 1 John, God is love, so faith leads to God and in this we find salvation (1 John 4:7-8).  

This Holy Adventure begins in this life and continues on into the next. As Eastern Christians would want to remind us – this journey is taken in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who communicates to our lives the divine nature perfected in Jesus. While we begin the journey as mortal beings, as we are united with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, we put on immortality. Death loses its sting.  As we read in 2 Peter:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. (2 Peter 1:10-11).
You have heard it said that some people are so heavenly-minded that they’re of no-earthly-good. It’s a bit like living in an ivory tower. By focusing on heaven we’re tempted to neglect the life we now live. Heaven becomes an escape. But that needn’t be the case. Remember that when we recite the Lord’s Prayer we request that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. God hasn’t forgotten about the earth, and neither should we. However, there seems to be built into our identity this hope that there is more of life lying beyond the grave.  

Although Bruce Epperly isn’t Eastern Orthodox, he has written about the connection between this life and the next that seems to be close to what Athanasius and others had in mind. He writes that “the God who was present in the energy of conception is equally present at the moment of death, luring us forward as God has done from the beginning toward the next adventure in partnership with God and the World.” In other words, death leads to immortality and a new adventure, where we continue “growing in grace and relationship with God and one another.” In this continuing adventure we’ll “be artists of our experience, growing toward God and others through our moment by moment decisions.” [Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 152]

  Although Bruce takes us beyond the limits envisioned by these early Eastern Christian theologians, he invites us to think in terms of what it means to live in partnership and in union with God. This vision of salvation invites us to continue on an adventure in partnership with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, who communicates to our lives the blessings of the divine nature. This is our destiny: the Word became flesh, so that we might become God-like. That would seem to be a great way of understanding salvation!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
May 17, 2015
Ascension Sunday

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Clothed With Christ - Sermon #4 in Salvation Series

Galatians 3:23-29

Famed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld allegedly declared: “Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.”  Our clothing choices say a lot about who we are, or at least how we want to present ourselves to others.  Some of us like to dress up, and some of us want to go casual. Our clothing speaks to the culture in which we live and often our station in life. Sometimes our clothing projects an image of who we wish to become. Our clothing choices are ultimately statements of our identity. We may decide to be bold in our choices or try to blend in. Sometimes those choices are made for us.  

Many people wear a distinctive uniform. Police, military personnel, fire-fighters all have distinctive uniforms.  Go to a hospital and you will see a variety of uniforms that help identify a person’s job. A physician wears a longish white coat. A surgeon wears blue scrubs. Nurses and nurses’ aids each wear different colors of uniforms. If you’re like me and count yourself among the uninitiated, you might not be able to tell the difference, but those working in the hospital do know the difference. I expect that patients also figure it out.