Monthly Archives: August 2015

“Church”

A Sermon for 23 August 2015

A reading from 1 Corinthians 12:27-31. Listen for God’s word to us, church:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

You remember we’re working our way through the Foundations of Presbyterianism this summer. And today we’re on principle number 3 in section F of the 2015-2017 PCUSA Book of Order. We started with God has a mission then moved to Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And today it’s all about us – finally! The Calling of the Church. Except, as the church, we don’t really get to focus all on ourselves. And we’re certainly not left on our own. Which is a really good thing when you hear what I’m going to read in just a moment from the Book of Order. Because if it really is all about us, then we’re in big trouble!

We’re supposed to be unified – one whole Church of Jesus Christ. United in and by Christ. Of course, it’s easy to doubt our unity as one WHOLE Church. Too often we see it’s that denomination calling that denomination not a true church. Or this faction of the denomination calling the other faction not Christian enough. Our fractious nature certainly must break God’s heart. . . . We’re marked by holiness – being set apart. Not just the pastor, or even just the pastor and the ordained ruling elders. ALL of us Christians baptized into Christ are to be about striving “to lead lives worthy of the Gospel we proclaim,” as mark of the church letter b states (F-1.0302b). . . . We’re catholic. Which means universal – not Roman Catholic – but lower case c catholic. “Catholicity is God’ gift to the Church in Jesus Christ” the Foundational Principles state. Which means: “Because in Christ the Church is catholic, (we) strive everywhere to testify to Christ’s embrace of men, women, and children of all times, places, races, nations, ages, conditions, and stations in life” (F-1.0302c). With a net cast that wide to catch us all, we’re supposed to be a sign of deeper faith, larger hope, and: “a more complete love” that exemplifies God’s grace (F-1.0302c). Look at F-1.0302d, the next mark of the church listed on the insert in your bulletin. I stumble over the pronunciation of this word every time. And you know: if we can’t even say it, how in the world are we gonna live it out! . . . The “A-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church.” Unfortunately, the doing of it’s a whole lot harder than the saying of the word! A-pos-to-lic-ity is the word apostle; made into an adjective. I hope you recall that apostle is a Greek word that begins to occur in the gospel texts only after Jesus looks at those gawking around him and basically says: “Enough now.” . . . You see, up until a-pos-to-lic-ity in the New Testament, Jesus is just a really great teacher. And a really great healer and preacher and Messiah and I’m guessing an all around really amazing person to be around. You know, inspiring, fun-loving, someone who you just feel would really have your back. A kind man. A true gentleman, in the meaning of the word that’s unfortunately quite fleeting today. He’s a really good guy with whom you’d enjoy sitting down to a good glass of whatever. Unless of course you’re a Pharisee. Or a Sadducee. Or a High Priest. Or a king, or emperor, or any number of those wanting to retain the status quo to control the notion of God for their own benefit. . . . Until a-pos-to-lic-ity in the story of Jesus being in the world, everyone’s just a disciple. A student of the Greatest Teacher ever. Student: that’s the meaning of the word disciple. The meaning of the word apostle is one who is sent out. On a mission. Everyone’s got disciples, students. Jesus has apostles. Those on a mission. Ones sent into the world to put into practice the lessons he’s been teaching.

So in the gospels we learn of twelve men being sent out (Mark 6). The first apostles of Christ – whose choosing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with them or their individual ability. They’re going to be remarkable despite themselves – just like us, the rest of the church. Jesus suddenly matches them up two-by-two and sends them out into the villages and countryside. Armed with nothing but the authority of his sending – just like us, the rest of the church. And they go about two-by-two, just opposite of the animals that once came into the shelter of the ark. Instead, Jesus makes twelve of his disciples the first apostles and they go about healing and teaching and showing the unlimited, unearned, unleashed favor of God on all creation (Mark 6:6-13). To this day, that’s us. The church. Individual members, all of us: sent out to bring others in as we share and care and bear witness to our Head Jesus Christ while we participate with him in God’s mission.

Now that you’ve got some background on Foundation number 3, listen at least to a portion of Presbyterian Foundation number 3. It’s a long one so some of it you’ll have to read for yourself – not now, but later – much of it is on your bulletin insert. And if you want to read the entire section, I can get it for you from the 2015-2017 PCUSA Book of Order.  Listen to the Calling of the Church (2015-2017 Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Book of Order, F-1.03).

Point 1, “The Church Is the Body of Christ: Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28): The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life. The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation. The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down. The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord. Point 2 (F-1.0302), The Marks of the Church: With all Christians of the Church catholic, we affirm that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” First, The Unity of the Church: Unity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Just as God is one God and Jesus Christ is our one Savior, so the Church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone. There is one Church, for there is one Spirit, one hope, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5–6). Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one. To be one with Christ is to be joined with all those whom Christ calls into relationship with him. To be thus joined with one another is to become priests for one another, praying for the world and for one another and sharing the various gifts God has given to each Christian for the benefit of the whole community. Division into different denominations obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity, and is willing to seek and to deepen communion with all other churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Second, The Holiness of the Church: Holiness is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Through the love of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God takes away the sin of the world. The holiness of the Church comes from Christ who sets it apart to bear witness to his love, and not from the purity of its doctrine or the righteousness of its actions. Because in Christ the Church is holy, the Church, its members, and those in its ordered ministries strive to lead lives worthy of the Gospel we proclaim. In gratitude for Christ’s work of redemption, we rely upon the work of God’s Spirit through Scripture and the means of grace (W-5.5001) to form every believer and every community for this holy living. We confess the persistence of sin in our corporate and individual lives. At the same time, we also confess that we are forgiven by Christ and called again and yet again to strive for the purity, righteousness, and truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ and promised to all people in God’s new creation. Third, The Catholicity of the Church: Catholicity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God overcomes our alienation and repairs our division. Because in Christ the Church is catholic, it strives everywhere to testify to Christ’s embrace of men, women, and children of all times, places, races, nations, ages, conditions, and stations in life. The catholicity of the Church summons the Church to a deeper faith, a larger hope, and a more complete love as it bears witness to God’s grace. And fourth, The Apostolicity of the Church: Apostolicity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God sends the Church into the world to share the gospel of God’s redemption of all things and people. Because in Christ the Church is apostolic, it strives to proclaim this gospel faithfully. The Church receives the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ through the testimony of those whom Christ sent, both those whom we call apostles and those whom Christ has called throughout the long history of the Church. The Church has been and is even now sent into the world by Jesus Christ to bear that testimony to others. The Church bears witness in word and work that in Christ the new creation has begun, and that God who creates life also frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, and is still at work in the world. To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God’s new creation, God’s kingdom drawing the present into itself. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms the Gospel of Jesus Christ as received from the prophets and apostles, and stands in continuity with God’s mission through the ages. The Church strives to be faithful to the good news it has received and accountable to the standards of the confessions. The Church seeks to present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance, acceptance of Christ alone as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples. The Church is sent to be Christ’s faithful evangelist: making disciples of all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; sharing with others a deep life of worship, prayer, fellowship, and service; and participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world.” . . . Section F number 3 goes on with The Notes of the Reformed Church: the true Church is present where the “Word of God is truly preached and heard, where the Sacraments are rightly administered, and where ecclesiastical discipline is uprightly ministered” (F-1.0303). . . . And finally number three ends with: “The Great Ends of the Church are: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (F-1.0304).

It’s the calling of the Church, fellow members of the Church. I guess you can see it’s not at all about us – even though it is all of us. A community of faith, hope, love, and witness. The body of our Head, Christ, that is unified because of him. That is holy – set apart – by him. That is universal – catholic in that everyone is embraced by God to be a part of us. And finally: sent out – our a-pos-to-lic-ity – our work. The whole reason we exist. . . . Thanks be to the love of God known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. . . . Empowered by the Holy Spirit for each day of our lives, may we ever strive to fulfill our grand call!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

“Living Wisdom”

A Sermon for 16 August 2015

A reading from the gospel of John 6:51-58. Listen for God’s word to us.

These are words recorded on the lips of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Next, a reading from the book of Proverbs 9:1-6, wisdom passed on to us. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

A little song from Sunday School had a significant impact upon me when I was a child. Inspired by one of Jesus’ parables, the words are: “The wise man built his house upon a rock.” Do you know it? “The wise man built his house upon a rock. The wise man built his house upon a rock and the rains came-a-tumbling down. The rains came down and the floods came up.” Can you guessed what happened? “The rains came down and the floods came up. The rains came down and the floods came up and the house upon the rock stood firm!” Stanza two: “The foolish man built his house upon the sand. The foolish man built his house upon the sand.” Now, you have to understand that I actually was growing up on the sand. To this day, my family’s home remains along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Actually we live right across the road from the sandy beach and my dad and his brother own what was in my childhood one of the sole spots of sandy beach for miles around – it felt like our own little ocean oasis. The level of Lake Michigan was high in those years. Over the decades it changes – something to do with the dams way up at the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Supposedly, the water levels of the Great Lakes fluctuate according to what’s going on with those dams. My dad remembers sandy beach stretching on for miles during his childhood along Lake Michigan. The water’s also down these days so that my niece and nephew have enjoyed miles and miles of Lake Michigan sandy beach during their childhood too. Not so during the years my sisters and I were growing up. It was true that a foolish family built their house right on the shoreline and when the level of the lake rose, they failed to install the tons of gigantic rocks everyone else had to in order to keep their homes from being washed away. The house long had been abandoned. We weren’t supposed to go in it because – like the little song says: the foolish one built their house upon the sand and before they knew it, the whole thing had tipped on its side. It was ruined. The song from childhood summed it up well: “And the house upon the sand went SPLAT!”

From that little song, we were supposed to be learning a lesson about wisdom – the best way to build a life. The foundation upon which to stand. And I guess in some ways I was. Though every time we sang that song, my childhood mind was stuck on the literal house down the beach from us – kind of like those recorded in John chapter six who are listening to Jesus that day. He’s trying to teach them about the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – the food which is him that metaphorically must be taken in as the way to life. The way that we drink in his words and scarf down his deeds in order that he’s seen abiding in us, even as we abide in him. . . . His listeners are confusing what he’s saying with cannibalism – thinking he literally wants them to eat a chunk of his body and vampire-like drink of his blood. The early Christians often found themselves accused of this as they gathered around the table saying, “Take and eat: his body has been broken for you. Drink, for his blood has been shed for you.” It was an act to form them. To shape them more and more into those who lived like him. . . . He’s giving his listeners the words of life – the wisdom they need in order to live now and forever. And they, like the foolish ones, are missing it.

Proverbs doesn’t use the word abide. Instead the writer paints a picture almost exactly about which Jesus speaks: to abide in him and he in us. . . . Wisdom has gotten things all ready. Her house is solid – majestic enough for seven massive pillars. In other words: big enough and strong enough for all. Every last detail has been tended – right down to the polished silver at each table place-setting. She’s invited all who will hear to come, sit at her table. She’s waiting – ready for all to feast together. To abide in her home. Dwell with her. Live – in her company. Walk in her ways. . . . The wise one lives so. To their detriment, the foolish turn to their own way. . . . We sure could use a little more wisdom these days. A few more lingering long at the table of wisdom – drinking in her ways, feeding upon her deeds until all we do resembles her.

Be clear that wisdom is personified throughout the Old Testament in the feminine. But it’s not the female part of God, though some people kind of think of it that way. Wisdom often is interchanged with Spirit – Sophia in the Greek, Chokmah in the Hebrew – the word used in the original language here in chapter nine of Proverbs. Both words are feminine – not girly, just given the label feminine in the construct of language. English is so unlike ancient – and many modern languages too that label every noun either masculine or feminine. The labels have nothing to do with gender in the way we think of male or female – what’s macho masculine or frilly feminine. So it’s not like God the Creator or Father is the boy part of God, and God the Spirit or Wisdom is the girl part. It’s just another aspect of the Spirit which is God. The depth of insight we know comes from God and is a part of God. The Wisdom of which Proverbs writes is a knowing part of God that certainly resides in Jesus, the Son too. It’s not like the facts and figures that make up information. More than that, it’s real knowledge. Wisdom is kinda like the insight in our guts that moves us to do what God would do. To live as God would have us.

And my, how the world needs it today. Though it wasn’t discussed in depth at Home Book Club this week, Sister Joan Chittister writes of Wisdom in her book that explores the gifts of aging. Wisdom – that deep understanding, Joan writes, “Is the bedrock of a society. It enables us to see why we do what we do, to realize why we cannot do what we want to do in all instances.” And not just because she’s writing about aging, but because she truly believes the elders of a society have something particularly significant to give, she goes on to write: “It is in the development of understanding (or wisdom) for the next generation, in the co-creation of the world, that the older generation has so serious a role to play” (The Gift of Years, p. 123). Sister Joan wrote these words nearly a decade ago when she already was in her early 70s so she says: “Our role now (elders of the world) is to be what we have discovered about life. Our responsibility is wisdom.” We must show “all another way to live” (Ibid., p. 125).

I would agree and add that wisdom is not the responsibility of the aging alone. Wisdom is the land in which all we who claim Jesus Christ Savior and Lord are to dwell. “Laying aside immaturity,” as Proverbs claims, “and walking in the way of insight” (Prov. 9:6). This is the way of living not to our own desires – as the immature do. But to the desires of God. As those filled up on Christ, until his ways are all that’s seen in us. After all, it is as if those who take him into their lives are ingesting him so that the blood that courses through our veins looks just like his – ready to be poured out for the benefit of another. The flesh that is our bodies mimics his – enacting his very same deeds that bring life to the world. . . . This is the way to live wisdom. The way (metaphorically) to make our homes in the presence of the One who leads our actions each day. . . . Living wisdom is our responsibility even as it is the gift we give to all today who need to see another way to be in this world. Not out for our own gain. Not in it all on our own so that we fail to remember that we are tied to one another. Like a world-wide web of life that realizes “that the only thing that is good for any of us in the long run is what is good for all of us right now,” as Sister Joan also wrote in that chapter on Wisdom (Ibid., p. 126). We are all in this changing world together. And we, in whom Christ dwells as we dwell in him, know best that the only thing that the remains in the end – all that survives the storm of life – is him: Love. Life poured out for the life of all. . . . Let us lay aside any other foolishness to walk, live Wisdom.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

“Who’s In Charge?”

A Sermon for 9 August 2015

A reading from Colossians 1:9-20. Listen for God’s word to us.

“For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

And one more reading because today we are continuing with our look at the Foundations of Presbyterianism from section F of the PCUSA’s Book of Order. . . . Remember Foundation #1: God has a mission: the transformation of the whole creation! A re-created world where all is at one with God! . . . Foundation #2 has five points and is entitled: Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. Listen.

“(Point 1): The Authority of Christ. Almighty God, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, has given to him all power in heaven and on earth, not only in this age but also in the age to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body. The Church’s life and mission are a joyful participation in Christ’s ongoing life and work. (Point 2): Christ Calls and Equips the Church. Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world, for its sanctification, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. Christ alone rules, calls, teaches, and uses the Church as he wills. (Point 3): Christ Gives the Church its Life. Christ gives to the Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its order and discipline. Scripture teaches us of Christ’s will for the Church, which is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Point 4): Christ is the Church’s Hope. In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope, and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God. (Point 5): Christ is the Foundation of the Church. In Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Christ God reconciles all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross (as we just heard in Colossians 1:19-20). In Christ’s name, therefore, the Church is sent out to bear witness to the good news of reconciliation with God, with others, and with all creation. In Christ the Church receives its truth and appeal, its holiness, and its unity.” (PCUSA 2015-2017 Book of Order, F-1.02).

Do you remember the What Would Jesus Do craze of a few years back? I think it started with woven bracelets to wear around your wrist. And I believe it was a movement primarily targeting youth – at least initially. WWJD was right there on your arm as you went about your day. The theory was that whenever you ran into some sort of situation in which you didn’t know what to do, WWJD would be your guide. Like a moral compass. So say the mean girl at school got knocked down in gym class and was struggling to get back up. WWJD: What would Jesus do? Turn around and run in the other direction? Pin her down further, then point and laugh? Or walk right up to her and offer her a hand? . . . Maybe it was about the big test on which you really needed an A if you were going to be able to graduate. As you walked down the hall past your teacher’s classroom, you noticed she dropped the answer sheet right there at your feet. WWJD: What would Jesus do? Pick it up, shove it in his backpack before anyone noticed, and hurry away to memorize all the answers? Choose not to cheat and just quietly walk away? Or maybe go find the teacher to let her know the test had been compromised? WWJD? What would Jesus do? It’s not a bad reminder – even if it first was a bracelet fad for youth. Because as we move through the stages of life it seems the situations get a little more complicated – the stakes, higher. The ethical dilemmas when trying to live faithfully in this world seem to grow more complex each day. WWJD? What would Jesus do? What shall we? . . . What would Jesus do? Because the Christian life is not just about what we think – even if such right thought has been our Presbyterian hallmark through the years. As our theological forbearer John Calvin taught: it’s about right thought that leads to right action. Just as Foundational Principle #2 proclaims.

Under the authority of Christ, “the Church’s life and mission are joyful participation in Christ’s ongoing life and work” (F-1.0201). We are called and equipped by Christ “for mission in the world – for sanctification,” or being in the process of becoming holy, more like Christ, “as we are in service to God” (F-1.0202). Joyfully: as a privilege we get the opportunity to fulfill. Christ gives us our life as a church – our unity, our mission and we are to obey his will (F-1.0203). As our hope, (according to point 4 of Foundation #2) “we are bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God” (F-1.0204). What a powerful witness a lively, joyous response to God’s grace would be! We are sent out to bear witness in the world to the good news of the reconciliation of all things (F-1.0205). . . . All of these: participating in Christ’s ongoing work; being in mission in the world; obeying Christ’s will; living freely in a lively, joyous reality; and bearing witness to the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. All of these are about DOING – not just sitting around thinking or just believing certain things. But getting up and getting out there to BE as Christ would be in the world. Asking ourselves in every moment: what would Jesus do? Because he is the One in charge. How does he want to live through us?

It’s like Colossians reads: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created” (Col. 1:15-16). In the words of Presbyterian Foundation number 2: he’s the Lord of it all – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is the head – not the session, not the pastor, not the biggest financial backer, or even the members who do the most work. Jesus Christ is the head. And you and I, the church, are his body – his hands and fingers and feet. . . . Think about the metaphor literally. Our head is the brains of the operation that is each one of us – at least most of the time I hope! For the most part, our body moves and does its thing because our head tells it to – sometimes consciously; sometimes just automatically. In the same way, with Christ as the head, we – the body of Christ – participate in Christ’s ongoing life and work today according to him – our head. Sometimes automatically, but often times consciously we must stop to consider: WWJD? What would Jesus Christ, our head, have us do? . . . In case it’s ever extra difficult to discern, the final point of our denomination’s statement on The Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture gives a clear guide. It’s a helpful little document for those who need a reminder of how Presbyterians approach it all. The statement culminates in the Rule of Christ – which is the Rule of Love. We believe we read all scripture through the Rule of Christ – the way of Love; for Christ is the definitive revelation of God’s infinite, unconditioned love. Christ has called us into being. He is with us always as the Risen Christ. And he gives us all we need for our mission of love in the world today.

One fiery commentator forcefully proclaims of the church that: “the purpose of the Church is not to be a place of entertainment where persons . . . come to be spectators while leaders . . . ‘put on a show’ using whatever gimmicks and novelties they can pull out of their bag of tricks so that everyone has fun. . . . The purpose of the church is not maintenance – to be a safe place, a refuge for its members – until Christ comes again. . . . The purpose of the church,” the commentator continues, “is not fellowship where the entire energy of the congregation is focused on its social relationships so that each person feels as if he or she belongs.” The commentator clarifies that “fellowship is an important dimension of the church, but it is not the church’s central purpose.” . . . Neither is the church’s purpose “protection, where the community, terrified of the world beyond its walls, invests all its energies in constructing a safe place where its members can dutifully worship, study, and enact their sacred rituals. The real purpose of the church is clear – to be the community of disciples of Jesus Christ and as such, to proclaim Christ” daily in word and in deed! (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3, Rodger Nishioka quoting David Ng, p. 258, 260, 2010). Living as he lives. Doing as he charges. Being his body in the world today because we are “bound to (Christ’s) authority” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.0204). And if we are not, we’re something other than the Church of Jesus Christ. . . .

With him in charge, obedient to his will; may the life of the Risen Christ be seen in us each day!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

“Bread Alone?”

A Sermon for 2 August 2015

A reading from the gospel of John 6:24-35. And before I begin reading, it’s helpful to know that the gospel of John puts this story pretty much immediately after the miracle of the multiplication of the fish and the loaves: the infamous feeding of the five thousand. In the gospel of John, it’s an amazing feat done from the generosity of a little boy who shared his lunch of five loaves and two fish. By the way, the photo on the front of the bulletin captures the image used still at and near the Galilean spot called Tabgha, which is believed to be the site of this incredible work of Christ. You’ll notice it has just four loaves in the image – the same way the mosaic at Tabgha is shown in order to emphasize that the fifth loaf was the one Christ took, blessed, broke, and gave to the people. When the great crowd had eaten their fill and the left overs were properly secured, the gospel of John tells that the people wanted to take Jesus by force in order to make him king over them. After all, when last did they know such a leader who had provided so abundantly for their needs? . . . Jesus withdrew, but the crowd persisted in looking for him. At last, as we’re about to hear, he’s found by them. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading immediately following such events.

“So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This is the word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Have you heard of “rice Christians?” Supposedly in nineteenth-century China, missionaries were encountering a lot of these (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3; O. Benjamin Sparks, p. 308). I don’t think they intended the name to be as derogatory as it might sound. They simply observed many folks who were in pretty bad shape. For one reason or another they would turn to the church. I guess they had heard word of generous, compassionate missionaries and other Chinese Christians who were the church in their midst. When times were tough, people would head to the church in order to be fed. Literally. They were seeking rice to feed themselves and their families. They lived in such joy as the church was meeting their physical needs. After all, it’s common to be grateful when you’re at rock bottom and someone throws you a rope. But as these new Christians slowly made their way out of the rock-bottom pits of their lives, the missionaries noticed that the “rice Christians” were less and less involved in the life of the church. It was as if they were standing on solid ground with God as long as their needs were being met. But when things in their life improved, they were nowhere to be found. Rice Christians: those who were tight with God and God’s people when they needed it, but took off once they perceived they had gotten their lives together. I wish we could say such rice Christians only were a nineteenth-century phenomenon in China. . . . But a look in the mirror reminds that the tendency is in us all.

Because isn’t it true that so many of us need something from God in order for us to remain faithful. As long as we’re getting something out of the relationship – with God or with God’s church – we’re solid. In worship every week. Saying our daily prayers. Serving with great joy. Giving of tithes and offerings. Growing deeper with God on the journey. But what happens when it feels as if no one’s listening? When week after week worship here becomes life-less – routine? When God seems nowhere to be found whether we’re in our deepest despair and desperately need some sort of affirmation, or maybe when things are improving and we just can’t recapture the gratitude we had when it seemed God had delivered us from what could have been the absolute worst disaster? . . . What happens with our life with God and God’s church when whatever needs we envisioned would be met no longer are?

Back in the Fourteenth Century, an amazing little book was written by an English monk who remains anonymous to this day. It is entitled: The Cloud of Unknowing. The book was meant to be sort of an instruction manual for our lives with God. Almost as if we’re being encouraged from some 600 years ago, the writer reminds us that as we go deeper into relationship with God, it can be like entering into a misty cloud of unknowing. It’s entirely possible that all words, all familiar images, all the previous ways we experienced God with us may fall away. In The Cloud of Unknowing, we’re told that it has to be this way. One author expounds on it claiming that if we’re going to go deeper into a relationship of love with God, then it must be through this mysterious path of unknowing. This scary, unpredictable, uncontrollable experience in which it can seem God really is no longer anywhere to be found. The author writes: “It comes down to this: if God wants to work in your soul, God has to work in secret. If you knew (what was going on), you would get puffed up, you would run in fear, you would try to take control of the process, or you would close down the whole Mystery with your rational mind.” The author continues: “We each must learn to live in the cloud of our own unknowing” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: The Cloud of Unknowing, Part II; 24 July 2015; Center for Action and Contemplation). The point of pure trust – even in the darkest mystery of our lives.

It takes us right back to the crowd from the gospel of John that’s on a man-hunt for the one who just filled up their bellies with the five loaves and two fish. They want someone over them – some power, some authority that will fill their personal needs as effectively as Jesus just filled up their rumbling bellies. And why not? They want perpetual bread – the physical stuff that you can touch and smell and taste. They want their physical needs met, when Jesus is standing before them as the Bread of Heaven. The Bread of Life that will satisfy the cravings in their spirits that they haven’t yet begun to recognize – no matter the circumstances of their days. It’s not to say that God doesn’t care about the real needs of our lives. It’s just that God wants something so much deeper with us than being some sort of magic gumball machine that always will give us exactly what we want. God wants intimate connection with us. Deep union in our hearts and minds and spirits through the good, bad, and indifferent of all of our days. Soul connection that allows us to experience the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit always, even as God lives in and through us each day mysterious working on us to continue to bring life to the world. It’s so much better than getting a taste of the fish and bread that fill up our bellies but leave us lacking for the real Bread of Life. . . . It’s the point in our lives with God when things go from a sort of parent-child relationship in which God always is there to give us what we want, to a relationship of awe in which we simply trust the One with whom we’ve fallen in love. We trust the Bread of Life – the true gift of heaven – to feed us always. Like an overflowing fountain that perpetually washes over us in waves of renewing love. It’s the food that endures forever. . . . the Bread of Life come to give life to all the world.

Thanks be to God for such an amazing gift!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

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