Following Jesus: Living in the World 10/14/12

After last Sunday several people confirmed to me that for them election season is awkward, in church and other places. In this sermon series, Following Jesus we’re looking at how our faith interacts with the culture around us, including how your political choices are informed by your faith

Last week we talked about separating faith from the world in monasteries or faith life – (“A Life Apart”).  This week we’re talking about what happens when there is little separation between faith and the world – “Living in the World.” The next two Sundays we’ll talk about more nuanced relationships between faith and the world in sermons called “Confronting the World,” and finally “Transforming the World.”

Mark 10:17-31 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

October 14, 2012

Following Jesus: Living in the World                        

The Christian Church began separating itself from the world from the very beginning. At first we were hardly noticed, but as the church grew, it had to go underground because of suspicion and persecution. As the church grew even bigger, it caught the attention of the world. Many people admired Jewish monotheism, and Christianity gave an easier way than Judaism did for non-Jews to adopt a religion of one God with great hope for the future. In the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine had a vision as he was going to war. In the vision he heard God instructing him to become Christian, and from that time to this, there have been whole countries and cultures that have been Christian. It has been a huge problem for the church, becoming part of the dominant culture and the power structure.

            In the early 1800’s, toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson began cutting out the parts of the Bible he didn’t like. He cut out the virgin birth; he cut out all the miracles, including the most important one, the Resurrection, and he put together his version of Jesus as a moral teacher and example.  Jefferson was angry with priests and ministers, “soothsayers and necromancers,” Jefferson called them—who had unleashed attacks on his character during the acrimonious presidential election of 1800.

            Jefferson felt that the church had created a set of doctrines and creeds that Jesus would not have recognized, and completely lost track of the moral teaching that were the most important part of his message. I don’t know if you can imagine what Jesus’ moral teaching looks like without the miracles and passion story, but if you could, you might find yourself as discouraged as the rich young ruler in our reading for this morning.

            Indeed, you might conclude that “the relevance of Christianity to most Americans—then and now—has far more to do with the promise of eternal salvation from this world than with any desire to practice the teachings of Jesus while we are here.” [Erik Reese, “Jesus without the Miracles” Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 2005]


            Theologians sometimes accuse Enlightenment philosophers like Jefferson with wanting to tame Jesus, to make him into just a teacher and a model, a buddy rather than a savior.  That is certainly true to a certain extent, but Jefferson’s intention was not to dumb down Jesus, but to show what it would really mean to follow him. We all might think about what parts of the Bible we consciously or unconsciously snip out and ignore.

            For most of the 2 centuries since Jefferson, the Protestant Church has been a dominant force in the forming and expansion of the American empire. In the process the church has leaned toward becoming wholly compatible with the culture around it rather than a critical force two or three steps removed. So the Protestant Church in the 19th and first half of the 20th century became an institution that defended and supported the status quo.

As I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s church was where I learned to wear a tie and to be a good boy. I went to the Boy Scouts at church and I learned to be loyal to God and country, which I was taught were close to the same thing. The Christianity they taught was mostly the parts that Jefferson had snipped out of his Bible. But the other parts were still there, and reading them gave a different perspective. Those parts showed the hypocrisy of the church and the challenge Christians are meant to be to the culture.

Today the Protestant Church has become much less dominant and has a chance to return to being able to critique instead of defend the culture around us, but the church is fairly ambivalent about this modern development, not wanting to admit it has lost it’s dominance.

            Some hope to return the church to dominance by emphasizing the doctrines and rules of the past, criticizing the culture and the church for being unwilling to uphold traditional values around sexuality, inerrancy of the Bible, and prayer in schools. 51 Others feel that the dominant church long ago gave up on its critique of the culture in relation to war, commercialism and materialism, and inequality.  They mostly want to follow Jefferson’s lead to cut out the miracles and supernatural out of the Bible or else they are ready to give up on the church altogether.

I want to suggest a third way for the church to proceed.  I don’t think we can afford to pick or choose what part of the Bible confronts us and challenges us. 52 Like the rich young ruler who thought he was a pretty great guy until he met up with Jesus, we might find ourselves rocked to the core by Jesus radical demands of our lives.  From the deadness and complacency of our lives, lived compromising with the culture around us, we may find the strangeness and outrageousness of the demands of Jesus and the claims about who Jesus is, waking us up and bringing us to life, resurrecting us to be the church that Jesus wants us to be.

In the process we may likely find ourselves so challenged by the rawness and power of Jesus’ message that we have to admit that we can’t do it by ourselves, that we can’t give up everything we have for the gospel, that we can’t control our own prejudice and weakness, that we can’t live pure and holy lives as opposed to the culture all around us. And then, we might hear the real message of this gospel passage. We might feel the compassionate gaze of the Living God in Christ, and hear the message, “”For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Even if we can’t succeed in loving others as they are, God loves us as we are. With God all things are possible. Even if we can’t make our church community into a moral model for everyone to follow, we can point to the One who forgives us and challenges us all to live differently, to live abundantly, to live fully in line with God’s intention for our lives. Even if we can’t give all that we are and all that we have, we worship the One who gave us all that we have and all that we are.

For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible. God can even enable a church lost in wanting to be what it once was, to become what it never was. God can even enable a church enmeshed in the everyday messes of the world, to become a place of hope, a place of love, a place of peace for liberal and conservative, for young and for old, for poor and for rich.

Responsive Hymn: 2238  In the Midst of New Dimensions