Following Jesus: A Life Apart 10-4-15

Churches sometimes build walls around themselves to try to be purer than the culture around them, to not be infected by a sinful society. We think that was the case to some extent for the people who wrote the book of Hebrews which is our assigned reading for this month. Richard Neibuhr wrote a book on Christ and Culture that looks at the history of the way that the church community relates to the culture around it, and this isolation and contending with the culture was the earliest way the church acted toward the culture. Listen for the word of God for you this day from Hebrews chapters one and two.

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these final days, God has spoken to us through the Only Begotten, who has been made heir of all things and through whom the universe was first created. Christ is the reflection of God’s glory, the exact representation of God’s being; all things are sustained by God’s powerful Word.  Having cleansed us from our sins, Jesus Christ sat down at the right hand of the Glory of heaven— as far superior to the angels as the name Christ has inherited is superior to theirs. 5 God didn’t create the inhabited earth of which we speak to have it ruled by angels. Somewhere this testimony if found  “Who are we that you would be mindful of us?  We are mere mortals, and yet you care for us!  You have made us little less than the angels and crowned us with glory and honor. You have put all things under our feet.” In subjecting all things to us, God left nothing unsubjected.  At present, we don’t see all things thus subject; but we do see Jesus, who was made “little less than the angels, crowned with glory and honor” by dying on the cross—so that, through the gracious will of God, Jesus might taste death for us all. Indeed, it was fitting that, when bringing many to glory, God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. The one who makes holy and those who are made holy are all from the One God.  And because of this, Jesus is not ashamed to call us sisters and brothers, as it is written:  “I will proclaim your Name to my sisters and brothers, I will sing your praise in the midst of the assembly.”

Oct 4, 2015

Following Jesus: A Life Apart

Did any of you read Calvin and Hobbes? It was a comic strip about a 6 year old boy, Calvin, and his imaginary Tiger best friend, Hobbes. My son has read each strip dozens of times. Calvin forms a club with Hobbes called G.R.O.S.S.: (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS). The purpose of the 2 person club seems to be to annoy their neighbor Susie Derkins and show that they are better than all girls and other people. Calvin names himself “Dictator for Life” and Hobbes “President and First Tiger.”

Sometimes I feel like congregations set themselves apart from the world and against the world, like this kind of club. It is kind of an immature move, like Calvin and Hobbes’ club. But there’s always a reason people do it and it’s worth trying to understand.

One way we can understand this phenomenon of being set apart is to look at the early church, as portrayed in scripture. The desire to distinguish oneself from the broader culture is at the beginning of many organizations. A group has to establish itself as different from others around them, so they have secrets and some antagonism toward the world outside their walls.

Christianity’s earliest relationship to the culture around it was separatist and antagonistic. The Roman culture of the first century was oppressive in the extreme to Jewish culture. The earliest Christians identified as Jews – whose temple had been destroyed and whose leader had been killed. The second generation of Christians struggled to differentiate themselves from Jews as well. Our canonization of scripture from that period locked in some of that antagonism toward Jews for centuries.

Over the next month we are going to be talking about Christ and Culture, how the church has related to the culture around it over the years. We’re doing this to think about our own relationship to our culture, of course, our own proclivities toward being separate from our culture or following our culture, which we all do more than we think we do. By the end of the month I hope we will be able to have deeper insight into how we relate to the culture around us.

These first two weeks, we’ll talk about two extremes – the earliest church tendency to have high walls from the culture, to be set apart. And next week we’ll talk about the other extreme of being a part of the culture, reflecting the culture around us. Then the following two weeks, we’ll talk about options in between those two extremes, working to transform the church and working to transform the culture.

The book of Hebrews, which is our assigned reading for the month, dates from the early 2nd century, written at the height of the 2nd or 3rd generation of Christians attempt to understand themselves as set apart. Hebrews portrays Jesus as high and set apart, seated at the right hand of God. The Christ was with God at the beginning of Creation. This is a cosmic Christ. There is no sense of the human Jesus who lived among the poor and ate and drank with sinners.

This may seem like a strange choice for World Communion Sunday, but being set apart from the world is an important trajectory in our faith. We will talk later about being in the world but not of the world. That capability to be in the world but not of the world starts from this early tendency of the church to set ourselves apart, to have high walls to create a culture different from the ways of the world.

The church had monks and monasteries, nuns and cloisters, hermits and monastics of all kinds. Today the Amish and some other anabaptist groups maintain a strong separation from society around them to try to keep their religion pure and untainted by the problems and sin in that society. The church through the ages was separate enough from the culture to be able to bring a strong and respected critique to the culture from the outside.

think for a minute about how we separate ourselves from the culture around us. How are we different? How do we support ourselves in being different? Through our retreats, through our worship, a little through our music, through our challenge to the culture – Heeding God’s Call, POWER, through being a center of prayer and meditation. The question of being a Reconciling congregation is the reason I started thinking about this sermon. Some will say being a reconciling congregation. Is a way we challenge the culture; others may reasonably claim that we are following the culture and responding to it. That will be interesting to think more about.

On this World Communion Sunday, I’m going to leave my sermon there, with the implicit challenge to each of us to think about the ways in which we are so enmeshed in our culture that our faith may sometimes have trouble taking hold. As we share this bread and this cup of Christ, the One who is beyond and in our lives, the One who was present at the dawn of Creation yet lived and suffered a very real life in the world, may we feel the challenge to live our lives with more reflection, more separation, more ability to know ourselves as Christians first, as a people set apart, in yet not of the world.

Responsive Hymn  3173  Table of Plenty