Following Jesus: Living in the World 10-11-15

Last week we began this new sermon series on Following Jesus. Using Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture we noted that the early church related to the culture first by opposing the culture around it and then by isolating itself from the culture. Early Christians were determined to oppose the Roman empire which oppressed them and to be different than the culture around them. Today, we’re going to talk about how the church changed in later generations and some of the problems with that.

Hebrews 4:12-16 God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword.  It pierces so deeply that it divides even soul and spirit, bone and marrow, and is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Nothing is concealed from God, all lies bare and exposed before the eyes of the One to whom we have to render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus, the Firstborn of God—let us hold fast to our profession of faith. For we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor, and find help in time of need.

October 11, 2015

Following Jesus: Living in the World

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in a church 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 inoffensive and quite compatible with the culture around us * (even though that culture in our immediate surroundings included sundown towns where Black people were told they shouldn’t be found after dark and pockets of poverty that had to be hidden to keep people believing that all was right in our nation.)

I would not be a pastor today if I had not learned a different version of Christianity along the way – a more offensive version I’m afraid. As we continue in our sermon series on Following Jesus, I want to tell you, as usual, about that other version. *


First let me get back to the history of the church. In the year 312, in the third century of Christianity, Constantine, at the beginning of the battle of Milvian Bridge, declared that he had a vision of a cross that would assure him victory in the battle. A couple generations later in 380 CE Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

Christians at the time felt this was a wonderful development. Naturally. They had been consistently persecuted, some martyred for their dedication to following the way of Jesus, and now they found their claim that there is only one God of all the world valued and promoted across most of the known world. Essentially, in their battle with the empire, they won.

It was a miraculous victory in some ways, and though Constantine did not become Christian until he was on his deathbed, Christians tended to herald him as a messenger of God, a servant of God’s will in the world. Today, many Christians see this turn of events, which made Christianity the largest religion in the world, as problematic at least, and often more damning, the beginning of a corruption of the basic message of Christianity.

This corruption led to our religion becoming the state religion of many countries, defending the policies and projects of those societies. * It led to the crusades to defend the faith, the recapturing of Jerusalem and killing thousands of Muslims and Jews in the process. * It led to the killing of women as witches, the burning of people at the stake. It led to the oppression of anyone who dared to question the official line of the state religion.

Many of the founders of the United States had experienced that kind of persecution and they developed policies of separation of church and state to promote freedom of religion and of religious choices, but elected officials still found ways to use religion for their purposes. Main Line Protestant denominations became a dominant force in the US culture, and religious doctrines were used to defend slavery and racism, to promote Manifest Destiny and removal of Indians from their land, to encourage support for wars and a view of enemies as godless infidels.

Through all of this misuse of religion the voice of Jesus always spoke to individuals, to small groups and to some whole churches. They heard the Word of God telling them to love their enemies, to welcome the stranger, to act as servants, to treat their neighbor as they would want to be treated, to proclaim freedom for the captive, and a day of God’s favor for all who are oppressed.

As it says in our assigned reading today from Hebrews, “God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword.” God’s word continued to speak to people even when politicians and emperors tried to manipulate it to serve their own purposes. God’s word is living and active and moves people to combat evil and oppression wherever they see it, so there was always an undercurrent, a river of resistance against the misuse of religion as a tool to promote oppressive political agendas.

In the 50’s when I grew up the doctrine that we should follow church and country without question was still the rule. *  Soon after that sword of God started to create a separation, which some see as the death of God and the end of the church. Quite frankly, I see these dire predictions as hope for the church, and hope for worship of the God of the Bible, the One who calls us to welcome the stranger and love our enemies.

As we approach another election season, It seems that people want someone more independent of the usual systems, someone with integrity and faith not beholden to the powers that be. We still get some candidates wrapping themselves in the flag and talking about their loyalty to God and country – where any war, any wall, any well of oil or gas is sacrosanct. It’s a new time where the connections between faith and politics are not as automatic or clear.

I don’t think that is a terrible thing. I don’t feel nostalgic for those old days. Yet I appreciate the longing we have for independent people of faith to lead us, people of integrity who can hear the diversity of voices we have and help us find a way to end gun violence and racism.

Thank God we follow a God of grace and mercy. We follow Jesus who tells the rich to sell all they have and give it to the poor. We follow Jesus who is not afraid to offend, especially the rulers and the abusers. We follow Jesus who kept enough distance from the culture to be able to critique and teach and shape and transform.

We follow Jesus who, as the scripture says today, who “sympathizes with our weaknesses, … who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.” We follow Jesus who forgives us and renews us and turns us around to be effective and faithful disciples. We follow Jesus who remembers, who re-members us to be God’s virtual hands and feed, God’s witness and voice in a broken world.

Responsive Hymn 527  Do, Lord, Remember Me