Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Obedience of Faith

When I read these passages, I saw immediately a specific theme that ties our three passages together, a particularly Anabaptist-friendly theme. In Judges 4, Barak is meant to show his faith by doing what God tells him to do. In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul encourages followers of Jesus to show their “faith, love, and hope” in the way that they live. In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies using what God gives us as the critical piece in our response to God. We show our faith by the way that we live. Paul calls this “the obedience of faith”, and as Mennonites we rejoice! God wants us to do what is right, not just say what is right – orthopraxy, not just orthodoxy!

Then I went through the passages more carefully. This basic point still held as I read more carefully, but I realized that there are perhaps some surprises in the texts. Join me in a brief examination, followed by an application to our lives today.

Judges 4
Judges is a hard book for us to read, given our own history in Canada with First Nations. We are those who have dispossessed them, and we should feel discomfort with narratives of possession and dispossession. I will not wrestle with that question today, but note it in order to bracket it.

Chapters 1 to 3 of Judges set a pattern that holds throughout the book: Israel “followed other Gods”, so God gave them over to the consequences of their actions [cf Romans 1] – a pattern of disobedience > punishment > repentance > grace [REPEAT] – that applies to the book of Judges as a whole. This pattern actually begins with the first chapters of Genesis and describes the relationship between God and humankind from Genesis to Revelation. It is in fact the basic structure of the whole of Scripture.

Chapter 4 shows this same pattern.
Verse 1: Rebellion.                  Verse 2: Punishment.              Verse 3: Repentance.
Verses 4-7: Grace.
In the following verses, Barak is judged for obeying hesitantly. Deborah says that he needed to obey confidently. An old illustration of the way that faith requires obedience is the story of the French acrobat, Charles Blondin, walking a tightrope across the Niagara Falls. According to the story (which I cannot verify), he pushed a wheelbarrow across the tightrope above the Falls. Then he asked the crowd if they believed he could push a person across the rope. They said yes, but when he asked for a volunteer, no one would get in the wheelbarrow.

The point is simple: Real belief issues in concrete action. If I refuse to sit on a chair that might break beneath me, you can be forgiven for not believing me when I say that I think the chair would hold me. Looking at what we actually do tells people what we really believe. So God wants in us “the obedience of faith” – a life given wholly to God, lived on the basis of that total commitment.

1 Thessalonians 5
Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians around 50 AD, that is, about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the questions that the letter deals with is the timing of what we call “the second coming”. Most of the first Christians expected Jesus to return in their own lifetimes, and when the return was delayed, they began to wonder what was wrong.

In the verses before our passage, Paul reassures them. Some were afraid that those who died might not see the return of the Messiah, so Paul tells them “the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those who are still alive will join them in the air with the Lord.” Paul says: “Encourage each other with the hope of Christ’s Return and of our reunion with him and with those who have died.”

Paul knew that the Thessalonians’ thoughts would immediately turn to working out when the End would come, so he begins our passage with that question.
Verse 1: Don’t worry about the “times and seasons”. His caution reminds one of the disciples in Acts 1, who ask Jesus if his promise of the Holy Spirit means that this is the End of time. You remember Jesus’ response: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons that the Father has set in his own authority.” Rather they are to seek God’s Spirit, and then to witness to the reality of life in Christ in the power of God’s Spirit. Paul has the same concern here. [Think also of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36, “No one knows the hour …”]
Verse 2: It remains true that Jesus will return, and that his return will be unexpected.
Verse 4: So we live constantly expecting the unexpected – the return of Christ.
Verses 5-6: The children of the light [that is, Christians] are watching for Jesus.
Verse 7:  Those who are asleep [that is, non-believers] are not watching.
Verses 8-10: Our light (since we are “children of light”) is “faith, love, and hope”, which is our salvation through Jesus and his death.
Verses 10-11: So we live with Christ and build each other up.

One can hear Paul saying: “You keep asking when Jesus will return. You need to live on the basis of his return – and living rightly is more important than working out when the return will be.”

Matthew 25:14-30
So we come to the “parable of the talents”. A quick definition: A talent is a unit of money – a very large unit of money. One commentator suggests that a talent was about 15 to 20 years’ worth of wages for the average worker – somewhere between half a million and a million dollars today. Five talents then might be about $3 million dollars, and two talents about $1 million. Even the single talent given to the third servant is a significant amount.

We often have heard this parable as a call to use our own abilities (talents, in another sense of the word) faithfully for God’s benefit. That reading is not wrong, but also is not the central point of the parable. Note the response to the two types of servants. The first and second servants, who use their “talents” to increase the master’s wealth, receive this blessing: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The third servant is judged: “throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The parable before this one in Matthew 25 deals with the return of Christ, and the parable after it deals with the judgment at the end of time. This parable, therefore, points towards the end of time. The parable of the Ten Maidens (verses 1-13) has the basic point that we are to be ready at all times for Christ to come. Our parable this morning parable says that, when Christ comes, he should find us at work doing what he has called us to do. The parable of the Sheep and the Goats (verses 31-46) tells us that the content of what our work is to care for people around us. [I have oversimplified, and I know that “the least of these, my brothers” refers to the disciples; but I think the point holds.]

We hear Jesus call us, then, not just to do what God calls us to do, but to do so in light of the end of all things. We are to live, remembering that each day may be our end. Do you remember an old gospel hymn from 50 years ago?
Jesus may come today, Glad day, glad day!
And I would see my Friend; Dangers and troubles would end if Jesus should come today.
Refrain:
Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?
I’ll live for today, nor anxious be; Jesus, my Lord I soon shall see;
Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?

I may go home today, Glad day, glad day! Seemeth I hear their song, Hail to the radiant throng, If I should go home today.           Refrain

Why should I anxious be? Glad day, glad day! Lights appear on the shore, Storms will affright nevermore, For He is “at hand” today.      Refrain

Faithful I’ll be today, Glad day, glad day! And I will freely tell Why I should love Him so well, For He is my all today.   Refrain

This is not great poetry or hymnody, but it gets the point. I will live today the way God wants me to live, knowing that today may be “the crowning day”.

Application
What do we do with this idea? I suggest two basic thoughts.

1. The first is the obvious one with which we began. Belief is only worthwhile when it shows itself in action. Some Christians say they believe in God and testify to the new birth, but they do not show this new life in their actions. Our passages make it clear that such an approach is unacceptable. Jesus’ words (throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth) make us profoundly uncomfortable.

We want Jesus to be “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Instead, we have Jesus who can say to the goats in the parable that follows, “Depart from me, you who are cursed!” As C.S. Lewis says of Aslan in the Narnia series, “He’s not a tame lion.” Those who say, “I believe”, but live badly, are playing with fire. As Mennonites, we have lived by this understanding: True evangelical faith shows itself by doing what Jesus says, not just by affirming it. (Cf Menno Simons’ hymn, “True Evangelical Faith.”)

2. The second thought is perhaps a surprise, but it is clear enough in our texts. It also reinforces our understanding of how we are to live. Paul’s letter and Matthew’s parable both point us beyond simple obedience and remind us that we are to live in light of the End of all things.

We have a natural tendency to want to live in the present, to be relevant to our day and age. In one way this is good. We are careful to analyze our context and make sure that we speak to the needs of the day. Darrell Whiteman, my advisor at Asbury, used to say, “We must exegete our context as well as Scripture.” But there is also a bad way to use our context. Sometimes we let the society around us set our agenda. Two simple examples: War, and Individualism.

For the first, when our country goes to war, everyone starts working out how we can legitimate violence against others. Soon we find ourselves thinking that it’s really okay to fight against the enemy – whether the enemy is the Germans in World War Two or the Viet Cong in Vietnam. We persuade ourselves that faithful Christian living includes killing people. That is wrong. We are to live as followers of the Prince of Peace, even when our country is at war.

For the second, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that the individual is the basic building block of Canadian society. So Article 15 begins: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law …” Several of the articles begin by stressing “each individual”. The Liberal party of Canada makes this priority even more explicit on its web page: “The Liberal Party of Canada is committed to the view that the dignity of each individual man and woman is the cardinal principle of democratic society and the primary purpose of all political organization and activity in such a society.” In saying this, they are not different than the conservatives or socialists. They are simply Canadian.

It all sounds so good. Would any one of us want to live somewhere that did not respect individual rights like this? Probably not; I know I wouldn’t. And yet I wonder – I wonder how this emphasis on the individual lines up with the Christian’s first commitment to God, expressed in an equal commitment to others. “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Hear me clearly. I am not speaking for or against the Charter. I am not speaking for or against society. I am asking us to be careful about who and what we live for. We do not live for Canada. We do not live for the Charter. We live for God – first and last and only.

Think of it this way. Any good business decides what it lives for, and then evaluates its processes according to whether or not they help the business move towards that mission. The passages in Thessalonians and Matthew remind us of our “goal”, or “mission”, or “vision”, or “end”. We are to be people who use our abilities to prepare for the return of Christ by living like Christ.

I ran across an example recently. Alan Barnhart is a businessman from Tennessee, who has used his ability to make money in the service of God’s reign. (See addendum below for the full story.)

Although our passages don’t quote the Sermon on the Mount, we can hear the echoes of Jesus’ words. We are people who replace a strict justice with all-encompassing love for God and for others. We are people who die ourselves in order to live for Christ, because we know that Jesus is coming back – and we are ready for him! “I’ll live for today, nor anxious be; Jesus, my Lord I soon shall see; Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?”

Addendum
Feature from Spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine
By Liz Essley Whyte
In 1986, Alan Barnhart was 25 and planning to go into business with his brother. An evangelical Christian, he wondered what Scripture had to say about the profits he hoped to make. So he combed the Bible for whatever advice it had to offer about money. That’s when he came across verses like this:
“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…”
“It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven…”
No matter where he turned, it seemed to him that Scripture was sending a very clear warning: Money can be dangerous. “I read all these verses, and I thought: ‘I want to be good in business, and I’m competitive,’” Barnhart says. “But I didn’t want to make a lot of money if doing so would damage my life. And I could see where it really could.”

So Alan and his brother Eric decided to do something unusual: They vowed to cap their income, earning no more than the middle-class members of their Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday school class did, and give much of their company’s profits to charity. In their first year of business, they gave away $50,000—more than Alan’s salary.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the results are even more tremendous: The Barnharts oversee a $250 million crane and rigging company, and they’ve donated nearly $100 million of its profits to charity. Moreover, in 2007 they decided to go even further. They gave the entire company away. Though they still run its daily operations, the National Christian Foundation (NCF) now owns Barnhart Crane & Rigging. The brothers will never reap its accrued value; they kept none of it. “That’s one of the things that make Alan and Eric so rare: they decided to give it all away,” says NCF president David Wills. “That was their wealth. They didn’t have three other companies. That was it.”

Simple living
Alan Barnhart is a modest man, with a soft Tennessee drawl. He wears jeans and cotton oxfords to work. He started giving interviews about his philanthropy only after others convinced him to do so.

“‘Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ For the first 15 years that was our thinking,” Barnhart says. But “people challenged us, [saying] what’s happened to your company is pretty unusual…. God has done amazing things through your company, and you need to tell people all that you’ve done with what God’s done.” He is quick to emphasize that his salary cap was not a vow of poverty. “We have vehicles and air conditioning. It was not a Mother Teresa lifestyle.”

To make sure they stuck to their limit, the Barnharts told their associates at the company about their income pledge, enlisting others to hold them to their promise. He and his brother allowed themselves cost-of-living adjustments, and salary increases when children were born. Alan has six children; Eric has five. Alan and his wife Katherine are the Barnhart family spokespeople, while Eric is the brainy, quiet engineer, friends say.
One of the best things about their lifestyle choice, Alan says, is that his children did not grow up wealthy. “There’s great benefits to a kid to hear the word ‘no,’ and the theology of the Rolling Stones: ‘You don’t always get what you want,’” he says. The Barnhart kids didn’t get trips to Disney World, or even treats at the grocery store. Instead their parents took them to developing countries to see the wells, churches, and farms their gifts had enabled. “It wasn’t about things. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about wanting. I taught them the joy of giving early. I taught them the joy of contentment,” Katherine says.

And the Barnharts taught their children about God. They speak of Him often. “It is God who has led us in this, and it is He who multiplied us,” states Katherine. Though donors of many religious—and non-religious—backgrounds give generously, and interpretations of Scripture’s teaching on wealth differ, the Barnharts stand out in their willingness to act on what they believe God has called them to.

Profit with a purpose
Using business skills to serve God through “constructive work” and “ministry funding” is at the heart of the purpose statement posted on the Barnharts’ company website. The brothers’ attempt to directly harness capitalist plentitude to do spiritual work is further explained in one of the company’s “core values,” which proclaims: “Profit with a Purpose—We will attempt to make a profit and will invest the profit to expand the company and to meet the needs of people (physically, mentally, spiritually).”

In practice, about 50 percent of all company earnings are donated immediately to charity. The other 50 percent are used to grow the business. The firm has been run that way since the beginning.

And the Barnharts don’t even allow themselves the luxury of choosing where their company’s gifts should go. A group of 55 employees and spouses decides where to distribute half of the money made every year by Barnhart Crane & Rigging. Each employee in the group—which is dubbed GROVE, God’s Resources Operating Very Effectively—develops a relationship with one or two grant recipients, researching their effectiveness and vetting their requests. Under NCF ownership the group will continue to give away company earnings.

Katherine says the group actively searches for the best people addressing a problem, rather than giving money only to groups with powerful fundraising arms. GROVE volunteers take small grant requests to a six-member committee for approval; requests for more than $100,000 go before a 12-member board that meets quarterly. Most of the donations boost international development and Christian ministry in Africa, the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia, where the group sees needs larger than those at home. “That’s where God is really working,” says Joye Allen, GROVE administrator. The group focuses its giving on five causes: Christian evangelism, church planting, Christian discipleship, leadership training, and ministering to the poor.

GROVE’s biggest grants—millions of dollars’ worth—have gone to Hope International, which provides microfinance in the developing world; the Seed Company, a Bible translation group; and Strategic Resources Group, an umbrella organization for Christian ministries in the Middle East. Though the bulk of its giving is overseas, the group has also given domestically, to places like Repairing the Breach, which works with youth in rundown Memphis neighborhoods, and Citizens for Community Values, which helps women escape the sex trade.

….


Steinbach Mennonite Church
19 November 2017
Texts: Judges 4:1-7, 1 Th 5: 1-11; Mt 25:14-30

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Will You Let Me Be Your Servant?

Introduction
Our son and his wife chose this song for their wedding:
Will you let me be your servant,/ Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace,/ To let you be my servant too.

As it happens, we didn’t sing the song at their wedding; the copyright holders wanted several hundred dollars for us to sing the hymn. Instead we sang “Be Thou My Vision”. But I remember that they felt these words said something that they wanted as they exchanged their wedding vows.

Some people feel that these words are too clich├ęd and they prefer to avoid the hymn. We’ll come back to the hymn at the end of the sermon, seeking to express something of the words of Jesus in the gospel reading this morning.

Joshua 3
We will scan the first two passages that we read and focus more closely on the gospel reading. Joshua is the account of the way that the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land and took possession of it. In some ways it is a hard book to read, because we realise (if we are paying attention) that for someone to possess the land, someone else is dispossessed. Living in a country with a colonial history, where we can identify with the possessors and the First Nations have ben dispossessed, it is good for us to feel uncomfortable about this process. At the same time, we should not project our own conflicts back on to the biblical text. We read it, recognizing that it is descriptive, not prescriptive, and as we read, we listen for what God tells us.

The first six verses of Joshua 3 locate the action of entering the land within God’s plans for the Children of Israel. We note that God is taking care of them, and we can appropriate that lesson for ourselves as well. Whatever the situations of our lives, whether in good or bad situations, we can be sure that God is caring for us.

This does not mean that God wills (in the strong sense of that word) everything that happens to us. It does mean that God cares for us in everything that happens to us. Given the many different experiences of this congregation, that is good news.

In verses 7 to 17, the Children of Israel enter the Land of Promise. These verses highlight two things: 1) This entry was indeed at the expense of the existing inhabitants; and 2) God performed a miracle of creating dry land for them to cross.

For the first: We must understand the way that the Hebrew language worked. In verse 10 we read: “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you [the inhabitants of the land].” But we know from the rest of the book of Joshua that these inhabitants remained, and that the Children of Israel lived among them. The point is that they would have a place to live, and that they would know that God was with them. Reading the book of Judges makes it clear that they did not simply take the land with a kind of ethnic cleansing. The point again is that God was with them – just as God is with us as we move into new territory in our lives.

For the second: The point is not that the Jordan was not so big a river that they could not have forded it – although the author reminds us that the river was in flood stage. Rather, the dry land was a way of reminding them that God set them free from Egypt and that God is taking them into their new home. The point again is that God is with them.

So we turn to 1 Thessalonians 2.

1 Thessalonians 2
Paul planted the church in Thessalonica (see Acts 17), with a number of both Jews and Gentiles responding to his preaching. Agitators from other places where Paul had preached stirred up the city officials against him, and Paul had to move on quickly to his next stop, Berea.

So the church there was born in persecution, a memory Paul alludes to in the verses we read. He observes that he spent his time preaching, as well as working to support himself. He cared for the Thessalonians the way that a parent would, comforting and encouraging them.

As we read these verses combined with the passage from Joshua 3, we can conclude that God wants us also to care for each other, to comfort each other, to encourage each other. We also “cross the Jordan River”, not just at the point of death, but in the various transitions of our lives. God is with us, not just directly through God’s Spirit, but also indirectly through each other.

So we come to the passage in Matthew 23.

Matthew 23
At one level these verses are straightforward. In verses 1 to 12 Jesus states that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law enjoy the honour they receive from the people. They do much that is good, but in order to receive honour. God will give honour not to those who seek it, but to those who serve.

The trouble is, we think of Pharisees as hypocrites, as bad people. So deeply ingrained in our language is this usage of the term that to call someone a Pharisee is to call them clearly and precisely a hypocrite. So let’s ask first, who were the Pharisees?

A quick survey of Jewish history before the time of Christ. You remember that Israel was established as a kingdom first with Saul and then with David as King. David began his rule around 1000 before the birth of Christ (1010 BC). His grandson, Rehoboam lost control of the kingdom, which was divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms around 930 BC. The northern kingdom was taken into captivity by Assyria about 200 years later (722 BC), and the southern kingdom was taken into captivity by Babylon about 120 years after that (597 BC).

For the next several centuries the Jews who remained in Palestine lived as part of the Empire (first Babylonian, then Persian, then Macedonian). In 539 BC, Cyrus, the Persian ruler allowed Jews who wished to do so to return to Jerusalem, but they remained as part of the Persian Empire. Then came Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, who conquered Persia and ruled briefly until his death in 323 BC (only 33 years old). So we see 200 years of life under various empires, leading up to the period after Alexander.

Alexander died quite suddenly, leaving no strong ruler, which led to 40 years of war between rival generals in his army. Eventually the empire was divided into four major blocks – with the Seleucid kingdom, which ruled from Persia, controlling Palestine. The Seleucid Empire lasted until 63 BC, when it was conquered by the Roman Empire. Because it came from the Macedonian Empire, it was a major force for spreading Greek ideas and the Greek language throughout the ancient world.

Now we come to the events that formed the Pharisees. The Seleucids ruled Palestine quite strictly, taking steps to eliminate Judaism and force everyone to “Hellenize” – to become culturally and religiously Greek. In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes (then the Seleucid ruler) forbade Jewish religious exercises, leading to the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC. Under Judah Maccabee the Jews threw the Seleucids out of Palestine and for the next 100 years they ruled Palestine as an independent Jewish State. This state came to an end when Rome asserted its authority over Palestine in 63 BC.

The Pharisees, then, grew out of this situation in which Jewish identity had been seriously under threat. The descendants of the Maccabees were the Priests and Sadducees. They stressed political involvement and sought to live at peace with the ruling powers around them. In one way the Pharisees were like the Maccabees – they were “separated ones”, who were set apart to work for and defend and apply the Law of Moses. In another way they were their opposite – they rejected the political struggles of the day in favour of understanding how to live as God’s people.

They were good people living in difficult times. They cared deeply about God’s Will and worked hard to understand how to live in a confused and dangerous world. When Jesus speaks about them in Matthew 23, everyone listening knows that he is describing good people! Add one more piece to this positive picture. Jesus spoke in the manner of the Pharisees – using teaching methods that made sense to people who saw him as a rabbi. Paul describes himself as a Pharisee often throughout his life – a description that does not change after his conversion outside the city of Damascus. The problem that Jesus identifies is not that being a Pharisee is bad; the problem that Jesus identifies is that being a good person can make us forget who we really are. Who would be most like the Pharisees today? (In this passage, the Pharisees were the preachers, occupying the pulpit. Oh dear!)

What Was Wrong?
With this background we return to our passage.
·         Verses 2 and 3 state the positive: The Pharisees (and “the teachers of the law”) sit in Moses’ seat. They are the defenders and explainers of God’s Law, so they are worth listening to. Listen to them and obey them.
·         Then comes the negative in verses 3 to 7: The Pharisees say what is right, but they have become proud. They do good things for show, and their pride undermines the good that they do. [We can assume “some of the Pharisees” – this is a condemnation of pride, not of being set apart for the Law.] This failure reminds me of a line from the play “A Man for All Seasons”: “The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
·         Verses 8 to 12 make the application to the disciples: You should heed the Pharisees’ teaching, but reject their pride. Instead of the hierarchy and honour that they seek, you live with a stance of radical equality. The principle comes at the end of the passage: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
·         This principle is not so much a matter of structures as it is a matter of heart attitudes. We see the kind of attitude to others that led the first church to hold their goods in common and to help each other, so that “there were no poor people among them.”

What was wrong? The Pharisees, good though they were, had become proud – focussing on their own honour and status. Jesus calls his followers to exercise humility – focussing on each other’s needs.

Being a Servant
Exercising humility and being a servant is harder than it sounds. A servant cares most for what the master wants, not for his/her own needs. Have you ever observed the way that a good server in a restaurant acts? He/she is constantly aware of what the people sitting at the table are doing. When you want a glass of water someone materializes at your elbow with a pitcher. When you are ready for your empty plate to be taken away, a good server removes it almost without your realizing it. You hardly notice the best servers, because they take care of you unobtrusively and thoroughly.

Will you let me be your servant? Will you let me meet your needs with that kind of concern and constant care? This question could actually define a really unhealthy relationship if it were not followed up with, “Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.” The first question goes with this second question, “Will you be my servant?” I remember my counselling courses in seminary. We talked about the danger of a fused identity, in which (for example) parents live out their dreams through their children. Being someone else’s servants actually requires a healthy sense of self, so that we love and care for others out of an awareness of our own identity as God’s children.

Living It Out
We have many ways in which we can practice this kind of mutual serving. Does someone you know have a deep concern about life in the church? Be their servant by making sure that there concerns are heard and dealt with. Does someone you know face problems in their life? Be their servant by helping them work out how to meet their needs. Does someone you know have a passion to help people in the larger community? Be their servant by sharing their passion and helping them meet those needs. You could restate any example I give reversed: Do you have a concern in the church? Someone else in the church can be your servant to help meet that concern. But I would prefer to state it the way I did, seeking the ways that we should serve the other.

I must admit that I do not preach this sermon lightly. I find the implications a bit overwhelming. Lois and I are presently experiencing the implications of living as servants on behalf of another person. We know a young immigrant woman who has asked if we will help her in adjusting to life in Canada. We are helping her to find a place to live. Does that mean that we should open our home up if she cannot find one? If we are servants, perhaps it does – whether or not it is convenient. We are helping her find a car. Does that mean that we help to buy it? I don’t think so, but it does at least mean that we help her negotiate market relationships in a new country.

I think of an essay by Jon Bonk on mission strategies that he wrote 18 years ago on the benefits of thinking small in our ministry outreach. I heard him describe the way that the ministry of hospitality [one such ministry, within everyone’s reach] has worked in his life, as he and his wife extended hospitality to various people, including a Chinese family who lived with them in New Haven, Connecticut for several years. On the one hand, they experienced a remarkable movement of God’s presence through “being servants”. On the other, they lost control of part of their lives, as is true for servants.

Conclusion
Bring the passages together.
·         Joshua: God was with the Israelites as they entered into the new experience of the Promised Land.
·         1 Thessalonians: God wants us to take care of each other, comforting and encouraging each other.
·         Matthew: God has made us into a community of radical equality, in which we show leadership and honour by serving – giving each other honour as we meet each other’s needs.

God takes care of us by making us each other’s servants.
Will you let me be your servant? Will you be my servant too?

We are pilgrims on the journey,
We are brothers on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load

I will hold the Christ light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven
We shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony.

5 November 2017
Remembrance Sunday; Communion Sunday

Texts
Joshua 3: 7 to 17
1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Matthew 23: 1-12

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Trouble with Grace

Introduction
There are stories in the Bible that we like, and there are stories we would prefer to skip. Today we think about two stories we would rather skip, and one passage that feels good. Exodus 32 tells about the Golden Calf, followed by an outburst of God’s Wrath. Matthew 22 contains the parable of the wedding feast, with an outburst of wrath against a poorly dressed wedding guest. Paul’s words of encouragement at the end of Philippians 4 come as a relief, more the kind of passage we enjoy hearing. We look at these three passages together and ask what they have to say to us this morning.

Exodus 22
When Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Words, the people became impatient, and Aaron used their gold jewelry to fashion “an idol in the shape of a calf”. God decided to destroy them and replace them with Moses’ descendants, but Moses pleaded with God to redeem them instead, for the sake of God’s name.

This passage is full of material that we don’t have time to examine. For one, why a calf? Why not a snake (which shows up later)? For another, the idea that Moses could plead with God and God could relent and extend mercy instead of judgment is puzzling. I note simply that Moses was clearly in a real relationship with God, extending to his ability to argue the matter out with God. We can take courage in our own questions about life. We do not need to be afraid of arguing with God. If we are in close relationship with God, we can bring our deepest fears and objections to God – including our objections to the very idea of God. For this morning, I focus on this basic thought: Grace implies judgment. That is the trouble with grace.

The Children of Israel are unable to wait for God, so they try to make their own form of god to follow, even as Moses receives the word from God: “Do not make any idols” (Ex 34:17) or “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex 20: 4-6)

No wonder that God sends Moses and Joshua back down the mountain in wrath. No wonder that Moses calls the Levites to himself to purify the people. No wonder that they range through the camp killing those who had defiled the very idea of God with the golden calf. Yet if it is not a surprise, it is still a profound difficulty for us. Have you ever read this story to a child? Did you then find yourself trying to avoid leaving the child with the impression that God is waiting to destroy us in our sleep? The wrath of God is not an easy concept for us to grasp, and most often we simply avoid it.

Philippians 4
In the verses from Philippians 4, Paul exhorts the Philippians to steadfast unity, peace in the midst of conflict, joy in the Lord, and a constant focus on whatever is good. He makes the exhortation concrete by referring specifically to Euodia and Syntyche (the meanings of these names may be “Sweet fragrance” and “Fortunate”), two women in the church whose personal conflict was hindering the life of the church. He pleads with them “to be of the same mind in the Lord” – a practical application of his general plea to the church in chapter 2: 1-4.

Paul’s words in this passage feel better to us: Rejoice in the Lord; Be gentle with each other; Pray about everything; Experience God’s peace in every area of your life. This feels good! The closing words in the passage have become a benediction for many of us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Finally, Paul wishes us the peace of God in all our lives.

This passage refers to God the way that we want to think of God: caring, loving, giver of joy and peace, the one who transforms our lives as we walk in the unity and love of the Holy Spirit. We see God’s mercy and grace on display, and it is good! Then we come to the parable in Matthew 22.

Matthew 22
Matthew recounts the parable of the wedding banquet, in which the invited guests refuse to come, leading to their destruction, and new guests fill the hall. To this point in the story, the parable is roughly parallel to the same story in Luke 14: 15-24, but then Matthew adds a hard saying from Jesus. One of the new guests who did not dress up for the occasion is also destroyed.

Even in the part roughly parallel to Luke 14, the note of the king’s anger is prominent. Instead of making excuses, some of the invited guests ignore the messengers, while the rest respond with hostility, killing the king’s messengers. In response, the king sends his soldiers, who destroy the invited guests and their homes.

The next section parallels Luke 14, as the king sends out his servants to gather anyone available and bring them into the wedding feast. Here we feel we can relax: God shows grace and mercy to anyone who will come in! Then the story takes another dark turn. One guest has not dressed up for the feast, but wore his regular clothes. We don’t know who he was or what his resources were, just that he had no answer when he was charged. We know also that the king commanded his destruction.

Here God’s grace and mercy are mingled with God’s wrath in a most disturbing way. The king clearly represents God. Jesus is the messenger who is killed. The Jews are the ungrateful guests, and the Gentiles are those who are brought in. The people hearing and reflecting on the parable could make these identifications easily enough. The failure to wear wedding clothes is more puzzling: What makes sense to me is that this guest represents someone who thought he could presume on God’s grace, and instead experiences God’s judgment. So these passages ask us a difficult question: We know and love God’s grace, but what do we say about God’s wrath?
Excursus: When I was in seminary, I learned that parables have one basic point. We are to stick to that point, and not treat them as allegories. I think that Matthew must not have gone to the same seminary I did, because he does seem to move towards allegory (compare, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25). Luke had better training (more like my own background), and the parables he records are generally cleaner—showing one basic point with perhaps a few secondary points.

Synthesis: We bring these passages together to say that:
·         God’s grace is great, beyond imagining.
·         Refusing God’s grace and choosing “another god” is deadly. There is no other path to life than God’s grace extended to us.
·         Only the cross is “strong enough” to deal with the evil of our world.

The Greatness of Grace
We like the first point. God’s grace and mercy and love are wonderful! We sing and rejoice as we think of God’s love and mercy in our lives.
Wonderful grace of Jesus, Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it, Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.
Refrain:
Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus, Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain, All-sufficient grace for even me!
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,  Greater far than all my sin and shame;
Oh, magnify the precious Name of Jesus, Praise His Name!

Contemporary Christian music celebrates God’s love and mercy, and the old hymns do the same.
The love of God is greater far/ Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star/ And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled/ And pardoned from his sin.
Refrain:
O love of God, how rich and pure!/ How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,/ And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,/ And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above/ Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,/ Though stretched from sky to sky.

God’s love is extended to everyone. A basic point of the parable in Matthew 22 is precisely the fact that the servants went out into the streets and brought everyone into the banquet, “the bad as well as the good”! Most of the guests accepted the invitation; there was just one guest who came in, but showed by his lack of respect by not dressing up for the wedding.

This truth feels good, and we like it. God loves us, and we do nothing to earn that love. All we have to do is receive God’s love and enter God’s Wedding Feast (a reference to the fullness of God’s Reign at the end of time). But the fate of the ungrateful wedding guest – and of the Israelites in Exodus 32 – is more difficult. They stand “on the other side of God’s grace.”

The Problem with Grace
We don’t like to talk about judgment or about God’s wrath—“the other side of God’s grace”. The problem with grace is that it implies also judgment. The wedding guests who refused the invitation are condemned. The ungrateful wedding guest is thrown out of God’s realm. The Israelites who worshipped the golden calf are killed with the sword. All of this is profoundly uncomfortable material, and we struggle to hear it and accept it.

We need to understand something about the nature of language. Both OT and NT were written for people that today we would call “Palestinian Jews”. They were a Semitic people, with a particular way of expressing themselves. One regular part of their communication was what we can call “Semitic overstatement”. So in the Conquest narratives we read that the Israelites destroyed everyone in the land—and then they worked out how to live with those who remained. This is a contradiction, unless we recognize the typical overstatement describing the conquest. Similarly, in Judges 9, Abimelek (Gideon’s son) killed his 70 brothers. The story goes on and tells the story of the youngest son, who escaped. But again, this is a contradiction, unless we recognize the typical overstatement in “killed his 70 brothers”.

Jesus used such hyperbole when he said that we might as well take out our eyes to keep from using them for evil. So in Luke 14:26 Jesus tells his disciples to hate their mothers and fathers if they want to be his disciples. Semitic overstatement: He means simply, “Make following more more important than anything else in your life.” In Exodus 32, I think we see this pattern in Moses’ offer of his own life for the people: “Condemn me, but forgive them.” He is simply pleading with God for the salvation of the people. Again, in Matthew 22, the condemning of all the first guests – as well as the destruction of the undressed guest – is a strong way of saying: “Rejecting God’s love and grace is dangerous. Don’t do it!”
Excursus: I read a page on the web claiming that Jesus did not use hyperbole. “Jesus meant what he said!” The author of the web page then went on a long explanation of the statement that we are to hate our father and mother when we follow Jesus and concluded that we are so single-minded in our discipleship that any other relationship is like “hating”. If the author had just admitted that Jesus used overstatement for effect, he could have saved a lot of time and energy!

Let me restate what I think our passages say in simple straightforward language. God loves everyone. God extends grace and mercy to everyone. Those who turn their back on God’s love stand on the other side of God’s grace, which is to court destruction.

Here is my definition of God’s wrath, or God’s judgment. God loves all people so much that God will do whatever it takes to destroy that which stands between us and God. When our own will, our own choice, stands between us and God, God’s love – expressed as judgment intent on destroying what stands between us and God – becomes God’s wrath towards us. God’s wrath is God’s love, intent on destroying the evil in us.

The Cross
This explanation of God’s wrath brings us to the Cross. God does not simply move through our midst with a sword, like the Levites through the Israelites. God does not simply throw us into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Instead, God as God is lifted up on the cross, where God’s wrath acts against the evil of this world. God’s love and mercy combine with God’s wrath against all that separates us from God – on the cross.

This love is such an incredible and wonderful gift, that we may wonder why anyone would reject it and stand on the other side of God’s grace. The reason is fairly simple: self-will. As C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” (The Great Divorce.) This self-will takes many forms. In Canada and the United States, most people feel self-sufficient and don’t see their need for God. They are, perhaps, like the undressed wedding guest.

Receiving God’s love and grace means that we also have to die: “I am crucified with Christ.” What does it mean that we also die? Every one of us would choose first to run our own lives, to be the ruler in our own lives. Accepting God’s love means also recognizing God as king. God is the ruler of the universe, and God rules also in our lives. This means a death to self-will, so that we can rise with Christ in the realm of God. That is what the Israelites failed to do, and that is what the first wedding guests also refused to do.

Conclusion
I have a friend whose story I have told before. A brief reminder. Her grandparents loved Jesus and taught their children to do the same, but her mother chose to reject their teaching throughout her life. She told me that she flew across the country to visit her mother about a week before she died. She reported her mother’s last words to her before she left, “I’ve wrestled with the devil, and I’ve lost.” Sometime later she was visiting home and her step-father told her what her mother’s real last words were, just before she died: “I’m going to Jehovah’s land.”

We don’t know what happened in that last week, but I have a theory. I think that when her mother said, “I’ve lost”, she stopped fighting against God. She stopped insisting on her own way. She gave up, and when she gave up, God was waiting. God had waited all her life, in infinite love and mercy and grace, and God gave her the gift of life. “I’m going to Jehovah’s land.” You see, there is nothing we can do to be among the wedding guests – nothing except to stop fighting against God in our lives and surrender. You remember another old hymn: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give. … I surrender all.”

Now there’s a danger with this kind of story. We can turn this surrender into a highly individual experience, which doesn’t affect our lives. Remember the wedding guest who didn’t change his clothes. Repentance matters. Community matters. When we surrender to Christ, Jesus changes us and makes us part of the church, “the body of Christ.” The passage in Philippians 4 describes the joy and peace we have together, the way that we live together. We are God’s chosen people, bringing God’s peace and joy to the whole world.

The problem with grace is that God won’t force it on us. God is always there to give us love and mercy and joy, but God waits for us to give up and hold out our hands and receive his gift of life.


Grace Bible Church
15 October 2017
Texts
Exodus 32:1-14
32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’
2 Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.’ 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
9 ‘I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’ 11 But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance for ever.”’ 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Philippians 4:1-9
4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Matthew 22:1-14
22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 ‘Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” 5 ‘But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, ill-treated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 ‘Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless.
13 ‘Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14 ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen.’

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Reign of God

Introduction
You heard the Scripture Reading a moment ago. Paul is making a point to the church in Philippi. He has just pleaded with them to go deeper in their relationship with God, resulting in a closer relationship also with each other. One can see this passage as a development of the Great Commandment: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself.

He illustrates that closer relationship within the fellowship of believers by appealing to Christ’s example. Jesus did not use his identity as the divine Son of God to insist on his honour and glory, but rather assumed the identity of a servant.

In this section, Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn, which then turns to give glory to Jesus for his self-sacrifice:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This closing statement gives the earliest Christian confession: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” We can see the revolutionary nature of this confession in the way that early Christians died as martyrs in the arena. The Roman authorities would make a sacrifice on an altar and then command the Christian to make a public confession, “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians refused and said instead, “Jesus is Lord”, they were killed.

This confession, “Jesus is Lord”, is the centre of my faith as a follower of Jesus, and this is what I want to reflect on in terms of our semester theme: “On earth as it is in Heaven.”

My Church Background
I come from the Brethren in Christ Church. We are a branch of Anabaptists who formed their own church in Pennsylvania in 1778. We were one of those groups who tried to follow Jesus’ sayings as closely as possible. For example, we refused to swear an oath in court because Jesus said, “Let your Yes be yes, and let your No be no.” That is, keep your word!

I was reading a history of the BIC in Canada. Some of our people from Pennsylvania moved to the Niagara Peninsula about 1800, which is also when and where my family joined the BIC. The history noted how careful our people were to tell the truth. A part of that care was the way we celebrated a “Love Feast” (Feetwashing and Communion) twice a year. So that we would all be in right relationship with God before taking communion, the deacons would go around the church and ask each family, “How is it between you and the Lord?” We were called “the plain people”, and the history quoted the customs officers at the Peace Bridge between the US and Canada. They said, “We don’t worry about the plain people. We know that if anyone has brought something from New York State without paying the customs toll on it, twice a year they will come and confess to us and pay the dues!” So we took being faithful to God’s teaching seriously! A basic part of that understanding was the affirmation, “Jesus is Lord!”

Case One
When I turned 18, I was living in Pennsylvania, during the Vietnam War. I was drafted to serve in Vietnam. Because I enrolled in college, I received a four-year deferment from the draft, so that my draft call took effect in 1972. I registered with my local draft board as Conscientious Objector (CO), which the draft board granted. As a result, I went to Zimbabwe and served three years of alternative service with my church, instead of going to war with any classmates who served in Vietnam.

I didn’t understand my pacifism at that time very well, but in the years since then I have concluded that the biggest problem in the military is not the violence, but its requirement of absolute obedience. I cannot say, “My country is Lord”, because Jesus is Lord. This belief has not been costly for me, since my country also gives me the freedom to hold my stance as a CO. My father-in-law was also a CO, and it cost him more than it did me.

Case Two
Dad Heise was drafted during World War Two. He turned 18 in 1943 (I think), and was drafted to fight in the Allied Forces. Because he was a CO, he also refused the draft. At that time he was farming with his father (Grandfather Heise), so his family appealed to the draft board to exclude him from the draft, since farming was held to be a necessary occupation, even during war. The draft board refused, saying that the family exclusion could go only to his father. Grandfather Heise was in poor health, so when Dad went into Civilian Public Service, his parents were not able to keep the farm. (CPS was used throughout the war for pacifists to serve the government in a non-combatant role.)

The loss of the farm changed my father-in-law’s life. He and my mother-in-law were already engaged. They planned to get married and take over the family farm, but when Dad came home from CPS there was no farm. So Dad went to medical school and became a family physician. Being a doctor carries some prestige in our society, but for Dad it was always second best to being a farmer. It was also the result of saying, “Jesus is Lord”, no matter what the government said. Dad also did not suffer greatly, but he knew the cost of saying “Jesus is Lord.”

Case Three
Grandfather Heise is our third case study for saying, “Jesus is Lord.” During the First World War, grandfather was drafted to fight for the US military in Europe. He also refused to put on the uniform. The American government at that time made less provision for COs, and grandfather was put in prison. His prison accommodation was not good. The cell was damp, and he was held for an extended period. The damp accommodations affected his health, which was the source of lifelong weakness.

So grandfather’s stance in World War One cost him the farm in World War Two. His basic objection to putting on the uniform was the same one I gave for myself: He could not say that his government was the ruler of his life, because he knew that Jesus is Lord.

A Problem
There is, of course, a problem with these stories I have told you. They suggest that a really faithful Christian, one who takes the Lordship of Christ seriously, will be in constant conflict with society. There is some truth to this idea. Our world wants to control our lives. Paul tells us to not allow our world to press us into its mould, but to be transformed by the mind of Christ (Romans 12). Jesus tells us that no one can serve two masters. We must choose: is Jesus Lord in our life, or is “money, sex, and power” Lord in our lives? (Matthew 6:24)

But here’s the problem. Paul quotes this great Christian hymn about Jesus the Servant, who is also the Lord of the Universe. When he quotes this hymn, he is not making the point that we are in conflict with the larger society, but rather he is emphasizing the unity that he wants to see in the church. His point is not that we are conflictual, but that we are a people of peace with each other as well as with the military.

Hear Paul’s words again:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The Point
We followers of Jesus are a people of peace who care for each other quite radically. In point of fact, this commitment brings us into conflict with our society at even deeper level than the military. The USA has moved away from the draft to a volunteer army, so my sons have not had to decide in the way that I did during the Vietnam War. Yet they and I alike are influenced by the larger culture as much as anyone.

The larger culture does not understand the kind of thing Paul says here. Our culture insists that we must take care of ourselves first. There is good sense in this. We cannot love others as we love ourselves, if we don’t love ourselves. There is also bad sense in this. To love ourselves – and to love others – is not primarily a feeling; it does not mean, “Feel good about yourself and others.” It means what Paul says in Philippians: “Look out for each other’s interest.”

Our culture is based on the freedom of the individual to be unique, each of us primarily responsible for ourselves. God’s reign is based on our service to God, expressed in service to each other and therefore responsible for each other.

Can You Do It?
C.S. Lewis has described this as the Christian virtue of humility. Here is what he says: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.” You don’t put yourself down; rather you lift others up. Lewis continues: 
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. …. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
(Mere Christianity, from the chapter on “The Great Sin” [Pride].)

“Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” God reigns in our hearts, and as a result we really care about each other. We are truly interested in each other.
·         This means dying to our own sense of self-importance.
·         This means that we “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”.
·         This means that actually notice each other.

Have you ever felt invisible? It is a most uncomfortable feeling. When Heaven comes close to earth, we realize that we really matter – and that all the people around us really matter.

I’m not calling you to follow the path I took towards military service. I do call you to follow Jesus as Lord, and to work out the rule of Christ in the way that you treat people around you.

This really does mean breaking with the rule of our culture. For example, we will reject the political hostility of our culture, which seeks to attack the enemy at every point. Further, we will welcome those who follow Christ. Even when they have transgressed the laws of the country (as some of my friends have), we will welcome them as brothers and sisters, calling on them to repent, and caring for them throughout their lives.

“Love each other as I have loved you”, Jesus said. When we do this, we come closer to God’s reign, and we can hear the music of Heaven singing, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Providence Community Chapel
11 October 2017
Philippians 2: 1-11
2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.