Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
October 28th, 2015 by Joel Watts

recent sermon at Thornville UMC

This was delivered, not precisely as below (but when you are talking…), at Thornville United Methodist Church, 17 Oct 2015. I’ve not edited much. 

I used to collect bibles.

In some ways, I guess, I still do, but anymore, they are usually electronic. However, when I did, there were a few I cherished. I liked the Cambridge bible, made with real leather, fine India paper, and art-gilded edges. This one you see before you is the Cambridge KJV but like the original KJV, it includes the Apocrypha. It has two ribbons, lots of cross references, and some other useful tools. I have another Cambridge KJV, but it doesn’t have the Apocrypha. But this bible is rather special. I used this one to preach. Then, I would put it back in the box. In fact, I haven’t opened this bible since I last preached in my previous religious tradition, over 7 years ago.

There are some fine boxes to put bibles in, though — boxes that unlike this one, do not get worn out like this one. I’ve looked for some nice handmade ones to put my more collectible bibles in. They need to be well built, with a glass front, and air tight to keep the humidity out. I like my boxes because they protect my bibles from being overused, torn, or otherwise worn down over the ages.

Because no one wants and overused bible…

But, in a grander sense, we work desperately to put not only Scripture in a box, but so too Jesus. Think about the boxes your friends and family — the boxes you construct for Jesus. This box makes it easy to carry around the elements of our faith. We have our Creeds and our doctrines and our theology, but we also have the boxes that keep Jesus from behaving in a way that makes us feel bad — that convicts us.

In a recent column on the Huffington Post, a blogger wrote about his return visit to the church of his baptism. It is a progressive congregational church and maybe would sound much like our services do. They read from Scripture, sang a few songs, and a minister preached a sermon. He notes that this perfect-for-him church was LGBT friendly, pro-choice, and didn’t believe in hell. Just one problem. The church preached a Jesus he wasn’t comfortable with.

Yes, this church by all accounts should be growing and should be much larger than the 40 or so present. That’s what church growth experts tell us, that if we want young people, we need to be these things. He goes on to write that he would never return to the church that he was baptized. You see, it didn’t offer to him what he wanted. What he wanted was a Jesus relevant to him.

Rightly so, the writer bashes attempts at making Christianity relevant. He doesn’t like the attempts to make Christianity masculine or hip or cool — he doesn’t like the terms revival or tradition. None of these answers to the church’s problem fits him. But, he has an answer, he assures us.

Like many, he wants to re-market Jesus to be something he can relate to. The Jesus he requires is one that is angry at the establishment. His Jesus, like many of our Jesuses, does in fact overturn the tables of the wealthy elite. His Jesus fights for the oppressed. He wants a Jesus that is pure prophet (as he defines it) and a Jesus that is only a man. There is not the divine Jesus, no Jesus that dies for our sins, no Jesus that calls us back to God. In fact, I would wager that many of us want to ignore the sins for which Jesus died, believing, rather, that Jesus died because he made people angry.

These are the stories we want to tell about Jesus. He was a fighter. A hero. But don’t bring up the idea that Jesus died for our sins, because that would mean we are somehow at fault.

What this writer and so many want is a Jesus that tackles only the result of sin, but never the cause of sin. Yes, in the Gospel of John, Jesus does attack those who abuse others in the name of God. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sets out principles and ethics for a community that fights oppression. But this same Jesus is in the Gospel of Mark forgiving sins and in the Gospel of Matthew chastising those of us who believe following Christ is easy, requires nothing — no sacrifice, no cross, nothing.

This same Jesus is the Jesus of St. Paul who died, was buried, and rose again to unite us to God in this new creation — this new creation where sin is real and we are commanded to struggle against it.

Yes, the Jesus of Scripture is the Jesus that demands we fight against the result of sin, but so to calls us to live towards a sinless life so that sin is crucified and there is no more oppression.

We aren’t the only ones that built a box for Jesus.

In John 5 (v39), Jesus is speaking with the religious leaders of the day. They take Jesus to task because he does not measure up to their expectation of the Messiah. For them, the Scriptures — no, that isn’t fair, it is not the Scriptures but their interpretation that they use to measure Jesus. They built a box for the Messiah out of the same Scriptures you and I use to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the hope of Israel. But in their box, they could dispense with what they found unlikable and instead require a Messiah that was superhuman, a general, and a king. They chose to read a passage one way and thereby deny what God may be saying.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author there tells us several times that today the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures to tell us something. That writer refused to put the Scriptures in a box, but rightly surrendered them to the One who authorized them in the first place, God. In doing so, in this act of righteous submission, God the Spirit began to speak through those dried old sheepskins and pointed the early Church Fathers to continuously examine everything — every word — through the lens of Christ. Indeed, if we read Hebrews 1.1, it tells us that God now speaks through His Son, who is Jesus Christ.

When we begin to put the Scriptures into a box of our creation, we are telling the Holy Trinity that their work is done, that what we read and see and hear and say is by our own choosing. When we put Jesus in a box — when we pretend Jesus should be marketed, can be bought and sold, and used as a ploy to bring people into the Church – we make a grave error. We make Jesus our own creation, deny the Holy Trinity, deny the salvation from sins, and make ourselves God.

When I see people doing this, it grieves my soul and immediately I am reminded of 2 Thessalonians 2.4, “He will exalt himself…sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.” St Paul says this person leads us into ruin.

How often do we attempt to make Jesus our own creation? He is our superhero, our best friend, our playmate and sometimes, we want him to be our bank. Sure, we believe Jesus is God the Son unlike others, but does this really make our boxes all that much better?

No, it doesn’t.

Rather, we are committing the same sins as those who deny Jesus really performed miracles, rose from the dead, and really was the only begotten Son of God. In our attempt at making Jesus relevant to us, we remove him from his throne, blur the Holy Trinity, and make him look more like us than the Jesus who walked this earth 2000 years ago. We have the American Jesus, the Southern Jesus, the Methodist Jesus, the Jesus who will destroy our enemies — the Jesus who cares if your football team wins, and so on.

jesus-christ

#beardenvy

Picture Jesus for just a moment. How many of us, right now picture the Jesus that we often see in those paintings? The tall, European Jesus with bright blue eyes, and long soft flowing hair, surrounded by children and angels?

When I look at that picture, I could not imagine a Jesus caring much whether or not I sinned. I could not imagine a Jesus caring much about anything except for the little children.

That’s not to say Jesus is never our defender, never our hero, never our counselor and friend. But, Jesus is never just one of these things.

What image of Jesus do you have, right now?

What do you think we should do to change this image to bring more people into the church?

Let us turn now to our Scripture passage (Hebrews 4.12-16).

Now, there are several ways to read this passage — one is that it is Jesus who is the Word of God, or that the author means the prophecies from God. I can tell you that I believe that the phrase here points to Jesus, especially since it is the same phrase John uses in his Gospel. But, let us give room for both views here.

Let us say that Scripture is meant in Hebrews 4.12-13. What God says, God means and it will not come back void. In Isaiah 55.11, God tells the prophet that his word shall leave his mouth and that it will not return to him until it has accomplished everything that God has intended for it to do. God’s intentions will never fail, nor his promises waver. Indeed, when God says something must not be done or else, God means don’t do it.

Many of us fighting the battles within the church have lost faith. We are ready to move on. We are ready to throw in the towel — but God has promised us victory if we follow him. He has promised us that no stone or arrow or harsh word will ever win over His chosen will. Jesus told St Peter 2000 years ago, that the Church will never die. If God truly said this, then this is still relevant today. If the Trinity really told St. Paul and St Jude and the Apostles that the faith they had was the only faith — the only religion, we might say — they would ever need or get then who are we to change it?

And this is why Hebrews says that the word of God is living. It is active. It is razor sharp and will cut you coming and going. It divides. It divides the good from the bad — not we, but the word of God. There is not Creature that can remain hidden from the Creator when he decides that judgment has now come.

Is this all that different than seeing Jesus in this passage? Jesus says he has come to bring a sword. He has come to divide those who love God from those who do not.

How’s that for a box, Jesus? Does this Jesus  — the one who says that he hasn’t come to bring peace but a sword — fit into the same box of the tall blond man who loves the little children?

I have no issue with Jesus being the Word of God here.

When there is sin, God answered with Jesus.

Where there is hurt, God answers, “Jesus.”

Where there is no mercy, God answers, “Jesus.”

Is there oppression? Is there darkness? Is there evil?

God answers, “Jesus.”

Jesus is the Word of God – the way God has answered the evil of this world that separates us from the love of God.

How do you get more relevant than Jesus Christ?

In Hebrews 4.14–16, there is no disagreement here. Jesus is our great high priest. He has really risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Because of this, the writer here says to hold fast to our confession of faith. This is the same faith St. Jude says is the faith once delivered. What does it mean that Jesus is our high priest?

The Jesus that I worship is the one that passed every test that we face. He is the judge of what is holy. He is the one that is both sacrifice and the bringer of the sacrifice to God. This Jesus is the one who stands in the presence of God and says “he is forgiven and redeemed by my blood”

How’s that for relevancy? The same message proclaimed 2000 years ago is still good today because the same Jesus that really rose from the dead and really ascended into heaven then is the same Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, ready to bestow upon us grace and mercy and to give us help in our time of need.

Is grace ever irrelevant?

Is mercy ever irrelevant?

Is there ever a time or a generation the Church and the world does not need the help of God?

We are killing ourselves and other.. We are laughing at God’s ancient laws. We are demanding God obey us. We are refusing to believe in God unless God measures up to us. We are promising ourselves that if we would change the Gospel, if we would change the Church — if we would just change Jesus — our churches would flood once more. What social issue today was not around then? Does Scripture not provide us the answer today as it did the apostles?

Friends, what we need is the same Father, the same Son, and the same Holy Spirit that was preached in the New Testament, that was preached before Caesar, that was preached in war, famine, and before the face of death. We do not need a Jesus of our own making, but we need the Jesus that truly walked this earth all that time ago, that preached forgiveness of sins, that fought to free the captives, that loosened oppression, really died, truly was raised, and is right now in heaven as our high priest.

What box do we have Jesus in? Is it a box that is preventing Jesus from acting in our lives and in the life of the Church? If you think it is, I challenge you to throw away the box. Jesus doesn’t need your box.

Amen.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

One Response to “recent sermon at Thornville UMC”
  1. “What this writer and so many want is a Jesus that tackles only the result of sin, but never the cause of sin.” — Joel, insightful observation–good thoughts, thanks.

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