The Narrow Gate

Welcome to the continuation of my blog, post-seminary. Ministry and evangelism have brought me back home to Chattanooga. I welcome your company on my journey.

The original blog, Down In Mississippi, shared stories from 2008 and 2009 of the hope and determination of people in the face of disaster wrought by the hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, of work done primarily by volunteers from churches across America and with financial support of many aid agencies and private donations and the Church. My Mississippi posts really ended with the post of August 16, 2009. Much work, especially for the neediest, remained undone after the denominational church pulled out. Such is the nature of institutions. The world still needs your hands for a hand up. I commend to you my seven stories, Down in Mississippi I -VII, at the bottom of this page and the blog posts. They describe an experience of grace.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Day 1735 - We are all accountable

A sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN, September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Romans 14:1-12

Over the last three posts, we have explored Paul’s guidance in his letter to the Romans the meaning of living the life of the gospel. Paul’s primary concerns are like the Farmers Insurance commercial that says, “We’ve seen almost everything.” Paul has seen over and over in the congregations that he helped established in cities that ring the Mediterranean Sea the stumbling blocks that limit our effectiveness at living and proclaiming the good news.
The gospel in its essence poses a high bar for behavior. For example we should treat even our enemies with compassion and forgiveness; however, both you and Paul know that we seldom treat our enemies, opponents or adversaries better than we treat our fellow Christians, in fact on occasion we can treat our fellow Christians as if they were opponents.
Paul walks through an orderly process to describe “Christian behavior.” First, he describes the some requirement for salvation. It belongs to those who proclaim the Lordship of Jesus (Romans 10:5-15) and are committed to perfecting living it. Paul rightly assumes we understand that voicing the proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” means that we are expected to proclaim that good news in word and deed.
Then, he turns to the shape of our Christian life. If we believe the gospel and the unjustified gift of grace, that is, that we do not earn salvation but it is given to us freely as a gift, we are humbled. We are humbled, not just by this unearned gift, but that God has granted it to everyone of faith. We are humbled because this means we and our particular gifts are all equal in God’s eyes. Each of us has a part, together we form the strength and only purpose of the Church (Rom. 12:1-8).
Accepting this truth, that we are equal parts of the body of Christ (the Church) through this undeserved, invaluable blessing of grace, empowers us freely to extend Christian hospitality even to those who criticize or persecute us or are our opponents (Romans 12:9-21). Our compassion leaves a mark on them.
Last week, Paul made the third point. If Jesus is Lord and we are equal in the eyes of God sharing the same unmerited gift of grace called to live that life of the gospel in the world as Christ’s representative, then we are living in a new time that is displacing the old ways of judgment and death.
This time not only calls us to offer the love of Christ to people as we await the fulfillment of God’s promise to gather us all together as his children and bring us home, it calls us to become the new watchmen of the emergence of this new world of glory and love of God on earth and heaven
Rather than proclaiming judgment as was required of Ezekiel, we are called as watchmen to this new world of grace that embraces the two great commandments, to love God and love others as God loves us.
Love doesn’t mean to common idea of passionate attraction, it means the glue that holds us all together as Christians. Love means that we promote actively the good of others (Romans 13:8-10).
 Today our passage essentially consists of an exclamation point to the messages of the previous three posts that preaches the message itself.  Paul uses strong imagery. If we are suitably clothed by Christ, that is, we have the mindset of love (actively promoting the good of others), then we will beware the one danger we all face if we let go of humility, gaining a self-righteous attitude that judge other Christians by our own standards rather than leaving that judgment to the Lord. Such judgment serves only one purpose: it drives people away from the good news and scandalizes the gospel.
Paul illustrates this guidance using an argument over what food is beneficial to eat. Obviously, the advice applies broadly to all arguments over the interpretation and requirements of scripture that go beyond the essential and necessary act of the faith: the proclamation, “Jesus is Lord” and living a life that reveals it.
So many preachers and denominations take the Law of the Old Testament with all its interpreted rules is a form of judgment as the basis to judge another person’s righteousness. They may even use comments in the New Testament about judgment that is clearly stated to be in the realm of God’s prerogative to define for us “rules of faith.” We have all heard or been subject to criticism by another Christian about something we do that they believe means we are violating some passage of scripture that bars one from grace.
In the best case when someone does that faithfully and with humility after much prayer, they are interpreting scripture to reveal what they think is God’s will. The word for that kind of interpretation is called dogma.  Dogma just to be sure we are on the same page, means the interpretation or teaching of scripture as truth. We should also never forget that Dogma is a human interpretation of scripture, not God’s.
The sad thing is when someone uses that interpretation to add more conditions to receiving grace or using it to judge another Christian’s behavior as good, moral or even Christian.
Someone came to me this past week with this exact problem.  They are a Presbyterian attending another denomination. The preacher has been telling the person they were not saved because they were not born-again or baptized in their denomination. (I spent an hour explaining Paul’s famous words about One Lord, one baptism in Ephesians 4:1-6.)  
We can certainly find many examples in words of Jesus and Paul that describe the behavior desired of Christians, but they are not go/no-go rules. Jesus said one thing connects you to life, believe in me and you have eternal life.
I challenge you to go through the gospel and find any criterion for faith in the New Testament that goes beyond what John’s quote of Jesus above, or Paul’s statement, “I believe Jesus is Lord and I will do everything in my power to live the good news as Christ lived it.” Paul reminds us that when we say that, it means we are not free to interpret or add other conditions to what Jesus said. To do so relies on human judgment, not God’s judgment. To assume we can decide that another’s form of worship or Christian behavior is right or wrong is an act of self-idolatry, and as I said before, it scandalizes the gospel.
We call it scandalous because we have turned the good news upside down taking judgment from God and God alone.
Does that mean anything a Christian decides fits within God’s plan of salvation is ok? Does it mean we have a license to stretch the definition of good and bad to allow us to do anything? Does it mean we can sin magnificently because we are saved? Paul says, “By no means!”
What it does mean is we live to the Lord. It means we do not have the authority to argue with or provoke our Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Presbyterian friends about how we express our faith that Jesus is Lord. Paul says, “God will decide if one has erred in his time, not our time.
What it does mean is that every Christian has a burden of responsibility to exercise prayerful, discerning thought (not flippant judgment) to decide proper and Christian action in a peculiar circumstance.
In fact, it goes beyond that. Do you know what the word “forbearance” means? It means having tolerance and restraint, leniency, forgiveness. If God has forbearance of our faults, surely our responsibility demands forbearance of our fellow Christians over matters of dogma.
The reason for forbearance is that God alone knows what is in a person’s heart. We cannot make our own convictions about Christian conduct the measure of faith of another without disrespecting God. We cannot make our own convictions about Christian conduct because: 
è we are all servants of God.
è we all are to honor God.
è God, not us, is the judge and he alone decides what is in another person’s heart.
Self-righteousness is spiritually dangerous because it excludes humility and blinds us to our accountability for a responsible, thankful response to the grace of God by giving grace ourselves.
Forbearance in matters of interpretation means we shouldn’t abuse those who take a different path about the food they eat, the day of worship, when to serve communion, how to baptize, whether we use wine or grape juice in communion, whether dancing and music are forbidden and all the other things we fight about.
If we distill it all down into a single sentence it means that we are all accountable for our own actions.
We are accountable as to whether our actions uphold and promote fellow believers or tear them down. We are accountable for quality of our own Christian life because improving the quality of our life improves the lives of Christians around us.
That, as Paul advised the Philippians, we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in us, enabling us all to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13).

We are all accountable to the same God.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Day 1735 - There's a train a'comin'

A sermon shared at First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN, September 10, 2017
The last several posts have explored chapters in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is so disheartening, and counter to the gospel to read and hear all the pastors, street preachers and self-appointed laypersons use Paul to condemn and judge people because Paul describes the opposite behavior that a Christian should exhibit towards friends, opponents and the state.
He makes three key points; the time of judgment and the Law is over, selflessness is prized over selfishness, said another way, we should always be in the business of promoting the good of others, the true definition of love. His third point is the reason the first two points are so important. Christians individually and collectively are the body of Christ in the world.  
These passages in Ezekiel and Romans make these points.
Ezekiel lived in the age of the culmination of judgment. This was the age of the conviction of Israel and all humanity by the Law. After a history of failure to live according to God’s command, “you shall be holy because I am holy, and live with the Law in your heart,” the Babylonians stood at the door of Jerusalem, about to destroy the city and enslave all of Judah. The sword whose coming God told Ezekiel is to warm Israel is God.
If you take the time, read the indictments of all the other prophets such as Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. They warned the Hebrews who had embraced the values of the world and forsook the Law of the future. This was a time when the rich became richer and kept their boot on the necks of the poor. Worship became nothing more than an excuse for partying. There isn’t enough time today to do more than give you an idea of the anger of the Lord found in these abbreviated and paraphrased verses of Isaiah 1:10-20 (by the way, these are passages the self-appointed judges mentioned earlier fall back upon, yet few seem to see their own reflection in them):
“Hear the word of the Lord, Listen to the teaching of our God:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more, (Enter my Temple no more!); bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure (your) solemn holidays, worship and ceremonies that drip with iniquity.
(I hate) Your new moons and your appointed festivals - they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good;
            seek justice,
            rescue the oppressed,
            defend the orphan,
            plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
            though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
            though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
            If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
         but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The Hebrews had finally sunk to the depth of spiritual night, convicted by the Law that they cannot fulfill. This was the time of judgment. God said, ‘Enough!”
Yet even in the midst of judgment, the Lord held out a promise of reconciliation to the faithful, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.”
This is the warning that God called Ezekiel to proclaim as the watchman. It is not a warning of impending disasters such as a hurricanes or famines, but a call to faith. The watchman has a double challenge, if he does a good job to warn the people of the consequences of failing to heed his warning, the consequences are on them; and if the watchman does a poor job, or reneges his duty, the consequences fall on the watchman. the consequences to the watchman for failing to do his duty.
Paul tells us that God’s judgment has been fulfilled and the promise of reconciliation of humanity with God through Jesus Christ is at hand. The age of judgment is no more. The age of the new life of the good news has been born. Especially in the last three chapters up to these verses, Paul is the proclaiming the reconciliation with God and the new vision of life it offers and requires of us.
The watchman says that we live in a time of two worlds, the dying old world darkness, sin and judgment under the Law, and the new world of living in the light of the gospel.  Paul makes it clear that the old world is dying, but going out fighting; and that we have a choice of what world to live within.
The Christians of Rome and the rest of the Mediterranean that Paul loved, lived under the rule of Roman Society. Rome demanded allegiance to its rules of law, and obedience to its emperor who proclaimed himself the savior in words identical to those used by Jesus.
Roman rule surely caused pain and suffering in many devout Christians who understood that Christian duty requires a higher allegiance. (Paul’s words remind us of the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus (Mark 12: 13-17) who offered him a coin and question, “Should we pay homage to the emperor?”
Paul understood that question of loyalty was dangerous and important to the fragile existence of the congregations. He urged his congregations to walk a very dangerous path ofpassive accommodation to authority to the extent possible while maintaining faithful loyalty to Christian ideals. Give to the emperor what is his, but keep your faith in the Lord.
I suspect Paul understood the danger for the state to insist that we obey its demands regardless of how contrary they are to Christian values. Rome demands Christians not only accommodate authority but become a part of it. We should never forget that even today, every human institution operates at a lower standard of morality than individuals live. (Read a little of Reinhold Niebuhr who used that principle to try to get the state to defend Christianity and was ultimately used by the state for its own ends.)
Freedom of speech is a good example of a principle that poses danger for a Christian.  Freedom of speech means we can say just about anything regardless of how unchristian it might be. Short of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater or encouraging sedition, the state says it is permissible to say anything, but… as Christians we cannot affirm or voice all speech, regardless of the consequences. Paul says it is a case of all things being permissible for him, but all things are not good for him.
The real danger that Paul, the watchman calls out arises when we start living and embracing the world’s values so that we become part of the world, rather living in it according to the gospel. We face that danger every time we open a book, turn on the TV to watch a ball game or favorite TV show, get on Internet, or drop by the bar on the way home from work, bump into someone we know sells drugs, or meet an old boy or girlfriend.
Paul warns of spiritual indolence. He says, “Watch out that you do not put yourself on autopilot and let the values and morality seduce you until you get to the point to think, ‘I can cut a corner here, or a corner there, I can tell a petty lie or swap some gossip choosing not to admit it may turn into malicious slander somewhere else.’”  When we go down that road pretty soon we lose sight of the corners and the lies.  We find we have embraced with open arms the very world that Jesus, and watchman Paul calls us to reject. We become blind to the demands of Christian life as if we were asleep at the wheel, letting its autopilot lead the way.
The watchman’s warning is, “Wake up! Do you know what time it is?” It isn’t the time for the football game, or for the all the catfish you can eat for $5 night, or the politics of who won on election night, or taxes and war, or when the auto payment is due, or when school starts.  No…the watchman says, Wake up to God’s time.”
What is God’s time? God’s time is now when the emerging Church is growing in the world. The boat of the good news I talked about last week is sailing out of port. It is the time of our baptism, when we became a new person, when we learned that mutual love between God and us, and between each other is the glue that holds us and the world together. (Love is an overworked word – as I said earlier, love is actively promoting someone’s good.  God’s love promotes us, we promote others.
If Paul can say (to the Corinthians) “everything is permissible to me, but not everything is good for me to do, why can’t he give us some clear-cut guidance about how to live in the world by not be of the world? How do I know what isn’t good for me?”
That is exactly what Paul does. He calls us to remember the essence of the Law is summed in two commands, Love God with your heart, soul and mind, and love each other the way God loves you. When the demands of the world and the demands of faith collide, the proper course of action is the path that satisfies these two commands.
Paul knew the demands of the world are a stumbling block to the weak among us who are easily drawn into the pleasures of that Roman world. That is why the congregation is so important. When we work together uplifting each other in the gospel, we are like some-or’s, (the whole thing is better than the cracker, chocolate and marshmallow used to make it) greater than the sum of our parts.
We know what to do, it just isn’t always easy to do it. Paul says it is time to put aside all our preoccupation with the old world, ego, jealousy, anger, seeking to satisfy your desire for self-satisfaction or to blind your mind to the pain of world with alcohol, drugs, sex or other habits rather than living honorably by opening our eyes to the needs of others.
He uses interesting Greek word choices, he says it is time to “wake up” from sleep. It is time to wake up and realize we are no longer alone in darkness but living in the light of the gospel with our spiritual brothers and sisters.  He says, “salvation is closer now that yesterday.” It is time to live the love of the gospel honorably, not the darkness of sin, judgment and death. (Remember Jesus said we are a city on a hill for all to see?)
Paul uses another verb that means literally to put on, or wear clothes. He says, “wear the armor of the light of the gospel.”  He says in your baptism you are putting on Jesus Christ, wearing the life of Jesus Christ and letting go of this old age that draws you back into selfish desires and indifference to your fellow congregants.
Paul knows that the Church in the world is the body of Christ with each one of us with our unique skills and gifts are members of the Church and hence, together we are the body of Christ until he comes again. Paul was painfully aware of our spiritual weakness called to live in God’s time.
Our watchman has a simple message. As much as many do not like the political connection to the word, “radical,” (that actually means to cling to the fundamental nature of something, in this case faith, not some Liberal political cause), we are called by the necessity of faith to be radical Christians living a life that tries every day to do a better job at living life according to the gospel that is captured by those two commands to Love God and each other the way God loves you, not to embrace the counter-values of the old world. In that way, we are also watchmen.

Just like Ezekiel, our watchman Paul is doing his duty well calling across the ages for us to be the watchman making and asking others to make a choice about God’s time because There’s a train a’comin’!