Sunday, August 20, 2006

“New Life”[1]

Ephesians 4:22-5:2

Most of us know someone who struggles with an addiction. It is one of the defining features of our society. Substance addiction can be a kind of hell on earth from which it seems that there is no release. In our culture it truly is an epidemic of tragic proportions. Not surprisingly, in typical American fashion, the crisis of addiction has spawned a huge self-help industry in this county as millions of people set out on the Herculean task of “fixing” their own lives. For all the dollars spent and all the hours invested, however, addiction seems to maintain its vise-grip on our lives.

Some view the Christian life as a self-help project like this. “Being a good Christian” is something you have to constantly work on because you have to change yourself. This perspective makes the Christian faith no different from any other religion—it’s an obligation that we have to fulfill on our own.[2] But make no mistake—the good news of the gospel is not one of self-help, but one of transformation by the God of love, by the Christ who died for us and rose again, and by the Spirit of life. It is not something we do, it is something done to us.

In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he looks back on his effort to live a life of holiness on his own, and all he found was failure and shame.[3] Paul was profoundly aware that it was only the love of God in the crucified Christ that could set him free from the chains that bound him. It was only the power of Jesus’ resurrection that could give him new life. It was only the presence of the Spirit of life that could make him like Christ.

Of course, it is true that our life experiences often play a role in spiritual transformation. The crises we face force us to acknowledge the skeletons in our family closets, or to recognize that the face that we want to hide from is our own. Brokenness is the catalyst that can affect significant change. “Hitting bottom” becomes the best thing that ever happened because it turned your life around.

But the kind of change Paul is talking about is a long way from “fixing” yourself through a self-help program! He’s talking about the good news of being born from above! In Jesus the Christ we are restored and renewed. We are reconciled and reunited.

What this means is that the grace of God that claims us is already working in us to accomplish God’s purpose—to make us like God in all that we are and do.[4] It means that already in this life, amidst the brokenness and violence and death, we experience at least a taste of the new creation that God is working toward.[5] What this means is that we are already living our lives in the presence and under the influence of the Spirit, who is in the process of transforming all things—including us!

One of the features of this new life is that it is very specific! Paul gives us some concrete examples of what the new life looks like:

Speech: we should use our words to convey grace and love, not simply for our own selfish interests.

Anger: we can accept anger is a normal part of life, but we must not be naïve about its incredible power to destroy the human soul.

Work: Our work should contribute to the welfare of others, not just provide us with all the toys we want!

Forgiveness: This should be the general foundation of all our relationships, since God in Christ forgave us.

These are just a few examples of what new life in Christ looks like in “street clothes.”[6] But the new life is not a whole new set of commandments to follow. It is a life that is truly human, truly joyful, truly loving.[7] Paul calls it “the true life that is upright and holy” (Eph 4:24, TEV) and the “life filled with love for others” (Eph 5:2, NLT).

What are we supposed to do about all this? Paul’s language can be confusing. He says that we are to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Eph 4:24). As the CEV renders it, we are to “Let the Spirit change your way of thinking and make you into a new person.” How do we “let” the Spirit change us? It starts with openness[8]—we have to admit our faults and to see the need for change. It involves trust[9]—that God has our best interests at heart and is intimately concerned with our well-being. Humility plays a part—surrendering all that we are to God’s gracious providence.[10] And it calls for patience, because it’s a process that takes place over the course of years, or even decades.

The new life in Christ is a life that is truly human, truly joyful, truly loving, one that reflects the image of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

[1] A sermon preached 8/13/06 at FPC Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The New Being,” in The New Being, 16-17.

[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The Good that I Will, I Do Not,” in The Eternal Now, 55-57.

[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2, 566-68; 4.3, 510.

[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 279.

[6] For further examples, including economics, ecology, politics, and culture, see Moltmann, Church in the Power, 163-189; 282-288 and Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 297-311.

[7] Küng, Christian Challenge, 146, 285-86, 312

[8] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The New Being,” 22, where he argues that openness to God’s transforming presence is the only thing we can do! Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 280.

[9] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 280.

[10] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 280.

“Ties That Bind”[1]

Ephesians 4:1-16

My Grandpa was a die-hard Methodist. He had been an Elder and a Trustee of the First Methodist Church in McAllen, TX. When I announced to the family that I was going to become a Baptist minister, he was definitely undecided about it! On the one hand, he was proud that I was going to become a minister. As he explained it to me one day, the three top professions from his point of view were Doctor, Lawyer, and Minister! But I’m sure he would have been happier if I had become a Methodist minister.

Grandpa used to razz me at times about how divisive Baptists were. He used to say that fighting and splitting were the only ways that Baptists knew how to plant new churches! By contrast, he was clearly proud of the fact that he was a member of the United Methodist church. Even with his somewhat limited theological training, I think my grandpa had something there. From the earliest days Christians confessed that they believed in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

One of the hallmarks of our Presbyterian version of the Christian faith is that we believe there is one church. It’s not just that, as our General Presbyter Mike Cole says, there is one Presbyterian Church (USA) in Southeast Texas—the Presbytery of the New Covenant. It means that there is one Church in Southeast Texas—even though we do not relate to one another in any kind of formal organization.

It has been one of the fundamental beliefs about the church for almost all of Christian history—there is one church. This faith not only unites all Protestants—it also unites Protestants with Catholics and Catholics with Orthodox. There is one church. It is the product of God’s saving work in this world.

Unfortunately, that kind of unity is often not very apparent in our churches—we’re such a competitive culture. If there are two or more PC (USA) churches in the same location, the chances are they will view each other as competitors rather than companions. When you throw the different denominations and branches of the Christian faith into the mix, it becomes one big mess. Not much unity there—at least as far as appearances go.

What we have to grasp, however, is that the kind of unity that the Apostle Paul was talking about, and that the church has historically confessed, does not come from institutional structures or personalities or organizational systems. It’s not constituted by doctrinal agreement or shared political or theological convictions. It’s not the product of any special church growth seminar. No amount of organizational transformation can create the kind of unity Paul had in mind.

Paul was talking about the unity that God creates—the church is the one people of the one God.[2] He was talking about the unity that Jesus Christ creates—the church is the one people of the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He was talking about the unity that the Spirit of God creates—the church is the one people of the one Holy Spirit.[3] In particular, Paul attributes this kind of unity to the presence and powerful work of God’s Spirit in all our lives. It’s what makes the church live.[4]

Paul also calls the unity that the Spirit creates the “bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3; cf. “the peace that binds you together,” NJB). Paul is not just talking about the absence of conflict here, but the presence of genuine acceptance.[5] One of the signs of the health of any human community is that it has significant differences. The bond created among us by the presence of the love of God in Christ through the Spirit doesn’t eliminate differences. It means that the differences don’t divide us, they make us stronger.[6]

But the “unity of the Spirit” is something that has to be preserved. How do we do that? By practicing gentleness, humility, patience, and love—these are ties that bind us together. These qualities in our relationships with each other promote the unity that the Spirit creates.

So instead of reacting angrily or harshly next time one of your flawed and fallible fellow church members does something really thoughtless and rude, we respond gently, with patience, and in love. We bear with one another—we are slow to condemn, slow to anger, even if it’s not just the seventy-seventh time, but the “seventy times seven”-th time! We “grow up” into the “full stature of Christ” by building one another up.

As we practice the spiritual discipline of relating to each other with this kind of mutual acceptance, we are preserving the “unity of the Spirit.” We are realizing the unity of the Body of Christ in our congregation. We are taking one small step toward the ideal of a church that is one.[7]

[1] A sermon preached 8/6/06 at FPC Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1, 668; Hans Küng, The Church, 273.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 294, 337-38

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 291.

[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342.

[6] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 347

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1, 654.