Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Credit to the Gospel

A Credit to the Gospel
Philippians 1:20-30[1]
I think we all know people about whom we could say “He’s a credit to his school,” or “She’s a credit to her profession.” We usually talk that way about people who excel in their devotion and service to the community, or their school, or their profession. They are people you can count on to be there when others aren’t, and to do what they say they’ll do when others don’t. We think of them as role models--not only for the younger generation but also to some extent for ourselves. We all have our personal heroes. Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa from the violence of Apartheid to a peaceful Democracy, is one of my heroes. These are the people we look up to, and they seem to set the bar for what it means to fully realize our potential as human beings.
In our lesson from St. Paul for today, he uses an interesting phrase. He urges the Christians at Philippi to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called  The Message, renders it this way: “Meanwhile, live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ.” But St. Paul didn’t imply that this kind of life was only for a few exceptional individuals. He called all Christians to live in a manner that is a “credit” to the Gospel.[2]
You see, Paul was in prison at the time he wrote this letter, which meant that he was separated from Church at Philippi. And apparently that was difficult for him, because this was one of his favorite congregations. They had helped him in some of his darkest times, and he was deeply grateful to them for their support of his ministry over the years. And now, St. Paul wants to make sure that the congregation at Philippi continued to thrive.
I find it interesting to compare what the Scriptures say about thriving congregations with the strategies people propose in our day for thriving congregations. Some take the approach that “if you build it they will come,” and so they believe that a new building is what it takes. Others think it takes the “perfect pastor,” whatever that is! If you look back over the last few decades, it’s almost amusing to see the fads that have come and gone in the “church growth” industry. In the 90’s, “small group ministry” became the rage, and in some places it still is. The assumption is that if it worked for Willow Creek and Saddleback churches, it should work anywhere. In the 80’s the “answer” was apartment bible studies. And in the 70’s it was bus ministry--finding all the kids you can and bringing them to church on a school bus.
But when you look at the kinds of things St. Paul points to as essential for the church to thrive, we find a very different approach. He urges the church to thrive by cultivating the unity that is found in Christ (Gal. 3:28).  It is a unity that is the result of the Spirit’s presence (Eph. 4:3). And this perspective isn’t just something he mentions once in passing. It is found throughout his letters to the churches he served. Over and over again, Paul urges churches to thrive by cultivating their unity in the Body of Christ. In this context, he urges the Philippians to “stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).[3]
On the surface of things, it would seem that St. Paul urges churches to practice agreement in order to thrive. But the question in my mind is what kind of agreement he’s talking about. Many in our day assume that agreement equals sameness. In other words, we all agree because we all think the same things, we all hold the same opinions, we all take the same perspective on various matters facing the church. Or in other cases our agreement stems from an institutional uniformity that is guaranteed by an authoritative leadership or by a standardized organization.
But I don’t think that’s the kind of agreement St. Paul was talking about.  In our lesson for today, the only content that Paul wants the church to agree on is “the faith of the Gospel.” The fact of the matter is that Paul has a very strong belief not only in the unity of the body of Christ, but also in the diversity of that body.[4] Elsewhere he insists that we cannot all be the same and do the same things, otherwise the Body of Christ would lack what it needs to thrive. He points out how hard it would be for the church to function if every part were the same (1 Cor. 12:14-21).
It seems to me that the agreement Paul calls for is a spiritual unity.[5] There is no doctrine or institution that can fabricate the unity the Spirit naturally produces in the body of Christ when we’re living our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” I think we do that when we are all moving in the same direction, serving the Lord and the Body of Christ as faithfully as we can. That kind of unity is much more important than whether we hold the same opinions. Our unity is found in our common bond in Christ, not in whether or not we agree on every point of doctrine or practice. Our oneness is found in the presence of the Spirit, not in complete agreement on specific strategies for moving forward.
We’re going to have times when we disagree on what we need as a congregation in order to move forward. The important thing in my mind is that we don’t let any of those differences divide us. One pastor friend of mine described his church’s approach to a controversial issue: “we are not of the same mind, but we are not divided.” It seems to me that when we can live out our lives together in this Christian community with this kind of attitude, then we are promoting the unity of Body of Christ. Then we will be demonstrating the unity that can only be found in Christ through the Spirit. Then we will be living in such a way that we are a credit to the Gospel.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/21/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Many scholars think that St. Paul’s use of the Greek verb politeuomai here indicates that he is talking about how the believers conduct themselves as citizens of Philippi. For example, cf. Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians, 69, 77. However, it seems to me that in this setting, the primary emphasis is on their life together as a community of faith, not their conduct as citizens of a particular city. So Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible IX:496: “His meaning is, ‘Let your life as a community be worthy of the gospel of Christ.’”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 345: “unity is not merely an attribute of the church; it is the church’s task in the world as well.” 
[4] Cf. Isam E. Ballenger, “Ephesians 4:1-16,” Interpretation : “Participation in the Oneness overcomes barriers of doctrine and practice, race and ethnicity, culture and nationality, economic and educational status. Note that diversity remains, but it has been integrated in the one Spirit, joined in the one hope.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 38. He describes the unity of the Body of Christ that is very different from uniformity or sameness: “A life which is worthy of the gospel ... liberates us to be ourselves and fills us with the powers of the Spirit. We are enabled to give ourselves up and trust ourselves to the leading of the Spirit. Then we are able to accept ourselves just as we are, with our possibilities and limitations, and thereby gain a new spontaneity. We are freed to live with God in the covenant of freedom.”

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Quarreling over Opinions

Quarreling over Opinions
Romans 14:1-12[1]
I don’t know about you guys, but when I take a look at our society, it seems to me that we’ve gotten really good at arguing with each other. I don’t mean that we have good and productive arguments by “fighting fairly.” It’s my impression that we’re quick to take offense, quick to get angry, and quick with a comeback that is demeaning or offensive. I guess I should really say that we’ve gotten really bad at arguing with each other! It seems that every significant issue facing our society at least potentially leads to a fight. In fact, as some have observed, our country may be more divided at this time than in any other part of our history--even the Civil War![2]
If you think that’s not the case, all you have to do is look at people’s opinions about the last two presidents. It seems there’s no middle ground: people despise one, insisting that he brought our country to ruin, and they respect the other, and think he took our the country in the right direction. But whichever side of that divide you’re on, all someone has to do to make your blood boil is mention a name and express an opinion different than yours. We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even express different opinions without getting hostile toward one another.
I think part of the reason for this is fear. We’re more afraid now than perhaps ever before. We’re afraid because the things we used to count on for security in life seem to have evaporated. And we’re afraid because the forces that control our lives seem so much bigger than they once did. And all that fear converts into hostility. And as much of a “techie” as I am, I’m afraid social media like email and Facebook have only poured fuel on the fire. When you get on the internet, there’s a false feeling of anonymity that induces us to say things we’d never dream of saying in person. And so the divisiveness and the arguing continue, and they just make the hard feelings worse.
But in our lesson from St. Paul for today, the Apostle tells us that it ought not be so, especially in the Body of Christ. We might be tempted to think that the church in the days of the New Testament was much more spiritual, and didn’t have arguments like we do in our churches today. But that’s not the case. In fact, in just about every book of the New Testament the Apostles had to deal with some kind of dispute or another. But as St. Paul tells Timothy, “wrangling over words ... does no good but only ruins those who are listening” (2 Tim. 2:14). He goes on to tell Timothy to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim 2:23). 
And so it should come as no surprise when St. Paul tells the Church at Rome that they are to avoid “quarreling over opinions.” But if you read between the lines, you might be surprised at the “opinions” about which he was urging them to practice tolerance. When he refers to some people having the faith to eat everything while the “weak” only eat vegetables, he’s referring to the way meat was processed and sold in that day.[3] A significant amount of the meat sold in the open-air market was left over from a sacrifice that was offered at a pagan temple that morning. So to eat meat in that context could be construed by some as participating in the worship of false gods! And yet others had a strong enough faith to recognize that all things come from God, and so they ate meat. And on an issue of this potential significance, Paul urges tolerance!
We might wonder how St. Paul could make such an apparently offensive compromise as to allow the eating of meat that had been used in the worship of a false god. To some in his day, he was essentially turning a blind eye to at least an indirect participation in idolatry.[4] How could he encourage behavior that some viewed as a violation of the command, “You shall have no other gods before me”? I think that at least part of the answer is that he realized that whether or not eating meat constituted the practice idolatry was a matter of interpretation, and therefore a matter of opinion. And St. Paul didn’t want the Body of Christ divided over matters of opinion. Rather, Paul urged that Christians take the attitude that, even when we disagree about significant issues, we all “belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8). And in case there is any doubt about whether we can all belong to the same Lord and disagree with one another, he makes it clear that we have no place passing judgment on other “servants of the Lord” (Rom. 14:4).[5]
So how do we translate this into our day and time, when we are debating matters like the Middle East, or gay marriage, or immigration policy. How are we who live together in the community of faith to relate to one another when we disagree over strongly held opinions? Part of the problem is that when we in the church are seen so visibly fighting with so much hostility toward one another, we invalidate the message of the Gospel in the eyes of those around us. It seems to me that in this community where we all “belong to the Lord,” we have to start with the conviction that our connection to one other in the Body of Christ supersedes all of our opinions.[6] Hopefully, we all seek to serve the Lord to the best of our ability. Ideally, we all strive to submit matters of conscience to God’s judgment.[7] It seems to me that means that there simply is no place for “quarreling over opinions” in the Body of Christ. Rather, this is a community in which mutual respect and love must always trump differences of opinion. [8]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/14/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Dave Bryan, “Jerry Brown: California, Country Facing ‘Regime Crisis’ Similar To The Civil War,” CBS Los Angeles 10 April 2010; accessed at
[3] Many scholars suggest that part of the problem here was an expulsion of the Jews from Rome which some ancient historians recount. After some years, the Jewish population began to trickle back into Rome. However, whatever accommodations there may have been before the expulsion for the proper processing of meat according to Jewish food laws would likely no longer have been in place. This would have created a crisis for Jewish Christians who felt obligated to follow those laws. See James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16,  801, 810-11; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, 838.
[4] Cf. B. B. Blue, “Food Offered to Idols and Jewish Food Laws,” in Dictionary of Paul and his letters, edited by G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin & D. G. Reid, 306-310.
[5] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 215, where he observes that “The danger of self-righteousness lies in its tendency to make one’s own convictions the measure of the validity of the convictions of all others.” He also says (p. 217) in connection with the temptation to “set oneself up as judge” in the place of God that “The danger of self-righteousness is therefore closely allied to the danger of self-idolatry.” Cf. also Edgar Krenz, “Relationships Count,” The Christian Century (Aug 28, 1996): 811. He says that St. Paul “is not a weak-kneed Christian who has no standards. But his concept of judgment is shaped by his knowledge of the judge. Christians are ultimately responsible to their Lord.” See further Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:725: Christians holding different opinions cannot judge each other “Because both are servants, each serving the Lord with their better or less good faith, each finding in the Lord his own Judge and Saviour. They cannot exclude each other when God has accepted both and will judge their faithfulness or unfaithfulness by His mercy.” Cf. also Jewett, Romans, 843.
[6] Cf. Achtemeier, Romans, 216: “Paul does not take sides on whether the ‘weak’ or the ‘strong’ are more correct. He is intent rather on meeting the threat to Christian unity posed by the attempts of one of the groups to make its convictions about conduct the sole and exclusive measure of true and faithful response to God’s gift of his Son. The advice to both groups is the same: Respect the convictions of the other group.”
[7] Cf. Achtemeier, Romans, 218, where he points out that Paul urges both tolerance on differences of opinion as well as the intention to “do everything one does to the honor of God.”
[8] It would seem that Paul would endorse the maxim, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” On the history of this often-quoted phrase which is erroneously attributed to St. Augustine, see James J. O’Donnell, “A Common Quotation from ‘Augustine’?” accessed at quote.html and Hans Rollman, “The Pre-History of a Restoration Movement Slogan,” in Restoration Quarterly 39.3, accessed at rollmann.html

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Putting Jesus On

Putting Jesus On
Romans 13:8-14[1]
I have to wonder what some people think when they hear the language the New Testament uses for the Christian life. Take, for example, St. Paul’s instruction to “put Jesus on” in our lesson for today. In our world, to put someone on means to fake them out, to run a con, or in some way to pull the wool over their eyes. From the perspective of our current use of language, to “put Jesus on” would mean to try to put up a front, or to mislead him in some way. I think that must sound very confusing to the average person: is the Bible telling us to try to fool Jesus about who we are and the way we live our lives? Well, of course the answer to that question is a resounding “No!” But, ironically, I think many of us approach our faith and our lives as if we think we can hoodwink Jesus. We put on a false front for people at church, and we think that if we can fool them then maybe we can fool God.
If we really think about that idea, however, it’s obviously ridiculous. As the Psalmist says, “The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind. From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth—he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds” (Ps. 33:13-14). And Jesus reminds us that “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known (Lk. 12:2).” The Bible makes it clear that God knows what we do in secret (Jer. 23:24), that God knows every careless word we speak (Matt. 12:36), and that God knows even our innermost thoughts (Ps. 139:2). Since God “fills heaven and earth,” if we think we can put one over on Jesus or God, we’re really only fooling ourselves.
The fact of the matter is that the passage that’s translated in our lesson as “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is language that is taken from the idea of putting on clothing. A better way to translate it would be to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14, NIV).[2] The idea is to live all of life the way Jesus would. It’s a matter of embracing Jesus’ character and Jesus’ way of life so much that it’s almost as if we’re wearing them as a new set of clothing. It’s sort of the ultimate version of “What Would Jesus Do,” but it goes far beyond simply wearing a wrist band. As another translation puts it, what St. Paul has in mind here is for us to “let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of you” (13:14, NLT). In other words, we’re to turn every aspect of our lives over to Jesus Christ!
Well, that’s how St. Paul defines the Christian life here. And in fact, this idea is fairly common. You can find it woven throughout the whole New Testament. In fact, it runs through the whole Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, a faith that is genuine produces a life that has been surrendered into God’s hands. It’s a life in which we turn our hearts and minds, all that we are and do, over to God. And the point of it all is to seek with all our hearts and minds and everything we are and do to live the way God intends for us to live. We’re to put into practice “What Would Jesus Do” in a radical way, including everything we say and do. We’re to “clothe” ourselves with the way Jesus lived, so that we try to be like him in every possible way.[3]
That’s what the Christian life is about. It’s not about how many times we come to church. It’s not about how much money we give. It’s not about simply talking a good game. It’s about living out all the high ideals that we sing and pray and talk about. That’s why it’s called “conversion,” or “transformation” as St. Paul called it earlier in the book of Romans.[4] Living the Christian life means changing every aspect of what we say and do to try to make it line up with the kind of life Jesus lived. It means living in the way that God intended for us to live in the first place.
As we saw last week, this isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us. Most of us tend to want to go along with the way everybody else lives. We spend most of our lives trying not to stand out from our friends and neighbors, because when we do we get flak from them. But no matter how uncomfortable it may be, Jesus calls us to leave all of that behind and follow him. And St. Paul says that the way to do that is to wear the character and the lifestyle of Jesus like a set of clothing. That means we will probably stand out in our world, rather than blending in.
In my opinion, one of the problems with the Church in this culture is that we’ve spent too much energy trying to blend in. We have tried to imitate corporate culture, thinking that professional structure will make the difference. These days a lot of Christians try to pretend to be “hip” so that younger people will come to our church. But when we’re playing that “put on” game, the only ones we’re fooling is ourselves. God knows exactly who we are and what we’ve done--and the amazing good news is that God loves us anyway and wants to use us to accomplish his work in this world. But in order for that to happen, we need to find the right role model. And that’s Jesus. If we want to know what the Christian life looks like, all we have to do is follow the way Jesus lived. When we “put on” Jesus in that way, clothing ourselves in his compassion and his kindness and his generosity, then we will be truly living the Christian life.[5] Then our lives will become a witness to the presence and power of the living Lord Jesus among us.[6]

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/7/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Robert Jewett, Romans, A Commentary, 827, where he points out that some see in the “clothing” analogy at least a reminder of the believers’ baptism, though James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, 790, points out that there is no evidence that the taking off of old clothing and putting on of new clothing was part of Christian baptism.
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102: “For Paul too, the approaching sunrise of the day of God makes it possible and necessary to lay aside ‘the works of darkness’ and to put on ‘the armour of light’ (Rom. 13:12ff.). The inviting proximity of the coming kingdom of God makes possible what was impossible before, and what is impossible without it. Conversion implements these new potentialities which God throws open. True life begins here and now, the true life which will come for the whole of creation with the kingdom of God. ‘Conversion’ is itself an anticipation of that new life under the conditions of this world.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:715: “As witnesses to the death and resurrection of Christ, they have to attest by their life that the fashion of this world passes away, because the kingdom of God has drawn near.” Cf. also Dunn, Romans 9-16, 793: “Believers can be exhorted to wake up, put off, put on, etc., not because their future depends solely on such strength of purpose, but as the way to open themselves to the eschatological rule of God in Christ.”
[4] Cf. Michael Gorman, “Romans 13:8-14,” Interpretation 62 (Apr 2008):171: “The term ‘conversion,’ especially for many Protestants, is something that others need. But whether we use the term ‘conversion’ or the word ‘transformation,’ the church—and the individual Christian—needs ongoing conversion: ‘reformed but always reforming.’”
[5] Cf. Dunn, Romans 9-16, 793: “The words which resulted in Augustine’s conversion (13:13–14) may not yet have lost their power to correct the still too casual and selfish readers of a much later age.”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:277: “The community and its members live because they are ἐν χριστῷ (in Christ).”

Friday, September 05, 2014

Serving the Lord, Serving Others

Serving the Lord, Serving Others
Romans 12:9-21[1]
We who practice faith can have a problem coming across as a bit fuzzy or even vague about what it is that constitutes our faith. Sometimes, I’m afraid that when we start talking about our faith, it can sound like we’re beating around the bush. We may talk about the warm feelings we have when we pray or read the Bible or come to church. Or we may say things like, “Going to church just gets my week off to a good start.” I think that leaves average people who have no church background scratching their heads. The fact of the matter is that the New Testament speaks in very specific language about what it means to practice the Christian faith. St. Paul makes some very definite statements about what living the Christian life looks like in concrete terms. And what it boils down to is that we are called to serve the Lord by serving one another.
When it comes to getting more specific about what this looks like, in our lesson for today the Apostle starts with the instruction to practice mutual love that is genuine (Rom. 12:9). And this isn’t just any kind of “love.” When we love someone we normally expect them to love us in return.[2] But the love that Christians are to have for one another is a love that gives without any expectations. It’s modeled after the love that God has for us all, the love by which God sacrificed his Son in order to bring us all back home.[3] The love that we are called to practice is a love that takes the initiative, that makes the first step, that seeks out those who have broken the relationship, and does whatever is necessary to repair the breach.[4]
This kind of love calls us to do things we might not normally do: to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10); to “contribute to the needs of the saints” (12:13), that is sisters and brothers in the Christian community; to “extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13), or those outside the community of faith. This kind of love calls us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep” (12:15). It calls us to “live in harmony with one another” (12:16) as well as to “live peaceably” with all people (12:18).  It calls us to renounce pride and arrogance and to embrace the “lowly” (12:16).  And this kind of love calls us to refrain from repaying evil in kind, but rather to practice what is “noble in the sight of all” (12:17).[5]
Now, because we’ve heard most of this before, I think we may have the idea that this is all pretty standard. We know we’re supposed to “love our neighbors as ourselves” and that the prime example of what that looks like in real life is Jesus. But when we translate this unusual kind of love into our context, I wonder if we take seriously how far outside our comfort zones St. Paul is taking us.[6] I’m afraid that the hard truth about most churches in our society is that when it comes down to it, we really practice this kind of love with our friends and neighbors. We tend to reserve this kind of compassion and generosity for those who look like us and talk like us and live like us.[7]
When it comes to extending that kind of love to those who are truly different from us, whether it’s the way they look or the way they talk or where they come from or how they live, I’m afraid we’re not so willing to go that extra mile. I’m not just pointing my finger at others here. Last Summer I went on a Presbytery-sponsored youth mission trip to Austin. There we worked with young people who are homeless and living on the edge of the University of Texas campus. It’s truly ironic--you have people who are simply trying to scrape together $20 a day in order to survive living on the streets, and all around them are University students who come from “good families,” many of whom are living in luxury apartments, with their every desire met by their fairly well-off parents.
Well, most of us fell somewhere in the middle of social continuum between homelessness and being wealthy. But we were on a mission trip, so one day we helped the homeless wash their clothes, and offered them fresh clothes.  Another day we cooked lunch together. And another day we worked in a food pantry that served people who were struggling just to make ends meet. And another day we served breakfast to the homeless in downtown Austin. It was all a great experience, and we all practiced a compassion and generosity that might compare with the best of the saints. But it was a mission trip. You can do those kinds of things on a mission trip. Unfortunately, however when you come home and run into someone like that, most of us tend to make sure our windows are rolled up and our doors are locked.
The truth is that it’s much more difficult to practice the self-giving love that St. Paul is talking about when it’s a matter of encountering those who are different from us in our daily lives. And yet, I think that is precisely what Paul had in mind.[8] When the grace of God really gets under your skin, you live all of a life as a “living sacrifice.” And that goes far beyond just a good feeling from coming to church. It means that we feed the hungry and give a cup of cold water to the thirsty and care for the sick and the lonely--and not just among ourselves. It means that we “associate with the lowly” or “make friends with those who seem unimportant” (12:16, NCV), as one translation puts it.[9] Yes, practicing our faith means serving the Lord by serving one another.  But as hard as it may truly be for us to accept this, perhaps most importantly practicing our faith means serving the Lord by serving those in our world who are different from us.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/31/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 34: “human love is by its very nature desire ... . So long as it can satisy this desire in some way, it will not give it up ... . But where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled, there it stops short ... .
[3] Cf. Carl E. Braaten, “Romans 12:14-21,” Interpretation 38 (July 1984): 292: “Underlying Paul's exhortation to the Christian community is an ethic of agape-love which continues the downward curve of God's own love, ... . Paul's exhortation is not simply a piece of ethical idealism. It is a description of conduct appropriate to the new age in which God has revealed his love in Christ to a world at odds with his will. Paul is describing the new life in Christ as a reflex of the love God has shown to us, while we were still enemies. The love of God and the life of the Christian are interwoven in Christ. Paul puts it succinctly in Ephesians 5:2; ‘Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.’”
[4] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 25: “Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward.” Cf. also Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 35-36.
[5] Cf. Michael Barram, “Romans 12:9-21,” Interpretation 57 (Oct 2003): 424: “Romans 12:9-21 describes the behaviors that would constitute an adequate response to God’s grace. ... Paul is not talking about ethics in a distant, theoretical sense. His moral reflections address the reality of embodied existence ("a living sacrifice").”  Cf. also Frederick W. Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 179: “doing the will of God is not a matter of grand designs but of daily, commonplace investment in the lives of others.”
[6] Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, which defines loving your neighbor as yourself in terms of showing “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness” to all, even your enemies (The Book of Confessions, Heid Cat 4.107)! It means to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may” (4.111). 
[7] Cf. Braaten, “Romans 12:14-21,” 292: “If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that it does not come naturally to love the way Paul is spelling out in this passage, because its attraction is not limited to the brothers and the sisters, members of the same body, the same class or caste or color or creed.”
[8] Cf. Barram, “Romans 12:9-21,” 425: “The love Paul hopes to see among the Roman Christians is not a theoretical ideal; it is something manifested in daily behavior.”
[9] Cf. Braaten, “Romans 12:14-21,” 293: “The hallmark of genuine love in the Christian life is the willingness to associate with the lowly. ‘Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.’ Why should I? Where will that get me? Paul gave his theological reason for this unusual command in I Corinthians 1:28; ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world ... so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.’ This awareness breeds the humility of love.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:188-192.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

(Not) Building the Church

(Not) Building the Church
Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8[1]  
When most people think of “church” these days, I would venture to say that many of them have some not so positive thoughts. Some people have been burned by a church, and will never return. Others have simply lost interest, and have decided to spend their time doing something more “useful.” Those who are still active in church tend to look church in one of two ways. Some see the way things are done these days and bemoan the loss of the “good old days.” Others see the church as a community that is losing its influence in our culture, and want to change things to stave off the threat of becoming a “relic” of bygone days.
It seems that there are a lot of people out there who have the “answer” about what the church needs to survive and to thrive in the 21st Century world. Some think it depends on having the right kind of music in worship. Others think it’s a matter of keeping up with the latest technology. Others insist that we need to implement the right evangelism program. Others find the answer in a thriving education program. And a whole lot of people think that if they can just find the right pastor who can wave his magic wand things will turn around. All of these ideas are good--well all except the last one. There is no magic wand that I or any other pastor can use to revitalize a church. But many of the ideas people are promoting in order to help build up the church these days are helpful. And yet at the end of the day they leave out what I think are the most important dimensions of what it takes to help churches thrive in our day.
I think we find one of them in our Gospel lesson. The centuries-long debate between the Catholic and Protestant branches of the church about whether Peter is the foundation of the church has missed the point. Regardless of whether you define the “rock” upon which the church is built as Peter, or Peter’s confession of faith, or something else altogether, it seems more important to me that Jesus said “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).[2] The bottom line here is that Jesus is the one who builds the church, not me, or you, or anybody else. If that is the case, then “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
That reminds me of something St. Paul said about his ministry. The church at Corinth had become divided by their loyalties to different teachers. But Paul says that all those teachers were just workers in God’s field. One plants, another waters, and another one reaps the harvest. But the vital perspective on whether or not there is a harvest at all is that God is the one who “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). We can discuss strategies and programs all day long until we’re blue in the face, but unless we look to God to give the growth, I daresay we’re just spinning our wheels.
So how do we do that? How do we promote the well-being and growth of this congregation by looking to Jesus to build his church? I think this introduces the second important dimension to what it takes to help churches thrive in our day and time. At its core, this kind of work is spiritual work. It’s not organizational, it’s not programmatic, it’s not marketing. It’s spiritual work. It’s true that organizational health, robust programming, and even good marketing are important. But at the end of the day, building the church requires that we do everything we do in the recognition that God is the one who gives the growth, and so we have to seek to align our hearts and minds and lives with God.
I think that’s something of what St. Paul was talking about in our New Testament lesson for today. He urged the church at Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). He called them to be “transformed” in their minds and hearts so that their lives might reflect “the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).[3] This is at heart a spiritual endeavor, one that we can undertake only by spiritual means.[4] When we incorporate prayer, worship, scripture, service, and witness into our daily lives, then we will experience the transforming work of God that can renew our congregation.[5]
This work is not the calling of just one person--the pastor--or even a few--the elders and deacons. This is the work of the whole body. And so St. Paul urges the congregation at Rome to exercise their unique and varied gifts “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom. 12:3) and “according to the grace given to us” (12:6). Building the church in our day and time is something that takes all the talents and abilities that each of us has to offer. That’s what it takes for us to be the body of Christ, to be a community defined by faith, hope, love, and witness.[6]
In a very real sense, building the church isn’t something we do at all, it’s something that God does through us. But I don’t think God builds congregations regardless of whether they take their role as the body of Christ seriously. Our practice of spiritual disciplines is empowered by our faith, our hope, and most importantly, the mutual love which transforms our hearts and minds so that God can create growth through us. The Gospels tell us that Jesus recognized his need for a spiritual practice in his life in order to carry out his mission. How much more do we need to look to God to transform our lives and empower our work. How much more do we need to look to God to give the growth. How much more do we need to seek the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ to build his church.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/24/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. M. Jack Suggs, “Matthew 16:13-20,” Interpretation 39 (July 1985):294, “In spite of weaknesses and failures of faith, Peter is the Rock—heroic, but flawed. Perhaps it is only with blemishes that he can be the prototypical disciple, the reminder that there is recovery beyond failure, even the reminder that the final guarantee of the church's life is not the foundation at all but the One who says, ‘I will build my church.’” Cf. similarly, M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:345.
 [3] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 194: “Grace brings with itself specific structures. It brings with itself the power to reshape and restructure our lives in a way appropriate for life under the lordship of God.”
[4] Cf. The Book of Order 2011-2013, F-1.304, p. 5, which summarizes the calling of the church in “The Great Ends of the Church,” which was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1910: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 306-7, where identifies the “essentials” as kerygma [proclaiming the gospel], koinonia [fellowship], and diakonia [service].
[6] Cf. The Book of Order 2011-2013, F-1.030, p. 2: “The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.”