A New Lifestyle–Aug. 31/14

What are we here for?  It can’t simply be for bragging rights – I am a part of a church community; I go to church every Sunday; and it isn’t because God grants us fire insurance if we show up.  God didn’t make the Church so that we could feel good about ourselves, having done our duty joining worship each week; He didn’t make the Church so that we could get together with a bunch of nice people and learn to be nicer.  The Church is here as the firstfruits of Christ’s Kingdom which is breaking upon the world since Jesus walked it; the Church is here as the place where the standard of faith and knowledge of God is taught and learned; the Church is here to teach us to be good – not “nice,” but holy (the kind of “good” that God is).  One of the Church Fathers noted that though we were once babies, children, youths, then adults, we may never yet have been good.  Holiness of living takes transformation, which takes time.

More recently, the puritan divine George Swinnock commented that: “The upright soul is constant in his profession, and does not change his behaviour according to his companions.  Oh that I might never, through shame or fear, disown Him who has already acknowledged me!”  Today we’ll explore the question of what our identity in Christ, in whom we are known – as we have been known by Him; the question of what our identity in Him does to our way of living.  The Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, Abraham Kruyper, put it like this: “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatever it may be, constantly before the face of his God.  He is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”

The starting point for Christian living is always in Jesus – always in God.  God’s side of the equation is the starting point, from which our side of the equation is inspired.  The constancy of God’s love and care for us is what our faithfulness toward Him is based in.  Richard Hooker, author of the captivating 5 volumes on church polity, offered this (on the mutuality of our faithfulness): “The earth may shake, the pillars of the world may tremble under us, the countenance of the heaven may be appalled, the sun may lose his light, the moon her beauty, the stars their glory; but concerning the man that trusts in God…what is there in the world that shall change his heart, overthrow his faith, alter his affection towards God, or the affection of God to him?”  We declared, in our psalm this morning, the words of the psalmist, whose own faithfulness to God was based in his conviction of God’s faithfulness to him.

The starting place for living in faith is always God’s faithfulness to us.  Where do we go from there, though?  What makes the difference between being a person who is loved by God and loves Him in return, and a person who does something about it?  What can be done about loving God?  You love your spouse so you treat to dinner, bring home flowers or chocolate; you love your children so you provide all they need; you love your parents so you honour them in life and in death; you love bbq, so you visit it often.  We know what to do about our love in all of these cases, but what do you do about loving God, and what makes the difference that actually makes that happen?  The difference comes from knowing Him.

Thomas a Kempis, the midiaeval mystic, suggested: “Plant in the garden of your memory, the tree of the holy Cross; it produces a very efficacious medicine against all the suggestions of the devil.  Of this most noble and fertile tree, the root is humility and poverty; the bark, labour and penitence; the branches, mercy and justice; the leaves, true honour and modesty; the scent, sobriety and abstinence; the beauty, chastity and obedience; the splendour, right faith and firm hope; the strength, magnanimity and patience; the length, long-suffering and perseverance; the breadth, benignity and concord; the height, charity and wisdom; the sweetness, love and joy; the fruit, salvation and life eternal.”  Knowing God is transformative.

Some people say that we should look for God in others, but I say that you can’t see someone you don’t know.  You can’t recognize them.  But when we know God, when He starts transforming us, our eyes are opened.  A preacher spoke about Heaven, and was approached by a wealthy member of his congregation: “Pastor, you preached a good sermon about Heaven.  You told me all about it, but you did not tell me where Heaven is.”  “Ah,” said the pastor, “I’m glad of the opportunity this morning.  I have just come from down the street.  In a particular house you’ll find a member of your church who is extremely poor; she is sick and in bed with fever.  If you will go, and bring her groceries, and say, ‘My sister, I have brought this in the Name of our Lord and Saviour,’ if you ask for a Bible and read the 23rd Psalm, and then get down on your knees and pray – if you don’t see Heaven, before you finish, I’ll reimburse you for the groceries.”  The next morning the man returned to his pastor and said, “I saw Heaven, and I spent fifteen minutes there, as certainly as you’re standing before me now.”

The difference comes from knowing God – knowing whom we’re to recognize, whom we’re seeking after.  Moses had every excuse for not doing what God wanted, he was making them up on the fly (we didn’t hear all of them this morning), but he came face to face with God; he came to know God, and to know that God knew him; God told him His Name.  It changed history.

And for us, because we are known by God and accepted by Him, our lives, our living, our worlds, our world, can change.  When we’ve already received our full reward from God, in Christ, we are freed to live for others.  Teresa of Avila urged Christians to see themselves as the servants of all, which is what Jesus Himself told His disciples will make a person great in His Kingdom.  There’s a connection there that I want you to make, this morning: the Church is the firstfruits of God’s Kingdom springing forth in the world, and to be great here we must serve others – not ourselves.

And the idea of fruit ripening is an important one, when we speak of firstfruits.  If we liken Christian living to a plant growing, then good works – service to others – is not the root of the plant, but the fruit.  As I said, the root is in God’s faithfulness to us; knowing Him is like the stalk that grows from His faithfulness; service to others is the fruit that develops from that stalk.  If our service to others is spoiled fruit, then we need to look at the root and stalk – perhaps we’re already sick in one of these foundational areas.  Do we really trust in God’s faithfulness?  Do we really strive to know Him more, and better?

So the key to this is real transformation, authentic transformation.  The kind of transformed living that St. Francis meant when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  You can’t fake that kind of authenticity.  There was a Presbyterian minister named James Bryan who commonly came home overcoat-less, having given his to someone who had none.  One day he was driving a horse and buggy – just so you know the time this took place – and he saw a farmer standing in the field.  It was time for spring plowing, but his horse had died.  The pastor unhitched his horse, gave it to the man, and walked home.  When a biography was written about him, it was called Sermon in Shoes.  Whereas, I fear that sometimes we take St. Francis’ injunction, to only use words when necessary to preach the Gospel, as an excuse to neither preach the Gospel either by our living or our words.

There’s something about a story like that of James Bryan that has a ring of authenticity, isn’t there?  It’s not just a “going through the motions” kind of life.  Not just words, but putting money where the mouth is.  Sometimes Christians become so insular, focused on their own persons – but we have far greater work to do than merely securing our own salvation, which, by the way, Christ has already secured for us.  Richard Baxter, the English puritan, observed that “we are trusted with our Master’s talents for His service, in our places to do our best to share His truth, and grace, and Church…to honour His cause and edify His flock, and further the salvation of as many as we can.  All this is to be done on earth…”

But it’s easier to just go through the motions, isn’t it?  I think that’s because it doesn’t take real commitment or real investment.  You can’t be heartbroken when an effort you’ve been going-through-the-motions with doesn’t come to fruition.  Prophets in the Old Testament were not always quick to commit.  We saw part of Moses’ discourse this morning.  Jeremiah thought he was too young; Ezekiel wouldn’t be listened to; Isaiah lived among unclean people.  All of these had reasons why “they” couldn’t do it.  Which was God’s point – that He could do it; that success wasn’t what they’d always thought it was.  But it’s hard to commit to something that doesn’t depend on you for success, isn’t it?  You can’t control the outcome – and we like to be in control.

But, again, that’s the point.  We can’t control the outcome.  Which is why the whole enterprise of Christianity, and of Christian living (as a sub-heading under that) is based in and rests upon God’s faithfulness first and above all else.  Not our own.  He cleansed Isaiah; He raised Jeremiah up; He gave Ezekiel a hard head to butt against others’; He gave Moses His Name.  It starts with Him, and success is measured in doing what He asks, not on how others respond to it.

Jesus said to seek His Kingdom first – again, the Church is the firstfruits of His Kingdom as it breaks in on earth.  We, who are a part of it, should be doing this!  Seek His Kingdom first, and all those other things that He knows we need will be added to us.  It begins, not with our seeking, but with our trusting His faithfulness – which precedes our response to it.  C. S. Lewis said it two ways: if we put first things first then we’ll get second things thrown in; if we put second things first then we’ll get neither…; and, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”  No going through the motions!

What this takes is that we would take God seriously.  He doesn’t want a bunch of people who are basically good people, in comparison to other people, and usually just meaning that they’re “nice” – which is not, by the way, a moral evaluation of a person, but simply a statement that a person is more committed to not offending anyone than they are to having any view of something worth standing for.  Taking God seriously, and thus committing one’s living to Him.  He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who were baptized, and He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who came back again to ‘get’ confirmed.  He’s looking for people who will commit the way they live their lives to Him.  St. Basil of Caesarea said of Christians, and perhaps you’ll find the imagery reminiscent of runners in a race, “It is not he who begins well who is perfect.  It is he who ends well who is approved in God’s sight.”

What does that kind of commitment look like?  I think we’ve heard some examples this morning.  I think we’ve got some examples among us and around us.  The Duke of Wellington held that “British soldiers are not braver than French soldiers, they are only brave for five minutes longer.”  That’s the kind of stick-to-it commitment that God desires of us.  He doesn’t mean for us to be so much more incredibly committed to him than to all of the other things that we commit ourselves to, but He means for us to hold to our commitment to Him, unlike so many of the passing fads that we commit to from time-to-time.

Some of you know that I started my university studies in a music programme, playing piano.  Expectations for practising were at least two hours a day, every day (even the lesson day!).  If I missed a day, I knew it.  But if I had hit six out of seven, then maybe the teacher didn’t notice.  If I missed two days, though, she did.  And if I missed three days a week, well, everyone did.  We cannot live as Christians if we do not commit ourselves to the daily practise of Christ’s presence in our lives, and to living in faith to Him that is grounded in His faith to us.  If we do, it will transform our lives, as we know Him more and more, and better and better.  It will transform our church; our city; our country; our world.  We are called to be agents of transformation, transformation that begins in each of us and plays itself out in our way of living.  Amen.

Identity–Those Known by God–Aug. 24/14

Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s something different about you.  I don’t mean that you’re a weirdo, although if the shoe fits… No, there’s something different about you.  It’s not your hair… not a new sweater… I know what it is!  You changed your heart, didn’t you?  You may never hear those words from your spouse, parent, or child, but they’re the words that God longs to have true of you.  A changed heart.  God is in the business of changing people’s hearts – because He knows what a human heart is otherwise, and because He knows what it can become.  God, who spoke Creation into being, is recreating it.  St. Athanasius said it like this: The renewal of Creation has been the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning.

The question is sometimes asked, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  And maybe that’s the place to start.  Where is your heart today?  What is your heart today?  How has God changed your heart – how is He continuing to work in it, today?

We need to be clear about what God changing the human heart looks like.  Jesus doesn’t set us free from the power of sin, which is death, in our lives so that we can uninhibitedly mould our lives around the standards and expectations of the cultural contest we find ourselves in.  He doesn’t set us free for the purpose of conformity to the world.  Rather, He sets us free so that we can be open to the Spirit’s work in us, transforming us to be like Him.  As Scripture says elsewhere, it is for holiness, for righteousness, that you have been set free.  Sanctification, it has been said, is a gracious work of God whereby He gradually divests from sin the inclinations and dispositions of the regenerate and clothes them with holiness.

Consider the midwives in Egypt at the start of Exodus.  It would have been easy for them to just stick to the Pharaoh’s plan, wouldn’t it?  I can’t imagine it was a comfortable conversation when he summoned them back to ask why the babies were surviving.  Kill those baby boys; conform to the standards of the surrounding, dominant, culture.  Not in God’s Kingdom; not to the midwives.  They chose, therefore, transformation from the world rather than conformity with it.

Thomas a Kempis put forward this challenge: Let us arm ourselves against all sins, against pride, against hatred, against ambition, against envy, against covetousness, against sensuality.  Let heaven see that, even on earth, it has those who stand on its side.  Let hell know that, even on earth, there are those who make war against it with the Word of God.  And let earth itself know that it is still capable of once more growing green and of giving much fruit.

And so God calls us to transformation by His Spirit’s work in us, not conformity with the world.  And He calls us to transformation as members of a transformed community.

Paul talks about living together as one, though we are many.  The image he uses is of a body with many members.  Last week I talked about a stained glass window that has many pieces of glass fitted together in it, or a number of pianos all tuned to a single tuning fork.  This is another way that we’re different – God changes our hearts to include one another.  In a similar way to when a couple gets married and they learn to think as a unit, rather than as two individuals.  They consider one another: feelings, commitments, responsibilities.  They plan a future that includes them being together.  They spend joint resources for joint benefit.  So it is for us, in Christ’s Body, the Church.

Richard Baxter represented Christian one-up-manship like this: For one sect to say, “Ours is the true church,” and another to say, “No, ours is the true church,” is as mad as to dispute whether your hall, kitchen, parlour, or utilities room is your house; and for one to say, “This is the house,” and another, “No, this is it”: when a child can tell them that the best is but a part, and the house contains them all.

And so God changes our hearts by transforming us to be like Him, by putting the rest of His children in it, and by teaching us to be reliant on His goodness rather than our own ability.

As He changes hearts He also teaches us to trust and rely on Him – not on ourselves.  And that’s a significant thing.  My heart is naturally disposed to myself.  I’m naturally self-confident, naturally full of self-ambition, naturally self-promoting above others (even at their expense, when necessary).  Yet as God remakes my heart I find that I’m more and more reliant on Him.  More and more I trust in Him: in His abilities, His goodness; because of what He’s done in the past I trust Him for the future.  He moves me to praise Him for His mighty deliverance, as the Psalmist does.

But do not let reliance on God’s goodness, rather than your own ability, lead you to neglect doing what God desires!  Martin Luther observed, “It is not from works that we are set free by the faith of Christ, but from the belief in works – that is, from foolishly presuming to seek justification through works.  Faith redeems our consciences, makes them upright, and preserves them, since by it we recognize the truth that justification does not depend on our works, although good works neither can nor ought to be absent, just as we cannot exist without food and drink and all the functions of this mortal body.”

And so God changes our hearts, inclining us to Him in everything.  And more than that, He gives us a new name.  There was maybe a time when you lived to make something of yourself – to make a name for yourself so that you’d be remembered.  It didn’t matter if the attention you got was positive or negative – it just mattered that you got it.  I was once like this.  Now, because of His work in my heart, however, I live so that He can make something of me.  And that makes all the difference.  Jesus wouldn’t be conformed to the world around Him, but was an agent of God’s transformation in it; Jesus considered others in all things – truly loving His neighbour as He loved Himself; Jesus trusted in God’s power at work in Him in everything, even to the point of death on the Cross.  God changes our hearts to be like Jesus’.  And on top of that, He gives Jesus’ precious Name to us.

We are called Christians.  We bear His Name.  People see us and they understand Him to be something like this, something like us.  Our lives are our witness of His work in us to the world.  In spite of suggestions to these ends, we are not known by the name of any other – not by an English royal or a church official.  Neither is the Baptist Church known by the name of John the Baptist, even though they joke that way at times.  We are not known by the name of Elijah, or Jeremiah, or any other prophet (which names Jesus’ disciples gave to Him as comparisons people were making).  We are not even known by our own names, any longer, if you can accept it.  But we are called Christians – we are Christ-bearers to the world.  he gives His Name to us, and because He knows us and reveals Himself to us, we are able to know ourselves as we become more and more fully who we are, and have been created to be, as He works in us.

Our lives are our witness to Christ.  It’s been said that “the holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people – strengthened by preaching and sacrament – go out of the church door into the world to be the Church.  We don’t go to church, we are the Church.”

God calls us out of who we have been.  He took our flesh upon Himself, He knows all that we go through.  He knows us.  He made us.  It is because He knows us so intimately – our Creator, who alone knows what we were each created for – that we find our identity in Him.  And He reveals it to us as He works in us, changing our hearts.  Jesus, who gave Himself for others; who brought God’s Kingdom to the darkness of the worlds kingdom; who taught and exemplified faith in God’s promises above all accomplishment; who gives His Name to us: Jesus comes to us today, and it is in knowing Him that we find ourselves – and all of this stems from Him, who first knew us.  Amen.