The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 17, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-4; Galatians 3:23-29
A couple of weeks ago my wife Cindy and I learned that our daughter has joined a roller derby team. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with roller derby, but my only recollection of it was from my childhood, when I would watch it in black and white and women would knock each other down and off a banked track at great speeds. I had no idea what the rules were. I only knew it was just fast and violent and perhaps better for our daughter than rugby, which she played in college. When we spoke with Katie, she tried to explain to us the basic rules and what her position would be…which is a jammer and not a blocker. And it is the jammer who tries to circle the track faster than anyone else. Needless to say, I did not understand all the concepts, rules or techniques. But I did understand the bottom line…one team tries to outscore the other. And in many ways, this is how roller derby is like any other sport. The team or individual with the most points wins. So, while I may not be able to appreciate all of the subtleties of the sport, I at least know the bottom line. Score more, win more. And my guess is that this is very much like many things in life. We are not as concerned about all of the details as we are about the bottom line.
I had been pondering that idea of knowing the bottom line this week as I thought about the texts before us, and what kept coming back to me was a question, do we know the bottom of line of this Jesus thing we do? Do we know the bottom line of why Jesus came and what he desired to accomplish? I ask that because we come here on Sunday mornings, during the week, give our money, and it might be good to know the bottom line. Over the years, I have discovered that the answer to what is the bottom line? It is usually two-fold. The first is that this Jesus thing is about eternal life and getting into heaven. This has been the answer for the church for probably about the last 1,800 years. Evangelists, pastors and street preachers all proclaim that heaven is only for those who believe in Jesus. The second answer is that it helps us to be good people. That following Jesus’ example of his life of love, forgiveness and compassion offers us a moral compass for our lives. This answer has also been at the heart of Christian faith. But what if there is a third answer? What if there is a third answer that might actually be more central to this Jesus thing than the other two? Now I am not discounting either of the first two, but what I want to propose for this morning, is that there is a third, biblically based answer which is just as important, if not more important than the other two; and that answer is to create one, new united humanity.
To understand this, we need to return to our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Now Isaiah was originally a priest in the great high Temple in Jerusalem. One day about 740 years before the birth of Jesus he had an ecstatic encounter with the God of Israel inside the temple. God instructed him to remind the people of Judah of their obligations to God and to one another. This he did, even though it was not always pleasant. But along the way God also gave him visions of an amazing future…one that was almost unimaginable. And one of those visions was our passage from this morning. In that vision, Isaiah was shown a day when all the nations of the earth would flock to the mountain of God in order to learn to live in the ways of God. The shorthand for what the ways of God were would be to love God and love neighbor. And when the nations learned this way of living, then they would become one new people. We know this because they would beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks and war would be abolished. Though they would all remain different nations, they would, in the end be one new humanity, sharing a way of life and hope.
The question for the people of God, as the years went by, was how would this come about? How would God bring all of these nations to learn about God’s way of loving God and loving neighbor. The answer for the Apostle Paul, was that God would accomplish this, and had done this in and through the work of Jesus on the cross. In and through Jesus death and resurrection, God and made it possible for all nations to become one new people. In order to make this image come alive for us, I want to bring us back to this moment. So, let me ask, how many of you have ever rooted for a particular sports team at any level? High school, college, pro? How many of you have ever owned a jersey, cap, shirt or pin from one of those teams? Now one more, how many of you have ever seen people wearing the afore mentioned garb? Good, because what that garb shows is that people are divided over whom to root for. They root for their team and against the other team. We could see this vividly yesterday at the Michigan, MSU game. Now picture an entire society that is divided in that way. A society divided by their clothing. This was the Roman Empire. In the Empire different classes dressed differently, not simply by wealth or custom, but by law. So when you walked down the street, you could tell who was upper class and who was a slave and everyone in between. They were a divided people with some being considered more valuable than others.
It was into that divided world that Paul then said that when someone is baptized in Christ they put on Christ. In other words, regardless of what clothes one wore in the outside world, in the new world of Jesus, all those who were baptized put on the same clothes. This is why Paul could say that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. He could say it not because they had changed religion, or gender or status, but because they wore the same clothing. They were clothed in Christ. One way to think about this would be to imagine all of the baptized wearing a single white jersey with the words, “Beloved Child of God” written on it. They were a new people because they were a new team; a unified team; a team that had learned the ways of God together in Jesus Christ.
Why does this matter? What does it matter that in our baptisms we become one new people? That we become part of this new humanity? For me, it matters because of what is going to take place over the next twelve months. Over the next twelve months our nation will be put through incredible stress, first because of the impeachment inquiry and possible trial, and then through the election. Under normal circumstances this would not matter. But we have become a polarized society, torn apart over our president. And we are not only a polarized society, but Christianity in this nation is also polarized. Some Christians claim that our president is God’s anointed. Others claim he is the anti-Christ. And so what is going to happen as we move forward is that Christians will begin to look at each other as the enemy. We will define Christian as someone who believes like us. And this will have the potential to tear apart friendships, churches and our nation. We will all be tempted to do this. And so this is what I want you to do when you feel that urge coming on. I want you to picture those people with whom you disagree wearing their generic, white jerseys with “Beloved Child of God” written on them. I want you to remember that all of the baptized have been clothed in Christ and that there is neither Republican or Democrat, conservative of liberal, because we are all one in Christ.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
November 10, 2019
Exodus 6: 1-8; Ephesians 1:3-14
This morning we continue our four-part series on the “Images of Jesus,” today viewing Jesus as transformer. For those of you who were here last week, you’ll remember that John said the scripture he was reading from Colossians was packed full. Well, here we go again. As we read today from Ephesians 1:3-14, consider that in the original Greek, this was written as one long enthusiastic sentence of 202 words … the longest sentence in the New Testament. Gratefully, the translators broke it down into smaller sentences. Listen for God speaking…
Ephesians is the most impersonal of Paul’s letters, as he was not addressing any particular situation or crisis. This letter was intended to circulate among the churches of Asia Minor, and is a bird’s-eye view of one theme after another. It is rich with some of Paul’s reflections on God’s purposes for the world. It is challenging to reflect on today’s scripture without preaching into the whole letter, so just to give you a launch pad (should you want to delve into the whole letter when you get home), chapters 1-3 tell the story of God, and chapters 4-6 spell out the nature of our participation in greater detail.
Today’s reading, the opening piece of Ephesians, is a kind of “table of contents” to the rest of the letter. It is also a prayer, a prayer which begins and ends with praising and blessing God for what God has done, is doing, and will do. Hidden within this prayer is the story of Exodus. God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the bearers of God’s promised deliverance and redemption for the world and to be part of God’s plan to rescue that which became broken through human rebellion. We, too, have been chosen by grace, not for our sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish. By using the word “we,” Paul is including all who believe in Christ. Those who believe in Jesus are now part of the fulfillment of God’s purpose, and that includes us. Just as God chose the Israelites to be God’s people, God has now adopted us as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
We are all familiar with the patriarchal structure of Biblical times. In ancient Roman law, the family was based on the father’s absolute power. The father had power over his daughters until they were married and had power over their sons as long as they lived, and everything they owned belonged to the father. Sometimes, in order to carry on the family line, an elaborate process of adoption was carried out. When someone was adopted, they acquired the rights of their new family and gave up all rights to their old family, including any inheritance. Legally, they were considered a new person.
This is what Paul is saying God has done for us. We are a new creation in Jesus Christ. The allusion to Exodus says that we, too, were in bondage. Not to Egyptian tyranny, but to the ways of the world. And this is the new Exodus, the new inheritance, and the new wilderness wandering. “Paul sees the church doing what Israel did in the desert: coming out of the slavery of sin through God’s action in Jesus the Messiah, and on the way to the new promised land.” (Paul, The Prison Letters, N.T Wright, 2002)
We were under the power of sin and of the world … and through Jesus, God took us out of that power and into God’s. This adoption wipes out the past and makes us new. We have been transformed in Christ. God’s choice of Israel did not depend on their impressiveness or righteousness, and God’s choice of us certainly does not depend on our impressiveness or righteousness. But now, in Christ, God blesses us as God once did Abram. God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, we each have a personal relationship with God. But today Paul is calling us beyond that to also be the Church. The Church has been called to make known by word and example the forgiving, healing, and unifying love that is ours in Christ to all the world. And just as the wandering Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, so we are led by the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of God’s will has now been revealed. It is to bring the entire universe - heaven and earth - into unity in Christ. We are part of God’s great initiative of redemption, reconciliation, and the healing of God’s broken world. In Christ, we have been given a part in God’s eternal plan. God has drawn us into God’s work of uniting all things in Christ. We are not incidental to God’s story. By grace, we are participants in God’s story, sharing together in God’s work of redemption in Christ. This gift of God, which was given to the first few, is meant for all. Paul continually invites us to see ourselves, and God’s work among us, as a community of people, for this story is to be lived as God’s people.
I often reflect on the story of my life as a Christian, how my faith and relationship with God has evolved, and how it has affected me. I am so grateful! But Paul is calling me to step back and realize that this is God’s story and I am but a part in it. “I” am a part of “we” and we have been chosen by God to be a part of God’s unifying plan for the cosmos. With this gift comes responsibility. We are to live as representatives of Christ. We need each other to do what God has called us to do. We cannot do it alone.
Thankfully, God has not left us alone to our own devices, nor are we here without meaning and direction for our lives. We have been marked with the seal of the promise of the Holy Spirit. We belong to God. We are a new creation. In Christ, we have been transformed. We are a part of that new formation to whom Paul writes – the Church. As the Church, everything we think and say and do should represent God. The Holy Spirit will lead us. And we can be the people we are made to be.
May it be so.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 3, 2019
Genesis 1:26-27; Colossians 1:15-20
They always took it to the dealership. My in-laws were dealership people. Whenever they needed their car looked at before a trip, or the oil needed changing, or the tires needed replacing, they always took it to the dealership. I have to say that I always found this to be curious because it was more expensive, and it always took more time. Yet they insisted on continuing this tradition. My impression from my conversations with them was that if a car company made it, then that same car company would know how to fix it. Which actually makes sense. After all, how many of us have hired someone to repair something because they were “factory trained”? I suppose we trust that if those who made it know more about it, then they ought to be able to fix it better than anyone else…which is why, actually, the believers in the city of Colossae had decided that Jesus was of little use when it came to fixing the world and so they had set him aside as being unnecessary in God’s restorative work.
I realize that that sounds a bit cryptic and perhaps even confusing, so bear with me. The church in the small city of Colossae, which is in modern day Turkey, was founded by some unknown evangelist or disciples who told the Gentiles there about this Jesus of Nazareth who had died, was raised and through whom a new kingdom was being established. This kingdom of the God of Israel would fix all that was wrong with the world. Instead of war, there would be peace. Instead of a socially stratified society, there would be equality. Instead of slavery and oppression, there would be freedom. And in this new kingdom, the Colossian’ Christians would be able to enjoy a fixed world. So far so good. But then something began to change. As Paul describes it, “a philosophy” began to creep into the teachings of the church. What this philosophy suggested was that only God could fix creation because only God made it; only God could initiate the Kingdom. This would make sense because the only scriptures they possessed were the Jewish scriptures that spoke of creation as an act of the God of Israel and not of Jesus. So even if Jesus were a great wisdom teacher, or a wonderful rabbi, and even if he were raised from the dead, he was still just a dude. He was simply a faithful human and nothing more. This led to the Colossians to set Jesus aside, believing that only the God of Israel could set things right.
It was into that situation then that Paul wrote his letter to them. And what he wanted them to know is that Jesus was not just a dude, though he was human. That he was more than a teacher of wisdom, though he was. That he could indeed help fix what was broken because he was the part of the creative team that brought it into being. Let’s listen again to some of his words. “He is the image, or ikon, meaning likeness, of the invisible God…for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers; all things have been created through him and for him…for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” What Paul wants them to understand is that Jesus was central to this remaking of creation because he was not only mysteriously present with God from the beginning but because he was intimately involved in the creative process that organized the universe. And not only that, but the restoration of a good world was possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Paul puts it, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” This was so because on the cross Jesus broke the power of sin that distorts the image of God in us all, making it possible for all persons to love God and neighbor. In the resurrection, he broke humanities’ ultimate enemy, the power of death, by becoming the first born from the dead. The result of these two actions made possible the reconciliation of all things, meaning all peoples, nations, races, genders and even creation itself. In other words, the ones who brought this world into existence, are the ones who are fixing it. Jesus, the ikon of the living God, gave his life for the world, and he and the God of Israel who raised him from the dead, are working together to fundamentally change not just the world but the universe itself. Reconciliation and restoration are possible.
As I prepared this sermon, the title, Images of Jesus: Creator sounded about as interesting as dirt. It sounded like one of those esoteric discussions such as how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin, which was actually an ongoing discussion in the late Middle Ages. However, if we are to believe Paul, Jesus as creator is one of the great sources of hope for us and for humanity. He is a source of hope because as part of the creative creation team, Jesus not only had the power to begin the process of restoring this broken world but has begun its restoration. And, Jesus not only began the restoration work, but continues it in and through each of us. As Malcomb Gordon in his song, “Our Father is Waiting” sings, “how life is now is not how life will be.” This is the message of Jesus as creator, that in his infinite love and grace, he is working in and through each of us to help remake this world into what it ought to be. Jesus as creator is fixing this terribly broken world.
My challenge to you for this week then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I continually connecting with Jesus, that he might fix what is broken in me, and through me to help fix the world?