FPC Sermon March 12, 2017
Lots of people think of Lent as a time for giving things up. For some, it means eating different food. For others, it means setting aside the luxuries of life, that is, if they have those luxuries to begin with. I’ve received messages from friends, mostly fellow pastors, who say they are giving up Facebook for Lent.
I have not quite figured that one out. It could be related to, as the hymn says, “the vain things that charm me most.” That is, the idols in our lives that often seem to take precedence over our focus on God’s will for our lives. Perhaps those people view themselves as spending too much time on Facebook.
Maybe this Lenten season, we’ve formulated our own private lists of dos and don’ts. Our own laws, so to speak, that we’re going to seek to follow this Lent.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul was very concerned about the relationships between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. That same question that had plagued the church elsewhere was also present in Rome: did Gentile Christians have to become Jews first in order to follow Jesus? Jewish Christians in particular believed this was a legal requirement. If so, this meant they had to be circumcised.
But Paul deflects that whole question. He says that is unnecessary. Rather, what is important is the relationship with God – in Romans 2:29, he calls it circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by written code.
Because what is important, what he emphasizes in Romans 3:22-24, is that righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, he says, for all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Paul goes on to say in Romans 3: 29 that God is the God of everyone: of Jews and of Gentiles. That brings us to today’s text from Romans. The basic message here is that, while Abraham is the spiritual father of all, what brings us all together is faith.
The church throughout the ages has struggled with the relationship between the Hebrew Bible, what we called the Old Testament, and the new Testament. In the 2nd century, a church figure named Marcion set forth an idea which is still current in some church circles today.
He maintained that the God of the Old and New Testaments were two different Gods. That Judaism was a faith entirely separate from Christianity. Marcion advocated a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, something that many Christians today believe, and then used it to demonstrate why the Hebrew scriptures were irrelevant.
“For example, says Wikipedia, Marcion argued that the Genesis account of Yahweh walking through the Garden of Eden asking where Adam was, had proved Yahweh inhabited a physical body and was without universal knowledge (omniscience), attributes wholly incompatible with the Heavenly Father professed by Jesus.”
Marcion accepted only Luke’s Gospel, and not all of it either, and ten letters attributed to Paul. That was Marcion’s Bible. It was Marcion who forced the early church to decide which of the written materials then circulating belonged in the holy canon and which did not. Marcion found himself excommunicated.
And if you think writing “alternative Bibles” happened only in the early church, you’d be wrong. President Thomas Jefferson issued his own Bible, editing out the portions that didn’t agree with his views.
When Paul writes about Abraham in Romans 4, he views him as preceding the law. After all, the law came through Moses, and Moses lived long after Abraham. Therefore, says Paul, Abraham came to God through faith. And if Abraham came to God through faith, so should we.
Faith takes precedence over law. It opens the doors for us to embrace people of the other Abrahamic faiths, Jews and Muslims.
Yet, some in our country want to denigrate other faiths.
Presbyterian News Service reported this week about the recent vandalism in two Jewish cemeteries: 170 topped headstones in St. Louis over President’s Day weekend and 100 headstones in Philadelphia the following weekend.. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would do such a thing. Over 100 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers were also received in January and February. Presbyterians in both St. Louis and Philadelphia have joined with others to express solidarity with Jewish colleagues. Rev. Craig Howard, whom I knew during my years in South Dakota and is now in St. Louis, mentioned the threats against both Jewish and Muslim communities while he was serving in Milwaukee.
The 221st General Assembly reaffirmed our church’s commitment to “engage constructively with persons of every faith tradition.” Associated Stated Clerk of the PCUSA the Reverend Robina Winbush, said, “We understand this to be both a biblical and confessional mandate – to love our neighbors as ourselves – and that we are called to stand against any form of injustice. The desecration of cemeteries and the threatening of communities because of their faith is a violation of the basic core tenets of our faith. We condemn the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments as well as other actions of bigotry against people because of their faith.”[i]
Last weekend, our youth at SpringHill heard about the importance of understanding that our God is the one who defines our identities. God tells us we are beloved. That should be our starting point in life.
They were also challenged to act wisely in making decisions. Some decisions are easier than others. God’s word helps us know how to decide.
What leads people to commit acts of hostility against others, especially against others of different faiths, is sin. We are all affected by it. It is Jesus who saves us and leads us to rewarding lives. Nothing can go wrong for us if we follow Jesus’ example of service and love. Service and love for everyone, not just for a select few.
I think it’s important that we read these words of Paul during Lent, to remind ourselves that Christ welcomes all people. As Romans 4: 17 says, “As it is written, ‘I have made you the ancestor of many nations – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
Our Presbytery, which will meet right here in East Jordan on May 20, has started exploring how we might use our time, energy, money, and talents in the future, where God is calling us to be and to do. To let our mission dictate how we use resources, not the other way around. I asked Elaine to email Presbytery’s letter to us so that our Session can discuss it.
But we need your input. God is leading us all into the future. Let us know how the Presbytery might help equip us to fulfill Christ’s mission here and elsewhere.
What an incredible God we are worshiping here today! A God who welcomes everyone – all of humanity. It’s “an inclusive and fluid fellowship, free of ethnic, class, and gender distinctions .”[ii]
[i] Greg Brekke, “Presbyterians stand with Jewish community after cemetery vandalism, threats,” Presbyterian News Service, March 1, 2017.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, essay by Gay Byron, p. 67.