Monday, August 29, 2011

What The Young Priest Said That Got Him Slapped

Paul was on his way to meet the Romans,
but he had not yet laid eyes on them
when he wrote his famous letter.
Paul had heard that they were having some troubles.
The church dispute was so bad that Emperor Claudius
threw half the congregation out of Rome for awhile.

The hymn “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”
had not been written yet
– but it’s a pretty good capsule version of everything Paul
had to say in the New Testament.
But if visible love is how you recognize a Christian community,
the Church in Rome was not likely to be busted.

I imagine that Paul was worried about all the turmoil
for two reasons:
First, a community that divided could not
work together for God’s mission of spreading the good news.
Second, they didn’t seem to have understood the Gospel themselves.

As Paul understood it and taught it,
the good news is all about grace.
The good news is that everything depends on God’s free gift.
Our life is a gift. Our salvation is a gift. Heaven is a gift.
That utterly and completely reversed the old time religion
of having to bribe God with sacrifices, do the right rituals,
follow all the right rules to win God’s favor.
Paul said, “You’ve already got God’s favor.
You don’t earn it. You don’t buy it.
God’s love is a gift.”

The Gospel message is just that truth
and an invitation to live in it.
The Romans hadn’t gotten the truth part straight,
and they were a long way from living in it.
So Paul writes several chapters on the truth:
everything worth having is a gift from God.
Then in today’s lesson he explains how to live in that truth.
It is really a matter of being like God.
The word God means our highest ideal.
God is who we honor most, admire most, want most to be like.
So if we think God is a harsh judge,
we go about judging each other harshly.
If we think God is an angry tyrant,
we go about barking angry orders.
If we think God is an assembly line supervisor with a clip board,
examining our lives for errors and indiscretions,
we’ll keep a close watch on each other
to see what fault we can find.
Over the course of a lifetime,
everyone becomes more and more like the God he believes in.

The good news is that God isn’t like that.
God created the universe out of love
and God created each of us out of love.
God loves us – as we are.
It’s a gift because God is the unconditional Giver.

Paul invites us to believe that and rejoice.
But believing isn’t as easy as just saying
“Oh ok, that works for me.”
Spiritual truth only sinks in; it only goes to the heart,
when we don’t just say it – we have to live it.

The Romans weren’t getting the gospel
because they weren’t living the gospel.
So Paul gives them some instruction.
It isn’t that we have to do any of this to earn God’s love.
But we can’t experience God’s love,
we can’t know the freedom of being loved like that,
until we live our way into it.

So here’s what Paul says.
“Love one another with mutual affection . . . .
Outdo one another in showing honor . . . .
Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are. . . .”
Paul teaches us to be godly so that we can know God.

It’s the same thing John says in his first Epistle,
“Since God loved us, we ought to love one another . . . .
No one has seen God,
But if we love one another, God lives in us
and his love is perfectly expressed in us.”

Do you see how this makes Christianity a team sport?
We can’t do it on our own.
We can only experience the truth of God’s love
by showing it to others – not telling them about it,
but showing it to them.
We love people with God’s own love so they can see it,
and that’s how we come to experience it.

John Stone Jenkins was a wise old priest in Louisiana.
But when he was a young priest,
he was once attending a birth.
As it was done in those days, the young father to be
was in the waiting room and the priest was with him.

Then a nurse came out from the delivery room
and said the mother
was having a hard time in transition.
So she wanted the father to come in.
John Stone Jenkins patted the young man on the shoulder
and said “Go on in. I’ll be out here praying.”But the nurse looked at John Stone Jenkins and said,
“No Father, she means you.”

With a gulp and prayer, he went into the delivery room.
Seeing the mother in the worst pains of labor,
he had no idea what to do,
so he leaned over her and said, “Jesus loves you.”She swore, and slapped him.
The she said, “I know that. How do you feel about me?”

It doesn’t do much good to talk about God’s love
unless we live it, unless we show people what it looks like.
How do we show people God’s love?
“Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.”

In all my years in the church, 21 of them as a clergyman,
I’ve heard church folks fretting about all sorts of things.
There’s not enough money.
The building needs fixing.
There aren’t enough young people
or the young people are taking over.
We don’t have any children or the children make too much noise.
The hymns are too slow or too fast.
The ritual is too Catholic or not Catholic enough.

98% of the things people fret over in the Church
cannot be found in the Bible
because they don’t really matter.
What matters is the relationships.
Where the relationships are full of love,
the money is enough, the building is enough,
the right people are there and anyone new
is right too.
It’s about the relationships because that’s where the gospel is.
That’s where we live the gospel so that we can know the gospel.

It’s a beautiful and joyful truth Jesus showed us
and Paul taught us.
All we have to do is live it -- together.