Monday, July 4, 2011

my sermon notes from Sunday (4th of July weekend)

July 3, 2011
Toledo Mennonite Church
Scott Coulter
God’s Way of Making Things Right:
Life from Death, Hope in Suffering, Sacrifice on behalf of Enemies

INTRO: We want security

This weekend, many people in the United States are celebrating Independence Day. This national holiday is a time for getting together with family and friends, having cookouts, enjoying the summer weather, and watching colorful explosions in the night sky. It’s good fun!

The holiday is also a time when many people get in touch with patriotic feelings and express thanks for American privileges: good things, like the freedom to gather and worship as we choose, and the freedom to voice our opinions in public, without fear of state repression.

We have many good things in this country, and we should be thankful for them.

Familiar stories of our culture tell us that we deserve these things: they are natural, God-given human rights. These stories also tell us we owe our country and in particular the sacrifices of American soldiers throughout the last 230 years or so for the preservation of these things.

Other stories we hear tell us that it’s vital that the United States maintain its military strength and dominance around the world, to keep us safe. It’s vital that we have strong, secure borders. It’s vital that we maintain economic dominance in the global market. Because these things keep us safe, secure, and are necessary for us to continue to enjoy our happy lifestyles: relatively low food and gasoline prices, jobs, safe travel, and so on. 

We live in a society that feels a lot safer, a lot of the time, than a lot of other societies in the world right now. I’m thankful I don’t live in Libya or in Palestine or in Afghanistan or in Burma or the Congo. But we are feeling a lot more insecure these days than we used to.

Everyone here at least knows someone who is unemployed, who doesn’t have adequate health insurance, who struggles to keep food on the table. Some of you have lost jobs or savings because of the economic downturn. You may feel less secure about what will happen when you are elderly or when your savings are gone. Many of us know, though we don’t like to dwell on it daily, that our planet is changing and that resources we depend on are running out.

We look for answers, solutions. We all want security, safety.

Where do we look for these solutions, for security? To wise and charismatic political leaders? To policies and platforms? To ourselves, to store up wealth for retirement or for health emergencies, or to get an education that will maybe get us a job? To Homeland Security? To American ideals like freedom, democracy, and the constitution?

Psalm 146: Hope in God’s Reign, not Human Princes

Psalm 146 sets up a clear contrast between the Reign of Yahweh, the God of Israel, on the one hand, and the rule of human princes, on the other. If you like, there are two domains or kingdoms here: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.

The psalm urges Israel, the community, to make the right choice: to place its trust in God, not in human rulers. Not in Moses, or Joshua, or David, or Solomon, or Pharaoh, or Cyrus. Only Yahweh is a trustworthy king.

To put things in a more familiar framework: think of a political campaign, for president or for Congress or for mayor.  Each party has a platform: a set of goals and promises for your community or nation.  Everyone agrees that things are not as they should be in the community now: there is too much hunger, not enough jobs, self-sufficiency is difficult and the vulnerable fall through the cracks in the system.  Some of the vulnerable are actually oppressed by the injustices of the system.  Corruption, criminal exploitation, and violence go unchecked.  The security of the community is at risk from instability within, and at risk from enemies on the outside that will take advantage of that instability.  Good leadership is needed to bring effective policies into play, to restore justice and fairness, to make the reality of our society match its ideals. 

As you are part of your community, your choice matters: which candidate are you going to trust to make things better, to make things right?  It’s not just a matter of who has better promises or more creative and clever-sounding plans, it’s a matter of who can be successful in delivering on their promises, on achieving their goals.  Who do you trust?

The problem with trusting any human leader, any human system, to bring right-ness to the community, the psalm reminds us, is that humans are always short-lived.  Even the most upright and honest and wise leader: his or her term of leadership will come to an end.  “He stops breathing; he dies.  He is buried, and he decomposes in the ground.  His plans and policies perish with him.”  (146:4) 

Ultimately, hope for change, for justice and righteousness, for peace (shalom), for salvation is futile, if the basis of our hope is a human leader, a political party, an ideology, a constitution, a well-defended border, a strong military, or a strong economy.  None of these things can really deliver.  None of them will last.

Yahweh the God of Israel made the heavens, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them.  Nothing that flies in the air or runs on the earth or swims in the sea: neither beasts nor armies, can rival God the Creator.  God is faithful, true, and trustworthy.

God’s platform is: justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, protection for aliens/foreigners living in exile from their homes, support for those without family to look after them.  When God reigns, the schemes of the wicked, the unscrupulous, the corrupt, those who wish to bring harm to and exploit the weak—their attempts to do injustice fail.  This is what the kingdom of God is like.  And Yahweh’s kingdom is forever: he has no term limit!  His policies for security, justice and righteousness, shalom (peace) are effective and lasting.  “Fortunate is the one whose help is the God of Israel”. 

In summary:
  • We must not expect human rulers or human economic or political or military systems to provide us with help and security. Wealth, power, and even wisdom will eventually disappoint us. Our hope, our trust, and our allegiance should be in the just and unending Reign of God.
 Romans 5:1-11: Righteousness & Peace; the Arrival of the Reign of God

  • The story of Jesus in the New Testament tells us more about what the Reign of God is like, and how the Reign of God comes into the world.  We believe that the clearest, fullest picture we could have of God is what we see when we look at Jesus.
  • Paul writes to early Christians in Rome, both Jews and Gentiles, about the arrival of God’s Reign in Jesus.

Paul writes in Romans 5:1:
·        “we have been justified by faith”, and “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”
o       The title “Christ” or “Messiah” means God’s Anointed One; like “Lord”, this is a kingly title.  Jesus reigns—Jesus, not Caesar.  And through his reign we have righteousness and peace.

·        What does Paul mean when he says “we have been justified by faith”?
o       “Justification” in Greek is the same word as “righteousness”; so “we have been made righteous by faith”, or literally, “out of faithfulness”.
o       Justification or righteousness is an important concept in the letter to the Romans, and Christians have understood this concept in very different ways over many centuries.

(This is important and might challenge how many of us are used to thinking about this,
so pay attention now.)

Luther’s View (Forensic Righteousness)
·        Perhaps the standard Protestant notion of justification is Martin Luther’s. Luther understood justification as the solution to the problem of how sinful human beings could find acceptance in the sight of God. Luther saw justification as something that happens to an individual believer when she trusts Christ’s atoning death on the cross for her salvation. Luther’s concept of justification is both individualistic and forensic (or legal). God, for Luther, is like a judge with absolute authority in a European court of justice, deciding the fate of an individual prisoner. Luther thought being justified means that God mercifully proclaims the sinner righteous, and God chooses to treat the believer as “not guilty”. Even though the person is guilty of sin, Luther says, God looks at Jesus’ innocence and treats the believer “just-as-if” she had never sinned. Luther’s concept of justification is entirely individualistic (it’s just about one person’s fate, not about community wholeness or human relationships) and entirely forensic (it is a “not guilty” verdict to escape punishment, it changes nothing about the person’s behavior, character, or relationships).

Luther’s understanding of justification is actually quite far from the biblical notion of righteousness. Righteousness is an idea firmly grounded in the Old Testament and in ancient Jewish thought, and Paul draws his concepts here from quite a different context than Luther’s 16th century European legal system.

Relational View of Righteousness
·        Righteousness in the ancient world, and in the Old Testament, is an ethical, relational concept. Righteousness is associated with the social and cosmic order. When justice and righteousness is established, it means that things are as they should be in the community, and in the world.
·        Righteousness is a matter of faithfulness in relationships in the community. When members of a community maintain faithfulness to one another, the wholeness and well-being (shalom) of the community is maintained: this is righteousness. The unrighteous or wicked person violates his relationships with his neighbors (or with God); this unfaithfulness (violation, violence) disrupts shalom, it is un-peace.
·        God is righteous; as Psalm 146 says, God “guards faithfulness forever” (verse 6). As we see time and time again in the story of God’s relationship with God’s people, even when God’s people are unfaithful and unrighteous—when they oppress their neighbors and turn away from God—God remains faithful to them, continues relationship with them, never abandons them. Sometimes this means discipline or exile; sometimes this means blessing and restoration; but always, God is there.
·        When righteousness takes on a legal context in the Old Testament, it is not about a judge determining the fate (punishment or release) of one individual criminal. Judgment in ancient Israelite and Jewish society is about doing what is needed to restore relationships, to make things right again, to restore the wholeness and well-being of the community.  (Yes, sometimes this does involve punishment; I’m saying that punishment is a secondary concern. The driving concern is restoration of the community).

So, again: what does Paul mean when he says “we have been justified by faith”?
  • Perhaps his meaning will be clearer if we say instead: “we have been established in right relationship with God because of faithfulness”.
    • (“Faith” in Romans never means believing a doctrine, nor does Paul in this letter use the phrase “faith in Christ”). 
  • The faithfulness Paul is talking about here is either our faithfulness (that is, the faithfulness of the followers of Jesus, the people of God) or the faithfulness of Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) himself. In the rest of this passage we see it is Jesus who provides access to God (v. 2), righteousness (v. 9), and reconciliation (vv. 10-11). So context suggests Paul is talking about Jesus’ faithfulness in verse 1. Our faith (trust) in Jesus is well-grounded in Jesus’ faithfulness; and it is his faithfulness that secures us righteousness and peace. 

(OK, thanks for paying attention to the complicated stuff.)

Righteousness, Peace, and the Reign of God
·        So: we have righteousness and peace because of the reign of Jesus, who is Lord and Messiah (God’s Anointed King).
·        Righteousness and peace (shalom) go together; they define each other. We can see this throughout the Hebrew scriptures; Paul connects them here and also in Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.
·        This is Paul’s way of talking about the Reign of God—the same Reign of God described in Psalm 146.  (That means: the oppressed get justice, the hungry get food, the foreigners get protection, the widows and fatherless get support, etc.)

Living Into God’s Reign (Peace)
·        When the Reign of God is established – and Paul is saying that the Reign of God is established here, now: we have righteousness, right relationship with God because of Jesus – When the Reign of God is established, that means we have shalom, peace, wholeness, in the community of God’s People and in the world.
·        Remember, this isn’t just about me and God, and it isn’t about escaping punishment. It’s about restoring relationships, renewing faithfulness. When we are living in the Reign of God, we have obligations to one another. As we grow in faithfulness to God and to one another, God’s Peace is realized.
·        Paul here, as he often does in his letters, is telling Christians two things: first, because of Jesus we already live in the reality of new creation, of reconciliation, of righteousness and salvation.  And, second: because we live in this reality, we should act like it (and we often don’t).  It is probable that in Romans 5:1 what Paul actually wrote was: “since we have righteousness because of Jesus’ faithfulness, let us have peace with God” – a command, not just a statement of fact. We are called to live into the peace of God’s Kingdom by faithfulness in relationship to one another.

Rejoice in Sufferings
  • Paul also tells us that as we live in the Reign of God, we rejoice in our sufferings (v. 3). 
    • The arrival of the Reign of God does not mean the People of God no longer suffer. It doesn’t mean that we are all entitled to fat paychecks and nice cars and houses.
    • Conversely, when we suffer, this doesn’t mean we should be ashamed or discouraged. The eventual fruit of suffering, Paul says, is hope, not shame. As the psalmist wrote: “Blessed is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD, his God”
    • We may suffer, but we have love—God’s love, “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”. This isn’t just a self-centered good feeling that God loves me, it is empowerment to love one another.
    • Indeed, suffering is often a consequence of our love for one another.  When we have compassion for others, we literally share in their sufferings.  In God’s Kingdom where the hungry are fed, we are to share our food and share their hunger.  Where the oppressed get justice, we share our justice and share their oppression.  In doing so, we follow the example and teachings of Jesus.

The Arrival of God’s Reign: God’s Way to Make Things Right
  • Finally, notice what Paul says about how God’s Reign has arrived and who benefits from the arrival of God’s Reign in this passage.
    • Verse 6: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly”
    • Verse 8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”
    • Verse 10: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son”
  • The “weak”, the “ungodly”, “sinners”, “enemies” of God. These are the beneficiaries of the arrival of God’s Reign.

  • How did the Reign of God arrive?
    • God’s People were living in faithfulness to one another in community, and so they had justice and righteousness and peace: when God showed up and saw this, God was so pleased that God began to Reign.  No!  That is not how it happened.
    • Everyone—Jew and Gentile—was unrighteous, unfaithful, violating their neighbors. At that time, Christ gave up his life, Christ died, on behalf of the enemies of God. And we know how he died: he was crucified by the human princes, a victim of the human system that made false promises of bringing justice and righteousness and peace and salvation and hope to the world.

  • This is the paradox of the gospel of God’s Reign. God’s Reign—which brings justice and righteousness and peace and hope and salvation, truly—comes not through God’s Messiah destroying his enemies, not through keeping his enemies out. Instead, God’s Messiah shows ultimate, incredible love for his enemies, bringing the righteousness and peace of the Reign of God here for them—for us! And by showing that the power and promises of the human rulers is false. Jesus is not a son of man whose breath departs, returns to the earth, and whose plans perish. Jesus rather is vindicated by God, raised up from the earth, and given new resurrection life: “we shall be saved by his life”. And “The LORD will reign forever”.

No wonder we must suffer and endure and build character through it in God’s Kingdom. It’s the kind of kingdom where you give your life for your enemies. Jesus commanded us to do the same: “love your enemies…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

If we are tempted to get security for ourselves through power or wealth, through a human system of privilege, through economic or military or political advantage, or by keeping ourselves alive and keeping a safe distance from our enemies—we are not putting our hope in the Reign of God, but in human princes. We are going to be disappointed.

In conclusion:
  • Real security, salvation, hope, and peace comes not through human leadership or human systems of power, but through the Reign of God.
  • The Reign of God comes through God’s everlasting faithfulness, shown in Jesus’ obedience unto death: giving his life for the sake of the ungodly, the unrighteous, the enemies of God.
  • Live into the Reign of God by practicing faithfulness to God, to the teachings of Jesus, and to one another.  Love your enemies, practice reconciliation, be peacemakers.  Share in one another’s sufferings. 
  • Do not compromise with human plans for security by neglecting faithfulness in the kingdom of God.  Doing so for the sake of wealth, privilege, power, for even the wisest-sounding political platform, or for your physical safety, will disappoint you, because these things cannot fulfill their promises of security.

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