Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Church, Truth, and Relevance

“The church, if she is to remain the church, must remain out of step with common culture and its morality…A church that alters the Christian message in order to attract people soon blends in with her surroundings and is no longer distinguishable from the world.”—Dr. David Scaer

A pressing question that faces the church of every generation since Christ is how to reach people around us with the Gospel, in an ever-changing world. While at different points in history the morality of culture has been either closer to or further from the Bible, the church can never really be “in step” with the culture around us. In other words, our morals cannot conform to the world, or else we would become indistinguishable from the world. Jesus declares the distinctiveness of the church in His prayer for believers: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:14-19)

Paul adds a similar thought in Romans 12:2 where he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” John writes: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). All of these emphasize that the identity of the church is apart from the world, and that conformity to the world is to forsake the truth and the Father’s love. So the church will perpetually be “out of step” with common culture and its morality. No matter how far the pendulum of culture swings in one direction or another, our foundation is what Jesus said: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Whether it’s the teachings of the faith concerning God and Jesus’ life and work of salvation, or whether we are speaking of the ethics we are called to live by in the 10 Commandments, God’s Word is the Truth. Truth is not something subjectively defined by each person or by different times, cultures, or philosophies. Truth comes down from above—revealed by God in His spoken and written Word—the Bible, and in the Word Incarnate—Jesus Christ (John 1:1). Ultimate Truth doesn’t originate from us, it originates from God.

So “relevance” can never mean that the church takes on the appearance or values of the world. The question of how the church can continue to reach out with the message of the Gospel to a world that never stays the same is not answered by blending in, accommodating, or conforming to the world by somehow altering our message or our morals. A Christian made the wise observation that “the church that is seeking to be relevant is already irrelevant.” That is to say, that if the church is trying to be relevant by constantly changing its message and moral view to be “cutting edge,” it has conceded that the church is already “irrelevant.” Similarly, an early Christian, Irenaeus said: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?...How, then, are the sick to be made strong? And how are sinners to repent?” By contrast, when the church recognizes and grasps the True and abiding relevance of God’s Word, that does not change, it sees that God’s Word is timely and relevant for every time and place and culture. The relevance of the church is found in the same Word of God that sanctifies us and keeps us in the truth. This Word runs counter to the culture and to its morality, but it is the eternally relevant cure, that witnesses to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, for a world shattered and corrupted by sin. The Word that outlasts all fads or fashions, revolutions or movements. As Scripture says, “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Pet 1:24-25). Amen!

Sermon on Matthew 21:28-32 for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Which one did the Father's will?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, from Matthew 21. Today Jesus tells a simple parable to show who it is that does the will of His Father, and who doesn’t. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In this parable of two sons, one says “I will not!”, and the other says “I will, Lord!” to their father’s will. Yet the unwilling son later regretted it, and went back to do his father’s will. The second son, who politely agreed to do his father’s will, never ended up doing it. Both started by saying one thing, and ended up doing the opposite. Their first intentions didn’t match with their final actions. Which son will you prove to be?

Jesus’ parable aimed to upset the comfortable complacency of the religious people of His day. They were like the son that said “I will!”, but never did the father’s will. The Pharisees, the priests, scribes, teachers of the law—they were quite self-assured of their status in God’s eyes. They were squeaky clean, pious and faithful in their religious duties. Outwardly they had every appearance of being good, moral people. If anyone was headed for heaven, surely it was them. What could possibly have excluded them? Their commitment to God seemed obvious.

In contrast, there were those who clearly didn’t seek the Father’s will. Criminals, outcasts, swindlers, thieves. The tax collectors who made a living skimming off the top. The prostitutes who skimmed a living off the bottom. The easiest vices: greed and lust, were a steady source of income. Neither were welcome among the upright Jews, and both had a stigma to carry around with them. These two groups were representative of the people in society who were clearly sinners, those who walked on the way of guilt. Of course there were other people who fell into this group besides just tax collectors and prostitutes, but the point was that nobody had these people marked as potential candidates for heaven. From their plainly immoral lives, it was obvious where they were headed.

Or was it so obvious? Jesus turned their perceptions upside-down. They thought it was clear who was going to heaven, and who wasn’t. But the truth was that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering heaven ahead of the rest. It wasn’t that God approved of their lifestyle. It was because they had godly sorrow or grief over their sin, and believed in Jesus for their forgiveness. Not like the Pharisees, who put on a good outward show, but in their hearts were smug and complacent, not trusting in God but in themselves.

In our own minds we can quickly identify similar groups of people. Any of us could be eligible to fit the bill for those “religious types.” We show up at church regularly, if not every Sunday, we participate in all sorts of church activities and committees. We lead decent lives, avoid trouble, and try to be good citizens. All good things in themselves. But this makes us “religious types” particularly susceptible to a sort of spiritual pride or complacency, that makes us think we’ve earned our good status before God. But it’s not as though staying away from church is going to bring you any closer to God either. For some the self-righteousness is about how sterling our “record” is. For others it’s that we think we’ve stayed on the margins enough so that we’d never be mistaken for one of those “zealots” or “Bible-thumpers,” even though we still believe it all. Others have “paid their dues,” “put in their time,” or are just content to be listed in the church records, but the church has no relevance to their daily life, righteous or not.

If it’s easy for us to identify others, and even ourselves as having tendencies toward the Pharisees, it should also be easy to identify the groups we think of today like the “tax collectors and prostitutes.” While the reputation of tax collectors has improved quite a bit over the millennia, prostitutes still hold the same low place in society. But we don’t even need to go to these two representative groups for an example. We form those categories in our head without even being asked to. They’re the people we seem to think don’t belong in church. Someone we wouldn’t want sitting next to us. Or someone who would never “darken the door” of the church in the first place. People on the street, the poor, the criminals, people with a bad reputation. People struggling with sexual temptations, greed, or addictions. Yes, people. People that we have unconsciously characterized by their actions, as if to assume that we’re better, by virtue of not participating in obvious sins. People that’ve made it apparent that they set their will against God, and wouldn’t obey Him.

But again, Jesus turns our perceptions on their head, as He reminds us that many of these people will be going into the kingdom of God ahead of those who were apparently committed to the church all along. Because, as in the parable, the first son was ultimately the one who did the will of his father, even though he refused at first. The first son is those who are openly disobedient. The second son was prepared to do the will of the father, but didn’t. His disobedience wasn’t obvious until later. So this begs an important question: what is the will of the father—our Heavenly Father? Fortunately Jesus provides several direct statements throughout the Gospels that tell us what the Father’s will is and isn’t. It’s not the will of the Father that any of the little ones perish (Matthew 18:14). It was the will of the Father that Jesus go through the sufferings and death of the cross—remember the prayer Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives before His arrest? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

And Jesus very directly identified the Father’s will in John 6:38-40, where He said: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The Father’s will is that no one would be lost from those He had given to Jesus, and that everyone would see and believe in Jesus, His Son, so that they would have eternal life. He talks about the Father’s will more in terms of believing in Him and having eternal life, than in doing something. And this dovetails with what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the two sons, where he shows the Pharisees and teachers of the law who think they have been doing the Father’s will all along, that they really have not been. Because they do not believe. The fact that they had not done the will of the Father was because they had rejected John the Baptist’s message, pointing to the way of righteousness—which is Jesus Christ. All of the doing “good works” and pious shows of holiness didn’t count at all toward doing the will of the Father.

The reason that blatant sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes were going ahead of them (and possibly us!) into the kingdom of heaven, was because they repented and believed. Doing the will of the Father, as they had, was about turning away from their sins and believing in Jesus, the way of righteousness—the Way, the Truth, the Life. And so it shall be today also! There will be many people who have led lives that were full of open sinning, whose constant refrain was “I will not” toward God, but as the Holy Spirit works faith in Jesus Christ in their hearts, they will have regretted the life they led, and turn to Jesus in faith for His forgiveness.

It’s interesting that the word translated “repent” here, is not the word normally used for repentance, which means “turning or changing your heart and mind.” Rather, here in the parable Jesus uses a word that means to regret or feel grief about something. The first son in the parable later regretted his decision to disobey the father. The Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus addressed didn’t, however, have such a feeling of regret or grief about their sinfulness, or about their disobedience to the father. Of course we know that feeling remorse or grief doesn’t always amount to repentance. Judas felt such a great remorse over betraying an innocent man, that he hung himself. But his remorse never led to repentance, and the faith that his sins could be forgiven. Rather his remorse turned to despair and hopelessness. One can feel remorse for getting caught, for the trouble something brings on yourself, or just overwhelming guilt, but it’s not the same as repentance unless you also believe.

In 2 Corinthians 7:10, St. Paul contrasts “godly grief” and “worldly grief.” He says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Grief for grief’s sake is no good, but if it leads to repentance it’s godly grief. Worldly grief, on the other hand, works death. Godly grief works repentance for salvation, without regrets. Why is it that godly grief leaves us with no regrets? It brings sincere repentance from our sin, and the desire to turn from it. Godly grief over sin is followed by the faith that believes that sins are forgiven. And in the forgiveness of sins, there are no regrets, for Jesus has washed our guilt away, and suffered our punishment in our place on the cross. Worldly grief has no solution, it leads to despair and ultimately death. It’s remorse without hope. The tax collectors and prostitutes went on to heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders of the law because they had godly grief over their sin; repented and believed.

So which son are we? Are we the son who felt genuine remorse over his disobedience? Are we like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who upon hearing about the way of righteousness, felt a godly grief over sin, and turned away in repentance? Do we lead a life of self-examination, seeing our sinfulness daily, in the light of God’s law? Or are we the son who politely agreed to do his father’s will, but neglected to follow through? Are we like the Pharisees and teachers of the law—the typical “religious types,” and convinced ourselves that we’ve never done anything seriously wrong, and so we must already be in God’s good graces? But will we be shocked to find tax collectors and prostitutes proceeding into heaven ahead of us? The call of Jesus in this parable is a simple one: repent of your sins and believe.

John the Baptist is briefly mentioned in this parable as showing the way of righteousness. And finding that “way of righteousness,” to do the will of the Father, was not about how sterling our record is; it’s not about having a perfect life or church attendance record; it’s not about having enough people in this world who can vouch for your good reputation. None of that matters. The way of righteousness isn’t about our doing, but our believing. Jesus is the Way of Righteousness, because He is the only path to innocence before God. Only through the Perfect Life, sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross, can we be given the righteousness or innocence that suffices before God. He is the Way of Righteousness because it’s His righteousness, His innocence that becomes ours by faith. Only on this path, could sinners such as you and me, could sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes, any and every repentant sinner, find righteousness before God. We who walked the way of guilt, have been shown the way of righteousness. It’s the Father’s will that we should believe in this Way, and have eternal life in His name. To God alone be all the Glory, forever and ever. Amen!

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.