Coming Home

Fundamentals of Christian Living: God’s Grace

 

“This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” Luke 15:2

Last week we looked at the Cross of Jesus Christ as fundamental to the Christian faith. There can be no Christianity without the Cross of Jesus.  We said that the Christian faith rises and collapses on the question of Jesus Christ and the cross. We believe that God became flesh (took on the form of a man in Jesus) and dwelt among us. He later suffered and died a humiliating death among criminals on the cross. This was a scandal to Jews who believed that a messiah cannot be killed, and it was foolishness to the Greeks who could not understand how a man could give his life for people that didn’t want him and had rejected. Yet for us who believe it is the power of God demonstrated through love even in death. Therefore, it is our hope for salvation. Without a clear understanding of the message of the cross, there is very little chance of living successfully as Christian disciples.

Today, we look at another fundamental of Christian living – God’s Grace.

The Christian faith begins with an assumption that we came from somewhere, and we are going somewhere. That, somewhere along the way, something happened that alienated us humans from God. God created humans in “imago Dei” (God’s image) as living souls, male and female and placed us on earth. Humans were thus created perfect and with a purpose, and God saw that it was good. But sin being present in the world distorted everything including the image of God in humans.

Sin also separated us from God.  And as such, our consciences were disillusioned. We are thus all lost. We no longer seem to know what our purpose is. So we try filling the void with meaningless thrills – alcohol, sex, material possessions, fame, etc. We call evil good and good evil. We no longer see ourselves as part of the whole human community, but instead we have become more self-absorbed and obsessed. Each one for themselves. Isaiah 53:6 says “All of us like sheep have gone astray and we have no clue where we are headed.” We all are like lost sheep.

Luke tells us that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and Scribes (religious leaders) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They couldn’t just stomach the idea of Jesus hanging out with people they considered outcast. People they thought didn’t deserve a chance.

Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in Israel due to the nature of their work and alliance with the Roman government. Many were wealthy loan sharks and accumulated their wealth by imposing higher levies than even the Roman government required. They were thus seen as traitors, extortionists, and criminals. It was a scandal and against popular opinion that anyone who considered themselves righteous or one with the people would friendly interact with them. And Jesus did exactly that. He welcomed and even included some among his disciples. Remember the first gospel in the New Testament? Matthew – he was a former tax collector with his co-worker Zacchaeus.

To be honest most of us would likely sympathize with the grumblers.  I am certain that I have done that before. There are just certain people who have done deplorable things that I would not want to associate with. There are certain characters that I don’t want to influence my thoughts and tarnish my character. Even just thinking about it makes me nervous. In fact, one of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 1. Blessed is the one who does not follow the counsel of the ungodly, or walks in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but instead delights in the law of the lord.”

I don’t know what I would do with Scoffers like Thomas Jefferson who said “the Christian God is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always two classes: fools and hypocrites.”

Yet Jesus welcomed such people. He even had sleepovers at their houses. He knew that they were lost – “This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” the scoffers, tax collectors, the law breakers, loan sharks. Jesus uses a parable to explain his motivation and actions. Jesus demonstrates that God’s greatest desire is for us to be reconciled with God; regardless of our social reputation. God takes the first step. Guthrie puts it well when he says “God does not demand that we first do something to make up for what we have done or not done before God reluctantly agree to forgive and love us again” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 257). God makes the initiative to seek us out when we are lost. It is not we who makes peace with God; it is God who makes peace with us. That is a fundamental Christian understanding.

Grace gives you the desire to think about the possibility and our need for God.  Grace causes us to repent of our sins and gives us the assurance of forgiveness, and grace enables us to desire to grow in love of God and neighbor. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is the divine initiative to seek and recover those who are lost in sin. Grace is the unfailing love of God. One commentary said “love does not care if it looks foolish. Love only asks that it be allowed to love at whatever cost.”  

How does God see us?

Many of us look at ourselves and think we are beyond God’s reach. We think of ourselves as undeserving of God’s love and attention. We look at what we have done in the past, the people we have hurt, the mistakes, the regrets. We cannot forgive ourselves and so we think even God cannot forgive us. We try to work out our own salvation and try to manufacture God’s attention.

However, God does not see us as worthless and despicable. He does not look at a sinner and shake his head in disbelief or resignation that salvation for such a one is impossible. Instead God looks at you and me and sees God’s own reflection. In the image of God we were created, male and female. Not as little gods, but as the highest form of God’s creation to reflect God’s own glory. You are, therefore, precious in the sight of God. It does not depend on what you do or haven’t done. It depends on God’s unfailing love that is extended to you. God desires a relationship with you. All we have to do is receive the gift – Jesus.

Sinners as characteristic of sheep – sheep don’t intentionally run away, they wander off unintentionally in search for greener pasture. Often they just look for their next immediate thrill until they wander off and panic. It can thus be said that they are more naïve than rebellious. Many of us are like sheep. Naïve of our limitations. We often don’t know that we are lost until it is too late or somebody reminds us. Some of us even when we are reminded still argue with the GPS, yet it graciously keeps on recalculating. We don’t intend to rebel against God, but we wander off because of ignorance and stubbornness. We crave empty thrills.

Those who intentionally rebel against God are often referred to as wolves in the bible. These are people who know and have tasted the truth, they know they’re doing wrong but do it anyway – Either because of pride or selfishness. Lucifer (Satan) lost his place in heaven because of pride. He thought he deserved to be worshiped as God was.

Are you living an intentional life or are you simply drifting along? Do you know where you are headed? Is your life filled with hope?

How does God react when we repent?

Verse 7 of Luke 15 tells us that heaven throws a shindig when one lost sinner repents. It is like having a child that was lost and thought dead suddenly comes back home. God throws a party in heaven. There is joy in the Holy Ghost. Maybe you have been gone away from God or faith for a very long time and you think it’s too late. Maybe you are holding onto a grudge, you are angry and cannot forgive. Maybe you are lost and don’t know what to do?

The Holy Spirit is calling you to home. “Behold I stand at the door and knock? If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them” (Revelation 3:20). Jesus moved by compassion left his comfortable place in heaven to look for all of us who are lost. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s love never fails.

Come home!

Sermon by Kelvin Mulembe ,  for September 24, 2016

References

Guthrie, Jr., S. C. (1994). Christian Doctrine. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

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Living Church

The Fundamentals of Christian Living: The Living Church (Acts 2)

Around the world millions of people are gathered in worship and celebration of communion as we join in recognizing October 2nd, as  World Communion Sunday. One voice of worship is rising to the heavens churches gather. The Apostles’ Creed includes a clause which declares that “Christians believe in the Church.” And some of us are uncomfortable with saying we believe in the holy Catholic Church. So what is meant by all this? What is the church, and what is its purpose? In this day and culture where we are obsessed with individualism and personal space, can we truly practice Christianity through the church as Christ instituted?

In Greek the word for Church is ekklesia, which sometimes carries a double meaning. And anything with a double meaning has the potential to create significant confusion. Much of our contemporary understanding of the church is so convoluted and misinformed. Partly because Christian leaders have done a bad job at explaining the nature and purpose of the church or more importantly they have lived lives that embarrassingly fall short of the ideals they preach. Jesus said “your love for one another will prove that you are my disciples.” But this has not been so obvious. Mahatma Gandhi one of the great reformers of India is known to have had admiration for Christ but not Christianity – famously quoted “Your Christ I like, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.” Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing perception that many people hold of Christians, and consequently the church.

Scandals of child molestations, infidelity, embezzlement, war mongering, and all kinds of mischief that has engaged in have tainted the purpose and appeal of the Christian message. Recently we heard of Father John Mattingly former pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church who was indicted for fraud. Over decades he wrote about 500 unauthorized checks and stole close to $76,000 money meant for the poor and put it in his retirement accounts. The church community has been deeply hurt and trust shaken.

In Acts 2, the author describes a model of what the church should be. We see a community driven by an appetite for learning God’s word, of communion and breaking of bread, and of prayer. People began to ask what they should do to be saved, to join the community of faith. I wonder how many people in the past year have come to you and asked what they should do to become Christian? Do they see a representative of the church of Jesus Christ? Do people at your workplace even know you as a Christian? Until we recover the true message and character of the Kingdom of God, the church will keep dying.

Significance of the Church – the church is fundamental to the Christian living because it was instituted by Christ. No one person can claim authority to build the church   “On this rock, I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

In the New Testament, the word church is used in two distinct ways. In some cases the church refers to the community of all true believers for all time. Ephesians 5:25 says “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This applies to all those for whom Christ died to redeem both in the present life and those that have gone before us from the Old to the New Testament. In Psalm 22:22 the church refers to an assembly or congregation, “in the midst of the ekklesia, I will sing praises.” Assembly (fellowship) thus dismisses the notion that you can have church alone on your couch while watching televangelists. It denotes you having fellowship with other believers. I used to be one of those people who claimed I was having church at home watching preachers when I felt lazy to actually go to church.

The second way, church is described as a geographical locale. Revelation 3:14-22 is addressed “to the Church in Laodicea”. Similarly, Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth or Philippi imply a local community of believers. It is my belief that Christ did not intend for us to have various denominations. But I also trust in God’s sufficient grace to use the various denominations and non-denominations to express God’s universal reach. Traditionally, the church holds that there is only one universal church which exists in local communities (McGrath, 2012, p. 138).

The nature of the church – appears to be both local and universal. And we Christians must live with this tension in order to be faithful disciples.  We can say the Church is a worshiping community established by Christ for Christian fellowship and witness. Hebrews 12:1 talks the great “cloud of witnesses” denoting an invisible membership. On this World Communion Sunday, we are joined by multitudes of ekklesia, assemblies of believers to worship God. Though we cannot see them, we are still joined as one church.

Thus, the church is invisible yet also visible. Invisible because only God knows those who truly belong, only God knows our inner hearts (2 Timothy 2:19). However, the church is also visible as we all here are the Christian representatives, we can see it through all who profess Christ and live out their faith on earth. All of us make up the church. Some not so polished, most of us broken and trying, sinners searching for the truth, you name it. Day by day we are being perfected by the Holy Spirit’s  work in our lives as we continue to follow God’s word.

The church’s primary task is – to actively participate in receiving and practicing God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven; – to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world (Campbell, 1999, p. 112). Therefore, the institutions of the church, its activities, its worship and its theology must be tested by how effectively it succeeds in receiving and practicing the Kingdom of God. The church cannot see itself outside the universal Kingdom of God.

Today however, our focus has shifted. The church seems to find its aims in itself, detached from community and individually focused. We have stopped being missional except if it benefits local congregations, or adds to our branding. We have stopped being a global and outward movement and become solely institutional and localized. If the church stops spreading, it is dying. In order to be the true church of Jesus, we  need to re-engage in movement spreading. Through this grace-filled response we participate in bringing about the reign of God on earth.

How can we live faithfully as the living church?

The church was initiated by Christ through the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost we know as assembly of believers reached three thousand plus. Church plays a significant role in bringing about salvation. Physically Church reminds us that we belong to the family of God as we gather in community with from various backgrounds. It is a means of grace through which the Spirit bears witness of the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Church is the living witness of the power, righteousness, and love of God. It enables an environment in which we are empowered to grow in love of God and of neighbor. It gives us opportunity to seek and practice the common good. There is no room for selfishness in the Kingdom of God.

Church is the tool God uses to convey God’s engagement in healing relationships. Luke shows us that in the early church, they all had a commonwealth of resources. They shared all things in common. They cared for the needs of its members. These are the seeds that grow the church. That appeal to those who are not yet part of the community. Love is and should be the defining characteristic of the church.

Church creates an environment of attaining Christian maturity and discipleship. Next time you feel like skipping church for no proper reason, remember that you are depriving yourself and us of God’s gift for maturity and fellowship. The choice is yours and there is no excuse for ignorance. Henry David Thoreau said – “the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. What are you paying for staying away from church? – From studying God’s word, from practicing daily prayer? It is like a book with missing chapters. Your story adds to the richness of our story of faith. Your testimony and prayer helps bring salvation and healing to someone else. You may never know what your presence does.

The author of Hebrews encourages us “do not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another — especially now that the day of breaking forth of God’s reign is drawing near (Hebrews 10:25). In short, do not stop being the church. Do not stop coming to church. Do not stop praying for the church universal. May God build the church!

Amen.

Sermon by Kelvin Mulembe