02/15/15 Sermon (February 15, 2015)

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:21 AM by David Hawkins

“Faith Seeking Understanding”

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians  4:3-6,

3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Sermon: "Faith Seeking Understanding"             Rev. David Hawkins

For these first few weeks of this new year, we’ve focused on the letters that Paul wrote to the church he started in Corinth. Last week, we took a short detour to check in with Jesus as he healed Simon’s mother-in-law. But today, we’re back in the middle of what seems to be a never ending argument between Paul and his congregation.

If it isn’t one thing, it’s another, with this crowd. They are having a hard time sorting out what it means to live in Christian community. First, they had questions about whether it was OK to sleep with each other’s wives, then they wanted to know if they could sue each other. Then Paul had to remind them that if they were going to have a potluck, they needed to share their food with everyone. And of course, that led to an argument about whether they could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols

For all of these questions, Paul had essentially the same answer: Being in relationship with Jesus Christ means that we are in relationship with each other. They way we live in community is governed, not by the law, or by a new Christian code of ethics, but by our understanding of our own connection to Jesus Christ. If we are bound to him, we are bound to each other. When we minister to one another, we minister to Christ. When we sin against each other, we drag Jesus right down into the mud with us. Paul says that the laws that govern our behavior are written on our hearts, that our lives are expressions of God’s loves.

Of course, this is both simple and incredibly complicated. It would be easier for most of us if we just had some kind of list of behaviors that we had to follow. Then we wouldn’t have to think about it. It always easier to have a rule to push against. How can we make people do what we want them to do, if the law is written on our hearts, rather than on a tablet of stone?

This is the concern that the Church in Corinth is facing so long ago. There has been a group of what Paul calls, ‘Super Apostles’ preaching in the area, preaching even in the church, and they preach a gospel that is predicated on following a particular set of behaviors. They are preaching that by living these behaviors, we can know God, we can understand God, and be blessed by God. They’re preaching that our relationship with God is based on following a new sort of Christian torah.

And there’s no doubt that this group of traveling apostles has been successful in their preaching. A gospel that puts us in control of our needs, of our lives is always going to be popular. The promise that we can understand God, and that, by our own behavior, cause God to bless us is always going to be well received.

In fact, these evangelists are so good at what they do, they are making a profit. They’ve got letters of recommendation from former congregations that were blessed by their gospel of prosperity. It turns out that telling people what they want to hear is a good way to make friends.

But it’s this gospel that has got under Paul’s skin. It’s this idea that we are in control of our relationship with God, the idea that we can make God bless us that has really got Paul angry.  Paul will not have these super apostles instituting some new kind of law in his church. It goes against everything he believes about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For Paul, the Passion of Christ is the ultimate breaking down of the law, the final and everlasting promise of freedom from the law.

The Gospel is all about Jesus, and the amazing gift he has given us. But the super apostles have made it all about us, and the way we can get more stuff. It’s no wonder Paul gets a little cranky.

For him, the veil has been lifted, and these jerks want to put it right back. Paul wants to preach freedom, and they want to preach restriction. Paul wants to preach the light of Jesus, and they want to make everybody wear the blindfold of the law. We can see why Paul is upset.

Of course, it is easy to see parallels to this gospel in our own time. We are bombarded by a theology of prosperity, the idea that we can have our best life now, if we just want it hard enough, if we have enough faith, if we pray the right words, if we live the right way. If we know how to interpret the Bible Code, we can understand God.

And this gospel flows not just from the pulpits and television stations of mega-churches, it is also part of our culture. Positive thinking is a foundational part of the American ethos. We want to believe that we are in control of our own destiny. We want to think that we can, through our own initiative, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and if we live right, all of us can achieve the American dream. All we need is the right attitude. And a good work ethic.

And the theology of the super apostles fits right into this way of thinking. It’s a theology that puts us in charge. It’s a theology that says that our behavior controls God’s behavior. If we do the right things, God can’t help but bless us.  

We recently saw this theology in action in churches that have urged their congregations to avoid getting vaccinated against childhood diseases like measles and mumps. The feeling was that God would protect them if they would just pray about it. Of course, when a whole bunch of people in their congregation got the measles, including infants and the elderly, they had to re-evaluate that theology.

This idea of God giving you what you want if you live right veils the gospel. The idea that we can control our our fate through our actions, through our faith and through our prayer life is a gospel of darkness, rather than light. If faith and action was all it took, the Apostle Paul would have had the pain in his side taken away. If prayer is all we need to do to get what we want, Jesus would never have ended up on the cross; Peter would never have been crucified upside down; Stephen would not have been stoned to death.

Let’s face it, if we require a deeper level of faith commitment than the original disciples showed, then we are really out of luck.

But Paul reminds us today that that’s not what the gospel message is all about. The Gospel is not about promising things to us if we pray hard enough. The Gospel is about Jesus coming to us and dying for us, and rising again, in order to free us from our sin and our fear of death. We may have a hard time understanding why God might stoop to our level, and pour himself out for us, but the gospel is not dependant on our understanding. It is what it is, whether we understand it or not.

Now, while it’s true that the prosperity gospel folks are a tempting target for me, the truth is, we have other, more subtle ways of veiling the gospel message. We have other ways of making the Gospel about what we want, rather than what God wants. If we aren’t careful, our witness will reflect our own likes and dislikes, our own preferences, rather than God’s. We may not be super apostles, but we are perfectly capable of making it all about us.

In the history of the Church, there have been times, embarrassing times, when we have insisted that God only likes certain kinds of people, and they happen to be people like us us. They happen to be the same color as us, the same educational level as us, the same social class as us, the same sexual orientation as us, the same way of thinking as us.

It’s hard to admit that when we do this, we veil the gospel. It’s hard to admit that when we close the doors of the church to people who are not like us, we take what should be light, and we make it dark, for the world, and for ourselves.

But it’s an easy mistake to make. When we exclude others, when we insist that others experience God in the same way that we do, we veil the Gospel. We have forgotten to proclaim Jesus, and instead, we proclaim our own ideas about Jesus.

And this is the deal with the Gospel. It is so very simple, and yet it is so very hard. Someone once said that ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.’ It is easier sometimes to veil our witness to the Gospel, rather than to actually live into its call on our lives. Because living in response to the radical love offered by God in Jesus Christ means things. And it means things that are really, really hard to do.

We live in a complicated world. We won’t always understand what God is up to in our lives. We won’t always be able to figure out why God allows us to feel pain, and grief, and sorrow. We won’t be able to guarantee God’s blessing in our lives. This is not how faith works.

Faith is not about telling God what to do, how and when to do it. Faith is trusting God, even when we don’t understand what God is doing. Faith is proclaiming Christ, even when we’re not entirely sure what that really means. We will never possess complete knowledge of God, not on this side of the veil of life and death. But we are promised that this life is not the only one we will know, and that our faith will be fulfilled, and in time, all our questions will be answered.

Because this also is our Gospel. We are forgiven even our imperfect proclamation. We are given grace, again, and again, by a God who offers us light in the darkness, and a place at his table. We might never completely understand this. But we don’t really need to, either. Knowledge, reason, understanding, these are all good things, and as good stewards of what God has given us, we rightfully strive to develop them. “God gave us brains, and he expects us to use them.”

But ultimately, our faith is not in our understanding. Our faith is in God alone. And that faith is sufficient for all our needs.

To the Lord who speaks to us,

and strengthens us,

and blesses us with peace,

be all glory and honor forever. Amen.