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Sermon for February 24, 2019

Texts: Romans 4:1-5,13-17/John 3:1-21

Title: “Your Life, or Mine?”

Let’s begin this morning by pondering a question. The question is this, what conclusions might our neighbors out in the community likely draw concerning our character and beliefs if they observed us in our daily comings and goings? Whether we acknowledge it or not, our actions often speak more truthfully than our spoken words. Character, of course, is the product of what we do and not what we say.

That truth was demonstrated long ago in the ancient city of Antioch, a city in Syria, by some followers of Jesus, who so identified with him in word, but most articulately in action, that folks began calling them Christians.

What set those Christians apart? Start with the fact that they were a very devout, tightly knit group. One of their number, a man by the name of Justin Martyr, spoke of how the lives of the followers of Jesus changed as a result of their commitment to him. “We [followers of Jesus] who formerly…valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions [remember, this is the first century] now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on  account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”

Historian Barbara Butler Bass writes that the Christians were a mixed lot, representing a cross section of the population, but also women, peasants, and slaves. They were Jews, they were gentiles, they were people of means, and people of no means, but they were welcome, first to hear the message of Jesus, and then to break bread in common work and ministry if that was their choosing.

      It is important to remember that the Christians lived in a world dominated by Roman law and mores. They survived in a culture quite alien to their beliefs because the Romans for the most part maintained a “live and let live” attitude toward the various beliefs and practices maintained by religious sects within their jurisdiction. How the Christians practiced their beliefs would be tolerated as long as they did nothing to threaten the stability of the empire. The same applied in the case of the Jews, the sect from which many of the Christians had derived. The Jews, Christians, and other sects might stretch the patience of their Roman overlords, but so long as they didn’t go too far they were tolerated.

In time the non-conformity of the Jews and the followers of Jesus placed a bullseye on their backs, and they were forced to suffer greatly as a result.

The first centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection saw great suffering imposed on the Christians.  Rome’s brutality and repression, however, yielded a surprising result. Witnessing the brutality, Tertullian, one of the church’s earlier leaders was moved to declare, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Martyrdom did nothing to discourage the Christians, but had the opposite effect. What had been a small rather insignificant group subsisting and practicing its beliefs on the margins in the years following Jesus’ death, grew to such a size and acquiring such influence that the state felt compelled to step in and crack down even harder.          

It is curious isn’t it that the followers of a humble itinerant preacher, whose teaching and values were grounded in peace and reconciliation would be deemed a threat? What is even more curious is that people would pick up where Jesus left off after the crucifixion, asserting their priority allegiance to the kingdom of God, knowing that their actions might cost them their lives.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, may have had those first Christians in mind when he wrote: “the follower of Christ has obtained freedom from the ‘everyday world,’ in order to enjoy the much greater freedom of a life in obedience to God.” Let’s hold onto that thought as we segue into our gospel lesson from John where we encounter a man who had come under the influence of Jesus’s teaching.

Was Nicodemus seeking the freedom Williams was talking about? Perhaps, but our lesson tells us that the avowed reason Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus was because of the certain “signs” he was doing, spiritual signs for which there was no reasonable explanation unless they were God inspired.

What we have in this encounter may be of the sort that was replicated repeatedly as men and women in those first centuries experienced new claims placed on their lives as a result of their encounters with Jesus and his gospel. In describing these new claims to Nicodemus Jesus used the term born again.

    The term “born again,” of course, is packed with overtones that have unfortunate connotations for many of us. Let’s put that aside. What Jesus is really describing in the born again reference is nothing more or less than the spiritual awakening that must occur in the believer if he or she is to fully appropriate the gifts Jesus offers.

Nicodemus’ reaction to the words of Jesus is not recorded, but it is fair to say that he took away from his meeting with Jesus much more than he bargained for.

Though Nicodemus’ reaction to the words of Jesus is not recorded, we know that against all odds there were people in the first, second, and third centuries who upon hearing about Jesus, and witnessing the power of his message, experienced a spiritual rebirth sufficient to make tolerable all the trauma to which the powers of the world could expose them.

To Nicodemus, and each person who would follow him, Jesus asks, “Are we ready to be spiritually reborn?”

      Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus because the presence of God was communicated in the things he was doing, so too were Peter, James, John, and the rest of the disciples.  Those disciples, and the followers of Jesus who found their way into the broadening circle of the Lord, did so despite all of the suffering the Roman authorities could inflict.  You see, Peter, James and others had experienced a spiritual awakening.  They had traded citizenship in the world the emperor ruled to citizenship in the world God ruled. In effect, they were born into that citizenship, the visible symbol of which was the rite of baptism, baptism pronouncing death to old allegiances and rebirth into the community whose head was Christ.

The emperor still rules, and I refer here to all those things in our lives upon which we confer god-like status. While no earthly emperor insists on our obedience, the emperor lives on in those things before which the world prostrates itself today; money, power, status, and personal appearance. Each of those idols supplies incentive to live and act in certain defined ways. 

The early Christians found incentive in following the teachings of Jesus, this despite the fact that by doing so they put themselves at odds with the religion, customs, and morals of the surrounding culture. This was not a good place to be, yet they voluntarily embraced their outsider’s status, and miracle of miracles, their behaviors gave incentive for others to join them, until the emperor felt compelled to rein them in.

The early Christians were driven by spiritual incentive to model their lives after Christ, and the incentive had to be great for the backlash they experienced from the emperor and his minions was severe. The rigors of the Christian life imposed a discipline few could manage.

Born again was the apt metaphor to describe the early Christian experience. Those Christians were consciously renouncing the sovereignty of the Roman emperor in favor of the sovereignty of God manifest in Jesus. 

The first Christians, in effect, placed their lives at the disposal of their beliefs. Few believers today face that challenge. Many of us came by our Christian identity by virtue of believing parents or guardians who presented us for baptism and enrolled us in Sunday school for Christian formation.

The Christianity to which most of us were introduced in mainline Protestantism, I suspect, dwelled little on the concept of spiritual rebirth that other traditions embraced. Furthermore, the religious fervor that marked the Christianity of our past generations  in America is little in evidence today, if it exists at all. The tent meeting revivals and mass gathering over which Billy Graham and his predecessors presided are relics of the past.      

The Christianity with which we are familiar today is by and large quite different from the Christianity of our parents and grandparents were exposed to. The church levies no stern requirements that must be met. It doesn’t excommunicate. Yet the church is in decline. No, it is not the rigidity of the church’s doctrine or requirements that account for the loss in church membership, or our failures to attract new members.  

So if it is not the church’s demands, what is to explain its decline? Perhaps the more pertinent question is what explains its staying power over the centuries? Nicodemus came to Jesus because he concluded, his words, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Friends, it was the signs, the evidence of God’s presence in the followers of Christ, that inspired the growth of that Antioch community of believers, later to be identified as a Christian fellowship. It is largely signs, practices and behaviors of believers that prompt folks to affiliate with the church today.

The signs of God’s presence transformed those Antioch believers effectively setting their lives on a new course. Let’s remind ourselves of what that first century Christian, Justin Martyr, had to say about the transformation that overtook the followers of Jesus, “We who formerly…valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on  account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”

Visible signs of transformation established the church and inspired its growth. The Spirit has not left the church. The message of Jesus still makes sense to you and me, so much sense that we still gather as the church Sunday after Sunday, to pray, to encourage one another, and to pledge our effort and resources to projects that serve our neighbor locally but also in the greater world.  

We are privileged to have been reared in the Christian family, privileged to be exposed to Christ’s gospel, privileged to be part of a community of believers who share our commitments and values. We are blessed.

Moreover, we have embraced the legacy of those folks in Antioch who were so demonstrable in their beliefs that they began to be identified by the community as Christians. Theirs was a born again allegiance, an essential transformation of their world view and values. Despite the overtones it carries for some of us, the metaphor born again is worth holding on to for it speaks to the radical commitment that is the basis of a true Christian identity.

As in the Antioch of old, the world today makes claims on its citizens. We are bound to acknowledge many of the just claims our citizenship in the world mandates. Yet the fact that we have been baptized signifies that we hold a citizenship that is more fundamental still. We who are citizens of the kingdom of God reigns have a mission to make God’s kingdom visible. May we fulfill that mission to the full capacity of the talents and faith God has conferred.  AMEN.

     

PRAYER

      O Father who reigns in light, be our light.  Source of truth, be our wisdom.  Source of hope, be our strength.  Source of freedom, be our courage.  O God, you are the source of all the good gifts we cherish, the guarantor of the peace we crave. Dwell with us and in as we live these days that your presence may be reflected in all we think and do.

      O Christ, our brother, we marvel at the power you displayed that women and men who come into your presence never forgot you, that the women and men who knew you where willing to surrender their lives in your name. Behind us is a legacy of faith and action that built the church, before us are new, substantial challenges that must be addressed. We pray that your Spirit will move across the church that congregations like this one will learn new ways to direct the power you have placed in our keeping. 

      Prone as we are to assume that the way things are today, O Christ, is the way things shall for ever be, we accept war, poverty, discrimination, terrorism, and injustice as givens. Yet we know that in your eyes nothing is ever a “given,” but that, indeed, your kingdom is taking shape in our midst.   

      Lord ever mindful of human suffering, grant consolation to those who grieve the loss of loved ones today. Abide with them as they make their passage through the valley of despair. Strengthen and sustain my friends Rick, Penny, and Kyle as they grieve the loss of their son and brother, Lee. Be with counselors and pastors who do their best to bring consolation and comfort to the grieving.

      Finally, we pray your blessing on this congregation, and on those of our number not present today. We ask a special blessing, O God, on pastor Kathy, as we give thanks for her continuing commitment to this ministry, even as we recognize the dedication of the officers of the congregation in offering their particular gifts to this ministry.

      For this day, and for the peace of Christ which passing all understanding, we give thanks even as we pray the prayer…