Transcribed from the sermon preached May 7, 2017
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Psalm 23, Acts 2:42-47, I Peter 2:19-25
What does it mean to be a Christian? Many would answer that by saying one must profess certain doctrinal beliefs. When we join the church and are baptized, we say, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior.” I remember hanging out on the street and being greeted by evangelists as a teenager and then again as a college student. They had a prayer they would try to get people they met to pray. It was a little annoying that they seemed to be sure that if I hadn’t said their exact prayer that I was not a Christian. It was also annoying that they claimed to never sin. I figure this had to mean they had a short list of things considered sins, or they didn’t know themselves well. I think I knew the words of Jesus and the Bible as well as they did, but they were having none of it. They didn’t’ really want to have a conversation. They only wanted to convince me I had to say this prayer or I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. I said their prayer with them. What did I have to lose?
Now the evangelists were very satisfied with themselves when we finished their prayer. They looked at me with an expectation that I was born again. Clearly these young evangelists had inherited an individualistic faith which commenced and culminated in the repetition of a few words. Now I’m not against the words: We all fall short of the glory of God, we are unable to work our way into heaven or even personal peace. So we are in need of God’s grace. And Jesus demonstrates and offers this grace. I hope and pray we all understand and receive this saving grace. Yet this perspective which focuses on saying the right words to receive life after death too easily leads to the conclusion that believers lose nothing if wrong. Let us say the words just in case they are true. Let us call ourselves Christian and then go about our individual lives in the same old rat race like everyone else. Then, when we die, and the prayer is true, we win. And if it isn’t true, we lose nothing.
We get a different picture of what it means to be Christian in today’s three passages. As we read the Gospels and follow the life and words of Jesus, we see that he calls us and invites us into a Way of living. We are called into a community, to live and think and speak as Jesus did. We are not just searching for the reward of heaven by saying a few words and avoiding a certain list of sins. Rather, as we live the Way of Jesus, we discover eternity breaking into our hearts and opening our eyes. Jim Corbett notes in his book, Goat Walking, “If a faithful way of living is its own reward, afterlife would be a bonus that is irrelevant to the decision to be faithful; the only losers are those who are conjured into professing beliefs rather than living faithfully.
Corbett argues that the world of grasping and violence pulls us in directions that are unhealthy for our soul. So as we come into the community of the people of God, and live the way of Jesus, with others, we receive a vision of the world and a sense of purpose, and a way of living which is healthy, empowering and comforting. This new understanding, this new life and vision we receive, then empowers us with faith to endure hardship and challenge that is inevitably a part of life. We are empowered to respond as Christ would respond.
So I ask again, what does it mean to be Christian? We get a great answer in Acts 2:
Acts 2 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Stick around here long enough and awe will come upon you to. You will see amazing acts of love and generosity. Two years ago St. John’s took a wild risk of generosity in helping one of our refugee families purchase a home. Some of the financing was Church money and some church members: secret agent Christians doing God’s work with glad and sincere hearts. The awe and wonder of this audacious act of goodness led to an increase in generosity across the whole church. It became contagious and many of us found our generosity and sense of community grow inside of us. We started feeling fulfilled and empowered ourselves. And last night I received the good news that a couple of the members of the refugee family were finally able to buy the house. It closed escrow and the church and church members have been paid back and we all know something about what it means to be Christian.
Peter says Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example. From the Spirit of Christ we gain a sense of self-worth, a sense of connection with the eternal and precious Spirit that feeds our soul, so that we can endure unpopularity and even abuse for a righteous cause. But not just for a righteous cause. When our self-esteem is boosted by the Holy Spirit, we are not as dependent on the opinion of others. We can let rudeness or the many moments of minor disrespect we may experience slide since we know the opinion of the rude person really doesn’t matter much. We don’t give the rude person the power, because the Lord is our shepherd, not the disrespectful one. We may be called to speak for justice and equal respect, but not because our self-worth is dependent on the approval of mean people. In God’s grace we know that living out of love is its own reward. Love is connected to the eternal God, which is greater than our temporal troubles or any powers and principalities of this world.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
As we live under the guidance and example of Christ, even in the rat race, in a world that tries to convince us to clamber and struggle and fight for our reputation, status and more possessions, we can relax, slow down, rest and observe and experience the joys already available to us. When the Lord is out shepherd, we are freed from our wants.
Capitalism is driven by an increase in desire. It works like the carrot suspended in front of a horse to keep it walking forward, or like the rabbit spinning ahead of a dog race. The job of marketing is to convince us that we need this one more thing, the latest phone, or app, or shoes, makeup, car, or fashion, or beer to be beautiful, happy and satisfied. There is always one more thing, so we never quite arrive. Capitalism thrives on lack of satisfaction.
In contrast, our Psalm this morning is the most famous 23: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he restores my soul.
Early this week I went up to Tahoe for a preaching conference. It was a beautiful springtime week, 69 degrees with lots of snow still on the mountains. I took a hike up a canyon all by my lonesome self. The snow was melting rapidly. Everything was green and there was water everywhere. With the five year drought, it has been a long time since I had been by a stream I felt was pure enough to drink. After a long hike up the mountain, I stopped to rest. I lay down on a rock in the middle of a green pasture, beside waters. I reached down with my hand and scooped up some water. For all the marketing of drinks, the fancy bottles and flavor, nothing is even close to as refreshing as free, pure, ice cold, running mountain water. I poured out the juice in my bottle and dipped it in the water. My bottle overflowed. I put it in my pack for later. I didn’t need the bottle. There is something incredibly satisfying about leaning down like a sheep and drinking straight out of the stream. I came down from the mountain with fewer needs than I went up with. My soul restored.
It is such a blessing to have the opportunity to get away from all the noise and motion, worries and desires of the city. We are so plugged in that we are almost always bombarded with problems, opinions, desires, needs and responsibilities. Anxiety and fear are rampant.
When I got back down the mountain I called one of the pastors whose kids have probably never been out of the city or into the back country and told him that St. John’s has a designated scholarship fund that would help get a few of his kids up to the Zephyr point youth backpacking trip in the Summer. I trust that if the kids take the risk of letting go of their world and are led by a good shepherd through green pastures and still waters, they will find the Lord takes away their want and restores their soul. And when we know that the Lord is our shepherd, then when we have to go back and find ourselves passing through dark valleys, we will fear no evil, for we know that thou art with us, and we can proclaim with the psalmist: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.