Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beyond Doing what is right - 2nd Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 23-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

"Let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."  Matthew 5:16

In a class discussion a few years ago, we were weighing the implications of "legalism" in religion and faith.  The instructor's question was simple: "Do you think Christianity is governed by a set of rules?"  The scriptural text that provoked this question was John 13:35 in which Jesus says, "By this all will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." 

I will grant there is a fine line between "legal obedience" and "submissive love", but I submit to you there are "rules" that not only teach us how to grow in faith and love and regulate how we are to treat one another, perhaps especially the "least of these" - but these "rules" also testify to what we know to be true.  "You shall not steal" is a rule which begs the question; are we being "legalistic" when we refrain from taking what clearly does not belong to us even if we subscribe to the adage "finder's keepers"?  Are we being "legalistic" in our fidelity to our spouses?  Are we being "legalistic" when we zip our lips instead of jumping into some good gossip - especially gossip about someone we don't really like???

There are "rules" the people of YHWH are obliged to observe, and our willingness to honor these "rules" is an expression not of fear of the coming Judgment but are rather expressions of the love we are to have for one another - IF "all" are to know we are disciples of Messiah.  These are those same "rules" which in large measure apply to the secular community; and these rules are obeyed out of a certain fear - at the very least, out of respect for the order of law.  We may not always agree with these particular rules, but we observe them because we don't want to pay fines or risk being sent to jail.

It has been my experience that those who screech the most about "legalism" in religion and faith are often those who are looking for loopholes as a way out of doing something that needs to be done.  Fasting is a time-honored practice many do not subscribe to, some taking a "legalistic" stand as unnecessary for salvation.  Maybe, maybe not; but such a narrow vision of the usefulness of fasting and other means of grace misses the point of discipleship altogether which is all-encompassing - IF - Christ truly is our very life. 

In a nutshell, we have convinced ourselves discipleship is entirely about just "getting saved" and then going about our lives as if nothing happened.  Rarely do we seriously consider that the "light which must shine" are those works to be done to testify to our Holy God and Father and give others a reason to look closer at the Lord's revelation in Christ - and the means by which those works become bigger than any given moment.

Consider a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln ("Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?"), which expresses an ideal that goes beyond praying for those we consider to be our enemies.  And by strange coincidence, what Lincoln expresses is written in The Didache: the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles

I've shared with you before about this document which is believed to have been composed in the mid to late 1st century, though other scholars have suggested maybe early 2nd century.  Though there is no consensus on authorship, Didache is considered to have been a "handbook" for early Christians.  So in this "handbook" it is written: "You should love those who hate you, and then you shall have no enemies" (1:3).

But to "love" these enemies - just as to "love" fellow disciples, to "love" our neighbors as ourselves, and to "love the Lord our God" - reaches beyond subjective and arbitrary emotions.  To "love", as "love" is expressed in the Scriptures, has little to do with how we may be feeling at a particular time; it has everything to do with what we are willing to do all of the time - even when things are not going our way. 

To "love" with our hands and our feet rather than strictly with our hearts is a reflection of what Thomas was shown by Jesus after Thomas had initially expressed doubts about the resurrected Messiah; "unless I see ... I will not believe".  Thomas was shown by the marks that Jesus did not merely "feel" love or compassion; our Lord DID love and compassion ... all the way to Calvary.

When we take decisive action towards an enemy not in retaliation but in the reconciliation "commanded" by our Lord (Matthew 5:23-24; "If you bring a gift to the altar and there remember your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar ... and be reconciled ... THEN come and offer your gift"), we no longer consider this person an "enemy" but a friend for whom we are willing to risk ourselves - even our pride.  

This commandment is so compelling that Jesus teaches our gift offerings to the Lord will not be accepted by the Lord until this reconciliation is made!  His disciples are called to take the initiative!  This was in the spirit of the Lord's judgment against Israel in Isaiah's first chapter, condemning His people for bringing such offerings but making no move to reconcile with one another.  These offerings became empty because hateful hearts thought it much easier to try and buy the Lord's favor.

This is not an easy thing for any of us, but discipleship (which is active engagement in our relationship with the Lord through one another) rather than merely "believing" compels us to reach beyond simply declaring Jesus as Lord of the Church.  It requires living and acting and interacting as though Jesus really is Lord of the Church and of our lives.

It's pretty awesome when we consider how much has truly been granted to us to do in His behalf until His return, and it is not something to be taken lightly.  And contrary to popular opinion, the attributes of YHWH expressed through the Church are not exclusively limited to a particular office - such as that of pastor or priest.  These are legitimate offices of the Church, to be sure, but these alone do not strictly define the Church. 

The whole of the Church is defined by its attributes embodied in the faithful and is made manifest in the lives of others - ESPECIALLY our "enemies" whom we will, by our faithful devotion to Christ, make our friends.  Lest we forget, however, the measure of this friendship is not about how the "enemy" may or may not respond; rather the measure is in the actions of the faithful - those who claim to believe.

A dead Church makes no effort to reach outside of its walls and will consequently not be missed by the community when (not "if") it falters, but a Church alive in the Spirit cannot be contained by walls and will be loved and respected by the community it loves and serves!  A church can have all the latest technology and the most upbeat, happenin' music, the finest entertainment money can buy, and the best of all dynamic, charismatic preachers - and still be truly "dead".  By the same token a church can have mediocre music, a mediocre preacher, and be technologically and financially challenged but can still offer real life to those of whom we are called to serve - if we are alive in the Spirit and "doing" love and compassion in Jesus' name.  THIS people will believe - when they SEE it!

Our Lord's "rules" require that we go beyond merely existing in case someone wants to show up on Sunday, and the invitation of the Church cannot be delegated strictly to an advertising budget (which statistics suggest is money poorly spent anyway!).  Churches grow and thrive when lives are changed, when seekers become disciples who make disciples who transform the world one life at a time.  Is this not what happened when our Lord walked the earth?  Why would it be any less so now?

We deal daily with a world which declares, "Unless I see ... I will not believe".  We who believe to have been justified before the Lord in having our sins absolved are the ones who claim to have "seen".  Then discipleship and sanctifying grace move us beyond that moment so others may see by the light which shines in our love and through our compassion. 

Let it shine.  Let it Shine!  Glory to God in Heaven above, let His Light Shine!    Amen.

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