Making Jesus more Reasonable

A sermon about the temptation to make Jesus more reasonable, based on Luke 4:21-30 and 1Corinthians 13.

Introduction

A recent BBC social survey suggests attitudes are getting more liberal, which is not surprising given years of BBC propaganda designed to achieve this end!

However, pressure on the church to conform to the norms of society is not new. Many years ago, the church abandoned it’s opposition to lending money. The Biblical position is that lending money for profit to those in need is exploitation – ‘usury’.

I knew a Christian Bank Manager who complained about irresponsible lending to his superiors – he isn’t a Bank Manager anymore! Now we can look back on the ‘credit crunch’ and we see the devastation caused by irresponsible lending by greedy lenders.

I can’t say with integrity that all lending is wrong (I have a mortgage), but the church is needed to counterbalance natural human greed and restrain its worst effects: we could say that of all sins.  Not that the church – you and me – are perfect.  We need Christ’s leadership to guide us, before we can be an example to others: “Doctor, heal yourself” Jesus says.

The Biblical, Unreasonable Jesus

In many parts of the Gospel we see Jesus saying and doing things that don’t fit in with our modern, liberal politically-correct western society.

He insults a foreign woman who comes to him for help; Jesus physically assaults the money lenders in the Temple; he appears to make mistakes, or not to be able to do things in certain circumstances; Jesus suggests that it’s better to mutilate oneself than to burn in hell; and he points out other peoples’ sins – even while forgiving and healing them.

Some Christians ignore inconvenient parts of the Gospel; many scholars (liberal or conservative) try to explain away Jesus’ more difficult words and deeds.

Luke 4 and Corinthians 13

In today’s passage he goes out of his way to provoke and upset people (I wonder, is it to shock them out of their smug complacency?  Or am I just making excuses like everyone else?)  Jesus deliberately provokes his own kith and kin to the point where they are ready to murder him.  Think about that.  That’s the Lord we follow – ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild?’

Contrast that with 1Corinthians Chapter 13 on love.  We had this at our wedding, but perhaps it isn’t just the mushy, emotional passage that people think it is!

We would like Jesus to be more reasonable.  Why does he have to be so difficult?  Why can’t he be more middle of the road, middle class – more like us?

Our society currently worships celebrity and wealth.  To be a celebrity you have to be popular.  To be popular to have to offend as few people as possible, you have to broaden your appeal.

Even if you’re not trying to be famous, you have to be careful what you say, lest you offend anyone.  That’s employment law!  Voicing an opinion is not the way to get ahead: avoid emotive issues – like uncomfortable facts – if you want to get ahead.

Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in doing this – why does he have to be so inconvenient?

The Imitation of Christ

We are supposed to imitate Christ, but we try to make him imitate us instead.  One of our faults is to try and make Jesus more like us – to make him more reasonable.

At the moment our society is telling us to stop making a fuss. We don’t have the right to tell other people how to live – even if we are just leading by example.  “Stop rocking the boat” is the message: but Jesus rocked the boat and we are to imitate him.

I remember being told in art class to “draw what you see, not what you think you see.”  I hope that we will read the words and actions of Jesus in the Bible, just as they are.  We will need Faith, Hope and Love to truly follow him, and I wish you every blessing on the road.

Amen

Part of the Team

A sermon about the joys (and perils) of being part of the team (or tribe), based on 1Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21.

Introduction

When we read the Bible there is a danger that we can prettify it.  We can think that all God’s people are heroes who never make mistakes, and that we are inferior by comparison.  Similarly, we can assume that people in leadership have got it all together, and that they don’t need us – we have nothing to offer.  Or the leaders know everything – we can’t offer any useful insight.

Corinthians

It seems from this passage (1Cor 12:12-31a) that the Corinthians had been creating or reinforcing divisions within the congregation, on mundane and/or spiritual grounds.  One of these divisions was between the different gifts, and Paul sets out to correct this.  While recognising that some gifts are regarded more highly, he points out that all gifts are needed and must all work together in love for the good of all (see 1Cor 13, next week).

Context.  I was thinking of these things in two contexts:

  • At Work.  Recently I’ve come up against a problem at work that has forced me to question what we are doing.  This did not make me popular with the rest of the team.  I found that:
  • Team membership depended upon toeing the party line, being ‘on message’
  • If you question the team then you are one of ‘them’ not ‘us.’: team = tribe.
  • Rather than listen to the message (the Team is in danger), I was labelled as ‘emotional’ & ‘outspoken’ – a troublemaker.
  • I was reminded why successful teams can fail – they believe their own propaganda and lose touch with reality.
  • In Church.  This is true of us as individuals and as a church.  I’ve seen:
  • A church that was blessed with resources to share that turned its back on that to become something else.
  • People with gifts being overlooked and/or needs being ignored.
  • Groups with gifts refusing to put them to use without strings attached.
  • Locally Methodists are preoccupied with the reorganisation of the Circuit and preaching – we seem to be ignoring the reality of shrinking numbers.

Unhappiness results in every case, because God made us for certain things – we are what we are and the world is what it is, not what we think we/it is.

Gospel Passage

In Luke 4:14-21 we see Jesus bucking this trend.  The people of Nazareth identify Jesus as one of them, part of the tribe.  They expect him to act accordingly, to fit in with their expectations of him as Mary’s son.  Instead Jesus tells them that he is God’s chosen one, the Messiah!  Jesus was not ‘on message’!  He was not one of them – he was a troublemaker!   (Next week we’ll see that he went on to reject their expectations of a miracle and upset them to the point where they wanted to kill him, Luke 4:22-30).

Conclusion

We don’t have to wait to be ‘called’ or to become something else before we start contributing – we are ready here and now.  Loyalty to the team does not make false things true (or vice versa) and it does not override loyalty to God.  We are a Team and not a tribe – we are members of the Team because God made us so, not because we blindly conform to a shared idea of who we are, regardless of reality.  Jesus followed His mission regardless of the short-term consequences.  God will shatter our false self images if they get in the way of his Truth and His Kingdom.  You are needed!

Culture or a Relationship with God?

A sermon on culture versus God, from 1Corinthians 8:1-6.

Aim:  To show the limitations of ‘culture’ as a substitute for loving God.

Scripture

Paul talks about Jewish food rules getting in the way of the Christians worshipping God.  These rules, which were helpful for living in the desert a thousand years before, have no power to help anyone.

Paul names this: mere superstition.

Meaning for Today: culture

Today we call this superstition ‘Culture’.  This word used to mean making people better, educating them, but now we use it to describe all the things we do for no logical reason.

For example on Australia Day speeches all started by acknowledging Aboriginal Culture.  This is a well-meaning but empty gesture, as it does nothing to improve anyone or to correct real inequality (e.g. an indigenous woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the lowest in Australia, whereas a western woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the highest).

Using the culture label for other’s religious beliefs avoids difficult questions like: are they true? are they real?  By focusing on Culture we can paper over the cracks: safe but superficial; however, it’s patronising, even cowardly.

Culture: application

I was talking to a friend having a tough time, he’d had some time off work with stress.  We talked about how we have to wear a grown-up mask to show other people, versus the real person underneath, which was formed when we were children.  We have to maintain this pretence because our western culture won’t accept or value our real child-like selves (is this something we could learn from the Aboriginal peoples?)  Maintaining this false mask causes real mental health problems.

It made me think how helpful our relationship with God is. We can be ourselves – weak, childlike, silly – but even so, we are accepted and understood.  We can understand our place in a family, in society, in this false culture (Jesus calls it ‘the World’) and the universe.  It is real, not culture.  It causes people to admit their mistakes, to be true and real, to right wrongs and do amazing things to educate themselves and improve the lives of others.

Conclusion

Let us enjoy and value culture, but keep it in its place.  Let’s not accept the superstition of culture – giving it power over people, or the idolatry of culture – allowing it to be a substitute for God.  We are created in God’s image, to have a relationship with God.

Not Power, but Faith

We’re not looking for power, but faith … a Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10 (Year B, Proper 9 / Ordinary 14)

Introduction

Sometimes I hear Christians say “if only we really believed and really loved like Jesus we would transform the world,” but Jesus said that most would reject God, and war/poverty would be with us until the end times.  What they really mean is if we had more numbers we would have power!

Scripture – 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10

Paul, a man of great faith, is not healed  (miracles are not a reward for faith).  He explains that he must have this thorn in his flesh, to make him rely on God’s grace.

The Corinthians are wealthy, powerful, clever, successful & strong.  Paul’s two big letters to them (16 & 13 Chaps) are one long rebuke!  He has to justify his authority to say these things and does so – by boasting about his sufferings (Chap 11)!  Paul uses his weakness to shame the strong (as in 1Cor Chaps 1-2).

Application

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men” said a wise historian about the idea that religious leaders and kings could not make mistakes.

I mentioned the Islamic State earlier.  The Five Pillars of Islam are: declaring the faith; prayer; giving; fasting; and pilgrimage.  But look what happens when you give people guns – these gentle ideas are quickly thrown out!

We need weakness to remind us to rely on God.  Many of you know my wife but may not know that she has been ill for all her adult life.  Our struggle against this illness has been good for us – it has brought us closer together, stopped us from being able to take each other for granted.  Our relationship with God is like that.

Conclusion

We won’t transform the world for the better by being strong or clever or powerful.  There are lots of strong, clever and powerful people in the world and they’re making it worse as often as better!  We will transform ourselves, not the world, by doing three things:

  1. We will be fallible, average and powerless (what we are now);
  2. but we will rely on God’s Omni-power, -presence, -knowledge and -seeing: faith in God; and
  3. we will be doing the best that we can.