Sunday, January 10, 2016

January 10, Epiphany 1, Worldview #1: What Are Christians For?

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I’ve changed my title to “What Are Christians For?” This is the first in a sermon series I’m calling “Worldview.” You know what a worldview is: how you explain the world. Like, does your existence have any meaning or purpose, or is the world just all coincidence, or happenstance, or luck? Can you explain people? Why is our species so different from other creatures on the planet?

Or like, what’s wrong with the world? Why our species is so frequently horrible and violent and destructive? Why are we humans, compared to other creatures, so restless and inventive and creative, and why do we even think the world might be explained? Maybe it all just only is, and there is no larger explanation, and nothing’s wrong, just inconvenient or uncomfortable, so just have a nice life if you can.

The most familiar Christian worldview is the one derived from St. Augustine. About 6020 years ago God created the world, and God did it in six days, and it was very good. God created every animal, and God made one pair of animals special by giving them immortal souls. But this pair blew it, and brought sin and evil into the world. They infected all their descendants, the whole human race, with their sin and evil, so that when they died, their immortal souls all went to hell to suffer unendingly.

But God was gracious to a very small group of people, and their souls got to go to heaven after death. Then God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and he died on the cross, so that everyone who believes in him can be saved from their sin and go to heaven when they die.

According this worldview, your job as Christians is to tell this news to as many people as you can so that they don’t have to keep on going to hell, and also lead better lives while you are still here. But soon the world will be destroyed with fire, and you’re all going to end up either in heaven or hell, so this world is not your home, it’s just a temporary testing ground for your ultimate destination. So the gospel is your great escape.

That worldview is cohesive and compelling and it offers to explain a lot. It’s led to lots of good bluegrass music. But what if you want to accept the evidence that the world is very much older than six thousand years, and life has been evolving on earth for a good four billion years?

What if it does not make sense to you that, on one hand, while “God so loves the world,” and “God’s eye is on the sparrow,” yet all of human culture and history and literature and art and architecture from ancient China till today is ultimately of no real interest to God, and maybe even a distraction from the only thing that really counts, the saving of your soul? Wouldn’t you rather be a sparrow than a human being?

Can it be that a God who supposedly loves the world really doesn’t care one bit about whole pre-Christian civilizations because of just one thing, that they did not know Jesus?

What if you can’t believe that a loving God would be content to torture millions of human beings in hell forever and ever? I know the principle that ignorance is no excuse, but if that ignorance of the pagans was God’s design, and God kept them in ignorance until the missionaries came, and then punishes them for the ignorance God kept them in, shouldn’t it be God who is punished? Or at least not believed in any more?

I believe there is a worldview that is actually more Biblical. Let’s keep on confessing that Jesus is Lord, and let’s not stop singing the mystery of our faith, that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and let’s believe in all the claims and promises of the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, even of "the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," but let’s apply it all very differently. It’s not about reward or punishment in heaven or in hell. Yes it’s about heaven, but about God’s "kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." Yes it’s about your soul, but about your soul for the resurrection of your body, something like Our Lord’s own resurrection. It’s not about escaping the world or condemning the world but saving the world, restoring the world, renewing the world, and your mission is to join in God’s renewal of the world.

I offer you this worldview, even if it leaves some things unexplained. Like, if the human species did evolve from other animals, then at what point did sin and evil enter in? Don’t know.

Or like, if the all pre-Christian pagans did not go to hell, then what happened to them after death? Don’t know.

Or, if eternal life will be as much embodied as spiritual, and somehow still on earth, how’s that going to work? Don’t know, but something like the risen Lord Jesus.

Or, if God’s purpose is to renew and save this world, how come things are getting worse, and when is God ever going to turn it around? Don’t know.

Or, how long before Jesus returns? Don’t know, but if God patiently waited four billion years for humans to evolve, then another few thousand years won’t really be so long!

Some people think the purpose of religious faith is to clear up the world’s mysteries. It clears up some, but it usually adds more. That also goes for science. Science does not so much prove what we know as more often discount what we thought we knew, and science keeps adding more mysteries than we had before. No wonder, because modern science arose from inside Christendom. You have to chose your mysteries. As Christians, you can believe in both real knowledge and real mysteries, and the interplay of knowledge and mystery is a sign of the freedom that God gives you.

God gives freedom to the world even as God is on a mission to save the world and renew it and transform it. The way that God does this is to gather a people within the world to join with God in this, and God gathers this people by invitation. As the prophecy from Isaiah says, God calls you from the ends of all the earth.

And as you answer to God’s call, God comes with you, so that “when you pass through the waters you will not be overwhelmed,” and “the flame shall not hurt you, but your dross consume and your gold refine.”

And as our reading from Acts makes evident, God comes with you so close as to get inside you, as the Holy Spirit, who is the essence of God, not only for your comfort and healing, but also to empower you to do your own free share in the renewal of the world.

At the head of this new people stands the Lord Jesus Christ. There at his baptism, the Beloved, the firstborn of the new creation. There at his baptism, God in a man for the transformation of humanity, and God in the flesh for the renewal of the earth, and the Holy Spirit in the body of a dove for the sign of peace and hope and joy. Into this new humanity you too are baptized. “God has redeemed you, do not fear.” You are called to share in this peaceful transformation and joyful renewal.

That’s the worldview, that’s the vision. That’s a vision for your own life that you live within the world. That’s a vision for why you go to church. It’s not only to get close to God. Sometimes that is all you can handle and precisely what you need. Sometimes you just need refuge and some sanctuary. But that’s not all. God also calls you to follow Jesus back out of church into the world, and to make use of your personal gifts and your talents and your work and your own personal share in ministry for the renewal of the world.

There is so much more to say about these things over the coming weeks. But how about today if I say that God loves Brooklyn, and our church’s mission is to serve God’s renewal of Brooklyn? Not just to be a community of Jesus for ourselves, but for us to contribute our own personal activities and witness to God’s renewal of this part of the world? Here’s my take home, it’s for us as a community.

I think there may be an omission in the mission statement of our church. And I wrote that mission statement. I came to this realization just this week while I was on retreat this week in California. It’s right for us to be “a community of Jesus, and to welcome persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves,” but to end there is the omission, because it keeps directed inward.

Shouldn’t we say that “we invite you and equip you to share in God’s renewal of Brooklyn.” Something like that.

That’s why we’re going to fix that sanctuary. Not just for us, but for our mission to Brooklyn. That’s why we should do everything we do, because we want to see the Kingdom of God here in our own neighborhood and the neighborhoods around. That’s why we love our church and volunteer for it and even sacrifice for it, because we serve the love of God for the city, and for its streets and its life and its culture and its people, rich and poor. They all count. They all count for God. God loves the city. This is what we mean when we say God is love.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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