True Authority

Mark 1: 21-28  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

1 Corinthians 8: 1-13              January 28, 2018

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Prayer:  Holy One, won’t you please build us up in your love, by your Spirit, by your word and presence.  Amen.

 Laws.  There’s no doubt about it. We are a people of laws.  We have all kinds of laws.  There are federal laws, state laws, county laws, township laws, city laws.  We have civic laws, tax laws, corporate laws, labor laws, real estate laws, laws of business, laws of culture, rules of the road, rules of engagements, rules and regulations all over.   Ever since the 10 BIG laws, we’ve had a ton of other laws.  There’s moral laws, biblical laws, religious laws, and church laws.  Sometimes those all get blurred together.  Some laws are practiced, some are hinted at, some are unwritten but observed, some are written, but not observed, some evolve over time.

 Churches today have laws concerning the sacraments.  There’s a commonly held law that only ordained pastors have the authority to baptize people, or to consecrate  the bread and juice/wine of Holy Communion.  Also, there’s an understanding that only church elders can serve Holy Communion.  Also, three of the four churches I served over my career in ministry had French drains in their sacristies so that left over communion juice or wine could be poured down directly into the earth, and not into the unclean sewer. 

In the days of the New Testament, they had religious, biblical, church laws, too.   Some laws about food during the infancy of Christianity caused a ‘bone’ of contention [pun intended].  Keep in mind, this was Roman/Greco territory.  Well-established pagan religious practices often involved sacrificing food and animals to idols and gods.  After that, the food was put on the public market for sale.

Practicing Jews and Jews who became Christians didn’t want to have anything to do with that food or meat… it was, in their minds, defiled because it was offered as a sacrifice to pagan gods.  And, handling food in those days...nothing sanitized about it.  So who knows if it was tainted or not, possibly getting spoiled by sitting out in the heat of the day.  To eat it would be unclean, religiously against Jewish law, could look like an endorsement of pagan idolatry, not to mention that it could make you sick.

Gentile converts to Christianity, however, had no problem eating meat sacrificed to the gods.  They were used to doing that already, and besides, they thought they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they did not actually offered the sacrifice, after all.

 Paul insisted, however, that having knowledge and love of the one true God, and having a relationship with God in Christ—these were the most important things.  Which means that what you eat cannot bring you closer to God or take you farther away from God.  Food is food.  They were no worse if they did not eat, and no better if they did.  And, since idols are phony gods, food sacrificed to a phony idol is no more tainted or defiled than food not sacrificed, so eating food previously sacrificed to idols has no power whatsoever to ruin your faith or your relationship with God.

 So, based on that thinking, does it makes sense to say that strictly speaking, ordained pastors are not the only ones who can baptize people or consecrate Holy Communion?  Truly, the Holy Spirit does both of those so maybe others can do nicely in a pinch?  And, maybe elders are not the only ones who can serve Holy Communion.  The same God is served when an elder serves Communion or when a non-Consistory member serves it.  And, it doesn’t make one bit of difference whether the leftover juice or wine goes down the drain into the earth or down the drain into the sewer.

Some of you might be squirming in your pew a little bit.  What about church law?  What about decades worth of tradition?  What about the authority granted by ordination?

Yes, all that is valuable and worthy of consideration.  But consider this—God has a supreme law of love.  Frederick Buechner writes, “Jesus said that the one supreme law is that we are to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves.  “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” is the way Jesus put it (Matthew 22:40), meaning that all lesser laws are to be judged on the basis of that supreme one.  In any given situation, the lesser law is to be obeyed if it is consistent with the law of love and

superseded if it isn’t.

The law against working on the Sabbath is an example found in the Gospels.  If it is a question of whether or not you should perform the work of healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus’ answer is clear.  Of course you should heal them is his answer.  Obviously healing rather than preserving your own personal piety is what the law of love would have you do.  Therefore you put the lesser law aside” (personal email, Buechner, Frederick, https://mail.aol.com/webmail-std/en-us/DisplayMessage?ws_popup=true&ws_suite=true, retrieved January 20, 2018). The people were amazed because Jesus taught with authority. I think his authority came because he taught and acted with love and compassion. He put aside the lesser law in favor of God’s law of love.

 So, perhaps to help ease the squirming, maybe it’s wise, generally speaking, to have ordained clergy administer the sacraments and elders to serve Holy Communion, but not so much to endorse church law and tradition, but much more to encourage the law of love growing in everyone’s heart.

The bottom line is that those who practice the law of love practice with true authority. ,Therefore, I believe no one should ever be denied Holy Communion because it wasn’t served by an elder or a priest, or an ordained pastor.  Such an action to preserve a lesser law could jeopardize the higher law of love for a person not strong in their faith. Making them upset, and turn off God, turn off church, and maybe never set foot in a church again.

 Paul dealt with a similar sort of thing.  He was concerned that someone might be watching who has knowledge of law and tradition but is without love for God or is only so-so in relationship with God.  Imagine you are living in New Testament days, and someone with knowledge of religious and cultural laws but without a relationship with God watches you eating food previously sacrificed to idols.  But, you know it’s ok; our faith and love of God is strong. It could, in their minds, be a bad thing; therefore, your actions can, inadvertently, lead that person to go against his or her conscience and cause them to believe that their faith  or their relationship with God is now ruined because they ate previously sacrificed food. “Well, he’s eating it, why can’t I?” Then they feel guilty in that case. No love of God can grow.  So, Paul writes, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” So Paul abstains.

 As we grow toward full practice as an All-Inclusive Church, we do so combining our knowledge of God, what we think we know about God,  and our love for God and each other.  To practice all-inclusivity, I think means we realize that the higher law of love supersedes other lesser laws, be they biblical, religious, or cultural.  To practice all-inclusivity means we practice the law of love in our official welcome of all others, in making all our building and grounds accessible to all.  It means we examine our language and our technology and make changes so as not to deter anyone in their faith, love, and knowledge of God.

True authority come, I think when we act with knowledge and love of God in Christ combined.  Just having knowledge of church law and tradition by itself is limiting.  Just knowing about the authority that comes with ordination doesn’t go far enough.  Living only by the law can be detrimental.  Knowledge, by itself, puffs up, but add love, then faith is built up. Relationship with God is built up.  True authority combines both knowledge and love and important things happen.

 I recently was in conversation with someone who attends Weight Watchers.  At a recent meeting, the leader of the group asked everyone, “Why are you here?”  Several hands went into the air.  Some said, “I’m here to lose 30 lbs. by summer.”  Another said, “I’m here to lose 15 lbs. before I go on my trip to the Bahamas.”  A third said, “I want to look better and feel better.”  But, those answers didn’t seem to suffice fully enough.  The leader said, “Yes, I know all that.  But, why are you truly here?”  What the leader was getting at was that every attender should be there because they have a love for themselves, a love of their body, a love of life.  Combine that love with the knowledge of new eating habits, new lifestyle practices, strong determination, and the Weight Watchers point value system—that combination of love and knowledge is the only way one can lose weight and keep it off. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Combine the two, and you act with true authority.

 In a few minutes we will offer our reports on what ministry we did in 2017.  I invite all of us not just to offer reports, but let’s look at

how we combined our knowledge of God and our love of God together, so that what we did in 2017 actually built up faith and love in other people and in ourselves. That’s what the purpose of the church ultimately is… “To increase among men, women, youth and children the love of God and neighbor” (Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1956, p. 31).

Amen.

Holy Calling, Holy Changes

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 1: 14-20  Januayr 21, 2018

And Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may we hear your call and move with your Spirit as we respond.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 We are alive on planet earth, and that’s a wonderful thing, but living as a human being on this great planet earth is more than just being alive, breathing, and existing.  Many of us, if not each of us, in our own unique way, can hear a call from some part of our physical, natural world and identify with that call, can’t we?

Some sailors, for example, hear the call of the sea.  Something deep within their souls resonates with that call, identifies with the nature of the sea—the magnificence of its size, the free movement of its waves, its terrifying power, its placid beauty, and its life-giving properties.  Only certain folk hear the call of the sea, and when they do, there’s very little to stop that person’s heartfelt desire to get out on the open ocean, right?

Some hikers hear the call of the mountains and identify with that call in their own nature… it’s a place of challenge, of beauty, of awe and wonder, of ancient developments, of fantastic vistas, of life and death.  There’s very little to stop a person who hears the call of the mountains in their heart to find a way to get onto its slopes, right?

Some musicians hear the call of music deep within their souls.  There is very little to stop that person from identifying with that call within and will find themselves needing to do something more than just tap their feet to the beat.

Some hear the call of motherhood, of fatherhood, the call to be parents.  The nature of motherhood or fatherhood or parenthood, are, generally speaking, already engrained in us… and when that call is heard, all options are on the table to figure out how to have and raise a family.

I could go on, and I’m sure you could, too, but let me move forward and suggest that, like I’ve suggested before, in the spiritual life, things are not much different than the physical life.  Many of us, if not each of us, in our own unique way, can hear a call of our holy God. Before you say, “I’ve never heard the call of God,” hear me out. In fact, I think God’s holy call goes out to all people, to all human beings.  It can penetrate into our inner souls and touch the part of God’s nature that lives in us and is a part of us.  And, each of us can identify with God’s nature already within us.

We know at least some of the nature of God, right?  We know God’s nature is love.  We know also God is a God of justice, of peace, of inclusivity and non-partiality, of deep compassion for the poor.  We also know God is a holy God.  So, when you hear the call of God, I think it’s possible that God’s call is resonating with God’s nature of love, justice, peace, inclusivity and non-partiality, of compassion and holiness that already exists within us. God’s call touches us there at that deep level.

When Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the good news of God and that the kingdom of God was near, he was God’s holy nature in human form.  His voice called to Peter, Andrew, James and John and the rest of the disciples.  Immediately, his voice, his holy call to them penetrated into their souls, and I think touched the part of God’s nature that lived within them.  His voice touched God’s nature there in their hearts.

When that happened, the holy calling made for holy changes right away. It wasn’t like, “Oh geez, now I have something else to do in my busy day…” it was that they had a totally new identity.  The holy change was a new way of living.  It was not just a conscious change, but a sub-conscious one, too.  It was a total change.  From that point on, they no longer fished for fish; they would fish for people.  They were no longer focused on the family business, but they were focused on God’s business.

God was going to use them to bring others into God’s presence, grace and love.  They would help others know that God’s realm was near, indeed, it was within them.  God’s nature was part of their lives, and Christ Jesus was their teacher and guide helping them to understand that.  So, there was very little they could do to hinder the inner urge to follow Christ’s holy call because holy changes occurred within them.

Now, to be sure, we can resist that call and God’s nature in us.  We can, like Jonah, run in the other direction, which is what happened to him as recorded in the verses before our passage.  You know the metaphorical story… Jonah heard God the first time, Jonah resisted, he fled on land, on the ship, he was dumped in the sea, he was swallowed up by a big fish, and spewed up on land.  But, God was persistent, and the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

Likewise, we can ignore God’s holy call.  We can disregard God’s love, God’s sense of justice and inclusivity and non-partiality, we can snub God’s holiness and compassion deep within us.  We can let our own viewpoints, our own desires, our own designs on life we can figure on when, where, and how we want God’s call to be convenient for us.  We can demand that the call should go along with our own schedules… we can let all that be front and center in our lives, but actually, those will drown out God’s actual call to God’s nature that lives in us.

Sadly, there is no shortage of illustrations and examples of people drowning out God’s call to love and justice, peace and inclusivity, compassion and holiness.  Just look at the Turpin family and their house of horrors with their thirteen children.  Just look at human trafficking and the illicit sex trade that’s rampant around the world.  Just look at the opioid crisis all around us. Just look at the language from our leaders regarding other countries.  Just look at the dysfunctional systems and tax bills that widen the chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished.  Just look at the oppressive powers that still allow the dehumanization of our bodies in a variety of corporate, political, and entertainment industries.

We are to practice God’s nature that’s within us, and sadly, there many places where so-called Christians and other faithful people fail to regard God’s nature within.

Thankfully, God is persistent.  Eventually, when God called Jonah to be a prophet to Ninevah, even though he resisted at first, God’s call penetrated into his inner soul and touched the part of God that lived in him, and he was profoundly changed.  He grumbled most of the way, but He identified with that call; he moved with it; he reflected God’s holy nature that was in him when he spoke out against the evil ways of the Ninevites.  He called them to repent, and look what happened!  The holy call penetrated to the nature of God in their hearts, and they changed their ways.  And, God was merciful and changed plans regarding the calamity that was supposed to happen to the Ninevites.

Jesus’ holy call to repent is nothing short of making changes revealing the nature of God within us.

In no small way people in our day and age can listen to the holy call of God and, if desired, make holy changes, I think.  When we hear the holy call of God, can we respond to that holy call by practicing God’s nature that exists within us?  Something deep within our souls resonates with that call.  We have a new identity in Christ.  The holy change is a new way of living, of being, a new way of existing that is focused in on being about God’s business.

You’ve heard the phrase that is said every Christmas— “Keep Christ is Christmas.”  While I don’t agree with the saying as a rebuttal against the inclusive approach to the holidays, I do agree with an adaptation of that phrase which is “Keep Christ in Christian.”  I take that adaptation to mean that as Christians, we are to follow Jesus Christ.  We are to emulate God’s nature that was in him, and his very nature, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is breathed into us.  We are Christians because we have a holy calling by Christ.  We follow him, and we are changed by Him, and we practice his nature which is God’s nature, within us.

This happens in our lives.  God knows who we are, what we like to do, what our gifts are.  God understands our strengths and weaknesses, what we try to avoid, too.  In our families, can we respond to God’s holy calling by making holy changes of love?  In our professions and vocations, are we able to live out our holy calling to follow the Christ by practicing holy changes of peace and justice?  In our church, are we able to answer Christ’s holy call by making holy changes which shows God’s nature of inclusivity and non-partiality to all people?  To be an all inclusive church is to practice God’s nature within us, I think.  As we make our minds up about political issues, about problems in our society, are we able to do so in ways that reflect our holy calling and the holy changes occurring within us?  To let God’s nature within us influence us in how we respond to societal issues is to practice God’s nature within us, I think.

We have a holy calling from God in Christ, and the part of God

that lives in us, God’s nature, is love and holiness.  So we practice love and holiness.  We have the holy change of a new identity in us, it’s God’s nature of justice and peace, of inclusivity and non-partiality, of God’s compassion  within that is in us.  So we live with and practice all these.  And when we hear God’s holy call and respond to the holy changes within, there is very little to stop us from hindering the inner urge to follow Christ, and decide to be at his service for the many people struggling because of the issues within this world. There’s very little to stop us from being disciples from being the church.

May God help us practice God’s holy nature within us, for God’s purposes through and through.  Amen.