"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Final Sermon (moved)

Note: This sermon was given this morning to a congregation determined to rush headlong into a world of cultural psuedo-christianity which will eventually be the end of their existence as a congregation. They know this. There is a marked final attempt at innoculation going on here, along with some exegesis, an undertone which admits to my own failure there and a sentimental farewell.

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There were a number of different groups in the early church who claimed to have the true teaching of the Christian faith. Every group claimed to be Christian, and sometimes they sounded pretty good. Paul wrote the majority of his letters either because there were disagreements within a believing church or because one or more of these groups was luring a local church towards a false gospel. Paul gets the short end of the stick in modern liberal scholarship. They accuse him of inventing his own religion, hating women, hating homosexuals, being hard-hearted and basically a jerk. I know a lot of people who won’t read Paul or try to argue that Jesus said one thing and Paul said another.

But if you take the time to get to know Paul, you’ll meet a man who tried to do nothing more than follow Jesus and love him and make him known far and wide. Paul is driven by his own sense of sinfulness. He knows what damage he did to the church when he was a Jew, how he persecuted the Christians. He knows he’s unworthy of any favor from God, but that God redeemed him anyway, through no merit of Paul’s. He knows that he has been blessed with a responsibility to share the good news of Christ Jesus, and he moves mountains to do just that. For the sake of the Church, he leaves his home, goes on three long and dangerous voyages, is beaten, shipwrecked three times, arrested, tried, run out of town, accused, lashed with whips. Eventually he’s even executed.

And even in today’s short reading, we see something of this Paul. He’s not a hard hearted man, though he must often be firm with those he instructs. He never fails to send them warm greetings, he tells the churches he misses them and that he will come to see them as soon as he is able. In today’s reading he tells the Philippians about some of those false teachers who are trying to sway the church away, but he does not do so with arrogance, rather he tells them with tears. He is not afraid to admit that he is shedding tears over the souls of those who would lead the church astray. Perhaps he is recalling God’s word that those who presume to teach will be judged more harshly, and those who lead the little ones astray may as well have a millstone around their necks and be thrown into the sea. Paul grieves over the fate of the enemies of the Gospel. This is no hard man.

Paul is warning the Philippians about a group whose heresy is what we now call antinomianism. It’s a large word, but if you take it apart it make sense. Anti, you can probably guess, means agaisnt. The rest of the word is rooted in the Greek word nomos which means "law". In other words, antinomianism believes there is no law, no rules, your behavior doesn’t matter in the least. Jesus saves you, but you don’t have any duty to amend you life. It takes the idea that we’re saved through no merit of our own, a right and good belief, and doubles it back in an unhealthy way. It is, what the apostle James calls faith without works, and that, he says is "dead."

Christians throughout time have fallen prey to antinomianism. False teachers arise telling people, as the gnotsics of the early church said, that the physical world is worthless so it doesn’t matter what you do with your body. Do whatever you want. Others have said that since Jesus fufilled the law, it is now totally irrelevant, and they pick and choose sections of Paul’s writing (while ignoring the whole meaning of those passages, tossing out the importance of reading his words in context, which we discussed last week) to try to prove their wrong-headed point. But Paul himself says that though we are not saved by our merit, indeed we are saved by God’s gracious work alone, "should we then sin more so that grace may abound? By no means!" Instead we are instructed to work out our faith with fear and trembling.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers us an image of what those who do not try to amend their lives to please God will come to be like. He says their god is their belly. Their own appetites are what they worship. They believe that if they want something, even if it’s bad for them or against God’s will, they should go get it. Things that are shameful, behaviors that should considered to be repugnant and mortifying become their pride and joy. Parade your sins and fallen nature in the streets! Be proud! Though God should be their only glory, they glorify in their shame and sin. But Paul says of these people, their end is their own destruction. Their mind is on earthly things, things which will pass away. There is nothing eternal or good or healthy awaiting those who put their stock in this fallen world. Self-esteem may be the modern necessity, we think it is vital that we feel good about ourselves at all costs. The cult of the self-esteem god is just another disguise for antinomianism.

But we are to be different. We are not to put our stock in things that are passing away… our citizenship is in heaven. We know that we need to be saved from this sinful world, not revel in it. And our savior is coming to us from the kingdom we are destined to inherit, the kingdom of heaven. And he is the one who has the power to bring everything, our sin and shame, our temptation and suffering, the world and all that is in it, under his control. Our lowly sinful bodies will be restored, free from temptation, sin, degradation and rot. Our lowly sinful bodies will be victorious and made like him, glorious and holy.

Modern antinomianism can sound appealing. I’m okay and you’re okay. Live and let live. But the Gospel says I’m not okay and neither are you. As nice and friendly as it may sometimes sound, all this modern heresy will get you is, well, to quote a song from the 1990’s… the band They Might Be Giants (a secular group, if you’re curious) is spot on when they sang "we were once so close to heaven, Peter came out and gave us medals, declaring us the nicest of the damned."

Those who follow the antinomians make the life of the Christian sound onerous. To them we are the people who don’t do what they see as good and fun. And it is true that we don’t glory in their shameful glory. But the task is not an onerous one. The famous Christian theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, said it this way: Only the man who follows the command of Jesus single-mindedly, and unresistingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.

And so we come, as A.A.Milne said in his Winnie the Pooh books, to the end, and it’s time to say goodbye. If you recall those lovely stories, Pooh Bear asks can’t we just go back to the beginning and start over? Would that we could. I hope, in all these months, I have left you with something good, a better sense of our God, a little growth in the right direction. I told Maxine last week that I had wanted oh so much more for this little church. My heart is heavy to say goodbye. This week a dear friend posted this poem on her blog. She felt it appropriate to the current issues in the Episcopal Church… I shall close by sharing it with you, for here also it is fitting.

If Everything is Lost, by Dom Julian

If everything is lost, thanks be to God
If I must see it go, watch it go,
Watch it fade away, die
Thanks be to God that He is all I have.
And if I have Him not, I have nothing at all.
Nothing at all, only a farewell to the wind
Farewell to the grey sky
Goodbye, God be with you, evening October sky.
If all is lost, thanks be to God,
For He is He, and I, I am only I.

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