SERMON NOTES for 072218:
(TEXTS: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22)
From the perspective of the Covenant of God with Abraham and his descendants, the human race was divided into two groups: Jews and Gentiles (literally “races” or “peoples”). Paul calls them “circumcised and uncircumcised” (Eph 2:11). That’s it. The whole human race divided into “God’s covenant people” and “everyone else”. Which may sound harsh and cynical and frankly pretty narcissistic of the Hebrew people and stingy of God. Till you actually hear WHY the children of Abraham were called:
Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:1-3)
BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING
Abraham was promised that, through the covenant God was establishing, the world would experience blessing. That was the purpose of the special relationship. The people often lost sight of that. The covenant became a source of pride rather than humility, and the covenant became a wedge and a hammer rather than a source of healing and flourishing. Until finally Jeremiah had to say, “You’re going to be in captivity 70 years for your faithlessness. And after that time God will redeem and restore you.
In the meantime... return to your first purpose. Bless your neighbors. Put down roots and commit to your community like you love it, like you need it and they need you. For you will only be able to experience God’s blessings to the degree that you first bless others.” (Jeremiah 29:4-15 paraphrase) Those people in that other group, the ones who you consider “outsiders”, love them as you love me.
And then along comes Jesus, who “breaks down the dividing wall and the hostility between us, making of the two groups one people.” (Eph 2:14-16). Because of the work of Christ on the cross, there are no longer two groups of people. There is just one chosen people, the human race. The call still exists to be a blessing. Its extends now to all humanity, and those who hear it are drawn into it. Whether people recognize, believe, accept or embrace this, it is a true and completed fact. God has extended the call of “blessed to be a blessing” to the whole human race. Jesus is the redeemer and savior of all. There are no insiders and outsiders any longer. There are no hoops to jump through or requirements to meet.
YOU ARE BELOVED. YOU BELONG.
The witness of the gospel of Jesus as Paul articulates it to the Ephesians is that God through Jesus has done away with the distinctions that used to separate Jew from Gentile – chosen from excluded. The church has spent much time, spilling measureless ink and blood, to declare and prove that some are IN while others are OUT. It continues today, with people still arguing in word and practice the following: Male = In / Female = Out. Straight = In / Gay = Out. Rich = In / Poor = Out. White = In / Everyone Else = Out. God declares that the dividing walls are torn down. The borders and barriers that we erect between us, and even that scripture has been interpreted to construct, are eliminated.
You don’t have to change to belong. You already belong. Everyone belongs. Welcome home.
As you come, allow God to continue working in and through you to move toward fullness and flourishing. God accepts and welcomes us as we are, but does not leave us such. God calls and crafts us forward from chaos to wholeness.
Hebrews 2:10 reads: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” The Greek word used here is teleio. This word can mean perfect, but a better translation (given our modern connotations of that word) would be complete or whole. If you’ve been working on a 5000 piece puzzle and you fit in the last few pieces, then the puzzle has reached its telos – its intended end or purpose. It is now complete, whole, perfect. You can see the full image in all its beauty and complexity and the puzzle has and is fulfilling its purpose.
Jesus needed to suffer not because suffering itself is a means to perfection, but because without that Jesus would not be complete as our mediator. Jesus-as-God-in-flesh must undergo the full human experience, which includes suffering and death. Only then is Jesus complete, whole, perfect. Only then is the puzzle of the Messiah finished. Jesus even said from the cross, “It is finished.” This was not an affirmation of suffering itself, but a declaration that through his own suffering on the cross he had achieved full and final union with humanity, and thus was able to redeem the fullness of humanity not in his death but through conquering death in the resurrection.
Unfortunately, this one verse has been used by the church for two millenia to justify the use of suffering as a means to sanctification and perfection of the followers of Jesus. This is blasphemy. We already suffer. If human suffering could have been redemptive then we would not have needed Jesus to join fully divinity and humanity in one being. You do not need to suffer to experience God’s salvation. Christ has suffered for you.
And yet, Jesus also calls us to take up our cross and follow him. The author of Hebrews references the sufferings of his own audience (10:32-39). He states explicitly that “[Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…” including “sharing in their flesh and blood” and thus their sufferings. (2:14-18)
Biblical perfection – “Be perfect as God is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) – means to be mature, whole and complete, and thus to fulfill one’s end or purpose. It is not about never making mistakes, nor ever changing one’s mind. It is not about flawlessness of speech or skin. This phrase from Matthew could be understood in this way: Seek God’s measure of perfection rather than the world’s measure, for “humans look on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
God does not seek to shape our hearts by suffering, but to redeem our sufferings. Jesus became “perfect” in that he was fully like us only when he suffered and died, thus making him able to redeem and transform our humanity fully. When we “take up our cross” for the sake of the gospel we are following Jesus’ example of accepting suffering and hardship rather than forsake the calling and turn our backs on those Jesus desires to reach through you and me. God does not will or desire that we suffer. God recognizes that we will, and becomes our ally and advocate by joining fully in our suffering. When we suffer for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of justice and righteousness on behalf of the kingdom of God, then our sufferings become efficacious because they are joined with those of Christ (Colossians 1:24). When we willingly endure suffering for the sake of others this becomes our testimony to them – an extension of Jesus’ own testimony of suffering for the sake of the world. It becomes our solidarity with God-in-Christ and with the world Jesus came to save.
Jesus suffered so that you would not be alone in your suffering, and so that through his own suffering, death and resurrection he might transform all suffering. God does not directly answer the question “Why is there suffering?” or “Why does God allow suffering?”. God’s response to those queries is Jesus. “I am with you. You are not alone. Your suffering is not the final word. Death is not the final word. I will redeem, restore, make new. I have (already) reconciled to myself all things through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.”
We might wish, hope and long for a God who would eliminate suffering. This is fruitless. Rather, we have a God who comes to be one of us, to undergo all things in human experience, and thus is able both to understand and to redeem.
Whatever you’re going through, you are not alone.
God really does understand and really does care.
This is cause for hope. This is Good News.