Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, April 22

Well, Gracie celebrated her birthday this past Thursday. That’s right, the big “0-1.” Gracie didn’t really seem to know it was her birthday, and really, it was not a very exciting day by anyone’s standards. Jill had to teach her class at Bryn Mawr, as she does each Thursday, so my mom came up to watch Gracie. I had my class at Drew (only two more-hooray!) so I left early in the morning to get a few hours’ work in here at the church before shooting up to school and getting back well after she was in bed. Not a whole lot special happened, really; in fact, Jill and both thought it was just as well that she didn’t know it was her birthday anyway. Next year and in the years to come, I don’t think we’ll get away with not marking her birthday.

We did have a party for her a couple weeks back, on the Saturday before Easter. Jill’s parents and two of her sisters and their families were visiting and so my family came up and we had a little party for her. Now, in case you didn’t know, we are classic first-time parents when it comes to what Gracie eats. She eats a lot of fruits, a lot of vegetables, and not a lot of junk food. Actually, not really any junk food at all. Some of her favorite snacks are bananas, cheese, cheerios, plain yogurt and whole wheat bread. She doesn’t know anything at all about the wide world of junk food yet–she knows nothing about Doritos, chocolate, or milkshakes.

But on her birthday, Jill made her a cake–a cake shaped like a bunny. And since Gracie like bananas so much, Jill made it a banana cake–with cream cheese icing. And, encountering what was just about the first junk food of her life, she wolfed it down. I mean she packed it in, icing and all, in record time. We crumbled it up on her tray, and not long after, it was gone. Just gone.

We haven’t gotten the cake out again, nor do we intend to give her any cake again for a long, long time. We’re afraid that once she knows what cake tastes like, it’ll be hard for her to be content with oatmeal again. So we put the cake away in hopes that if she only had it once, she might not remember it–or if she did remember it, she might think it was a dream or something. Once you get a taste for cake, all kinds of bad things can happen, right?

The image in the Scripture passage we have read this morning is very similar to this. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of knowing Jesus as “tasting the heavenly gift.”

Listen again to what the writer says:
It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who once have been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away.
Do you see what the writer is saying? The reference seems to be people who at one point have been Christians and now are pursuing another direction with their lives. And he says, “If they have tasted all of this: the enlightenment, the Holy Spirit–if they have tasted God’s goodness!–and have said, ‘Eh, I don’t really much like that...I don’t really much care for that...’ if they have tasted the very goodness of God and rejected it, there’s just no hope for them!

It would be like Gracie having cake–wonderful, rich, moist banana cake–and throwing it off her tray and demanding more barley cereal and egg yolk. If Gracie did that, we would say, “Is there something wrong with her? How could she eat cake and not like it? How could she try this new sweet food and then demand her old boring stuff? Similarly here, the writer says, “If you have tasted this new life with God and then you want your old life back, there’s just something wrong with you. If you have known what it’s like to worship, to pray, to be changed, to be set free–and you want to go back to slavery, I just can’t help you. There’s nothing that can be done for a person like that.”

I wonder if you have ever thought of the Christian life in this way. Not simply a series of duties that must be kept, not simply a series of beliefs to which you must assent. Although belief and duty are certainly part of the faith, they are not the whole thing. At the core of the Christian life, though, there is this experience with God; there is this relationship, this profound give and take between Christ and his beloved, that is so sweet, if you know it.

At the heart of it, the Christian life is this experiential relationship. For example, the Christian life is prayer. When we face trouble, we Christians pray about it, and then we watch to see what God is going to do. We are never sure–will God answer this in the way we hope for? Will he not? Will there be some other answer we are not expecting? This is not doctrine, this is not duty, but this is life, and it is so sweet–each day we walk with a God who walks with us and gives us what we need to survive and challenges us to grow.

The Christian life is also worship. Every day, and each week especially, we are told to come to a place apart from the world. We are asked to come to worship, and hear the word of the Lord. And when we hear the word of the Lord, we realize how sweet it sounds compared with the harsh sounds from the rest of the world. Whereas the world demands we produce and achieve, the word of the Lord says, “Come, you weary, and I will give you rest;” You are loved and you are accepted. Worship is not simply a duty, but it is part of the life God calls us into, a life with God that is so much sweeter than our life without God.

The Christian life is also becoming part of a new community. When we become part of a church, we become part of a new community that is different from the rest of the world; we are made brothers and sisters with the saints and apostles, and even Jesus himself deigns to call us his brother. In a world where friendship and brotherhood and sisterhood are hard to come by, the church gives us something sweet and new and different.

The point of this passage is that if you have experienced this sweetness; if you have experienced the peace of prayer, the joy of worship, the new home and the new family; if you have received all of these sweet gifts from God, and still you go back? There’s just nothing much that can be done for you at that point. If you get this life which is nothing but cake and still you go back to oatmeal?

Yet the goal for the writer is not simply to enjoy this sweet life. There is a way in which to truly take part in the sweet life means you have to be progressing in it; to truly be a part of it means that you have to grow. This is why the writer says, “Therefore let us go on toward perfection; leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation.” And this is how the writer defined the foundation: repentance, faith towards God, baptism, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. These things constituted the “foundation” of the faith and the writer was not keen to continually be talking about this. These constituted the basics, and the writer wanted his people to grow deeper in their knowledge and in their experience of this sweet life.

I wonder if you have considered this for your own life today. To truly enter the sweet life, to truly enjoy the good life that God has given to his children, means that we have to be growing, we have to be pressing on toward perfection. There is a foundation which has been laid: you know the story about Jesus, his sinless life, his death for you, his glorious resurrection. You know the foundation: you know that the Bible is an inspired book whose words both are and bear witness to the Word of God; you know the church is a gathering of God’s people for worship together and mutual support and encouragement. You know the foundation–it is well built, and it is solid.

Let me encourage you, though, that today is a day where we must consider how it is we are pressing on toward perfection. Today is a day where we must consider what we are building on top of the foundation, on top of the basics. So let me ask the question in a rather blunt way: What is your plan for pressing on toward perfection? Something major like pressing on toward perfection, something the writer of this passage says is key to the sweet Christian life, deserves a plan. And yet many of us go through life without a plan like this, not pressing on toward perfection, content to remain where we are. The old saying still rings true: failing to plan is planning to fail. I don’t say that to judge anyone; I know that was a reality in my own life for a long time. I wanted to press on, but I wasn’t really taking steps to do so when the rubber met the road. Consequently, I stayed stagnant and didn’t really press on toward perfection in my life.

Last week, I mentioned that the Council and I have talked about a new initiative called “Worship + 2.” “Worship + 2" is a focus that has been adopted by several different churches of a few different denominations. Essentially, the idea is that we want to re-define what it means to be a Christian or part of a church. In many churches, the message (whether stated or unstated) is that being a church member is simply a matter of paying a pledge, and showing up when you can. At ECBC, we want to say that being a Christian is more than that–it is something that shapes our whole lives. It is the foundational commitment that shapes all of our other commitments.

The phrase “Worship + 2" means that for us, a normal part of being part of ECBC is, first, to attend worship regularly. We are better in that department than we have been, although the reality is that last week I preached about worship attendance to about 60-65 people after we had had 150 or so people here the week before for Easter Sunday. As leaders of this church, the Council and I want to hold up to you as normative, that when we are in town, we come to worship as a way of demonstrating our support for each other and honoring the importance of worship in our lives. We know we are a church of travelers, and yet it is that very consistency in gathering together that gives the church meaning in our lives, and so it’s important for us to be faithful in worship attendance.

The other part of the phrase is “+ 2.” By this the Council and I mean that, beyond your worship involvement, being a healthy part of the church means involvement in two other groups in our church. One group is a group where we are taking in: this is a group where we learn, where we are nourished and are equipped and can make closer friendships with other Christians. This may be a Sunday School class, or another Bible study, or some other sort of group that strengthens and shapes you for service. The other group is a group where we are giving out: this is a way of serving the church or the community, giving back to others. In our church, this takes place through the work of ministry teams. Someone who takes “Worship + 2" seriously is worshiping regularly, being nourished regularly and serving regularly.

So I’m in the process of taking three Sundays to talk about these three different commitments that are so vital to the long-term health of our church. Last Sunday, like I said, I talked about worship. And today, I’m talking about the first other group, the group where we are taking in or being nourished. Because in our church, it is these groups that help us to press on toward perfection. These groups are where we gather together and something gets laid on top of the foundation; these groups are where we are nourished and strengthened for service. In your Sojournal at home, or on the website, you have a complete list of them. They include bible studies, youth group, Sunday school classes, and the Wednesday evening time of prayer. In all of these events, we are nourished and we begin to press on toward perfection. Yet fewer than half of our church’s regular attenders take advantage of these opportunities. This is a very important reality for us to face as we consider what it means to be a healthy, growing, vibrant church. We need to press on toward perfection.

But I also want to be honest with you and recognize that we don’t have a perfect list of opportunities for nourishment and growth. You may look at the list when you get home and say, “Gosh, I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like there’s something there for me.” And that’s OK–you know, it’s good to be honest with yourself and your church! We might not have exactly what you need–it’s hard sometimes to know how to plan and who to plan for. That’s just reality.

So what I did was to print up some little “I wish...” slips which you’ll find in your bulletin. And if you have an idea for a study or a group that you think might really help you in your pressing toward perfection, let us know about it! Just fill out the form, telling us what kind of group you think would be good. You’ll also see on the bottom a chance for you to say, “I don’t only want this to happen, I’m willing to help make it happen.” And we’ll try to work together to make these dreams happen; we’ll try to work together to help all of us–not just half, but 100%–find constructive ways to press on toward perfection. That’s my goal as a pastor, because I see it as part and parcel of equipping you to live godly lives–helping you press on toward perfection.

The writer has harsh language for people who taste a little bit of God’s sweetness and then decide to turn back, decide not to press on toward perfection. He says “on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” This is really strong language; they are crucifying the Son of God, holding him up to contempt. I pray that in your life, in the next week, in the next month, in the next year, you take seriously the call to press on toward perfection. To fail to do so, to remain where we are, is to reject the sweet life God has given us; it is to show contempt for a sweet gift of God. Take a chance this week and this month to plan how you press on toward perfection. And please–let our church help.