Sunday, June 08, 2008

Having trouble with the audio--

For the sermon from June 8. Will try to re-post Monday AM; sermon text is below.


Sermon from Sunday, June 8

Based on selected verses from 1 Cor 15.

I want to start this morning’s sermon by asking you to imagine in your mind a word that should describes the church experience. It could be this church, if you like, or any church. What is the one word that defines what church should be? Take a second and think of one. Got it? What is it? Any volunteers? Some common ones might be “friendly” or “spiritual” or “godly” or “mysterious” or “safe.” But let me give you a new word that I hope will be provocative and give you a lot to chew on today.
Church should be dangerous.
Now, I don’t mean dangerous in that you need to fear your physical safety or that you need to worry about having people angry with you. But I do mean dangerous, actual real danger; there ought to be a sense of nervousness, of discomfort, in church.
Now why would I say this? Why would a pastor who could very easily go along, keeping things comfortable, keeping things quiet, keeping things peaceable, tell you that church should be uncomfortable, that church should be dangerous? After all, from a personal standpoint, a peaceful, comfortable church is a church that is happy with their pastor, keeps the paychecks rolling in on schedule, and doesn’t cause too much trouble.
I say that church is dangerous because we sometimes forget what we are doing when we worship. To worship is to come into contact with the living God. To worship is to enter into the presence of God Almighty, the same God who appeared to the people of Israel on the mountain and they begged Moses to make God go away because they could not stand to be in his presence, so powerful and awesome. When we gather to worship, we invoke God’s presence, we ask God to be with us, and when we do that, we are asking exactly the opposite of what those people of Israel asked so long ago. We want to be in the presence, or so we say, of the refining fire of our God. Annie Dillard, a writer of the previous century, put it this way: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
There is a temptation to turn a blind eye to this reality; there is a temptation to “play church.” It is a bit like a circus performer walking a tight-rope. I looked at an old book this week called “Tumbling for Scouts.” It was written to introduce young boys to circus tricks and acrobatic kinds of tumbles. There was a chapter on walking the highwire. It had very little advice on how to do it, except to say, “Fix your eye on a definite point some distance away.” In other words, don’t look down. Develop tunnel vision. Look straight ahead, don’t dare look up or down; otherwise, you may be in danger. In the same way, we come to worship sometimes with tunnel vision. We know what we come to church for; we know our goals in coming to church on a Sunday morning. We know what we’re here for; to see our friends again, to sing songs, to pray, to play or listen to the bells, to sing in the choir or sing in the choir, to preach or to listen to preaching, to go to class and to learn. We keep our eyes fixed on the horizontal, straight ahead, on each other, and we forget sometimes that we call this place the house of the living God, and we ask him to be present with us. We forget in short how dangerous it is because we are focused on other things. And so with us this morning is the on e who blesses the world with life and inscrutably brings death in his time and in his way; with us this morning is the Spirit of the one who created the earth, the same spirit that animated Jesus to be born of a virgin and live a sinless life and die a painless death, the same Spirit that raised him from the dead. If you will take your focus off of whatever else you were expecting to see this morning, you will see him too.
This is why I say church is dangerous. And this passage that Jim read this morning is a dangerous passage. It is a passage that contains the seeds of revolution, because it dares to say there is something happening in the world beyond what we can see. If we believe it and give our lives to it, it is a passage of joyful hope; and yet if we do not believe it, it is a very threatening passage because it tells us that the other things we live our lives for, the other goals we have for our lives, are just not worth having. In a world that is about accumulating wealth and climbing a career ladder, this is a dangerous passage indeed; it means that those who believe it will have to live as strangers and aliens in such a world, in order to have the priorities of this passage.
Let’s examine this passage now to see what it has to say to us. The first thing we should see is that says, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Here, Paul briefly restates the mystery that is at the center of our faith: Christ has died, Christ was buried, and Christ has risen, and appeared first to Peter and then to the twelve disciples. The words are so rote to us, repeated so many times, that they may fail to register any emotional impact on us whatsoever. Yet consider what is being said: Christ died and is not dead anymore. No one has ever returned from the valley of death before but now Paul says in this revolutionary way that someone has, it was this man Jesus, and in so doing he punctured the power of death forevermore. This passage, in short, is a matter of life and death.
Furthermore, Paul says it is a matter of “first importance.” All through the book of 1 Corinthians, as we’ve read it so far, we’ve seen Paul telling people of differing opinions to get along. On the issue of meat being sacrificed to idols, Paul essentially says, “Some of you are going to think this is right, some of you are not, so you’ve got to find a way to get along and live together.” On the issue of whether people should get married or not, Paul says, “Some of you should, and some of you shouldn’t, but you should work it out and find a way to live together.” He says that people who became Christians under the ministries of different leaders should find a way to co-exist and live together.
But this is different. This is a matter of “first importance.” Paul doesn’t say, “If some of you believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, and some of you don’t, just find a way to get along despite your differences.” No, he says that this is a matter of first importance; to believe in the resurrection of Christ is at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.
In fact, in the church, there were people who said that Jesus was not raised from the dead, perhaps believing the resurrection was just a nice story, but not really true. In fact, these people believed that there was no resurrection, no life after death for anybody. Again, Paul has stern language for them: “…if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” In fact, Paul says, if there is no resurrection, we are even found to be misrepresenting God!” In other words, we’ve told you that this is straight from God. If it’s not true, we’re liars! And he goes on to say that this resurrection, Jesus’ coming back from the dead, is at the heart of the faith. It is at the very essence of what it is to be a Christian and Paul would say it is a non-negotiable. He says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. And those who have died in Christ also have perished.” In other words, if Jesus hasn’t been raised, you ain’t gettin’ raised either! And neither are your Christians friends and family who died before you. He closes with this tremendous rhetorical flourish: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there is nothing more than what’s in front of us, if the world is really just what we can see, then there’s just no point in it. Paul was thrown to wild animals for a time in Ephesus and fought them off, and he says, “Why would I put myself in such danger for just something earthly, something that exists here in this space and time? I only do that because there’s something more than I can see that I’m fighting for. I risk my life here because I believe that the secret of the universe is that there’s more life, eternal life, just beyond this.
When pushed as to what eternal life is like, Paul says, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. …then the saying that is written will be fulfilled, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?”
In this chapter, Paul invites us to consider something very few people are willing to consider today: that there is life beyond the grave, and that that life is given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is becoming an unfashionable reality in some circles; we live in a world dominated by science, and science cannot account for resurrection, and so many assume that it cannot be true. It is becoming an unfashionable reality even in many churches. Many churches know how hard it is to get people to believe in the resurrection, and so they shy away from talking about it. Other churches prefer to talk more about the changes the Gospel can make in our world today. And indeed, the Gospel should make a huge difference in the way we live in this world. But, begging Al Gore’s forgiveness, the inconvenient truth is that Paul says that the resurrection is the very central fact of the Gospel, the one thing on which the whole Christian project rises and falls. If the resurrection is true, we proclaim it from the rooftops and we re-arrange our whole lives to put the resurrection at the center. If Jesus’ resurrection is false, we may as well all go home and start sleeping in on Sunday mornings.
Sometimes we forget this, in our rush to do our business as a church. Sometimes we forget, in all our busy-ness, in all our hustle, in all of our ministries, and in all of the things we hope will happen in our church, sometimes we forget what this Christianity thing is all about. And this is it. The resurrection is what we live for—many have died for it, but we live for it! We are here this morning because Jesus died and rose so that death will have no dominion over us; we are here because something in us longs for others to know and understand this life that only Jesus gives. It is easy to forget this because we do not like to be uncomfortable; but as Paul says, this is a question on which a lot rises and falls. The question of whether you want to make the Resurrection the center of your life, whether you want to give your heart to the Risen Christ, is a question with which we all must reckon; and our task as a church (and my task as a minister) is not to keep you safe from having to make that decision, but to be here for you as you wrestle with it.
Maybe you have never thought of it this way before. To you, church was just something you do when you move into a new town; or something you do to be with friends. But I need to put a question before you this morning with some urgency: what if this is true? What if Jesus did indeed really live and really die? And what if the fundamental challenge of our life is not what we think it is? What if the fundamental challenge of our life is to accept that truth and to bring our whole lives into accord with it? What if he really was God, and what if he really did challenge us to follow him—to death, and to a resurrection? What if we are not called onto manage our spiritual lives, but to let our spiritual lives manage us? The world is a very complex place, but for all the complexity of the world, the main question of the world is very simple: what do you do with Jesus? Do you follow him with all your heart? Or do you keep him at arm’s length? Does he shape your hopes and dreams and fears and longings or is he living on the margin of your life and longing to be let in to the center?