Monday, April 25, 2016

Sin Not

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 5:38-48:

In the 8th chapter of the gospel of John, we find the story with which most of us are familiar.  Jesus is teaching in the Temple when the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who has been caught in adultery, the punishment for which is to be stoned to death. Of course the first question to ask might be, how did they exactly catch her, and the second is where is the man, because he is just as guilty and just as subject to the law and penalty. But neither of those two questions are asked, or answered, instead they ask Jesus what they should do with her.  It’s Jesus’ response that is the most famous, and one we might remember for next week’s message when we look at judgment, which is “let anyone who is among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Now it’s important to remember the setting of this scene, which is that it takes place at the Temple, and one of the things that happened at the Temple is that people would go there to make offerings to help atone for their sins. It was the place that you could hear doves cry. And so it’s not just a mental reminder that they have sinned, but there is also the visual reminder there of all the sacrifices that are being made at that time, and all the times the scribes and Pharisees have come to that same place to make their offerings for sin, and so with that statement, that reminder, they all walk away, leaving the woman behind.  Jesus then tells her that, just as those who have left have not condemned her, neither will he condemn her, and then says “Go your way, and, from now on, do not sin again.”

Today we continue in our series on the nots of Jesus, looking at Jesus’ injunction not to sin. You might have thought that would have been the passage I would have chosen for this, except I want to do something a little differently with this message then the way we have looked at Jesus’ injunctions not to fear or doubt, and it will also be very different from how other preachers would like at it, most especially non-Methodists, and that is because I’m not just going to talk about not sinning but to give you what is a uniquely Methodist take on this injunction, which is why we heard from Matthew this morning from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ statement to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect.

When looking at fear and doubt, I said that it I did not think Jesus was saying we should have no fear or doubt, but instead it was about facing them and working through those things so that we can use them to deepen our faith.  Now a fundamentalist might argue that I am totally wrong, that we are to truly seek to live a life without doubt or fear, that we should read these injunctions from Jesus literally.  But, they would then argue that we are not to seek to live without sin because such a thing is possible, largely because of their conception of human nature and original sin.  Mainly that we are, in theological language, totally depraved and that there is nothing redeeming within us. This is a Calvinist perspective of the world.  But I, as a Methodist, and an Arminian in theology, am going to argue the opposite and take the Methodist position that we are indeed to move onto perfection, or what’s sometimes called Christian Perfection, or the full technical term is entire sanctification.  When you have heard me say that we are moving onto perfection, this is what I am referring to.  It is a uniquely Wesleyan, or Methodist idea, and in fact, 6 months before his death in 1792, John Wesley said this idea was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised them up.”

But to understand this idea of perfection, we have to understand John Wesley’s ideas about God’s grace, because perfection is a doctrine of  God’s grace.  So we begin with prevenient grace. Before we even understand the idea of God, or of God’s grace, of the need for forgiveness, about the idea of sin, which is about brokenness, God’s love is already there and present for us, and it is offered to everyone.  While this has become a more standard belief for people, even those whose doctrine actually has them believing in limited atonement, that is that Christ only died for some, or only for the elect under the idea of predestination.  This was originally a Wesleyan idea, or at least the way Wesley understood it and presented it.  So God’s grace is there and available for everyone.  But, then once we are aware of the need for God’s grace, once we are aware of the broken relationships we have with each other and the broken relationship that we have with God, that is that we live in the midst of sin, then we come to realize the need for forgiveness and grace and mercy.  And, as part of that we also have to understand that there is nothing that we can do in order to save ourselves or to bring ourselves back into right relationship with God or one another.  That that work can only be done by God, and so we move to justifying grace, in which we accept God’s grace for ourselves.

Then this is where it gets a little more complex, and we could spend weeks discussing the idea of grace, but I’m not going to subject you to that because it can often be like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But it’s what happens at the moment of justification and what we are supposed to do about it that makes a difference among churches.  There is a segment of the church which wants to emphasize this moment in time, this moment in which we come into relationship with God, this moment in which we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and savior.  That wants to say if you say the right words, then you’re saved, you’re done and nothing else has to happen.  This is the side of the church that wants to emphasize what has come to be known as personal holiness, about our personal concerns and personal relationship with God.  This matches with a passage from Ephesians which says “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  We are saved by faith alone, not by works so it’s about the personal relationship with God.

But then there is another segment of the church which wants to say, “yea, that’s great, but it’s really about how we live our faith out in the world. It’s about feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned.  That’s what faith and religion are all about.”  This is the side of the church that emphasizes social holiness, being involved in the world, and while the personal side might be there, it’s not where their primary concern lies.  And so they look to the continuation of the Ephesians passage which says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  We are saved by faith alone, but then we are called to live into that faith, to begin doing good works and have those become our way of life.

What Wesley tried to do, and I think this was his genius was to combine these two sides, to say that they are both important, to combine social and personal holiness, to combine the head and the heart, and so Wesley said we need to have that moment of saying to God “here I am,” of accepting Christ’s saving actions on our behalf, and to realize it has nothing to do with us, and being transformed in our lives and relationship with God. But then to not just say “Here I am,” but also “send me.” To be transformed so that we might be transformative, to combine personal and social holiness.  We can even see this combining in the rules that Wesley set down for the earliest Methodist socities.  1. Do no harm, 2 do good, social holiness, and then 3. Stay in love with God, personal holiness.  Each of these builds and works with the others to form us so that we are living our lives each and every day more like Jesus.

But before we move into what that looks like and what Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, looks like, let’s talk for just a moment about what perfection is not.  The first thing is that it is not static, that is not something we hit and then think there is nothing else that we can do. That’s how we understand it in English, but the Greek word implies an ongoing search, that there is always room to do a little bit better.  It’s sort of like if we always go half the distance towards something that we will never really get there, so it’s a different understanding of perfection than what we normally have.  The second is that it does not free us from ignorance or from making mistakes.  Meaning that we can still spell words wrong, still make mistakes, or if we have been have been taught something wrong or are ignorant of something, nothing changes, so for example, if you are foolish enough to root for the Boston Red Sox, Christian Perfection will not solve you of that problem, made either from ignorance and wrong teaching, and these issues are not really sins, even if they might lead you to an unhappy life.  Perfection does not mean that we are freed from temptation, because even Jesus was tempted, but it means we are filled with sufficient grace to overcome temptation.   It does not free us from the infirmities of life, such as not having complete knowledge, there are still lots of things we won’t know, (finite people cannot have infinite knowledge) and it doesn’t free us from illness or disease. It does not free us from abandoning the worshiping community because not only can our example build up others, but others can still help us as well. It definitely does not free us from not having to engage in the world, that is we can’t lock ourselves up in a room in order to protect ourselves. Nor does it give us license to stop seeking to do good. In fact, the opposite is true that it should push us even more to be engaging with and in the world.  And finally is that it does not mean that we are without sin, as Wesley never used the term “sinless perfection.”

So what does it mean? When Jesus was asked for the greatest commandment he said that we were to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind and all of our strength, with all that we are and all that we have, and the second is just like it to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is what Wesley believed that it meant to seek after perfection, as well as what he said was at the heart of being a Methodist, was to love God and our neighbor.  That is what Wesley saw in Jesus’ teaching, and how he saw Jesus’ understanding of perfection,  That love is not just present but that love is so in control so that  “all thoughts, words and actions are governed by pure love.” And when our heart are so full of God’s love that we could no longer willfully sin  So it’s not about saying “today I’m going to try not to sin,” but instead every day to try and love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor. Simple right?

Except, of course, it’s not.  But the key to understanding this is to remember that it’s not entirely up to us, that we have to rely on God and be willing to turn our lives over to God and to understand God’s will for our lives and to try and live in a distinctly different way.  So in today’s passage Jesus says that we are to be perfect, and before that are the examples I think he is showing of what that looks like, which includes things like turning the other cheek, or not striking out in retaliation, giving above and beyond what people have requested from you, which I hope you’ll all remember next time I ask you for something, and to love and pray for your enemies. That means that to live into God’s love we have to live differently than we are taught to live, than society tells us to live, and maybe even differently than we are inclined to live, and that’s why this thing that we are called to do is so incredibly hard.  GK Chesterton said "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

But that’s where we must come back again to realizing that we cannot do this alone. That’s why we pray to God, “thy will be done,” and either we mean that or we don’t.  When Wesley was challenged on his idea of Christian perfection, which happened a lot, his most common response was that God tells us to love God with all our heart, which means that there is no part which doesn’t love God, and that God can accomplish what God intends, which therefore means we can achieve this, not at our death, which is not what the scripture says, but here and now, in this life, that we are to be transformed by grace.  And if we believe that sin is too powerful to be overcome to have our hearts filled with love means that we believe that sin is more powerful than God’s grace. So which do we believe has more power sin or grace? I’m going with grace.

So what does this look like when it is achieved, or at least when we get close? Wesley said that “humility and patience are the surest proof of an increase in love.”  You know that patience is a virtue, so hurry up and get some.  He said that it looked like the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control.  And that the love looked like what we find in 1 corinthians 13 that love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrong but in the right, and that it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

Now here is the good news for the guys is that while Wesley did accept the testimony from some people that they had indeed achieved entire sanctification, all of those were from women. I think that’s because Wesley understood what men are like, and that includes never believing that he himself had achieved this state.  But the bad news is this is never a permanent state, because it’s a constant battle to seek to live like Christ.  Every day is a new opportunity to do better than we did the day before, but it’s also possible for us to slide backwards away from where we had been.  Which, again, means that we have to remember that we cannot do this alone, but that we need to ask for God’s power and strength to help us through this process and to continue to ask for God’s forgiveness and to get up every day seeking to do God’s will and asking that everything that we do might be to God’s glory.

But here is the last piece of good news.  There is an old Jewish story that says that at birth we are connected to God by a long string.  But every time we sin, that string is broken and we are disconnected from God.  I like this story because I like that understanding of sin.  And so if we do nothing, then we remain disconnected from God.  But if we ask for forgiveness, if we repent, then God ties the string and we are reconnected.  And then we sin, and it’s broken, and seek forgiveness and it gets tied.  But we find is that the more knots that get tied, the shorted this string gets, which means the closer we get to God, not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done for us, reminding us that our goal is to be in relationship with God, and most importantly that we cannot do this alone.

Jesus tells us to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, which happens when we not just say that we are to love God and our neighbor, but when we genuinely seek to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our minds and all of our strength, with everything we have so that there is nothing available for anything else but God’s love, and to love the world and our neighbor through that love and to remember that it’s not up to us, but that we are reliant upon being transformed by Christ, the one who said I will die for you, that as we hear in Galatians, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  I pray that it will be so. Amen.

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