Sunday, June 26, 2016

Setting Our Face

1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy,drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:1-6, 13-25 NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up," we read in our Gospel today, “[Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem.” 

Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. There is a single-mindedness of purpose here in the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, a chapter that begins what is often called the “traveling texts.” Ten full chapters. Nearly half of Luke’s Gospel.  Why so much space to get to Jerusalem?

If one reads through these chapters as we will in the coming weeks, it is immediately apparent that these are teachings texts.  Texts for intensive disciple-training. Jesus knows his time with the disciples is limited. He knows that soon they will arrive in Jerusalem and he will be arrested, crucified and die at the hands of the people. And so, he has turned not only his body, but his entire being towards Jerusalem, focused both on what is to come and on what he must do in preparing the disciples for once they arrive. There is a single-mindedness of purpose shown here by Jesus. Forward-looking to Jerusalem and even beyond Jerusalem, to the very ends of the earth. 

Jesus set his face forward.

Have you set your face forward, too, with the same single-mindedness of purpose as Christ?

Over these past five weeks, we’ve been immersed in our Galatians readings, texts that tell us how we have been freed from the law. That we have been freed from the law for freedom. In verse 1 of chapter 5: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The law no longer matters. The law no longer counts. 

And what does count? Well, we read in verse 6: “...the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

This is, in a way, the irony of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is the irony of their freedom--the irony of ours, as well.  We have been freed from the law to do the work of faith which is, in fact, the work of the law. No, it’s not works such as circumcision, food laws, or the like. But, it is the work of living out the ethical core and central command of the law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In freeing us, Christ has released us from our own bondage to sin, not so that we might be self-indulgent, but that through love we might become slaves to our neighbors, slaves to one another. 

The Tree is Life is an epic film by producer Terence Malik that centers around a Texas family in the 1950s. It follows the life journey of the oldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile an internal emotional conflict caused by the two completely different ways of living taught by his parents--the way of nature or the way of grace. Let’s watch the opening scene

This struggle of the oldest son is our struggle. It is a struggle laid out in this beginning scene--between the way of nature, or as Paul names it, the way of the flesh, versus the way of grace, or the way of the Spirit.

The way of nature, or the way of the flesh, is the way of self-indulgence. It is a way of living produced by selfish motives, where “I” comes before “we.” It is exemplified by behaviors that Paul lists in verses 19-21 of our text: things like, doing whatever feels good, hate, fighting, losing your temper, group rivalry, jealousy, and the like.

Living in the way of the flesh cheapens the gift of grace given to us by God in Christ.

The other way, the way of grace, or of the Spirit, stands in complete opposition to the way of the flesh. It is a way of living that is exemplified by selflessness, where “we” comes before “I.” It is a way of love that is characterized by service to others, where one’s selfishness has been crucified and replaced with the fruits of the Spirit in verses 22:23: love, joy, peace, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control--the fruits of living in the way of the Spirit. 

The way of the Spirit is the way of discipleship.

Have you set your face forward? Or, better yet, how have you set your face forward? 

Is your face set forward with the single-mindedness of purpose that comes out of living in the Spirit? Or is it set forward with a focus on living out the selfish desires of your flesh? 

In verse 16 of the NRSV translation of our text, we read that we should live by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh. It’s a both/and proposition. Do one and don’t do the other.

A better translation of this verse, though, is this: “I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires.” Here’s it’s a cause-and-effect proposition. If we are guided by the Spirit, if we live in the way of the Spirit, then we won’t carry out our selfish desires. We will become less and less guided by the flesh and more and more guided by the Spirit.  

Is this easy? To follow in the way of Jesus? No, it isn’t. It isn’t easy to love when the world says hate. It isn’t easy to show self-control when the world says do whatever feels good. To speak peace when the world screams fight. To be faithful when the world throws idol after idol our way.

But, this way--the way of grace, the way of the Spirit--is the way of the kingdom of God. It is the way of Christ and the way to which Christ calls us: to deny ourselves, to take up his cross daily, and to follow him. 

It is the way of freedom. A way where we are, as Luther wrote, a servant to none and a servant to all. It is the way to life.

So, set your face forward. Set your face in freedom toward Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth, walking in the way of the Spirit--the way of life, the way of the kingdom of God.


Preached at Chatfield Lutheran Church - 6th Sunday after Pentecost (June 26, 2016)
Texts: Galatians 5:1-6, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Radical Struggle

Galatians 2:15-21 (NRSV). 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I want to talk today about struggle. About the struggle to be radical. As people of God, about our struggle to be followers of a radical Gospel.

I bet I already know what you’re thinking.  This intern. More specifically, this intern who has spent nearly all of her adult life in California. Right? This kind of stuff--this radical stuff--well, it will never fly here in Minnesota. Right?

So, humor me a little this morning. Allow me to explain how I came to this topic.  And in the process of my explanation, I’m going to break a primary rule of preaching, one that my preaching professor hammered into us. This is the rule to never exhibit one’s exalted knowledge of Greek in a sermon.

Since I figure I don’t have much of an exalted knowledge of Greek, it’s not a huge concern. So, I’m going to break the rule.

I want you to consider three words in our Galatians text today.   Here they are: πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.  

This phrase, or some version of it, shows up three times in the seven verses of today’s reading from Galatians. The phrase shows up twice in verse 16. Whenever a word or a phrase shows up several times in a verse or a series of verses, well, that’s like a red flag waving at you.  It’s something to take note of.  

If you take the words one by one, the translation seems pretty simple. The first word of this phrase mean “faith.” The second and third words mean “Jesus Christ.” Simple, right? It’s not. Because how the words are translated and used in a sentence can make a huge difference, just as in English. So, it’s really not so simple. But, I’ll get to that in a minute or so.

Up until this point in his letter to the Galatian churches, Paul has laid out the facts. He’s like an attorney. He’s put forward the story of what happened--the narrative of facts that have established his authority as an apostle of Christ and his basis for ministering to the Gentiles. 

But, here. Here in verses 15-21, in our reading today--and, specifically, in verse 16--Paul lays out his main point. This is his thesis statement. It is the heart of his letter. It’s also the heart of his theology. And, coincidence or not, it is here, in verse 16, where this Greek phrase--πίστεωςἸησοῦ Χριστοῦ--appears twice.

Each week, as I’m preparing to write my sermon, it’s always my practice to read the appointed text for the day in several different translations.  I usually start in the New Revised Standard Version--the NRSV--which is the translation we usually use in worship. I also always read it in the Common English Bible translation--the CEB--which is a new translation that I like a lot.  I’ll also read it in a few other translations. 

Why do I do this? It’s because I want to see and to compare the decisions that translators have made in interpreting the texts.  Translators make decisions when they are translating. They interpret.  As a preacher, I also make decisions in interpretation. And as believers and hearers of God’s Word, well, you make interpretation decisions, too. 

So, imagine my surprise when I read our Galatians text for today in both the NRSV and the CEB. I’ve put the texts side-by-side in today’s bulletin for you, so that you, too, can see the differences. I’d call your attention, especially, to verse 16 and the phrases in bold. These phrases are the translators’ interpretations of the three Greek words I mentioned earlier.  

Do you see the difference? One version--the NRSV--translates the three word Greek phrase as “faith in Christ.” The CEB translates it as “faithfulness of Christ.”

That's a big difference. My first reaction to this--coming from my very Lutheran framework of belief and understanding--was that this newer translation had to be wrong. So, I researched the phrase. And I found out that the phrase is, indeed, ambiguous and can be translated either way.

At first, I thought that this newer translation might have the potential to challenge my Lutheran belief system, and yours, too. My own understanding of justification--that we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by works. So, I initially intended to play it safe today. To use the NRSV--the translation that seemed to fit best within my Lutheran framework.

But the other translation continued to nag at me all week.  I couldn’t get it out of my mind. All week long, I wrestled with it.  

Have you ever had something like that happen to you? Had a phrase from Scripture stick in your mind and keep bugging you? Have someone come into your life and upset your routine, maybe challenge your belief system a little, and know that you should, perhaps, pay attention to them, yet who you can't wait to get rid of so you can get back to normalcy? Have you ever struggled with playing it safe instead of being radical?

A few years ago in my church in Pasadena, we experienced this. For several years we had professed and believed that we were a hospitable congregation, welcoming all people. And, for the most part, we were.

Yet, we had a problem with the homeless population. They liked to camp out overnight on the church property.  Usually, if we gave them a little cash or let them use the phone or internet, or allowed them to stay overnight, well, eventually, they would move on. 

But, then, Monica and Vern arrived. (I’ve changed their names.) They lived in a beat up, broken down van--a van that they had parked at the edge of our parking lot. Eventually, we figured they would move on as so many others had. So, we were polite. And helpful. And hopeful that they would eventually leave.

But, they didn’t leave. In fact, they started to push themselves into our congregation. When we opened up on Sunday morning, Vern was right there to help set up tables for morning fellowship. Both of them began coming to Sunday morning Bible study.  Monica asked if she could sing in the choir. And on and on. They just continued to push their way into our congregation.

Now, mind you, most congregations would be thrilled with newcomers like this. How often do we proclaim our openness to visitors and our desire for them to become a part of us? How thrilled we would be if newcomers wanted to immediately become so involved!

Well, to be truthful, we weren’t really all that thrilled. We weren’t thrilled because Monica and Vern were so different from us. For one thing, they were homeless. For another, well, they didn’t have regular access to showers and so, sometimes, they smelled a little. Sometimes, they smelled a lot. They didn’t always say or do the “right” things. They didn’t fit into our norm. Into our small-minded, closed-hearted norm of what our church should look like.

And, so, we struggled with being radical people. With being followers of a radical Gospel that teaches us that each one of us is enough and is good enough, that God has done it all for us and for every person--that there is nothing we need do to be made righteous, but that we simply accept the gift of faith and the freedom that comes with it.  That we are all good enough for God's grace.

That’s what my struggle was this week with this text. It was a reminder for me that everything I have--justification, faith, salvation--that the whole shebang comes from God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ on the cross.  It takes all of the authority and power away from me and places it solely into God’s hands. It is nothing that I do. It’s the difference between law and gospel. It’s the difference between good works and grace.  It’s also the heart of my Lutheran understanding, expressed in Luther’s explanation to the Third Article: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him…”

This new translation that I was so fearful of, that I tried to push away, in fact, reminded me of and further deepened my own Lutheran understanding of grace.

So, when you struggle with those new things, whether they are words from Scripture or things or people that just won’t go away, consider that, perhaps, God is at work in them. That, just as God was at work in the Pharisee-sinner question of today’s gospel lesson, or the Gentile-Jewish challenges of Paul’s world, or the grace and good works struggles of Luther’s time--consider, just consider that in these perceived challenges to your belief system or the status quo, God may be, in truth, at work in them to further transform you and me and the entire world. 

Wrestle with them. Allow God to challenge you. Live into the struggle to be radical. To step outside the norm of this congregation or the status quo of our society. I promise you that, just as I was transformed, as my Pasadena congregation was transformed and, yes, as Monica and Vern were transformed, you, too, will be transformed through the grace and authority of our God. 

May our sovereign God so grant it. Amen.

Preached Sunday, June 12, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church (ELCA).
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C).
Texts: Galatians 2:15-21, Psalm 32, Luke 7:36-8:3.