Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Marks of the Church: I'll be Apostolic for Christmas

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas everybody! As the carols play, the shopping intensifies, and the stockings are hung by the AC Unit with care, it's easy to forget what it is we're doing all this for. Santa gets more “air time” than Jesus these days. And it calls us back to the need for a good witness this holiday season, in reminding people of this Baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

Of one of the many familiar sounds during this season is the carol, “Deck the Halls”

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

They require some translating for modern ears, though they are as popular as ever. Some words (gay, troll) have changed meaning since the song was written, others have almost disappeared entirely (when did you last wish someone happy Yuletide?). And so although many folks know the song, they sing it without delving into it's meaning.

Many aspects of Christmas end up becoming like this song...familiar, but without their original meaning. Even Santa Clause was once Saint Nicholas, and a model of Christian giving. But now, he more represents the fulfillment of our wishes for possessions. We managed to get our message into the culture, but in the process of things, it got garbled a little bit.

As we've been talking about the historic marks of the church over the past few months, Apostolic is the last on our list, following One, Holy, and Universal. It has a few different meanings historically. The Apostles were original disciples of Jesus who were the first to spread the message of salvation (and the term later became more broadly applied, as Paul and others took on similar roles in the church). The origin of the word is literally “Sent Ones,” those who have been sent to spread Christ's word. Alternately, those of you with some Catholic in your background may recognize the term Apostolic Succession, which implies that the leadership of the church (in one form or another) is tied back to those original disciples, with the implication that the faith is consistent down the ages. One is directly tied to reaching out, the other tied to heritage and preservation. And ironically enough, these two meanings embody one of the most ancient conflicts in the church...the nature of mission.

The question is do we communicate a timeless yet ancient message to ever changing cultures? How much do we change in order to make it intelligible, and how much should be kept iron clad? Over the centuries, we have often battled back and forth with these two. At times, we have used the ways of the culture (Christmas is a great example of this, as are Catholic saints and Christian television) to try and communicate the message. Sometimes, we go to far, and water-down the Gospel in an attempt to win listeners. On the other hand, while we make great effort to protect the simple truths of the faith, sometimes we get so caught up in the ancient that we forget people don't know words like “Hark” anymore. We make an make a particular worship style or Bible translation the gold standard of our faith, regardless of whether modern ears can understand it. At worst, we get focused on preserving the institution, in a desire to pass down the ancient faith, but in the process turn inward and forget to share it with others.

Either extreme is dangerous. At one end, you loose the message, at the other, the potential recipients. But if God's Word really is inspired by Him, then no matter how ancient it is, it bears relevance to modern life, even if the language needs updated now and again. It is important for us to remember, especially at this time of year, to keep these two meanings of Apostolic in a precious balance...we must not neglect God's truth, but we must also make it intelligible to our community.

And one of the best ways to do that, my friends, is to live it in love. Because love transcends language barriers, and is hungered for in every culture. If you love others, you'll want to share the Message you know they need, but in a way that they can hear. If your truest purpose is to share God's love with others...not preservation or being accepted...then you will find the balance. And if there's anything that people need this Christmas...with a crazy economy and the stress of the holidays, it's someone to love them unconditionally.

Where we are not reaching out, and are only about ourselves, we fail to be the church. But where we are also not protecting the integrity of the message, teaching it, nurturing folks with it, learning how to dig into it and live it out, we also fail. We are not called to reach the lost with pop-psych, nor to protect the word just for us. We are called to reach out in love, offering the healing message of Jesus Christ. And that's a gift that never goes out of season.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

Jesus was once offered a chance to take a stand on an issue of sexual immorality.

It was a rather cut and dry one too: adultery Since the beginning of the Jewish faith, the sinful nature of adultery had never been ambiguous. You don't do it, and when you do, there are clear punishments. And they had caught this women in the act. No gray areas there. Never did the Pharisees pitch the ball so clearly up the middle as they did here. All Jesus had to do was swing.

But He did something shocking. At first, He said nothing.

...which, frankly, could not have irritated the Pharisees more. It only seemed to confirm to them that he was simply a rabble-rouser. That He would do anything to undermine their authority with the people.

So they pressed again. Mind you, the woman is standing right there. And the punishment at this time, if you haven't read the story, is death by stoning. There are better ways to go.

Annoyingly, Jesus' silence continued. Instead, He was doing something in the dirt with his finger. I would give good money to know what it was He was drawing or writing. Many have theorized. But apparently the gospel writer didn't think it important. Or maybe he couldn't see what it was either.

In any case, Jesus finally pauses. All of the Pharisees heft their rocks, ready to stone either Him or the women pending His answer. But He hits them in the gut instead...

“If any of you hasn't sinned, go ahead and throw your rock.”

...and He goes back to His sand.

Amazingly, one by one, starting with the oldest (who apparently had the most regrets) and ending with the youngest (who hadn't accumulated as much sin...yet...), they dropped their rocks and left. Only the woman and Jesus remained.

Jesus, Master of the Rhetorical Question, asks her, “Didn't anybody stick around to condemn you?”

Her response is obvious. His is not. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go home...but leave your sinful lifestyle behind.”

DOH! If the pharisees had just rounded the corner and listened, they would have heard it...He didn't shy away from the issue! He didn't want that life for her. He was just as certain as they were that it was against God's plan for her. But His approach was different than theirs. He first earned her trust. He saved her life. Rescued her from the consequences of her actions. But then, having gained her trust, He showed her the full depth of His love. He pointed her to a better way. He was not ambiguous on the nature of her actions.

Many centuries before, His Father had done the same for Israel. He saved them from Egypt, rescued them from bondage and slavery. And only then, after showing His love to them, did He invite them into covenant relationship, and give them His commandments. Likewise, Christ's love does not leave someone in bondage to sin. But it does rescue them, give them an opportunity to be set free from it, in a loving, grace-filled manner.

Scripture is clear about what God considers sin. Earlier in His ministry, in the right context, Jesus had spoken about adultery. He even challenged people to take it to the next level, weeding unfaithfulness out of their minds and hearts, as well as their actions. But in this passage, Jesus saw a better way to handle things. The conviction that God has laid on my heart, both personally and for this congregation, is to live out the full love of God in all situations. Not omitting our conviction of sin, but seeing God's heart for those who are caught up in sin, and offering His love to them.

When we are willing to love first, God is better able to use us in ministry. Sin of any kind is difficult to overcome. And all of us need someone who can come alongside us to both encourage and challenge us to live a life of holiness. It's easy to say “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It's another thing to live it out, inviting fellow sinners into loving relationships, and walking with them on the path to righteousness.

Jesus neither came down hard on this woman, nor ignored the presence of sin in her life. His answer to her was more beautiful than music, more profound than art. “Neither do I condemn you,” AND “Leave your life of sin.” I may spend the rest of my life trying to understand how He did that. I have yet to perfect my heart in this matter, and I don't expect you to master it tomorrow either. But I believe the journey into Christ's love will be a worthy pursuit for us both. Will you travel it with me?

Father God, give us your heart for the sinner, for the broken, for the lost. You have rescued us from our failures, and drawn us into a loving community. Help us to do the same for others. Let our zeal for Your holiness always be tempered with Your Grace, and vice versa. For You are both Just and Loving, as you showed us in Your Son Jesus. Mold us in the image of His love. Through His Name we pray, amen.