Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What Kind of Faith Counts?

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
March 4, 2012
© 2012

I. Tuesday evening I watched the PBS American Experience documentary The Amish with considerable interest. Their rigidity of behavioral conformity and harsh discipline, their isolation from the larger world, their disdain for anything but basic education, their incongruities and inconsistencies make dismissing them all too easy. Their demise has been repeatedly predicted, yet they have grown from 10,000 to 250,000 in the past century. As I watched, knowing I would be preaching this passage today, I kept hearing the words of Jesus from Mark 8:34, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What kind of faith counts for Jesus’ disciples? We may dismiss the Amish as trying to live as Jesus’ disciples in the nineteenth century, but we cannot dismiss God’s call to us to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century.

A. Ours is a highly individualistic society built for self-fulfillment, not self-denial. While the Amish seem to have pushed to an extreme, something about valuing the community over the individual and mission over comfort and convenience resonates with Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

B. The American frontier nourished the profound respect for individual Christian conscience of our Disciples of Christ tradition. The church growth movement of recent decades has cast churches in a marketing environment. “Come to our church to get what appeals to your interests.” Even in our churches we hear Jesus’ call for self-denial as sharply counter-cultural.

C. What faith counts? How do we define discipleship today?

1. Though the U.S. Constitution rightly prohibits any religious test for holding any public office in this country, the religion of the presidential candidates is much discussed. Whether Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is legitimately Christian or mainstream has been questioned. Rick Santorum has rejected the distinction between public life and private faith made by fellow Roman Catholic John Kennedy half a century ago. Though he apologized, Franklin Graham expressed his doubts about Barack Obama’s Christian confession. In such public discourse, most Americans if not most Christians would be content with a very genetic affirmation of belief in God.

2. For those of us who aspire to be Jesus’ disciples, that is not enough. In some circles the faith that counts is defined as ascribing to correct doctrine. In others faith that counts is to be able to tell an appropriate conversion story. Some groups define faith that counts as practicing a particular moral code. Our Disciples of Christ forbearers rightly saw that neither the Bible nor Jesus left such sharp boundaries.

3. As we look at the example of Abraham’s faith in the passages we read in Genesis and Romans, faith that counts seems to be a matter of trusting God to follow when we cannot see where we are going and things are not as well defined as we would like. Such faith is not about us but about believing God will act in the most unlikely and unexpected situations.

II. Paul writes that Abraham is the father of us all who share his faith. (Romans 4:16) We take our cue from Abraham. From nothing God creates the faith by which we follow Jesus on his journey of suffering, rejection and death to resurrection.A. God confirms the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and now the third time in 17.

1. Unlike the universal covenant with Noah we looked at last week, this covenant is specifically with Abraham and his descendants. In Romans 4:16-17 and Galatians 3:7, Paul defines the meaning of descendants to be all of Christ’s people of faith.

2. Also unlike the unconditional covenant with Noah from last week, God expects Abraham to walk before him. Genesis 17 goes on the institute circumcision as the sign of that covenant. To walk before God is not to follow certain rituals or rules, nor to adopt a detailed theology. Rather, to walk before God is to follow God’s leading into the unknown.

B. In Romans 4:3, 22 and Galatians 3:6, Paul quotes Genesis 16:6 that Abraham’s faith was reckoned or counted to him as righteousness. This faith that counts is that Abraham believed God could and would give him a son through Sarah, even though they were childless and aged.

1. Abraham hoped against hope (v. 18). He did not let what seemed impossible stop him from believing God would act. No distrust made him waver (20). But we know that Abraham did waver, so how can Paul say he didn’t?

a) Twice, in Genesis 12 and 20, Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister to protect himself. He betrayed both the weakness of his faith and his respect for Sarah.

b) In Genesis 16 Abraham and Sarah’s faith wavered, and they agree that he should father a son by Hagar. The descendants of Isaac – the Jews – and the descendants of Ismael – the Arabs – have been at each other for well over 3,000 years as a result.

2. Faith is not something Abraham gave to God, rather the faith that enabled Abraham to walk before God is something God gave to Abraham. Paul writes in Romans 4:17 that God “calls into existence things that do not exist.” The same word of God that created the universe created faith in Abraham when he had none. This faith is not a static entity, but Romans 4:20 says that Abraham’s faith “grew strong as he gave glory to God.”

III. Genesis 17 and Romans 4 are binocular lenses that bring into focus the kind of faith that counts. We see what walking before God means in Mark 8:31-38 when Jesus called those who want to be his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Jesus had fed the crowd of 4,000 and healed a blind man. He had warned against the Pharisees and against Herod. Peter had just made his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

A. Jesus’ definition of Messiah was confounding, counter-cultural. Jesus’ crucifixion was not an accidental derailing of his messianic mission. Emphatically no! Suffering, rejection and death were essential to the plan the Father had sent him to accomplish.

1. Popular messianic hopes were for a military and political liberator to overthrow Rome and replace it with a worldwide Israelite empire centered in Jerusalem. Even Peter who has been in the closest inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and teaching cannot accept messianic suffering, rejection and death.

2. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter as Satan does not suggest a diabolically evil temptation but an attractive, human alternative. No one intentionally embarks on a journey of suffering, rejection and death without trusting God to lead the way through the dark.

3. We tend to think that when Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is banishing him. However, the Greek idiom and the call to costly discipleship that follows indicate the Jesus is saying to Peter, “Get in line behind me and follow where I am going into suffering, rejection and death.”

4. We, too, have a hard time following that path to resurrection.

B. Jesus’ call to discipleship was equally challenging and counter-cultural. Jesus issues this call, not just to the twelve disciples, not just to those who had already decided to follow him, but to the whole crowd. Jesus was not building an elite spiritual corps. Jesus wants everyone to be a descendant of Abraham walking before God.

1. Denying ourselves does not mean self-denigration or loss of individual personhood. But it does mean as Philippians 2:4 says, Letting each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Special sensitivity to those who are weak and wounded is at the core of Christian self-denial. And in the life of the church, it means putting a higher priority on what is good for the whole congregation than what I might prefer for myself. This is likely to be tested many times as you make changes that are uncomfortable for you to effectively bring the Gospel to new people.

2. Taking up the cross is not a matter of putting up with some irritation or inconvenience. It is a matter of giving yourself away, risking failure to bring the Gospel to wounded people who need Jesus. As you plan for your future, you will not experience 100% success. Faith that counts grows in risk and failure.

3. From nothing God creates the faith by which we follow Jesus on his journey of suffering, rejection and death to resurrection.

IV. You have probably not heard of Telemachus. I hadn’t either until I was doing research to find examples of people who lived by faith that counts.

Telemachus lived at the end of the 4th century, after the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Almost immediately the faith of the Church weakened. Many of the decadent excesses of ancient Rome continued, though no longer in the name of the pagan gods. Most of what we know about Telemachus comes from what the Bishop Theodoret of Cyprus wrote about 50 years after his death. As a young man, Telemachus was sucked into the world of pleasure and indulgence. He wandered aimlessly for several years trying to find fun and excitement. Finally recognizing the emptiness of his life, he decided to follow Jesus and entered a monastery. By the year 402 AD he realized that his reclusive love for God was really selfish love. He had to go to the cities and mingle with people in pain so he could love God by loving people.

The Roman army had just defeated the Goths, and the Emperor ordered a circus be held for the celebrating crowd. Telemachus got caught up in the crowd and swept into the arena where the gladiators were about to fight to the death in bloody hand to hand combat. The gladiators addressed the Emperor, “We who are about to die salute you!” The crowd was in a blood thirsty ecstasy. Realizing what was about to happen, Telemachus jumped over the wall, running between the combatants, shouting over and over, “In the name of Jesus, stop!”Whether Telemachus was killed by the battling gladiators or in response to the angry cries of the crowd is unclear, but his act of self-denial and taking up his cross to follow Jesus is credited with bringing the end to gladiator battles on January 1, 404 AD.

A. I don’t expect any of you to get killed by running onto the field at a Cowboys’ game or the ice at a Stars’ hockey brawl. Nor do I expect any of you to move to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to join the Amish. But I do hope this Lent you will ask yourself how your faith counts as you walk before God following Jesus.

B. In the asset mapping exercise after dinner last Sunday more people voted with their feet for youth ministry and outreach/evangelism than the other action groups. As you plan for your future with a new pastor, you can make your faith count by not asking what kind of church would I want in the next ten years but ask, what kind of church will young people like my grandchildren want? what kind of church can best introduce unchurched people to Jesus?

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