sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 11/13/2011
[explain bait and switch…]
So maybe you’ve had this kind of experience:
You want to share the good news of Jesus with someone at work, or a friend, or a family member. You know that Jesus’ good news is good news to you. That Jesus is good news to them. That it contains – for them, and their circumstances – explosive, transformative, life-changing, saving power. But you also know that when they hear it, they are going to have some questions about what else goes along with it.
Like, if I go to your church to find out more about Jesus, will I have to give my money? Will I have to stop partying? Will I have to change something about how I express my sexuality? Will I have to dress differently? Will I have to stop talking the way I normally talk? Will I have to start believing some particular things about the end of the world? Will I have to stop believing some particular things about the beginning of the world? Will I have to change my politics? Will I have to stop smoking? What religious things will I have to start doing? Will something in my past disqualify me from going very far on this journey? Will something central to my identity be a problem pretty soon?
And you’re not sure what to do with those questions. Truthfully, you hope they don’t ask any of those questions until after they meet Jesus. Because you want to be able to say, no, none of that matters, just come, check it out. But you’re also thinking, I hope once they check it out, they fall so in love with Jesus fast enough that once they find out the reality about ____________, they don’t care anymore, and they are ready to change.
And so you feel like you’re sort of doing a bait and switch. Advertising one thing, hoping that once they are in the store and find out it’s not exactly as advertised, they’ll still buy, because after all, it truly is a good deal; they just wouldn’t have come to the store in the first place if you’d told them the whole story.
We are going to start a two week series on the book of Galatians, because Galatians is about the first bait and switch in the history of Christianity. But we won’t get to the scripture itself until nearly the end of the message today. So hang in there.
Let’s begin today by defining the goods we Jesus followers are peddling. Those goods are the good news, the gospel. This is my dad’s 100 word summary of the gospel:
The gospel is good news that our exile from God, others, and ourselves is ending thanks to a great rescue. God has entered the human condition once and for all through his Beloved Son—to reconcile and redeem us by his coming, living, dying, bodily rising, ascending, Spirit-infusing, and promised future coming as judge. Jesus is gathering a community of disciples to bear witness to the future-glorious reign of God breaking into the present, empowering us to work toward the day when heaven and earth are once again fully integrated in a new creation—which through Jesus, has already begun.
It’s that good news that gives us our vision of being a centered-set church. That for us, the one thing we have in common is Jesus and the good news we hear from him and see in him and experience with him. That something about him has gotten our attention, and to one degree or another he is capturing our hearts. So much so that eventually, the only thing of supreme importance in our lives is figuring out our next step in following him. What we might call our next step of discipleship.
We believe that Jesus has announced the good news of the kingdom of God. That God’s kingdom – his good rule and reign that sets us free from everything that might try to enslave us, the rule and reign that brings us life, that makes us secure in his presence – is here now, and it’s coming more and more, and it will one day come all the way, through and through, everywhere, and then everything will be set right: in us, in our relationships, in our world.
By the rule and reign of God.
And we believe that the kingdom of God comes by Jesus’ authority and the work of his Holy Spirit. Our job, therefore, is simply to receive the grace that lets us see what he’s doing so that we can join in with Jesus as creatively and joyfully and wholeheartedly as possible.
And as tempting as it is to try to authoritatively define exactly what it means to do that [prayer, bible reading, stopping this behavior, starting that behavior, etc.], we know that that responding to that temptation would – despite our best intentions – actually change the good news of Jesus into a religion. And in the end it would cause us to take our eyes off of Jesus and turn them towards things that might be good, but would be less than he is.
So we choose instead to be pilgrims on a pilgrimage toward Jesus, living lives that are responding to Jesus, shaped by his gospel. Sharing what we’ve learned along the way with other pilgrims, but never letting anyone’s response to any particular thing we’ve learned along the way become a criteria for joining together in pilgrimage.
No, instead we will create breathing room for everyone we encounter along our path. Confident that Jesus will work out all of those differences that truly matter along the way.
After all, if Jesus really is who he says he is, and if the kingdom of God really is what Jesus says it is, then all who seek first his kingdom will find that everything else that matters will be added to them.
That’s why we describe our mission this way:
Together we follow the way of Jesus and create breathing room the disfavored to find favor, for the discounted to count, and for the disconnected to connect. Starting here.
And since Jesus is the treasure hidden in the field, since he is the pearl of great price, we simply will not allow ourselves to let anything else – no matter how good and true and right it is – take center stage in our vision.
For example, any one of us might feel sure of what heaven is and how it works, or what hell is and how it works, or how the world started, or how it’s going end, or what behaviors are life-giving and God-honoring, or what actions are destructive and disobedient. Any one of us might feel sure that a particular way of reading the bible, or a particular passage, is the right way and that other ways are the wrong way. But we will not let any of those things we may feel sure about trump the commitment we have to not letting anything get added to the gospel. Because it is the gospel that is the power of salvation for those who trust it. And if we force anyone to trust the gospel, or Jesus, and something else in order to be called brother or sister, than we ourselves do not actually trust the gospel, or Jesus, do we?
Gospel comes from an old English word meaning “good news.” The gospel is good. In fact, it’s the best possible, nothing better anywhere ever. And it’s news. As in new and noteworthy. Unheard of before. Fundamentally unlike the same old same old.
The gospel does what good news does. It drops like an explosive energy into the midst of space and time, and transforms everything about its surroundings and its hearers. [remember Oprah’s favorite things…?]
Nothing is ever the same again in the wake of good news. The gospel invites us to embrace the new reality that the good news announces and let it work its power on our hearts and minds and bodies and souls.
The gospel is not the same thing as religion.
Religion comes from the root word “lig” which has to do with connecting (as in ligament) and “re” which means again. So religion is a way to connect us again to God and to one another and to all of creation. Religion at its core is as good as people are good and as bad as people are bad. Which means it can be both pretty good and pretty horrible. And religion is most definitely not news. No matter how new the religion, religion is always made out of the same old same old, just in new configurations, for better or for worse.
And so religion does what religion does. It connects and guides and guards and shapes and gathers and defines. Religion can be an agent of blessing people, communities, cultures, or quite the opposite. But because it does its work from the outside in, religion tends not to invite, but rather to usher, with varying levels of forcefulness, and its power is a function of the effectiveness and wisdom of its systems.
Various forms of Christianity, then, are various religious forms wrapped around the gospel.
Thankfully, the gospel is so powerful that it’s possible for huge gaps to exist between the religion it’s wrapped in and the gospel itself, and many people will still buy it, and it will still be a good deal. But sometimes, those gaps between the gospel and the religion it’s wrapped in can be so large that they obscure the gospel. Obscure it thoroughly enough that some people never even glimpse the gospel that lies at the heart of that particular religious form. Or sometimes those gaps are so significant that the gospel sneaks right out of the picture all together, and all you’ve got left is empty religion.
Let’s go back, now, to that hypothetical person with whom you shared the gospel at the start of the message today.
What if you could say, in response to their questions about the religious wrappings:
There is nothing in your past that will disqualify you from getting everything out of this good news that the best person in the world gets out of it – in fact, in a strange way, you may even get more out of it.
There is nothing central to your identity that will ever be a problem as you explore this good news – in fact, you will find that God’s love for you as you are right now is even greater than your own love for yourself right now, and the impact of the good news is always to make us more of who we truly are, rather than less.
What if you could say:
And I honestly don’t know the answers to any of those particular things you are concerned you might have to start or stop because all of that isn’t up to me; in the end it’s up to you and Jesus, and his ideas about all of that might be different than mine.
I can tell you what it’s meant for me, though, if that helps, and how I’ve experienced it. And others can tell you what it’s meant for them.
But none of us knows where your journey is going to start and what it’s going to look like along the way. Because your next step and my next step and his next step and her next step – even though they are all going in the same direction – aren’t necessarily the same at all.
What if you could say:
And if and when the time comes for you to start doing something new, or stop doing something old, you’ll be doing it because you want to, out of some place deep inside of you, out of a conviction that this new way of living is the best possible way to live, that leads to the most joy and satisfaction and blessing, and definitely not because somebody else is forcing you to.
And as to what you’ll have to believe or think, the only thing that is of central importance is the good news of Jesus, and trusting him.
Because Jesus is our center.
And the gospel is our message.
And love is our aim.
And all of that is the case because the Bible is our book, and the Bible is what tells us the story of the gospel, and Jesus, and love.
What if you could say all that?
The truth is, you can say all of that. Because that’s what Jesus says. That’s what the gospel says. That’s what Love says. And, that’s what the Bible says.
In particular, that’s what Paul says in the letter to the Galatians.
The letter to the Galatians revolves around a significant conflict between religion and the gospel. This week and next we’re going to look at it in order understand some of the implications for our church. If the Bible is our book, what does it mean to be a faith community with Jesus as our center, with the gospel as our message, with love as our aim? And how does that shape our mission to follow the way of Jesus together, creating breathing room for the disfavored, the discounted, and the disconnected?
So first, some background on Galatians.
Gospel lands first in Israel, embraced primarily by Jewish people. They continue, most of them, to practice Judaism, but it’s a Judaism that is transformed, fulfilled by the good news of the resurrected Jesus and empowered by the outpouring of Jesus’ Holy Spirit. Some of the main leaders of the church in Jerusalem are Jesus’ original disciples like Peter, and Jesus’ brother, James.
Then the message of Jesus begins to spread, and communities of faith begin to form in non-Jewish parts of the Roman empire. These non-Jewish people are called Gentiles, and their primary religious forms are not Judaism, but various forms of paganism, having previously worshiped Greek and Roman gods. Paul, a Jewish Pharisee who had previously tried to kill followers of the way of Jesus until he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, is one of the main announcers of Jesus’ good news among the gentiles. He starts lots of Gentile churches, including a church in Galatia.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, an uprising against the Roman occupiers is brewing among the oppressed Jews living there. Since Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem are primarily Jews, there is a lot of pressure from the Jewish religious leaders for them to cooperate. And one of the keys to the rebellion’s success, according to the Jewish leaders, is for the Jewish people to be extra-faithful to the tenants of Judaism, things like circumcision, and keeping kosher, and observing the holy feasts. Which is no problem for the church in Jerusalem, since the Jewish followers of Jesus were continuing to practice Judaism faithfully, just as Jesus – who was also a Jew - had.
By this time, there are a number of Pharisees who have also received Jesus’ message of good news and joined the Jerusalem church. Since they are more educated than the original disciples, they begin to exert influence on Peter and James. They notice what’s happening with all of these gentiles around the Roman empire becoming followers of Jesus and forming communities of faith, and they know it is going to have an impact on the Jerusalem church’s reputation. So a movement starts to convince the Gentiles that they need to be circumcised just as Jewish people are circumcised (not to mention keeping kosher and all the rest).
And they’ve got the Bible to back them up. After all, Abraham, who had been a pagan until he heard God’s invitation to follow him, was circumcised when he became part of the family of God. And these new gentile followers of Jesus were joining the family of God through faith in Jesus, being grafted onto Abraham’s family, so a very strong case could be made that they should be circumcised as well.
It would be tough to make a biblical case, in fact, that they shouldn’t.
But when Paul hears that the gentiles in Galatia are being pressured to be circumcised, and keep kosher, and celebrate the feasts in order to be true members of the family of God in Christ Jesus, and when he hears that they might go along with it, he goes ballistic. And writes a letter to the Galatians.
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God’s curse! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God’s curse!
11When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
17“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!...
21I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
23Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
26So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
12Those who want to impress others by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
What counts is the new creation. Amen. And Amen.
Next week we are going to look at Galatians, chapter 5 to see what Paul has to say to us about how a law-free gospel helps sinners behave. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s part of what is so uncomfortable about all of this for us. It’s the “yes, buts…” Yes, but what if somebody is doing such or such? Or doesn’t believe such and such? Or won’t do such and such? Or still believes such and such? Yes, but, doesn’t that mean anyone can do anything they want, and there is nothing to stop them? Yes, but…, yes, but…
For now, a couple of practical tips:
1. Read the whole letter to the Galatians, out loud. Better yet, listen to it on audio.
2. Offer Jesus your Yes Buts. Write your “Yes, but…” down on paper. And give Jesus permission to answer your “Yes, but..” After all, discipleship starts between us and Jesus, doesn’t it? So theoretically, if him answering your “Yes, but…” is important to your next step of discipleship, he just might have something to say to you.
3. Sign up to get baptized. Baptism is saying, “Jesus, I’m yours.” Not, I’ve got all this religion business worked out. Or that I’ve got myself all worked out. Just, I see who you are. I hear what you’re saying. I love what you’re doing. I’m yours. Lead on.