People of God

Sermon delivered at the parish dedication festival of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Sunday, August 27, 2017, in Westerville, OH. A beautiful day to consider what it means to be one of God’s people in Christ.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different than the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.9-14; Psalm 122; Hebrews 12.18-24; Matthew 21.12-16.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we celebrate the sixth anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church. We didn’t call it that on that first Sunday morning in May when we met in our living room to do a Bible study and eucharist. But we call ourselves that today with 69 folks on our roster. We are people of God, part of the body of Christ here in Westerville. But what does that mean and what are some implications of that meaning? This is what I want us to look at today.

What do you think about when you hear the word “church”? Most of us say we’re going to church today. Does that mean church is a building? Not exactly. While buildings are critically important, they are not the church. So if buildings are not the church, who or what is? The quick and simple answer is the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, and as such it means we are called to live a different kind of existence. At first blush, when we come together as God’s people we are tempted to forget that deep truth. We want to be our own people instead, not God’s. As good Americans we busily organize ourselves in ways to get church business done. Many of us think that we are simply a human organization, just like all human organizations. We form a parish leadership council, the vestry, that represents the parish to make our decisions and run our parish. We write by-laws. We have a finance committee to help oversee our parish’s finances and propose operating budgets. You get the idea. This is the stuff out of which any human organization is made. And so we tend to draw on human wisdom derived from organizational, educational, and business theory and models.

But did you notice what was missing in that description? Where’s God in it all? Oh sure. We come to worship God (hopefully) every Sunday, but do we include God in our decision-making and see God as the foundation on which everything else must be built?I suspect if we are really honest with ourselves, many of us would answer no to those questions. Who’s got time for that God jazz while we are busy running the show and tending to the daily needs of our parish? When we let this mindset get entrenched, we are in serious trouble, my beloved, because it means we have lost sight of what it means to be people of God and part of the body of Christ. Here’s an example of what I am talking about. I read an article this past week in which a private Catholic school removed a statue of Mary and the baby Jesus out of concern that it might be “alienate” prospective students so that their parents wouldn’t sign them up and the money would stop rolling in. Now to be clear, a Catholic school is not the same as a parish. But in theory it is being run by the Church and the principle at work is the same. I think it’s safe to say that the leaders of this school have forgotten what it means to be people of God. They are too busy pandering to the whims of the public because they are concerned about their survival. Trust God for that? Well that kind of thinking is just cray-cray. Everybody knows God is too busy or too grouchy with us to have time for stuff like that. And before we get too uppity in our thinking about these school leaders, how many times have we kept our mouths shut or tried to hide that we are Christians because we feared doing so would make us unpopular? If you are like me, it’s been more times than I can count or remember. We would rather be delusional in our thinking that we know better than God than to actively seek God’s will and submit to it.

So what does it mean for us to be the people of God? I just hinted at it. First and foremost it means that we trust God to provide for us and to guide us in everything we do, both as individuals and together as his people. It means that we are a people who have a real future and a hope because of what God has done for us in Christ. It means that we are a forgiven and redeemed people who have done and can do absolutely nothing to merit this mercy bestowed upon us. And because we are recipients of God’s lavish love and mercy, it means that we are a people of utter joy. Let’s look at these things in more detail and as we do, ask yourself if these things characterize who you are (and who we are) as God’s people.

As people of God there are at least two major reasons we should trust God. The first is creational. God created humans in his image to run God’s world on his behalf. This, of course, requires that we have an intimate relationship with our Creator, and Genesis gives us glimpses of what that looked like before Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the garden. They conversed regularly and intimately with God to know his mind and will for them and for their stewardship of his creation. In other words, God was active in their lives and in God’s world. It’s pretty hard to be a good steward if the boss isn’t around to let you know what that looks like and to help you fulfill his wishes for you and your stewardship. The result? Paradise and human flourishing. That is God’s will for us. Our first ancestors were morally innocent and free to be what God created them to be. They were not beset by fear or anxiety or hatred or loathing or physical, emotional, and mental disorders. They were happy and they flourished. If we have a healthy creational theology we understand our place in the world and our relationship to God our Creator, and we understand that our Creator is actively involved in our lives and accessible to us in multiple ways. No room for an uncaring or absentee God in this picture. Do you have this kind of understanding about your relationship with God and your role in God’s world?

But of course paradise didn’t last very long because like us, our first human ancestors decided they knew better than God about what it takes for them to flourish and so they rebelled against God and found themselves thrown out of paradise. You can and should read the sad story of this spectacle in Genesis 3, and you should read it regularly because doing so will give you much-needed perspective on the human condition and God’s response to us. So what did God do when we rebelled against him? Did he destroy us and start over? Obviously not. We’re here talking about it today. Did God punish and abandon us? Well yes, God did punish us. God gave us over to the power of Sin so that we became its slaves, which leads to death, not just our physical death but to a permanent Death. God also put a curse on the entire creation so that it groans under our lousy stewardship and longs for the day God brings about our liberation (cf. Romans 8.18-25). So punishment and curses for our rebellion there were. This story doesn’t play well anymore in our age of tolerance and self-esteem. I suspect many of us really don’t pay much attention to the deadly seriousness of our condition before our holy and just God, nor do we dare let ourselves think too much about God’s holy wrath against Sin because it would terrify us utterly.

Why do I spend time talking about Sin and Death with you on a regular basis? Every time I do, my beloved bride hates it and I hear about it. Ruby Sue has started a petition to get me to stop. Carl has threatened to immolate himself. And the Patricks have emptied their pool and invited me over to take diving lessons. So why do I spend so much time talking about Sin and Death? Is it because I am just a creepy, dark guy who loves sharing my misery and self-loathing with you? Well, that’s probably true but there’s a much more compelling reason I do so. If we do not understand the utter hopelessness of our condition before Almighty God and our utter powerlessness to break free from our bondage to Sin and Death, we will never really understand what God has done for us in Christ nor have a basis for trusting God or having joy in the fact that we are recipients of his unwarranted mercy toward us. For you see, if we live our lives not believing that without God’s help we are utterly doomed to destruction, we will never be in the position to see or appreciate the death and resurrection of Jesus and what that means for us. Instead, we’ll schlep along thinking that while maybe we do have some bad things in us that need to change, we’re not that bad and therefore don’t deserve the kind of punishment we’ve been talking about. We therefore delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t really need God’s mercy, or that God is merciful to us because we’ve earned it somehow. After all, everybody knows that God helps those who helps themselves, right? It’s there in the Bible, isn’t it?

Well no it isn’t. That narrative is part of our disobedience. As our Lord himself reminded us when asked who could be saved, he replied, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26). And St. Paul tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). This is not a pretty picture of our situation, folks, and for our sake we’d better get our minds wrapped around it. But here’s the thing. God did and does more than punish human sin, and God does so not because God is an angry ogre but because God loves us and wants us to flourish by being the human image-bearers that God created us to be. God knows the hopelessness of our situation and our total inability to fix ourselves, and God has done something about it on our behalf because of God’s great love for us. We see God’s loving and gracious response to human sin as early as the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were hiding from the Lord after their rebellion, we see God walking through the garden, searching them out. And even after God expelled his rebellious creatures from the garden, God clothed them to cover their nakedness and provided for them in many other different ways.

Then as we heard in last week’s epistle lesson that Fr. Sang did not preach on (thanks, Father, for causing me more work), St. Paul makes the most startling and remarkable statement about God’s judgment on our rebellion. He tells us that God imprisoned all in disobedience so that God could show mercy to all (Romans 11.32). Let that sink in. God has consigned us to disobedience, not to punish us but to allow God to be merciful to us. We get other glimpses of the heart and character of God in St. Paul’s letters. In Romans 5, for example, he tells us that while we were still God’s enemies Christ died for us so that we could be reconciled to God and saved from God’s holy wrath that will come on unbelieving mankind. So let’s get this straight. While we were still sinners, while we were still God’s enemies, God became human to die on a cross to spare us from God’s own right and just wrath against our disobedience? Yep. And what are we required to do in return? Sacrifice our first-born? Live an austere and joyless life? No. We are called to have faith that God loves us so much, that it pleases God so much to rescue us from the power of Sin and Death despite our ongoing rebellion against him, that God became human to die for us to make this happen. Everyone gets to be included in the reindeer games if they choose. Everyone. My beloved, if you really start to wrap your mind around this with the help of the Spirit who lives in you, there is no way you can not be joyful and want to love and obey this God who is made known to you in Jesus Christ.

This is the basis for our NT and epistle lessons this morning. Both St. John and the writer of Hebrews talk about our present and future with God. Both assume we have a present and future with God because of what God has done for us in Christ. We can rejoice with the angels in the new Jerusalem, biblical language for the uniting of heaven and earth in God’s new world, not because of who we are—if that were the case there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth—but because of who God is. God calls us to be his people so that we can flourish and be the human image-bearing creatures who run God’s world faithfully on God’s behalf. We are a people who have been plucked from the mouth of Hell and Death to become citizens of God’s new world, and it starts right now. Once again, we have this hope, not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done and is doing for us in Christ and the power of the Spirit. This really is Good News, my beloved, and all God asks us to do is to believe that God has done this for us so that we have a real desire to act in accordance with God’s will. Who in his or her right mind would be afraid to follow a God like this? Who in his right mind would not want to put God at the center of his or her life? Only God in Christ can and does offer us real life and power to live. Our riches don’t, our station in life doesn’t, our fame doesn’t, our racial or sexual or ethnic identities don’t. Only Christ gives life and he calls us to share his life with him.

This is what it means to be the people of God. Are there organizational elements in how we worship and do life as God’s people? Of course. But here is how and why we are different. Until the Lord returns to consummate his saving work, we are given the Holy Spirit who mediates Jesus’ presence in our lives. We are his people, bought with the price of his own dear blood. Therefore we are a living organism who make up our Lord’s body. We are his eyes, his ears, his heart, his compassion, his love, his mercy, his righteousness, and we are called to act accordingly. That means we are to first and foremost make him the center of all that we think, do, and say. It means we are called to trust him, even when we don’t fully understand his call to us.

In light of all this, let us pause and celebrate the fact that we are part of the people of God who have a real hope and a future because we believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act so that we might have life and have it abundantly, now and in the new Jerusalem where we will live in God’s presence forever. Or as our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo, prayed so poignantly, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in thee.” God our Father makes this abundantly possible for us through the saving work of his Son Jesus our Lord and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. This is the Good News we are called to celebrate and trust in my beloved, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.