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Sunday, May 12, 2024

The sermon text below is copied from the YouTube transcript.

Sermon “Striving to be Christlike”

What powerful words from the Gospel of John! One of the things you’ll notice with John is that he loves to repeat. He loves to repeat over and over again. Or maybe he’s saying that Jesus repeated over and over again, which is sort of odd if you think about it. Because in the other three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—for the most part, Jesus isn’t one to ramble on a whole lot. Yes, the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, he sort of goes on and on. It’s all very good and worthy, but it’s so important that John does this over and over again.

That’s why, when we have many Bible passages over several Sundays that focus on the Gospel of John, we might hear the same thing. But it’s important for us to know that God dwells within us, that God is present in our lives. And it’s not just that God dwells in us, but God has sent us to have a mission—to be people who are Christlike and carry out the mission of Jesus.

See, Jesus is interceding for the disciples. He is interceding for us to protect us and to guide us as we go out into a world that is hungry for faith and love. And not just any faith and love that you can find in any big church across America or even small churches across America, but a love that is healthy, inclusive, and firm in the faith that Jesus Christ made to make sure that we all may be one.

And I don’t think that it’s just for us to be one as a church, but to be one as a people in the world. We need to be one in the world because that is dedicated to inclusive faith and love. You know, some people say that we bend to the culture of the time by being LGBTQ-affirming, that we are bending to the culture of the time because we believe women should have the same rights as anyone else and to be preachers.

Some people think that we’re bending because we believe that we can listen to the word of God in new ears, in new ways, so that way we can renew the faith. Now, to the extent that God’s love and God’s message are all around us and that God is still speaking into our lives, being able to affirm that faith and science can go together, as we preached a couple of weeks ago, that faith and science can work well together.

And the way we let science shape us can give us new ways and new life. We need to be the bearers of Christ into this world. We need to be Christlike people. Where do we turn to be Christlike? We turn to the Bible, yes, but with caution.

See, John is easily misunderstood, as we talked about several months ago. John 3:16 is actually a song. It’s actually a verse that is a lot more inclusive than we think it is. John 3:16, and then going to John 3:17, says that Jesus did not come to condemn the world but those who have already been condemned, that eternal life as well is for the here and now.

When we experience God now, as it says here, to have eternal life is to know God, to be intimate and close to God. And yet there are other passages in this Gospel, passages that say, “The Jews.” The Gospel of John has been used for anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism that has reared its head even more so now. It’s a shame because when I read the Gospel of John, I see a message of love through the whole thing.

But that’s one of the tricky parts of Scripture. Is that we can find some of the most morally uplifting passages alongside passages that make us go, for example, another example is Psalm 139. It’s a song that many folks, especially in the UCC I found, where the psalm is about that God’s presence is with us, that God is behind us and forward, that God is like us, unwrapping us, around us like a hug.

That even before we speak, God knows what we speak, even before we think, God knows what we think. And it’s not because to be authoritarian or to scare us or to control us, but it’s another emphasis that God is intimately close with us. Isn’t that such a great joy? Can we get an amen to that as well? Amen.

But if we continue on with the psalm in Psalm 139, it says, “Oh, that you would kill the wicked, oh God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me.” I say this not because I want to discourage you from reading the Bible, to the contrary. I know that some of you, when you read the Bible, are like me, and you find a passage that is discouraging, that doesn’t seem to be morally uplifting, that doesn’t seem to be very Christlike.

It becomes very easy for us to doubt our faith because it’s very easy for us to try to reject the whole Bible. Some folks will read the Old Testament, and when they read the Old Testament, they view it as a God that is wrathful. But amongst those passages, if we look at them more clearly and we look at the breadth of what is taking place in the Old Testament, yes, God’s anger is there, but it does not endure forever.

You’ve probably heard me say this several times before because it’s worth repeating. The more I study the Bible, the more appreciative I become of it, not just as a source of moral uplift but also to challenge me. Why do people think that way then? Why also do people think that way now?

Part of the problem that we have as American Christians is that 150-some years ago, reading the Bible, thinking of the Bible as the inherent word of God from the beginning to the end was popularized by fundamentalism. Around that time, it became a litmus test for what it means to be a Christian. But that has not always been the case.

Christians have read the Bible literally, topographically, allegorically, and metaphorically. There are different ways to read the Bible. Even Martin Luther. Even Martin Luther looks at the Bible and says that it’s not from this book to this book consistent or morally uplifting. Let’s listen to what Mark said in his preface to the New Testament. “If I had to do without one or the other, either works or the preaching of Christ, I would rather do without the works than without his preaching. For the works do not help me, but his words give life,” as he himself says.

Now, John writes very little about the works of Christ but very much about his preaching. Well, the other evangelists write much about his works and little about his preaching. Therefore, John’s gospel is the one fine, true, and chief Gospel and is far, far to be over the other three in place high above. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter surpass the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. What an amazing statement for Martin Luther, the great reformer of our church, of our Protestant Reformation.

Consider that scripture has a greater breadth. We can appreciate that there are finer messages in other passages. Jesus says that we’re to examine the scriptures, and sometimes, we do, as is very much demonstrated in many forms of Judaism. When we read a passage, there may be three or four different ways that rabbis may interpret it, all of them valid and worthy of consideration.

You know, some people like to use scripture as a way to sort of sling scripture like David slinging at Goliath or to be like Jesus’s opponent slinging passages at him, trying to say that what he is doing is wrong. So, how do we navigate the scriptures? How do we navigate passages that have two different messages or pull us in two different directions? How do we use it? How do we find what it means to be Christlike in the Bible?

One path is to examine the scriptures through the rule of love. And this is not a new rule. It goes back to at least Augustine in the early 400s. The rule of love is this, as described by Reverend Eric, a writer of the Phoenix Affirmations: if a passage in scripture appears to contradict the essence of God’s command to love with all our hearts, minds, and soul and strength, or love our neighbor as ourselves, then the passage or our interpretation of it must be held suspect.

Christ interprets the Old Testament like this as well regarding the rule of love. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he says, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Find that in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. But he says instead, “Turn the other cheek. If a Roman soldier tells you to carry their, go the extra mile. Do not seek revenge.”

Also heals on the Sabbath. Now, healing on the Sabbath was fine if it was an emergency, but Jesus was healing for those who of those who had chronic conditions. See the word Christlike, when we defy the Bible or where we can twist the Bible to see that where Christ is, it is towards healing and hope. It is through liberation and salvation.

Now, a church has a responsibility to teach people what it means to be Christlike and what it means to look at scripture through the lens of love. But we only have you. We only have your children for at most three hours on a Sunday, for five days a week, for eight hours a day. They’re in school. They’re amongst people who sometimes reflect the values that we espouse here but sometimes do not.

It’s amazing what happens when people influence around us. I’ve seen in my own family where family members were taught loving and caring, to respect all people of any race and gender, of any sexual orientation, and then go around and not be that way because they’ve been influenced by others who were not taught those ways.

It falls on you to model what it means to be Christlike behaviors. See, children learn from us. They soak up everything that we say and do. Children who learn to hate are more likely to hate. Children who witness abusive relationships will struggle with having healthy relationships. Children who see their parents are likely to model that behavior.

Children who have generous families are more likely to be generous. Children who have accepting families will more likely be accepting. Families that put their healthy, inclusive faith at the center of their lives will foster a spirit of faith that will influence them their whole lives, even if they leave the church.

I know someone whose child was raised in a UCC Church. Still, when they went off to college, they learned that maybe all of the religious practices or the spiritual practices didn’t quite fit for them, so they went in a different direction through a different sort of secular religion. But in some ways, when I look at how they live, it’s more Christlike than some of those who do not follow Jesus.

Direction of children, there are way too many forces and young adults or too many forces competing. There’s TikTok and YouTube, and there are studies and there examples of how YouTube is used to radicalize particular young men to degrade women. I’ve mentioned this before. There’s an Andrew Tate, there are others do so.

If we’re not dedicated to over and over again helping them understand that we believe that you and your family have different values, we model these Christlike behaviors because it is a response of our faith. Again, I’m going to quote Martin and Luther, you know, the first song was Martin Luther.

There’s a verse in there that I’m like, maybe not so good, but Martin Luther has some really good stuff as well. So, he says, and I’m concluding with this, “Truly, if faith is there, a person cannot hold back. He proves himself, breaks out into good works, confesses and teaches this gospel before the people, and stakes his life on it.

Everything that he lives and does is directed to his neighbor’s profits in order to help him, not only to the attainment of grace but also to honor. Seeing that Christ has done this for us, we thus follow Christ’s example. May it be so. Amen.”