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Sermon – What You Worship – May 29, 2011

Sermon for May 29, 2011    The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
What You Worship

Acts 17: 22-31, 1 Peter 3: 13-22, John 14: 15-21
The Apostle Paul might come to Lewisburg and proclaim, “People of Lewisburg, I can see that you are very concerned about physical fitness and the benefits of athletic competition, because as I walked through your community I saw a pool and playgrounds and ball fields, and also your public schools surrounded by more playgrounds and ball fields, and observed your university ringed by even greater athletic complexes and stadia and courts and venues for sports of all kinds. This desire to keep the body fit, and this exulting in strength and athletic prowess, is a testament to your wanting to make the most of the potential with which you have been born, and your fascination with competitive sports shows your delight in seeing skill and fair play rewarded. These traits are, indeed, universal- -there is no people on the globe without enthusiasm for these same things, as even the worldʼs Olympic games remind us. Who has put it into the heart of human beings to glory in their physical strength, and to attend with seriousness to all manner of sports, and to recognize in those contests and games opportunities for discipline and valor, and to strive to make the outcomes of those competitions just? Such a worldwide trait must be a natural part of being human, and therefore a reflection of the source of all our lives. That source of the nature of human beings I now will reveal to you, because it is the creator of the world revealed most fully by Jesus of Nazareth.”
Or the apostle might address a crowd at the mall and say, ʻPeople of the Susquehanna Valley, I see that you are in every way eager to improve your lives, and to distinguish yourselves from the brute beasts, who rely only on their skins to clothe them and upon nature to provide their sustenance, and upon their need for survival to set the pattern of their days; for in this mall there is an abundance of clothing and ornament, and a surfeit of pastimes and pursuits. You come here because new merchandise holds the promise of fulfillment, and human ingenuity always is developing products which may make your tasks easier and your diversions more engaging. Whether you are here simply to window shop or to seek to buy, or simply to be among the throng of your fellow mortals, you come with a hunger for something useful, or something new, or something beautiful, and that eagerness in your breast for a better life compels all persons and all cultures to make the marketplace the centerpiece of daily living, and its exchange of goods one of the constant patterns of humanlife. Allofyouwhoareadultenoughtorecognizeitadmitthatthesatisfactionsof shopping are short-lived, and the sense of companionship from walking among the crowd is transient, and some of you may suspect that the yearning in your heart for something better never will be contented with material things, and your desire to be part of the wider world never will be met simply by gathering at places such as this, but that there is more to life than getting and spending, in which, even as one of your poets has written, “we lay waste our powers:” All those motives which bring you to this mall are part of a more profound and more promising nature which you have by birthright, for you are made not for the passing things of this world, but for eternity, and that eternity I now will proclaim to you as it has been revealed by the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.ʼ
Or for the other side of that, for the merchants and business owners gathered at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, Paul might begin by praising their initiative, and their industry, and their hope to serve the wider community with useful products while earning enough for their efforts to assure themselves of the power of preserving the well-being of themselves and their families, and say some nice things about making the most of oneself and attaining to the status of those in a position to create jobs and contribute to great public undertakings; and before long Paul would be talking about that use of oneʼs gifts and oneʼs ambition in a more spiritual way, and you know where he would be going. Heʼd be taking what he plainly sees in peopleʼs lives and getting them to see it as an opportunity to grow, to understand existence more fully, to live more purposefully and productively, by taking seriously the claim on them represented by God.
Paulʼs preaching in Athens, recorded in the book of Acts, illustrates a tension which arises when one culture confronts another, and shows one strategy to overcome that strain. When Paul first arrives some dismiss him as “a preacher of foreign divinities.” Those who say so are right. The religion based on Jesus Christ is not native to Greek culture. However, those who say so also are wrong, which is what Paul takes pains to demonstrate by saying that the Greeks already have a place in their hearts for a divinity which corresponds to their own deepest intuitions about who God really should be, and that this religion of Jesus Christ is precisely the thing which meets their need. The tension is between the particularity and, to use a more harsh word, the peculiarity of one cultureʼs and one historyʼs spiritual experience and the form it gives its religion, and the idea that the God revealed in the religion is the God of everyone, anyway. Paul finds a way to say–will find a way to say, when he goes into more detail with those who are willing to continue to listen– that “hereʼs a way of understanding your origins and the requirements of life and your destiny based on Godʼs relationship with the Jews and now most fully comprehended by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is Godʼs special Savior sent to the world.” The person who is hearing that has to be able to accept that what is unfamiliar about the origin and language of such news about God is offset by an acceptance that God is God everywhere and every person on earth is equally Godʼs child and equally an object of Godʼs desire to have a relationship.
The idea that the salvation achieved in Jesus Christ is for everyone has no more extensive claim for it in the New Testament than what the First Letter of Peter asserts. There we learn that Jesus, between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection prior to Easter Sunday, went and preached to all the souls in the underworld, the afterlife, whatever you want to call it– and so made salvation available to them. This is more than his forgiving his enemies from the cross–this is his going after and getting everyone who had predeceased him. Or, at least, the newly included go all the way back to the people who perished in the Flood which Noah survived.
There is a great piece of ancient Christian art associated with this, in Ravenna, Italy, in the tomb of Galla Placidia. On one interior wall thereʼs a mosaic depicting a large, commanding Jesus standing in the breach he has made in the walls of hell, while all the souls who were trapped there begin to flee around him. This mission of Jesus to the dead is not made much of in Christian teaching– itʼs mentioned in a by-the-way manner in the Apostlesʼ Creed where all it says is “he descended into hell” and makes no mention of his liberating work there–but it is a fascinating and encouraging scripture. It means that the scope of Christʼs salvation is not just a “from now on…” kind of resolution to the lostness of the world, but a victory which goes back for everyone who missed out before.
By contrast, Johnʼs gospel leans more in the direction of the distinction between those who, by their obedient love of Christ, are part of salvationʼs inner circle, and an unsympathetic and oppositional world. This is to return to the seeming surface of the worldʼs spiritual circumstance, alongside those Athenians who recognized Paul as a preacher of foreign divinities. itʼs to focus on what is different rather than to focus on what is had in common. There are those who believe in and serve Jesus, and there are those others who do not.
Sometimes the New Testament treats that as just the way it is, but the dominant hope of the New Testament is that all will be won for Christ. If, to use First Peterʼs language about those redeemed from the underworld, “the spirits formerly in prison” are visited and reconciled to God, then doesnʼt that imply that God intends to include in salvation all the living, from the disciplesʼ time forward?
The gift of the Holy Spirit, in fact, not only reassures and reinforces the Christian who may face the worldʼs hostility, but also equips and emboldens the Christian who insists that Jesus Christ is for everyone. If you were to ask the apostle Paul what enabled him to preach in Athens he would tell you it was Godʼs spirit. Thatʼs what made Paul feel at home wherever he went, not just a certain cosmopolitanism which resulted from coming from a favored imperial city and getting a good education. Paul didnʼt think of anyone else as a foreigner he had to change in order to introduce that person to God.    Paul thought of others as children of God whom Paul had to persuade to see the truth. Believing that they were religious in their own way, and that was a step toward a deeper truth, wasnʼt just a gambit to get their attention. Thatʼs who people are without the God revealed in Jesus Christ–lost, but not entirely, hungry for spiritual sustenance, but not adequately discriminating, revealing in their human pursuits a relationship to the God who made them, and always for that reason open to recognizing themselves, when approached with love and sympathy and understanding, as fellow brothers and sisters of the believer, and fellow children of God.

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