Filed under: Sermons | Tags: community, identity, Jesus, paul, teenage, the prairie school
1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
As Pastor Jeff and I have been meeting you all, one of the first topics of conversation often is, where do you come from? What type of place? Did you grow up on a farm?
I have a hard time with this question- how do I quickly define where I come from? I was born in a town called Friendship in central Wisconsin, it’s so small that the area was is often referred to as “Adams-Friendship”- the towns of the high school. By the time I was two, we moved down to south-eastern Wisconsin, between Milwaukee and Chicago, to a town called Union Grove, population 5000, where my father spent most of his childhood, and where my parents had met at high school. At ten, we moved just out of town to a lakeside (well, pondside) condo, and then a few years later moved to the edge of a bigger city, Racine, with a population of about 80,000. As soon as I graduated high school, my folks moved back up to central Wisconsin to Baraboo.
I don’t know which place to claim as where I’m from. For me, perhaps the most defining sense of “fromness” comes from my school. As I moved around, the one thing that stayed constant was my school. The Prairie School is a preschool- 12th grade private day school, without any religious affiliation. My parents thought it would be safer and a better education than the schools in the city. So, as I moved from community to community, the community I was always “from” was my school community.
One day when I was in high school, the school did some redecorating in our main meeting space. Above the small stage where our principal gave the day’s announcements, white foam lettering now read, “Remember who you are and what you represent.”
The white foam letters almost blended in with the white wall, and in my teenage angst, I felt like this was some attempt at brainwashing all of us. “Remember who you are and what you represent.” Did that mean we were always representing our school? Were we supposed to always carry with us the demands to achieve good grades, to get into a good college? To someday become a company CEO or famous scientist and make a lot of money?
As I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I hear an echo of what my school was trying to tell us with the admonition to “remember who you are and what you represent.” Paul writes to the new church, explaining how all of them are now united in one Body, one community, in Christ. These new Christians came from all walks of life. Some were rich, some poor. Some had a lot of land with slaves, some ran stores, others perhaps were servants and slaves themselves. They came from different ethnic groups, think of the ways we talk of different groups and put divisions between peoples- black, white, hispanic, native, immigrant. Yet Paul tells them that they are now all one community in Christ.
They have put on a new identity. Paul calls them to remember who they are, and who they represent. Being a member of the body of Christ looks different than being just anyone. As Paul defines what it looks like to live a Christian life, he gives them some pretty hard to follow rules.
It was common in Paul’s time for various religious or philosophical groups to come up with lists of do’s and don’ts. At first glance, Paul’s list looks like any other: Don’t lie, don’t sin, don’t steal, don’t talk wrongly about each other, don’t be bitter, or wrathful, or malicious, or angry, don’t slander, don’t grieve the Holy Spirit.
That’s a lot of don’ts! All these don’ts smack me in the face. Does it mean that I need to be perfect in all these to be a “good Christian”- or just to qualify as being a Christian at all? At first glance, I can try to pretend that I follow these rules. I’m at least a fourth Norwegian, so I know how to hide those big emotions like anger and bitterness. I haven’t stolen anything from the grocery store. But how easy it is to spark up some anger when it feels like I’m the only one in the house doing the cooking and cleaning. And how often do I really question the working conditions and likelihood of fair wages when I’m shopping for the best bargains? I try to tick these off my list and believe I’m a good person, but really, I fall down flat.
When I hear “therefore be imitators of God”, I stop short. How can I possibly represent God? How could I possibly be as good, as loving, as powerful as God?
Although that’s my initial question, when I consider the whole phrase, “be imitators of God, as beloved children”, I think I see more clearly how it may be possible for me, and for you, to imitate God.
Pastor Jeff and I have no children, so for one couple we were friends with at Seminary, we were the perfect babysitters. I think they figured we might need some practice for “someday.” We’d care for their daughter, Sarah, who was born our first year, from time to time. She was especially fun from 1-2 years old, because she’d mirror whatever we’d do. Jeff’s favorite was to get her to stick her tongue out and giggle. (Parents, beware, he’s also taken to encourage kids to stick out their tongues during church, too!)
It’s this natural instinct to imitate that can be both captivating and sometimes embarrassing in our children. It’s this instinct that Paul calls us to nurture when he gives us this list of do’s and don’ts, calling us to imitate God.
Paul’s list isn’t like other philosopher’s lists, or even the lists by which we judge people today. The difference in Paul’s list is on whom this list is based. Jesus Christ. Not us.
Paul is describing a new way of living that comes from being God’s beloved children, members of the body of Jesus. It’s a lifestyle that Jesus’ love frees us for. Paul is describing life in the risen Jesus rather than listing the qualifications necessary to be worthy of Jesus.
Paul is describing living into the kingdom, the new life in Christ into which we are immersed at baptism. Last weekend at Our Savior, one-year-old Braden Dahl was baptized. Although he really behaved well and didn’t scream or squirm during the baptism, he didn’t have much of a choice or a part in the decision to be baptized. He simply was embraced by God, claimed as a beloved child, and will continue all his life to experience God’s love and have the opportunity to respond to it.
It’s not that our following this list makes God love us, or earns us the right to be the children of God. It seems so often in our society that that’s the way we expect it to be. We think we have to do something, prove ourselves, in order to deserve love or respect. But with God, it’s a reversal. God loves us first, unconditionally.
Paul’s list is about what it looks like when we reflect the love and forgiveness God shines onto us. It’s not about us somehow mustering up in ourselves the power to become holy. That would be a scary demand, because I know it just wouldn’t be possible for me. Rather, it’s about us getting caught up in the joy of knowing God’s love for us, when we know that we can be so unloveable and undeserving of forgiveness. You and I, no matter what bad stuff we’ve done, no matter if people love us or respect us, are known, forgiven, and loved by God. We’re loved so much that Jesus became human, suffered, and died so that we would never be separated from God. This gospel fills us with such light that it cannot help but shine into our world. Paul’s list is about all of us being formed into a new community, built on Christ’s reaching out in reconciliation towards all people. We can be as little children, imitating the love we know from God.
When I look deeper than all the “don’ts” in Paul’s list, I notice something behind these demands. Whatever Paul tells the Ephesians to do or to avoid, it’s all for the purpose of building up the community and serving those in need. Can you imagine- telling a thief to stop stealing and work for the money he needs- but not just for the money he needs, for the poor as well! I hear Paul telling us not only to hold our tongues- not only to say nothing if we can’t say anything nice- but to open our mouths to speak grace and love, that which builds up our community.
We are God’s people. We represent Christ to our neighbors, family, co-workers, and friends. Our Christian life is about more than following a set list of do’s and don’ts. In our joining Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism, we rise to a new life, reoriented. We are turned away from our sinful inward gaze, away from our tendency to care first for our needs, to work only at what gives us status and honor. We are turned towards all creation. God so fills us with love and forgiveness that we overflow with love and forgiveness to our neighbor.
May God so make God’s love real to us that we cannot help but reflect that love to the all the world.
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