I have pondered the topic for my sermon for this morning quite often, especially when some tragedy befalls my family, this town, our nation, or the entire world or when I feel God is pushing me in a way I don’t want to or feel competent to go. The topic of my sermon this morning is partnership with God. On several occasions, Rodger has heard me say, in response to something I hear or when we’re discussing peoples’ opinions concerning something, “We aren’t puppets”. We do have free will to choose God or not, to follow the way Jesus Christ wants or not (even if we do say we believe in him,) to decide if we want to go the way God seems to want us to go or not.
In our 1 Corinthians passage, we read that God grows our faith and as we diligently study God’s Word, take time pray at a particular time or throughout the day in bits and pieces, and take time to listen to what our Redeemer God is saying to us. In God-given growth, we are to be co-workers with one another, we again find out in our passage. Why? Of course it is to further God’s realm and Christ’s will and way throughout the earth. Since this passage proclaims us as God’s field and God’s building we can visualize God maintaining us while at the same time we partner with God to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. We may do that through positively talking about our church with others outside our congregation or what we did at our church this week or weekend, as we resist gossip and slander of others even though we may be ridiculed for it, as we take time to listen and/or pray with someone, and as we care less for money, or anything else for that matter, and more for God.
1 Corinthians chapter 3 is our Epistle lesson for this morning from our Revised Common Lectionary. I will remind you that the Lectionary is used by many denominations, including the PC(USA), to take us through the main stories and themes of the Bible in a 3-year cycle. Another one of those lectionary passages for today, June 25th, and not included in one of our Scripture lessons for this morning, is from Matthew 10 beginning with verse 24: “A disciple is not above the teacher… it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master,” Jesus teaches his disciples.
In an article this week, Jill Duffield, editor of a mainline Christian magazine called Outlook, discusses the passage in the Gospel of Matthew. She explains that, yes, it does say that we are to be like our teacher Jesus, and we aren’t to be afraid to follow in that likeness. It is easy to fear how others will respond to our resistance of what Christians know is bad behavior, for instance. We can more easily follow because God values us highly, more than the sparrows, as our gracious Lord knows every hair on our head according to Matthew. That is an intimate relationship we have with our heavenly Parent. God is with us in all things. Another teaching in that passage that may be more difficult is that we are to love and value God more than even our mothers and fathers, our families. You’ve heard it before but have you embraced it in your life? We are to love God first, above all things. That can change each of our lives and the way we live those lives. Certainly, that can be a little scary; however, we are promised that the rewards for doing so are great. This biblical mandate is an important way we are able to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ as we put God first not only while at church but always. Even among Christians today, that statement is not a popular one. It is a faith concept that, difficult to focus on though it may be, we are to strive for nonetheless.
I chose to use the Romans 6 passage today, I recently read for you, because it summarizes the foundation of what I have talked about and will talk about. Paul gets a question, it seems obvious, from the congregation he established in Rome in the name of Jesus Christ. It seems that the Roman congregation is questioning that since God has shown them amazing grace through taking away their sin, ought they not sin all the more to receive additional grace? As you can well imagine, Paul emphatically states (to paraphrase) “No way!” He reminds his readers that believers were buried with Christ to a death like ours and we are now to embrace Christ’s grace and sin no more. Christ died for us so we may live. The old self before Christ is now dead and we are to strive to keep it that way. No person’s “acts of righteousness” led to that salvation. It is by God’s grace alone that it happens. The Almighty already gives us abundant grace; additional grace is unnecessary.
People of God, truthfully ask yourself the really hard question: Is the resurrected Christ truly real to me, or do I merely give that lip service because it is required of me? Or, do I say that a particular scripture’s explanation doesn’t count for me or it’s too difficult to follow so picking and choosing how I want to follow Christ? Being brutally honest with ourselves is, unfortunately, not something we may look forward to doing. Yet, it may be the only way we can truly live in God’s abundant grace with new lives in Christ.
Paul’s words in Romans chapter 6, proclaim that since we have died with Christ and have put away our sinful selves, then we also rise to new life with Christ. That is what I have been referring to so far in this sermon. Living a new life in Christ means that we tell or witness to by our actions the Good News of Jesus Christ to others without fear and, of course, in love. Notice that we do that in love, the way God teaches us to love, not the way the world does. We don’t shove it down someone’s throat but in the natural conversation we have with others, there may be a good time to speak of our faith. In the right context, which is more often than we think, we talk about or witness to what our lives of faith mean to us. Living a new life in Christ emboldens us to stand up against the bullies, the gossipers and the slanderers, the haters and the cynics, and to thinking we are better than others. We have died to living self-righteous lives, participating in the mean, lack of respect, and caring so little for others, not only Christians but all others, especially the poor and voiceless. That list included behaviors too many in our society accept today. They aren’t biblical. We have died to proliferating hate as we turn to God’s righteousness, loving others. As we know, and perhaps don’t like, loving others means likewise loving our enemies even though we don’t embrace how they live or what they do. It also means that we acknowledge and embrace the fact that we are God’s people first before we are any other kind of people. That knowledge leads to changed lives. It stops our wayward tongues, our offensive language and behaviors, and our willingness to detest, bully or put down others so making ourselves feel better about ourselves and our how we live our lives of faith.
All three of these lessons from 1 Corinthians 3, Matthew 10 and Romans 6 remind us whose we are and how we are to live. They also lead us to know that we are partners with God in Jesus Christ. As Matthew chapter 10 reminds us, we are not equal partners still we are partners with our loving Lord to bring about God’s hopes and wants for this world in which we have borrowed time. We work with, as well as on behalf of, Jesus Christ who is our everlasting, all-wise teacher. In other words: We are not marionettes on a string. At the same time, we keep in mind that we are co-workers with each other and all Christians throughout the world. We are partners with God and with one another. This can be an extremely powerful source for great good in the sometimes dark and hurting domain we call home. Think about what our world might look like if Christians actually worked together across denominational lines instead of one-upping each other, arguing or putting each other down. I know it would be a different place.
In what I thought was a very insightful, well-written article entitled Not God’s Marionettes, the publisher, Peter W. Marty of the magazine Christian Century, starts with the following story. “I was visiting an historic church some years ago and picked up a short history of the congregation. I learned that its first sanctuary had burned to the ground on December 3, 1903. “No doubt, to train his people for greater things,” the account read, “it pleased the Lord to reduce this splendid edifice of worship to a gutted, smoldering ruin by a disastrous fire.” I say to that, “Really?!” God would ruin one of the Lord’s churches, would destroy a part of the Body of Christ? Peter Marty, rather sarcastically, says- “Who would have guessed that God delights in burning churches down? The familiar spiritual catchphrase of our day, that ‘God has a plan for everything,’ may have been absent from the narrative. But the idea was there all the time.” Then Peter Marty goes on to say, “Pious clichés often use God to explain away difficult or tragic circumstances.” I agree. Those clichés are often unhelpful and they certainly neglect the concept of being a partner with God to restore the Creator’s good creation, further God’s Realm on earth and for us to be accountable for doing so. Blaming God takes the blame off of us, personally and as humankind.
Christian Century’s publisher also tells a story about something that happened just a few weeks ago. “A helicopter lifted a 19-year-old in our congregation to a regional hospital after a hit-and-run driver skipped a stop sign and plowed into his motorcycle. (Sounds a little eerily and sadly familiar, doesn’t it?) When a family friend learns that Pete’s right leg has to be amputated, she phones Pete’s mother to reassure her that this hardship is part of God’s plan for Pete.” As you can well imagine, “the mother was aghast.” What a thing to say! Why would anyone think that our loving, merciful, kind-hearted and forgiving God, who comes back to a wayward people time and again, even if the Lord is angry with us– would want a young man to lose his leg? No, we are not marionettes on strings for God to pull us this way and that. What kind of relationship is that? Why would God even bother with us in this way unless our Lord is actually cruel and unloving? I don’t believe that- do you? God may still be mysterious to us in some ways but there is no evidence in scripture to suggestion that God works in nonsensical, counterintuitive ways. Human choices were made that led to that young motorcyclist’s accident.
Our great, loving heavenly Parent wants us to have full and long lives, according to the biblical creation account, even though events, situations, natural disasters and people may get in the way of us living full and long lives. Again, I can’t tell you how many times I have said we are not puppets manipulated by God. We too have responsibilities and answerability for our actions, words and thoughts. To reaffirm we are partners with God bringing light and love into our whole sphere of living, stretching exceedingly far and wide, in a powerful way.
“When South African church leader Peter Storey’s father was dying of heart disease in his fifties, Storey was angry. ‘Why should this remarkable man be taken so soon?’ he asked. But one day when the two were together, the father explained to his son: ‘Peter, God has trusted me with this illness.’” Peter’s father explains that it was not God who gave him this illness but trusted him with this illness, as a partner in faith working to overcome it or at least live the best possible life with it. Another way to state what his father said is, “Now that I have this disease, God is trusting me with the bearing of it” while at the same time giving Peter’s father the Spirit to encourage him and help him bear it. He is not alone. He has a partner in God. When these kinds of tragedies or difficult events happen to us, we too can look for God’s sustaining presence, not God as the cause of our suffering. We can emphatically recall that Christ died for us and our old selves, the way we use to live, died with him so that we will truly live new lives. There are no marionettes here, only partners. And, praise God for that! Amen.