“The Lectionary” is a set of recommended Scripture passages for use in worship on Sunday mornings. The passages often tell stories relevant to the season of the church year we are in; in the weeks leading up to Christmas, for example, we find the verses from the prophets telling of a Messiah to come, and the coming of angels to Mary and Joseph, telling them about the baby they can now expect.
On these Sundays following Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the Lectionary often turns our attention to passages in the book of Acts in which apostles tell the story of Jesus to others—his life, death, and resurrection. We find Peter’s speech about Jesus to the crowds in Jerusalem at Pentecost; Peter and the other apostles testifying about Jesus before the Jewish high priest and council. In Acts 3, Peter speaks to another Jerusalem crowd about Jesus, and in Acts 8 Philip tells his story to an Ethiopian court official, who then wants to be baptized. And today we have heard Peter tell the story of Jesus to a group of Gentiles, in the city of Caesarea. Passages about people telling the story of Jesus.
So I thought we might review, today, on one of these Sundays following Easter, how we here tell the story. The Christian story. Our fundamental story. The story of our relationship with God. How do we, here at Paris Presbyterian Church, tell the story?
There are different ways to tell the Christian story. There are different things one can emphasize in the story, from fire and brimstone in some versions, to thoughts about angels, to the role of works of social justice. There are long versions of the story, which incorporate many details, or examples from the history of the church; and there are shorter versions, which try to boil it down to a few simple steps.
My version today, I would say, could be considered one of the simplified versions of the Christian story; some would probably call it oversimplified. We will not try to say today all there is to say about what it means to be a Christian. But we will cover all of the key basic points, I do believe.
All of our worship services, Sunday School lessons, Bible studies, hymns and anthems, and other activities here at Paris Presbyterian Church are intended to be part of, at least one of the points of, the Christian story. That’s why we’re here, and why church exists, after all—to explore our faith, and the living out of our faith, not some unrelated, other story.
On future Sundays, if you care to, you will be able to say, “Ah! Today’s service tied in to part 4 of our story.” Or Part 3, or whatever. And you may, on certain occasions, hear my whole version of the story again. When we hold a new members class, for example, it includes the basics of how we tell the Christian story here. Or I suppose we could explore it as part of any Sunday School class or Bible study, if one of those groups is interested. But as many times as we review it, or parts of it, I don’t think we ever get tired of it. Because it is our story, our fundamental story, as Christians, as churchgoers.
It’s the story of God and human beings: who we are, how we got here, what it means, what comes next. It addresses something essential in our lives.
Now for those of you who like visual aids, there is, on the announcements page of your bulletin, a summary of the parts of the story, as it will be told today. You can follow along as we tell the story if you want, maybe add some notes of your own. You can take it with you, after worship, and maybe it will help you tell the story to others. But don’t get used to having the notes provided for you! This is a special occasion, an exception: you are back to doing your own work on your own notes, if you want notes, next Sunday.
The story, the notes say, begins this way: Chapter one: God created all things, including human beings, whom God loves. God created the first people, and each one of us. The most well-known Bible account of this part of the story is Genesis chapters one and two: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and so on. In several successive steps, God created light, and sky; and land, and plants; and the sun, and fish; and animals of every kind.
And the final step in creation, that which everything else led up to, is described at the end of chapter one: “God created humankind, in God’s image. In the image of God, God created them. Male and female, God created them.” And God told them to be fruitful and multiply, and to take charge of the earth, caring for it in the way God would care for it. In the same way, God creates each one of us; the creation story did not end with Genesis 1. God has created each one of us.
Now Genesis one says clearly that God created us. God is the source of our being; God is behind our existence—not something else. It does not say in detail how God created us; we cannot use this chapter to conduct a thorough evaluation of the probability of each step of the latest scientific theory of how things came into being: how long it took, exactly what order, climactic conditions, and so on. And another thing Genesis one doesn’t say at all is why God created us. Why did God bother? That isn’t here either!
And that has created a problem for some people as they’ve looked at the Christian story; they want to know why. When I was in college, a hundred years ago, this was a main stumbling block for a classmate in some philosophy classes. Christianity couldn’t make sense to him, he said, without explaining why God wanted to create humanity. And I couldn’t answer his “why” questions then, probably because I tried to find a particular Bible verse or chapter which would provide the answer—and frankly, that’s just not in there.
But today I would answer him, with some questions of my own: Why do many people get married, I would ask, when they could list some practical advantages to being single? Like the freedom to think only of oneself a bit more, to come and go without regard for someone else’s schedule, to make one’s own decisions without consulting or cooperating. Why do many people get married? Why do many people have children? When you could save more money without them, get a better night’s sleep many nights, avoid certain difficult discussions? Why do some people choose to get pets, when pets cost money, and can become so inconvenient, especially when you want to go away on vacation? Why do we join organizations, become part of groups, when we could sit at home in our favorite chair watching our favorite movie?
When we answer those questions, about those of us who are created in the image of God, maybe we also have our answer as to why God wanted people around, why God created us. Perhaps God too is relational, wants to be in relationships, wants to interact with others. Perhaps God values community, not aloneness. God wishes to love, to have someone around to love.
Part one of our story is that God created us, and God loves us.
Part two, our Sermon Notes say, is that all people turn away from God by sinning: the first people created, and each one of us since.
If one of God’s attributes is wishing to be in relationship, wanting other beings to love, another is that God stands for what is true and right and just and good. God will have nothing to do with sin, with doing bad, and does not want us creations to sin, to do bad things either.
But we all do. One of the Bible stories which illustrates this point, this unswerving propensity we have to do wrong things, is found right after the story of humanity’s creation! In Genesis chapter 2 God tells the first people not to eat of the fruit of one particular tree in the park where they live; in Genesis chapter 3, both those first people promptly eat of the fruit of that one particular tree in the park where they live.
That is the point of Genesis 3, though we tend to get distracted by discussions of serpents and nakedness: that every person, from the beginning of humanity, has always sinned. People are created; people quickly sin. We always have. We always do. I guess we always will.
God created people, who think and feel and make choices—not robots or automatons, programmed to behave a certain way, unable to choose whether or not to love God, whether or not to be obedient. God values creatures who can freely choose to love. And sooner or later, we all choose badly. It is written in both the Psalms and Paul’s letters: All have sinned, all have gone astray. Chapter two of the story is that we each sin.
And that creates a problem, as our notes point out: God wants us to be with God forever, but God won’t be around sinfulness, and we all sin. How can this be fixed? What can be done about this? God has quite a dilemma here—sort of like someone who wants to train to be an Olympic swimmer but never wants to get wet. Wants to be with us, but not with sinfulness. How can this be fixed?
The answer is found in part 3 of our story: God erases our sinfulness, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God does not destroy us, in spite of the sinfulness that comes along with us as part of our package, but finds a way to erase the sinfulness while keeping us around. Finds a way to train as a swimmer while removing the getting-wet part. That way has to do with Jesus of Nazareth.
The Bible chapters for this part of the story are our gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the accounts of the life of Jesus. There we read of Jesus’ coming to earth as, of all things, a helpless infant, born in conditions of poverty to an unwed mother. We read of his teachings, his new understandings of who God is and what God wants. We read of his compassion, in his healing of the hurting, his feeding of the hungry, his comforting the mourning, his befriending the lonely. We read of miracles violating our understanding of how nature is supposed to work—of walking on water, of five loaves feeding 5000. We read of his going to his death, which he could have avoided, because that death is part of erasing our sinfulness. And we read of his resurrection, his conquering of death, his return, to prove that God is more powerful than any other force we can imagine.
Among the things Jesus did for us was to point out who God really is, after humanity had gotten a bit off the track, had started thinking of God as nothing more than a set of rules and regulations, a set of by-laws, a Book of Order. Jesus reminded us that God is someone who wants to be in relationship with us, someone who loves, someone who feels for us and heals us, someone we can approach with terms of intimate affection, like “Daddy.”
And Jesus took the action needed to erase the effect of our sinfulness, so that once again we can be with God forever, walk with God now and in eternal life. It is through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that the problem is fixed, that we can draw near to God. Part 3 tells us that we know who God is because of Jesus, and we can be with God always because of Jesus. This is the key piece of our story: see what love God has for us that we have been made again, through Christ, children of God.
But that isn’t the end of our story. I’m afraid sometimes our story is told as if that is the end; after all, it is a nice, comfortable, happy-ending sort of place to be: Jesus is my friend, I go to heaven, we live happily ever after. Too often, Christians stop their telling of the story there because it feels pretty good right here.
But our part isn’t over yet. When someone does something for us, we generally believe we ought to express our gratitude, right? That we ought to say “thank you”? Well, when someone does as much as God has done for us—coming to be with us, dying for us—we certainly ought to express our thanks. And the way we do this, as part four says in our notes, is to try to live as God wants us to. Part 4 of the story is our grateful response to what God has done for us: trying to live the lives God wants us to.
Now this is not always easy. In fact, it’s not even always easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do, let alone do it. And so it’s something we continually work on, this response of ours. We read our Bibles, to find out what kind of lives God wishes us to lead. We pray, seeking God’s guidance and strength. We come to church, so we can worship God, speak our thanks to God, and draw on each other, on this community, in our attempt to be good disciples. It is here we discern together, through each other, what God wants of us—in worship, in classes, in service together. It is through the community that we can hold each other accountable, inspire one another, praise together. We wrestle with complicated issues, working hard sometimes to identify what’s right and what’s wrong, instead of grasping at the first easy answer that comes along. We do these things out of gratitude to God.
Our passage from Romans said, after summarizing what God did for us in Jesus Christ, “therefore, walk in newness of life. Don’t go on living in sin. Present yourselves to God as people who have been given new life,” a second chance. Our grateful response to God is our continuing our Christian journey, always looking to keep moving closer to what God wants
And also, as part of our response, we tell our story; we keep telling our story. We tell it to ourselves, to one another here, to remind ourselves of who we are, and to sort out the details, and to seek God’s will. We tell it to our children, so they will know God and what God has done for us and how to respond to God’s love. We tell other people, too, I hope, when we get the opportunity: when a friend says, in a serious moment one day, “What’s important to you?” or “What keeps you going, when life gets hard?” When an acquaintance says, just in passing, “What are you doing this weekend?” and we can include in our answer “Well, on Sunday I’m going to my church.” We share our story, as part of our response to God—because it’s a great story, and a story that can be helpful to all.
And that’s one way of telling the story.
Moving on from here, we can compare our ways of telling our Christian story. We can help each other get better, or more confident, at telling the story. We can keep working out the details of the “our response” part. And we will keep telling the story, of what God has done for us and what we can do in return—“tell the story . . . of Jesus and his love.”