Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"If the Church were Christian.."

I am taking a series of Sunday services bouncing off the chapters of a book by Philip Gulley called “If the Church were Christian.” The first service last week centred on Jesus as a model for living, rather than somebody to be worshipped. The second, today, was titled …”Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.”  I have decided to share the basics of my sermon with you.
“ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”… Yikes!
This verse from Romans 3:23 has often been drilled into Christian minds and hearts. I recall attending Christian Women’s Temperance classes at my Grandmother’s home. (She would spin in her grave if she knew I was chaplain to a brewery!)  I was about 8 years old and this one day she had a special guest who showed us a slide show of “the gospel”. He had a little projector and numbered slides which he displayed and talked about. The first said, “ALL have sinned … etc.” and he told us about sins little boys thought about and got up to. His next slide was a picture showing the burning fires of hell with the devil silhouetted off to one side. The message was straightforward – You are sinners and could end up in hell!  When I was a teenager attending youth camps and “Youth for Christ” meetings again and again I was told, “ALL have sinned …” I thought those speakers must have read my mind and know all my questionable thoughts…. for teenage boys have lots of questionable thoughts.  When I began training for ministry I talked with an uncle who was a minister and he offered advice. He said to me, “You have to convince them that they are sinners then they are open to the gospel!” He also told me that the good church people had to be reminded that they were sinners so that they truly appreciated the gospel. So this has been the message of the Church for many years.  “You are a sinner!” has been said in various ways time and again. We sing the song “Amazing Grace” then continue with “that saved a wretch like me”. We are told again and again that we are sinners in our songs, dogma and liturgies. But is that a true picture?
Life often reminds us that we are inadequate.
Many of us already feel inadequate without the Church telling us so. If I were able to watch films of the lives of people coming to our drop-in centre I would guess that in most I would see an over bearing father or mother or other significant others, who told them again and again in different ways that they were a failure.  When they come to Church they are told they are a sinner! I recall a man once sharing with me that his girl friend had dumped him. His wife had dumped him three years before. His self-esteem was so low. We often spend a lot of effort trying to fool others we are adequate when inside we feel inadequate.  There is much in life that can tell us we are failures, no good and inadequate. Yet the message from the Church just reinforces this feeling of inadequacy. Is this God’s “voice”? Is this in line with the priorities of Jesus?
Truth is like a diamond.
There is much of the Church’s teaching that relies on this “sinner” model. We are sinner’s who need saving… sometimes it is said, from the “wrath of God”. It is true that in scripture there is an aspect of truth about this emphasis. The ultimate truth however, includes other aspects. Truth is like a diamond. There are various facets or aspects. If we look at only one, it is a distortion of the whole. The Church for a variety of reasons has tended to concentrate on this “sinners needing saved” aspect. Apart from anything else, if we keep people feeling inadequate we can control them. But there is a different way of looking at human beings in scripture, which gives the totally opposite feel. Lets look at a few passages celebrating the positive.
From Creation to Jesus… we are special.

  • ·      In the very first creation story (I see these as myths pointing to deeper truths) in the first chapter of the Bible a positive picture of human beings is given. God decides to make human beings, male and female and he makes them in the image of God. Interpreters have argued about what exactly that means, but whatever else it means, it means that we are pretty special! We have divinity built into us. Then when God had finished creating on the sixth day, “God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased”.  Does this feel like we are low-life sinners?
  • ·      In Psalm 8 there is a celebration of creation. The Psalmist extols the wonderful creation then asks the question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” He answers his question with “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.” It seems we are not the slime balls some preachers make us out to be? When the Church sees people as inherently bad and evil it runs counter to this life-affirming, humanity affirming strand in scripture.  
But we must turn to Jesus and have a look at his outlook. I pick up four stories to illustrate, though there are many more we could use.

  •  In John 1 when Jesus meets Peter he says to him, “You are Simon son of John, but you will be called Cephas.” (This is the same as Peter and means “a rock.”) Now if the stories of Peter in the Gospels indicate the sort of man he was, we find he was impetuous, time and again he had “foot in mouth disease", and he denied Christ. So he was far from perfect, but Jesus could see in him “a rock”.  Jesus saw his potential 
  •  In Luke 19 Jesus meets Zacchaeus. The crowd around him saw Zac as a betrayer, because he worked with and for occupying forces. They saw in him a little traitor, sinner and thief. But Jesus looked at Zac and saw his potential and invited himself for a meal. He reached out in acceptance. “Salvation (wholeness) has come to this house today!”  he said.
  •  In Luke 7 there is the story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and kissed them. Again the people at the meal only saw a sinner, a woman with a bad reputation. Jesus saw a woman filled with gratitude, love and promise
  • In John 8 there is the story about the woman caught in the act of adultery. The people saw a sinner. Jesus saw a woman who he believed could change. (“Go and sin no more”)
As I think on the Gospel accounts, you do not see Jesus pointing at people and saying, “You are a sinner!” He is angry with religious people, but his anger comes with deep sadness at their distorted understandings. When the Church keeps saying to people “you are a sinner”, or “You are inadequate” or “You are a wretch” it is running counter to the way, values and perspective of Jesus. It is true that we “miss the mark” but the “voice of God” sees not our failure, but our potential. (Now I am aware that the historicity of these Gospel stories, and the words ascribed to Jesus could be challenged, but they give a consistent message of the way the early church remembered Jesus.)

·      You have the divine spark within you.
·      Your potential is more important than your “sin” and inadequacies.

Michelangelo said this: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

That in a nutshell is how the Bible pictures God’s view of us. Not primarily “sinners” but people with potential. The “hewing of the rough walls that imprison” happens by the power of love.

(Below: Photos of my walk tonight)

My reward when I reach the top of Mount Cargill. My wife makes a nice drink with cold tea, and elderberry flower cordial.

My friend Jane compares Perth clouds to Dunedin clouds in very anthropomorphic ways. Here are the clouds over Dunedin today.

As I descend the "mountain" the sun is setting, sending me home before darkness catches me.   

No comments: