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The Cost of Discipleship: Your Life August 28, 2011

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Romans 12:9-21

 Proper 17

August 28, 2011

Focus: God loves us so much that He treats us better than we deserve.

Function: That the hearers love others as God first loved them.

Structure: Scriptural

 

The Cost of Discipleship: Your Life

            What does it mean to be a Christian?  That’s a very heavy question, but it’s exactly what Jesus and Paul were talking about. “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it.”  The cost of being a Christian, of following Christ, is your life.

That’s precisely what Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Christians inRome.  We saw this last weekend.  Paul told them to “offer [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”  There it is again: the cost of discipleship is our life.  He went on to explain to them what he meant.  As Christians, we should not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind to follow God’s will.  We don’t live like society around us; our life looks a little different.

Paul continued by laying out what that life looks like. God gives gifts to His people.  In this case, those gifts are the various talents that you and I have.  If your gift is teaching, teach; if it’s contributing, do so generously.  We all have various gifts and talents.  Just as my gifts are different than Vicar Mark’s, so are your gifts different from one another.  Paul tells us here that God wants us to use them to help others.

It is quite possible that you got a little gloomy when you saw that list of gifts.  Perhaps you thought to yourself, “I don’t have any of these gifts to use.  Where does that leave me in the church?”  Well for starters, you do have gifts.  Paul’s list simply didn’t cover everything, it wasn’t meant to be comprehensive.  They just didn’t have the technology to write as much as we can fit in books and computer documents today.  You, too, can use the gifts and talents God has given you to help others and spread His love.

But it’s also important to note that just because the pericope, the reading, stopped there last weekend, Paul didn’t.  He kept right on moving.  And he shifted into something that deals with everyone of us.  Age is irrelevant.  Social standing doesn’t matter.  We all have the capability of doing what Paul said next.  It’s the mark of a Christian.  It’s love.

And we’re not talking about just any ol’ love.  We’re not talking about romance or how great the movie was you saw last weekend.  It’s also not how we tend to choose friends because their toys are bigger and better than ours.  And that applies to us as adults as much as it does to all the kids.  We’re talking about a love that’s bigger than us.  This love is the “Agape” love of God.  Agape is a Greek word that refers specifically to the unconditional love that God has for you and me as His children.

If you’ve raised a child, you’ve experienced this love before.  It’s the love that a parent has for their little newborn child.  In our society, babies seem to be “worth” less and less.  They’re helpless; they’re totally dependent on you to take care of them.  They aren’t capable of giving anything back.  But to a parent, that child is priceless.  They’re a bundle of joy.  That’s the Agape love the Father has for us.  It is a sincere, genuine love.

In the next few verses, Paul rattles off another list for us to ponder.  It’s a list that teaches us more about what it means to be a living sacrifice and what it means to show genuine love.  Each of these could make for a sermon by itself, but I don’t think you want to listen to the new guy talk that much, so we’ll just summarize it a little bit.

We stay away from evil things and cling to things that are godly.  We devote ourselves to our relationships with one another, because a church just isn’t a church without being a community built around our relationships with each other.  We respect and honor others, putting them before ourselves.

Paul warns us not to become lazy in our lives.  Why not? Because our time here is short.  We are to serve God enthusiastically, not apathetically.  That enthusiasm boils over from the love that God has given us.  I want add a word to the text here.  “Be joyful in the hope.”  It’s okay, that little word actually is in the Greek.  But it stresses a point, what hope do we have?  It’s not our hope that there’ll be good weather tomorrow, or that our favorite sports teams manage to win a game or two this year.  It’s the hope we have in God’s love for us.

Be patient even when the going gets tough.  Pray regularly in your life.  Help people who are in need.  Open up your home when someone is need of a place to stay.  Share in other peoples’ joys and their sorrows.  Celebrate birthdays with friends.  Mourn the losses as well.  Do what you can to be at peace with everyone around you.  Be nice to people who the world might cast aside.  Don’t get too big of an ego, because there’s always someone who knows more than you do.

It’s a pretty significant list of traits and it certainly gives us all something to work on.  But while all of this describes love and how we should live as Christians, this attitude, this Agape love, reaches its peak when we encounter our enemies.

Take a break for a moment and think about your enemies.  Imagine a bully, past or present, an overbearing boss who treats you like a corporate slave, or that neighbor who keeps “borrowing” without asking.  As you think of them, I’m sure you can also think of what you would like to do to them.  It’s easy to start scheming, dreaming up some great revenge.  But as Christians, I must tell you to stop.  Paul has a different message for us.  Paul tells us not to seek revenge.  Instead, bless those who persecute you.  Don’t curse, bless.  Leave justice and revenge to God, the One who created everything to begin with.

And Paul doesn’t stop there.  He quotes Proverbs 25:21-22.  Just as Jesus tells us to love our enemies as ourselves, Paul tells us that not only should we live at peace with them, but also feed them if they’re hungry, and give them something to drink when they get thirsty.  When you do this, when you go out of your way to love them instead of striking back, you are doing something far deeper than they can even fathom.

Paul says that by doing so, we are heaping burning coals on their heads.  This is an odd reference, but it is important to note that Paul didn’t finish quoting that Proverb.  The original verse finished with “and the LORD will reward you.”  That was the way of the Old Testament people ofIsrael.  They were to drive their enemies out of the land, and have nothing to do with them and their false gods.  God rewarded them when they were faithful.

But now, there’s a difference.  There’s a change because of Christ.  The gospel message is first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles.  The message of Jesus’ life and salvation is for every man to hear.  So as strange as the burning coals sound, it comes out like this:  by sharing Christ’s love with them, you are witnessing to them the power of the gospel.  If they reject it, the burning coals are the fires of Hell.  But if that food and drink that they need, the very message of salvation, gets through, then you have won a brother or sister in God’s family.

That is something that sets us apart as Christians.  No other major religion speaks of loving your enemies.  In fact, most of them promote revenge.  Genuine love is the mark of our faith.

A woman wrote a letter to a Christian magazine to share her family’s experience with “agape” love.  Her son was being punched by another boy at school whenever the teacher turned her back to them.  Having recently studied this passage from Romans in their family devotions, they decided the best thing to do was to follow God’s Word and “feed” this enemy.  So the next time the boy punched him, he simply responded by handing him a bag of jelly beans.

The “enemy” was dumbfounded.  By showing love where it wasn’t deserved, this young boy formed a lifelong friendship.  He overcame “evil” with “good” and converted an enemy into a friend.

And if you want the ultimate example of loving one’s enemy, you don’t have to look very hard.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  That’s right, I’m talking about our life story.  God created man, each and every one of us, to love and be in a relationship with Him.  But we all know that our relationship with God suffered.  We sinned.  We broke off our relationship with God so we could do whatever we wanted.  Indeed, we had made ourselves enemies of God.

So it’s a good thing that the One who tells us to love our enemies does just that Himself.  If God hadn’t loved His enemies, we would all have to face the fiery reality of Satan’s home.  It’s an act of God’s mercy that we don’t get what we deserve.  And it’s an act of God’s grace that we do get what we don’t deserve.  The Father sent His Son Jesus Christ to take our place.  He offered a peace offering when He sent His Son into enemy territory.  And as enemies of God, we ridiculed Jesus and sent Him to His death.  But yet again, God gave His enemies, us, what we didn’t deserve.  When Christ died on the cross, God didn’t obliterate mankind.  Just the opposite, He was heaping on burning coals on those who didn’t repent.  But for those who believe in His Son, God has offered the gift of everlasting life.

So it’s following Christ that makes us Christians.  And thus we’ve come full-circle this morning, right back to Jesus’ speech in the gospel lesson.  We don’t just live this life for our own pleasure and benefit.  That’s not why we’re here.  We have a greater purpose in God’s kingdom.  We are here to spread His love to all those who don’t know it.  And we know what that love is: it’s the message of His mercy and grace through His Son Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we sacrifice the pleasures and treasures of this world to find everlasting life.  When we take up our cross, the very cross of Christ, we share God’s love with everyone around us, that they too might receive the undeserved gift of everlasting life.  Go, feed your enemies.  Amen.

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That Canaanite Dog August 14, 2011

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Matthew 15:21-28

Proper 15

August 14, 2011

Focus: God saves all who believe through His gift of faith.

Function: That the hearers live their lives rejoicing in the privilege of being children of God.

Structure: Frame and Reframe

 

Imagine your dining room table.  You’re sitting there, with a steaming plateful of food right before you.  Pork roast, homemade mashed potatoes, green beans, and a nice, warm apple crumble waiting for dessert.  You pick up your fork, and just as you’re about to begin, you realize that there’s a pair of eyes staring at you.  Lucky has noticed how great your meal looks, too.  He sits there, waiting for you to share something, anything, with him.

Every dog has his own style.  Some will cozy up under the table, waiting for food to drop.  Others will sit near the table staring and waiting like Lucky, giving you those sad puppy eyes trying to guilt you in to feeding them.  And then there are those that are a little more aggressive in their approach.  They place their head in your lap, or lick your elbow, or even make a move for the food itself.  We all know that dogs are good at begging.

And unless you happen to be one of the select few that can resist those puppy dog eyes, you eventually give in.  You take a small scrap off your plate and toss it to Lucky.  Or perhaps you have children who are better at feeding the floor than their mouths.  Either way, Lucky gets what he wants, that scrumptious treat: people food.  The food delights his taste buds, and with his tail bouncing to and fro,  he runs wildly around the living room, rejoicing in his new found happiness.  It may not happen every time, but Lucky knows that he can get the scraps from his master’s table.  And those are the moments worth living for.

Why this talk about dogs?  Well, because that is the image that Jesus chose to use in our gospel lesson this morning.  And it is an image that is very close to our hearts.

Jesus and His disciples were traveling through Gentile lands.  And when they reached the district of Tyre andSidon, they were approached by that Canaanite woman.  She pleaded with them for mercy, begging Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter.  All she was asking for was for Jesus to heal her little girl.  But Jesus didn’t even bother to respond to her.  He didn’t bother to even stop to say “no.”

His disciples noticed that she wouldn’t stop following them, she wouldn’t leave them alone.  How strange that was for them.  She’s a Gentile; she’s spiritually unclean; and the disciples want nothing of it.  Just by her being near them, they run risk of becoming unclean themselves.  “Send her away,” is their plea to Jesus.

And then, Jesus responds.  But He speaks not to His disciples, but to the woman.  He tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house ofIsrael.”  He confirms what the disciples know and believe.  Jesus came to redeemIsrael, not the Gentiles.  He is their Savior.  He came to deliver God’s chosen people from their bondage in this world, from sin, and from government persecution.

The Canaanite woman did not give up hope when Jesus said this to her.  Instead, she began worshipping Him at His feet.  She persisted in pleading for His help.  She knew that Jesus was the only One who could drive that demon from her daughter.

Jesus’ next line is well known: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  Many Christians cringe at the thought of Jesus saying this because they think that Jesus is insulting this poor woman.  “Why not help her Jesus?  You came to help people, what’s so different about her?  Why do you have to speak so harshly to her?”

This verse has been blown out of proportion.  When Jesus referred to her as a dog, He used the word that referenced a dog that you would keep as a pet, like Lucky, rather than the image of a wild dog roaming the streets.  He was drawing a distinction between the Israelites and the Gentiles.  He refers to the Israelites as God’s children while the Gentiles are not.  Again, this fits with the idea of salvation that His disciples and most of the Jews would have believed.

But the woman persists again.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  She knows how the dogs still manage to get the crumbs.  She isn’t asking for the bread, but the leftovers.  She was well aware that she was not an Israelite and likely knew that they considered her unclean.  But she also knew what Christ had to offer her.  And it was for that small hope, that little crumb, that she persisted.

And then Jesus says to her: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”  And just like that, her daughter was healed.  In such simple words, Christ performed a miracle, driving out the demon from that girl.  The woman was finally granted the help that she was looking for.

But if it was really that simple for Jesus to do, to work that miracle in that woman’s life, why did He first ignore her?  For what reason did He stand there bantering with her?  If it were really that simple, why didn’t He just do it?  Did this all really have to do with the fact that she was a Gentile?

If her nationality was part of this, what hope is there for you and me?  I’m not Jewish in nationality, and likely you aren’t either.  We were born Gentiles, outside of God’s covenant relationship withIsrael.  When God sent Jesus into this world, He did so to restore the covenant that He had made with His people, withIsrael.  Where does that leave us?

You and I are sinners.  We have disobeyed the laws of God.  Because of this, God has cursed us, condemned us to everlasting suffering.  Just likeIsrael, we messed up.  Together with them, we should be sharing in God’s wrath.  But wait, they have a Redeemer?  How fair is that?  Why should we not be saved also just because of our nationality?  We had no control over our births, and isn’t God our Creator as well as theirs?

It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve messed up in your life.  We’re not condemned because we’ve sinned a billion times.  It just takes one.  One moment of sin, no matter how insignificant it may seem separates you from a holy God.  That little white lie, or the time that you shoved your sibling when you were just a little kid.  Just one of those nasty names you called someone growing up.  Just one sin, and we are under the wrath of God.  What hope was there to make it through childhood and being a teenager, let alone a whole lifetime.  We have no hope.

That is why this passage is so close to home for us.  We are Gentiles, the ones the disciples believed that Jesus didn’t come for.  But, that is also why Jesus drew out the situation.  Had Jesus simply done as she asked the first time, His disciples still would have been thrown off by His healing of a Gentile.  But, they also may have overlooked it entirely, thinking Jesus was just doing it to get her to go away.  That isn’t why He healed her daughter!

In fact, in this miracle, Jesus is setting the disciples up, He’s setting up everyone for that matter.  They needed to hear this conversation.  Jesus came for the lost sheep ofIsrael.  He came to restore their covenant with the Father.  But yet this Gentile “dog,” a woman who wasn’t part of that covenant, had faith?  She believed when many Israelites did not.  She believed in Jesus and God the Father.  She knew that He could cast out the demon with ease.  Just a crumb, or a whole loaf, it didn’t matter to her.  She had faith in Jesus.  She had a relationship with God.

Jesus shared the gift of healing with her, with a Gentile.  Indeed this miracle is a glimpse of Jesus’ greater ministry.  His ministry stretched beyond just those who were Israelites by birth.  The New Testament is completely full of this language.  “First for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”  Jesus commanded the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” and sent them “to the ends of the earth.” Israel, God’s chosen people, went from being a nationality, to a way of life, to having a relationship with God.  Paul tells us that there is no longer a distinction between Jew and Gentile, but that we are all one in Christ.

Through baptism we come into a relationship with God.  We are buried with Christ in His death, and we will be raised again with Him as He was raised from the dead.  On account of faith, which God has given to us, we are now His children.

If we look back to Lucky, our perspective may differ a little.  When it’s just a dog, then that dog doesn’t matter to us very much.  But the language Jesus chose included a “master.”  We know that wild dogs don’t have a master.  A dog that has a master is the master’s pet.  And when we go so far as to give that pet a name, we start to become attached to it, we form a relationship.  Lucky isn’t running around our house and begging for food at our table just because he is a dog.  Lucky can do those things because he is part of the family.  He is in a relationship with us.  That wonderful people food that he devoured, he knows there’s more to come.  He also knows that He will be cared for.  Lucky truly is lucky, or better yet, blessed, because he is loved.

And now, through faith, the Gentiles are no longer dogs, but children of God.  God has every right to cast us off as worthless and wretched for what we’ve done.  But through His Son, He has formed a relationship with us.  We can rejoice because we are not outside of the house anymore.  And, we can rejoice because we aren’t even dogs anymore.  We can rejoice because we have been made children and have the honor of coming and dining at the master’s table.  God our Father is pleased to give to us more than just crumbs.  He has given us His Son; He has given us true life.  For this, we rejoice, and know that we are loved.