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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Ascension 1 - 5/16/10
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 24; I Peter 4:7-11; John 15:26-16:4
Yesterday at the men's Bible study, we got onto the subject of how we overcome sin and overcome the terrible effects of sin on our lives. I related how I had had to unlearn a good bit of what I had learned as a childhood Christian because what I was learning led me to believe that I never would overcome sin at all. It seemed like it would continue on into eternity. Even if I did stop actual sins, I would "be" a sinner nevertheless, and feel like a sinner, unworthy in the eyes of God, and, no doubt, somewhat despised by Him.
I suspect that there are millions and millions of Christians, especially in the West, who have felt the same way -- that "Good News" was a great label, but that it did not fit very well. Not as good as advertised.
Somewhere along the way, fairly early in my adulthood, I heard the Lord say, "Think of all this in terms of personal relationship, not in terms of abstract doctrine." And also: "Stop trying to make yourself believe things that do not make sense." I took that to mean that doctrines which do not make sense in terms of building good relationships between me and God are probably not good doctrines.
That made perfect sense if the two highest laws in the universe are to love God with everything we have, and one another just like we love ourselves. Love, after all, means doing good things for someone, including for oneself. And the best thing we can do for anyone, including ourselves, is to help each other get into the Kingdom of God as fast as we can get there, that living outside that Kingdom is not only sinful, it is stupid because it is self-destructive.
That implied the obvious, that God is dedicating His almighty will to get us there into His Kingdom, not trying to keep us out. We are the problem, not He. We do not have to persuade Him, He has to persuade us! And furthermore, the whole story of redemption, from the Fall in Genesis 3 on, is the story of His doing just that. God is our friend, not our enemy. He already loves us, and we do not have to persuade Him to do so. We are our own worst enemy.
Indeed, our thinking that He does not love us a crucial part of the Fall. We do not know the real God, we have a Satanically twisted vision of God. It is a self-destructive belief, because it forces us to distance ourselves from Him, it forces us to cut ourselves off from His grace and mercy, and to damage those two important stabilities which we must have: our stability of being, and our moral stability. Our fear of God makes us reject God as our Creator and our Sovereign. The loss of those two stabilities is the Fall, and redemption is the regaining of them. Redemption is God paying whatever price He must to restore us to Himself so that we can once again be blessed by our stability of being and stability of doing.
We did not have time to get into the issue very deeply yesterday, which is why I am taking time now. The whole story of the life of Jesus, with our present focus on Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and the Holy Trinity is about the overcoming of sin and its effects, and about our becoming free from our compulsive sinful behavior.
We need to take a look at the notion of "sin", and of human nature to clear up some errors typical in much of Christian thinking.
Strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to say that we are sinners. Sin is a behavior, an activity, and a purpose or choice, it is not a part of our being. Our being comes from God. At the bottom of our being is the Hand of God. Since God creates only good things, it is always a good idea for me to be Earle Fox, for you to be you. (Tell yourself that whenever you sin.) You have a perfect right to sit in judgement on your behavior, but you do not have a right to sit in judgement on your being. Only God can do that.
Any attack on your being is from Satan, the Accuser of the Brethren, not from God. So when you feel "down on yourself", stop it. You are sinning against yourself and slandering God. You must affirm your being, which then sets you free to go after your behavior. If you are negative toward your being, who you are, then you will be distracted from dealing with the real problem, your behavior, your attitudes, your purposes in life. That is where sin resides, so Satan is always happy to get you to condemn yourself. It will distract you from changing your behavior.
St. Augustine writes in The City of God about this very issue. He writes:
...the flaw of wickedness is not nature, but contrary to nature, and has it's origin, not in the creator, but in the will.
...that is, sin in the will of the creature (which is what we do), not in the being of the creature (which is what God is doing, i.e., by creating).
...wickedness can be a flaw or vice only where the nature previously was not viciated (i.e., not fallen, harmed, hurt).... and therefore departure from God would be no vice, unless in a nature whose property it was to abide with God.
If you are by nature sinful, then it is not sin. You cannot help it. There is sin only where there is free choice. That is the incentive for homosexual activists to say that homosexuality is inborn. Then they cannot help it.
Our nature is given to us by God in creation. Our nature is not our choice, but God's choice. We are made a certain way. Humans are different from zebras, we have a "human" nature, not a zebra nature. That nature is designed to be in fellowship with God. God supplies our stabilities of being and of moral direction, and we are meant to supply Him with obedience to His purpose for our existence, that is to love Him and our neighbors.
Loving means doing good things for each other. In the Kingdom, loving one another is the "natural" thing to do, that which is according to our nature. Sin means any deliberate choosing to not be obedient to my purpose for existence. And therefore sin is unnatural, not natural. It can end up, if pursued, destroying our nature, and we get tossed on the trash heap of the cosmos, Gehenna.
But we Christians have come to use the word 'nature' to mean our fallen nature, our nature which is twisted all out of shape so that we are unable to do the will of God. So we have gotten used to the idea that it is "natural" to sin, and "unnatural" to be consistently obedient, to be loving.
That, then, has added to the sense of hopelessness of ever becoming free from our sin life. We often excuse ourselves when we have done something well, by letting other know that, "I am, of course, a sinner". We feel guilty if we even hint at the possibility of having in any way overcome out tendency to sin.
But the processes of redemption and sanctification are not only to supply us with forgiveness for our past sins, but are also to prepare us for leading a sinless life. Yes, it is probably true that that will not be completed until after the Lord's return, but it is also true that we can make visible, tangible, and measurable progress in that direction here and now, and that that is a matter for public rejoicing. Giving thanks, holy Eucharist.
So, it is not strictly accurate to say that, "I am a sinner", though we commonly use that language. It is true to say that I compulsively sin, my behavior is like an addiction. I cannot stop doing it without getting help. But the help is available -- it is called the revelation and grace of God. A compulsive behavior is not a part of my being. We cannot change the color of our skin. That is part of who we are. But we can change our behavior. Sometimes we need help. But addictions are not a part of our true nature, they are a part of our fallen nature.
I have two family members recovering from substance abuse. Both are quite happy to let others know when they have reached another year milestone of being clean from their substance. That means that they are becoming free from a particular kind of sin. They are winning the struggle. It probably does not help much to inform them, "Well, you are still a sinner...., you know!" It does not help for them to apologize for having stated that they are indeed winning the war. Most such wars are won over a long span of time. But the ground gained is important, and a matter for rejoicing and thanking God. That is true of any sin, including yours and mine.
We do not live in a hopelessly sinful condition. That is a slander on God, implying that He is not capable of rescuing us from our Fall. We are not capable of rescuing ourselves by ourselves, but we can certainly, by cooperating with God, be rescued.
The "way of the cross" is not an eternal put-down of ourselves, an eternal stone in my shoe, an eternal affliction of myself, carrying a cross on my back to punish my eternal sin. The grace of God guarantees that my sin need not be eternal. Guarantees.
We read in Ephesians 1:13:
In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel (Good News!) of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
"Acquire possession." That means that it is complete. And in 2nd Corinthians 1:22
He has put his seal upon us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
That is what the shortly coming Pentecost is partly about, that guarantee within our hearts. It can be a present guarantee of something in the future only if it is a present experience of the grace of God, not an unknown and unfathomable mystery.
We clearly do not experience the fullness and completion of our hoped-for life in Christ, but we can, and should, experience enough of it to know that it is on its way. To be a guarantee of something in the futures, it must be something substantial and experienced in the present. Otherwise it is no guarantee of anything. We are then fooling ourselves, and no more. And then secular folks rightly mock us for our delusional hopes.
Jesus prayed for the unity of His disciples in John 17 -- so that the world would know that He came from the Father. This is an important principle which we Christians must get under our belts. What is the connection between the unity of Christians and the world knowing that Jesus came from the Father?
The connection is that the unity is that moral unity which is the most powerful unity that can be experienced on the face of the earth. And pagan and secular people know (in their better moments, at least) that they cannot produce that kind of unity. Pagan Romans saw Christians united in Christ in a way that they knew they could not produce. It was demonstrated over and over during the first 400 years of Christian history. Christians would stand by their faith, and they would stand by one another in extraordinary ways, choosing to lose their lives to wild beasts and gladiators rather than say "no" to Jesus. Christians chose to risk their lives when plagues came to town, staying to help one another, and to help the pagans as well.
Pagan people noticed that, and responded that, if having Jesus in your heart can do that for you, then I want Jesus in my heart. They understood what it meant to die well. At least one emperor tried to get his people to do like those Christians, taking care of one another. It never happened because loving one's neighbor like that is just not a part of the pagan worldview. It does not make sense in a world without the God of the Bible. There is no ontological stability of being, and therefore there is no such moral unity possible among people without God.
If you are wondering what I am talking about, ask the Lord to show you what this "ontological" stability and "moral" stability are, and how they are fundamental to understanding the meaning of salvation and sanctification. And let me know so we can work on it. As these two things become second nature to you, you will find your Christian walk much more understandable, and will find it much more easily communicated with your family, friends, and neighbors. You will see the spiritual roadmap much more clearly, and be able to tell and encourage others about what a truly and honestly hopeful journey it can be.
Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah this morning prefigures the end of the Book of Revelation:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth... for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.... ...no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. .... Before they call, I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hear... They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity... ... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.
No more sin.
In the Epistle from St. Peter, you might think Peter thought they actually could be obedient. He urges them:
be ye therefore sober.... watch unto prayer... have fervent charity among yourselves... use hospitality one to another.... without grudging (!)...
They were indeed doing just those things in extraordinary ways.... which caught the attention of the pagans. They were not sinless, but they were making visible, tangible progress, they understood what Paul meant about that "guarantee" of the completion to come.
In today's Gospel from St. John, we read from Jesus almost the same words which He will later speak in Acts 1, just before ascending to the Father:
When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, he shall testify of me: and ye also shall bear witness.... They shall put you out of synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God a service.
The Comforter will testify of Jesus to the disciples, so that they can testify of Him to the world. And the Comforter will bring that power from on high by which we have stability of our being, anywhere, any time, with anyone. That is the Comfort. And we will know what to speak to present the direction and purposes of God. Disciples of Jesus will be able to sustain their unity in God and with one another no matter what the world, the flesh, or the devil may inflict upon us.
That is how sin is overcome and all the effects of sin. Sin should not dominate our thinking, as though we shall be hopelessly fighting that battle into eternity. That is not so. Or, if it is, that is because we have yet to mature in the love and grace of God.
Western Christians have not been able to respond to the Gospel as Christians do in many other parts of the world. Foreign Christians are now sending missionaries to the West, to re-evangelize the West. We very much need a new Pentecost, a renewal of the Body of Christ, a new life infused into our spirits.
We will be talking much about that after Pentecost next Sunday and Trinity Sunday following, as we proceed through the summer of the Church year. What can we do to open ourselves to the work of God among us? What can we do to become less and less sinful, and thus to manifest the glory of God both here in church and outside those doors among our families and friends?
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