Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jesus the Game-Changer

"Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

"If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference."

These quotes from C. S. Lewis serve as powerful reminders that if the claims Christianity makes about Jesus are true - if Jesus really is fully human and fully divine, if Jesus' death on the cross was no accident but rather an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, and if Jesus was bodily raised from the dead - then the Gospel is not merely one truth among many other truths. For Jesus is Himself the Truth. And Jesus changes everything.

In his sermon this past Sunday which he posted on his blog, my good friend and clergy colleague the Rev. Alston Johnson did an excellent job of addressing this topic. I share it here as a fine example of what Creedal Christian is all about: "Affirming the Faith of the Church."

Sermon for Easter 6, Year A
May 29, 2011
The Rev. Alston Johnson

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “A faster horse!” ~ Henry Ford

Think of how rare it is in our lives that any of us accept something that is, or becomes, an absolute game-changer, at face value. Most of the time we are prone to measure new things by old things – it’s natural and intuitive to maintain a status quo; stick with what we know.

Think of the task the Apostle Paul accepts from God. The preaching and teaching of a game-changer. In a world already full of deities, little gods, Paul is tapped not simply to bring a “faster horse,” but an entirely new mode of divine transportation.

Today we find Paul on the steps of one of the great capitals of the ancient world, the Areopagus, located near the Acropolis, in the city of Athens. Athens has already seen and digested the work of the great philosophers – Socrates in 400BC, who met his death sentence in the Areopagus. Aristotle 300BC. Epicurus 300BC. Zeno and the Stoics 300BC.

Each of these philosophers brought to Greece, and the lands they conquered, tremendous insights of what it means for human beings to live a meaningful life. Their work and their legacy are not insignificant, and that is why their work remains the bedrock of any serious philosophical reflection about the meaning and nature of the cosmos, and a human being’s place within it. As Paul stands in the Areopagus, the Acropolis in sight, Athens is basking in the afterglow of a prosperous and significant 600 year history of religion and philosophy.

However Paul, as well as the many theologians who followed him, knew both intellectually and instinctively that the Gospel, the Passion of Christ, cannot simply be tolerated as an idea among ideas. A displacement must occur. The love of God in Christ causes other philosophies of life to stumble, and will be called foolish by many.

It is one thing for Paul, a Jew, to explain and debate the Gospel in Synagogues in the company of fellow Jews. In the synagogues, Paul has a storyline, and characters, and props that are familiar to all Jews who know the scriptures. It is like preaching to the choir. In the synagogues there is a shared landscape of meaning through which Paul might make the case that Jesus is the Messiah.

Not so in the pagan metropolis’ of the ancient world, especially Greece, where there is a god, temple, guru, or philosopher on every corner and for every occasion. The ancient pagans also brought something else to the table – the glory of remaining on the journey toward truth, rather than graduating to the plateau of accepting truth. The spirit of free inquiry is certainly a noble and worthy pursuit. However in the presence of revealed Truth, the spirit of free inquiry can also become the avoidance behavior of choice for intellectuals, scholars, and eggheads both ancient and modern.

It is not so much what Paul says that I find striking – rather it is how Paul says it, and where Paul is saying it. Just as Paul might use stories about Abraham, Isaac, Elijah, or verses from Isaiah and the Psalms, to illuminate how Jesus is the Messiah in the synagogues, when Paul is in the presence of the Athenians, he picks up an idiom that is common to them; Paul plays a rhetorical instrument they can hear, and makes what I find a compelling argument – “you Greeks are wise enough to know that there might be a god that you have overlooked in this carnival you have created, and I am here to introduce this God to you. Get thee ready.”

I also find it very compelling that centuries upon centuries of some of the most profound human thought – the Classical Greek tradition – is more or less pushed to the side by this fellow from Tarsus who drops into the capital of a fading empire, and drops a small bomb called Jesus upon them. It is a game-changer, and I wonder sometimes if Paul ever grasped the significance of what he accomplished on this brief visit to Athens. In a place where they were used to looking for faster horses, but Paul brings them something altogether new.

The other day I was part of Bible study where some of us were chatting about Bucket Lists; you know, that list of things that a person wants to do before they “kick the bucket.” Someone observed that this seems selfish, arranging things according to our own wishes, as though the world is here for our benefit, rather than the other way round. But it struck me, what if one of the items on our bucket list might be to bring another person to know Christ; better yet, to find some corner of our lives where we might be like Paul at the Areopagus for a moment. Swim upstream for Christ at least once – might that redeem the bucket list?

Risk being laughed at - a fool, a simpleton for Christ. Perhaps share the love of Christ, the message of the hope of the Gospel, in at least one place where we know someone will snicker, or raise their nose and their eyebrows. For once in our lives to be like Paul in the face of the know-it-alls; speak a word of truth with love for the sake of the One who is true, and who is love.

God is faithful and will not leave us abandoned. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever; I will not leave you orphaned . . . ,” the man said.

The words of the Greek philosophers are read by thousands of students and would-be philosophers through any given year; while these words of Paul, and the words of the Gospels, are read by millions upon millions every Sunday of every year, because the One within these words is alive, and reigns with God.

The message we can take with us today, in the morning, with Paul, is that Easter is not merely a season . . . Jesus is not merely a faster horse – He is the game-changer. His promise is that if we stand, like Paul, for Him, in the times and places of our lives, He will stand with us.

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