Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Modeling Holiness" sermon by Rev. Pete Vecchi

Modeling Holiness

John 15:9-17

Today is Mother’s Day, so to all you Moms out there, I say, “Happy Mother’s Day!”  Now anyone who knows me well at all probably knows that I’ve just given all of the recognition to Mother’s Day that I would normally want to give in a Sunday morning message.  And the truth is that as I was studying the Lectionary Scriptures for today, the 5th Sunday after Easter, there was really nothing that I saw in them that went along with Mother’s Day.  But as I got into more of the developing of the message, I realized that there’s an illustration I can share today that goes along with Mother’s Day and being a good Mom.  So bear with me, and I’ll plan to get to that in a little bit.  But right now, I want to start with something else.

I’m going to do something else today that I normally don’t do from the pulpit: I’m going to talk about a current event issue that has caused controversy in our culture.  That event was when the President and the Vice President of the United States both came out publicly in the past several days saying that they are in favor of same-sex marriages.  From the outset, let me state that I am not going to be talking about politics or candidates today.  But I want to look at this issue in light of the words from today’s Scripture lessons.  And I want to remind you that I didn’t choose these Scriptures because of current events; rather, these particular Scriptures were chosen for this week in the church year by the people who put together the Lectionary many years ago. 

One of the big arguments that has come up with this whole same-sex marriage issue is that people on one side of the issue point to the Bible to show that it speaks against homosexual activity.  And those people are correct when they say that.  On the other hand, there are other people out there today who say that Jesus was all about love, and if two same-sex people love each other, it’s OK for them to get married.  Well, the people who think that way are half-right.  Jesus was—and IS—all about love.  But in today’s Scripture lessons we can get a good picture about what Jesus means by “love.” Then from there, I want to show that it’s our understanding of “love” and our understanding of Obeying Jesus that should make the difference in how we look at issues in our day.

In the Scriptures we read from John 15, Jesus is recorded as saying that if we keep His commands, we will abide, or remain, in His love.  Some people look at that word, “commandments” and conclude that Jesus was talking about the commandments found in the Old Testament Law.  But that’s not what Jesus said in the context of this passage.  Right after He talked about obeying His commandmentss, He said this in verse 12, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Jesus then went on to say that there’s no greater love than someone dying for his or her friends, and He said this knowing full well that in just a few hours he would be dead, because He was about to lay down His life for His friends.  So, within that context, I’d like to show that there are two interpretation mistakes that are often made by people when looking at the words of Jesus from that passage. 

The first mistake is when people try to use the passage to show that Jesus expects everyone to obey all of the commands found in the Old Testament Law.  People take the word “command” or “commandment” and try to show that Jesus expects His followers to carry out every command that is spelled out in the Old Testament Law.  In a way, this is adding meaning beyond what Jesus clearly was communicating at that time.  In this passage, He plainly said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  Almost immediately after that He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” and then explained that the greatest love is for one person to lay down his or her life for another person.  The context here is important, because, as I already said, Jesus was just hours away from literally dying for those whom He loved.  So I believe that it’s a mistake to say that in this passage, Jesus is telling everyone to follow all of the Commandments of the Old Testament Law.

But there’s a second mistake that’s also made by many people who read this passage, and that is to not understand the meaning of love.  It almost seems that some people have the idea that loving someone means letting them have whatever they want.  Here’s where I want to bring in the illustration that goes along with Mother’s Day.  Those of you who are Moms have very likely experienced a time when your child wanted something that was not good for him or her.  Any good Mom knows the importance of saying “No” to her children.  Especially when the children are very young, they don’t know things that Moms know, such as it’s not a good idea to stick a fork into an electric outlet.  As the children get older, their Moms often seem to know when it might not be a good idea for their son or daughter to hang out with a certain friend or group of friends—for whatever reason, because Moms often seem to just know what’s best in these types of matters.   It’s kind of like a “Mom Radar;” “How did Mom find out about that?”  A Mom who loves her child will do whatever she can to protect her child from harm, even putting herself in harm’s way if necessary to protect her child.  That’s because love means that a person looks out for the well-being of the other before looking out for his or her own well-being.    The mistake comes when people look at love as meaning giving someone else what they want.  That’s a mistake because sometimes a person’s well-being is better served by not giving that person what he or she wants.  As an example, just think about an alcoholic who wants a drink.

So, bringing this Scripture passage to the issue of same-sex marriage, we can perhaps begin to see why it’s a controversial issue.  On one hand we see people who are opposed to same-sex marriage saying that they are right because Jesus told us to follow His commands, and they believe that means following the commands of the Old Testament Law.  On the other hand, we see people who are in favor of same-sex marriage saying that they are right because Jesus taught that we should love one another, and they believe that letting two people of the same sex who want to get married to each other is showing love for them because we’re letting them do what they want to do.   It’s true that both of those positions can appear to have some merit, especially if a person is looking at the issue from a certain perspective.  But I submit that looking at the issue from a perspective that leads to one of those two conclusions means that the issue is being viewed from the wrong perspective.  The proper perspective is something that can be found in verses 16 & 17 of John 15, when Jesus said, “...I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

The crux of what Jesus is saying in John 15:9-17 is to follow His commandments.  In that passage, He specifically said that His commandment is for His people to love one another, the way that He loves God the Father and the way that He loves us. Jesus said that to love one another means to be willing to give up everything for that person, just as Jesus was about to give up His life for His followers.  And here in verses 16 and 17, Jesus gave us an indication of the goal to which we should be aspiring when we love other people: to bear fruit that will abide.  To abide means to last, or to remain, or to endure.

When Jesus came to this Earth, His mission was to reconcile people to God the Father.  Jesus knows that people are sinful, and that sin cannot endure in the presence of the perfectly Holy God.  So Jesus came to earth to die in order that our sin would be taken away, in order that we indeed can live forever in the presence of God.  Jesus also says that because He loves us.  He tells us that we are to love other people, and that our goal in loving other people is to continue to carry on His mission of reconciling people to God the Father.  The fruit we bear that will endure is the people whom we can help bring into a relationship with Jesus; Jesus then can reconcile people to God the Father.  When this happens, people truly will abide, or last, or endure, or remain with God the Father forever.

But we can’t love other people enough to reconcile them to God in our own strength, or through our own will.  We need the power of God to do these things.  I can’t bring another person to faith in Jesus Christ, and you can’t either.  All I can do, and all you can do, is bring them to Jesus; it’s up to the person whether or not he or she will believe.  It’s like the old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  I want to lead people to Jesus, but they have to decide whether or not they will drink from the Living Water that Jesus gives.  And to make sure I am not relying on my own strength, I need to ask the Father for guidance through Jesus.  That’s what Jesus meant when He said that we should ask the Father in Jesus’ name and the Father will give it to us.  We should want His will in our lives instead of wanting our own will in our lives.  Part of knowing and doing God’s will in our lives means properly understanding terms such as sin, love, and holiness.

The root of sin is selfishness. The Christian is supposed to die to self in order that he or she may live for Christ. But sometimes it’s not easy to know what God’s will is in a particular situation.  The same Jesus who showed compassion and mercy to a woman caught in adultery (as recorded in John 8) and who showed compassion to the woman at the well who had been married to at least 5 different men (as recorded in John 4) is the same Jesus who said in Matthew 5 that not the smallest part of the law would be removed from the Law until all things are accomplished.  That can seem like somewhat of a mixed message.

The key to understanding and knowing God’s will is death to self, and allowing the Christ to live within us through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Then we should live as directed by the Holy Spirit within. The more we seek God’s will in our lives instead of our own will in our lives, the more the things we want will be just the things God wants for us.  When we ask God the Father for something “in the Name of Jesus,” it isn’t just flippantly saying the words “In Jesus’ Name” at the end of a prayer before saying “Amen.”    It means that we are coming before the God of the Universe, saying that we are representing His Son.  In other words, we are supposed to ask the Father for the things we believe that the Son, Jesus, wants.  And in order for us to know what Jesus wants, we need to continually die to self in order to seek to honor God in our lives.  Another way of saying this is, “Not my will, but God’s will be done in my life.” 

Now it’s important also to understand, that we can’t have God’s will in our lives apart from Jesus.  In John 14:6 Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  You see, sometimes well-meaning people tend to want to point out where other people are falling short of following God’s Laws—especially the Laws spelled out in the Old Testament.  On one hand, that’s OK, because people who don’t know Jesus will indeed be judged based on how they kept the Law as spelled out in the Old Testament.  The only problem is that in order for someone to be justified before God through the Law, that person has to follow that Law perfectly.  But the reality is that no one can follow the Law perfectly.

Let me use the same-sex marriage issue as an example.  According to the Old Testament Law, having homosexual relations is wrong.  Anyone who does that is breaking the Law, and therefore cannot live in God’s presence.  At the same time, the truth is that if someone doesn’t have homosexual relations, they will do something else that causes someone to break the Old Testament Law.  Again, that’s because no one can follow the Old Testament Law perfectly.  But the Bible tells us in Galatians 3:22-26 that the true purpose for the Law is to be our guardian until Christ rules in our lives.

As Christians, we have the way of being able to come into God’s presence, through the One who said that He is the way to God the Father—Jesus Christ.  Instead of trying to be justified by the Law, as Christians we are reconciled to the Father because Jesus gave His life for us, and we have now died to self in order to live for Him.  And if we’ve died to self to live for Him, His Holy Spirit lives within us, teaching us His ways as we walk with Him day by day, and moment by moment.

And as Christians, we are called by Jesus to love one another the way He loves God the Father and the way He loves us—by loving others enough that we are willing to carry on Jesus’ mission of seeing people reconciled to God the Father.  We can try to get people to see their need for God the Father through pointing out their sin against the Old Testament Law.  That’s an absolutely accurate thing to point out.  But often seems to me to be more loving to others by instead saying to them something along the lines of, “I know a better way—a way where we die to self in order to live for Christ, who will then lead us in the paths we should go.  Let me show Him to you.”

To be sure, a lot of what God wants from us is found in the Old Testament Law.  I need to be clear that generally speaking, 99.9% of the time God wants us to follow the things He’s told us to do through the Law.  He doesn’t want us to steal.  He doesn’t want us to murder.  He doesn’t want us to lie.  He doesn’t want us to commit adultery.  But it’s not because He is saying to us “No fun for you!”  He’s saying it because all of those things hang on what Jesus said are the two greatest commands—to love God, and to love other people.  Truly showing love for God means to live for Him through Christ and not self.  Truly showing love for other people means showing them the Way through Jesus Christ living in our lives.  Love doesn’t mean letting people do whatever they want just because they want to do it.  Loving people means living our lives in such a way so that people will see something in our lives that they want—the peace of Jesus Christ leading and guiding us in all of our ways. 

That’s truly what it means to model holiness—to live our lives day by day and moment by moment through the love, power and grace of the Holy Spirit, who guides us from within when we know Jesus.  So when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage—or any other issue, for that matter—the question is, “What would Jesus do?”  If we are Christians, we can ask Him, because His Holy Spirit lives within us.  And when we ask Him what He would do, we need to remember that the goal in whatever He would do would be to reconcile people to God the Father.

Living our lives in that way is truly holy living.  Let’s model that type of holiness in our lives.

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