The Gospel of God, Again!
Dwight A. Moody, preaching
Kentucky novelist Silas House has written a disturbing look at one future of our planet. Lark Ascending describes the journey of a young man (Lark), a dog (Seamus), and a woman (Helen) as they walk across Ireland seeking safety from the violence and danger of a collapsed civilization. It is a dystopian vision of our future. Global warming has fueled fires around the world. What he calls “fundies” have taken over America—we might know these as Christian Nationalists. Dissent is suppressed by authoritarian governments; freedom is gone; flight is the only option for those who do not abide by the religious and political values of the new overlords. The journey is an arduous one, but it leads to the once-Benedictine community that has survived the brutality and maintained the practices of hospitality and compassion.
Much in our common life tends in the direction of this depressing story. All round us there is trouble. Into this rising tide of bad news, we gather today to sing for joy and live with hope. We come to worship the living God, to remember Jesus the Risen Lord, and to open ourselves to the Spirit of life and love. In other words, we are gospel people—good news people, believing that the power God used to raise Jesus from the dead is accessible to us and to everyone.
Paul the great apostle speaks to this when, in the short letter written almost 2,000 years ago, he challenges us to conduct ourselves in a manner worth of the Good News. He calls us to stand together with one spirit and one purpose. That is the kind of person I want to be, and that is the kind of congregation we want to be. That is why, today, we sing for joy and live with hope.
We declare our faith: God is present in and among us! God is powerful in and through us. God has a purpose for us and for the whole world.
I want you to be a teller of good news, gossiping the gospel, we might say.
I am grateful that often when I was a child people told me the story of Jesus: my parents, my teachers, my church leaders. Everyone in the world needs to know the story of Jesus. God sent Jesus as teacher, healer, friend of saints and sinners, and savior of the world. Jesus died on a cross, was buried in a borrowed grave, and on the third day, God raised him from death to life. The story of his birth, his life and ministry, his teaching, his prayers, his arrest and death and resurrection is a story that everyone in the world has a right to know. I’m glad somebody told me. Are you glad somebody told you?
How can we be tellers of the good news?
Here is what we want to tell: God raised Jesus from the dead. This affirms and vindicates the life and ministry of Jesus and his practice of unbounded love. This offers this same Spirit of unbounded love to you, and me, and everyone. This promises a future of unbounded love—what is sometimes called “beloved community”—to the whole human race.
We believe this good news and we seek to live in it. This empowers us to sing for joy and live with hope, especially when our world is beset with so much violence and pain, so much instability and uncertainty, so much danger and disease.
This year, floods brought death and destruction to Eastern Kentucky. As a Kentucky native and a long-term Kentucky resident, my heart was grieved. In Perry County, the rains turned into floods and pushed the North Fork of the Kentucky River out of its banks. That river snakes in and around Harlan, Kentucky. Images of destruction are depressing. That region of our county is one of poverty and deprivation. Now there is more: more death, more lost, more grief, more despair, more need.
In times like these, the world needs people who sing for joy and live with hope. It needs people with good news. It needs citizens of heaven, who live as if the power that raised Jesus from the dead is capable of overcoming division, renewing friendships, empowering compassion, producing generosity, sustaining sacrifice, and welcoming strangers.
Let’s begin with Jesus.
First, Jesus taught the love of God. God loves you. And we are to love God and love one another. This love is an awareness of the value of each person. It is an empathy for the struggle of each and every person. It is a commitment to act in the best interest of each person.
That is the meaning of the story Jesus told, of the man beaten by thieves and left to die, of the stranger to happened by and tended to his wounds. We call him the good Samaritan and we all aspire to live and act that way: to be courageous and compassionate in times of crisis and confusion. To tell this story is to share the good news. To embody this story is to be the good news.
To be gospel people is to treat everyone as our neighbor: our white neighbor and our black neighbor, our Christian neighbor and our Muslim neighbor, our rich neighbor and our poor neighbor, our straight neighbor and our gay neighbor. Everyone in the world is our neighbor. We are to act and vote and pray thinking about our neighbors down the street and our neighbors around the world.
Living in the presence of God is the key to abundant life and life eternal. We are made for God and our hearts our restless until they rest in God. We are called to live in beloved community: to love God and love our neighbor—our Baptist neighbor and our Muslim neighbor.
People killed Jesus and discredited his life. Some asked: how can the blessing of God be on a person who died as a criminal? Who died on a cross?
To signal his approval of Jesus and his message of love, God raised Jesus from the dead. It was the public stamp of approval from God for Jesus. God took his stamp, dipped it in ink, and stamped on Jesus: Approved. Vindicated. Endorsed. God declares: “Pay attention to Jesus because I affirm who he was and what he did and what he said.”
This resurrection power of God flows from Jesus around the world and through history. The Bible tells one long story of where that power made a difference, bringing life out of death, freedom out of bondage, power out of weakness, grace out of judgment, righteousness out of wickedness, hope out of despair.
We are gospel people. We are good news people. We are Jesus people. We declare Jesus is Lord, risen from the dead, alive and at work all around us. Thanks be to God!
God is also in our congregation, not just out there in the world somewhere, and not just back there on that first Easter. God is present in our congregation. God is present calling us together, calling us to sing with joy and live with hope, calling us to love and understand one another, calling us to pour out our lives for the good of our community and the flourishing of our world.
Yes, I know we are small. There are 20 of us here today. That makes us a small congregation by some standards. Yes, there are large megachurches scattered around the world. Most of the large urban centers have huge congregations: Seoul in Korea, London in Great Britain, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Houston in Texas, Nairobi in Kenya, Rome in Italy. But we—Providence—are more like the church in Philippi to which Paul wrote this letter. We are a small church, a micro-church some say today. But there are millions of congregations like us around the world just as there have been millions down through the centuries.
We are the wave of the future. Many large churches are now small churches. One member of our church is a church architect. He said to me last year, “Most of our work these days is helping megachurches downsize and offload property.” I recently came upon a video of the largest church in the United States: Joel Olsteen’s Lakeside Church in Houston. The camera from behind the preacher scanned the audience. You know what I saw? Empty seats! Five years ago, you would see no such thing in that large arena. Every church I know has downsized!
We sing for joy and live hope in our small congregation. But we have a great confidence that God has brought us here for a purpose. We are a minority voice even in the Christian community. We are tearing down barriers, welcoming people, empowering everyone. We are the church of the future!
Sometimes we hear it said, “The first confession of faith among those early Christians was, JESUS IS LORD.” This may be true. But some scholars think otherwise. They contend that the earliest of all confessions of faith was this: “There is no longer Jew and Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul inserted that in his letter to the Galatians. That addressed the first major crisis of the Christian movement: shall we let them in? Those first followers of Jesus were Jews, and they did not want others—Gentiles—to join their movement unless they first became Jews. They must be like us, they said. Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter two describe and discuss this controversy. Shall we keep the circle small and exclude them? Or shall we make the circle large and include them?
Thc Christian community today is engaged in a great civil war on the same question. The United Methodist Church is splitting over the issue. A generation ago it was the Episcopal Church splitting. Now even the Pentecostal movement, one of the more conservative, is grappling with this question: are we all one in Christ?
We here at Providence have a great mission and a great message. It is our moment to sing for joy and live with hope! God has brought us here for this purpose and with this message. There is resurrection power among us, in us, around us, and through us. This resurrection power of God enables us to overcome prejudice, to undermine hatred and bigotry. This resurrection power equips us to love and understand one another and practice hospitality to all whom God sends our way.
We are not trying to take over the United States. We are not creating armed militias and training survival groups. We are not abandoning our Christian mission for a political uprising. We are gathering to pray and sing and give and serve. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the resurrection of Jesus for our day and time, thanks be to God.
The resurrection power of God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection power of God is energizing our congregation to sing for joy and live with hope. But that same resurrection power also inspires us as individuals to see God more clearly, to love God more dearly, and follow Jesus more nearly day by day. Those are the lyrics from the rock musical Godspell that our associate pastor quotes with some frequency. It is based on a prayer of a 13th century English bishop named Saint Richard of Chichester. It can be our prayer today.
What we want is transformation! We want God to make us the people God wants us to be. What kind of person is that?
I know of no better answer to that question that the eight I-Sayings of the Apostle Paul which we found in chapter three and four in this little letter to the Philippians. I will preached on each of these, and I think many of us will commit them to memory and quote most if not all of them.
I never get tired of doing gospel work, Paul wrote with words that we all can embrace. When he reviewed his religious resume, complete with all the requirements of temple and synagogue, he said, I consider it trash. It is faith in the living God that lifts us to salvation and service.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, Paul wrote for all of us, summarizing my entire sermon today. I press on, he said as he reflected on his past, his present, and his future. God has called us, and we press on to take hold of that high calling. I love you brothers and sisters. I remember preaching of that statement some weeks ago. I said to you as your interim pastor, I love you all, and I like most of you also!
I praise the Lord is perhaps the easiest of all of these statements. We love to praise the Lord because we sing for joy and live with hope. Then we come to this one that was featured today by our vocalist: I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. You will find it, first, in Philippians 4:13, but you will find it more often buried deep in the hearts and minds of Christian people like us. It is a treasured statement of our faith.
Finally, we come to what I call the most counter-culture of all of these attitudes. In our environment of consumption, accumulation, and storage bins, Paul says for all of us, I have all that I need.
These eight sayings buried in these beautiful lines of this wonderful letter are our signposts on our journey to personal transformations. Repeat them. Pray them. Post them on the walls of your house and the doorposts of your home. Bury them deep in your soul and let them seep out into what you say, how you react, and where you go. These eight sayings will help you sing for joy and live with hope.
By the resurrection power of God, they will make you a gospel person and will make us a good news congregation. In the power of the spirit of God, we will sing for joy and live with hope.