Sunday, August 3, 2014

Giving God a ‘sacrifice of praise’ isn’t exactly what you think

Journey through Romans: We offer self in service of God
Romans 12:1-8; Mark 8:34-37

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I grew up in the church, literally.
From birth, until now, church has been a constant.
I don’t know what it would be like to leave church,
even for a season,
as many people do at some point in their lives.

I’m not boasting, because I know that for some people,
a hiatus from church life was transformative,
it deepened their faith.
I’m also not wishing I had taken a break.
Because I have come to realize the value
of being immersed in a community of practice,
a community of conviction,
a community of purpose and meaning.

To use an ocean and ship metaphor,
I can’t imagine navigating the stormy and rolling seas
that is life in our world today,
without the ballast of my formation in the church,
that keeps me upright, intact, riding the waves,
instead of capsizing, and losing myself in them.

I’m simply noting, as a personal observation,
that locating myself in the church has profoundly shaped
how I think,
how I pray,
how I read scripture,
how I live,
how I relate to the larger world.

Now, none of those comments are central to my sermon this morning,
but they lead me into it.
Because, despite what I just said,
there are some ideas and theological assumptions
that were formed in me by the church since my childhood,
that I have since, somewhere along the way,
decided to set aside,
or at least rethink, and reinterpret.
And one of those ideas was about worship.

Somewhere, probably beginning in childhood Bible stories
I picked up the idea that
Jesus completely changed what was important in worship.
Maybe you had this idea, too.
That in the Old Testament, before Jesus,
people had to bring sacrifices to worship—
a perfect lamb, or goat, or ox,
or grain, or a basket of vegetables,
or whatever the case may be.
That’s just how people had to worship, pre-Jesus.
That’s just what God required of them.
Because they hadn’t yet been enlightened
by the knowledge of God that Jesus would bring.

But now, since Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross,
sacrifices are no longer needed in worship.
That God’s previous demand for a blood sacrifice,
the offering up of a life,
in order for us to approach God in holiness,
was completely and forever done away with.
That’s why we don’t have a big altar
for animal sacrifice right outside the church doors.

Now, the only sacrifice God requires is our praise.
The language of our worship music demonstrates this.
How many songs talk about bringing God
a sacrifice of praise?
Because of Jesus, we sometimes say,
that’s the only sacrifice we need to bring—
a sacrifice of praise.
And that’s way easier than sacrificing a lamb or a cow.
and a lot less costly,
and a lot less bloody.
So we’re good with that.
Thank you, Jesus,
for being our sacrifice,
so we don’t have to sacrifice anymore.

Maybe it wasn’t said in exactly those words,
but that’s the general idea, I think,
that was formed in me over the years.
Which I have since repented of.

I no longer think,
“Thank you, Jesus,
for doing away with that horrible sacrificial system.”
Now, when I think about it,
I am almost wistful for those primitive days,
when people presented burnt offerings to God.
Almost wistful.
No, I don’t think we should
build a stone altar in the courtyard,
and go back to burning up animals in worship.
But I do wish we would once again,
always come to worship knowing that before it was over,
we would be expected to offer up to God,
something of great value to us.

Instead, many Christians enter into a worship space thinking,
“I wonder what the worship leaders and musicians and preacher
are serving up to us today,
that will bless me and inspire me and feed me?”

Just try to imagine early Israelite worshipers with that mindset.
Picture the crowd gathered in the courtyard,
watching the burnt offerings go up in smoke,
participating in the communal rituals of praise and confession,
chanting psalms of God’s deliverance,
praising God’s power and might.
And then picture an Israelite worshiper
walking out of the temple disappointed,
“You know, that service just didn’t do anything for me.
The trumpeters played too loud.
I couldn’t read the music.
The high priest’s voice was annoying.
And the seats weren’t comfortable.
Come to think of it, there were no seats!
I think I’ll look for some other temple to go to,
with more programming,
and a better band,
. . . and seats!”

Of course, that’s unthinkable. Laughable.
So . . . maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize the old ways.
Maybe the Israelites had a good thing going,
with all those sacrifices and burnt offerings.
At least there was never any doubt,
that worship wasn’t about them.
Maybe we should look again at what it really means for our worship,
for Jesus to have given the ultimate sacrifice,
his life, for the sake of ours.

I’m quite sure that God, in offering up his son Jesus,
never intended to turn our worship from sacrifice into entertainment.

You might say, “Oh, but the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
did change things.
The blood of God’s own unblemished lamb,
did do away with the old sacrificial system.”
That’s true enough, and I’m not trying to argue that point.

But—without getting into deep theological conversation
about the various theories of atonement—
I would say this.
I don’t think that the physical act of drawing blood from animals,
or humans, for that matter,
was ever really the point of the sacrificial system.
I don’t think God got some thrill out of seeing blood flow,
seeing the offering up of red and white blood cells,
plasma, and hemoglobin.
I think what God was after,
was the state of the human heart,
that is required for an act of true sacrifice.

In Old Testament worship,
blood of animals was not only a powerful symbol of sacrifice,
it was a real, tangible sacrifice.
These animals were life itself for primitive peoples.
The lives of animals sustained the lives of people.
Their meat was eaten—every part.
Their milk was drunk, or turned to cheese and eaten.
Their hair was woven, and spun, and turned to clothing.
Their hide was made into tents and shoes and bags.
Animals were central to their livelihood and economy.
Wealth was measured in numbers of sheep and cattle.

When a family put their unblemished animal on the altar,
and its lifeblood was drained from it,
the loss to that family was real and tangible.
To sacrifice a burnt offering,
was to lose what that animal could have been.
They sacrificed food, drink, clothing, shelter, and more.
And they did so willingly,
out of gratitude to God
for what God had already done for them as a people,
and as an act of profound trust in God,
that God would provide in abundance,
even more than what they had given up in worship.

The reason people went to worship,
was in order to offer up a real sacrifice.
They showed God how grateful they were for past faithfulness.
And they showed their deep trust in God for their future,
by burning up what could have provided for their needs.

And usually, these gifts were not offered up with tears and heaviness.
They were overjoyed to participate in these rituals of sacrifice.
In Numbers 10, the people are told to “blow the silver trumpets”
over their burnt offering.
2 Chronicles 23 says,
“offer burnt offerings to the Lord . . . with rejoicing and singing.”
In 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant is returned,
David literally goes wild with delight and dancing,
and then offers a burnt offering to the Lord,
and passes out cake and meat and raisins to all the people,
and they all feast and sing and dance.

If you had only the Old Testament to understand what worship was,
you would come to two conclusions.
First, worship is sacrifice.
It’s giving up something costly in honor of God.
And second, that sacrifice produces joy.
It makes glad the worshiper.
It fills the heart.
Giving up self to God results in a fuller self.
Jesus changed a lot of things.
But worship, as joyful sacrifice, was not one of those things.

That’s not really the narrative I grew up with.
I was told the Bible stories about the old sacrificial system,
and given to believe it was all about law and duty and drudgery
and earning God’s favor.
And then Jesus changed all that.
Now, we worship the God of grace and love and freedom,
that we know in the risen Christ.

Today, I can’t help but see some irony,
when I read Old Testament worship stories on one hand,
and observe trends in modern Christian worship on the other.

In the biblical stories of worship, under this heavy yoke of the law,
those who go into worship to offer an old-fashioned burnt offering,
are often depicted leaving with full hearts,
singing and dancing and rejoicing in a generous God.
And we who engage in Christian worship today, in an age of grace,
often enter worship looking to receive
good entertainment, good music, good preaching,
a personal emotional boost,
and we leave critiquing our experience:
was it good for us?
was it worth the effort to get here?
did we receive what we came for?

Maybe it should be no surprise that those who enter looking to give,
leave fuller and more joyful than those who enter looking to receive.

And just in case you think I am giving too much importance
to the act of sacrifice in worship,
in this new age of grace and freedom that Jesus brought,
then we only need to look at the book of Romans,
this great theological essay on grace by the apostle Paul,
the theologian most known for emphasizing grace.

In our text for today, Paul sets forth what worship is, at its core.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters,
in view of God’s mercy,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

So, the age of grace does not diminish the role of sacrifice in worship.
It actually ups the ante.
Instead of only being asked to offer unblemished animals,
as a suitable substitute for our own lives,
we are now being asked to be the sacrificial lamb ourselves.
We are urged by Paul, strongly encouraged, beseeched,
to offer our very bodies, as living sacrifices.
Because to do so, is “true and proper worship.”

Worship, by definition, is laying down, as sacrifice,
our individual agendas,
our personal preferences,
our self-oriented desires,
our egocentric will—
and in an act of public submission to a greater good,
give ourselves wholly to the mission and purposes of God,
the only one worthy of such an act of devotion.

True worship, is living life as a sacrifice,
it’s offering up self,
not as a burnt offering, but a living sacrifice.
Putting ourselves on the altar—
relinquishing self for good of the other—
results not in a diminished life,
but a fuller, more joyful life,
a life more authentic to our created purpose,
and thus more fulfilling.
That, to God, is a sweet-smelling sacrifice.
It gladdens God’s heart.

And lest we think that Paul is overstating things,
we need only to look to the words of Jesus himself,
which we heard in today’s Gospel reading from Mark 8.

So is a life of self-sacrifice
one of drudgery and duty and the heavy yoke of law?
Not according to Jesus [as I read from Mark 8:34]
who called the crowd together with his disciples, and said to them,
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Our culture has turned things around, exactly backwards.
We have convinced ourselves
that the path to personal pleasure, is seeking personal pleasure;
that the way to a full life, is to fill our lives with whatever we want;
that the fullest expression of the human self, is to focus on the self,
our agenda, our needs, our desires.

We may not actually say it so boldly,
but our actions speak loudly.
We can tell what our culture values,
by observing what our culture spends its time and resources on.
And whatever it is, it’s not sacrifice.

Regular corporate worship, in the body of Christ,
is the best way I know to counter the false narrative of our culture.
Every time we enter this space,
we are reminded that God’s way is different.
We are reminded that offering up self, as a living sacrifice,
is what produces authentic joy,
and leads to a flourishing, fully human life
pleasing to our Creator.

Now, I hasten to add,
some people enter this worship space,
so wounded, and broken, and disoriented,
that they are not able to find in themselves
any identifiable, cohesive, healthy self, to sacrifice.
Some have had the boundaries of their inner self,
violated so often,
that they can neither see, nor own, a well-defined self.
And one cannot sacrifice something
one does not already have in their possession.

So part of the reason for worshiping together, as a body,
is that we can be a community of healing,
a place which calls forth from each individual
a stronger and healthier self-identity,
so we actually have something of value,
that we can voluntarily offer up to our Creator,
in sacrifice and worship.
Sometimes, what we cannot sacrifice alone, the body enables,
through its collective sacrifice of worship and praise.

But the bottom-line is that authentic worship of God has always been,
since Old Testament burnt offerings, until today,
an act of self-giving sacrifice, that produces deep joy.

God is not asking for our attendance at entertaining church services,
for which we offer up a token gift to pay for these services.
No, God is asking for our very bodies as living sacrifices.
God is asking for it all.

And that’s not easy, as hymn writer Thomas Troeger put it so well:
If all you want, Lord, is my heart, my heart is yours alone 
providing I may set apart my mind to be my own.
If all you want, Lord, is my mind, my mind belongs to you,
but let my heart remain inclined to do what it would do.
If heart and mind would both suffice, while I kept strength and soul,
at least I would not sacrifice completely my control.
But since, O God, you want them all to shape with your own hand,
I pray for grace to heed your call to live your first command.

Let’s sing together, HWB 512.

—Phil Kniss, August 3, 2014

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Phil Kniss: True confessions of a Jesus Person

Journey through Romans: We believe and confess
Romans 10:5-15

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...or listen to audio:
[coming soon]

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So in this morning’s sermon
I’m going to talk about being “Jesus People” and “getting saved.”

Of course, you know that’s not my typical sermon vocabulary.
So you’re probably wondering what weird road
I’m heading down in this sermon,
and at what point I’ll do an abrupt U-turn,
and you’ll realize I was just setting you up.

Except, no.
I’m not setting you up.
And I mean it, with all sincerity,
that I want us to be known as Jesus People,
and that we should all want to, and know how, to “get saved.”

I do hope, however, to give deeper and richer meaning to those terms,
more than what you usually associate with them.

The term “Jesus People” might not ring a bell
to some of younger people here.

But I’m old enough to claim to be a child of the 60s . . .
with an emphasis on the word “child.”

I remember well the “Jesus movement” of the 60s and 70s,
that swept through America and Europe.
It was the Christian segment of the hippie culture.
Or you could say,
it was the hippie segment of the Protestant Christian culture.

My conservative Mennonite grandparents, Lloy and Elizabeth Kniss,
in the early 70s, for several years, every Friday night,
welcomed into their home in downtown Harrisonburg
a group of JMU students who were Jesus People,
with long hair, short skirts, beards, beads, and such.
There in the living room, 20 or more of them sat around on the floor,
and Grandpa, in his black plain coat,
taught them from the Bible,
and Grandma, in her cape dress,
treated them to Mennonite hospitality
in the form of homemade cookies and punch.
The love between my grandparents, and these Jesus People,
was strong, and mutual.
I boarded with my grandparents for two years as an EMHS student,
so I got to participate in these amazing Friday night rituals.

I was never wildly into the Jesus People movement myself,
but I do have at least a little street cred as a “Jesus person.”
I attended a number of the yearly Jesus festivals in Orlando,
tent camping out in a huge cow pasture
with many thousands of other Jesus people,
raising my hands and swaying with the Christian rock bands,
earnestly taking notes during the Bible workshops.
In the 70s I pretty much wore out all my Christian rock records,
of Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, and Love Song.
Irene’s and my first date, ever,
was to a Randy Stonehill concert.
At least once I traipsed along with some Christian college students,
and we went witnessing on the beaches around Sarasota,
walking up to unsuspecting sunbathers
and presenting them with the good news of Jesus.

These are some things you didn’t know about your pastor, right?
All true stories.

But long before the Jesus movement arrived in the late 60s,
Many Christians of an evangelical persuasion,
had a genuine, and heartfelt interest
in witnessing for Jesus,
and helping people “get saved.”
We learned formulas for “getting” people saved,
like the four spiritual laws.

Another 100% true story.
I told this one once before, years ago,
when I could get away with it easier,
because my brother Fred was not yet in this community,
and in this church,
and it involves him, and implicates him.
But ask him later. I’m sure he’ll vouch for it being true.

One day Fred was in our back yard at home
having an intense private conversation
with his friend Corky Barnes.
I was about seven years old, and Fred about ten.
And I wanted to be in on whatever was happening.
Turns out Fred was witnessing to Corky Barnes,
leading him to salvation with the four spiritual laws,
or some similar formula.
When I got a little too nosey,
and started pestering Fred about what was going on,
and wouldn’t back off when he asked me to,
he interrupted his Christian witness long enough
to haul off and punch me in the chest
and knock me to the ground.

We lost track of Corky later in life,
but we think he may have ended up in Christian radio,
so maybe Fred did him some good.

Nevertheless, all humor aside,
these seemingly simplistic understandings of salvation,
are not entirely off-base.

There is something about “being saved,”
that is simple, and straightforward,
according to the apostle Paul in Romans.

One could even say getting saved is easy.
Two things are required, according to apostle Paul,
Just believe and confess the faith.
Think it, and say it.
Romans 10:9—“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.”
That’s not so hard, is it?
Believe it.
Confess it.
So simple, it actually does fit neatly on a little tract.
And can be explained in a couple-minute conversation,
in a backyard,
by adolescents.

So easy, it can be expressed in a four-step formula,
with a few line drawings to illustrate it.

But . . . you knew that word was coming, didn’t you? . . .
but, something is missing in that formula.
It’s true, as far as it goes.
But it doesn’t go far enough.
If that’s all there was to salvation—
getting people to believe and confess the formula,
to think it and say it—
then we would go about the work of the church
a whole lot differently than we do.

But as it is, we know there is a missing piece.
And if you ask most anyone in this church what the missing piece is,
you’d probably get the same, good, Mennonite answer.
Walking the way of Christ.
Following Jesus in all of life.

Anabaptists and Mennonites have tried to fill out
the rest of the evangelical message,
by emphasizing the costliness of being Christian.

Yes, salvation is a gift, of course.
But it’s a gift that comes with ethical demands.
Our salvation must be demonstrated by our deeds.
And where the deeds are absent, the salvation is a sham. It’s empty.

And we all know the deeds do not come easy.
Jesus said, “The gate is narrow,
and the road is hard that leads to life.”
In a way, we Mennonites have compensated
for an overly easy and simplistic salvation formula
by emphasizing the hard road of discipleship.
This emphasis on discipleship is a rich part of our heritage.
May we never, ever, lose it.
We need it now, more than ever.
And other evangelical streams today,
are recognizing this more and more,
and are exploring Anabaptist theology as never before.

But when I look at this polarity,
on one end the easy plan of salvation—believe and confess—
and on the other end, the hard road of discipleship—
I’m still left wanting something more.

Something doesn’t seem right about doing this balancing act.
Trying to make up for an overly easy way to become Christian,
by making it difficult to stay Christian.
Something doesn’t ring true
if remaining a disciple of Jesus
is like lugging a heavy cross uphill,
and becoming a disciple is a piece of cake.

Maybe, something is out of balance at both ends.
Maybe, in becoming Christian,
there is a lot more to believing and confessing
than what some evangelicals claim.
And maybe, in staying Christian,
there is a lot more grace and gift
than what we Mennonites think.

And maybe, I should repeat that.
I strung a lot of words together there,

Maybe, in becoming Christian,
there is a lot more to believing and confessing
than what some evangelicals claim.
And maybe, in staying Christian,
there is a lot more grace and gift
than what we Mennonites think.

So for a moment, let’s think deeper about believing and confessing.
What did Paul really mean in Romans 10:9,
about confessing with your lips and believing in your heart?

Well, we’re just wrong if we think believing and confessing,
is nothing more than thinking and saying.

One reason some American evangelicals err in that direction,
is because something gets lost in translation . . . literally.

In English, the verb “to believe,” usually implies
we get our minds around the facts;
we are persuaded, intellectually.
But if we were all reading this verse in the original language,
we would see that “believing”
is exactly the same word as “faith.”
It’s just the verb form of the noun.
Like “catching” a ball, and making a “catch.” Same word.
We translate it “believing,”
only because in English “faithing” isn’t a word.
But it should be, to read the New Testament correctly.
It’s correct, in meaning, if not in grammar,
to say, “confessing with your lips” and
“faithing in your heart.”

And faith, as we know, and as I emphasized a couple weeks ago,
is all about relationship.
It’s about trust in another.

Yes, the mind is involved.
We use our minds to pursue truth.
And well we should.
We can’t build a relationship of trust in God,
without believing, in our minds,
that God is true and worthy of our trust.
But ultimately, believing in God, through Christ,
is taking a relationship risk.
It’s a “leap of faith” into a relationship,
with God, and with a God-trusting community.

That leap of faith is what Paul means when he says,
“believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”
Paul didn’t say, “Believe it, in your head.”
He said, “Faith it, in your heart.”
It’s not faith, until we go beyond saying, “Yes, I believe that’s true.”
It’s not faith, until it’s in our bones, and in our gut.
Deep, relational, risk-taking trust in the love of God,
as experienced and lived in Christian community,
is what Paul is after.
And it’s not something that can be written up on a tract,
or explained in four easy steps.
It is lived. 
And it is lived . . . on the edge.

So that’s the “believing” part.
What about the “confessing” part?

Again, we have to get beyond words coming out our mouths.
Paul is not saying our salvation comes
when we can spit out all the right facts about Jesus,
when we say true things about who Jesus is.
No, truly “confessing with our lips that Jesus is Lord,”
actually says more about us than Jesus.
My confession of faith is my identity statement.
It’s a deeply personal and deeply spiritual
claim of a new identity for myself.
It’s an open declaration of who I am in Christ.

This kind of true confession does not get drawn out of us,
by giving us a formula to recite.
True confessions do not come easily or quickly.
True confessions do not fit on tract . . . or a bumper sticker.
We grow into true confessions.
We live into them.

This is what I mean, when I say we should become Jesus People.
I’m not talking about going back to the 60s and 70s.
I’m not trying to revive a fringe religious protest movement,
with a new vocabulary, or new styles in music and wardrobe.

I’m calling us to be genuine believers and confessors in Jesus,
and thus, “be saved.”

A believer
is one who takes a leap of faith with Jesus,
is willing to go all in with Jesus,
into a relationship,
and into a way of life without a guaranteed outcome.
And a confessor
is one willing to be counted, openly, as a Jesus Person,
is willing to identify with, and be identified with
the one whose radical life led him to the cross.

Paul writes in Romans that
if we confess with our lips,
and if we “faith” in our hearts,
that Jesus is Lord,
that Jesus lives and reigns on earth and heaven,
then, “we will be saved.”
We will be saved from our false selves we try so hard to construct,
because we buy into the lies our culture tells us
about what we need to be self-fulfilled.

It is with those meanings in mind, that I say, in all sincerity,
that we should aspire to “get saved,”
and to be a “Jesus Person.”

Becoming Christian, is a decision
to participate in a lifelong process of becoming Christian,
and to join a Christian community of practice.
I am Christian.
But still, by God’s grace, I am becoming Christian.
I don’t see a sharp distinction between
some quick and easy steps to “get saved,”
and the “long hard road of being a disciple.”
I think it’s all one package.
Being Christian is continually turning toward Christ.
It’s continually opening ourselves
to the transforming work of the Spirit of Jesus.
It’s the process of learning how to confess that Jesus is Lord.
And then taking that confession seriously.

Every time we make that confession, “Jesus is Lord,”
it ought to shake us to the core.
It ought to mean something new to us,
because of where we are at that moment
on the journey of becoming Christian.
Bit by bit, we find new areas of life to open to God.
And every time we do,
we discover a deeper and more difficult meaning
to that confession that Jesus is Lord.
and it ought to rattle us.

When is the last time you have been truly rattled,
by the very faith you confess over and over,
every time you come to worship, and join in prayer or song?

My challenge and invitation to us all this morning,
is to go another step deeper in our believing and confessing
as Paul calls us to do in Romans 10:9.
No matter where we are starting from,
to go a step deeper.

If we have never taken the leap
of believing and confessing,
maybe that’s our invitation today.
Which part of this Jesus thing,
even if it seems like a very small part,
which part of it are you willing to trust,
and say “yes” to?

And if you are a Christian well-advanced
in age and wisdom and spiritual maturity,
what might it mean for you today, in this season of your life,
to believe and confess more deeply,
and take yet another leap of faith?

Or, perhaps like most of us here,
if you are somewhere between the beginning,
and the final stage of the journey,
here . . . now . . . what does
deeper believing and deeper confessing mean for you?
Which part of this Jesus thing,
are you being called to trust more fully,
and risk more boldly?
In what way are you being invited to confess again,
“Jesus is Lord,” and to let it rattle you in a new way,
in this season of your life,
in this season of the church?
Are you being invited to confess once more
that you are all in with Jesus, and the Jesus way,
even though the end is not in sight,
and the outcome uncertain.

Maybe, if I’ve helped some of you redeem the terms
“Jesus People” and “getting saved,”
we can also redeem the old invitation hymn,
“Just as I am.”
Turn to Sing the Journey, #92.
Different tune, different context,
but the same beautiful, poetic, words
of wholistic surrender to the saving love of God.

—Phil Kniss, July 20, 2014

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