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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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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