To begin with I would like to offer you a satirical twist on an old Biblical story. Early in the morning Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem as he often did to teach. All the people came to him and sat down to listen to his teaching. The scribes and the Pharisees, the well respected religious rock stars of the day, brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They said to Jesus, “teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5) Of course, Jesus already knew that the religious leaders were warping the scriptures to suit them because the Law actually said that both the man and the woman should be put to death (Leviticus 20:10). Yeah equality! Knowing that their intention was to trap him, Jesus first ignored the religious leaders. He bent down and started and wrote with his finger in the dirt on the ground. But the religious leaders kept pestering Jesus. So Jesus stood up and declared, “Let him who is without sin among you be cast the first stone.” Then out of the blue a single stone flies through the air and hits the woman square in the face. Jesus looks in the direction of the thrower and in an annoyed and exasperated tone declares, “mom!”
Unlike the catholic Church we in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition don’t believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, who conceived Jesus not naturally but by the Holy Spirit overshadowing her, was a sinless human being. But I am pretty sure most of have had such exasperated feelings towards our parents at some point in our lives. That is why the joke is funny. It makes light of an uncomfortable truth. And we need to do that sometimes. We need to laugh to lighten our load. The old saying is true, laughter is good medicine.
Those of you who know the story of the woman caught in adultery know that Jesus’ mom, while not a sinless human being, did in fact not stone the woman caught in adultrey. The Gospel of John tells us that after saying this Jesus bent down and continued to write in the dust. Slowly, the weight of what Jesus said set in among the religious leaders. The scripture tells us, “ But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned? She said, “No one Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”( John 8:11).
We scoff at the scribes and Pharisees for editing the scriptures and using them for their own gain yet we leave out what makes us uncomfortable as well. He who has no sin cast the first stone, yes we agree with that because that is good for us. Go and sin no more, we leave that out because we feel that it is not good for us. Judge not else you be judged, look first at the log in your own eye instead of the speck in your neighbors. We will quote that liberally and often, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5) because we don’t want anyone getting up close and poking our eye out. We will liberally quote Paul, “ If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). We as Christians will quote that verse liberally because it is good for us. But when Jesus says, “ Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” (Matthew 7:21), because it doesn’t feel good to us.
Why does the Bible say apparently contradictory things? Because the Lord knows us. He knows we are sinful from birth. He knows that though we say we want to do good, sometimes we lack the power, and we do the very things we hate. He knows that given the chance we will use the Bible to stone others or excuse ourselves. For the past month or so 1 Timothy 5:17-25 has been weighing heavy on my heart, “ Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer deserves his wages.” Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. Do not be hasty in laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments). The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Timothy 5:24).
What this says to me is we all have our particular sin that we see in others that is obvious to us, that makes our blood boil. But there are also sins that are less obvious to us that can be no less deadly to us and those around us given enough time. It is not right to label people with a scarlet letter. To say one sin is more covered in blood than any other and condemn people for it. Nor is it right to say our sins are not blazing scarlet and we can ignore them. As the Lord says in the book of Isaiah, “Come now let us reason together says the LORD; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”( Isaiah 5:18-20).
As our call to worship declares in the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained in it.” Sometimes healing comes in a moment through power and fire. Sometimes it is more like physical therapy. It is really painful but you need to go through it to in order that what is lame may be put back into joint.
The scriptures say that even we who are saved will have to stand before the LORD and give an account of our works and every careless word we have said. Yet, God is not like a parent that cannot be pleased, who changes his mind arbitrarily. He doesn’t bring us to account to hold our faults against us. He has us give an account because he wants us to be in communion with Him. We don’t have to abide in Christ’s word. But Christ tells us that if we don’t we are missing out on the deepest form of intimacy, we are missing out on the blessings of intimate communion with God and with others. God tells us the truth to reveal to us the heart of worship. Yes, music can lead us into worship. But music is not the heart of worship. Our passage today tells us that the heart of worship, the deepest level of intimacy with God and with each other, has always been sacrifice. Yet, sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice means little to God. Some sacrifices are pleasing to God while others are not. The good news is thanks to the blood of Christ God has made clear what sacrifices are pleasing to him. He has made clear what sacrifices will open the door into intimate communion.
The good news: When we offer pleasing sacrifices to God we shall enter into the intimate communion. In our passage today three intimate communions that we enter into through sacrifice.
- The communion of Fellowship
- The communion of Fidelity
- The communion of Following.
First, we offer the Lord a pleasing sacrifice through the communion of fellowship. The communion of fellowship consists of two loves, brotherly love, and love of the strange. The word for brotherly love in the is the Greek word Philadelphia. In the Bible this word is exclusively used for the love between brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a more intimate love than the love of biological siblings. As I was thinking of a good analogy of this type of love I was reminded of an employee at the Verizon store down the street who sold me a new tablet after my old one broke. After talking with this man for a while I discovered that he was a veteran who had been deployed to Afghanistan with the army. He was involved in some pretty intense and dangerous work. His was a sacrifice that I could sense the weight of though I have no experience with such trials myself. He talked about how after he returned home and moved to this area he went on facebook and looked up another guy from his unit in the area. They quickly became friends. More than that they became brothers closer than each other than natural blood can bring two people. Because they had been through a trial by fire. They had been bound together by the service and suffering they shared. Not all of us may have served in the military or in combat but we all understand how a common trial, suffering, or problem, can bring us closer to someone than even a blood relative who we may have spent all our life with. This is functionally what a support group is and it is why support groups work so well. Because we don’t have to explain ourselves to people who have been through what we have been through. I believe this is the intensity that the word Philadelphia describes. But I do think there is difference between the church and any other fellowship. The difference being the church is not a support group based around a shared trial.
Note what the writer of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” The writer of Hebrews doesn’t say we have to share the same trial to understand each other’s sufferings. Instead, he asks us to remember our own suffering and to use our imagination to try to have empathy for those who suffer in ways that we have not. Our own pain, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual, tends to grip us like a vice. While the pain of others is abstract and easy to dismiss. Usually when we say I would never do something like that, or how could you, it comes from a lack of imagination or not being in touch with our own suffering. We all suffer but we can be affected profoundly differently by suffering because while we are all human we are all individuals. The church isn’t formed around a common trial but around a Lord who understands all our trials. As the book of Hebrews says in chapter for Jesus is our high priest. And we do not have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in a time of need. Jesus is our mediator between us and God. He is also the mediator between us and those who have vastly different life experience than us. For brotherly love to abound and spread for our communion to grow we also need another love, that is hospitality.
The word for hospitality is philoxena. It is the opposite of a common word we use in our culture xenophobia, which is fear of people who are different than us. Philoxena means love of those who are different than us. The Bible tells us that xenophobia is never okay but it also tells that it is built into all of us to one extent or another. We are hard wired not to trust strangers. And to some extent this is a good thing. We need rules and laws to keep us safe. Not everyone means well. Some people do mean us harm. But the Bible says we need to love that which is strange to us. Because when we surround ourselves with people who have the same pain and point of view as us we also surround ourselves with those who have the same blind spots as us. By loving those who are strange to us we open ourselves up to our own blind spots. Sometimes the people we like the least in this world are those we need to warn us when sin we are not aware of is about to consume us. Fellowship, as the Bible describes it is not easy, it is not always safe, it is not always practical or cost effective. That is why the Bible calls it a sacrifice. And while it may not always please you or please others the Bible tells us it pleases God.
The second communion this chapter talks about is the communion of chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman. Now you may be thinking to yourself why should you take seriously a single pastor’s teachings on marriage because he clearly doesn’t have first hand experience being married. And that is a good and legitimate point. But let me respond with a counter point. Why should you take at face value the advice of a pastor who is married? Because while experience and walking the walk is important, if I were married, and had to teach on marriage, and my marriage wasn’t going well, I wouldn’t tell you, because then my wife would kill me. Our fellowship, is not based on suffering the same thing, or going through the same trials, but having the same Lord who understands all our suffering intimately and deeply. So I know I am married. And I know there are things I don’t know. So be gracious and offer your pastor hospitality as I teach.
While I think it is clear that scripture gives us guidelines for our sexuality I think we as Christians can fall into two errors. We as Christians are called to cloth ourselves in Christ. As best as we can we are called to honor God with our bodies. But I think the church can fall into two errors in this regard one is saying one size fits all and the other is throwing up our hands and saying anything goes. This is not the time or place to get into all the intimate details about how to honor God with our bodies but I have given you some reading suggestions in your notes. Most are from a Christian perspective. The last one is a secular writer that I have found to be a helpful.
- HENRY TOWNSEND THREE BOOKS. BOUNDARIES IN DATING, BOUNDARIES IN MARRIAGE, BEYOND BOUNDARIES: LEARNING TO TRUST AGAIN IN RELATIONSHIPS.
- EGGERICH EMERSON. LOVE AND RESPECT: THE LOVE SHE MOST DESIRES THE RESPECT HE DESPARATELY NEEDS
- BLAINE SMITH TWO BOOKS. SHOULD I GET MARRIED? AND MARRY A FRIEND: FINDING SOMEONE TO MARRY WHO IS TRULY RIGHT FOR YOU
- LEWIS B. SMEDES. SEX FOR CHRISTIANS.
Finally, comes the communion of following. This is basically what the secular world calls leadership. But I am using the term following because I don’t think the goal is to be like Christ in our leadership, because that is impossible. instead, the goal is to follow Christ our good shepherd as we lead. We as leaders are still followers no matter how much power and authority we have. As I thought about the communion of following the book The Way of the Shepherd, Seven Secrets to Managing Productive People came to mind. It basically uses the Biblical image of Jesus as a Shepherd, and applies principles of shepherding sheep to the workplace. I introduced the book to our Elders when I first arrived here two and a half years ago. And I think it is fair to say that out of all the things I have taught this one book has made the most impact on this church. People have passed it around to their bosses because they have so connected with it. Because I think it describes how we would all like to be treated in our workplace.
As a pastor I am particularly convicted by one paragraph in the last chapter, “The sheep didn’t have a shepherd who was willing to pay the price to be who he was supposed to be. So the sheep ended up paying for his poor leadership. That’s what I’m talking about. Someone has to pay; it’s just a matter of who will pay. The thing is it’s not the sheep who get to decide. That decision is made by the one who tends the flock.” There isn’t a day that goes by that passage doesn’t convict me and cause me to examine my own heart as a shepherd.
The authors argue if you follow these seven principles you can treat people well and you can make a lot money. And sometimes you can. The obvious example in the Bible is Lydia, the wealth business woman and seller of purple cloth in Acts who believed in the Gospel and opened up her home to show hospitality to strangers. Can you make a lot of money and treat people well. Sometimes you can. Sometimes all the stars align and you don’t have to choose. But if these Biblical principles guaranteed that you could make a lot of money then everyone would already be doing it. People don’t follow these principles because they are a secret. They don’t follow these principles because they are a sacrifice. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the same breath that Hebrews talks about marriage the writer also talks about the love of money and being content. While some of us may be able to have a lot of money and not have it become an idol that is not the case for most of us. For most of us the more money we have the more we love the money we have. That is why Jesus loved us and told us the truth, “ No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
More than that the book implies that one leader can fix all your problems. Indeed, a lot of stress in our friendships, marriages, churches, and work, come from unrealistic expectations and being unwilling to compromise on expectations. If you are looking for one friend, lover, boss, or pastor, to fix all your problems, then we are destined for disappointment. People change, just not in the ways we would like, and often in the ways we dislike. The difference between our expectations and reality will determine how offended, and hurt we become, when the rose colored glasses come off. Every thing in this life can be shaken. People can be shaken. Though I am your pastor I am not your shepherd, Jesus is. I am just a jar of clay, a cracked pot, but within me there is an all surpassing power, that I pray flows out of me in my frailty. Everything in this world can and will be shaken. But we have inherited a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. Our lives may not be the same tomorrow. But the good news is Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And he gives us the strength to offer pleasing sacrifices to lead us into fellowship, Fidelity, and follow. We don’t have to have it all figured out. We just have to ask for wisdom for the next step. And when we do he will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies, and in doing so will turn our enemies into our friends. He will anoint our heads with the oil of gladness and joy in the Lord, our cups shall overflow. And as we pass through the valley of the shadow of our shame we will step into the light and find ourselves in intimate communion.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.