Monday, September 29, 2008

Working Out Our Salvation

What are we doing here? Why do we come to this place each Sunday to gather and say these words of praise and prayer? And especially today, what is this we are doing? Bringing these precious little girls and an even tinier little boy up here to the front of the congregation, saying these words (almost an incantation) then putting water and oil on their heads? These sweet little children who have no concept of what is really going on here, and do we really know what we do this day? Let us take a look these scriptures and see if we can come to a deeper understanding of these sacramental acts of the Christian faith that will be performed today.
“By what authority do you do these things,” the chief priests and elders asked Jesus, and he turned the question back on them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” They were afraid to answer, afraid to say what they really believed, and afraid to open their hearts to the heavenly possibilities, so Jesus knew they would not be open to hearing his answer to their question. Their hearts were hardened, closed to the possibility that John and Jesus’ authority came from God. So rather than answer their question, he told them a parable, a story, about two sons, one who refused to do the manual labor his father asked of him, but then changed his mind and went to the vinyard to work. The other said he would go labor, but then did not. Jesus asked, “Which one did the will of his father?” When the elders said the one who did the work, Jesus acknowledged that they recognized the truth, but then also told them that though they recognized the right way, they would be at the very end of the line in getting into God’s Kingdom.
What was it about these elders and priests that kept them from the kingdom of God? They said they believed, they lived their lives in strict obedience to all of the laws and rituals as set forth in the Torah – they focused their entire lives totally on doing what was right according to the religious laws of Israel. Why would they be rejected in favor of the lowest of the low: the tax collectors and prostitutes? Because their faith was one of law, not heart. They had hearts that were closed to the idea that through the reconciliation of baptism, those who were ritually unclean, who were sinners, were washed anew and given a clean and perfect entrance into God’s kingdom.
There is a phrase that I love: “conversion of the heart” – a willingness and ability to open your mind, your heart and your attitude to the possibilities of love and openness toward your fellow man, even to those you always considered not worthy. This was the love that Jesus preached: the being born again – creating a new heart within each and every one of us. This was what he said the elders and priests had failed at – which would keep them from truly experiencing the kingdom of God. They were so convinced that their way was the only way, that they determinedly held on to what they just knew was right, and were not open to God’s amazing and more loving possibilities.
So here we are. We will spend this time this morning proclaiming that we believe in a loving God. These parents and their families and friends will bring Aidan, Kamala and Asenatta up here to Reverend Anne and give her charge of them, to baptize and bless them, and then we will all join in saying that we receive them into the household of God. WE receive them into the household of God? Yes, this place is one small manifestation of God’s home, God’s kingdom. We, the people of St. Paul’s of Pflugerville, state and acknowledge each Sunday that as believers we are a part of God’s kingdom. But what do we really mean, and how far along on that road of conversion of our hearts and minds have we truly come?
Our namesake Paul knew and lived with that conversion of the heart. It came upon him in a most dramatic way on the road to Damascus. For decades Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus because they did not follow a strict interpretation of Old Testament Law, and spoke of Jesus as the Son of God, and proclaimed the resurrection. And then, Paul was struck down to the point of blindness, and was brought low until his heart broke open, and he was as changed as any person can possibly be. His conversion changed him from a persecutor into a proselytizer, the greatest evangelist the world had ever seen. His letters tell us all about how to live as Christians, and this particular passage from his letter to the church at Philippi is among my very favorites.
The scholars believe that this beautiful poem, which he quotes in the letter, was originally written by Paul, and was probably recited or sung during worship in the very early church. But the preface to the poem is really what grabbed me in studying for this sermon, and I paraphrase: IFYOU BELIEVE AT ALL (and those words are mine) “IF then there is any encouragement in Christ, [if there is] any consolation from love, [if there is] any sharing in the Spirit, [if there is] any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
My friends, IF we believe in Christ Jesus, IF we call ourselves Christian, this is how Paul tells us we ARE TO BE... And then the poem begins: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
And Paul continues, to those people at Philippi and to us, “Therefore, my loved ones, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION in awe and amazement; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
You see, we are here today to gather and support one another in working out our salvation! Proclaiming God’s love, at work in us all -- proclaiming the glory and joy his love brings…and then, working together to take that love out into the world. It is in community that we as believers hold each other up and remind each other of who we are supposed to be. We study and learn about God here, and we become one family through our acceptance and belief in His love. It is well and good and proper that these children are being baptized today, brought into the kingdom in an official way, marking what has already been promised in their names. These parents come, vowing to raise these three in the love and knowledge of Christ --- and these godparents also vow to make sure that these children will know God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three will grow up, never knowing a time when they didn’t have Jesus in their lives. This is what you parents and sponsors are promising today, before God and this family of faith.
But it’s nigh impossible to do all by ourselves: it is imperative for our spiritual growth that we not try to “go it alone.” So wherever you go, wherever you might live in the future, in keeping these vows, find a church family in which to belong. We hope that the Murrays and the Moggas will part of our church family for many years. But few of us stay in one place throughout our lives. However, wherever we go, there are church families waiting with open hearts and open arms to embrace us, and together, with fear and trembling (which means in total awe that God could love us this much) we walk together, working throughout our lives to learn how to love as Christ Jesus has taught us.
This is why we are here, and why we do what we do this day: We come to worship and to praise him. We come here, hoping and longing to have our hearts broken open: to strive for a true conversion of the heart: and in that conversion, that falling in love with Jesus, we learn to love each other and lift others up, and we go out into the world, giving God’s love and care to the very least and most needy.
Christians, Love one another as he has loved us!