- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 8, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Isaiah 45: 21 – 23
I’m the only God there is—
The only God who does things right and knows how to help.
So turn to me and be helped— be saved!—
everyone, whoever and wherever you are.
I am God, the only God there is, the one and only.
I promise in my own name:
Every word out of my mouth does what it says.
Everyone is going to end up kneeling before me.
Everyone is going to end up saying of me,
‘Yes! Salvation and strength are in God!’”
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Hymn: How Great is Our God
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
You are high and lifted up. You are God and there is no other. You were before creation and you will be when all we know comes to pass away. You are from everlasting to everlasting. You rule over all. You are compassionate and merciful.
We know that we are like the grass, here one day and gone before we know it.
We are dust and to dust we return. Yet you love us with an everlasting love, and so with boldness we approach your throne, seeking your forgiveness. We confess that we are not the people you want us to be.
You call us to be servants to all and the least among people. Instead, we are seduced by power and the opportunity to be important. We resent when we are treated like servants but are quick to treat others disrespectfully.
We think of a time in the last week when we treated someone as less than ourselves.
You call us to be people of grace. Instead, we are judgmental of others. We tell them how they are to be and how they have failed to be it. We are self-righteous and proud. We do not welcome them into your kingdom but drive them away.
We think of a time this past week when we were critical or disapproving.
You call us to offer forgiveness. Instead, we harbour resentment. Sometimes we call our hatred “justice”. Sometimes we seek vengeance. We are glad when our enemies are injured or face hardships. We are hard-hearted.
We think of someone we know, who we feel justified in hating.
You have shown us your great love, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We pray not only for your mercy, but for the transformation of your Spirit so we may become all you desire us to be.
We are grateful for all those in our church family who are worshipping with us today.
Although we are vessels of clay, may our worship exalt you so that your light might shine, in us and through us, to the glory of Christ our King. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Titus 3: 4 – 7
When God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in,
he saved us.
It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it.
He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people,
washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit.
Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously.
God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives.
And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life!
Prayer for Illumination
Holy God, as we hear your word remind us that you alone are God, and we are not. Humble us with your holiness, so that we may exalt you. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 12
Acts 14: 8 – 20
Matthew 4: 18 – 20
Message: Being the Church – Mere mortals
True story – A university student is at the checkout in a grocery store. The bagger is a man with Down’s syndrome. The bagger, holds up a canvas bag with a hole in it and asks the customer, “Do you want this?” The student says, “No, use another one. Thanks.” The woman behind her says, “God! Hurry it up!” The student says, “I just finished paying, he’s fine”. The woman retorts, “So, you’re slow like him. All you special people need to stop interfering with normal people.” The bagger, looking offended, responds, “Ma’am. She’s not not-smart.” Pointing to the logo on the woman’s sweats, he says, “She goes to university. She’s real smart.” To which the student says, “And he’s the best bagger here. He’s very careful, Ma’am, which is a good thing with groceries.” By this time, the groceries are bagged, the bagger hands them to the student and smiles.
That story illustrates the paradox of human nature. Since God created Adam from the dirt and breathed in the divine breath of life, humans have had the capacity to express the best traits and the worst traits. Like the student and the bagger, we can be thoughtful, kind, patient and encouraging. Like the woman waiting in line, we can be impatient, judgmental, ignorant, and rude. The reality is that anyone of us is a combination of both traits. Most of us, can go from one to the other in the blink of an eye. We flip back and forth, throughout the day. Some people tend to indulge their lower nature, letting every negative impulse hang out in all times and places. Others make an effort to be as kind as possible as consistently as possible. Still, the nicest people with the best intentions do bad things. Jean Calvin observed, “It is always necessary to come back to this, that God never created a man on whom he did not imprint his image.” While Calvin acknowledged our capacity for goodness, he also noted that humanity is “totally depraved” (which lowers the bar quite a bit). By this he meant that because of “original sin” and because of our own corrupt behaviours, humanity has become degenerate, that is, unable to re-generate our own life. Try as we might, we cannot sanctify our corrupt nature. We cannot free ourselves from sin. We cannot resurrect ourselves to eternal life. We need Christ’s saving grace because, on our own, there is nothing within us that can rescue us. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2: 7 & 8 “Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.” People need saving. We all have feet of clay.
Christians are no different. I’ve met truly saintly Christians who are better people than I’ll ever be, and I’ve met horribly nasty Christians who make me look saintly. The truth is, we too are people with the potential to be loving and loutish. We are both saints and sinners. Even people who now bear the title “saint” were ordinary people in need of salvation. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus called fishermen, small business owners, tax collectors to be his disciples and carry his message of hope. Why didn’t he seek out holy men? Because humanity was the only pool from which he could draw. Everyone is ordinary. Everyone is a combination of saint and sinner. Jesus didn’t expect his disciples to be perfect, holy, or sinless – in fact he expected the opposite. He knew they were dust. Mere mortals who needed his saving grace. Jesus has continually called people to follow him; ordinary, sinful people hear this call, and some respond and go with him. These make up his body, the Church. The Church is a collection of sinners in the process of being sanctified.
In the early Church some people took grace for granted. If Jesus was willing to forgive them, they might as well give him something to forgive. If Jesus died to save them from sin, they owed it to him to keep on sinning. Paul counters that kind of misguided “logic”, “So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Romans 6: 1 – 3). Throughout his letters he continues to encourage Christians, by the power of the Holy Spirit to put away their old nature and “live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ” (Philippians 1: 27).
What does being a credit to Christ look like? Over the centuries, many Christians sought to be holy. The Desert mothers and fathers, retreated from people into the wastelands to purge their souls from sin. Anchorites had themselves bricked into towers where they could not be tainted by the sin of the world. Others went to nunneries, monasteries, or hermitages. Many protestants lived lives of rigid religious righteousness. In the 19th Century, the Victorian Era, the “Holiness Movement” took hold of the Church. The holiness movement emphasized the importance of sanctification after salvation. This was referred to as the “second work of grace” or the “second blessing”. The leaders of this movement believed sin was the voluntary transgression of a known law of God. They believed the extinction of the carnal mind and the eradication of sin was possible; Christians could be perfectly holy in this life. This came about by the power of the Holy Spirit through the co-operation and discipline of the individual. A Christian may, but must not, sin. One who sins cannot be a Christian. If a Christian sins, they must start over by re-repenting and re-accepting Christ’s salvation. Out of this grew the revival movement, through which many people came to Christ. Among these though were many Christians who were only too aware of their transgressions which led to insecurity about their salvation. These people repeatedly responded to altar-calls in order to give their lives to Jesus again (and again).
While this striving for sanctity may have brought out the best in some people, in others it took its toll. Since, as Jesus said, “No one is good, but God alone” (Mark 10: 18), this was a standard too high for mere mortals. Shame and fear moved in. People were ashamed of their lack of virtue and fearful of losing their salvation. They were afraid of being judged and found lacking. So, instead of bringing their humanity to light and admitting their failures, they chose to hide their sin under a cloak of piety. They pretended they were more godly than is humanly possible. Instead of “working out [one’s]own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), which is enough for any one of us, people became concerned with the state of their neighbour’s soul. With every believer scrutinizing the behaviour of their fellow Christian – no doubt under the holy guise of being supportive or calling others to account for the sake of their soul, Christians became a sanctimonious lot. Grace went out the window. Judgement and gossip came in. The gospel was reduced to a new law – the law of morality. Without being asked to do so, the Church soon began imposing their high standards not only on one another but on everyone. Further, they began making decisions for others, such as during the temperance movement. We became or, more accurately, acted “holier than thou”.
Needless to say, this turned more people away from Christ than towards him. It also encouraged people to expect impossibly high standards of behaviour from the Church. We see a version of this in our story from Acts, where Paul heals a man who had never been able to walk. The people of Lystra respond by projecting their awe on to Paul and Silas, declaring them to be gods. It’s all Paul can do to keep them from offering sacrifices! While no one confuses Christians with gods anymore, people expect Christians to be better than others and certainly better than themselves. In a curious way, the world puts their hope in the Church. When we fail, we come down hard. People are hurt and disappointed. People are angry with us. So, as people turned on Paul and Silas’ when their bubble of divinity burst, people also turn on us. We’re labelled “hypocrites”. We’re the “religious” who judge and condemn everyone else. The irony is, that our aspirations to goodness have done as much damage as our sin. Because we’ve held ourselves up as icons of holiness, there’s no room for our humanity. Everyone was wounded in the process.
As Christians we live in a paradoxical state. We no longer live in the country where sin is sovereign. We moved away. The Holy Spirit is alive within us and working with us every day to make us more like Jesus. We are to allow ourselves to be molded by the Spirit’s transforming power. We believe it’s better to co-operate with the Spirit’s purposes than to resist. And we’re also sinful, ordinary, broken people just like everyone else. We are tempted like other people. We fail regularly to be all God hopes us to be and all we want to be. We do things of which we’re ashamed. We’re just as susceptible to temptation as everyone else. When I was in high school, someone was throwing a party that was supposed to be the event of the year. That meant music and dancing, but also alcohol, drugs, and sex. It could branch out to police visits for disturbing the neighbours, breaking furniture, starting fires, or taking advantage of someone who had passed out. Someone asked me in front of our class if I was coming. She was not being friendly. She was challenging me as a Christian. When I said, “Probably not”. She said, “You’re so self-righteous. You just think you’re better than everyone else.” I responded, “No, I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I know I’m just like everyone else. That’s why I probably won’t be going.” It may have been a better witness to go to the party and resist all the temptations, but I didn’t trust myself to do that. Apart from our hope in Christ, and our desire to please God, we are mere mortals.
To borrow an adage, you can take the man out of the country where sin is sovereign, but you can’t take the sin out of the man. By the work of the Spirit, we can grow and change along the way, but we won’t be holy until the day of judgement when we will be made whole. And that’s okay, because as Paul put it, “We do not proclaim ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:5). We are just “clay jars”. Plain ordinary vessels. In homes in the middle east at this time, clay jars were used to hold oil so that they could carry light. In the same way, we’re not much, but God is. We’re called not to proclaim our own righteousness, but the hope we have in Christ is light to the world. “When God said, “Light up the darkness!”, our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful. If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness.” (vs. 6).
What does all this mean for us as Christians? Are we to cross over to the dark side and give up trying to be the people God wants us to be, people who reflect his divine image and show others the face of Christ? Of course not. But neither are we better than others. We have no reason to look down on others, or impose our standards on them, or judge them. We’re given the Holy Spirit not to make life miserable for ourselves and everyone else but to empower us to love. Our message isn’t one of condemnation but of hope. Even though we’re all a mess and we hurt people and ruin our lives at every turn, we have a risen Saviour who loves us and forgives us. And others can have that too. We need to turn our thinking away from being the gatekeepers of morality, to become the doorways to the fullness of life. We seek to be people who are pleasing to God, knowing that perfection is out of our reach. We do this from a lowly place of humility. We started out as dirt. Jesus scooped us up. The Holy Spirit has formed us into a vessel useful for his purposes. But it’s a plain, common vessel with many cracks. What is valuable is the oil inside it and the light that comes from it – the Spirit within us and the light of Christ that shines out of us. We will sin. We will fail. We will need to confess and make amends. No one should expect otherwise. We are not gods, just clay jars. And in the midst of it all, we have these wonderful moments when we can shine with a pure, clear light so that others can see the face of Christ.
Silent prayer and reflection
Offertory prayer Lord God, you are holy, and all your gifts are perfect. We offer you ourselves and these gifts. As flawed as both are, we ask you to accept them and use them to build your kingdom. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
God of all, Lord over all,
We thank you that you love us just as we are. You know our weaknesses and our propensity to sin, yet you do not expect us to be perfect. You alone are holy.
We thank you that knowing we couldn’t rescue ourselves you have acted through the death and resurrection to save us.
We thank you for your forgiveness. We are most blessed to be people of hope.
We look back over the past few months,
and we are grateful for your steadfast presence with us
through uncertainty and upheaval.
May all we’ve been through remind us that our lives are in your hands. Help us to turn back to you in humility to seek your face.
God of church and community,
We are grateful for your inspiration and support
through transition and difficult times.
We thank you for being with us in our times of isolation and worry.
We thank you for the gifts of ingenuity and technology which have allowed us to continue to be “together” when we are apart.
Make us people who are faithful to you.
God of nations and neighbours,
We are grateful to you for the cooperation and creativity of our leaders
in politics, education, health care,
in business, labour and community life.
We thank you that they have been able to put differences aside to collaborate.
It is easy for us to criticize the decisions that have been made.
Remind us that our leaders are also human beings doing their best.
Help them to realize the value of working together for others, instead of tearing each other down.
Some neighbours and nations have lost much
and need help to re-establish well-being.
Help us to collaborate in offering support.
God of family and friends,
We are grateful to you for sustaining relationships.
For the love and concern of those who are physically close and those who reach out by computer or phone.
Many people have suffered from deep loneliness and loss of self.
Some families have been torn apart by distance or dispute.
Show us ways to honour our important relationships and meet the needs of others.
God of healing and hope,
We know many who are suffering in body, mind and spirit;
many are grieving
and others do not know what the future holds for them.
Hear us in this moment of silence
as we name in our hearts those people and situations that concern us deeply.
Remembering all you have done for us, with us and through us, O God,
we pray the words that Jesus taught:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn: I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me
Invitation to Mission
We go from here remembering
we are saved by grace, through faith
It is not our own doing,
It is God’s gift.
We go in humility,
thinking of others as better than ourselves.
Benediction May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.