Sunday, August 28, 2005

Now What?: Powered by Grace for Christlike Living

[This is a message shared with the people of Friendship Church on August 28, 2005.]

Romans 12:9-21

In his book, Improving Your Serve, Pastor Chuck Swindoll tells an apparently true story that took place in bomb-ravaged London after the Second World War. In a bakery one morning, sweet rolls were being baked and iced. A little boy, dressed in ragged clothes, had his nose pressed against the bakery window, looking longingly at those rolls. An American soldier, part of the force still in England, happened by in a jeep. Taken by this sight, he stopped, for a time staring at the boy. The soldier then climbed out of his jeep and walked over to the bakery window.

“Would you like one of those rolls, son?” the soldier asked the boy. “Oh, yeah!” the little guy replied.

The soldier then went into the bakery, ordered a dozen of the rolls and brought them out to boy. “There you go,” he said and turned to walk toward the jeep.

Just as he was climbing in behind the wheel, the soldier felt a tug on his coat. It was the little boy. He peered into the soldier’s face and asked, “Are you God?”

Swindoll concludes that we are never more like God than when we give. I would expand that lesson and say that we're never more like God than when we give, we serve, we forgive, and we put others ahead of ourselves.

In a way, this flies in the face of our usual notions of what it means to be “like God” or “godlike.”

Years ago, a concert by Bob Dylan was scheduled to appear on NBC television. In anticipation of its airing, TV Guide interviewed him. “Do you believe in God?” he was asked. In typically cryptic fashion, Dylan didn’t really answer the question. Instead, he mused, “I wonder what it must be like to be God?”

Adam and Eve wondered about the answer to that question back at the beginning of human history and supposed that it meant doing whatever you wanted, any time you wanted, and, if it came into your mind, to whomever you wished.

And some years later, the Old Testament book of Genesis says, the people in a city called Babel became intent on building a tower--a ziggurat--so high that they would become as great as God.

But when God revealed Himself to people--to the ancient Israelites “in many and various ways," as the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it--and ultimately, to the whole human race through Jesus Christ, we learned that God’s most outstanding traits are that He gives, serves, forgives, and puts others ahead of Himself.

For some weeks now, we’ve been looking at the New Testament book of Romans while considering our call as followers of Jesus to grow deep and mature in our faith. Romans is a letter written sometime after 50 A.D. by the evangelist and preacher Paul to the Christian church at Rome.

Last week, I pointed out that the first eleven chapters of the letter is really a review of the basics of our hope as Christians: That God loves us all so much that He became one us, accepted our punishment for sin by dying on a cross, rose again to life, and offers new life that never ends to all who trust Him with their lives. Paul does take an excursus in chapters 9, 10, and 11 to ask non-Jewish Christians to have a care about sharing Christ with his fellow Jews.

But then in chapter twelve, he begins a new section of the letter in which the basic question is: So what? After we’ve told God we want to turn from sin, that we want to surrender our lives to Christ, then what?

Last week, we looked at the opening verses of Romans 12 and we saw that Paul challenged us to take up two major goals for our lives. First, we’re to humbly turn to Christ and give Him control of our lives. Second, we’re to find the unique gifts God has given us and use them to love God and love others. On this latter point, philosopher Dallas Willard says that our call as Christians is to live our lives as though Jesus were living it. If you work in a factory and have three kids, your call is to try living that life like Jesus would live it. If you’re a single veterninarian, your call is to live your life as Jesus would.

You and I will never get this business of living like Jesus completely right. Paul says in another place that on this earth, encumbered by our sin and selfishness, we only see through a glass darkly or a mirror dimly. But as we rely on Christ through each moment of our lives, we will move toward God’s ultimate goal for us--on that will be achieved in heaven: We’ll be like Christ!

The reason for wanting to adopt this lifestyle is simple. We want to thank God for the free gift of new life that is ours simply because we believe in Jesus.

In today’s Bible lesson, Paul discusses ways in which we can practically express our thanks to God in a series of statements that the scholars call sententiae. These are sentence fragments, reminiscent of ancient Hebrew wisdom. In these statements, Paul talks about what a Christlike life looks like and if you spend any time reading them, I think that you'll have two reactions. First, you'll say, "I'd love to be such a loving, forgiving, caring, and giving person." Second, you'll say, "There is no way that I can ever be that person on my own steam."

Pastor David Stark has said that Paul’s outline of what a life lived gratefully for Christ--this impossible lifestyle--has three major ingredients.
First: We’re joyful in hope;

Second: We’re patient in affliction;

Third: We’re patient in prayer.
A strong subtheme in all of this, of course, is a willingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Jesus says that when we fail to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven, we turn our backs on the forgiveness that Jesus offers us, we display an impatience with others even though we expect God and others to be infinitely patient with us, and our prayers go unanswered because God will not hear the prayers of people who refuse to forgive.

Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, knew this. It’s hard to believe that the founder of such a benign organization had her detractors, but she did. Once, on a tour, a woman who had treated Barton particularly unkindly sent word that she would like to have dinner with her.

The aide with whom Barton was traveling was mystified at how readily she had agreed to the dinner. She reminded Barton of the woman’s vicious misdeed toward her and she seemed not to recall it. “Don’t you remember?” the aide asked Barton. “No,” she replied, “I specifically remember forgetting it.”

If, as followers of Jesus, we truly want to be more like Christ and will to forgive those who have hurt us, we can do so with the help of the One Who, from His cross, graciously prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

This lifestyle of remaining joyful in our hope, patient in our affliction, and patient in our praying, of learning to be like Christ, isn’t something that you can work into your life, the way you work in a morning jog or a trip to the mall. It's a gift from God, granted to those with faith in Christ. It's a gift He wants to give to everybody.

On the first night of Billy Graham’s historic mission in New York City in June of this year, he told of a meeting he’d had years before with a Roman Catholic monsignior in Poland. “You know,” the monsignior told Graham, “I got my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. One day [while there] I was on a bus and a woman was sitting behind me, a black woman, and she looked at me and said, ‘Have you been born again?’ I told her that I was a clergyman, a father in the church, and had a theological education And she said, ‘That’s not the question I asked you. I asked you have you ever been born again?’”

The monsignior went on to tell Billy Graham that he went back to his room in Chicago “and...began to think about” what the woman had told him. “’I took down my Bible and some other things I had, and I saw where Jesus said to Nicodemus that you must be born again. I got down on my knees and I prayed that God would forgive me and come into my life. My life totally changed.’”

Now, here’s the point. You and I could spend our lifetimes reading and rereading Romans 12:9-21. We could agree that it portrays the way people who follow Jesus Christ ought to live and should want to live. We could be in worship every Sunday. But until we surrender to Jesus Christ the way that monsignior did and get down to the business of actually asking God’s help to live Christ’s way each day, we’ll be as lost as the most hardbitten cynic.

The only people who are really like God are the ones who have surrendered to Him and who keep surrendering to Him each day. It's they who are learning how to be joyful in hope; patient in affliction; and patient in prayer. May we invite Christ into the center of our lives so that all the world can see Him living in us!