Month: May 2012

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Consistent Testimony

… Behold the Lamb of God!

John 1:36

A Mattaponi Dawn (© John Gresham)

There is something to be said for consistency.  That what is spoken one day is the same as the days before and for days to come.  A true testimony does not change.  But, it remains the same.

One day, the religious leadership approached John the Baptist asking if he were the Christ or one of the prophets.  He denied claims to both.  He quoted the words of Isaiah and pointed that the great Messiah was yet to come with a greater baptism.  But John did not claim any position that was not his, even though he could have claimed the lesser of the two.  John kept to the task of baptism for the remission of sins in humble obedience to God.

The next day, John identified and proclaimed the one he spoke of the day and days before.  “Behold the Lamb of God!”  John was a good man and, rightfully, drew a crowd of the faithful.  But, the Lamb of God was (is) the perfect offering without blemish or spot.  The true first-born.  This Lamb would go down and rise again, thus able to take away the sins of the world.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power that shows he is the Son of God.  As in the day before, John didn’t speak of his greatness.  He bore witness to something greater.

And still the next day, John makes the same proclamation as he sees Jesus.  John has two of his disciples standing with him and made no gesture nor spoke in protest as they left him to follow the One he spoke of.  The baptizer has seen the one who offers the greater baptism.  The precursor has laid down the path as prophesied.  With the Lamb present, John understood that he his position had to decrease.  There was no point of his disciples following him any longer as there was a greater one for them to follow.

A false witness changes as it sees opportunity for gain, the need to conceal inconvenient truth, and threats to its status.  The true witness always points to something greater.  Gain and status are temporal.  Truth is never stopped.  It is best to understand our role in God’s will and let him have his way.  Our consistent testimony let’s him work through us for his glory.

Amen

Ambition, Aspiration, Ascension

Now when he had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight.

Acts 1:9

 

Falls on a Creek (© John Gresham/DCR)

 

I am not preaching to the Protestant calendar.  So today’s sermon is not the traditional 3-point message.  Thursday was the feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church.   I had notes to preach from the story in Luke.  But, I typed my manuscript from the Acts account to help put my own ambitions in check.

AMBITION, ASPIRATION, ASCENSION

Acts 1:1-11

(antithesis) The disciples looked at the political ambition of Jesus restoring Israel (v.6)

(thesis) Jesus taught them that they would receive heavenly power to do something greater (v.8)

(propositional statement) Jesus ascended to heaven not by the ambition of the flesh, but by his willingness to do the Father’s will (v.9)

(points)

  • Ambition is limited to human borders and relies on human abilities
  • Too much ambition is detrimental to the church and the world
  • Aspiration is energized by  Inspiration and causes us to do some peculiar things
  • Aspiration produces results for the greater good

(conclusion)  Live focused on the will of God and let the Spirit lift you here and the here after.

A Pursuit of the Spirit of Christ: In the Beginning

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

John 1:1

A Douthat Sunrise (© John Gresham/DCR)

The opening 18 verses of John’s Gospel is the glory of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.  Jesus is described as the light and giver of life.  Though John the Baptist may have revealed the light, he isn’t to be confused as the light.  Belief in the light is what gives us rebirth not as physical creatures.  We become children of God.  It is impossible to truly pursue the Spirit of Christ without accepting this introduction of who Jesus is.

Before anything else existed, the Word existed.   In many religions (and among many Christians), things such as commandments, law, and morality are put at the forefront of faith.  Word is far more meaningful to true spiritual pursuit than these things.  Commandment, law, and morality are useful as they set limits of behavior and practice for the good of individuals and society.  There can be no civilization and community without them.  But, they were not there in the creative process of God and only appeared after creation took place.  Adam was given a commandment after the Lord God made him and placed him in the garden with the tree that he was forbidden to eat from.  The Law of Moses was given after the Lord God made the promise of land to Abraham’s descendants and they were free from Egypt and slavery.  So, to have a faith where the morality and the Word are one in the same is wrong.  Morality is secondary as it is a created boundary.   A true pursuit of Jesus must focus on pursuing the Word.

The fact that the Word became flesh goes above and beyond the latter boundaries.  For the creator to take the form of the created ends the wall of separation between the two.  The creator can easily reject the created because of its flaws and faults.  He who made the flesh has every right to condemn it for its constant infringements of commandments, law breaking, and immorality.  Yet, this Word possesses light and life.  These qualities have no rejection in themselves.  But, they offer renewal to anyone who is willing to accept them.  And as these qualities are a part of the Word that was with God and is God, light and life are far more desirable, powerful, and merciful than the secondary boundaries of commandment, law, and morality.  According to these, we should all die in our sins.  The Word gives us light and life in the fullest as it became flesh and dwelt among us.  A true pursuit of Jesus calls for us to behold his glory. 

 He came first to those who had all of the necessary boundaries for righteousness in individuals and society.  But, they held on to their law and ancestry rather than receive him and believe in his name.  Adhering to Mosaic Law and claiming Abraham as their father were the spoken grave mistakes of the Jews in the Gospels.  We run the risk of being just like them when we cling so tightly to morality, race, and nationality that we cannot accept the Word that created all things.  Our righteousness is limited to ourselves and what we believe should be done.  The righteous Word is all merciful and reaches out to all that will accept his authority over their lives.  Our boundaries govern those born of flesh.  To receive him and believe in his name is to be born of God.

May we be born of God, pursue the Word, and behold His Glory.

Circus of Titles

When I was a boy, all we had was reverends.  The AME had one or two bishops.  But, every other preacher was a reverend.  Now everyone wants to be a bishop, apostle, prophet of the fourth quadrant of the western hemisphere.  Climbing the ladder, can’t be reverend no more.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Douthat Falls (© John Gresham)

The African-American Baptist church is caught up in a circus of standards.  Too many of our clergy have picked one or two verses of scripture to give themselves new identities among their congregants and colleages.  Our denomination has long rejected the idea of a clergy hierarchy as found among liturgical bodies.  Thus, the only ordained offices among us  are that of Pastor (frequently called reverend) and Deacon.  Our kinsmen in the African Methodist Episcopal denominations and the Church of God in Christ organized it’s heirarchy of bishops and other such leaders with doctrinal requirements of education, years of service, and other standards long established by their national (now worldwide) bodies.  Baptist ministers that wanted to rise in a heirarchy converted to one of the other churches, put their time and effort into God’s service, and (if needed and passed the required examinations) were elevated to such offices.

Thanks to our lack of authority above the local congregation (our state, and national bodies cannot dictate anything to the local church), there is a disturbing trend among Baptist and “non-denominational” churches.  Clergy men and women are bestowing the title “bishop” on themselves and among one another in cliques within the church.  As we don’t have any governance as to who may receive such a title, there are a wide range of bishops from those with legitimate seminary degrees and years of influential service to “jack legs” that have little more than a GED and ministry training from imitating what is shown on TBN or Word Network.  And with the popularity of the “five fold ministry” model (And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelist, and some pastors and teachers for the equiping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ  Ephesians 4:11, 12), there are too many people running around the church calling themselves anything they wish.

It would be easy to say that we need to call our prominent pastors and theologians together and set up standards for ministers who wish to work to such offices.  But, that is impossible with our traditional lack of oversight of local churches.  Maybe our state and national leadership can denounce the usage of such titles.  But, many churches would leave the denomination all together.  Therefore, any slick sounding “bishop” with little or no theological training can teach a false doctrine and have a good number of people believe him over someone with an M. Div because the title is sounds so authoritive.  If a “prophet” has connections to a tele-evangelist, or can host some sort of “holy convocation” in a hotel ballroom, she will hold more influence than the dean of the chapel at the nearby seminary.  Indeed, a popular “Archbishop” can start his own school of religion to teach popular doctrines in defiance of a denominational institution that is dedicated to teaching the truth.

I thank God that there are still some black Baptist pastors who refuse to join the circus of titles.  May we stand firm in the midst of the monkey doo-doo that people are accepting as “the will of God.”

Straighten Out Straight Marriage

And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man

Genesis 2:22

Like anyone should be surprised that a liberal president would be in favor of a liberal cause.  I was more surprised about people being surprised.  I am also aware that our heterosexual marriages aren’t much to crow about these days.  Scripture and two thousand years of church teaching stands against homosexuality.  These things also tell us “straight” people that we need a healthier look at our relationships.

STRAIGHTEN OUT STRAIGHT MARRIAGE

Genesis 2:18-25

Introduction

  • Mr. Obama’s Biblical reference does not apply to gay marriage

Antithesis

  • Protestant doctrine has assisted in the ruin of heterosexual marriage
  • Capitalism has assisted in the ruin of heterosexual marriage

Propositional statement

  • Rather than be upset with gay marriage, we need to heed the story of creation to revive the best of our traditional marriages

Points

  • We should concentrate on the work God gave us and let him present us with the person we should have (v. 15, 18)
  • We should accept the person God has for us for who he or she is (v. 23)
  • We should be and create a bond where we are safe to be open and honest with each other (v.25)

It is not enough for us to say that heterosexual monogamy is God’s will.  We must seek God in our marriages to make them so.

Getting Our Act Together

The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.

Isaiah 52:5, Ezekiel 36:22, Romans 2:24

I believe President Obama is wrong in his support for gay marriage.  Jesus Christ taught the same standard for marriage as found in Genesis 2:21-24 when he answered the Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19:1-9.  Male and female … For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two will become one flesh.  For homosexuals to choose a life partner and be granted a legal recognition by a civil authority may be suitable for this world.  But, homosexuality is a sin.  Thus, Holy matrimony for a gay or lesbian couple is not possible according to the Bible and Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant tradition.

With that said, we heterosexuals have a hell of a lot to answer for.  If we fear that gay marriage will make a mockery of the traditional family, I recommend that we take a hard look at the way we corrupt monogamy degrade sex on a regular basis.  The Chris Miller/Kim Kardashian “marriage” comes to my mind rather quickly.  Oh, it was a heterosexual union.  But, how serious was it?  Did they marry with a true spiritual bond with each other and committed hearts to withstand good and bad times together?  Or was it a sham based on their egos, sensual pleasure, and making a profit from a celebrity gossip hungry media?  If our nation can accept this perversion of holy matrimony, then two men or two women with a committed bond with one another getting married is not a far stretch.

In the liturgical church traditions; a sermon on the seriousness, love, and committment is a part of the wedding ceremony.  How many of us had a sermon at our wedding?  Weddings have become an industry from high fashion magazines, to professional planners and photographers (and photographers get paid far more than the minister who officiates the service and signs the legal documents).  These ceremonies used to take place exclusively in the bride’s or groom’s church.  At least in the home or on land owned by one of the families.  Today, anyone can go to Las Vegas and have Elvis as the minister backed up by a punk rock band, or just go through the drive thru chapel.  Or, one can spend thousands on one of those story-book weddings which may seem impressive enough to hide the fact that neither the bride nor groom are committed to life long monogamy.  And after the divorce, the bride or groom swears to have a bigger and better wedding than the first one.  If we heterosexuals participate in such shallow marketing of what was a blessed and honorable institution, why should homosexuals be denied the privilege?

And isn’t it strange how the language of sex is used as an insult to manhood?  Think of the particular word for intercourse is a curse word as is the slang term for the female genitals.  With the easy access to hardcore pornography and the general acceptance of softcore nudes and semi nudes in sexually charged situations, what was once to be done naked and unashamed has become an act of ridicule and recreational pleasure.  In fact, the sheer brutality women go through in today’s porn and the rate of sexual abuse against girls has brought the value of the female body in this society to an all-time low.  Should I be upset when two men want to commit to a union where they are unlikely to contribute further to this abuse?  Should I be angry when two women, who most likely suffered sexual abuse at the hands of men, seek solace in a marital bond with each other?

Chances are no one is going to vote for or against the president on this issue alone.  Therefore, I see little value of having a too strong of an opinion about gay marriage one way or the other (although I know where I stand).  We heterosexuals have done far more damage to holy matrimony than one man’s words.  Unless we are serious about cleaning up the mess we made, we look rather foolish trying to put limitations on someone else.

… and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.

Matthew 7:2

Each One An Icon

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness, … .’   So God mad man. in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.

Genesis 1:26, 27

How foolish I am!  How can I venerate and give honor to the saints on the wall and not show like love to the person on the street?  How dare I honor the Holy Theotokos and harbor lust for the girl I did not marry? 

What is a holy icon but a window and portrait of God’s greater glory?  Was it not by the hand of the painter that we have these windows?  Perhaps by the skill of a wood-carver and other craftsmen that we possess such items as reminders of the love of our Lord?

And yet God made the perfect icon when he made men and women.  In his image and likeness we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  With his breath of life we are all living souls.  Here is the icon I should honor and kiss in holiness.  Here is the image I should hold as evidence of God’s compassion and mercy.

Yet this is the icon that I hold in contempt.  I suspect it a thief and liar.  I condemn it for its flaws and imperfections.  I abuse it as a toy only fit for my pleasure and whims.  This icon which was not made by a man’s hands.  This image of God and made by God.  This likeness of which I am.  I am their brother and I have shown them fear, hate, and lust. 

Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  I am the chief of all sinners! 

Forgive my calloused thoughts and harsh words toward my fellow-man.  May the power of the Holy Spirit cleanse my heart and mind of wicked desires.  Let me hold high the value of each man, woman, boy, and girl.  We are the icons that you made.  Let us honor and love one another as such.

No Greater Hell

… and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:51

But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly I say to you I do not know you.’

Matthew 25:11

And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:30

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. …”

Matthew 25:41

Crossing (© John Gresham)

Is there a worse version of hell than the descriptions Jesus gave to his disciples during the eschatological discourse?  Can the reasons for going to such a hell be more frightening?  Note, if you would, the ten virgins who were locked outside of the banquet hall being told by the bride groom, “Assuredly I say to you I do not know you.”  These women are left disowned and vulnerable.  The wicked servant fares no better being counted among the hypocrites for abusing his fellows and carousing with drunkards.  He and the virgins did not live in expectation for something greater.  They mistakenly believed they had plenty of time before being in the full presence of the bridegroom and master.  The unprofitable servant made no effort to increase the wealth the master gave him, not even to give the gift to those who could make some sort of profit.  He too goes to the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In these three examples, the graphic punishment is not some demon in a red suit armed with a pitchfork.  To be disowned by the Lord Jesus Christ and left vulnerable in great tears and agony goes beyond any sort of vengeful torture.  This is why the martyrs endured the wild beast, burning pitch, and other horrors of earthly cruelty.  They chose to die brutally rather than be separated from the source of life and life eternal.  And the source of life is to do well to one’s neighbor, practice self-control, increase love and spirit, and to anticipate a glory beyond what this world can give.

Indeed, to ignore the plight of the least of humanity is the apex of being separate from Jesus Christ.  The Lord identifies himself with the “least of these.”  The cursed are to suffer the same total separation as the ultimate rebels against God not because they committed some act of immorality.  They are punished for their lack of compassion and mercy.  Morality is good.  But, it is no substitute for the love that gave it’s self to our unworthy humanity for our salvation.  If we do not love likewise, we have missed the whole point of the crucifixion and resurrection.  If we miss the point, we will miss his return.   There can be no greater hell than that.

Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect

Matthew 24:44

Let us live in his presence believing that his greater glory will come.

Avoiding Adultery

Adulterers and adultresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

James 4:4

Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings we have in the Christian faith is that we look at our relationship with God too much in a legalistic way.  We tend to be, in the words of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Old Testament Christians who are stuck on obeying commandments.  Yet, Jesus and the apostles taught that the relationship between God and the church was spousal  with Christ as the bridegroom and the church (and individual believers) as the bride.  Our responsibility then is not morality for the sake of legalism.  We are called to seek intimacy with the faithful and loving Christ who sacrificed himself so that we may draw closer to him.  Here in the text, James is not so much concerned about husbands and wives cheating on each other.  The issue is our cheating on God by linking our souls with worldly concerns instead of seeking the fullness of our marriage to him.

Forty-Five Years of Marriage (© John Gresham

 

AVOIDING ADULTERY

James 4:1-9

Introduction

  • The wrong friends can poison a marriage
  • James addresses the poison in the church’s marriage to God

Propositional Statement

  • When we accept worldly ways of pursuing earthly power and pleasure, we become adulterers and adultresses as much as, if not worse than people who cheat on husbands and wives

Relevant Question

  • How do we avoid this form of adultery?

Points

  • 1.  Resist pride (v.6, 7)
  • 2.  Draw near to God (v.8)
  • 3.  Pursue Purity (v.8)

Conclusion

  • God the Father is Spirit and has given us his Holy Spirit.  Therefore we are enabled to have the fulfilling spousal relationship with him through the gift of Jesus Christ.  We must choose between adultery with the world or spiritual intimacy with him.

 

 

The Corruption of Prayer

You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.  …  humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.     – James 4:3, 10

The first and foremost function of prayer is to connect our hearts, minds, and souls to God.  We may intercede on behalf of others who are ill or in danger.  We can offer up our petitions of practical need.  We may even give God the praise and thanksgiving because He is who He is.  These other purposes for prayer are useful and are based on scripture and tradition.  There is nothing wrong with and we very well should speak to God of these things.

Of Moss, Stone, and Water (© John Gresham)

But, I have heard a bit of wisdom that stems from higher education.  One should not major in minors.  It is important that we seek the Lord to change a drug addicted friend, heal an illness, and give him the glory.  But compared to the first and foremost function of prayer, all other reasons we have for going to the throne of grace are not as significant.  To place one of these lesser purposes ahead of the true point is to corrupt the spiritual communication.  Such corruption can only lead to dangerous and deadly consequences.

In our most sincere prayers for the recovery of someone’s health, what if God does not allow the person to recover?  What if that person either lives for many years uncured or dies?  If one has a prayer life founded and rooted in being connected with the Lord, such suffering can not only be endured.  One can even find great spiritual meaning in the struggle. The Apostle Paul was denied relief of his thorn as the Lord revealed to him the greater truth of grace.  The faithful increase in faith because of a prayer life that majors in its true purpose.

Unfortunately, too many people do not have such a prayer life.  Prayer is treated only as an infrequent exercise to be done only as a need arises.  A quick mutter of thanks for a meal or getting through some task or another.  It is certainly to be done at church.  When the minor (yet important) prayers go (seemingly) unanswered, what becomes of those who are not founded and rooted in communication with God?  Hopefully, someone who is more spiritual will guide them in the direction of true faith and they will heal and become stronger.  But with the decline of church attendance, most become more skeptical of the existence of a compassionate and loving God.

To make matters worse, too many clergy sell prayer as a means for people to get what they want.  Gospel artist sing of such encouraging people to “believe it and receive it.”  Tele-evangelist market “breakthroughs” for a “seed offering” of $273.00 (yes, I heard one of these hucksters say this amount).  The person who majors a the minor purpose of prayer buy the sales pitch, often with great sincerity.  The minor purpose goes (seemingly) unfulfilled.  The unfortunate soul that does not find someone of sound spiritual practice will either continue to wander mindlessly through the marketplace of false doctrines, or become a greater atheist than Darwin’s theory of evolution could produce.

Do not major in the minors.  Offer up intercessions, petitions, and thanksgivings and scripture and tradition encourages us to do.  But, let us constantly seek a prayer life that keeps us in constant communion with God.  This is the first and essential purpose and goal of prayer.  Not sporatic mutterings, but a constant way of being for the soul.

Your Brother In Christ,

Cyprian Bluemood

Order of Saint-Simon of Cyrene