June 3, 2018

Use Your Freedom Wisely & Lovingly
(and Let Others do the Same)

2nd Sunday of Pentecost
First Lesson:  1 Samuel 21:1-6

Second Lesson:  Colossians 2:13-14, 16-17

Gospel Lesson:  Philippians 2:6-11

Sermon Text:  Colossians 2:13-14, 16-17

Now and then, non-members will call or email with a series of questions.  “What does your church teach about creation?  What do you say about marriage? Where do you stand on this subject or that matter?”  I go through the list and tell them, and I make sure to say we base all we teach on God’s Word. We are a Bible believing church, and I make that very clear. So imagine you’re one of those people. At your home church, non-scriptural teachings were taught, so you left. You called me and ask the questions mentioned above. How would you respond if I said, “We’re a pretty liberal church”? I bet most of you would end the call right there. The last thing one looking for a Bible based church wants is one that calls itself liberal.

But it is true. We’re a liberal church. I know it is hard, but divorce that term from politics. “But,” you might say, “we aren’t liberal! We’re as pro-life as anyone. We believe in creation. We believe marriage is – 1 man, 1 woman.” You’re right. God’s spoken clearly in his Word about these matters and hold to that.  We don’t change to fit personal ideas or societal views.

So how are we liberal?  One of the definitions for that word is, “permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of expression.”  What does that mean?  Where God has spoken, there is no argument and no wiggle room.  If God said Jesus was born of a virgin, case closed. But there are areas where God has not clearly said, “Yes, you should” or “No, you shouldn’t.” The term is adiaphora – things neither commanded nor forbidden by God.  In those areas, we are liberal.

How so?  Does God tell you what to eat? No. He did for his Old Testament people, but he doesn’t for you. Or take how you dress. The Bible does talk about modesty and not causing temptation. And coming to church shouldn’t turn into a fashion show to gain praise. But if done in modesty and a right heart, you decide what you wear to church. For some that might be khaki shorts and a polo. For others it might mean a shirt and tie.  In either case, you, as a Christian, are free to choose.

Why mention all this?  Go way back to 2000 years ago. In the Old Testament, God was very clear in a lot of areas of peoples’ lives.  He told them exactly when and how to worship, how to dress, what to eat, and how to sacrifice. Why did he do this?  All of these ceremonial laws, as we call them, in one way or another, pointed to Jesus. How so?

Take Passover. The people were not to use yeast. Why?  Yeast is compared to sin in the Bible. As a little yeast works through the whole batch, so a little sin can do major damage. Also, during Passover, people were to kill a young male lamb without defect, and put its blood over their doorpost.  This was 1) a reminder of how God saved his people in Egypt, but 2) who does that point to? Young male lamb? No defects?  The lamb dies and blood spares the people? This was a picture of Jesus’ work. God did this so people would constantly be looking ahead, expecting the arrival of the Savior he promised. That’s what all those Old Testament laws were designed to do.

But for the Corinthians, Jesus had already come. Paul summarizes his work. “When you were dead in your sins, God made you alive with Christ.”  We were spiritually dead, unable to do anything. So God did it all.  He sent Jesus, and in doing so, he brought us to spiritual life.  Keep going.  “[God] forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” The wages of sin is death.  We owed God our lives for our sin. But Jesus paid that debt.  His life was given and his blood shed so we’re not in debt to God. We’re free - slaves who’ve been redeemed. All our sin was taken by Jesus, and we are welcome before God.

God’s Old Testament people needed reminders this Savior was coming. The Corinthians didn’t. Jesus had already come.  They could simply look to the past and see what happened. In new member class I use the analogy of a movie trailer/commercial. I bet I watched the Avengers – Infinity War trailer 50 times. Guess how many times I watched it after seeing the movie.  None.  I didn’t need to.  I saw the movie.  No longer did I need to be told what was coming.

The Corinthians didn’t have to do sacrifices like God’s Old Testament people, because Jesus was the culmination of those sacrifices.  The Corinthians didn’t have to celebrate Passover, because the Lamb of God did his work.  We can go down the line with each of these old commands.  They no longer apply, because we do not need them.  Paul says it this way: “These (laws and regulations) are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  The Corinthians had Jesus.  They no longer needed these laws and codes.  And for those last two paragraphs, change “Corinthians” to “us” and everything is still true.  We also have Jesus.  We don’t need the reminders any more either.

But some had a hard time with this. They’d been doing circumcision, Passover, clean/unclean foods for years.  And some of those people were telling others, “You can’t eat this or worship on that day.  You have to celebrate Jewish holiday.”  Paul addresses this. And after reminding People Jesus has already come and the old rules no longer apply, he says, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”

What that means is this…  If someone tried to tell the Corinthians they couldn’t eat ham or bacon (because pigs were unclean), Paul would say, “Nope – can’t say that. You can eat whatever you like.”  Or if someone tried to convince the Corinthians they were sinning by worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday like in the Old Testament, Paul would say, “That is not right.  We are free to worship on whatever day we like.” Everyone good so far?

In essence, Paul was acting very liberally.  When the people did something contrary to the Word, he called them out.  When they sued one another at the drop of a hat, desecrated the Lord’s Supper, or were in improper, sinful relationships, Paul was lovingly firm.  But in areas where God has no longer spoken, like what to eat and when to worship, Paul essentially was telling the people, “You are free.  Act as a Christian, and decide what is best for you and your family.”  Back to the definition of liberal: “permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of expression.” Acting as Christians with hearts of faith, they were free to express their joy, their faith, and their thanks however they wanted.

Maybe you are thinking, “OK, great.  Thanks for the history lesson.  What does that have to do with me?”  Let me give you an example – the altar guild at my home church. We not-so-nicely called them the altar Nazis. Why? They had over 100 rules about what can and can’t go on the altar, what flowers are to be used when, how to arrange this, etc. These were not guidelines or suggestions.  These were rules one would break only if he wanted Edna or Irma’s wrath brought down on him.

Does God say anywhere in his Word how we should decorate an altar or what plants are acceptable? No. So in Christian freedom, we can decide.  If someone wants to put the ugliest fake flowers on the altar to thank God for the time he had with his wife who died 10 years ago, so be it.  If someone wants tulips or daffodils, so be it. We’re free, as Christians, to choose.

Once more to your brain, “Alright, I get it.  But I don’t remember too many feuds in the church about what goes on the altar.”  Fine.  What about dress?  You have in your mind how a person should dress for worship. Say you are a suit and tie guy or long dress and heels lady.  Someone sits down next to you for church wearing a sweater and jeans. How easy would it be to think, “I can’t believe he/she wore that to the Lord’s house!” Very easy. But isn’t that judging someone on something God hasn’t spoken of in his Word?  And can’t that easily lead us to think we’re better than the other person?  And if that is our mindset, will it lead us to come humbly before God and reach out to that person to see how they are doing? Likely not.

Another example might be child rearing.  There are as many thoughts/ideas on raising children as there are ways to skin a cat.  That’s an old expression, young ones.  Google it.  Like clothes, we have an idea of how to raise kids.  But our idea might not be someone else’s.  About children, God does say to train them in his way, teach them, and discipline them.  But he doesn’t say there is only one right way to do those things.  When we look down our noses at a family who does things the “wrong way”, aren’t we judging? Couldn’t we fall prey to all those things we mentioned regarding clothes? Likely yes.

And not only could we do this, we have done this.  There is not one person in this room who is innocent.  We have all passed judgment on others, not because they are doing something biblically wrong, but because they are doings things differently than we would, the “wrong way”. Search your heart.  Ever judged someone unlovingly based on appearance? Ever judged someone unlovingly based on lifestyle (and not a sinful one). Ever judged someone unlovingly based on how they spend money?  Ever judged someone unlovingly based on how they use their free time?  Sadly, we all have… often.

But when we do that, realize what is happening.  We are trying to play God and have things our way, the way they “should” be.  We are not acting in Christian love and trying to help others in every way possible. We’re setting ourselves us as better than others. And that is a problem because 1) it’s not true.  They are sinners in need of grace just like us.  And 2) when we spend so much time focusing on others, that means less time to focus on ourselves, our sinful struggles, and our immense need for Jesus’ amazing grace. That is why Paul spoke so strongly.  He gave a warning that came from a heart of love. 

Have we always had that heart of love? No. But a heart of love is what we have to focus on as we realizr how often we judge others based on only our thoughts and feelings.  But it is not our heart of love on which we focus.  It is Jesus’ heart. And in the verses we read earlier, we see that heart.  Jesus didn’t come for perfect people. He came for flawed, failing, judgy sinners like us.  He came for spiritually dead people like us.  That means that even though we needed everything and deserved nothing, still he was perfect for us, died in our place, and rose for us. By doing all that, all the charges against us (and you know how long your list is) were nailed to the cross.  In dying and rising, Jesus obliterated them.  You are forgiven for the times your mouth went too far, for times your thoughts were far from loving, and for all the times you have improperly, unlovingly, and sinfully judged others.  All those are the blessings that come from Jesus’ heart of love.

And his heart, as well as the heart he gave us – the believing, loving heart of a Christian – is where our focus needs to be.  Focusing on both hearts, we’ll be thankful for love, forgiveness, grace, heaven, etc. Focusing on both hearts we’ll seek to show God’s love to others, even those who do things a differently than us.  Focusing on both hearts, we will realize that in freedom, people serve and thank God in ways that are often different than how we do, and that’s OK.  And focusing on both hearts we can rejoice that even though there are differences, we are all part of the same body – the body of Christ.

So, and I can’t believe I am saying this from the pulpit, let’s get out there and be liberals.  Where God has spoken, of course, we will continue to stand firm. But where God has not, with a heart of faith, let’s wisely choose our course of action. And when others do the same but differently, let’s rejoice over that too.  May God help us do this, and above all may he help us by pointing us back to our Savior and his perfect heart of love.  Amen.