Monday, May 23, 2011

Sermon on May 22, 2011 (addresses PC(USA) controversy)

“The Rock” (Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10
May 22, 2011 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

Childrens’ stories can impart great truths to adults. Consider the story of the Three Little Pigs, which I assume most of you remember. The three little pigs were building homes for themselves, and had to decide what building materials to use. One pig chose straw, because that was fast and easy. Another pig chose wood, which was a little more solid but still relatively fast and easy. The third pig chose brick, which meant it took him a long time to properly build his house. And you all remember what happened when the big bad wolf showed up … he easily blew down the house of straw, then the house of wood. But when he came to the house of brick, he was foiled. The wise little pig had constructed a home designed to last. And he was a gracious little pig as well, because he offered shelter to his foolish brothers.

I think the story of faith is like this story. Almost everyone has faith in something. And religion reflects faith. Almost everyone professes a religion of one kind or another. I want to focus on the Christian faith this morning. Again, many people profess the Christian faith. But what kind of faith do they profess? How well does their faith stand up to the blowing winds of life? Does their faith provide them with shelter? And will they share their faith with others?

Sometimes it seems like the wind is blasting into our faces. Are you heavily burdened with anxiety about something, like losing your job or making ends meet? I have to confess Lela and I have some anxiety about selling our home up in Erie, because of the mortgage attached to it (and as an aside, it was nice to be able to say we are homeowners, but in reality we are owners of about 13% of our home in Erie, Citi Mortgage owns the other 87%). So how does faith stand up to those winds? But I cannot complain, God has provided for us in so many ways. We have our health for example. How does your faith shelter you if your health is poor (or the health of a loved one is poor?)? How does your faith stand up against heart failure, or cancer, or Alzheimer’s? What about when a beloved family member dies? Many of you have been through some of these challenging times.

The two Scripture readings for today describe a faith that is designed for challenging times. Consider Psalm 31. This Psalm is written as a lament that seeks help from God for a faithful person worn out with trouble and beset by enemies who want to do him harm. David has been traditionally credited as this Psalm’s author, and one can easily connect many of the particulars in the Psalm to his life. But the wording is also general enough for all kinds of people to find themselves in the prayer. The first verse affirms that a person of faith takes “refuge” in the Lord, a word indicating dependence and trust in God. He implores that the Lord will never let him “be put to shame.” To be put to shame is to be publicly shown to have relied on a false basis for hope. The believer also trusts in God’s righteousness, which in this context means his faithfulness to his promises; it is grounds for assurance and not for fear. The first five verses of this Psalm twice refer to God as a “rock” and “fortress,” a common way of describing him. God will continually guide and uphold his followers for the sake of his name, meaning because of his character and reputation. God will protect the believer from the snares of the enemy, whatever they may be.

God’s character remains the same across the Biblical witness. Consider verse 5, where David says “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jesus uses these very words on the cross. He dies as the innocent sufferer, trusting in God for his vindication. And that right there is the mark of rock solid faith. Ask yourself if you have that kind of faith, a faith that remains strong even in the face of impending death, the faith of David and the faith of Jesus.

And this rock solid faith is reflected in the words from 1 Peter I read a few minutes ago. Peter wrote this letter most likely during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 AD), which became a time of persecution against the church. Not all Roman Emperors persecuted the church: sometimes the Empire was actually beneficial to Christians by providing order and stability. But Nero, an erratic and gratuitously cruel tyrant, did persecute these early Christians, beginning in 64 AD. This letter contains a reference to Rome, meaning Peter wrote from there. Thus, the letter was likely written shortly before the start of Nero’s persecution of the church, in 62 or 63 AD. What is interesting is how Peter seems to anticipate the persecution, by exhorting his listeners to stay strong in the faith no matter what may happen to them. Even if persecution was not taking place at the time, the possibility of Roman persecution hung over the heads of the early Christians for nearly three centuries, until the rise of Constantine after 300 AD, when he made it legal under Roman law to worship Christ.

Verse two begins with the recommendation for a strong foundation in faith: that the believers “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk.” That made me think. Isn’t it wonderful how newborn babies have a natural instinct to seek out their mothers’ milk? They know what they need! As Christians, we also need the pure milk of God’s Word. There are plenty of people who think that being a Christian means doing good works, or being nice. They worship a “nice” Jesus who did good works and taught good lessons. But I would submit that this “nice” Jesus is at best an incomplete Jesus. But according to God’s Word, Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, who was born to the virgin Mary, lived and died as one of us, rose bodily from the dead and ascended into heaven. It is this Jesus who intercedes for us with the Father. That is all from the Word of God. A strong church must rely on the unchanging, eternal and infallible Word of God.

Verses two and three also say that believers will continue to long for the Word of God, “you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Peter likely considered Psalm 34 when he wrote this letter, for that Psalm is about how the Lord delivers the righteous in their sufferings. How does one taste that the Lord is good? In today’s terms, that is found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Verse four promises that if we come to Jesus, “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,” we ourselves will become the living stones that build the church. We ourselves are being built up as God’s temple. Peter recognized that the temple of the Old Testament, located in a specific place, Jerusalem, anticipated the new temple where God dwells: in the hearts of believers. But believers are not only God’s temple but are also a holy priesthood which offers spiritual sacrifices to him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed to the spiritual sacrifices to be made by the people of God after the coming of Jesus Christ.

I want to consider the idea of spiritual sacrifices for a moment. What does it mean to offer God a spiritual sacrifice? I think it means to refrain from doing something we may want to do if it serves to move us away from God’s perfect will and plan for our lives. And that makes sense, I think. If we really love someone, we will indeed sacrifice some of our own desires out of love for them. Anyone who has been married and had children hopefully knows what that means. It means not just going off on your own and drinking in a bar or playing poker all night or spending your money just on yourself. It means making time for your family and making sure they have enough to eat and a good place to live and letting them know in so many ways how much you love them. And so it is with God … making time with him through prayer and worship. It means sacrificing some of your own desires and resources to support the work of God in this world.

As you know, I have been preaching from the Lectionary since I arrived here. But I had seriously considered not doing so this morning. My heart has been burdened by what has happened in our denomination recently, meaning the vote to allow for the ordination of active, unrepentant gays and lesbians. But as I read the Scriptures for today, I came to understand that the concept of pure spiritual milk (the Word of God) as well as spiritual sacrifices, do address the current situation in our church.

My impression in observing the ordination debates in our own denomination is that many people want a God who affirms them where they are, and does not expect them to offer spiritual sacrifices to him. That is why we have given way on so many moral questions over the past decades. I believe it is why we have now voted to allow gay ordination. What is the right thing to do with a sexuality that does not conform to God’s Word? To offer it to God as a spiritual sacrifice. But that is not what our church has been able to proclaim, and as a result, well, friends, we have built ourselves a house of straw. Many people want Jesus to be “nice,” and a “nice” Jesus would never ask us to sacrifice something really important to us. But I say to you that the church of the “nice” Jesus cannot withstand the storms of this world. People are looking for God’s direction in their lives, and any church that cannot affirm God’s will as laid out in Scripture will not prosper. Consider verse eight, which refers to a “stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense … They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” And that is what has been happening to us as a denomination. We are stumbling over God’s Word.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful, because God is truly sovereign, and he is building up his temple using the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. People are being fed with the pure milk of God’s Word. God’s Word does not change. God’s Word does not depend on a majority vote at General Assembly or in the Presbyteries. God’s Word stands like a solid rock that cannot be moved. God’s Word is large enough to give shelter to all who want it. If we as Presbyterians cannot take this shelter, then God in his glory will raise up others to do so.

God is the rock. He offers you the chance to shelter in him. Through the storms of life, through illness, through depression, through broken families, through unemployment, through bereavement, God offers shelter. And he offers protection against the immorality and moral confusion of this world. Denominations rise and fall. But God and his Word stand forever. If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you are secure in him. If you approach the Word of God with an attitude of obedience and not defiance, you are safe. You are safe. Hold fast to Jesus Christ and the Bible. Whatever our denomination does, however lost it may look, nonetheless, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9)

So how will you build your house? Will you use the straw and wood of this world and of a church that is conforming itself to this world? Or will you use the bricks of truth? Will you come to Jesus Christ, the cornerstone? Will you take your stand on the solid rock of God’s Word? Are you ready to offer spiritual sacrifices to the Most High?

And now, to the God who has created us and sent his only Son to redeem us, may all honor and glory be given to him, now and forever, Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sermon for May 15, 2011

“Reflecting Christ” (Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47)
May 15, 2011 (Second Sunday After Easter)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

Imagine a world where everyone acted like Jesus did while he was on earth. What a world that would be. There would be no wars, or people going hungry, or people lonely and alienated, or divorce, or broken families, or abused and neglected children, or the horror of abortion, or the abuse of our God-given sexuality. People would help one another, care for one another, and love one another. Oh, certainly, some people do that some of the time, but we all know, either from reading the newspaper or watching TV, or, more uncomfortably, from observing aspects of our own lives, that most of us do not do that consistently, if at all. That is why our world is as broken and fearful as it is. Most people are not, after all, professing Christians. There are approximately two billion professing Christians in our world, out of a population of seven billion. Christians are a distinct minority. That may be an explanation.

But then let us ask ourselves, what do Christian majority societies look like? What does the Christian church look like? Do the professed followers of Jesus Christ reflect him in their own lives and in the way they interact with others? Well, the Americas and Europe are predominately Christian (historically). There are a growing number of Christians in Africa and Asia. And yet we must sadly concede that in so many parts of the Christian world and church, conflict, bitterness, envy, greed, brokenness and immorality are very common. Look at the political debates we have in this country. Our current and most recent Presidents have had a very polarizing effect on our society. Whether named Reagan, Clinton, Bush or Obama, our Presidents have often been the object of hatred and contempt that approaches derangement in some people. And in return, those who oppose those Presidents have been mercilessly vilified. And this happens in a country where most people understand themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ. The Bible does say we are to honor and respect our magistrates. And quite aside from how we regard our Presidents, our society has extremes of wealth and poverty, of violence, of racial division, of immorality … the list of woe, of how we fall short of God’s will, is endless. Of course, it could be worse. Remember the decades of terrible violence that threatened to tear apart Northern Ireland, where Christians were killing Christians. We don’t have that problem here. But the church is often at war with itself spiritually and rhetorically, isn’t it? Denominations sometimes have acrimonious relations. Our own denomination has been in a bitter struggle over ordination standards, certainly not demonstrating mutual trust or unity. Sometimes congregations themselves are bitterly divided over matters great and small. How much do people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ actually reflect Jesus Christ in their words and actions.

Well, now that we have heard how far short of imitating Christ, let us consider what the Bible says about how one does follow him. What does it look like when people reflect Jesus Christ? Consider the passage from Acts. The early followers were “devoted to the Apostles’ teachings,” which would have included Jesus’ teachings during his earthly ministry plus what he taught the apostles for the 40 days after his resurrection. And being “devoted” to the teachings means much more than merely hearing those teachings. The believers also devoted themselves to the “fellowship” with one another. Now the Greek word for “fellowship” is “koinonia,” which also means “participation” and “sharing,” including the sharing of material goods. Hold that thought, I will be returning to it in a few moments. They also shared in the “breaking of bread,” which likely included the communion meal as well as fellowship meals. They also devoted themselves to the prayers, which took place at the temple, but also at home. So these were not “Sunday Christians,” to use a current term. Their faith inspired their actions in “church” as well as at home. Their faith made a difference in their lives.

Amazing things were happening in the early church. People were in awe at the things happening in their midst, because of the many signs and wonders being done by the apostles. And “all were together and had all things in common.” Now that is a very important sentence, and it is vital to understand its correct meaning. Some people consider this scenario to be an example of “early Communism.” After all, that is what holding everything in common means, right? Well, not really. Whenever Communism has been attempted, it has been through government coercion. Someone with more power than you have shows up and says you have to give some of your possessions to someone else. What do you imagine happens with governments acts in this way? People who have to give up resources become resentful of those who have less. People who receive resources become envious of those who have more. Class resentment and envy are poisonous, and are not aspects of a true Christian life. Communism has not only proven materially a failure, for no Communist directed economy has ever delivered wealth or equality to the people, but it is spiritually corrupting.
Communism is thus very different from the practice of the early disciples for the reasons I just gave. In addition, the disciples still kept some personal possessions, as they still met in “their homes,” and many other Christians continued to own their homes afterward. Further, Peter told Ananias and Saphira that they did not have any obligation to sell their property and give away the money (Acts 5:4).

Nonetheless there was, as the text indicates, a great deal of sharing property and the proceeds of sales with the less fortunate. Sometimes that can occur even when a person maintains ownership of the property. Someone can lend his neighbor tools or equipment, for example, of donate it to some kind of cooperative arrangement. Or one simply sells some possessions and gives the proceeds to someone else. There are a number of ways in which one can share with others. Other places in Scripture affirm that Christians are encouraged to share what they can when they can. I want to read a somewhat lengthy quote to you, because it really makes this point very well. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote (In chapter 8, beginning at verse one):

1We want you to know, brothers,[a] about the grace of God that has been(A) given among the churches of Macedonia, 2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and(B) their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For they gave(C) according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4begging us earnestly(D) for the favor[b] of taking part in(E) the relief of the saints— 5and this, not as we expected, but they(F) gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. 6Accordingly,(G) we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you(H) this act of grace. 7But as(I) you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you[c]—(J) see that you excel in this act of grace also.
8(K) I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that(L) though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 10And in this matter(M) I give my judgment:(N) this benefits you, who(O) a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. 11So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. 12For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable(P) according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. 13For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14your abundance at the present time should supply(Q) their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15As it is written,(R) "Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack." (2 Cor 8:12-15. ESV. Emphasis added)

How wonderful it is that people can be motivated by conscience to share their possessions with others. That is a sign of a warmed heart. And we read about the results: this joyous, generous group of people attracted more believers. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Who would come to a church with selfish people and asour atmosphere? There is something in the human heart that does respond to kindness and mutual giving.

But it can be hard to take the step of giving sacrificially. Why is that? I think fear has a lot to do with it. No matter how much a person has, there is always the possibility of losing everything. Many people seem well off, but they live paycheck to paycheck. If they lose their employment, which happens all the time in these difficult economic times, they could lose everything. The human heart also desires security, and it can be very scary to share with others and make yourself vulnerable to others if you think you could get hurt and lose everything as a result. Those fears were certainly present in the time Acts was written.

So how did these early Christians do it? How did they open themselves up? How did they share what they had? Remember, it was not from government coercion. Their hearts were full of the love of God and they wanted to share that with others. Amazingly, I would say that fear was not a major part of their lives! How could that be? They worried about many of the things we worry about today, and in fact had more to worry about. They lived under the sway of Rome. Sometimes followers of Christ were tolerated by the authorities, but other times there was ferocious persecution. It depended on whoever was Emperor. So these Christians had some good reasons for fear.

And yet … they didn’t fear. Why is that? Here I would like to look back at the other lectionary selection I read, Psalm 23. It is beautiful poetry, of course, recited often at funerals … and maybe that is the key! For what does the Psalmist proclaim? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me … surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This Psalm is traditionally credited to King David. David knew about uncertainty and suffering … but he did joyfully acknowledged God’s providential care for him, which existed in his life on earth and extended to the life to come (“forever.”).

And so I think we come to the crux of this whole matter. Having a close relationship with God (and since the time of the New Testament that means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ) means we no longer have to fear death. Yes, we will go through the veil that separates this world from the next … but the next world will be a good one, where we are together with God for eternity. Imagine not fearing death. If the great mystery of our existence, if the greatest enemy we fear, is thus set aside by Jesus Christ, we are freed from fear in all parts of our lives. I think of the wonderful assurance of salvation I have because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for me. I trust in that. I strive to live into what that means. And I think part of what that means is to trust that God is truly sovereign over all events, even those who wish had not happened. Above all, hold onto the assurance of salvation.

Does everyone here have that assurance? Do you want that assurance? Can you honestly say to yourself and others that you are certain of your eternal destination? You can be sure today. Open your heart and feel Jesus entering your soul. Let go of any fear that may hold you back. Take this opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, for it may be the last opportunity you have.

If you feel prompted by the Spirit, please pray with me now:
Lord Jesus, I know I am missing you in my life. I still have fear of many things, especially of death. Release me from that fear. I do today confess my sins and lay them at the foot of your cross. I ask you to come into my heart and life as my Savior and I ask you to direct my life as my Lord. Guide me from this day forward … I give all of myself to you. Amen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On the Passage of Amendment 10-A

I did NOT want to write about this. I arrived at my new call just about two months ago, and the last thing I wanted to confront was this controversy. Nonetheless, well informed people in my congregation know what has happened, and it is all over the church media and a good section of the secular media.

As of yesterday, a majority of Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (USA), approved a very significant change to the PC(USA)'s Book of Order. This regards our standards of ordination. Currently, our Book of Order includes this provision (G-0106b):

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

This language has been dramatically changed, to read thusly:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240; 14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

I regret this change. Now, let me say that there are people I like and respect who think this is a good change. Some of them I consider good friends and colleagues. I intend to keep working with people who have supported Amendment A because there are other areas of ministry we agree on and can support. I also intend to remain in fellowship with them as long as I serve in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I have many thoughts about what happened, but will share just a couple, because I doubt I will say much that has not already been said by others.

I am frustrated at our denomination's selective adherence to local option, or, if you like, local control. We have now enshrined local option/control regarding ordaining gays and lesbians. But we have not reversed the centralized control regarding the ordination of men who cannot conscientiously agree to participate in women's ordination. We do indeed, and none too gently, tell SOME committed Christians that they do not belong in our fellowship as leaders if they dissent too strongly from the relatively recent ecclesiastical innovation of women's ordination (which is still rejected by most churches around the world, and in the largest churches and/or fastest growing in the United States). All of the pleasant words we have heard about mutual forebearance and respect would, I think, ring hollow to someone like Walter Kenyon, who was brusquely shown the door in 1977 despite having the support of his own Presbytery.

This does not mean I oppose women's ordination or would refuse to participate in their ordination. But I have known many fine and committed Christians who are not welcome in our denomination's leadership because of THEIR understanding of Scripture informed by the conscience.

I do not think this kind of heavy-handed legalism regarding gay/lesbian ordination will occur right away. But it would not surprise me if a kind of "peer pressure" and/or ecclesiastical bullying occured in some Presbyteries to go along with such ordinations. I experienced both of those things in the past regarding different issues. I think that will become more common in some Presbyteries. The General or Executive Presbyter can play an important role in this. I have spoken to liberal GPs/EPs who are NOT heavy-handed and genuinely want to respect and work with more conservative Presbyterians. But to be blunt, I have also encountered liberal GPs/EPs who use their position to enforce their own ideas of what the church should do, and will behave ungraciously towards people with whom they disagree.

I also think that passage of Amendment 10-A will make it more difficult for my particular congregation to reach out to our surrounding community. Not impossible, but more difficult. This is a very conservative part of the country. It is beyond most people's comprehension in the Florida panhandle why our denomination would even consider gay ordination, much less agree to allow it.

And I am, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, dismayed that I have to address this topic right after beginning a new pastorate. I have spoken up about this issue before (and others before the PC(USA)) and have received little but grief for speaking up. It does not make me happy to write this. I would much rather the issue did not exist. But it does, my congregation is not happy with what has happened and I stand with my congregation (and 99% of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as it has existed throughout time) and on the eternal Word of God.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sermon on May 8, 2011

“Confessing Christ” (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Acts 2:14a, 36-41)
May 8, 2011 (Second Sunday After Easter)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

You will recall that last week I talked to you about the importance of witnessing Christ in building the early church, and in sustaining the church to this very day. I spoke about the role of witnesses in the crime dramas I enjoy watching. Another important part in crime dramas is the confession. Someone is suspected of a bad act, and if that person is guilty, he will hopefully confess to his crime. In law school, I took criminal law and criminal procedure, and there are careful safeguards around the rights of an accused: the police can’t beat him up or imprison him without a lawyer to get him to confess. On the other hand, the police can use trickery or dishonesty to elicit a confession, saying something like “the driver of your getaway car is telling us everything right now,” or “three nuns saw you run out of the liquor store carrying a smoking gun and a big wad of cash.” Stuff like that.

Whatever tactics are used to get a confession, it is generally understood that it can be hard to get a confession. A person is understandably reluctant to confess something that might land him in jail, maybe for life. So the confession may have to be dragged out of him; he won’t give it up easily.

In my experience as a pastor who has served two churches before this one, I have found more often than I would like that confessing Christ fills people with as much reluctance or even fear than would confessing a crime. At best, this confession is something that has to be dragged out of the person. And I wonder why that is. What harm will befall a person if he confesses Christ, at least if they are believers in this country? And yet there are many believers in other parts of the world who risk a great deal, sometimes including their very lives, if they confess Christ.

Let’s look at how the Bible describes confessing Christ. The reading from Psalm 116 gives a good explanation of why we would confess Christ. As verses 1 through four explain, it is because we love the Lord. And why do we love the Lord? We love the Lord because he has heard our voice and our pleas for mercy. The Lord has delivered our souls from the snares of death and the pangs of Sheol. Verses 12-19 explain how one shows his love for the Lord. Look especially at verses 14 and 18, where the Psalmist twice says “I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.” I want to highlight these verses because they emphasize the public or communal nature of these vows.

And this leads me to comment on the context in which Psalm 116 was written. The culture of the time was very different from our modern American culture. The people of Israel understood their faith to be communal. They did not have the same kind of individualistic understanding of faith that many of us Americans have. Our faith is often so personal that no one else ever sees it. Now, don’t misunderstand me: having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is indispensable. But I cannot agree with the constant refrain that someone is “spiritual, but not religious,” or that “I worship God in my own way at home.” This is a way of trying to claim the benefits of a relationship with God while refusing the accept the responsibilities or obligations. The Bible does not give us these options. If it is possible to do so, we “pay our vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.”

Now, if I were referring only to the words in Psalm 116, I might be more cautious in my statements. After all, Psalm 116 was written for the people of Israel; it was part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Someone reading the Psalms soon after they were composed would not associate them with Jesus Christ. I believe the Psalms were prophetically pointing to Jesus Christ, but I have the benefit of hindsight. But even so, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have not literally obeyed every jot and tittle of the Old Testament because we believe some of it no longer applies under the New Covenant through and with Jesus Christ.

But public confession still applies. Let’s consider the reading from Acts. Acts is a very important resource for understanding the early church. In Acts there are some explicit changes made in the early church’s understanding of what God’s Law required. Remember that the core of the early church was composed of people who understood themselves to be good Jews … and remember that Jesus himself understood himself to be a good Jew. So, whether or not to keep all of the Mosiac law as it had developed over the centuries was of great concern to these early followers of Jesus. Acts shows how their understanding developed. For example: Peter received a revelation that the Hebrew dietary restrictions were no longer in force. The early church also decided after considerable debate that converts did not have to be circumcised … a decision that undoubtedly encouraged the conversion of more male adults! So it’s important to discern what all of the Scriptures, Old and New Testament, tell us about what we should do as Christians.

Having said that, Acts reaffirms the public nature of our confession of faith. You will remember that Peter has been preaching to the sons of Israel. He reminds them of their complicity in the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He indicts them with these words: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God had made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” And these men were convicted by Peter’s words, which has to have been an act of the Holy Spirit. Their hearts were torn. They were in distress. And so they ask Peter and the Apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter tells them, “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ … the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone who the Lord our God calls to himself.” And what a day that turned out to be for the church! Three thousand joined the church that day! Praise God for all of those saved souls! I imagine a joyous multitude, being baptized one after another, or perhaps several people at once. They are proudly and gratefully proclaiming their newfound love for and faith in Jesus Christ.

If one goes a little beyond the lectionary passage, you will see how the “public” aspect of these confessions of faith is reinforced. Verse 42 explains: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Verse 44: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” That is as far from a private faith as one can imagine. And that makes sense, I think. When we are together with people, and when we share of ourselves … our time, talents, treasures, and faith … we are following God’s will. God has shared so much with us, how can we not share with others?

So what does God call us to do today? I think the words of the Scriptures apply very well to us. Some of what we need to do is certainly individual. We examine ourselves and prayerfully repent of our sins. No one can do this for us. We have to do that ourselves. But what happens then? When people join the church, they do not do so in private. When people are baptized, they are not ordinarily baptized in private, either. Our Book of Order rightly requires these occasions to take place in public services of worship. Everyone present has the privilege and responsibility of helping to nuture the newly received or baptized in the faith.

And, going beyond that, everyone has the privilege and responsibility to confess their faith to others. Returning to my opening theme, faith in Christ is not a crime that we should be ashamed of confessing. We should confess it with joy, just as those early followers did …indeed, just as the Psalmist confessed his love for the Lord before the congregation. I think it is good to confess our love for Jesus with our lips, and also with our lives. How well do we do that?

Well, on this Mother’s Day, one way we can confess our love for God is to do what he commanded … to love our mothers (fathers too, but this isn’t their day yet). And let us consider how we can confess Christ in the days to come. It is a privilege for me to be your pastor and live out the Gospel together, in common with you.

In the Name of him whose name we joyously confess from our lips and in our hearts. Amen.

Sermon on May 1, 2011

Well, I fell behind again. Here is my sermon of May 1:

“Witnessing Christ” (Psalm 16; Acts 2:14a, 22-32)
May 1, 2011 (First Sunday After Easter)
Rev. John B. Erthein, Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church

One of my favorite TV shows (you’ll notice I like a lot of TV shows) was the original Law and Order (although I think it went fatally downhill after Jerry Orbach left). I still enjoy Law and Order SVU (Special Victims Unit). They are my favorite crime dramas. Maybe you all remember some of your favorites from past years, like Columbo, or Kojak, or Starsky and Hutch. I also enjoy some of movies made about crime. One of my favorite is “12 Angry Men,” starring Henry Fonda, made back in 1956, I believe. It was quite extraordinary that the movie held your interest even though the entire movie took place in a jury room. No elaborate sets or special effects there, just great dialog and tension between the characters.

In crime dramas, a key role is that of the witness. A witness picks out the potential criminal from a line up. A witness testifies at trial. What the witness heard and saw and understood can mean the difference between the accused being found guilty or not guilty.

A witness is really indispensable. Most criminal trials are by jury. There are twelve people who are hopefully sober and serious citizens. They will do their best to reach a just verdict. But they have the disadvantage of not having seen the alleged crime. They have to rely on the evidence presented to them, and a vital part of the evidence will be witness testimony. The jury will have to consider the credibility of the witnesses and weigh their testimony.

Have you considered that our faith is based on a great cloud of witnesses? That is because the very center of our faith is a series of events. The Christian church was built on the witness of many people to these events. The book of Acts describes the founding and growth of the early church. In chapter 2, Peter addresses a large group of Jews (“men of Israel”). He reminds them of the events they had witnessed. They saw “mighty works and wonders and signs” performed by Jesus, through whom God’s power flowed. They also witnessed, and many participated in the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. And, most importantly, they witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.

Here we come to a vital question. What is the credibility of these witnesses? This question brings to my mind an Easter sermon given many years ago by the late D. James Kennedy, in which the theme was “Who Would Die for a Lie?” or “Would You Die for a Lie?” I don’t recall exactly. But what Kennedy said was this: it is undisputed that many of Jesus’ earliest followers were martyred, including the Apostle Peter whose words I just read. Why did they allow themselves to be killed? Can you imagine being in that situation yourself, where your very life would depend on the answer you gave to the questions: “who is your Lord and Savior? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Do you confess that our Roman Emperor is God?” If you gave the wrong answer to those questions, you could easily pay with your life. And not, I might add, in the way criminals may pay with their lives today for their crimes. No lethal injection or gas chamber or anything meant to be quick and relatively painless (and relatively private, with a small number of witnesses). No, the Romans made a gruesome spectacle out of death. A Christian might expect a horrible death in the coliseum in front of screaming crowds, killed by wild animals or gladiators. The early followers of Jesus, having witnessed the agony of Christ’s merciless flogging and awful crucifixion, knew what kind of authority they dealt with.

And so try to imagine yourself in the place of these men and women, knowing that if you gave the answer the authorities did not want to hear, that the penalty would be a painful death in front of jeering enemies?

Would you go through that torment for something you knew was not true? Would you go through that for something you thought might not be true? How about if you had any doubt at all that it was true? That just makes no rational sense, does it? You would have to be 100% certain of something to go to death for it.

And indeed, it’s possible you could believe something completely and still not want to suffer and die for whatever it is you believe. I read the novel 1984 (and saw the movie, as well. The novel was better, in my opinion). Anyway, the protagonist, Winston Smith, was a secret rebel against the oppressive government headed by the mysterious “Big Brother.” But in that society, secrets could never be kept for long, and Smith was arrested by the dreaded Thought Police, and so awfully tortured that he would come to say anything to stop the pain. He was even willing to agree with his torturer that two plus two equals five, because that is what the all-powerful leading Party wanted him to say.

I think it is worth remembering that Winston Smith did not believe in God, so it really was just him against the all-powerful state. How can one man stand against such power without God?

So, sometimes even the truth itself cannot withstand terror and a desire for self-preservation. And certainly, falsehood cannot. People will crumple easily if called on a falsehood if the consequences are serious enough. If we think again about TV or movie crime dramas, a witness who lies may well change his story if threatened with a prosecution for perjury … a penalty far less severe than death.

And yet, in spite of the threat of a painful death, these early witnesses to the resurrection maintained their faith … and the church grew. These earliest witnesses who sacrificed themselves were witnessed by others, who were greatly moved and themselves became willing to make the supreme sacrifice if necessary. And others came after them, over generations. And there have been martyrs for the faith over the centuries, up to this very day, where Christians in parts of Africa and Asia … in many places with Muslim or (less frequently) Hindu majorities … risk their lives for their testimony for Jesus Christ.

Do you have confidence in these first witnesses, and the witnesses to the witnesses, and so on through the years? Have you joined them as witnesses to the faith? While you are almost certainly not going to be martyred for your faith (although even in this country it can happen.). Do you remember the horrific Columbine massacre of over a decade ago?

One of those murdered was a young woman named Cassie Bernal. One of the deranged teenage gunmen asked her, “do you believe in God?” And, as she looked into the barrel of the gun pointed at her head, she said … “Yes.” And she gave up her life for that one word.

Do you believe in the resurrection event as much as Cassie Bernal? I know it is daunting to think of sacrificing everything for the faith. None of us can entirely know what we would do in such a situation. But consider this: there would not be a church without these brave witnesses. There would be no building here. You would not be sitting here on this Sunday morning were it not for those millions of people throughout the ages who have been willing to die … and not for a lie, but for the truth.

And what is that truth? None other than David foresaw the importance of the Messiah. God had sworn an oath to him that one of his descendants would sit on his throne. “He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” And in that prophetic utterance, David expressed the confidence in his own salvation. All of God’s elect will experience salvation through Jesus Christ. And that is the truth above all truths … the truth that by God’s grace and mercy we may be spared the hideous second death of eternal separation from God. Even those who contributed to Christ’s crucifixion could be forgiven! That is the truth for which these men and women witnessed. Do you believe them?

May God’s Holy Spirit convict us of the great truth that these witnesses proclaimed, lived for, and often died for. In Jesus’ name. Amen.