First United Methodist Church
July 17, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Standing Holy and Blameless Before God
In the year 64 AD, there was a fire that destroyed most of Rome. No one knows who started the fire, but Emperor Nero accused the Christians and began persecuting them. According to the historian Tacitus, they were convicted, not so much for the crime of firing the city, but for their hatred of mankind. Christians stood out, not because they participated in strange rituals or bizarre behaviors, but because they didn’t. I mention this event today because it reminds us that our identity as Christians is not so much in what we do, but in what we don’t do.
In the 21st Century, it can be difficult to identify a Christian. When I lived in South Bend, I lived in the middle of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood – I could easily identify who was Jewish and who wasn’t because we dressed differently. When I lived near an Amish community, I could identify who was Amish and who wasn’t for the same reason. But most Christians dress the same as non-religious people, and some people from different religions dress in similar fashions. So how do people distinguish themselves as a Christians? What makes them stand out?
In the Roman Empire, Christians were mostly like everyone else as well — almost. They dressed the same, they worked or went to school, and they met on a particular day each week to worship…all of this was ordinary. The difference lay in the fact that there were a few customs, such as sharing spouses and disposing of unwanted children, that Christians did not take part in. They were also bound by a solemn oath, not to wickedness, but to never commit theft, adultery or break their word, and to keep trust with each other.
So the real “sin” of the early Christians was that they were different from their neighbors — in a good way. Christians ignored the ethnic, social, economic and political differences that separated people in Roman society. They came together around the table of the Lord. Everyone was equal. And that in itself was the cause for suspicion.
There were a few bizarre practices – Christians were considered atheists because they only worshipped one God. They feasted on the body and blood of Jesus Christ who was rumored to be a ghost. They also collected abandoned babies from the outskirts of town and no one was really sure what they did with them, since Christians did not participate in human sacrifice. Perhaps they ate them? These are a few of the suspicious behaviors of Christians. But the reality was that Christians stood out, because they did nothing bizarre or vulgar.
People should be able to see a difference in the way that Christians and non-Christians live. We should stand out by avoiding some of the radical and shameful behaviors that prevail in modern society.
In early Christianity, these differences resulted in a group of people who were “hated for their abominations,” even though their only desire was to live a life that was pleasing to God in response to their newly established relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
The goal of the early Christians was not to separate themselves from society by engaging in particular behaviors and practices, but instead to develop an inclusive community that included both Jews and Gentiles that existed under the Lordship and leadership of Jesus Christ. And living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ meant refraining from many of the cultural practices of the modern world. I think a lot of times we get confused and we try to do Christianity, when true obedience is more in line with not doing the world.
The passage we read from Colossians today makes a strong statement about the divine nature of Christ, reminding us that through God’s actions in Christ we are reconciled and that we are able to stand “holy and blameless” in the presence of God as long as we continue to believe in this truth.
But we live in a world that makes it nearly impossible to live in obedience to Christ and not be “separated” from the rest of society. No matter where we look in our community we see sin, separation from God, evil-doers and evil deeds, brokenness and heartache, dysfunction and disaster. Lately it seems as though there is a daily report about a shooting, a bombing or some other terrorist act. Whether it occurs in the Middle East, Ukraine or the United States, it is a reality that we must take seriously. At times it seems as though we live in a world gone mad and I often find myself asking questions like: How do we respond? How do we engage ministry in the midst of such reality when we are not always sure what is reality and what is not?
One of the things Paul is trying to remind the Colossian church is to remain steadfast in their devotion and their faith. When we maintain a strong devotional lifestyle, God’s wisdom is accessible through prayer. One of my best friends and mentors in camping once advised me to never make a decision without praying first. She wasn’t talking about just the big decisions. She meant all of them. Because if you develop a practice, it will happen naturally when you have to make big decisions or respond in crisis.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of decisions are made in this world without consulting God’s wisdom and without considering how they might affect the welfare of others. For example, years ago some of the wealthiest men in the United States purchased and developed a recreational hunting and fishing facility in Pennsylvania to serve as a place to get away from the grime of the cities where most of them lived. Part of the property included a dam that required periodic maintenance. Although they did complete some of the maintenance, they also made some harmful modifications to it, including lowering the dam to accommodate two carriages to pass at the same time (so they wouldn’t have to wait when they encountered another carriage going the opposite direction). These modifications weakened the dam, and on May 31, 1889, during a spring of unusually heavy rainfall, the dam failed, and the residents of the community downstream drowned. In the Johnstown flood, 2209 people died and 1600 homes were destroyed.
Last week we read a passage from Amos which warned that living the lifestyle of the elite without considering how their actions affected the poor and the disadvantaged would lead to disaster. I chose not to read Amos this week, because it was more of the same with a different image. Instead I chose Psalm 52 in which David lashes out at Doeg, who betrayed him, and essentially curses Doeg for hiding behind deceitful words to justify his actions.
David had fled the murderous threats of King Saul and had received holy food and Goliath’s sword from the priest Ahimelech at the tabernacle in Nob. Doeg, “the chief of Saul’s shepherds,” was there and later snitched on David to Saul, who ordered Doeg to execute Ahimelech and several other priests and their families for aiding David’s escape. David claims that Doeg “loves evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth.” Doeg has acted against God’s chosen (David), and the righteous, or those loyal to David, will see his destruction.
What we need to remember as we read these passages is that we are not reading about bad people. Doeg was serving the person that he believed was the true King. The fact that Saul enlisted him to execute everyone who was against him should have revealed in some way that perhaps he was acting against God’s will. The point that David is making is that Doeg chose to hide behind deceitful words to justify his decision.
These are the things that we need to think about and pray about when we consider the things that our leaders are doing in our world. Taking the time to seek God’s wisdom helps us to know how to respond, whether we are dealing with a divisive political issue or a personal crisis at home.
Christ calls us not only into right relationship with God, but also with each other. In our baptism, we are marked as Christians and we are set apart, not to live isolated from the world, but to live within the world, spreading the good news of the gospel to anyone who will listen. If we want to know what God is like, we simply need to look at the way Jesus carried out his earthly ministry.
Jesus extended grace for sinners, he expressed joy in the presence of children, he offered healing compassion for those who hurt, and love for the lonely, whether left out or left behind. He had impatience toward leaders who were inflexible and intolerant, and he tended to offer fresh starts and second chances to people who had clearly strayed from their moral upbringing—in all these and in countless other ways, we are given a glimpse of the very heart of the Creator. As Paul says, "Jesus is the image of the invisible God."
In verse 24 Paul refers to "his body, that is, the church." This phrase challenges the church to do what Jesus did. The word Christian actually implies the same challenge, for it literally means "little Christ." If we are Christians, then by definition we should do what Jesus did.
Paul says we are to be “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” (vs. 22-23 NRSV). In short, our witness to the world is to be Christlike. Let us pray…
Lord, we are not ashamed of the gospel; we realize that it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, and you have led us here so that we can learn it and make it a part of who we are. Bless us with understanding and help us to trust you to bring about that salvation in your own way, in your own time. Surround us with your loving presence and give us the courage to turn away from evil so that we will not be tempted beyond our ability to resist. Strengthen us with your Holy Spirit so that we can lead others to do the same. Reveal to us, Lord, what we need to do to be more Christ-like, and be with us as we encounter the world. We pray these things in Christ’s name. Amen.
As you go out into the world today, go knowing that Jesus loves you. Distinguish yourself as a Christian, not by what you do, but by what you don’t do, and share Christ’s love with every person that you meet.