Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Family Resemblance

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 & Matthew 5:38-48 for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)

Put me in a room full of Ruffins and it is clear that I belong; I look like a Ruffin. Put my children beside me and it is clear that they belong to me; they look a lot like me and a lot like my parents. But—I am not just like all the other Ruffins, not even my Father—and I don’t want to be. And—my children are not just like I am and, believe it or not, they don’t want to be. In fact, my father would not want me to be just like he was and I don’t want my children to be just like I am.

Parents are proud of any family resemblance, of course, but good parents want our children to take the best of what we give them and to make the most of it and to take the worst of what we give them and to overcome it or to dispose of it. I am speaking of things mental and moral and emotional and spiritual.

“So let no one boast about human leaders,” Paul wrote to that congregation at Corinth that was tearing itself apart through its divided allegiances to this leader or that one. He continued, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

“You are settling,” Paul told the Corinthians and also us, “for far too little. You settle for an allegiance to this person or that one when your allegiance should be to God. You settle for following Paul or Apollos or Peter when you should be following God. You act like you belong to a human being when in fact you belong to Christ who in turn belongs to God which, of course, means that you belong to God. You act like something as passing and fleeting as a human leader is so terribly important when in fact God means for everything—for all of life, for all the world, for this age, for the age to come, and even for death—to be to your advantage and for your good.”

As William Barclay put it, “The man who gives his life, his strength, his energy, his heart to some little splinter of a party has surrendered everything to a petty thing, when he could have entered into possession of a fellowship and a love which is as wide as the universe. He has confined into narrow limits a life which should be limitless in its outlook.” [William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), p. 40]

How do we surrender everything to petty things? How do we confine our life to narrow places when God intends for our lives to be limitless in their outlook?

We settle for far too little in our lives as Christians. When we settle for loyalty to a program over loyalty to God Almighty, we settle for far too little. When we settle for participation in a clique or a faction or a denomination over participation in the great communion of all the saints, we settle for far too little. When we settle for surface-level dabbling in the things of the faith over immersion in the great good news of God, we settle for far too little. When we settle for just enough grace to get by over the abundance of grace that God makes available to help us live a glorious life and die a glorious death, we settle for far too little.

Our Father in heaven and Jesus our brother want us to look like, to think like, and to live like the members of their family that we in fact are!

And so Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples and to us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Look like your heavenly Father; show some family resemblance,” he was saying.

We let the word “perfect” scare us. “Surely,” we say, “Jesus doesn’t really expect us to be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect.” After all, we have all heard that God is light with no shade of darkness and we all know how full of shadows we are. After all, we have all heard that God is holy and that sin cannot abide in the presence of a holy God and we all know how much sin abides in us. After all, we have all heard that the Bible elsewhere says that no one is perfect and we would all rather cling in hope to that affirmation from Paul that we no one can be perfect than accept this challenge from the Lord Jesus that we become perfect.

It might at first thought help us to hear that the word translated in our English Bibles as “perfect” really has the meaning of “whole” or “sound” or “complete” but then on second thought we realize just who fragmented and unsound and incomplete we tend to be—and so we’re back where we started.

So I ask you: would Jesus have laid the challenge before us were it not possible for us to live up to the challenge?

Understand this: Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are based on the fact that in Jesus Christ—in his life, his teachings, his healings, his death, and his resurrection—the kingdom of God has come. And if the kingdom of God has come then we who are the children of God have the opportunity to look and think and speak and act, more and more as time goes by, like our heavenly Father—not because of who we are or what we can do but because of who God is and what God can do.

Now, whenever we read the Bible we should be mindful of the context. Jesus has just said those amazing things about how we who follow him are to be, amazing things about turning the other cheek and giving more than someone asks of you and going the second mile. And he topped it all off by saying that most amazing thing: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).

The bottom line, then, is that we are to look like our heavenly Father, that we are to demonstrate a family resemblance to our heavenly Father, in the ways that we come more and more to love other people in miraculous and amazing ways because, after all, that’s the way that our heavenly Father loves and our heavenly Father passes along that spiritual trait to us. We don’t get it all at one time necessarily but we can and should be growing into it more and more as we live more and more of our lives.

Imagine that you’re at a family reunion being hosted by God the Father for his children and by God the Son for his brothers and sisters. Would there be enough family resemblance for people to know you’re truly related? Or would you look like an in-law?...

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