Romans and Christians

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May 13, 2018. How do we as Christians live in a society that is so politicized? That is so anxious? That is so materialistic? That tells us again and again that we should look out for ourselves first? How do we live out our lives as children of God? How do we live in the world and for the world without being of the world? Pastor Penny takes on these questions today and offers some thoughts. Jesus gives us all we need.


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We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


As some of the people in the congregation know from their own experience, one game that is played at Confirmation Camp, probably every year, is called Romans and Christians. In this game the counselors, and many other adults that happen to be around, make makeshift togas out of bed sheets and they have spears that are cardboard with foil wrapped around, and then they wander around a very large area in this large camp looking for Christians.


If they find Christians then they take them to jail or prison — a special building on the grounds. They are re-enacting the persecution that the early church suffered at the hands of Rome. The Christians, of course, are the campers. So their first goal is to avoid the Romans, and avoid them long enough, to find the underground church, which will be hidden in some Grove of trees somewhere with a candle that’s lit. Once they find that area, they’re safe from the Romans.


But safety isn’t the only goal of the Christians. Once they get to the underground church where they’re safe, then they are encouraged to think about those other Christians wandering out there who haven’t found the church and are still in danger, and to willingly leave the safety of the church and go out and bring them in.


There’s still a higher goal for these campers as Christians, and that is to consider that once they are in the safety of the church, they might leave it. Not for the other Christians, but to willingly interact with the Romans and possibly, in conversation, convince the Romans to become Christian, and then they would all go to the safety of the church.


And you know, even today churches do have a sense of an aura of safety about them. I think this church in particular, with its big stone walls. We feel that we are leaving day-to-day life for maybe a more sacred, safer place than arched doorways, and the stained glass windows all remind us of that. And of course that’s good. You know, we need to on a regular basis extract ourselves from the everyday concerns and spend time here together, hearing the word, praying, receiving Holy Communion, and being sent out as those campers were with the faith into the world.


Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Minneapolis had a fire a number of years ago. It’s a church that’s bigger than ours, but similar, with stained glass windows. When they rebuilt or remodeled, the stained glass windows had been destroyed. And rather than replacing them with new stained glass windows, they replaced them with plate glass, clear glass. So the front of the church is a clear window. And so while they are hearing the word and singing and coming up and receiving communion, they are seeing city buses drive by and people walking their dogs and people biking by and homeless people. So they are always aware that they’re being nurtured to be sent out to bring that love to the world.


Well, it occurred to me that the game of Romans and Christians would be quite different if the Romans didn’t wear costumes. Because you wouldn’t know who was who then, at least not from a distance. You wouldn’t know where the Christians were, who the Romans were, and Christians would be very tempted to just blend in with the Romans for safety’s sake.


And I think that is our challenge today. Just on the radio this morning, I did hear of Christians being killed in other parts of the world, but in general we are not being persecuted the way the Romans for 300 years persecuted Christians in the early church. We are not taken to jails. We are not forced to fight gladiators and lions. And that is exactly the problem for us because we are in a position to be tempted to blend in.


You don’t really know who’s a Christian or isn’t a Christian in this world. Unless you’re a priest and you wear your clerical to the grocery store as some pastors do, you don’t know. And so this world, rather than persecuting us, is much more likely to ignore us and leave us alone. We can blend in. But that’s the problem. There is a greater danger in blending in than in being persecuted physically, because while we won’t lose our physical lives, we can lose something even more precious: our identity, our soul.


It is very easy to blend in with the values of our society. To not say anything. For instance, when a friend makes a racial slur. Or to join with the media when they demonize one political party or the other. It’s so tempting to feel inferior around people who are attractive, gifted, and successful by the standards of our society


And I think it’s very easy for us to feel anxious for ourselves or a family member if they don’t get into the right class. If they don’t get into the right team. If they don’t get the right career that would ensure their future happiness. As if God doesn’t have promises of happiness and joy for us in our futures.


The writer of the Gospel of John really thought the world was dangerous. While you read in John that God loved the world, John also says the world is enslaved by the evil one. And that is exactly our challenge. How do we as Christians live in a society that is so politicized? That is so anxious? That is so materialistic? That tells us again and again that we should look out for ourselves first? How do we live out our lives as children of God? How do we live in the world and for the world without being of the world?


Well, that’s why we have the gospel that we have today, because Jesus says I will help you. And the first way Jesus promises to help is to give us a name. A name that sets us apart and a name that protects us. His name: Christian. We get that name when we are christened and baptized, and in baptism a seed is planted. We are given Jesus’ identity. We are given his value. We are given his power. And that seed has DNA in it that, all through our lives, as we water it and nurture it spiritually, we grow and flower and are able to live out our identity as Christians, even in this world. So Jesus gives us the name.


The other thing Jesus gives us is, he makes us one. He gives us Christian Community. The Presbyterian USA church is having their biennial convention in St. Louis this summer, and they expect there’ll be about 5,000 people attending. So they’ve told the Presbyterian churches in our area: we want you to be prepared to host on Sunday morning some of these attendees.


Well, one church is small, predominantly white, and they were a little apprehensive. How will our guests feel? Will they be disappointed if they outnumber us in worship, we’re so small? So they looked to a neighboring church, which happened to be predominantly African American, and said let’s co-host. But then it became clear that if they were going to both work together to be inviting people, they needed to know one another. So they have set up a number of events this spring to become one community.


God has strange ways of making us into one community. And it’s not just that there’s strength in numbers. It’s that when we are in community — especially with Christians who don’t always see things the way we do, especially with people who come from a different background — we grow. We grow in our strength. We grow in our ability to maintain our Christian identity.


So Jesus gives us a name and he gives us community. And the last thing we see in the gospel today is that he holds up the power of prayer. Now, you may have recognized the fact that the whole gospel today is a prayer. Jesus is praying to his Heavenly Father for the disciples, who are listening in. And if you’ve ever been in that situation where someone prays for you, sometimes even you didn’t expect it and there you are hearing them pray for you. It’s a very uplifting experience. So I want to read a few verses that come right after our gospel lesson. Toward the end of Jesus’ prayer he says to the Heavenly Father, “I ask not only on behalf of these,” his disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word that they may be won.” And then he explains this a little later on when he says, “I in them and you and me, Father, that they may become completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”


In the gospel today, Jesus is not only praying for the disciples. He is praying for us. And we know from Romans 8 that he continues to pray for us and be our advocate at the throne of God throughout our lives.


It is not easy to live out our values as Christians in our society, but we have nothing less than the power of God through the prayer of Christ to protect us and to empower us to carry this love out into the world.




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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, Pastor Penny Holste, transcript