“What Jesus Means To Me”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 11, 2015
Amos 5:6-15 & Hebrews 4:12-16
Today I’m going to take a cue from the writer of Hebrews and tell you what Jesus means to me. I’m not going to lecture you on proper Christian living or responsible Christian ethics; I’m not going to talk to you about the necessity of prayer or even how you should be reading your Bible more often than you look at an electronic device. Instead, I’m simply going to do what the writer of Hebrews does and tell you what Jesus means to me. If that other stuff comes up along the way, so be it.
Jesus means freedom to me. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in the church like ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness', and in doing so it sort of loses its meaning. When I say that Jesus means freedom to me, I’m talking about freedom that releases me from bondage to ego and self-centeredness, that releases me from the mind-numbing belief that I am the center of the universe and that the rise and fall of said universe rests squarely on my feeble shoulders. The freedom that Jesus breaks open on my life does not somehow unplug the ego or turn me into a machine of self-loathing. Rather, the freedom that I enjoy in my relationship with Jesus invites me to step out of the small room of ‘me’ in order to live in the broad and deep and wide world of God.
The gospel of Luke records a beautiful and fascinating exchange between Jesus and the disciples in chapter twelve. Jesus begins by saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing”. He goes on to say, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”. In the mix of all this, Jesus utters a gem that really speaks to modern day life: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”.
Jesus is offering freedom here, to the first disciples and to disciples throughout all time. When you wake up in the morning, Jesus says, don’t let your first thought be about what you are going to eat or how food will arrive on the table. When you wake up in the morning, Jesus says, don’t let your first thought be about your outfit for the day or how that outfit may or may not accent your least favorite body part. When you wake up in the morning, Jesus says, let your first thought be about God, not about yourself. Let your waking thoughts be about birds and plants and flowers—-they don’t do a lick of work for the food or beauty they enjoy, yet God still provides for them. And if God provides for them, God will provide for you, the fearfully and wonderfully made, and valuable, image of God that you are. Turning from an inward concentration on me to outward wonder and trust and awe of God, that is freedom, and that is what Jesus means to me.
Jesus means judgement to me, and also forgiveness, and there never be one without the other.
The Sermon on The Mount that is recorded in Matthew 5 begins with The Beatitudes, the graceful blessings on those who are poor, meek, hungry and thirsty, those who have been persecuted. Each is blessed because their current situation will be reversed by God…wonderful! But later on in the Sermon on The Mount, Jesus gets tough, with judgments, that begin with, “You have heard it was said…”. The first of these is this: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement. But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire”. And there are a lot of these. With each, “You have heard that it was said…” Jesus pronounces judgment on those who murder, insult, steal, commit adultery, divorce just because they want to, and swear oaths.
One of these judgments bugs me. Jesus says, “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…”. This judgement bugs me because it is just so dang hard to show love to people who have hurt me or wrong me or persecute me in some way. Jesus isn’t asking me to try and love my enemies, or fake it until I make it; he is telling me that I have to love them if I am his disciple. Otherwise, his judgment is on me.
I found it hard to show love this past week when in one day, on Friday, there were three separate incidents of violence on college campuses in Texas and Kentucky. None of these had a direct impact on my life—I was not injured, nor was anyone I personally know injured. But the anger and frustration felt across our nation welled up inside me. I’m angry that somewhere along the line we have lost respect and dignity for life at any age. I’m angry that somewhere along the line people are getting hurt, God’s people are getting hurt, and those people are turning to violence as a solution. I’m frustrated that these incidents fuel politics instead of honest compassion that seeks out solutions. I’m frustrated and angry and sad, and frankly scared, that such a thing could happen in the place that I call home. I have no love here for my enemies, I have no prayers for the persecutors. All I have is anger and frustration and fear and the judgement of Jesus because I can’t do what he is asking me to do.
But this is why forgiveness is always the close companion of judgment. Peter came to Jesus one day and asked, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”. Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”. Peter probably thought that was high but still doable, that he could stop forgiving people after a certain amount of time. Jesus had something else in mind. By using a number so much higher than the original seven, Jesus was making a point: the forgiveness we offer to one another should always be in a much higher quantity than we originally think. And why is that? Why should we have to offer so much more forgiveness than we would like? Because that is how God acts towards us. God forgives us in a much more frequent and abundant way that we could ever imagine or deserve.
So when my anger over the school violence on Friday subsided, and I calmed down after learning that there have been 52 incidents of school violence in 2015, I asked for forgiveness. I was judged by Christ's demand that I love my enemies because I could not do it, so I asked to be forgiven. I asked to be forgiven because I had no love or prayers to offer. I believe I was forgiven just by asking. The forgiveness of Christ says, “Alright, Andrew, you got that out of your system. Now, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to let me do about it?”.
The trouble with anger and frustration and fear, about anything, is that it is so terribly unproductive. One modern Christian writer likens it to drinking rat poison with the expectation that the rat will die. But its natural. Its natural to get angry with these things, to be frustrated with the slow progress of finding solutions, to be afraid. It does not get us anywhere, though, it does not get me anywhere. So Christ pronounces judgement on me, and offers abundant forgiveness when I ask. Judged and forgiven, I am free to seek solutions, to be a solution, to pray and love and take part in God’s transformation of the world...that is what Jesus means to me.
And very much connected to this, to the freedom and judgement and forgiveness that comes to me in knowing Christ, my relationship with Jesus means that I can do something good, I can make a difference, I can really be an active and important part of God’s transformation of the world.
In the wake of the terrible flooding in the Carolina’s, and despite a rivalry that runs deeps and long, Louisiana State University did some amazing things leading up to their game with South Carolina this weekend. Because the destruction has been so bad, and because so many people in South Carolina have been displaced and lost their homes, LSU has rolled out the red carpet to their rivals to make Louisiana feel a little like home. Included in this red carpet treatment? LSU provided transportation to the Gamecocks, at no cost, on charter planes that will take the team to and from Baton Rouge. The marching band at LSU played USC’s alma mater and the Gamecock’s fight song. All of the proceeds from the game will be given to USC’s athletic department, and LSU allowed the Red Cross to collect donations for flooding victims outside Tiger Stadium. The LSU student government ceremonially gave USC the keys to Tiger Stadium, and LSU provided a free pregame tailgate for fans from both teams. There was a moment of silence before the game started to remember South Carolina’s flooding victims, and billboards all over Baton Rouge welcomed USC to town.
This challenges me and reminds me, just as I said, that my life as a disciple of Jesus can and does and must make a difference in God’s kingdom. I don’t have the money or the resources to do something this grand; I don’t know if LSU’s actions even came from a Christian perspective. What I do know, and what I do have, is this belief and knowledge that the God who created and blessed my life, who loves me when I am lovable or not, pushes me out into the world to make it, in whatever way I can, a little more like heaven.
Throughout his ministry and preaching, Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near”. At times, it is hard to see that. It is hard to see and believe that God’s peaceful and lovely kingdom has come among us. But in Jesus it did…and it continues to do so. Jesus also urged the disciples throughout his ministry to be salt and light and yeast, to season the world, to shine light in the darkness, to bring levity to an otherwise flat existence. In the ordinary times, and when it is most difficult to see God's kingdom all around, Jesus wants me to be a part of God’s kingdom here on earth. None of it is tied up with money or with advanced degrees or social status or power; the ways that Jesus calls me to be salt and light and yeast are small. To give a cup a water to someone who is thirsty; to offer food to someone who is hungry; to shelter those who are without; to bring clothes to the naked and compassion to the suffering, the widow, and the orphan. The ways that I live my Christian faith in the world are small, but the effects, the results, are profound. As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”.
Jesus means these things to me: freedom, judgement and forgiveness, purpose and meaning. And he means so much more to me each day I am alive. I have been a Christian my entire life: baptized before a tooth cut through my gums, raised in a Christian household, called to be a minister in the church. Yet each day, with every breath I take and with every experience I have, Jesus comes to mean more and more to me. Jesus is not just some character I read about in a book, who stays static with the passing of time. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is God’s living embodiment of love and mercy and compassion who never leaves my side. Jesus is the lord of my life, the savior of my soul, the friend and companion I need and want on the journey of my life.
This is what Jesus means to me. What does he mean to you? Consider your relationship with him today, renew it, commit to it once again, invite him into your life. Hold fast to your confession in him, and have hope because he is holding fast to you. Amen.