Paul or Osteen?

A sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber at Christ Church Seikokai, on August 9, 2015.

Last night, some 40,000 people went to AT&T Park to be inspired.  The San Francisco Chronicle headlined it:  “Preaching pep in a troubled world, Joel Osteen comes to AT&T Park.”  And the paper went on to say,  “On Saturday, he expects to sell out AT&T Park, preaching his power-of-positive-thinking message to some 40,000 fans . . . The Bible will be quoted and Jesus will be mentioned — but it won’t be a church service,  Osteen said. The subject of sin probably won’t even come up. . . . Each month,” the paper continued, “14 million Americans from a range of faiths and backgrounds tune in for Osteen’s 30-minute pep talks, sermons sprinkled with a few religious references — absent hellfire and brimstone. His popularity is a testament to a public Osteendrawn to an enticing if debatable mantra: Think like a successful, happy person and you’ll be one.”

If you study American history, you find again and again waves of revival and big name preachers: Jonathan Edwards, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham,  Norman Vincent Peale – here in California there was Aimee Semple McPherson  and Robert Shuller. I grew up in upstate New York in what they called “The Burned Over District” because every new wave of revival  seemed to burn through that area and leave people exhausted afterwards.  That seems to happen in the world  of popular evangelism.  The Chrystal Cathedral went bankrupt when Shuller died.

But, you see, that’s the problem.  Osteen preaches to inspire people and we all need some inspiration. Some get it from a rock concert;  I get it watching the New York Mets. But what happens afterwards?  You have to ask that because no one can have an emotional high  all the time. The party, the game, the concert, the revival  comes to an end.  Afterward we need a structure, a discipline, a pattern that holds us and guides us  in the ordinary and uninspiring events that make up most of our lives.  Osteen’s church in Texas  seats 56,000 –  that’s twice as many people  as there are Episcopalians  in the whole Diocese of California. But what are they there for?  And what do they do  when the inspiration wears off?

We’ve been reading through the Epistle to the Ephesians  this summer,  and the author – who might be St Paul  and might be someone else who thinks like Paul –  never has much to say about inspiration. He talks about grace, he talks about the free gift of God, he talks about the inward power of grace  that might be felt as inspiration but might not be felt at all but still enables us to live as Christians,  as followers of Jesus.

I wonder how often people choose a church because of its theology?  I wonder how many people think about whether the church they go to has a gospel of grace or a gospel of law? But one of the most enduring and divisive misunderstandings in the Christian church  is the idea that the church is about laws  rather than grace. Now, I think if you ask the average Christian for an opinion on whether the church is  about  laws or grace,  if they have an opinion, they would probably opt for grace.  But that’s theology.  That’s when they’re thinking about it. At a practical level, I really doubt grace would win.

It starts with church school. Do parents bring children to church school to learn faith or behavior? to believe in God or learn to behave?  And do they ever, I wonder, check the church school curriculum to see what it is, in fact, that the children are being taught?  There is a difference. I remember meeting a new parishioner years ago who was hired to teach the kindergarten class  in a parish day school of another denomination and she told me that the teacher’s manual on page one said this (I’ve never forgotten it):  “Every child is born in sin and must be made  aware of this from the earliest time.”  Well, that’s one approach. And if you want behavior emphasized, and law emphasized, that’s probably where you’d find it.

The epistles of Paul are not like that.  They always begin with a proclamation of grace and love.  Often “grace is actually the very first word:  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father  and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Even if he’s about to lay them out in lavender,  he speaks first of grace. Because that IS the gospel: the gospel is good news about love  and it’s about freedom. The PaulPauline epistles usually  get around to behavior toward the end – sometimes not much after the middle –  but always in a context of love and grace and forgiveness.

What Paul has to say is radical and it’s risky.  He says God has “abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”  We read that three weeks ago. But suppose you woke up one morning and turned on the television  and learned that  the small government people  had taken over the Congress  and abolished all the laws and regulations and were counting on all of us to behave nicely toward one another  from now on.  Would you dare to go outdoors?  Well, of course, the small government people have guns to keep them safe.  But we’re not talking about government law,  we’re talking about the pattern we freely adopt  to guide us – church on Sunday,  daily prayer, giving to charity,  helping those in need.

The Jewish law, of course, was much more complex – still is for the ultra-orthodox – and I can just imagine how a lot of Jewish people felt back in Paul’s time when they heard a gospel about being  free from the law.  Paul was horrified when he first heard it and so were lots of others. What security would there be without the law? How would you know who was Jewish  and who wasn’t?  who belonged to God and who didn’t?  Abolish the law with its commandments? How would you know how to behave?  What could you now get away with?

The Biblical answer is love is sufficient:  love and faith and grace.  But even Christians have been very reluctant  to give it a try. I mean, I can obviously get along without the law myself,  but what about other people?  Could I really trust my neighbor that far,  or the people across town, or in the next town, or the next country?  It’s a great idea, but will it work?  Or to put it another way,  can we really trust God?  Back in Jesus’ time they had a law and when they studied the law they could answer every question  about God’s will:  how far you can walk on a sabbath day; how much you need to do for your parents  to meet the legal requirement; when you need to wash your hands.  The Pharisees had it all figured out  and if you wanted a well-behaved child that the neighbors would approve of  you would certainly send him to the Pharisees for a schooling.  There were Christians, too, right from the beginning who doubted anything else would work. Peter and Paul had a major fight on the subject. But they decided to give it a try. And they did.  But it didn’t last.  It didn’t take very long for Christians to agree  that it’s just easier to have rules.  Whether it’s fish on Friday  or playing cards on the sabbath  or drinking alcoholic beverages, Christians of every sort have fallen back sooner or later  into the legal mind-set.

People tell me that the churches that are growing are the ones with answers and rules.  Of course.  Make life simple. Give people a sense of security;  easy answers; clear guidelines.  But is it Christianity or is it something else?  I’ll say this for Joel Osteen:  he doesn’t talk much about laws; much more about feelings.

I think the current controversies  in the Episcopal Church  are fundamentally about law and grace.  The one side sees the Bible as a rule book  and somehow thinks  that human sexual behavior can be governed by laws  even if the laws were made in a time that had never heard of the actual situation we face today,  even if the people who make other people crazy are faithful, deeply committed Christians. There will always be some who find law easier and especially when dealing with something new and something out of their direct experience  and something that challenges them to think again about questions they thought had been  settled long ago. It is frightening; it’s risky; laws are always safer.

I would guess that every human society has tried the same thing.  Especially when you’re facing something as powerful and emotionally overwhelming  as sexual behavior,  when it comes to sex,  we tend to think that you’d better have rigid rules  or who knows what might happen?  And of course we do need rules and guidelines – I’m not saying we don’t  –  every society needs laws, but that’s not what Christianity is fundamentally about.  Governments are forever trying to get the church to bless its laws  and teach obedience, but then someone goes and reads the Bible – sometimes, you know, the church has even forbidden people to do that – but someone does it anyway and finds all this stuff about abolishing the law and being set free in Christ  and they take it seriously and then there’s trouble.  Because if you are free to question the laws  there are bound to be differences of opinion  and arguments and disagreements and controversy –  and who wants that?  No one.

The letters Paul wrote are always  having to deal with such issues. People would write to him and ask: What about marriage?  What about this food and that?  What about wearing hats in church and long hair and meat offered to idols  and praying on certain days?     Sometimes Paul actually does suggest some answers, but mostly just so as to keep the peace  and not to offend the neighbors.  But always he persists in trying to show people a new way, a way based on love, a way that trusts God’s grace.

Look carefully at this morning’s reading from Ephesians. There’s lots of stuff about behavior, but notice how it’s grounded always not in law but in grace,  not in conforming to rules but conforming to Christ.  Remember how it begins? “So then, putting away falsehood,  let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.”  Now, that’s a good rule; lying is wrong.  But why?  Is it because of the ninth commandment?  No: that’s not what Paul says. He says it’s because “we are members of one another.”  We have a unity in Christ that makes falsehood impossible.  Would you lie to Jesus?  That’s who your neighbor is.  And then he says, “Thieves must give up stealing” and work honestly.” Well, yes, of course.  But why? Is it because of the 8th Commandment?  No, Paul never mentions it. He says we should work honestly  “so as to have something  to share with the needy.”  Paul says we should  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another.”  Why is that?  You might guess it’s because of the sixth commandment. “You shall do no murder;”  you shall not let anger get out of control.  No, Paul’s letters never appeal  to any of the laws and commandments as a basis for action, but we need to be forgiving because we’ve been forgiven. Law is no longer the basis for action. God’s love is the basis, the foundation.

Paul says that we are called to  “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”  And yes, indeed, that’s risky.  Law-makers don’t like their security challenged.  Jesus was crucified; Paul was beheaded.  If you live by the law,  you can get rid of the trouble-makers.  So let’s be safe, let’s get back to the law that gives us the answers we want. But the gospel is still here and still causing trouble.

Love makes radical demands on us; it makes demands far more challenging than law. It asks us to think, to see things in the new light of Christ, to be changed from the inside out rather than from the outside in. And it leaves us without easy answers to the war in Afghanistan  or the state of the environment or the economy  or sexual relationships or any of the issues that face us;  and some Christians will see these things  one way and some another because grace is not a rule book  and human beings – even Christians – are slow learners  and reluctant still to test our freedom.  But again and again in the readings in recent weeks we have heard what the priorities are: to know ourselves to be a new people – in Christ – in Christ –  living in love, depending on the Spirit. And offering others the same forbearance we want them to offer us. Patience, charity, humility, forgiveness, meekness, gentleness;  these words and others like them  have come up again and again in these readings in recent weeks.  God loves us so much that we are given a vision of people  who find their unity  and their strength for daily living in the grace that produces these qualities  in human lives  and that looks for them here –  right here – looks to see that grace and that faith here, in you and in me.

And what that depends on, Paul tells us, is grace:  not emotional highs, but a daily infusion of grace.  In my research on Joel Osteen  I went to his web site and found two interesting statements: – water baptism is a symbol of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ and a testimony to our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  …  the regular taking of Communion is an act of remembering what the Lord Jesus did for us on the cross.  But check that against the Prayer Book  and you find something very different: you find language not about symbols and remembering but about a gift of grace, not about remembering but receiving – and it’s not an emotional high  but when we come to the altar today we’re given a gift that makes a difference, that sustains us daily;  undramatically, yes, but in a way that leaves us not burned out  but strengthened and renewed and enabled to serve God day by day.

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