Sunday, January 16, 2022

What Is The Church? #JesusFollowers

A Christian church is a body of men and women united together in a common desire of religious excellence, and with a common regard for Jesus of Nazareth, regarding him as the noblest example of morality and religion - as the model, therefore, in this respect, for us.

The action of a Christian church seems to be twofold: first on its own members, and then, through their means, on others out of its pale.

Let a word be said of each. If I were to ask you why you came here today why you have often come to this house hitherto - the serious amongst you would say: That we might become better; more human; upright before God and downright before others, that we might be Christians, good and pious, after the fashion Jesus spoke of. 

The essential of substance, which makes a church a religious body, is the union for the purpose of cultivating love to God and humanity; and the essential of form, which makes it a Christian body, is the common regard for Jesus, considered as the highest representative of God that we know. 

It is not the form, either of ritual or of doctrine, but the spirit, which constitutes a Christian church.

The first design of such a church then is to help ourselves become Christians. Now the substance of Christianity is Piety - Love to God, and Goodness - Love to others. 

It is a religion, the germs whereof are born in our hearts, appearing in our earliest childhoods, which are developed just in proportion as we become adults, and are indeed the standard measure of our lives.

Christianity, to be perfect and entire, demands a complete humanity, the development of the whole person - mind, conscience, heart, and soul. 

It aims not to destroy the sacred peculiarities of individual character. It cherishes and develops them in their perfection.

We are born different, into a world where unlike things are gathered together, that there may be a special work for each.

Christianity respects this diversity in us, aiming not to undo but further God's will; not fashioning all people after one pattern, to think alike, act alike, be alike, even look alike. It is something far different than Christianity which demands that.

In becoming Christians let us not cease to be human; nay, we cannot be Christians unless we are human first. It were unchristian to love Christianity better than the truth, or Christ better than humanity.

The noblest monument to Christ, the fairest trophy of religion, is a noble people, where all are well fed and clad, industrious, free, educated, manly, pious, wise, and good.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Theodore Parker, ca. 1840.)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

What God Gives Us Lasts Forever #JesusFollowers

All truth is permanent. It can never pass away. The heart and mind cling with passionate love to all realized truth, and will hold it, even if mixed with error.

The miner who has found a nugget of gold holds it firmly, though it is mixed with earth and debris. He will not let it go until you can separate the earth and alloy, and leave the gold pure. So religious people cling to doctrines a thousand times over proved to be false and absurd, not because they love falsehood, but because they love the truth with which that error is mixed.

Mere logic cannot make them let go of the doctrine by any argument or ridicule. They will not relinquish it until someone comes who can see the truth in the error, and give them that truth in a purer form. Then they let the error go. This was what Jesus did. He took into the Gospel all that was true in Judaism.

Jesus was the greatest and boldest reformer who ever lived. To him the Jewish Temple was nothing, the Jewish Sabbath was nothing: human beings were the true temple, human good was the only reason for the Sabbath; and the pure in heart saw God. And yet Jesus, so much of a reformer, so radical in all things, said he came not to destroy, and that nothing would pass from the law until all was fulfilled. He took up all the truth of the past into the present, and carried it on into the future.

When God gives us love, he gives it forever. Superficial sympathies, based on accident, proximity, or common interests of the hour, are fleeting, but the love which sees what is best in us, and cares for that, is something which cannot pass away. For this is like God's love. He is the God of the living, and loves the loving part our nature. And this human love attaches itself to the deepest, noblest, and best thing in us, and often discovers better things in us than we know ourselves.

If we love that which is best in each other, not the fleeting, though seducing, charm, but the truth and sincerity and earnest feeling in each other's souls, our love to each other helps, and does not hinder; if we make it vital and encourage it by conscience and faith, if we help each other to be nearer to truth, duty, and God, our love for each other becomes immortal.

Goodness, real goodness, is so much better than anything else that, if we ever have it, we cling to it always. A person who has done one generous act values it in his heart, more than all of life’s outward successes.

Jesus came from the obscurest corner of an obscure state, to be the light of the world. He taught a year, and died, and is the life of mankind. So it was seen that, when God gave Jesus to the human race, he gave us forever.

Jesus says, "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." That is, "to one who has my faith, my spirit, who trusts in the truth I teach, there is no such thing as death. God’s spirit which is in me, if it exist in you, will carry you upward and onward."

It is no magical influence which Jesus exercises on the soul. Faith in him is no talisman, but a moral power.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. James Freeman Clarke, 1886)

Sunday, January 2, 2022

God Gives Us Freedom of Choice! #JesusFollowers

God, our Creator, has created all of us with the awesome responsibility of the Freedom to Choose. The abilities and knowledge we inherit from God at our birth allow us to choose the Good, but has also left us with the ability to choose what is evil. It is in recognizing what is evil, and avoiding or repenting of it, then actively choosing the Good that we are considered Righteous by God.

In the Hebrew Bibles, and as taught by Jesus, God repeatedly tells us to "choose" and "obey" and that we will be judged according to our choices.

God, through Moses, said that His Law was “not too hard” so that we “could do it.” (Deut. 30:14) And God expected us to obey his moral commands, as Jesus repeated consistently. Jesus said that no one else would be charged with our disobedience, and no other would be responsible for our actions except ourselves.

In the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, we learn in the story of Adam and Eve how men were entrusted with a Freedom of Choice. The story portrays God as giving Adam and Eve the choice of not eating from a tree of knowledge and remaining in a Garden of innocence forever, or eating from it and eventually dying, and leaving to make his own way in the world.

They chose to leave, and were told by God to "Be fruitful and multiply." This choice, and that of Eve, affected no one but them. And note that Adam and Eve - created in God's image (Gen. 1:27) - were created to be perfect by God, they lived in a perfect world, yet were able to disobey God. It was God's design that humans have choice.

Sin cannot be inherited. Here's how we know: God told Adam's son, Cain (just one generation after Adam!) that he COULD avoid sin, and MUST do so to avoid punishment (Gen. 4:7.)

God didn’t respect Cain and his offering, "So Cain was very angry, and the expression on his face fell. And Yahweh said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires you, but you must rule over it." (Gen. 4:5b-8)

If he was morally able to freely choose to do Good, and "rule over" his temptation, so may we!

Only Cain was affected by his subsequent evil choice. The Bible teaches us that sins are acts, not THINGS. Sins are what we commit or avoid, not a thing we inherit, biologically.

This is why Ezekiel records: "The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Ezek. 18:19)

Just after the Exodus out of Egypt, Joshua told the Israelites to serve Yahweh their God, "in sincerity and in truth," and to "choose this day whom you will serve," (Joshua 24:14-15) Clearly, Joshua believed they could choose to faithfully serve God in sincerity and in truth.

The prophet Isaiah also clearly agreed with God that human beings were capable of choosing to, "reject the wrong and choose the right." (7:15)

Psalm 24 notes who may stand before God: "The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god." This strongly affirms our ability to obey God and seek to be righteous. If we cannot do these things, then literally no one would ever stand in God's presence. But that's not what the Bible teaches.

Psalm 25-27 are even more personal, with King David saying that he has (following repentance) led a clean life by choosing the righteous path. He had earlier written: "Yahweh dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me." (Psalm 18:20)

Jesus had high hopes for our moral abilities, and taught that we are to be, "perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) 

This same teacher - this human being chosen by God - said that he did all things that pleased God (John 8:29.)

He also said that we must follow him, doing ALL that he had done. (John 13:15; 14:12) Based on these teachings, we definitely have the ability to do great good, if we choose to do it. 

Choosing to do what's right can be hard sometimes, but that does not diminish our ability to do the good.

We have this God-given ability to seek Godliness, and we can become Godly and complete – not by ourselves without God or without God’s chosen example, but with God's ongoing help and with the example of Jesus always before us.

As we have seen here, it is NOT our inherited destiny to be "unable to not sin," and that we are not born so depraved that we may not choose what is good, and seek to do it. The scriptures teach that we may indeed choose NOT to sin.

Ecclesiasticus records the clearest statement of our freedom to choose, saying: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. For great is the wisdom of the Lord; He is mighty in power and sees everything; His eyes are on those who fear Him, and He knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and He has not given anyone permission to sin." (15:15-20)

It is God’s choice – His GRACE alone – whether we shall live with Him eternally. But it is up to us whether WE CHOOSE to seek this gift, and God says we demonstrate this choice by our actions.

We are called to commit our lives to obedience to God's chosen Son, Jesus, the Anointed Prophet of God, and submit to humbly walk with him, relying, as he taught, on God's grace and forgiveness and growing into the Righteous Perfection that God knows we are capable of achieving.

And while sin may be waiting by the door for us, seeking to master us, we are assured that we may indeed defeat – and master – sinful temptations.

This is amazingly good news, because it shows that our Creator knows us, and trusts us with the ability to act and choose to obey Him freely!

Through the teachings of Jesus, God shows us that He is a parent Who allows His children to make mistakes, repent, and turn back to doing what is right.

We should thank God, our Creator in Whose image we were created, for trusting us to make our own choices, and let’s pledge to always take that awesome responsibility seriously in all that we do in this new year.