A second Sunday in our summer Sundays “home away from home” here at the Hicks Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. It is good to be here, to continue to enjoy the neighborly hospitality of our PTS friends, and to have this sacramental opportunity to read scripture and sing and pray together. Checking the latest photos of our church renovations out in the entry, and with the prayer that as wonderful old St. Andrew’s is being renewed this summer, beginning with the new floor in the nave and the accessible passageway from the North Transept to the Parish House, so we also might with open eyes and ears and minds and hearts also find this a season of personal and corporate renewal and transformation.
And to say again this week, thank you for coming to this service in this new place, and as we move on into the days of summer, may this be a season of blessings and refreshment.
Last week we listened to St. Paul in the opening sentences of his letter to the Galatian churches. And you’ll remember I wanted to post up as a guiding thematic lead the quotation attributed to Steven Covey, who wrote “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” This great line, certainly memorable: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. In this context Paul concerned that the message he had proclaimed to these new Christians about Jesus was being diluted and even undermined by people who were promoting the view that in addition to having faith in and loyalty to Christ these gentile Christians of Asia Minor also needed to observe the ceremonies and rituals of Judaism. Circumcision. Kosher dietary laws, the Sabbath, and so on. With the idea I guess that the better you got at these observances, the more deserving you would be of God’s grace. What you need in order to be “first class” Christians.
This idea Paul absolutely opposes. He calls it an effort to “pervert the gospel of Christ,” turning to a “different gospel.” And in the following section this morning we can see that he uses his own life story as an example. Describing himself as “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age,” and “zealous for the tradition of my ancestors.” And then giving an account of how all of that had made him not a friend of God, but an enemy, “violently persecuting the church of God.” Until that great moment that we call the “Road to Damascus” moment. Paul had no desire to know Christ. He wasn't seeking him in the scriptures, praying for illumination. Quite the opposite. And yet out there on that highway while he was burning with fury as God’s enemy, Jesus came to meet him, to address him by name. To "knock him off his horse" and set him in a new direction. To reveal to him the reality of God’s presence and power and the purpose of his own life, his vocation. “Through his grace” he “was pleased to reveal his Son to me.”
I like the J.B. Phillips translation of Paul from the third chapter of the Letter to the Philippians, written to another church on a similar topic of concern: “Yet every advantage that I had gained I considered lost for Christ’s sake. Yes, and I look upon everything as loss compared with the overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. For now my place is in him, and I am not dependent upon any of the self-achieved righteousness of the Law. God has given me that genuine righteousness which comes from faith in Christ.”
The richness of this contrast. “The overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” And every other claim to holiness, righteousness, spiritual authority, religious prestige. All his theological education, his zeal for good works. “Useless rubbish.” And for these brand new Christians of the Galatian churches, vulnerable, easy to be diverted. Led astray. To be led not deeper into a life-giving relationship with Christ, but instead into these complicated rites and ceremonies that give the illusion of spirituality and holiness and righteousness while in reality leading away from the one thing the Spirit has truly to give. The life of Jesus, his death, his one oblation of himself, once offered. The Cross. The empty tomb. The Spirit’s invitation to the New Creation.
Last week at the beginning of Luke 7 we saw the slave of the Roman centurion restored to health so far as we can tell even before he ever had heard of Jesus. This morning, the mother of that dead young man is marching with her tears in the sad parade of mourners to the cemetery, when a stranger steps out of the crowd and says “weep no more,” and brings her son to life again. She didn't even ask. His love comes first.
There is just something very seductive for us about the image of the spiritual quest. Climbing toward the mountaintop. Working our way into God’s presence. Perhaps it gives us a sense of control.
But again, Paul in Romans, in the very familiar passage. “While we were yet lost in our sin, Christ died for us” Pure gift. To keep that fresh, in our minds, our hearts. Emphasize that for us on this summer Sunday. Again, if we love him, as we do if we're here this morning. Which is why we are here this morning. We love him because he first loved us.
The words of the Psalm: You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Christian life not about the one whom we find in our imagined journey up to some mountaintop, but about the one who finds us as we are wandering lost in the dark of night. This is his nature. The angel said, you shall call his name Emmanuel, which means God with us.” Remember what we read together way last Christmas Eve with those flickering midnight candles all around: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” About that great moment of amazement, gratitude, relief. All those things I used to think were so important fade into nothing. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
Speaking of Christmas Eve and Emmanuel, and just as a parting note as we prepare for communion, perhaps you've noticed that during December our friends down Hampton Street at St. Raphael’s in Morningside have a big sign out in front of their church right next to the nativity scene that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Always a good reminder in December, with the deluge of seasonal customs and festivities, holiday parties and reindeer and all the rest. But we might think about how great it would be to leave that sign up all year round. Never not a good reminder. The reason for the season, Jesus, the main thing, summer and fall, winter and spring. Why we’re here on this summer Sunday morning.