Sermon
August 6, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran
MIDI music "Just as I Am, Without One Plea",  by Linda Risberg

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Scripture Readings

Ephesians 4:1-16     I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.   Therefore it is said,

"When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people."

(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)  The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (NRSV)

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You Must Be Born Again

 I remember a day in August about 16 years ago when our daughter Kathryn was just a baby.  My wife and I were driving from Vermont down to visit my parents in New York City for their anniversary and wanted to get something cold to drink as we passed through Glens Falls, New York.   The problem was that Kathryn had fallen asleep, which was a blessed event and which we did not want to prematurely disturb.  We were very near the entrance to the Northway, and if she could sleep all the way to Albany, that would be a good start to a good vacation.

 

So you weigh the options – quenching thirst or preserving quiet, which is the greater good.  We decided that we would not take the risk of stopping the car, but that Eileen would slowly circle the parking lot of the mini-mall while I, in the style of a Navy Seal dropping into the ocean off a speeding boat, I would dive out of the car, roll on the pavement, rush into the deli, and dive back in with some cold drinks.  The only thing we didn’t take into account was the Born-Again college students who would make it their mission that day to question me thoroughly about the state of my soul, my relationship with Jesus, and my eternal salvation.  And they weren’t taking “no” for an answer.

 

In fact, they weren’t taking “yes” for an answer either.

 

“Have you been saved?” 

 

“Yes, now leave me alone.”

 

“But do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?”

 

“Yes I do, I think he’s waiting for you at the other end of the parking lot.”

 

“Have you been born-again?”

 

“Many times, now please let me go so I can run at exactly 7mph and dive into the front seat of that Subaru circling around the parking lot.  6mph and I will suffer a broken neck!”

 

Well, I think that they wished I had broken my neck so that they could continue to win me over to their side.  I didn’t dare tell them I was a congregational pastor or they would never have let me go until they’d pummeled some good theology into me.

 

Experiences like that make me surprised to look and see that I’ve entitled this sermon: You Must Be Born Again. 

 

Actually, it’s unfortunate that such a phrase has been kidnapped and held hostage by a narrow segment within the church.  It’s an import teaching of scripture and it has broad application.

 

I was reminded of this the other day when I was reading a book with the phrase as its title: You Must Be Born Again.  It’s the history of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in America, a group that began when some influential Amish bishops and church leaders felt that their communities were losing their spirit and connection to the basic teachings of scripture.  See, even within the Amish there are those who think others are being too lax and too liberal!

 

I was reading this because it tells the story of my mother’s great grandfather, Joseph Rediger, who was the first pastor of the Salem Mennonite church near Gridley, Illinois.  He had arrived in America from Germany in 1848 and moved near Gridley in 1859 – just in time for the Civil War.  That was a time of deep spiritual challenge for the pacifist Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers.  I don’t know how many remember the movie “Friendly Persuasion” with Gary Cooper, but that’s the story it tells.  Do you recall the hit song from that movie: Thee I Love.

 

After the war many felt the Christian identity and enthusiasm of their congregations had been weakened.  The sought renewal, and they turned to the biblical teachings of conversion and spiritual formation in Christ.

 

Traditional teaching speak of a three step process – I guess today we would speak of a twelve step process, but these were very broad categories and each step might have more than one phase.  Anyway, the steps were justification, sanctification, and glorification.

 

Justification is the entry point.  It is the moment when the creature turns to the creator in trust and finds forgiveness, pardon, and love.  Sanctification is the life long process of growing in Christ, experiencing the healing and cleansing power of God that transforms the inner soul and the outward experience of life.  Glorification is the heavenly reward, the crown of righteousness reserved for the saints who have entered the eternal kingdom.

 

These teachings were emphasized in the church and many lives were influenced and shaped for the better.

 

In the midst of the good that was accomplished, there was also trouble.  Trouble comes when some people think that the only path to conversion, commitment, and renewal is the one they themselves have taken.  And usually they feel this way because they are emotional people, and their conversion and growth have been accompanied by intense emotional experiences that made them feel it was authentic and doubly spiritual. 

 

I think this is a mistake, and that people with different temperaments will follow different paths, and that none has guaranteed legitimacy over another.  Only time will tell if an experience has lasting influence for good and brings one into closer communion with God.

 

And that is why I think that we can own and should believe as much as anyone else the teaching that “You Must Be Born Again.”  We too believe that the receiving of Christ is a transforming experience.   We too believe that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers and in the community of believers to change, shape, form a people into the image of Christ.

 

We believe what Paul wrote: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

 

We don’t come here simply to have our pride, prejudices, and sins baptized and blessed – we come seeking a clarity of vision about who we really are, what life is really to be lived for, what must be encouraged, what must be let go of, what must die in order for new life to spring up.

 

But some of us have come to be weary of the high-pitched emotionalism that seems to be the standard package of this belief in our time.  In fact, when you watch some of the TV spectacles that now pass for church, it’s hard to tell if it’s all about religion wrapped up in emotionalism or emotionalism wrapped up in religion.  It often seems like people are stuck in the conversion moment because that’s where they get the best emotional rush.  And the emotional rush, not maturity in the Spirit, becomes the whole point.  The hard work of actually living the Christian life in the world doesn’t come with all the music and thrills.

 

That’s not to say they are all wrong.  They believe that faith in the Lord should produce changes in the life of the believer and that these changes should produce faith in the lives of others.   We believe that too.  And, we would add, not only faith in the lives of others but justice in the ways of the world.  That is part of the Christian witness and part of growing in Christ.  That is part of the calling which Paul describes so eloquently this morning:

 

Ephesians 4:1-16     I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

 

It has long been asserted that a new birth, a conversion in Christ, first requires a conviction of sin – that we cannot hear the good news of the gospel until we first hear the call to repent; that we cannot experience the lightness of grace until we know the crushing weight of condemnation.  In many churches this hammering on sin is a major topic of sermons and the emotional tone of confession and repentance dominates the hymns and prayers.  I confess that I find that wearisome.

 

Most of us understand that we have lots of room to be better quality people – that we make mistakes, that we hurt people we love, that we ignore people who deserve our consideration, that we are anxious and troubled and certainly fall short of our own expectations let alone what we think God might expect of us.  I don’t know that we need much convincing of our sin.  We believe in sin and we believe in evil and we do not question the power of either.

 

Oh, we may hear of some terrible evil, some condition of misery, injustice, crime or oppression, and we might well find it shocking.  But we do not find it hard to believe; we do not doubt that life has this terrible potential.

 

What challenges our belief is the potential for good, the possibility of change, of new birth, of redemption and renewal of humanity into something better – something more like children of God formed by the Spirit of Christ.

 

We think we’ve been born the way we are and we are destined to die the way we were born.  We cannot believe we can be born again.  The battle lies in believing that God is capable of transforming and empowering us, believing in the resources of God, believing that God would touch us and make a difference in our lives.

 

Today, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I would encourage each of us to think about how the mysterious, eternal, invisible God became visible, temporal, and knowable in Jesus Christ.  And how God did this for the purpose of touching the lives of all human children and opening to them the possibility of new birth and growth in grace and truth and love – in the Spirit.   Think on how God wants to fill our lives with the nourishment of forgiveness, with new strength for all humility and gentleness, patience, forbearance, and peace, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

 

We celebrate an open communion.  This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people. Christ welcomes you.  Christ recognizes you.  Christ invites you into the circle of fellowship in his name.   Let us prepare our hearts for this sacrament by singing a hymn.  Our invitation to communion this morning is hymn # 339: Just As I Am, Without One Plea.
Just as I am, without one ple - MIDI Music

 

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