Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sermon Notes for Jan. 31, 2010: Romans 4:13-14

ROMANS 4:13-14 "Losing My Religion and Coming to Faith"

“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is to the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”

In the early church, the big question was: “Did a Gentile have to become a Jew (be an adherent to the law) to be accepted in the community of faith?” See Acts 15 on this issue; also see Galatians 2:11-21 as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian during the rise of Hitler in the 1930 and 40’s. He subsequently became a prisoner for his role in an effort to assassinate Hitler. He was hung on the gallows just a week or two before the Allies liberated the prison camp he was being held in.

Bonhoeffer was reflecting on the religious situation in the 20th century while in prison, and he was thinking about the struggle in the early church with the Gentile question. That is, did Gentiles have to observe the Jewish law in order to be fully included in the people of God? So much of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters is concerned with this issue of the relation of the law of Moses to the rule of Christ through the Spirit. Bonhoeffer says that the great issue of the early church was: DID A PERSON HAVE TO BECOME A JEW TO BE FULLY RECONCILED TO GOD IN CHRIST?

But how is that issue that is so much a part of the New Testament relevant to us today? Bonhoeffer says that the issue for us today in the modern age is: DOES A PERSON HAVE TO BECOME RELIGIOUS TO BE RECONCILED TO GOD IN CHRIST?

In Paul’s day, it is easy to state the case. He was preaching about God’s gracious action in Christ to reconcile the world to God’s self and us to each other. When Paul preached that message to Gentiles, they started responding, believing that it was for them, not just for Jews. Of course, Paul told the Gentiles that this grace and salvation was for them. When Peter preached that message to Gentiles, they did the same thing. The Holy Spirit fell upon Gentiles and Jews who heard the Word of the Gospel about God’s grace through Jesus Christ. And, then as these new believers tried to organize themselves into fellowships and churches, and as they tried to order their common life – come up with ways of living that glorified God and reflected the grace they had received – well, as they tried to form themselves into churches, they had to face questions about how they would live, what customs they would observe, what scriptures they would emphasize, how they would use and understand the scriptures of the Jews in this new community of faith. And, how Jews who were previously thought religiously and morally superior in their faith would live with Gentiles, who weren’t sure whether they would have to conform to Jewish expectations to be accepted. This was the great issue of the early church: DID RECONCILIATION WITH GOD IN CHRIST REQUIRE AN INITIATION INTO AND ACCEPTANCE OF JEWISH RELIGIOUS CUSTOMS?

And, the answer is really this: Where Jewish tradition points to the Christ, it is to be held in highest respect and celebrated as the truth of God’s way in the world. Where Jewish tradition contradicts or is overcome by Christ, it is to be considered simply part of the history of the Jews that is not controlling for the new community of faith in Christ.

The real answer though comes from how one comes to grace and faith and the community of faith – one comes through Christ to God – one comes through God’s gracious appeal in Christ, God’s gracious election in Christ alone. One doesn’t get admitted to the community of faith through the initiation of circumcision or baptism or any other sacred rite. One comes by means of the grace of God which gives rise to the grateful experience of faith. The terms of admission are established by God in the death of Jesus, and that death was for the reconciliation of all people to God. “COME UNTO ME ALL YOU WHO ARE WEARY AND HEAVY LADEN . . . That is the Good News Paul proclaims. This foundation in the cross WHICH IS THE COMPLETE AND UNIVERSAL OUTPOURING OF GOD’S GRACE is the only foundation for being one of the people of God.

The structure and customs and practices of the church arise from this primary experience of grace and faith. One comes to the church through the gracious embrace of God of each and every human being in Christ. A man or woman, a girl or boy may experience this embrace of God through the loving embrace of a human being, through the embrace of the Word preached, through the embrace of God as we understand in the depths of our hearts the meaning of scripture, as we join in the praising of God in the holy assembly, or as we see through the faithfulness of another human being that God is for us. But, the crucial point is that we come because God comes to us; we love because God first loved us; we believe because God first believed in us through the gift of his Son – through the giving of his Son into our history, into our sinful struggle, into hope that we would be redeemed by the new creation in Christ.
Celebrate this holy tradition and live as God leads you in his grace. Let your religious groups be formed of that experience.

So, Paul answered the question, whether you have to become Jewish to be Christian with a resounding “NO.” Jews and Gentiles come to God in this grace of Christ. The people of God is formed through this new creation. Now, starting from this perspective, we see Israel’s history truly and give thanks for the law and prophets that bore witness to the Christ, and that are part of this holy community. If we aren’t led to identify with and celebrate this holy history of Israel, we are not following the Messiah of Israel. To a large extent Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans to make sure this was understood as the basis for unity in the church between those of Jewish and Gentile heritage.

The understanding of the Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel in the Church are to arise from the living Word of God, not to fit into the structure of the religious community. Our religious services, structure of our church polity, mission are all to arise from the living Word of God that we experience in preaching, teaching, praising and prayer.

Do you have to become religious to come to God in Christ? No. You just have to start celebrating in your soul what God has done and is doing for this world and for you in Christ. And, as we celebrate this together and join our celebration together more and more, the shape of our church’s life will emerge.

Do you have to become Presbyterian to be part of the people of God? No. You just have to awaken to the power of the Gospel that is knocking at the door of your heart, that is moving through the streets of our cities, the rooms of our homes, seeking reconciliation between God and human beings, working reconciliation between one human being and another; one group of human beings and another. This is the living power of God in Christ.

And, the Scriptures give us clarity about what this power is all about, so that we won’t start making things up that might just be our creations and not God’s. But, you can’t find a rule in scripture to fit every little situation you face in life – that’s why we have scripture and Spirit from God. Scripture to stand as a real check on our tendency to make things up and scripture to remind us of God’s reality in our history and our world and scripture as gracious sacred words that heal and help. And, we have the Spirit to draw near to our souls, to help us understand scripture and life and discern the presence of the living God who is our guide and savior and judge and ruler.

What if you wanted to learn to play the piano? And, what if someone left you a book to show you how to play. Well, that would help. But, when you run into complicated progressions that really require a sense of the art of music and playing, how will you learn that without a teacher there? A teacher provides the spirit, the experience, the example of playing the piano that is just critical if you are to really learn the art, not just learn some mechanics. And, that is the way it is with the Bible. If you are just left the Bible without the Spirit to guide and inspire and illuminate, then you might learn all the passages, but never be able apply them in the art of living, in the living of the faith. For that, you need God’s gift of the Spirit, the living Spirit as made known through the living of others in faith, through preaching and teaching in the Spirit.

The Church of Jesus Christ should be a place where we experience the Spirit of God helping us to understand the scriptures, to understand the world, to understand our selves and our neighbors, to understand the peace of real human joy and praise and love and integrity. If that is what you mean by religion, then well, yes, faith leads to religion. But, if what you mean by religion and being religious is feeling you are part of a group that is more holy than others; having confidence that you are more loved of God than others; and being proud that you know the rituals and ways to act at church better than others – well, if that’s what you mean by religion, then the sooner you can lose your religion, the better.

Paul was very religious, a zealous Jew, a Pharisee among Pharisees, and then one day he lost his religion on Damascus Road and gained Christ; he gave up all of his self, and let God recreate his life in Christ.

Maybe that is where you are today – ready to surrender everything into God’s creative and redeeming hands.

These things about myself that I am most proud of, I give them to God. This way I have of making sense of my self and my life, I give that up. I release my control over the deepest springs of my life, and allow God’s holy spirit to move over the face of the deep of my soul.

We fight so hard in this world to keep our head up, to think we are somebody; we have our routines, our ways of thinking, our ways of relating to others; our ways that get us through from one day to the next. But, all of this is simply our way of trying to save ourselves.

Can you say to God now: “This struggle to make sense of my life, the lives of others, this struggle to fight off negative forces, to be somebody at least in my own mind – this struggle to hold on . . . Lord, I give all these things into your hands, I step back Lord, and let you lead me. You are the potter; I am the clay; I didn’t create myself in the first place – you did. I give all this material that is me and ask you to refashion me Lord. I have put my self in the center and ordered my life around me at the center – and, it is not working Lord. Please come be the center of my life; my soul, my body, my self. And, then, Lord I can begin to think and feel and act in grace. Then, I will be free from sin,free to live and love and work and enjoy others and praise you.”

Problem for me and you in this world is that when we try to be our own lord and god, we fall into a rut; we fall into the same pit over and over again; and everything gets so confused in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies get worn out too when our spirits aren’t at rest. I’ve got good news for you. You don’t have to be your own god and ruler; you don’t have to save yourself. God is your creator and your savior; God has shown his love for you in Jesus; and this love is not just a good feeling of God towards you, but an active power to redeem you in the depths of your soul and every part of you and your life.

We don’t just need a redemption of our hearts; we need for our whole life to be redeemed. Your whole life is every bit of your living; your relationships, your work, your body, your mind, your experience in the neighborhood; your ways; your coming and your going. You need all of that redeemed; governed by the grace of God. And, your community; you need to see ‘God’s redemption coming to your community; your family, your church; your neighborhood; your city;your school.
Paul says: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s very self, not counting their (our) trespasses against them (us).”

This power of reconciliation is the greatest power in the world. Do you want to join it, or fight against it? It is such a blessing to relax, trust and praise the God of reconciliation, the God who gave his very heart to bring peace to this world. That power of reconciliation is at work in this world. It only takes the profound trust of faith to get in the flow of God’s grace. Amen.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

new church development at 4th United Presbyterian

As we begin our 16 week series of meetings at 4th United Presbyterian, I am looking out the window here at the Public Defender's Office in Blount County. Our office just closed early along with the Blount County Courthouse. And, as I look out the window, it is snowing pretty hard here at 2:35 p.m. on January 7. We are scheduled to have our first new church development meeting this evening at 6 p.m. As the last post says, our passage from Scripture is Matthew 9:35-38.

And, we decided not to cancel our meeting tonight even though the weather might be bad. Of course, the roads might be fine as well. We are encouraging everyone to use their own judgment about whether to come out or not.

Something about having snow on the first scheduled meeting of this new church development - well, something about it just seems fitting. Nothing about this new church called 4th United Presbyterian Church has been that easy from the start. From the ceiling tiles falling from the sanctuary the first week of the new church, to wood panelling also coming down that week in the sanctuary to losses of members who had come from 4th Presbyterian, to having to file a lawsuit to get access to a trust fund to fix many serious problems in the building, there have been a number of challenges for the church's members, pastors and session members.

But, there has been a persistence, a quality of toughness to this new church, that just refuses to take problems too seriously. Because we believe the future is so bright for this mission on the corner of Glenwood and Broadway in Knoxville. And, our Presbytery really revived our spirits with its overwhelming support of our new church by appointing a four person team to work with us and by allocating funds to support our development.

And, here we are on January 7, 2010 getting ready to hold our first official new church development meeting. New church development team members from Presbytery will meet with pastors at 5 p.m., and then our new church development Bible Study series begins at 6 p.m.

Here is a prayer for the occasion:

"O God of all people, open our hearts and minds and lives to the coming of your Spirit. Your Spirit that heals and helps and awakens and corrects and makes us sing songs of joy even when we had thought there was nothing to rejoice in.

"Let your Spirit wash over us clearing away the residue of pain and bitterness, and awakening springs of hope and love within us and among us and between us.

"O God you have bound yourself to all humanity in Jesus Christ, our Lord to whom we cling and whom we follow for your sake.

"O, Lord of mercy and truth, help us to look into our own lives and understand who we have been and who we are called to be. Help us to look at our community, and understand who our neighbors are and with them work to understand who you are calling them to be together with us.

"O God, relieve us of our presumption; relieve us of our critical eye; restore the kindness of your Spirit in our hearts.

"All of these things we pray in your holy name, God above all gods, Hope above all hopes, Truth beyond all truths, and Love that gives life to all true loves. Amen."