Sunday, April 18, 2010

It’s Not About Me?

It’s Not About Me?

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Third Sunday of Easter: April 18, 2010

Romans 14:7-9

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
For to this end Christ died and lived again,
so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Three verses of scripture as the entire Bible reading for the day: this might seem odd. It might seem odd to us – in this day of the churches’ broad attachment across denominational lines to lectionary preaching – to schedule a sermon on such a very small section of a letter from the Bible, and from only one of the four passages which lectionaries offer for the day, one each from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Letters.

Yet there have been times in the history of preaching ministry when scripture was expounded in sermons verse by verse, and even word by word. I remember worship services in my childhood during which the preacher took a whole sermon to work through one verse, or sometimes a single word in a verse.

While today’s Epistle (or Letter) reading is comprised of only 3 verses, it contains what some teachers of preaching have called “verbal hand grenades, ” words so high in their impact value that if we hear them right, they might just stop us in our tracks by their concussive effect.

One such explosive handful of words is here in Romans 14:7, the very first verse of our short reading, indeed, the very first phrase of the very first verse:

We do not live to ourselves

Think about these six words for a moment (only five words in Paul’s Greek).

In a world where there are hundreds of automobile brands and styles to choose from – not to mention the number of brands of tires or fuels for them; hundreds of breakfast cereals; dozens upon dozens of pain killers in pill form, gel caps, liquid, or tablet; walls filled with televisions of every conceivable type in every discount store ... you can add to this list ... couldn’t it more accurately be said that “we live almost entirely to ourselves” and our own personal choices about everything from underwear to frozen foods? Hasn’t personal choice become something of an idol of our age? And of course, even dying has about it aspects of personal choice. “What would father have wanted?” families ask themselves when choosing cremation or in-ground burial, pine box or enameled casket, simple grave or extravagant tomb ... as if, even after death, loved ones might be thought to continue to worship at the feet of the idol of personal choice in all matters. “You should be able to have the bridesmaids stand where you want them, it’s your wedding,” says the maid of honor in the middle of the pastor’s harried attempts to organize the choreography of wedding attendants at the rehearsal. “I have told the worship committee several times that all the flowers in the church should be no taller than 24 inches, and still nothing has been done about it!” says the liturgical critic, fully expecting that his word should result in instant action to satisfy his solitary, and hopelessly futile demand.

“We do not live to ourselves.” In order to see how radical Paul’s simple words are in our culture today, stand them alongside common – and popular – cultural fascinations such as, for instance, so-called “reality” shows. I am no expert on these shows, I have tuned in to some a few times but confess they are not my cup of tea. Yet I am clearly in the minority in this. The genre includes shows like – and I’ll see if I can do this in one breath – “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “American Idol,” “America’s Next Top Model,” Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” “The Bachelor,” “Wife Swap,” “Laguna Beach,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Extreme Makeover,” “Beauty and the Geek,” and my favorite name, because of its sheer presumption: MTV’s “The Real World.” There are lots more, these are just some I have heard of or read about. A quick internet search yields over 300 such shows when each season of each one is counted separately. They just keep multiplying, and there can only be one reason, it is because people tune in by the millions to watch them.

One of my preaching friends declared in a sermon once, several years ago now, that he thought what we have come to call reality television would peak soon; yet now, about 5 years later, his follow-up observation remains pertinent: “Peak is the wrong word. Hit bottom is more like it.”[1] When I was in Italy a couple of summers ago, I discovered an Italian version of one of these programs on my hotel room television, and noted in the couple of minutes that I watched that their program had most of the familiar ingredients that are present in virtually all of these shows in the USA: some young, exceptionally attractive twenty-somethings (occasionally, there may be an “older” person as ancient as 34 or 35 in the group), voluntarily join in some kind of living space or quasi-athletic activity, and agree before the cameras start rolling, to allow every single moment of their waking and sleeping and eating and dressing and relating – especially the relating – with others to be taped and broadcast to the wide world. And it generally isn’t very long before the hoped-for conflicts and arguments and romantic liaisons and outright combat emerge among the participants.

Once, when I was visiting one of my daughters, MTV’s “The Real World” came on. This “real world” group was holed up in a huge, completely tricked-out, beautiful apartment with numerous bedrooms, an immense living area with entertainment systems to die for, a huge kitchen, money to burn on evening outings together – by now I was thinking to myself, whatever else this may be, it is clearly not the “real world,” – I remember hearing, in about a ten minute period before I couldn’t take it any more, the beginnings of arguments over “my space,” “my laundry,” “where’s my soda?” “I can’t sleep because you keep the TV on half the night,” “she is just a spoiled so-and-so,” “he is a two-timing blankety-blank blank.” You get the picture, if you haven’t gotten it already.

The commonplace conclusion, which anyone who is half-awake during one of these programs could make, is that people are, by nature, often selfish, immature, ruthless, tiresome, even wicked, but especially selfish. This would not have been news to Paul as he set about writing his lengthy letter to the Christians in Rome. He had experienced the fact that life together in community for Christians in Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and other places was anything but a bed of roses, and had seen enough to surmise that life together for Christians in Rome might not be all that different. As a rule, human beings do long for community, but – to put an opposite spin on Paul’s words – our seemingly innate desire to “live to ourselves” stands as the single most difficult obstacle to life in community together. Televised spats on shows such as “The Real World” demonstrate that the natural human willingness to forgive and forbear one another pales in comparison to our drive to put self first: my tastes, my opinions, my moralizing, my ego, so that commitment to the community, rather than a search for “what’s in it for me?” fails to characterize human community more often than not. And, sadly, down through the centuries “living to ourselves” has often characterized life in the church as well.

My friend Michael Lindvall, who preaches at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, once wrote in one of his published short stories, “Life together is hard. There are no perfect husbands, no perfect wives, no perfect children, no perfect mothers-in-law. Life in family – life in any community is both our sorest test and our sweetest joy... the only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them...”[2]

So what was Paul’s prescription for this state of affairs? What were the doctor’s orders to cure this common ailment among communities of faith?

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

The answer, the apostle’s prescription, so simple to state and clearly so difficult to live, is that we do not belong to ourselves, though we most often live as though we do. We live, not to ourselves, but to the Lord to whom we belong. It’s a shame that catechisms have fallen out of favor as tools for teaching and building faith in recent decades, for if we recalled the ancient catechism first inspired by Martin Luther, we would remember this all-important very first question and answer:
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.[3]
When we are in Christ, our calling is not a life lived “to ourselves,” as Paul puts it, but “to the Lord.” “According to the Scriptures ... at one crucial point, there is no distinction between life and death. Living or dying, living and dying, we belong to the Lord; there is no difference about that whatever our state.”[4]

Now this may be the hardest part of these three short verses: “If we die, we die to the Lord.” As often as we may speak with hope and even longing of Christ as the source of our eternal salvation, few of us are in any hurry to experience that eternal portion. For the most part, we limit our view to Christ as Lord of life, and think as seldom as possible about Christ as Lord of death. But here, Paul places it right on the middle of the table, in full view of everyone of us as we scurry about our daily lives as though this life we know will just go on forever.

It’s no fun to dwell on this. Preachers who talk about the glories of life under Christ are always many percentage points more popular than those who speak of Christ as Lord of death. But the reality, as Paul puts it, is that Christ must be Lord of the one to be Lord of the other. And so he goes on to say, in the final verse of our tiny passage,

For to this end Christ died and lived again,
so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

That word “end” is tricky, but it is more akin to words like purpose, or objective, than to “finish.” As in “He wanted to be an ornithologist, and to that end, he spent seven years in graduate study...” To this end... to the purpose of saving us in ways we could never possibly save ourselves, even save us from ourselves, to this end Christ died and lived again.

Our best and only hope in this world and the next is that we live and die to the Lord, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ in our living as well as our dying as we join with others in humility in our fellowship together, like a beleaguered ship full of sailors for whom the only hope is the Lord who calms the sea for them and leads them safely home.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989,
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[1] “The Real Real World,” by Michael Lindvall, preached at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 9-11-05.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563-1963. 400th Anniversary Edition, © 1962, United Church Press.
[4] “We Are the Lord’s,” by Patrick D. Miller, in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, #2, New series 2003.