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Worship and Sermons
June 4, 2017

 

“Jesus, Lord of Our Lives?” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13  •  John 20:19-23

THEME:  The Spirit enables us to proclaim Jesus as Lord in word and deed, and this is the source of Christian unity – and power for witness.

 

         A few weeks back, Emma and I decided to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon at the National Civil War Museum in Reservoir Park on the East Shore.

         I grew up hearing quite a bit about the civil war.  Like her mother and sister, my mother is a card-carrying, life- member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Both her grandfathers fought for the South.

         The stories of valor and tragedy she told us growing up gave my brothers and me a keen appreciation for the sacrifices they and their families made. 

         As we headed into the first exhibit, I was hoping to get a better perspective of what life was like for those on both sides, the soldiers and their families.  We were not disappointed.

         The museum was a revelation.  What was equally awe-inspiring was the view.  From the second floor balcony, we looked out over the city.  There was a small plaque there that told the story of Camp Curtin. 

         You’ll remember it was the largest training camp for Union troops.  300,000 soldiers passed through there during the war.  We could just imagine all those young men marching and drilling down there, preparing to fight or preparing to go home. 

         On our way home, we decided to drive through that neighborhood.  As we all know, Camp Curtin today is one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods in the entire city.  Abandoned shops and businesses, derelict homes, and burned out buildings are everywhere.  It’s not a pretty sight. 

         As we drove home, I wondered what it must be like to try to minister there.  God must have heard me, because later that same week, at the annual meeting of Christian Churches United, I bumped into the pastor of a congregation there.  On Thursday of this week, I went to visit him.

         His name is Rev. Willie Dixon.  He pastors the Wesley Union AME Zion Church at 5th and Camp Streets, just a few blocks East of the Beacon Clinic.  It’s the oldest African-American congregation in Harrisburg.  Rev. Dixon is surprisingly soft-spoken and humble, especially when you consider what he’s accomplished.

         His congregation is not large, and it’s not wealthy, but he’s managed to lead them in a host of ministries to improve life for his members and their neighbors. 

         That alone is impressive, but what’s equally striking is how he’s done it.  He’s engaged other Christians of all stripes – Baptists, Charismatics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics, you name it.

         Together, they’ve helped residents create community gardens, clean the streets, rebuild homes and establish a preschool.  They’ve begun operating outreach programs for ex-offenders, addicts and children traumatized by violence.

         His message is simple:  this is what Jesus wants us to do.  When we make Jesus Lord of our lives, differences disappear as we work side-by-side for the kingdom. 

         If the apostle Paul were living in Harrisburg today, he would not only agree with Willie, he’d be working right alongside him.  We know that because of what he writes to the Corinthians in this morning’s scripture reading.

         Paul is writing to Christians at the church he founded in Corinth.  He’s concerned because this congregation has become seriously divided.  Some of them are claiming their particular spiritual gifts give them higher status than others who’ve been given different gifts.

         Paul reminds them that their gifts all have the same source.  The Spirit, received in baptism, is what enables them (and anyone) to proclaim Jesus as Lord.  This is the source of their unity – and the power for witness.

         Wisdom, knowledge, and faith all have a common source:  they all come from the Spirit.  So do all the other spiritual gifts.  They also have a common purpose:  to build up the body of Christ for the common good.  The result is unity.

         What Paul is proposing is a standard for judging whether or not our words are really inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The litmus test is this: does what we say proclaim that Jesus is Lord? 

         Not only our words, but our actions also have to pass the same test.    

         All Christians make this same affirmation: Jesus is Lord.  It’s the church’s oldest and simplest confession.  When we take it seriously, it leads us to work for the good of all God’s people, especially those whom he called the least.

         Why, then, are there so many divisions in the body of Christ today?  By one recent measure, there are over 33,000 distinct Christian denominations.

         Every major denomination has suffered schisms that have led to separations.   We Presbyterians in America are no exception.  Since the formation of the first Presbytery in Philadelphia in 1706, we have split 24 times, most recently in 2012. 

         We are the body of Christ, as Paul says. But, in truth, we are a body divided.  

         The question I’ve been asking myself this week is why this is, and how can we regain the unity God intends?  Few things would strengthen our collective witness for Christ in the world more than that.

         It seems like a monumental task, doesn’t it?  Trying to organize Christians has been compared to herding cats.  Someone far wittier than I once said “Where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, there are always at least three opinions.”  We wouldn’t know anything about that here at SSPC, would we?

         The good news is that this seems to be changing.  Christians are increasingly trying to overcome the challenges to Christian unity. 

         This trend of joining hands across denominational lines is not new.  It began in earnest in the 19th century, with student movements like the Young Men’s Christian Association.  Others soon followed, like the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Edinburgh Worldwide Missionary Conference in 1910. 

         Then, inspired by the League of Nations, the World Council of Churches was formed on the eve of WWII.  The goal was to form a worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity and a common witness to Christ. 

         Just last month, came a watershed event.  The World Council of Churches hosted an historic meeting in Geneva.

         For the first time ever, leaders of the Pentacostals, Charismatics and Evangelicals came together with leaders of the mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  This meeting of all the major Christian denominations was 20 years in the planning.

         These high level meetings are remarkable, unprecedented.  But they’re not the end of the story – not by a long shot.  They beg the question, “How do you and I go about bridging what divides us from other denominations, so we can create a unified witness to Christ?”

         Rev. Willie Dixon has given us an idea of where to start.  What his example shows us is that we may disagree with other Christian on matters of theology, polity and worship, but we can all agree on the two most fundamental tenets of our faith. 

         First and foremost, Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives.  That means he’s the boss, the ruler, God with us – the one to be worshipped and the one to be obeyed. 

         Second, we affirm that not only through our words, but through our acts of love.  We do what he commands:  we share his loving kindness by reaching out to help the least among us – the widow and the orphan, the beggar and the addict, the prisoner and the outcast. 

         These folks who are hurting don’t care whether we’re Presbyterian or Lutheran.  It makes no difference to them how many sacraments we celebrate, or whether we’re governed by a council, a Bishop or a Pope. 

         What matters to them is that, because Jesus is Lord of our lives, we’ve been given the Spirit that compels and empowers us to join together with others who also call him Lord, in order to help folks like them who are living at the margins of life.

         Folks, this is not new for us.  This is how Downtown Daily Bread started.  One congregation reached out to another in order to witness to Christ more powerfully by feeding the poor, the homeless and the hungry together. 

         Is it time to consider reaching out to another congregation, maybe this time in Camp Curtin?  What might it look like to unite with them in confessing Jesus as Lord, by joining our efforts with theirs in order to better serve the least? 

         How much stronger might our witness become if we invited not only other Presbyterian congregations, but churches in other denominations to come alongside us? 

         Only God knows the answer to that.  But we can rest assured of one thing: when we partner with others in witnessing to Christ by working together to serve the least, God will bless our witness and multiply it.

         And, along the way, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find old differences disappearing as we work side-by-side for the kingdom.  May it be so.

 
Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:26 AM
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