|Image: crop of Saint Peter and Saint Paul: Artist: El Greco (1541-1614)|
This is the text from my sermon recently.
It is an understatement to say that the institution of the church in the western world today is in a mess. There has been so much compromise and so much worldliness that the idea of a true Christian in the mind of many observers outside the Church is very confused indeed. To whom do we point today to say, "That's a Christian?" Is it Joel Olsteen? Is it Pope Francis? Is it Bishop Gene Robinson in the Episcopal Church? All these people believe very different things and live very different lives.
Well, today we are remembering the apostles Peter and Paul, and I think it's safe to say that they were true Christians. Thankfully we know what they would say about it all, for we can read their opinion in the New Testament. As for Paul, he tells us here in our lesson from Ephesians - in verse 20 - that the Christian Church is like a temple that is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone. And individual Christians are members of this household of God, joined together with all the other members by virtue of their faith and union in the Body of Christ. And all the members of this assembly grow into this one temple, where God manifests his glory by His Spirit.
As for Peter, he himself says the same sort of thing. If you look in the second chapter of his first epistle, he writes: "you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (v 5).
Now, this being the case, it is apparent from what Peter and Paul say, if we would have a clear message to the world as to what the Christian Church really is like and what a Christian's life is really like, we need to be sure we have a clear picture ourselves of what Christianity is built upon; a clear picture of our foundation: the apostles and prophets; Jesus himself the cornerstone.
So, how are we to understand this foundation? Well, the first obvious answer is that the Christian faith, individually and corporately, is built upon certain beliefs. There are things that we believe about God. And we believe the story in the Gospels about Jesus' life and death and resurrection, as something that has actually happened in history. And just for ease of reference, we can simply point to the Nicene Creed, which we confess each week, as a good summary of these facts about God and the story about Jesus. And the fact that this story is a true story is important.
The Christian Faith, the foundation of the apostles and prophets, is not mere philosophy; we are talking about history. That is why the reference to Pontius Pilate in the Creed is so important. It roots the story of Jesus squarely in history. And this rootedness in history is part of why, in order to be an apostle, you had to have been an eye-witness of these events. At its foundation, the Christian Church is based is built on certain eye-witness testimonies of Jesus' words, his life and his deeds.
But there is another very critical ingredient to this foundation about which we must be clear. And it is based on the most important part of the foundation: the Cornerstone. Think about it: did Jesus leave us only with a set of beliefs; did he leave us only his teachings? Is that how he founded the Church? We are thankful for these, but the answer is, "No." Paul does not say the teaching of Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church. He says Jesus himself is the cornerstone of the Church. Jesus founded the Church by shedding his own life's blood for her. He founded her by buying her with his own blood on the Cross. And when he rose from the dead, he gave her new life, and with his apostles began to add those living stones.
Here is the point I wish to make: as the Cornerstone, so the rest of the foundation. The apostles did not merely lay the foundation of the Church with their teaching. They, following their Master, laid it with their own blood as well. This is critical for understanding true Christianity. Christianity is not merely a set of beliefs; it is a life lived on the basis of those beliefs. It is the life that is an answer to Jesus' call to be his disciple. "The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."
Remember how the apostles had originally been fishermen, or tax-collectors, or political activists. Jesus called them to be his disciples. And then he taught them what it meant to be a disciple. He did not say, "Whosoever will come after me must take a class on the Bible and pass a quiz and get confirmed." No. He said, in Mark 8: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." In other words, if you will be my disciple, as I am going to lay down my life for the Gospel, so you must lay your life down for the Gospel, if you would save it. To be a disciple of Jesus - which is what a Christian really is; a learner, a follower - is to both confess the faith of Jesus' disciples and to step out into a life lived for Jesus and his Gospel, carrying our own cross, as Jesus carried his, dying to ourselves that we might save our lives and the lives of others. And this the apostles did, and thus they laid the foundation of the Church - not only with their teaching, but with their lives.
This means that, if we meet an individual or a clergyman, or visit a church, and in their lives there is no cross, there is no dying to self that others may live for Jesus, then this is not the true item. Their profession of Christianity is not built upon the right foundation, for it is not built on both the beliefs and the cross-bearing life-style, if you will, of the apostles and prophets; even of Jesus himself.
So, hopefully now we are clear on what the Christian faith is by recognizing what it is built upon. And if we meet someone who is confused about the Faith, we can perhaps help clarify things for them.
But I want us to consider a practical matter at this point by asking another question. What does this have to do with our own day-to-day lives as disciples? Well - again, looking at our foundation - what did it have to do with the day-to-day lives of the apostles?
When we read the New Testament, we find Peter and Paul talking about the day-to-day lives of believers. They give us instruction about our daily lives: how we are to live in our families, our churches, on the job, and in the community at large. But I want us to consider a particular time when Jesus told the apostles what he expected of their daily lives. I refer to the Upper Room on the night Jesus was betrayed.
What did Jesus tell his future apostles what he expected of them in the future, after he had returned to the Father? Well, if you look at the Upper Room discourse in the gospel of John, you see several things. Jesus told them to love each other and to abide in him, so they could do so. He told them to keep praying, using his name. But he also harped on how the world was going to hate them. If in that confused world - for their world was confused in that day as well - they would live day-to-day as his faithful disciples, the world would hate them. He told them that he expected them to be persecuted. After all, since the world hated Jesus, they were certainly going to also hate his followers.
So here's where I'm going with this. If we ourselves are daily living our lives as disciples, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus our Cornerstone, our faithfulness will also lead to the hatred of the world and persecution, of some kind or another. That's what this clear understanding of our foundation has to do with our daily lives. Listen to how Peter describes the life of the disciple in I Peter 2:21f: "For even hereunto were you called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps ... Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not, but committed himself to him that judges righteously." Peter is saying that if we are called to follow Jesus, to follow in his steps as his disciples, we are not only going to learn what we are to believe from him, but we are going to follow his example in living and thus suffer persecution for it.
And this should not surprise us. Peter says in 4:12: "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to test you, as though some strange thing happened unto you." After all, if he who is the Cornerstone of the Church was hated by the world, if his apostles and prophets who finished off our foundation were hated by the world, then we should not be surprised that a life lived as a faithful disciple of Jesus in this world leads to our own experience of hatred from the world.
Now there are seasons when we experience this hatred and seasons when we do not. There are probably some here today who are in the thick of it right now. You are hurting today because a family member, or a co-worker, or someone in the neighbourhood is mistreating you right now, or won't talk to you, or is making fun of you in front of others. What is sad is that your persecutors may even be professing Christians, but they have absorbed the spirit of the world around us, and are so out of sympathy with being a disciple of Christ, that they hate you as if they were not Christians at all. I know what that's like. I've had friends who professed to be Christians, but when I had to take a stand on an important moral issue and not compromise my conscience, they turned on me. It hurts.
But as Peter says to us, let us not be surprised, but as he goes on to say in I Peter 4, following the teaching of his Lord, let us rejoice. Peter is remembering how Jesus said on the mountain: "Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets (and we could add, the apostles) who were before you." (Matt. 5:11-12).
In conclusion, a true Christian is someone who is a living stone in God's temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets - their beliefs and their lives, even unto blood. He or she is someone who, because they themselves are disciples of Jesus, have their face set against the opinions and pressures of the world around them which oppose the love of God for them in the gospel. And thus a true Christian is someone who is going to be despised by worldly people, either in the Church or outside of it. Yet, the true Christian is able to rejoice, even though it be through their tears, because they are thus privileged to own the reproach that our beloved Saviour took upon himself to rescue us and them from eternal death and to give us eternal life. And when we suffer with him for the sake of the gospel, we heap up for ourselves more glory to share with him on the Day of Vindication.
Some of Paul's last written words were these - from 2 Timothy: "It is a faithful saying, for if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. If we deny him, he also will deny us. Therefore, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. A crown awaits all who love his appearing. Amen.