Nicodemus John 3: 1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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Today is Trinity Sunday.  It’s an awkward “holiday,” as it isn’t based on a  Biblical event. It is based on a concept and is the result of many men over many years trying to define God.     

For much of our belief system, we have to use figures of speech. Metaphors: Lamb of God. Similes:  God is like a mothering hen.  Adjectives: God is omnipotent. We define God using the same language system we use to define ourselves.  It’s all we have.  Truth be told, I’ve played with the idea of a Quadrinity, adding Sophia—Wisdom.   And we could keep adding “inities” because God is multidimensional. 

The passage about Nicodemus is chosen for this Sunday because in it, Jesus references all three manifestations of God.

16 “For God so loved the world —God the Father—that he gave his only Son, —God the Son. .

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.—God the Spirit.

Have you ever wondered how the writer of this Gospel knew the content of this conversation?  After all, Nicodemus came at night, after everyone else had retired for the day, all safe inside their homes. There is no mention of anyone else being in the room with Jesus.  So, from where did this information come?

The only source I can think of is Nicodemus himself.  

Nicodemus was a scholar, a Pharisee, who knew the Scriptures as well as anyone. What had the Scriptures promised the Jewish people for centuries? A Messiah.  Nicodemus came to Jesus with hope and with questions. Instead of answering his questions, Jesus forced Nicodemus to ask more questions. In fact, Jesus and Nicodemus used a popular form of discussion, the Socratic method.  The Socratic method is a cooperative way of discussing a topic. The participants, instead of lecturing each other, ask and answer questions about the topic. Two of the advantages of the Socratic method are that it inspires new ways of seeing a subject while revealing assumptions that may or may not be accurate. 

Nicodemus had to see being reborn in a new light.  Jesus pointed out that we are not just flesh and bones; we are spiritual people.   One of my favorite quotations is from French Priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: 

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

That is, we are more spiritual than human. Our bodies simply provide a space for the “real us” to reside. 

Yet, our real bodies often lead us into temptation and sin. And for that reason, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Notice that God loved the world, the whole of creation—not just humans. We are a part of what God created.  If there was ever a call to protect the earth, that is it. But that digresses from Nicodemus’s story.  

This conversation was so important to Nicodemus that he shared it with other disciples. Jesus had already made a great impression on Nicodemus; otherwise he would not have risked meeting Jesus in person. He took the precaution of leaving his home after dark, making his way to where he thought Jesus was staying, risking being seen even in the dark. But he had to know. Perhaps he had prepared questions in his mind: Are you the Messiah? Can you prove to me who you are? 

He didn’t even get a chance to ask his questions before Jesus presents him with new questions.   “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus takes the conversation in an unexpected direction, not with the purpose of defeating Nicodemus in argument, but with the purpose of helping him to understand this totally different concept of the purpose of the Messiah.

We know that Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus. In John 7, at the time the temple police were being instructed to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up:  50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  and he was brave enough to assist in Jesus’s burial: Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:39)

Nicodemus walked a risky line between his position as a prominent temple authority and as a follower of Jesus. He was challenged to rethink his entire religious education and practice. His conversion was as drastic as Paul’s, as fraught with conflict as Peter’s. And he had to learn to think in terms that ignored the obvious, everyday state of his existence: that he was flesh and blood, merely a body and a mind, working against the odds of common knowledge to accept a Messiah. 

We know that he accepted this Messiah, who defied all the expectations of a Jewish nation hoping for a political revolution. Instead, the revolution was one of the spirit, one unseen, like the wind.The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

As humans, we depend on our senses.  Nicodemus was using his senses to understand Jesus: no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus dismisses the signs: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  He dismisses the miracles, the acts that have made him famous, as unimportant.

How can we apply this to our lives?  It’s a matter knowing whether to put the horse before the cart or the cart before the horse.

One of my father’s favorite quotes was from Martin Luther. ““Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.” 

James says in his epistle: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

We must first have faith.The Spirit inspires us, strengthens us, gives us courage. The Father creates us. The Son redeems us. We cannot walk in faith without acknowledging that our God is complicated, multi-faceted, and always available in ways that we don’t even know exist.  

The creeds and much of our language uses a chronological order to describe the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. First, Second, Third. But in fact, there is no order, no numbering, no quantity, no quality that distinguishes Father from Son from Holy Spirit. 

Like Nicodemus, we must examine our assumptions and continue to refresh our knowledge of God. Perhaps it is safe to take God for granted—until we forget God and let the sinful ways of the world dictate our thoughts and actions.  Unlike Nicodemus, we do not have to seek God when no one is looking. We do not have to worship in secret. May God protect those who do have to worship in secret.  

How can we emulate Nicodemus?  I think his greatest example to us is his curiosity. May we also continually ask questions, not because we doubt, but because we want to learn more.  May we have dialogues that teach us what we know and what we can learn. May we see God’s words as still living, not only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but in our own lives.  Amen.  

Fruit of the Spirit Galatians 5: 13-26

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

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Today, Pentecost, is considered to be the birthday of the Christian Church. After Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples—the twelve and all the rest who followed him—were in limbo.  They could not go back to their former lives—their lives had been forever changed by Jesus.   As Jesus had ascended into heaven, two angels had appeared and instructed the discioples to wait for Jesus to return.   11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

So, they stayed together, waiting for Jesus. Imagine the anticipation, the hope that bound them together, waiting for Jesus. But ten days later, the return of Jesus was in a very different form. God appeared again, but not in the form of God’s son. This time, God appeared in the form of the Holy Spirit. That changed everything.  

If I had been one of the disciples, I would have expected Jesus to return in person, and I would have expected that we would all get back to listening to Jesus preach and teach.  Back to what was familiar. Back to what we had enjoyed and valued so much—the physical presence of Jesus. That’s what I would have expected.

In fact, the return of Jesus was not a return to the good ol’ days.  Instead, the return of God in the form of the Holy Spirit turned the world of the disciples upside down. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, they became the preachers and teachers. They became the leaders. The Holy Spirit blew through that room, lifted them beyond their own limitations and carried them out into the world.  And here we are, still being blown by that same Holy Spirit.

Where has the Holy Spirit blown you? What flames have appeared on your head that changed your life? How have you been transformed and inspired to leave the safety of your surroundings to be a disciple, a leader who leads others to Jesus?   

Pentecost is a good time for us to consider what the Holy Spirit calls us to do.  I have been fortunate enough to be called to serve as your pastor. I cannot emphasize enough how marvelous this calling is. But we cannot all be pastors. How does the Holy Spirit push you out into the world? How has the Holy Spirit empowered you?

Today’s text tells us what we have to enable us to be witness to the world. 

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

Love.

Joy.

Peace. 

Patience.

Kindness.

Generosity.

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control.

This is a nice list, isn’t it. And how often we give ourselves credit for loving, for being patient, for being kind or generous. How often we pride ourselves on our self-control. But Paul lists them after he lists their opposites, which, when faced with adversity or contradiction, we often revert to:

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

Fornication—that is sexual sins

Impurity 

disregard for the law

love of money, love of power

trusting in good luck or our own judgement

holding on to feelings of hate or jealousy

unresolved anger

holding on to grudges and quarrels and biases

wanting more than we need

partying to escape

Paul holds up the fruits as the opposite of these tendencies, these temptations.  Because of our sinful nature, because it is often so much easier to sin than to resist, accepting the fruits of the Spirit takes effort. 

To seek love over desire takes effort. 

To seek the deepness of joy over whatever amuses us takes effort.

To seek peace over convenience takes effort.

To offer kindness instead of judgement takes effort.

To offer generosity over jealousy takes effort.

To remain faithful takes continuous practice and attention.

To be gentle requires seeing each person as a child of God.

To have self-control—to think about the consequences of our actions—takes effort. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to automatically feel love for each Child of God?

Wouldn’t it be nice to automatically experience deep joy, the contentment that comes from recognizing God’s gifts to us?

Would’t it be nice to feel peace instead of anxiety every time we are challenged with change?

But we are not robots.  We have feelings and emotions. We are able to, we are wired to make decisions. The fruit of the Holy Spirit are the tools we have to be the people God created. God loves us. God finds joy in us.  God brings peace. God is kind and generous and gentle. Why else would God send the Son he loved as much as any parent loves a child to save us—each of us a mere blip in the population of humanity. God makes manifest in us those fruit, if we are willing to use them.

My father chose, in the last years of his life, to focus on one fruit each year. He practiced, in consecutive years, love, generosity, patience. He was at a time in his life when he could devote himself more intentionally to his faith and to Scripture. The last year of his life was marked by patience and he taught us how to be patient, too.

I have always admired that practice of his.  There are many ways for us to practice our faith. Some choose to read the Bible straight through from beginning to end. Some choose to worship at church every Sunday. Some choose to pray before every meal.  Some choose to witness to their friends and neighbors.  I would like us, as a congregation to choose a focus for a period of time.  I thought about each of us choosing our own fruit, but I think the power of the Holy Spirit would be more evident if we share the same goal, the same fruit, the same practice.  For seven years—or even seven weeks—we could put our energy into love or joy or patience, as a group. This will take some planning on my part and some engagement on your part.

We are not helpless; we have the strength of the Holy Spirit to carry us forward. We don’t have to invent love or joy or patience. God has provided these fruits, these tools, these realities to us. 

On this day a couple thousand years ago, God appeared in a form that has carried the church forward and has made the love of God the strongest force in the world. We see much evidence of sin in the world and we sometimes wonder why God doesn’t step in and abolish sin.  God has defeated sin in its most ugly and terrifying manifestation. God has defeated death. In the meantime, we, individually and together, defeat sin one person, one thought, one word, one act at a time, when we share the love of God with those who are missing God’s love. Sometimes it is we ourselves, the people in the pews, who lose sight of God. That is why God gives us community—to always be strengthening each other. 

In this space, we know that we can find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and, yes, even self-control. Let us each be carried away by the power of the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in the world, ugly and frightening as it may be. May we be the ones to bring beauty to the earth. Amen. 

What About the Law? Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

 Galatians 3:1-10  The Message

You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a spell on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

2-4 Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

5-6 Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you? Don’t these things happen among you just as they happened with Abraham? He believed God, and that act of belief was turned into a life that was right with God.

7-8 Is it not obvious to you that persons who put their trust in Christ (not persons who put their trust in the law!) are like Abraham: children of faith? It was all laid out beforehand in Scripture that God would set things right with non-Jews by faith. Scripture anticipated this in the promise to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed in you.”

9-10 So those now who live by faith are blessed along with Abraham, who lived by faith—this is no new doctrine! And that means that anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure. Scripture backs this up: “Utterly cursed is every person who fails to carry out every detail written in the Book of the law.”

23-24 Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

25-27 But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

28-29 In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

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Surely we understand God’s grace better than the first Gentile Christians. Surely we know the difference between being good people and being Christians.  And yet, I think we, like the Galatians, have to have it spelled out for us from time to time.

The Gentile converts were put in the position of having to follow all Jewish traditions, which included following all the laws. Like so many people, the Jewish people put great store in the law.  If one followed all the commandments, that pleased God and God would have mercy on them. (FYI, that is bad or wrong theology, but it is human nature to think like that).

From Cradle Roll on, we learn the ten commandments.  We hear Bible stories that glorify people doing good things—feeding people, healing people, helping people. It’s no wonder that we think we have to do good things to please God, to earn God’s love and grace.

In fact, we cannot ever do enough to earn God’s grace. We can never be perfect enough to warrant God’s mercy. We are, sad to say, sinners.  Even though we are created in the image of a sinless God, we sin. Every day.  Thoughts.  Words.  Deeds.

 It’s funny how following the Law becomes an obsession with us. The thing is, we often worry more about how other people follow the law. We’re more aware of the sins of others than we are of our own.  How often do you watch the news or exchange local gossip and automatically convert all the wrongs in the world into all the sins of the people in the news or the neighborhood? 

Am I the only one who does that?  Some of my friends, for instance, think that police brutality would end if everybody would just obey the law.  Some of my friends think that if everybody would get a job, the economy would right itself. Some of my friends believe that government is the answer; some of my friends believe that government is the problem. Some of my friends believe that unemployment benefits provide financial stability; some of my fiends believe that unemployment benefits make people lazy.  

Where do the Ten Commandments come in? Love God. Love your neighbor.  What does love look like? How does God know that I love God?  Think about the Ten Commandments as a mirror. If I look into that mirror, what do I see? If this mirror is made honestly, I see myself as worshipping God, as paying attention to God, as keeping God at the forefront of my efforts and desires.  I see myself honoring parents and children and the unique relationship among families.  I see myself being satisfied with what I have. I see myself treating people kindly and seeing the good in everyone, from the screaming baby to the angry politician. At least that’s what I want to see. Sometimes I see myself trying to get along without God, trying to use my own human logic to solve problems.  Sometimes I see myself judging others, looking for their faults, criticizing their decisions. Sometimes I want more than I need. Sometimes I am afraid to share, for fear that I will have to do without.  Sometimes I find family and marriage to be too confining, too demanding.  Sometimes I daydream about what could be instead of being thankful for what is.

And what does God see when God sees Dianne looking in the mirror of God’s laws?

God sees someone lovable, someone with potential, someone made in God’s image. God sees the person God created to love and be loved.  

God sees someone who has no hope of being perfect, no hope of keeping every commandment. So what did God do? God sent the perfect Son to be not only God, but also to be human.  That Son, Jesus, walked the same paths we walk, felt the same “feels” we feel, and, because he did not sin, was able to conquer sin. He did not conquer sin for himself or for God. He conquered sin for us, so that we could, despite our obvious guilt, could be united with God forever. 

Do we need the Law, the Ten Commandments?  Yes.  We need to review everyday what it means to be freed from sin.  When we are freed from sin, we are freed to love God and love our neighbor.  The commandments show us how. We don’t have to depend on our own judgment, we don’t have to depend on the laws that society or the government has written, to show our love for God and for all of God’s children.

If God, who is perfect beyond imagination can love us, surely it is worth the effort to acknowledge God’s great mercy and love to our fullest capacity. 

It is easy to think that “being good” is all it takes to please God.  We don’t have to please God. God loves us unconditionally.  You may have had to please your teacher, your parents, your spouse, your boss. God doesn’t want to be pleased. God wants to be worshipped. God wants to be honored.  God wants to be adored.  And God gives it right back to us in grace and mercy and unconditional love.  Amen.

Adiaphora Acts 15:1-18

15 Some people came from Judea and started teaching the Lord’s followers that they could not be saved, unless they were circumcised as Moses had taught. This caused trouble, and Paul and Barnabas argued with them about this teaching. So it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas and a few others to Jerusalem to discuss this problem with the apostles and the church leaders.

The men who were sent by the church went through Phoenicia and Samaria, telling how the Gentiles had turned to God. This news made the Lord’s followers very happy. When the men arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, including the apostles and the leaders. They told them everything God had helped them do. But some Pharisees had become followers of the Lord. They stood up and said, “Gentiles who have faith in the Lord must be circumcised and told to obey the Law of Moses.”

The apostles and church leaders met to discuss this problem about Gentiles. They had talked it over for a long time, when Peter got up and said:

My friends, you know that God decided long ago to let me be the one from your group to preach the good news to the Gentiles. God did this so that they would hear and obey him. He knows what is in everyone’s heart. And he showed that he had chosen the Gentiles, when he gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he had given his Spirit to us. God treated them in the same way that he treated us. They put their faith in him, and he made their hearts pure.

10 Now why are you trying to make God angry by placing a heavy burden on these followers? This burden was too heavy for us or our ancestors. 11 But our Lord Jesus was kind to us, and we are saved by faith in him, just as the Gentiles are.

12 Everyone kept quiet and listened as Barnabas and Paul told how God had given them the power to work a lot of miracles and wonders for the Gentiles.

13 After they had finished speaking, James said:

My friends, listen to me! 14 Simon Peter has told how God first came to the Gentiles and made some of them his own people. 15 This agrees with what the prophets wrote,

16  “I, the Lord, will return and rebuild David’s fallen house.
I will build it from its ruins and set it up again.

17  Then other nations will turn to me and be my chosen ones.
I, the Lord, say this. 18 I promised it long ago.”

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I learned a new word in seminary: adiaphora. Adiaphora means simply those things which are neither commanded by Scripture nor forbidden by Scripture.

What things are commanded by Scripture?  Love God.  Love your neighbor. 

But church as we know it is a lot more than commandments.

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “church?”

A building with a steeple?  Sunday morning worship? A congregation?

Stained glass windows?  Organ music? 

The first churches met in homes.  No steeples, no stained glass windows, no organs. Worship was on Sunday morning because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead. That practice has remained with us. Many of us believe we can’t start a new week without worship.  

What it means to be church, to do church has changed over the centuries.  For those of us who were born into the church, the practices and traditions seem necessary. For those who came to church for the first time as adults, the practices may seem strange and superfluous. For those who worshipped for the first time as children, worship can seem boring. 

Let’s look at some of our practices.

Let’s look first at our building.  What makes this building different from other buildings in town?

The stained glass windows. The altar.  The table. The pulpit. The organ. The balcony. Do you know of many buildings with an inside balcony? How about the pews? Where else would pews be considered proper seating?  Imagine a movie theater with pews instead of cushioned seats.  Why did our ancestors in the faith put out the big bucks for stained glass windows and pews and an organ?  

And what about worship?  Why do we sing?  Why do we always have an invocation, a confession and absolution? Why do we always not only collect money, but dedicate it?  We read scripture—that makes sense—but why do we need a sermon?  Why do we say the same prayer every Sunday?   

And what about holidays? Why do we have a Christmas Eve service and not a Pentecost Eve service?  Why do we have Lenten services? 

What about committees and councils? What about Sunday School? What about funerals and weddings? 

What are we talking about here?  Let’s call all these practices traditions.

Why do we cling to traditions?  Because we know them. They are familiar, comforting—stress-free, really.  No surprises. No having to learn something new. No upsetting routines.

So, this idea of adiaphora—-can we sort out what is commended and what is not commended? Our guidebook is Scripture, of course.   Where in the Bible does it say that our churches must have stained glass windows?  Nowhere, of course. So why do we need stained glass windows?  Short answer: we don’t. Long answer: they serve a purpose. 

Starting in the 11th century stained glass windows became a part of church architecture.  The first church to have such windows was the cathedral in Augsburg, Germany. Windows could be made larger because of the gothic architecture; the light they let in was considered to be the manifestation of God.   The subject matter of the windows was Bible stories, which served as Scripture for the people who could not read and who did not have access to printed Scripture. Most church windows still tell stories, still teach us lessons, still remind of us of who and Whose we are. 

What about the pews?  Up through the 13th Century, churches were SRO—standing room only—-nowhere and no way to sit. However, after the Reformation, the sermon became the most prominent feature of the worship service and pews were added so that people could sit during that long feature.  Can you imagine having to stand during the sermon? or during the entire service? 

In our Scripture today, the leaders of the church had to make a decision that was much more controversial than what kind of seating to provide.  

God had instructed Abraham centuries before that, as a sign of belonging to God’s people, all males should be circumcised. This became a physical mark of Jewishness and still is. In the days of Peter and Paul, Gentiles—non-Jewish persons—were not circumcised.  Because Christianity was the manifestation of Jewish prophecy, because Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and because Gentile Christians followed the Ten Commandments and read Jewish Scripture, maybe they should also have to follow other Jewish rules, like not eating pork or shrimp, and, of course, circumcision.  Underlying this concern was how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could interact with each other. What if someone brought pork chops to the potluck?  Would that be disgusting to any Jewish Christians? Do you have a food you don’t like that makes you lose your appetite? For some of us, the smell of liver and onions can make us ill. It’s not a matter of nutrition; it’s a matter of courtesy. To serve something that is knowingly distasteful to someone else is rude. 

That was the task set before the Jerusalem council. What is necessary and what is not necessary? By the way, this meeting is the perfect example of how to conduct any church meetings when there is controversy.  We’ll save that for another sermon. How many church meetings should have used Acts 15 alongside Roberts Rules of Order!  

Adiaphora—that which doesn’t make any difference—-theologically.  But in practice, some adiaphora—some of our traditions—must be kept.  

I had an hour-long interview with some very knowledgeable church people last Wednesday.  One of the things we discussed was that I don’t use the liturgy in our hymnal. In our Lutheran tradition, liturgy is a very important part of worship. Every song, every sung and spoken phrase is lifted straight from Scripture. They are not the words of a poet of the most recent century; they are Bible verses.  In most Lutheran churches, the same liturgy is sung every Sunday.  In our congregation, I have made a different choice.  I build a different liturgy every Sunday. We seldom have two worship services exactly alike.  I do that for two reasons: first, the liturgy is challenging to sing and, second, singing the same thing every Sunday can become rote, that is we lose the meaning and just sing out of habit.  However, there is an advantage to those words becoming embedded in our brains: they are instantly accessible whenever we need the Word of God int times of trouble or joy. 

When I was a child, we sang words from Psalm 51 every Sunday as the offering was carried to the altar: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence.” How often those words pop into my mind and I’m so thankful that I still know them.  I wouldn’t know them if I had’t sung them fifty-two times a year for twenty years.  So, perhaps I’m doing you a disservice by giving you prayers every week that are new to you.  Why do I give you new prayers, new words? Because you have to really look at them to be able to say them, to be able to understand them. 

Which brings up another topic: why do we need music?  We don’t, but what it adds to our worship!  And hymns! I truly think most Christians learn their theology not from Scripture and sermon, but from the hymns.  Because of the way hymns are structured—with rhythm and rhyme, they do stick in our minds.  And, more importantly, they are the word of God. Hymns reflect the Scripture.  Not everybody knows this, but the pastor always chooses hymns to reflect, repeat and emphasize the Scripture for the day.  Every hymn has as its basis words from Scripture. In some hymnals, the Scripture reference is listed next to the author and composer.  It’s that important. 

So, all these parts of our service—could we worship without stained glass windows?  Yes.Could we worship without music?   Could we worship by sitting in some other kind of seating? I have a friend whose church is a storefront and he has rocking chairs, folding chairs, upholstered chairs, recliners.  How often I have wished we had recliners instead of pews for people whose backs hurt during the whole service.

What we have to remember is that though something may seem unnecessary, it is helpful: helpful for the instruction of scripture. Helpful in directing us to worship God. Helpful for us to center our minds away from the world, away from everyday life, and toward God. John Wesley had a good rule of thumb. He said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Granted, our fancy buildings have become a financial burden. But they help us to worship.  One other thing that is absolutely necessary to Christianity is community. We cannot be Christians without being together. Even if we cannot be together in a building, we have learned to accept electronic community via applications like ZOOM. 

We have learned that from the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has helped us to sort out what is necessary and what is not necessary. We have learned that community is what we miss most when we are forced to remain apart. We have had access to Scripture and song and prayer. We have been able to love our neighbor through phone calls and donations to charities and rides to the doctor. But to worship in person, to be praying together, to someday return to singing together, to be able to hear the Word of God together—we have reached a new level of thankfulness.  

Phyllis Tickle wrote a great book about the state of the church in the late 20th-early 21st Century.  She titled it The Great Emergence. It’s not about cicadas emerging from their beds after seventeen years of sleep. It’s about the church emerging from 500 years of tradition.  She says the church has a “rummage sale” every 500 years—sorting through what we are and have and do, discarding what is no longer purposeful and keeping only what enables us to faithfully be Christians.

What do we keep?  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism.  The forgiveness of sins.  Life everlasting.

How do we keep our faith? Through the sharing of our faith in Community with Scripture and Worship and through the Sacraments.

Our traditions do not bring us salvation. Martin Luther gave us good reason to embrace our traditions: “We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and peace.” Our traditions give us structure and order and peace of mind so that distractions and obstacles are removed and we can worship as the whole People of God. Thanks be to God for what we have, adiaphora or not.  Amen.