“The Living Body of Christ: Who Do We Keep Out”

The Living Body of Christ: Who Do We Keep Out?

First Baptist Richmond, May 5, 2024

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

I once wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Luke. Do you know why? Because I love Luke! It’s my favorite Gospel. And mostly because Luke is such a wonderful storyteller. Do you know that if it wasn’t for Luke we wouldn’t have the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, or the Road to Emmaus? But apparently, when he got to the end of his Gospel, Luke still had some good stories to tell. In the Book of Acts he tells us about the Day of Pentecost, and Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, and something New Testament scholar Carl Holladay refers to as “the breakthrough event in the life of the early church,” the Conversion of Cornelius.i That’s the one we’re going to look at today.

It begins in the first verse of chapter 10, with the introduction of Cornelius as a Roman centurion, meaning that he was a military man: the commander of a hundred Roman soldiers. But he was also a godly man. Even though he was what the Old Testament might dismiss as an “uncircumcised Gentile,” Luke describes him as “devout,” noting that he and his household had tremendous respect for the God of Israel, that he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. I think Luke is trying to tell us that Cornelius was as close to God as a Gentile could get without actually becoming a Jew, that is, without submitting to the ritual requirements of circumcision, dietary laws, and sacrifices.ii

But one afternoon at about three o’clock Cornelius had a vision of an angel, who stood before him and said, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Sir?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything he sent them to Joppa.”

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. And Luke doesn’t have to introduce us to Peter. We know all about him, not only from the Gospel but also from his central role in the Book of Acts. He is the chief apostle, the one whose preaching led to the conversion of 3,000 people on the Day of Pentecost. But now, for whatever reason, he is in Joppa, on the Mediterranean Coast. Maybe he’s there on a spiritual retreat. But Luke tells us that while he was on the roof praying, “He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while it was being prepared he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.”

I want to pause there for a moment, because those ten words—“What God has made clean you must not call profane”—are crucial. In Hebrew the word for

“clean” is kosher, which you’ve probably heard before, but the word for unclean is tamē, which you probably haven’t heard. Strong’s Concordance defines it as “foul in a religious sense—defiled, infamous, polluted,” like those animals in the sheet Peter saw lowered down. But now he tells Peter to kill and eat some of those same animals. “God forbid it, Lord!” Peter says, shocked by the very idea. “I have never eaten anything unclean or profane!” The voice warns, “Don’t call unclean what God has made clean.” And then there’s a knock on the door, and when Peter opens it he finds three Gentiles standing there.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

They tell him they’ve been sent from a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and that Peter is supposed to come with them. He invites them in to spend the night but the next day he rounds up a few believers from Joppa and goes with them and on the following day they come to Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. There’s a big crowd there; Cornelius has invited his friends and family to hear what Peter has to say. Peter says, “Look, you yourselves know that the Law of Moses forbids a Jew to associate with or even to visit a Gentile, but the Lord has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for I came without objection. Now, what’s this all about?” And then Cornelius told him about the angel who had come to him and told him to send for Peter and to listen to whatever he had to say. And what Peter said, finally, was this: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That is, he doesn’t make the distinctions we do. He doesn’t regard some as clean and others as unclean. He seems to be ready to accept whoever is ready to be accepted. If we were trying to apply this story to our own context we might ask: What about us? Are we ready to accept those that God is ready to accept?

I know I’ve told this story before, but some of you weren’t here to hear it. It was May 13, 2008. I had been pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for exactly two days. At staff meeting on that Tuesday morning we were talking about the woman who had come forward on Sunday to join the church. I looked at her application for membership and in the margin, in pencil, someone had written, “Needs to be baptized.” “Why is that?” I asked. “It looks like she’s coming from the Methodist Church.” “Well, yes,” I was told, “but it’s our policy to baptize anyone who hasn’t been immersed.” And my reaction was exactly the same as if a nice Gentile boy had come down the aisle and someone had written a note in the margin saying, “Needs to be circumcised.”

I was shocked.

I know that in the Baptist tradition we practice believer’s baptism by immersion. It’s the only way I’ve ever done it and the only way I ever will. I love it that we wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind about Jesus before you are baptized, and that nobody carries you down the aisle of a Baptist church and nobody pushes you down. I love it that we baptize by immersion, which is a powerful symbol of being washed, of dying and rising to a whole new life, or even of being born again. What I didn’t love was the idea that someone who had become a Christian in another tradition—where they have their own beautiful reasons for doing things the way they do—couldn’t simply transfer their membership from that tradition to this one. Why were we asking them to start all over again with baptism, which is the initiation ritual of Christianity?

My questions in staff meeting started a church-wide conversation that went on for two years. We weren’t talking about changing the way we baptize, but we were talking about changing our membership policy so that we could welcome

those who had come to us from other Christian traditions without requiring them to be re-baptized. It seemed to me that we were treating Christians of other denominations the way the Jews used to treat Gentiles by letting a religious ritual stand in the way of their full inclusion. The Jews would say those Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to become Jews; we were saying those Methodists had to be immersed in order to become Baptists. But on that rooftop in Joppa Peter heard the voice of the Lord telling him, “Don’t call profane what I have made clean,” forcing him to reconsider his long-held understanding of who was in and who was out.

By the time he gets to Cornelius’s house he is able to acknowledge that even though the Law of Moses would forbid him to do what he is doing the Word of the Lord is teaching him something new. “God has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean,” he says. And that’s huge! Only a few days earlier if you had told him that there was a Gentile who wanted to join the church he might have said, “That’s wonderful! But of course he will have to be circumcised and begin following the Law of Moses.” A few chapters later some of the traditionalists in Jerusalem will say that very thing.iii But Peter’s mind is being opened in ways he never imagined, and after Cornelius tells his story of seeing an angel who praises him for his godliness Peter is able to say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That is, he doesn’t make the distinctions we do. He doesn’t regard some as clean and others as unclean. He seems to be ready to accept whoever is ready to be accepted.

And so Peter begins to tell these Gentiles the good news about Jesus, the Messiah. And based on his experience in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost he may have assumed that his hearers would 1) be cut to the heart, 2) repent, 3) ask

for baptism, and 4) receive the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is impatient. While Peter is still preaching the Spirit falls, throwing the whole thing out of sequence. It would be like Cheryl playing the Hymn of Invitation before I’d even finished the sermon, or people coming down the aisle to join the church before I’d asked them to come. Peter wasn’t finished yet, but the Spirit had heard all it needed to hear. Peter sees these Gentiles rejoicing, he hears them speaking in tongues, and he realizes that something more powerful than the order of worship is at work. He says to those who are with him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these who have received the Spirit just as we have?” And no one among those six Jewish believers who had come with him from Joppa could think of a single good reason. They had witnessed this miracle with their own eyes.

But word got back to Jerusalem, and those Jewish believers who hadn’t seen it wanted a full accounting. Peter was baptizing Gentiles? What?!? So he laid it out for them step by step, telling them the whole story of being up on the rooftop in Joppa, of seeing the sheet lowered, of hearing a voice say, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat,” and being told that what God had made clean he should not call profane. That led him to the home of Cornelius where he first told them that he shouldn’t be there, but then admitted that God had made it clear to him that he shouldn’t make distinctions. And so he shared the gospel with those Gentiles, and while he was preaching the Holy Spirit fell on them and they began to speak in tongues. “And I remembered the word of the Lord,” Peter told them, “how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave [to these Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:16-17). And here’s the real miracle: Luke writes, “When they heard this, [Peter’s critics] were

silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

Frank Stagg says that ultimately, this good news was too much for the Jewish believers to accept. In his commentary on Acts he writes: “The problem of accepting uncircumcised Gentiles became increasingly difficult for Jewish Christians, leading to their eventual self-exclusion from the Christian community….iv That which finally proved unacceptable to them was the fact that Christianity threatened to release even the Jews from the ritual law and demanded the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the kingdom….v Christianity did not demand of Gentiles that they become Jews; it did not require them to become members of the Jewish nation. Instead, it formed a new community in which Jew and Gentile were equal, or rather in which the matter of being a Jew or a Gentile was irrelevant.”vi

It’s like some people were saying fifteen years ago when we were talking about letting Methodists become members without immersing them. Some said, “If we do that we’ll have to take the name Baptist right off the building.” But you know what? We did it, and we didn’t take the name Baptist off the building, and some of those Methodists have turned out to be pretty good Baptists. It’s like my brother-in-law, Chuck, the Episcopal priest, said to me in those days when I asked if I would have to be re-baptized in order to join his church. He said, “Absolutely not! We would accept your baptism. But we would also immerse you in the Episcopal way of doing things.” Maybe Peter learned to say to those Gentile converts, “We’re not going to ask you to be circumcised, or follow the Jewish dietary laws, or make ritual sacrifices. But we are going to ask you to learn the way of Jesus, and to walk in it for the rest of your life. Are you ready to do that?” And if

someone said yes to that question, no matter who they were, could there be any good reason to keep them out?

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Living Body of Christ: Go Where I Send Thee”

The Living Body of Christ: Go Where I Send Thee

First Baptist Richmond, April 28, 2024

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he got up and went.

We didn’t read it this morning, but the text for today’s sermon is Acts 8:26-40. It’s the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, which is one of my favorites. With your permission I’d like to retell it with a little explanation and a little application, but mostly just appreciation for the story of this groundbreaking moment in the life of the early church.

It begins with Philip, not the one who was a disciple of Jesus but the one who was numbered among the “seven men of good repute” you may remember from Acts, chapter 6. We often read that passage when we’re ordaining deacons, because these seven were chosen by the congregation (just as we do it here), but then they were prayed over by the apostles, who laid hands on them and set them apart for special service. In some ways these seven were the first deacons, but their job wasn’t nearly as important: they were simply supposed to make sure that the Greek widows weren’t neglected in the daily distribution of food. As the apostles put it, they were set apart to “wait on tables” (vs. 2). That was it; that was all.

But then one of the seven, Stephen, was stoned to death because he wouldn’t stop preaching (some deacons are like that). In Acts, chapter 8, Luke writes: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and

all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them” (vss. 1, 4-5). And this is one of the reasons I love this story, and one of the reasons I love Philip. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They thought of them as half-breeds. They wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But Philip was full of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit doesn’t care: it has no prejudice, it makes no distinctions. When Philip was driven out of Jerusalem he went to Samaria, and started preaching to the despised Samaritans, telling them the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah.

When I was looking at the Book of Acts last week I remembered what Frank Stagg said about it. Dr. Stagg was a brilliant New Testament scholar who finished up his teaching career at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, my alma mater. He was retired by the time I got there, but Christy and I once hosted him at the seminary guest house and I remember him sipping Coca-Cola from one of those little six-and-a-half-ounce bottles and telling us stories from his native Louisiana, some of them sprinkled with a Cajun accent that was simply part of his heritage.

Dr. Stagg had this theory that the last word in the Book of Acts explained what Luke was trying to do when he wrote it. The last word is akolutos, an adverb, which Dr. Stagg translated as “unhinderedly.” He said not many books end with adverbs. They don’t make for a strong ending. But this one, he claimed, is what the Book of Acts is all about: it’s the story of how the gospel broke through one barrier after another until, in the end, Paul was in Rome, preaching the gospel “quite openly and unhinderedly” (Acts 28:31).i

So, when Philip started preaching to the Samaritans he was breaking through a barrier, through one of those “hindrances” to the gospel that Dr. Stagg talked about. And the Samaritans responded. They lined up to be baptized. Peter and John came down from Jerusalem to investigate but when they saw what Philip was doing they gave it their blessing. They prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit and they did, and in the early church that was all the evidence you needed to prove that someone was “in.” Prejudice said one thing about the Samaritans, but the Spirit said another. Prejudice said they had no place among God’s people, but the Spirit said they did. The Spirit broke down the walls and kicked down the doors that kept others out. It removed those hindrances to the gospel Dr. Stagg talked about, so that it could be proclaimed among the Samaritans “quite openly and unhinderedly.” That’s what Philip was doing, and maybe that’s why God chose him to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

In Acts 8:26 an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Luke explains that this is a wilderness road, which means that it’s in the middle of nowhere. In other words an angel told Philip to get up and go to the middle of nowhere and Philip went. It’s not the kind of thing you or I might do but it’s almost exactly what you would expect the living body of Christ to do, and that’s the name of this series, remember? You and I are part of the living body of Christ, and we can learn something from Philip’s example. An angel of the Lord told him to get up and go to the middle of nowhere and Philip…got up and went. Would that we all were so obedient!

Who knows how long he stood there, waiting by the side of the road, but eventually an Ethiopian Eunuch came along riding in a chariot, reading from the

Book of Isaiah. In a sermon on this same passage Presbyterian preacher Andrew Connors says, “Chances are good that this Greek-speaking Jew from the Holy Land had never before encountered an upper-crust member of the African elite. That’s how Ethiopian would be understood in the culture of New Testament times: not a person from what we know today as the nation of Ethiopia, but an exotic stranger from the African continent with skin like polished mahogany. Not a person to be despised,” Connors insists, “but a leading member of a wealthy court—a person most Greeks would have admired.”ii

So when the Spirit told Philip to go over and join this chariot Philip ran. And when he heard what the eunuch was reading he asked him if he understood it. The eunuch said, “How can I, when there’s no one to explain it to me?” He invited Philip to come up and sit beside him and Philip did. The passage he was reading was from Isaiah 53, where it says, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (vss. 7-8). The eunuch asked Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about? Himself, or someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. This scripture, Luke says: the one from Isaiah 53, the one about the suffering servant.

Do you remember that episode from Luke 24, when the risen Jesus was walking along the road to Emmaus with two disciples who hadn’t yet figured out who he was? He asked them what they were talking about and they wondered if he was the only stranger in Jerusalem who hadn’t heard about Jesus, a prophet mighty in word and deed. They had thought that he would be the one to redeem

Israel, but then he had been arrested and crucified and now they didn’t know what to think. Jesus said, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” And then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures and showed them how it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer and then enter into his glory. That’s not the way they had understood it. They had thought that we are the ones who suffer and die, while the Messiah is the one who conquers and rules. Because Jesus had suffered and died they had decided that he wasn’t the Messiah, but there, on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus helped them see things another way, and as they did their hearts “burned” within them.

I’ve always wondered which scriptures Jesus shared with those disciples on the road. Luke doesn’t tell us, not in his Gospel anyway. But here in Acts 8 it seems clear that at least one of them was this passage from Isaiah 53, the one about the suffering servant. Philip, who had been taught by the apostles (who had been taught by Jesus), was able to say to this Ethiopian Eunuch, “The prophet wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about Jesus, the Messiah, who suffered and died but then rose from the dead to reign forever!” And Philip was just getting started. By the time he finished preaching the Ethiopian Eunuch was ready to join the church, and when they got to a certain point on the journey he said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And maybe it’s because I’m not a Greek-speaking Jew from the First Century, maybe it’s because I’m from this part of the world, where Africans have not always been treated with such respect and admiration, but when I’ve preached on this passage before I’ve said, “What was to prevent him from being

baptized? Everything!” In the first place he was a eunuch, and according to Deuteronomy 23:1 no one like him was permitted to enter the assembly of the Lord. But in the second place he was an Ethiopian. If you’ve read our church history you may recall that on the first Sunday of January, 1965, two Nigerians who were students at Virginia Union University came down the aisle requesting membership. Dr. Adams was the pastor in those days, and he had been the President of the Baptist World Alliance. He had traveled all over the world, including the part of the world these two young men had come from. Their fathers were pastors who had told them that while they were in Richmond they should visit the church of the famous Dr. Adams. They did, and at the end of the service they came forward to join the church.

The congregation was all white in those days, and if those Africans had thought to ask anyone before coming down the aisle what was to prevent them from joining they might have been told that it was the color of their skin. But they didn’t ask. They couldn’t imagine that a church so clearly led by the Holy Spirit would make such distinctions. But when Dr. Adams introduced them he explained that the deacons would have to meet and the church would have to vote before their membership became official.

The sanctuary was packed on that Wednesday night a few weeks later, and the meeting ran long. Some 50 or 60 people stood to speak either for or against the motion to welcome the Nigerians. It wasn’t pretty. But when the vote was taken it was in their favor, and the door of the church was opened a little wider. In the context of this sermon series I might say it’s just what you would expect the living body of Christ to do.

This church learned from that experience. It learned that welcoming

diversity into our membership makes things better, not worse. It makes our fellowship richer and sweeter. I’ve come to the place where I couldn’t imagine First Baptist without its members and friends of African descent. And don’t get me started on those people who have found their way here from places like India, Korea, China, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The title of this sermon is, “Go Where I Send Thee,” and through the years this church has sent missionaries to every part of the world, led by the same spirit that sent Philip to preach to an Ethiopian eunuch. But these days it seems that God is sending the world to us, and the only question is how it will be received. When we talk about our values in the newcomers class one of them is “the beauty of our diversity.” Yes. When I look out over the growing diversity in our congregation it’s beautiful. It looks more and more like the Kingdom of God and I believe it’s one of the ways we are bringing heaven to earth.

But back to Philip and that Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip must have explained to him that anyone who wanted to follow Jesus, the Messiah, would need to be baptized. And if the eunuch wasn’t familiar with that Philip may have had to explain to him how baptism works. But apparently that didn’t put the eunuch off, because when they got to a certain point on that journey he said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” If Philip had been to seminary he might have known that the Law forbids a eunuch to enter the assembly of the Lord. He might have assumed the church had the same standards. But Philip hadn’t been to seminary. He wasn’t a pastor, he was a deacon. He didn’t follow the letter of the Law but the leadership of the Spirit, and he couldn’t think of one good reason to say no. It’s what I love about Philip. But what I love about this eunuch is that he couldn’t think of one good reason either. He laid aside his

expensive copy of the Book of Isaiah. He got down out of his fancy chariot. He shucked off his opulent robes and waded out into the water with Philip, this dusty itinerant evangelist who had shown him the way of life. And then, in an act of absolute humility, he professed his faith in Jesus as Lord and was dipped down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Luke says that when they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. His work there was done. But the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. I picture him getting dressed, getting back into the chariot, slapping the reins, and going down the road singing old hymns and shouting, “Hallelujah!” And what do you think he did when he got home? Don’t you think he told somebody what had happened to him on the way? Don’t you think he began to share the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah?

What about you? I don’t know how many things might have prevented you from being baptized but if you were, if you were bold enough to ask and someone was bold enough to do it, shouldn’t you be telling everyone? And if you haven’t been baptized wouldn’t this be a good day to come down the aisle and ask for it? Because at the moment, I can’t think of one good reason to say no.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Actions Say?”

The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Actions Say?

First Baptist Richmond, April 21, 2024

1 John 3:16-24

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

In this Easter Season sermon series I’ve been talking about the church as “The Living Body of Christ,” focusing on the way the early church embodied the mission and message of Jesus and then looking at this church to see if we still do. Last week we listened to what our neighbors say about us and it was mostly complimentary. Most of us walked out of here feeling like we are doing a pretty good job of embodying the mission and message of Jesus. But this series requires us to be self-critical, like when your boss asks you how you think you’re doing on meeting the expectations of your job description. It can be humbling. You might not be killing it in every category. On the church website it says we are “bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”—which is just what I think Jesus would want us to do, and what some of our neighbors might say we are actually doing—but sometimes I lie awake at night wondering, “Are we? Or are we just saying that?”

I know church mission statements are supposed to be aspirational, they’re supposed to call us beyond where we actually are and keep us moving toward a goal we may never actually reach, but what if they were a little more honest, a little more realistic? What if you drove past a church in the country with a sign out front that read, “Trying to keep the lights on and the doors open since 1956”?

What if there was a church in the suburbs that proclaimed, “Hoping to provide a reasonably adequate worship service with an OK preacher and an organist who hits the right notes most of the time. Visitors tolerated”? What if that beautiful old building downtown had a sign out front that read, “Simply hoping to survive the steep national decline in attendance and giving”? Those seem like realistic mission statements to me. But bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—and beyond? That’s a tall order, almost as tall as the one implied by today’s reading from 1 John 3, where the writer seems to believe that the church of Jesus Christ should embody the love of God.

He writes: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” This is where I wish we could hear the text and not only read it, because I can imagine the author of those words pronouncing them as if it were absolutely inconceivable that anyone who professed to be a believer could withhold the world’s goods from a brother or sister. “How does the love of God abide in such a person?” he asks, astonished, knowing that the love of God is—by definition—selfless and sacrificial. It pours itself out for the sake of others. Jesus is our best example of God’s selfless and sacrificial love. He had that love in him. He poured it out for us. So, how can anyone say he has that kind of love inside himself if he has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?

Let me focus on two words: brother and sister. In the Greek New Testament it’s only one word—brother—but our translators know that the author of 1 John is talking not only about the male members of the church but also about the female members: “brothers and sisters” as they called one another in those days. They were trying to remind themselves that Jesus had made them part of God’s family,

and if God was their Father then that lonely looking fellow sitting next to them on the pew was their brother, and that woman trying to keep her baby quiet on the pew behind them was their sister. So, I think it’s fair to say that the author of 1 John is not asking us to feed and clothe the world, but to feed and clothe our fellow church members. That helps, but not a lot, because it is Jesus who makes us part of God’s family and Jesus seems to have a special place in his heart for those who are in need. He keeps going out to the highways and hedges and bringing back people who don’t have a place anywhere else. Which can make those of us who have the world’s goods a little uncomfortable.

“If Jesus keeps bringing these brothers and sisters in here,” we think—“these who don’t have the world’s goods—and if those of us who do have to keep sharing what we have with them, soon we won’t have any left for ourselves, and then someone else will have to take care of us. That doesn’t even make sense!” But the fact that we would even think those thoughts betrays the truth that we are afraid—afraid of not having enough. The author of 1 John can’t understand that. Shaking his head he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Let’s focus on the word abide for a minute. In Greek it means something like, “to remain, to dwell, to take up residence.” The author of 1 John seems to believe that if the love of God has taken up residence in you there won’t be any room for fear. Because the love of God is like the Spirit of God (in fact those two things might be the same thing). On the Day of Pentecost, when that Spirit was poured out on the believers, it wasn’t like, “Say when!” No, God just kept pouring and pouring and pouring until the believers were filled to overflowing, until strange words began to pour out of their mouths and they, themselves, began to

pour out into the streets.

When the love of God fills you up like that there is no room for fear. As the author of this letter will say in the next chapter, “Perfect love casts out fear.” You just see that brother or sister in need and you say, “Oh, honey! This won’t do! You can’t be walking around here hungry, or homeless, or shivering! We’ve got to take care of you!” And you’ve heard stories like this—I have, too—where someone pours themselves out for another person, where before you know it that person who used to be homeless is living in their house and wearing their clothes and driving their car, and you cluck your tongue and say, “Be careful! These people will take advantage of you! Before you know it they’ll be sitting on your couch, holding the remote control!” But love doesn’t care. And like the Spirit of God the love of God, especially, doesn’t seem to care.

I’ve been thinking about that in regard to this debate in the Southern Baptist Convention about whether women can be pastors. I look back to the story of Pentecost, when everyone thought the believers were full of another kind of spirit, and I hear Peter saying, “These people are not drunk as you imagine. This is what the prophet Joel was talking about, that in the last days God will pour out his spirit on all flesh (not just some flesh). Your sons and daughters will prophesy,” he says (not just your sons), because the Spirit doesn’t care. You see it over and over again in the Book of Acts. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh because the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s male or female flesh, the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s Jew or Gentile flesh, the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s slave or free flesh. Because the Spirit can fill up any kind of flesh that will receive it and so can the love of God. It can fill up the flesh of those who have the world’s goods and when it does, and when those people see a brother or sister in need, the love of God overflows in action. Those

people don’t just feel something, they do something.

The author of 1 John seems to know this from experience, and maybe that’s why he is so baffled by those who have the world’s goods, and see a brother or sister in need, and yet refuse to do anything for them. Notice that he doesn’t say they neglect to do anything for them, but rather that they refuse—that is, they make a conscious decision. I want to be as generous about this as possible because I’ve known some of those people, people who refused to share, and I believe they did it not because they were selfish or mean-spirited but because they were afraid, afraid that if they gave away even some of what they had they wouldn’t have enough for themselves. Maybe it’s also true for denominations that won’t allow women to serve as pastors. Maybe the men are not so much selfish and mean-spirited as they are simply afraid that if they begin to share their power soon there won’t be any left for them. So the question is, how do you get over that kind of fear? And the answer, of course, is love. Perfect love casts out fear.

Where can we get some of that?

The answer may be in this same passage of Scripture. In 1 John 3:23 the author writes: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Believe in Jesus, and love one another. Let me say that again: believe in Jesus, and love one another. That seems so simple. And yet I have a feeling that if we believe in Jesus we will love one another, that we won’t be able to help ourselves.

This analogy popped into my mind when I was looking at this passage earlier: I thought about a little boy who decides to water the lawn because the grass has gotten brown and dry; only he doesn’t know anything about sprinklers or garden hoses; he only knows about watering cans. So he takes his mother’s

watering can to the outdoor faucet, turns it on, fills it up, and then drags it out to the middle of the yard and waters the grass. When the can is empty he takes it back to the faucet, fills it up, drags it into the middle of the yard, and waters some more grass. He just keeps doing this and doing this until he’s nearly worn out from watering.

But maybe that’s the way we love one another: by going to the source of love, by believing in Jesus, by worshiping him, by singing his praises, by spending time in his presence until our watering cans are full and we can begin to pour them out in love on all the people around us. And let me just say this while we’re on the subject:

Church is a good place to fill your can.

If you’ve been coming to First Baptist for even a few weeks now, if you’ve been participating in worship through our webcast or our broadcast, I hope you’ve heard me lift up the Lord Jesus as an example of God’s selfless and sacrificial love, and I hope you’ve heard me say that God loves you, no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from. John says it another way in the next verse. He says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.” And there’s that word again. He abides in them. The Lord Jesus himself takes up residence in them. And when he does there will never be a lack of love. The last sentence in today’s passage reads: “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” Think about it: the Spirit of God, like the love of God, filling us to overflowing.

That’s part of my regular morning prayer. I say: “Lord, bless your church called Richmond’s First Baptist. Fill the pews with people who love you and long to sing your praises; fill the offering plates with the generous gifts of a grateful

people; fill the classrooms with disciples who lean over open Bibles, eager to hear and obey your word; fill the hallways with brothers and sisters who greet one another with hugs and laughter. Fill us with your love until it overflows onto the streets of our city and into every surrounding suburb, until your Kingdom comes and your will is done in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

I pray that prayer every day, but some days I see it answered. I still remember the day I was in my study here at church and needed to go to a meeting. I opened the door to step out into the hallway but I couldn’t, because there were children sitting in front of my door. Not little ones, like we have in our preschool, but big ones, like fourth or fifth graders. It was some of the students from Fox Elementary School trying to squeeze themselves into our building after their building had burned.

It didn’t happen overnight. When we heard about the fire some of our members and staff members began to wonder if we could take Fox Elementary School into our building. I don’t know if they said it like this but the reasoning was the same: “How can we say that the love of God abides in us if we have the world’s goods and refuse to share them with those in need?” We have this building—this big, beautiful building. It has classrooms in it and offices and a gym and a big side yard. It’s not perfect, but it might work as a temporary home for Fox Elementary. What do you think? Our staff worked hard to figure out the logistics. I remember them worrying that the deacons might not approve the idea, or that the church wouldn’t support it. We didn’t know how disruptive it might be or how long it would go on. We didn’t know if it would be two weeks or two years. But when it came time for a vote the vote was unanimous. Not one person objected. Not one person said, “But what if the pastor has trouble getting out of his study

with all those kids sitting in the hall?” I think that’s what love looks like, and I think that’s how love expresses itself—through tangible, concrete actions that say to our members, our neighbors, and our city,

“God loves you.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Neighbors Say?”

The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Neighbors Say?

First Baptist Richmond, April 14, 2024

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 the staff was wondering how we could reach “the Fan.” I didn’t even know what that was. They said, “It’s the church’s nearest neighborhood—the Fan District. It’s full of beautiful homes and well-to-do people who sit on their front porches on Sunday morning sipping lattes and reading the New York Times. Only they don’t seem to be interested in coming to church. How do you think we could reach them?” And I remember thinking that people don’t like to be “reached,” they don’t like to have targets painted on their backs, and that these people, in particular, might not appreciate being the object of our evangelistic efforts. I thought about how Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and wondered what would happen if we did that. I said, “What if, instead of reaching the Fan, we tried loving the Fan?” And the staff, at that time, seemed to think that was a pretty good answer.

But last week I asked a member of our current staff, Matthew Hensley, our Minister of Christian Invitation, how we were doing. “What do our neighbors say about us?” I asked. And Matthew pulled out a collection of quotes he has been gathering since he got here two years ago. The first one was like an answer to that question the staff had asked me back in 2008. Rebecca Keller, the President of the Fan District Association, said, “Thank you for all the wonderful partnership with

the Fan over the years. Your church is truly a good neighbor.” I could have stopped right there, because that’s one of my regular catchphrases: whenever I have a chance to greet people from the Fan I like to tell them that “First Baptist Church is trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.”

But Matthew had more.

Someone who came to our Classics and Cocoa series in February said, “We really like the way you responded and opened your church to the students at Fox Elementary School [after their building burned].” Someone from the Museum District, which is the neighborhood just across Arthur Ashe Boulevard, said, “I came to your Divorce Recovery Workshop over twenty years ago. What your church provided was really needed and it saved my life.” Someone from Westover Hills, who brings his son to our Upward Basketball program, said, “Thank you for hosting Upward – your church is doing things the ‘right way.’” Karen, one of our neighbors from Tuscan Villas, the condominium complex right next door, said, “Your compassion ministry is a wonderful gift to those in need.” And then Matthew was talking to someone whose house is literally across the street from the church, who said, “You all are wonderful neighbors!” And that’s the one that got my attention, because I know that house, and one of its former residents wouldn’t have said that.

I feel sure I’ve told you this story before, but I can’t find it in my files, so maybe you can’t find it in yours either. But one of the former residents of that house came to me years ago to complain about the church. He said, “This place never shuts down. These people who come to your compassion ministry start lining up on Park Avenue at six o’clock on Monday morning, and that would be bad enough, but you’ve got your ladies’ Bible studies and your Boy Scouts and

your Upward Basketball and your Richmond Symphony Orchestra, not to mention what it’s like on Sunday morning, when there’s not a parking place to be found for five blocks in any direction!” He said, “We used to live on the Northside, next to a church that was only open for choir practice on Wednesday night and a couple of hours on Sunday morning. That was nice. Why can’t you be a little more like that?”

I listened to his complaints but eventually said, “You know, this is part of what we love about the city, it’s one of the reasons you and I moved here: it’s alive!” He snorted and said something about not needing so much life, about simply wanting a little peace and quiet, but as he got up to go I told him I would do what I could.

What I ended up doing was driving to J. Emerson, the fancy wine and cheese shop in Libbie Grove, and asking them to put together a gift basket—a nice one. When I took it to his house that afternoon he smirked and said, “Is this a peace offering?” “Yes!” I said. “That’s exactly what it is. I’m trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.” He and his partner moved out soon after that and Shaka Smart, the head basketball coach at VCU moved in. Now, he was a great neighbor, and his mother-in-law, Margaret Payne, came to church here every Sunday.

But what about that first church, the one in the Book of Acts? What did their neighbors say about them? Apparently it wasn’t all good. In chapter 3 we learn that Peter and John were on their way to the temple around 3:00 one afternoon, the usual time for prayer, when they saw some people carrying a crippled beggar to his usual spot beside the Beautiful Gate. When they set him down he looked up, saw Peter and John, and asked them for some money. Peter

looked at him intently and said, “I don’t have any money, but I’ll give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk!” And then he took him by the hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong, and he began to praise the Lord and the neighbors began to complain.

Not all of them, of course; Luke says most of them were filled with “wonder and astonishment.” They listened eagerly to Peter’s explanation of what had just happened, and how it was faith in the name of Jesus—the one their leaders had killed in cold blood, the one that God had raised from the dead—faith in his name that had made this man well. But the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees eventually elbowed their way through the crowd, “much annoyed” (as Luke puts it) because Peter and John were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. Since it was already late, they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day. “But many of those who heard the word believed, and they numbered about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).

In his comments on this passage New Testament scholar Carl Holladay writes, “Luke wants his readers to see that the church is the divinely appointed messianic community through which the God of Israel is now at work in new and decisive ways…. The locus of divine activity has now shifted, however. Formerly the [glory] of God, the Shekinah, dwelt in the temple. Now it is focused in the name of Jesus (v. 16).”i And he’s right about that. This episode takes up most of chapters three and four in the Book of Acts, and if you look for it, you will find that the name is mentioned nine times:

It begins when Peter says to the beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of

Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). And then afterward, when Peter is explaining the man’s healing, he says, “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong” (3:16). When Peter and John are being questioned their interrogators ask, “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7) And Peter replies, “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10). Two verses later he says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” The authorities couldn’t deny that a miracle had happened, and that it had happened in the name of Jesus. And so they ordered Peter and John to no longer speak or teach in that name, and then released them. But as the apostles were praying later they said, “And now, Lord, grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

What were the neighbors of that first church in Jerusalem saying? They were saying, “These people won’t quit talking about Jesus!” They couldn’t understand why. But we understand why, don’t we? We know that there is power in that name. It’s why so many of us end our prayers by saying, “We ask it in the name of Jesus, Amen.” It’s not only something Jesus told us to do,ii it’s an attempt to apply the power of that name to our own, feeble prayers in the hope that they will be answered. But it’s not a magic word. It’s not like saying “Abracadabra” or “Hocus Pocus.” My friend Drexel Rayford insists that, “To do something in Jesus’ name is to do something that is consistent with the nature and character of Jesus.” It is to do what Jesus himself might do. By the same token to pray in Jesus’

name is to pray for something that Jesus himself might pray for. And to use the name of Jesus—the divine name—rightly and not wrongly, is to use it in a way that is consistent with the nature and character of Jesus.

But you might be wondering: what is his nature and character? How would you find out about that? The answer, I think, is to look at the things Jesus actually did, and to listen to the things he actually said. That’s how we discern the nature and character of anyone. And because the Gospel writers took the time and made the effort, many of the words and deeds of Jesus have been recorded. You can sit down in your own home, put your feet up on the coffee table, open your Bible, and read for yourself what Jesus said and did. And if you didn’t have time for all four of the Gospels, you could learn a lot simply by turning to the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four. You can read it in an hour. And if you do, you will come away with a much clearer picture of the nature and character of Jesus.

So, what did Jesus do, and what did Jesus say? When I was teaching the Gospel of Mark to college freshmen I used to tell them that Jesus went around Galilee doing “show and tell,” that is, he told people about the Kingdom of God and showed them what it would look like. For instance:

The first thing Jesus says in this Gospel is: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (1:15). The good news of the coming kingdom, that is. And then Jesus tells people about that kingdom through his preaching and teaching, and much of it is done in parables, where he compares the kingdom to something small and ordinary, like a mustard seed. Because the people he was talking to hadn’t had any experience of the kingdom. They didn’t know what he knew. And so in parable after parable he said, “It’s like this, or like this, or like this.” He was trying to communicate heavenly

truth in earthly expressions, and that’s not easy.

But he also demonstrated the kingdom. He showed people again and again what the world would look like when God finally had his way. He healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons. He opened the eyes of the blind. He unstopped the ears of the deaf. He fed people who were hungry. He comforted those who were sad. He let the little children come to him. And wherever he went, things got better.

Think about that for a minute.

Suppose Christians in this country had that reputation. Suppose that wherever they went, things got better. I don’t think that’s how it is these days, and I think it’s because not all of them are acting in ways that are consistent with the message and mission of Jesus. They’ve gotten the wrong idea about what it means to be a Christian. They think it’s about individual salvation, about personal piety or purity, or about getting God to answer all their prayers. Some of them seem to think that being a Christian is all about being an American (or maybe it’s the other way around). No, I think my friend Drexel Rayford was right; I think that when we do things in the name of Jesus we do them in a way that is consistent with his mission and message. That is, we do the kind of things that Jesus would do. We say the kind of things that Jesus would say.

So, I’m wondering:

What would our neighbors say if we couldn’t stop helping people and healing people and talking about what the world will look like when God finally has his way? Well, some of them might complain. Some of them have. “You have all these divorced people coming here to find hope for the future. You have all these homeless people coming here to get hot showers and clean clothes. You’ve

got all these lonely people coming here to make friends and find community. You’ve got all these other people coming here looking for meaning and purpose. Why don’t you stop all that? It’s causing traffic jams. It’s keeping me from finding a parking place! Why don’t you just have choir practice on Wednesday night and church on Sunday morning? Why do you have to be helping people and healing people all the time?”

Why? Well, because we believe it’s what Jesus would do. When the pastor of 1 John faced that kind of opposition from his neighbors he explained to his congregation, “The reason these people don’t understand us is because they didn’t understand him.” If they had they would know: this is just what it looks when people minister in the name of Jesus. This is just what it looks like when God’s kingdom begins to come. Not everybody is going to like that. But for the people who have been waiting for that kingdom, praying for that kingdom, working for that kingdom,

It will be heaven on earth.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Good News We Live”

The Good News We Live

First Baptist Richmond, April 7, 2024

Acts 4:32-35

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

On Easter Sunday I started a new sermon series called “the Living Body of Christ,” suggested by my friend Don Flowers who wrote, “This is a series on the Easter season readings mostly from the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, which may be an excellent way for us to think about how the mission and message of Jesus lived on through the early church. How do they live on in us?” And then he suggested some sermon titles: “The Good News We Share,” “The Good News We Live,” “What Do Our Neighbors Say?” Etc. On Easter we looked at the Good News Peter shared with Cornelius, a Gentile, who didn’t know anything about Jesus. So, Peter shared his version of the gospel, which you can find in the tenth chapter of Acts, and which you can read in about 30 seconds.

Peter came down hard on several important points: 1) that God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; 2) that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; 3) that he became a threat to the religious and political authorities of Israel who tried to stop him by putting him to death; 4) but God wouldn’t take their no for an answer; God said yes to Jesus by raising him from the dead; 5) Peter said, “We are witnesses to these things, we saw the risen Lord, we ate and drank with him; 6) he commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who will

judge the living and the dead; and 7) everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That’s Peter’s version of the gospel, that’s his 30-second “elevator speech” when someone says, “Tell me about Jesus.” But I wonder what yours would be? What would you tell people about Jesus if you only had 30 seconds to do it? What would be the most important part of your elevator speech? I hope you will actually take some time to think about that and perhaps even write something down. We’re trying to let the Good News of Easter sink down deep inside us and impact the way we live. That was certainly true for the early church; can it be true for us as well?

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts we get our second summary statement about how things were going in the early church. The first comes at the end of chapter two—after the Holy Spirit has come upon the believers on the Day of Pentecost, and after Peter has preached a sermon that results in the conversion of 3,000 people—Luke tells us that the believers, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and concludes by writing, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

But then a crisis occurs: Peter and John are arrested for healing a crippled beggar; they come before the religious authorities and for a moment it looks as if they will be put to death just as Jesus was; but, no! They are released. They come back to the other believers rejoicing. And then Luke sums up the life of the early church once again. Only this time there’s a difference. See if you can hear it:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Did you hear it? The believers are still united in heart and mind, they are still bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus, but in Luke’s summary of their common life there is a great emphasis on the fact that no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, that everything they owned was held in common. “There was not a needy person among them,” Luke says. So, here’s what I want you to do: tomorrow morning those of you who have lands or houses can put them up for sale and then, when you sell them, you can bring the money here to the church and lay it at the deacons’ feet so that if there’s anyone in need among us we will have plenty of money to take care of them.

I’m joking, right? I’m not really asking you to do that. That would be fiscally irresponsible. But apparently those first believers really did. Because the resurrection of Jesus changed everything for them. It turned the world upside down. The things that used to matter so much didn’t matter anymore and the things they had neglected for years became incredibly important: Bible study, fellowship, worship, prayer, spending time together in church, breaking bread together in homes, praising God with glad and generous hearts, and having the goodwill of all the people as the Lord added daily to their number. How do we get some of that? Without giving up everything we own how do we get a taste of that

kind of life?

I’m grateful to New Testament scholar Carl Holladay for pointing out that selling lands and houses and giving the proceeds to the church is not the only way in which responsible use of possessions is presented in the New Testament. At least two other possibilities are presented: 1) the complete renunciation of possessions as a prerequisite of discipleship (as in the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Luke 18, where Jesus says, ‘Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me’), and 2) the giving of alms” (which is basically what you do when you put money in the offering plate. Holladay mentions the example of the poor widow in Luke 21 who put two small coins into the temple treasury).i So, you have three options: 1) you can give alms—online or in the offering plate, 2) you can sell your possessions and share the proceeds, or 3) you can give up everything to follow Jesus. But the point remains that you should do something: the good news of Easter really should change the way you live.

In this story from Acts, what really changed was the reality of those first believers. Because Jesus had risen from the dead they didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore. As Paul says in Romans 6, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” It didn’t have dominion over them either. They were free in a way they had never been free before: free to live the lives God had given them without any fear of death. And that changed the way they related to their possessions. I say that because I know how it is for me: I’m trying to put money in savings now so that when I retire someday I will have enough to live on. The problem is, I don’t know how much “enough” is. So, I try to save as aggressively as I can, and if someone comes along asking for money I’m reluctant to let go of it; I’m afraid there won’t

be enough for me when I really need it.

Whatever happened for those first believers seems to have set them free from that kind of fear. And as they actually did it—as they sold lands and houses and brought the proceeds to the church—they realized that no matter what happened to them they would be OK. Because the church would take care of them! That’s what Luke is talking about when he says, “There was not a needy person among them.” If they had a need they would come to the apostles (who apparently had all this money lying at their feet) and the apostles would say, “What? You need money to pay your rent? Well, here you go!”

Now, if we actually did what those first believers did, if we sold our lands and houses and piled the money at the deacons’ feet, we would have more than enough to meet any need in the church family. But I don’t think we have to go that far. I’ve been saying this for years but I believe if we exercised option 1—if we all gave alms, and if those alms equaled only ten percent of our lands and houses—it would still be more than enough to meet the needs of the church. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that preachers are always talking about money. But if you listen carefully maybe you can hear that I’m trying to set you free from your fear of death, and trying to set you free from your fear of not having enough, and instead of asking you to sell your lands and houses I’m asking you give a tenth of what God has given you so that there won’t be one needy person among his people.

That’s the point, that’s what was happening in the early church, and Carl Holladay says it was a fulfillment of an Old Testament idea found in Deuteronomy 15:4, which reads: “There will be no one in need among you.” But it was also the fulfillment of a Greek ideal which held that, “for friends all things are common.”ii

In my own notes I wrote the words of that familiar Spanish expression, “Mi casa es su casa,” meaning, “My house is your house.” And that’s what we would all hope for, isn’t it? The kind of fellowship where we really do know each other and love each other and have so much in common that there is nothing we would withhold from each other? I think that’s why we are sometimes a little overzealous about the membership process; it’s because we know that these people are not only going to have their names on the church rolls: they’re going to be part of the family.

But how wonderful when they really are! When we call their names in the parking lot, hug them in the hallways, pat the chair beside us in a Sunday school class; when we whisper their names in our morning prayers and take them casseroles when they’re sick; when we celebrate their victories and help them grieve their losses—that’s good! That’s family of the best kind, better than some of our own families. And that’s what the risen Lord has made us. If we belong to him, we belong to each other, and if he has given everything for us, we ought to be willing to do the same for each other.

I think about Doubting Thomas, the one whose story we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s not really a story about being needy and not having enough, but on the other hand it is. Thomas needed faith; he didn’t have enough. And when he came back to that room where the disciples were gathered they shared their faith with him. “Thomas!” they said. “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas said, “I don’t believe it and I won’t believe it until I put my fingers in the marks of the nails and my hand into his side.” The incredible thing to me is that the next week all the disciples were together in that same place and Thomas was with them. Even though he was a doubter, a disbeliever, they made room for him.

They took all the faith they had and put it together so there was enough for him, the one who couldn’t believe. When Jesus showed up, Thomas was there, thanks to those other disciples, and because Thomas was there he was able to see Jesus and say, “My Lord and my God.”

What kind of things will we make possible for others by simply sharing what we have, whether it’s faith, or hope, or love, or enough money to pay the rent? In God’s family there shouldn’t be a needy person among us. Our Heavenly Father has given us more than enough to share, and his only son, our Lord, has freed us forever from the fear of not having enough.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Good News We Share”

The Good News We Share

First Baptist Richmond, March 31, 2024

Acts 10:34-43

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…

The date was March 14, 2024, a little less than three weeks ago. Do you remember it? It was the first truly warm, sunny day of the year. It was also my 65th birthday, and my wife, Christy, had planned a surprise Tuk-Tuk tour. Have you seen them? Those brightly colored, multi-passenger, motorized tricycles putting around Richmond? I didn’t know what we were doing. I just showed up at the VMFA at 4:00 on that Thursday afternoon and there was the whole family: my wife, her mother, my children, my grandchildren, and a few assorted in-laws. We piled into those Tuk-Tuks, got the grandchildren into their car seats, buckled ourselves in, and then lurched away from the curb to see the sights of our city. We were out there in public view as we putted around Richmond, but we also had a good view of the public, and they seemed to be in the most wonderful mood.

As I said, it was the first warm, sunny day of the year, and that kind of thing tends to bring people out of the woodwork. They came out in shorts and T-shirts, baring their pale limbs and turning their faces toward the sun. Pedestrians jaywalked across the street in Carytown, smiling and waving as we narrowly missed them. VCU students sprawled on the grass in Monroe Park, talking and laughing, listening to music. It was a practically pagan celebration of springtime.

That kind of thing has been going on forever. I remember hearing a woman

named Barbara McBride-Smith tell the story of Demeter and Persephone. She told it with a twang, like someone who had been born and raised in Waco, Texas (which she had), and included a detail about Zeus inviting Demeter to come up and sit on the porch with him and have some ambrosia ice cream which is not in the original story. The original story is an ancient Greek myth about why the seasons change, and as Barbara McBride-Smith told it, it was because Hades kidnapped Demeter’s daughter Persephone and forced her to become his wife. For six months of every year she had to live with him in the underworld and her mother, Demeter, grieved so hard that summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter. But when Persephone came home Demeter rejoiced so exuberantly that winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer.

Smith ends her story by saying, “Do you have any idea how strong a mother’s love for her child is? Well, one day in the spring you just look outside at the crops and the wildflowers growing. You listen to the birds singing, you feel the gentle breeze and the warmth of the sun, and you’ll understand something of the joy and love a mother feels for her child. And then, you look outside again on a bitter winter day. You see how stark and desolate the fields are, how dead the grass and trees look. You feel the cold wind blowing around you and you’ll begin to know the emptiness in a mother’s heart when her child is taken from her. And then remember this—a mother’s love is as endless as the cycle of the seasons.”i

Long before there was anything called Easter our ancestors were telling their stories and celebrating springtime. They had to. There is something in human nature, something deep and primal, that simply has to celebrate when the icy blast of winter gives way to the warmth and beauty of spring. But then this happened, this thing we’ve been talking about today, when a man named Jesus

apparently rose from the dead. And if you think people get excited when spring overcomes winter you should see what they do when life overcomes death. Because we’ve stood beside too many open caskets, haven’t we? Looking down on the faces of those we have loved and lost? If we had the power to bring them back to life, if we could take them by the hands and lift them up out of those caskets, we would, wouldn’t we? And so when we hear a story about someone who actually did it, who actually came back from the dead, we get excited. We put on our most festive and colorful clothes; we come to a place like this one and sing hymns of resurrection; we lean in close to hear the story of how it happened that first time in the hope that it might happen again for all of us, but especially for those we have loved and lost.

That’s what Easter is usually about: it’s about hearing the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And if we’re honest Mark’s Easter story—the one that was read this morning—is not our favorite, because at the end of that story there is no proof of the resurrection, no appearance of the risen Lord; it’s just two women running from the tomb, terrified: women who say nothing to anyone because they are so afraid.

We prefer John’s version of the story, where Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early on the first day of the week, while it is still dark, and finds that the tomb is empty. She comes back and tells Peter and John what she has seen and they run to the tomb to see if it’s true. They find the empty grave clothes, but they don’t see Jesus. And then, a little later in the story, Mary does: she sees the risen Lord! At first she thinks it’s the gardener, but then he calls her by name and she runs to him and throws her arms around him and hugs him so tightly that he finally has to tell her to let go. He sends her to tell the others what she has seen

and she runs back and blurts out the world’s first Easter sermon in five unforgettable words:

“I have seen the Lord!”

I appreciate the fact that we have different resurrection accounts in the Bible. I like it that John can tell his story in one way and Mark can tell his story in another. It allows each of them to focus on what they find most essential. But what about Peter? What’s his story? Peter, who was arguably closer to Jesus than anyone other than John and maybe Mary Magdalene: what did he say when people asked him about the one he had followed for three years?

Well, thanks to our friend Luke, we have an idea. In Acts, chapter 10, he tells the story of the time Peter went to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who didn’t know anything about Jesus. And so Peter shares his version of the gospel (which is not 16 chapters long, like Mark, or 21 chapters long, like John, but only about 10 verses long, right there in the tenth chapter of Acts). He tells him the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” Peter says, “for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did and said, both in Judea and Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to everyone, but to those of us who were chosen as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

That’s it: that’s Peter’s Gospel. But those of you who have read the other Gospels may be surprised by how much he has left out. For example: where is that detail about Jesus telling the disciples that they will all abandon him and Peter saying, “Even though all fall away, I will not”? And when Jesus responds by saying,

“Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times,” why can’t Peter seem to remember that he said, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you?” Beyond that he doesn’t seem to remember that when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and wanted Peter and the others to keep watch with him, Peter kept falling asleep. He doesn’t talk about cutting off anyone’s ear with a sword, and of course he completely fails to mention that part of the story where he denies Jesus three times, although the others remember.

Matthew says that when Peter realized what he had done he went out and wept bitterly. Mark says that he “broke down” and wept. Luke adds the heartbreaking detail that when Peter shouted out his third denial, the Lord turned and looked at him; only then did he stumble out of the courtyard weeping bitterly. And although John doesn’t tell us how Peter responded when he realized that he had denied the Lord, he does tell us that he did it. Everyone seems to remember that and feel the need to include it in their story; everyone except Peter.

But he does include this other detail, one that I don’t find in any of the other gospel accounts: in Acts 10:36 he says that Jesus came “preaching peace,” which I usually think of as the absence of war, but as you know it can also mean peace between individuals or even peace with God. In fact, that was the title of one of Billy Graham’s bestselling books: Peace with God. He wrote, “I know men who would write a check for a million dollars if they could find peace. Millions are searching for it. But we Christians have found it! It is ours now and forever. We have found the secret of life! When your spouse dies or your children get sick or you lose your job, you can have a peace that you don’t understand. You may have tears at a graveside, but you can have an abiding peace, a quietness.”ii I think

that’s the kind of peace Peter eventually found. He doesn’t include it in his Easter story, but if he hadn’t found it, we might never have heard his Easter story at all.

Mark hints at it. After that terrible thing Peter did to Jesus, after denying him three times, Mark says that when the angel spoke to those women at the tomb he told them to “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Jesus knew that if he didn’t send Peter a special invitation he might not come; he might have felt too guilty about what he had done. And then John spells it out. In one of the most poignant moments in Scripture he tells us about Jesus and Peter going for a walk on the seashore, after Peter had denied him three times and after Jesus had risen from the dead. He says, “Peter, do you love me?” which must have been like a dagger to Peter’s heart. He says, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” But then Jesus asks him again, and again, until you can almost see the tears rolling down Peter’s cheeks. Each time Peter assures Jesus that he loves him, and it’s as I’ve said before: Jesus gives Peter a chance to fill in the enormous hole he has dug for himself with three big shovels full of love. And then he repeats the first thing he ever said to Peter: he says, “Follow me,” reinstating him as a disciple, and restoring their lost friendship.

That’s when Peter found peace with God and for him it may be the best part of the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. Yes, when spring overcomes winter we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. And yes, when life overcomes death, we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. But yes, also, when ruined relationships are resurrected, we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. And that may be the part of the Easter story Peter most wants us to hear.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called The Capital of the World about a boy who had sinned against his father and run away from home. The

father searched all over Spain for him but couldn’t find him. Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper. The ad read: “PACO MEET AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN. —PAPA.” The father prayed that maybe the boy would see the ad and maybe, just maybe, he would come to the Hotel Montana.

On Tuesday, the father arrived well before the appointed time and could not believe his eyes. A squadron of police officers had been called out to keep order among the eight hundred young boys named “Paco” who had come to meet their father in front of the Hotel Montana.iii That’s how much estrangement there is in our world. That’s how much need there is for forgiveness and reconciliation. And it’s part of the good news of Easter: that it’s not only about spring overcoming winter, or life overcoming death, but also about enemies becoming friends.

I wonder if that has anything to do with how many people show up for church on Easter Sunday. Is it like that first truly warm, sunny day of the year? Does it just bring them out of the woodwork? Or is it the idea that life can overcome death: do they simply need to hear that story again, to give them hope? Or is it this: that the Heavenly Father’s love “is as endless as the cycle of the seasons,” as if he had put an ad in the paper saying, “CHILDREN, MEET ME IN CHURCH AT 11:00 ON EASTER SUNDAY MORNING. ALL IS FORGIVEN. –PAPA.” Do we secretly hope, as Peter once hoped, that peace with God is possible? And do we come to church on this Sunday or any Sunday with our ears cocked toward heaven, hoping to hear those words:


—Jim Somerville © 2024

“A Conversation About Covenant: The New Covenant?”

The New Covenant?

First Baptist Richmond, March 24, 2024

Mark 11:1-11

Those who went ahead [of Jesus] and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

For several weeks now we’ve been having a conversation about the word covenant, and if you are just joining us you may need to know that a covenant is a promise, and not just any kind of promise: it’s a sacred promise, the kind you might make at a wedding. In Old Testament times people would often “cut” a covenant, that is, they would slaughter an animal, cut the carcass in half, and then say to the other party, “May the Lord do so to me—and more!—if I should ever break my covenant with you.”i In the first sermon in this series I suggested that the marriage covenant might be strengthened if the father of the bride would heave a chicken up onto the chopping block, lop off its head, and say to the groom, “May the Lord do so to you, and more, if you should ever break my little girl’s heart!”

We’ve talked about the covenant God made with Noah when he put that rainbow in the sky and promised that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood; about the covenant he made with Abraham, when he promised to give him a land of his own and descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky; and the covenant he made at Mount Sinai, where he promised a ragged band of former slaves: “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” We’ve talked about how the people strayed from that covenant, how they eventually broke it beyond

repair, and how, while they were in exile in Babylon, God came to them with the promise of a new covenant that would be written not on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of the human heart.

If you know anything about what happened next you know that those exiles were set free by Cyrus, king of Persia. They were allowed to return to their home in Jerusalem. But when they got there they found the walls broken down and the temple in ruins. They worked for years to rebuild, often with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other to protect them from their enemies round about. But eventually they dedicated the new temple, which was not nearly so grand as the old one, and settled into their new life, which was not nearly so good as the one before. For the next few centuries they waited for the promise of that new covenant to be fulfilled, but it didn’t happen. If anything, their circumstances got worse.

Israel was oppressed by Syria, its neighbor to the north. In 167 BC a few faithful Jews revolted and war broke out. That’s when the people remembered their old dream of a Messiah, a strong military leader who would deliver them from their enemies and take his rightful place on the throne of his ancestor David. And it’s when they began to dream about resurrection, thinking that a just and merciful God would surely raise up those who had died while fighting for the freedom of Israel.ii At the end of that war they were able to rededicate the temple—an event our Jewish friends celebrate as Hanukah—but it was nothing like the new covenant that God had promised his people. The Old Testament ends almost wistfully, as Malachi looks toward the future and speaks for the God who says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” And then nothing but silence, for nearly two centuries, until John the

Baptist steps onto the stage.

In my Bible there is a blank page between the Old Testament and the New, but if you turn that page you come to the next page, on which these words are printed: “The New Covenant, commonly called the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” You won’t find those words in every Bible. You certainly won’t find them in the Hebrew Bible. Those words are explicitly Christian, and they comprise a statement of faith: whoever put them there believes that the promise God made to his people while they were exiles in Babylon was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. My Bible dictionary puts it this way: “New Testament authors, influenced by the idea of a new covenant, saw in the death of Jesus of Nazareth the beginning of it, and saw his followers as members of that covenant [community], although that did not annul the first covenant given to Israel.”iii

That’s an important point. Although we Christians are eager to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the new covenant, we need to be careful not to imagine that the new covenant has somehow replaced or superseded the original covenant. It has only expanded it, thrown the doors wide open so that “whosoever believeth” can be welcomed into God’s family. In the same way we need to be sure that when we use the words Old Testament we use them as if we were talking about wine, which gets better over time, and not as if we were talking about fish, which does not.

Now, back to Jesus.

Whatever his fellow Israelites may have believed about him, Jesus seems to believe that he is God’s anointed one—his Messiah—and that he has been sent not only to fulfill the new covenant but also to usher in God’s kingdom. How does he do it?

1. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism the sky is ripped open and a dove flutters down and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then, after he has spent forty days in the wilderness learning what it means to be the Beloved Son of God, Jesus comes into Galilee preaching his version of the Good News: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near,” he says; “repent, and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).

2. He calls disciples to help him fulfill his mission, eventually calling twelve men. Have you ever wondered why, as in why did he call twelve disciples and why were they all men? Looking back it seems obvious: Jesus was constituting the New Israel, and just as the Old Israel started with twelve men—the twelve sons of Jacob—so the New Israel would start with twelve men, with Peter, James, and John, and all the others. It’s a symbolic action on Jesus’ part, and it seems very deliberate. Yes, there were women who followed him as well as men, and yes they were part of his inner circle,iv but the Twelve Disciples represented the Twelve Tribes of the New Israel, and Jesus wanted everyone to know it.

3. He preaches the good news of the coming kingdom, in fact, this is his gospel: not that we are saved by grace through faith (as Paul likes to say), or that those who believe in him will have eternal life (as John reminds us), but that God’s kingdom is getting ready to come into the world “like a rock through a plate glass window,” as Fred Craddock once put it. Jesus wants his hearers to be ready for that, he wants them to embrace the idea, he wants them to help him bring it in. Throughout the Gospel of Mark he tells his hearers what the world is going to be like when God finally has his way, but

he also shows them.

4. He heals the sick, cleanses the lepers, raises the dead, and casts out demons. He makes it clear that when God’s kingdom finally comes and God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven there won’t be any more sickness, any more suffering, any more death or any more demons. All of that is going to be gone. So, as he makes his way from one small village to another in Galilee, preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom, he also demonstrates what it will be like by healing everyone who comes to him. And there are lots of them.

5. Near the end of the first chapter in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is at Peter’s house on the Sabbath day. He has preached in the synagogue, cast out an unclean spirit, and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The kingdom is coming. But when the sun goes down and the sabbath ends the citizens of Capernaum bring to him all who are sick or possessed by demons until “the whole city was gathered around the door.” And what did Jesus do? He cured “many who were sick with various diseases,” Mark says, “and cast out many demons.” And can you guess what happened next?

Jesus became famous.

I hadn’t thought to look before last week, but when I searched for the word crowd in the Gospel of Mark it showed up 36 times, beginning as early as chapter 2. Remember this? “When they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him” (2:4). In that same chapter, “Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them” (2:13). And then in chapter 3, “He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him” (3:9). So,

instead of picturing only Jesus and his twelve male disciples making their way from one little village to the next in Galilee, you need to picture Jesus, and the Twelve, and then those women who accompanied him and provided for him out of their means, and all those people who had been healed by him, and couldn’t seem to stop following him, and all those others who wanted to be healed by him, and hoped to be next in line. By chapter 10 of this Gospel, it’s not only a crowd that gathers around Jesus, it’s crowds—plural.v

His strategy is working.

I went to an event last Tuesday night because someone invited me. I didn’t really want to go. It would mean giving up my regular Tuesday evening workout. But my friend Amy Redwine, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said she really hoped I would be there and so, grudgingly, I went. I went to St. Paul’s Baptist Church out on Creighton Road, which is a big church! I got there late and had to park practically in the next county. I walked through the wind and the cold for about five minutes before I got to the front door but when I got inside I was amazed.

Because the place was full of people. I mean packed! And the people who were there were of every race, country, color, and clime. It was something called a “Nehemiah Action,” sponsored by a group called R.I.S.C., which stands for, “Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities,” and the purpose of the gathering was to actually get something done about gun violence and the lack of affordable housing in our city. There were some solutions offered that had had good results in other cities. There were some questions asked about why those same solutions hadn’t been applied in our city. And then the candidates for mayor were brought up on the stage—seven of them. “Do you hear what we are saying?”

they were asked. They nodded. “Do you see how many people are here?” They nodded again. And I realized that any serious mayoral candidate would have understood that when this many voters ask for something you need to pay attention.

It might get you elected.

It makes me wonder if this is what Jesus was up to as he made his way around Galilee, preaching the good news of God’s coming Kingdom, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, and casting out demons. Was he working to gather a crowd so that when he rode into the city of Jerusalem the religious and political authorities would have to pay attention to him? He rode in on a donkey, which may seem to us like an act of humility, but you may remember the words of Zechariah 9:9, where the prophet says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Call it what you will but Jesus appears to be presenting himself to the people of Jerusalem as their long-awaited Messiah. He’s asking for a response; he’s looking for their answer. You have to wonder: was he trying to start a populist movement that would overpower the old regime and replace it with something fresh and new,

A new covenant, perhaps?

I think about Blind Bartimaeus, sitting by the road outside of Jericho. When he heard that Jesus was passing by he began to shout at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s the first time in this Gospel that anyone has called Jesus the Son of David, and it suggests that some people have come to think of him not only as a gifted preacher and a powerful healer, but also

as a potential ruler—as one who might sit on the throne of his ancestor and usher in a whole new era of peace and prosperity. The people around Bartimaeus told him to keep quiet. Maybe they knew you could get in trouble for making claims like that. But Bartimaeus shouted out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus heard him, called for him, and when Bartimaeus was standing in front of him he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus said, “Teacher, I want to see again!” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” In that moment Bartimaeus regained his sight, but he did not go; instead he followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Which means that he would have been in that crowd that came with Jesus over the Mount of Olives and into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I don’t know if he was in the group that went ahead of him, laying their cloaks on the road, or in the group that came along behind him, picking them up again, but I have a feeling it was the former: that Bartimaeus was the one leading the parade, waving a palm branch and shouting at the top of his lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, but if you have and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Temple Mount you know you can stand there and look out over the Kidron Valley and see the Mount of Olives on the other side. It’s only about a half a mile away. If you had been there on that Palm Sunday so long ago you might have looked across that valley and seen a crowd of people coming down the road toward the city—a big crowd. You might have heard them shouting and seen them waving palm branches. If you strained your eyes you might have been able to see the focus of their attention—some stranger riding a donkey’s

colt, his feet dragging the ground. And if you strained your ears you might be able to hear one voice lifted above all the other voices shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” If you were just another pilgrim in Jerusalem, there for the Passover Festival, you might get excited, thinking that you had arrived just in time for a coronation, but if you were Caiaphas, the high priest, you might mutter under your breath, “You want to cut a covenant with us? We’ll show you how we cut a covenant.”

And by the end of the week, they had.

Lord Jesus, as you ride into our city today may we receive you in the spirit of Bartimaeus, and not in the spirit of Caiaphas. And may we open our hearts to you, so that you can write the words of the new covenant on every one. We ask it in your name. Amen.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“A Conversation About Covenant: The End of the Covenant”

The End of the Covenant

First Baptist Richmond, March 17, 2024

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

The text of today’s sermon is one of the most hopeful passages in the Bible. It’s Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God says, “The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the old covenant, the one that they broke. No, instead of writing this covenant on tablets of stone, I’m going to write it on the tablets of the human heart.” As I said, the text of the sermon is hopeful, but the title of the sermon is not. It’s called, “The End of the Covenant,” and it shouldn’t take long to realize you wouldn’t need a new covenant if the old one were still working. It’s not. It’s broken. The prophet Jeremiah would say that is broken beyond repair. The people of God have smashed the Ten Commandments and all those other commandments that followed into a million tiny pieces. There is not enough glue in the world to put them back together again.

And yet in that moment, the moment when most of us would give up, God says to his people, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to make a new covenant with you.” I read that last week and thought, “What other god would do that?” Not Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Not Marduk, the patron god of Babylon. Not Ea, the Mesopotamian water god. Not Ra, the Egyptian sun god. According to tradition those gods were erratic, unpredictable, and demanding. But the consistent refrain in Scripture is that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is

“gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” When the people have reduced the stone tablets of his covenant to rubble he says, “I will make a new covenant with my people, and this time I will write it on their hearts.” This is a god like no other.

This is the God who believes in us.

Think about it: in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he also made every living thing in the world: plants and trees, birds and bees, and every kind of animal he could imagine. But you get the sense that when he made people, we were his crowning achievement. The Bible says that he made us in his image, and when he stepped back to look at everything he had made and saw us, that’s when he said that it was not only good, but very good. We completed his creation.

But we also broke his covenant, such as it was. It wasn’t formal. It wasn’t written in stone, but he told those first humans, “You may freely eat from any tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” It wasn’t so much a covenant as a commandment, but it seems to have been understood. Later, when the serpent was speaking to the woman he asked, “Did God say you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” And she said, “No, we can eat the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God told us not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, or even to touch it. He said if we do we will die.” But the serpent was craftier than any of the other animals the Lord God had made, and within minutes Adam and Eve were wiping the juice of forbidden fruit from their mouths.

By all rights God could have killed them right then, right there, but he didn’t. He didn’t give them a death sentence; he gave them a life sentence

because this is the God who believes in us. He put them out of the garden and sent them east of Eden. He told Adam he would have to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, and he did. He told Eve she would have pain in childbirth, and she did. But they made a life for themselves, they had a family, and everything seemed to be going well until Cain killed Abel, and once that kind of evil got loose in the world it was unstoppable.

By chapter six of Genesis the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. He made up his mind to do away with people altogether—he was sorry he had made them—but Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

Do you see? Do you see how God holds on to his faith in humankind even when he might have given up on us? He seemed to believe that Noah’s goodness, his righteousness, could be passed on through his children and grandchildren until humankind had been completely redeemed, until people were, finally, what he had always hoped they could be. So God flooded the earth, washed it clean, and in the end there was only this one family floating above the floodwaters in their homemade houseboat. God put a rainbow in the sky and promised them that no matter what happened from then on, no matter how wicked humankind became, he would never again destroy the earth with a flood. You get the feeling that while God was sorry he had ever made us, he was even sorrier that he had destroyed us. “That’s never going to happen again,” God said. And then he waited to see what Noah and his family would do.

Almost from the beginning they disappointed him. There’s a story in

Genesis 9 about Noah planting a vineyard, making some wine, getting drunk, and passing out in his tent, naked. One of his sons looked in and saw him, and invited his brothers to come and have a look. But they wouldn’t do it. They covered their father’s shame and condemned their brother’s wickedness, but things only went downhill from there. Within a few generations the offspring of Noah were building a tower with its top in the heavens, intending to climb up there and drag God off his throne. God put an end to it by mixing up their languages, so that they couldn’t understand each other and couldn’t get along with each other. It’s been that way ever since. You might think that God would give up, but he doesn’t. This is the God who believes in us.

But he adopts a different strategy: instead of trying to win over the whole world he goes to one man, to Abram, and makes his covenant with him. He says, “Listen, if you will be mine I will bless you and make of you a great nation.” And nothing could have sounded sweeter to Abram than that. He was seventy-five years old at the time and had no property of his own, no family of his own. But when he heard God’s promise he looked into the future and saw himself surrounded by children and grandchildren, flocks and herds, manservants and maidservants, looking out over fertile fields that seemed to go on forever. He said yes to the God who believes in us, but almost as soon as he did God seemed interested in finding out if Abram believed in him.

According to the biblical narrative he tested his faith by taking forever to give him a child, and then tested it again by asking him to offer that child as a sacrifice. And maybe it was because of all the years they had spent together, but Abraham trusted the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. He spared his son and renewed his covenant. And so Abraham passed God’s promises

down to Isaac, and Isaac intended to pass them down to Esau, but Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and blessing and ran for his life. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be; it’s just the way it was.

Jacob married a beautiful girl named Rachel and got her older sister, Leah, in the bargain. Between them and their two maidservants they gave Jacob twelve sons and at least one daughter. When Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, meaning “one who strives with God and prevails,” his sons and their families became the twelve tribes of Israel; and in Egypt, where they eventually settled, they became a mighty nation; so mighty that when a new king came to the throne he worried that these Hebrews might rise up and overpower him. He forced them into slavery and for 400 years that’s what they were—slaves in Egypt. But God didn’t give up on them. He believed in them.

He sent Moses—who had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, who knew the language and the customs of the Egyptian people—to talk to Pharaoh and to say to him, “Let my people go.” But Pharaoh wouldn’t do it. His heart was hard. And so God brought mighty plagues upon the people of Egypt, ten of them altogether, until Pharaoh, weeping over the death of his first-born son, told Moses to take God’s people and go. And they did: through the waters of the Red Sea; through a wilderness where there was nothing to eat or drink; to the foot of Mount Sinai where God told Moses he was going to make his covenant with his people.

And I’ve told you before: it was a beautiful thing. It was a wedding in the wilderness where God said, “If you will be my people, I will be your God,” and all of them said that they would. They recited the Ten Commandments as if they were wedding vows and from God’s perspective at least, entered into one of their happiest seasons. I sometimes refer to it as the honeymoon, when God asked his

people to make a tent for him—a Tabernacle—and pitch it in the wilderness so that he could be with them, and they could be with him. In those days Moses used to go into the tent and talk with God as a man talks to his friend. When he came out his face would be shining with God’s glory. And when he told the people what God had said they were only too eager to obey.

Those were the days.

But they didn’t last forever. After forty years of wilderness wandering the people came into the Promised Land and there they settled in an uneasy compromise with those who had been there first. They lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and they began to adopt their pagan ways. Instead of staying true to the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, they began to worship at other altars, making offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree. It made God jealous, and often he would allow the surrounding nations to attack the Israelites, and they would cry out for help, and God would deliver them through one of the judges—Gideon, Samson, Deborah—but then they would sin again. Samuel was the last of the judges. He was the one who anointed Saul and when he did he became the first of the prophets—those who challenged the kings of Israel to stay true to God’s covenant.

David was the greatest of those kings, a man after God’s own heart, but even he broke the covenant. And his son, Solomon, was no better. His heart began to stray after foreign women, who worshiped foreign gods, until Solomon was doing it right along with them. The kingdom was split apart, into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and while some of those Judean kings actually tried to obey the Lord and keep his covenant, none of the northern kings did. Israel fell

to the Assyrians in 722 BC and in 586 Judah fell to the Babylonians. God’s people were carried away in chains, they ended up in exile, and it was there that they began to understand that all of this had happened to them because they hadn’t kept the covenant. That’s when they began to repent and turn to the Lord, asking him to help them and heal them. That’s when they began to take all the oral tradition that had been circulating around the campfires of ancient Israel and write it down in books, so that the people would have it from then on, and one of the things they tried to make clear in those books is that the Exile was their fault: they had sinned against the Lord and this was their rightful punishment.

It was in those days that they began to wonder if God was done with them, because it can happen: you can come to that place where your partner in the covenant is tired of trying. The sacred promises you made to each other all those years ago have been broken so often that there is almost nothing left. You know what I’m talking about: the husband who has cheated on his wife; the wife who has given up on the marriage. When one of them comes to the other and says, “What do you think? Can we give it just one more try?” the answer is often no. “I’m too tired, too broken-hearted. I can’t do this anymore.” And God would have had every right to say that. His people had broken the covenant of Adam, the Covenant of Noah, the covenant of Abraham, the covenant at Sinai. As I said before, the Ten Commandments and all those others that came after them had been smashed into a million tiny pieces, reduced to rubble by the very people who should have kept them. There is no repairing of the Old Covenant. But there is this: through the prophet Jeremiah, while God’s people are languishing in exile, he comes to them and speaks to them like a man proposing marriage. “I will make a new covenant with you,” he says. “Not like the old covenant that your ancestors

broke, even though I was their husband, even though I led them through the wilderness like a mother leads her child. No, I’m going to make a new covenant, and write it on your hearts, so that you will never forget it. I’m going to be your God and you are going to be my people no matter what. Because I can’t seem to give up on you; I can’t seem to let go of you. I am now and will always be,

The God who believes in you.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“A Conversation about Covenant: Challenges to the Covenant”

Challenges to the Covenant

First Baptist Richmond, March 10, 2024

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 shook the city of San Francisco, California, to its very foundations. More than 3,000 people died and over 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Six weeks later a Seventh-Day Adventist named Ellen White sent a message to her fellow believers in America and Australia, saying, “The judgments of God will certainly fall upon all transgressors. The terrible earthquake that has visited San Francisco will be followed by other manifestations of the power of God. His law has been transgressed. Cities have become polluted with sin.”i

And that’s the way it goes.

There is an event (that is, something actually happens), and then there is an interpretation (that is, someone tries to explain why it happened). In 1906 there was an earthquake in San Francisco and six weeks later Ellen White gave her interpretation. The scientific community would come to agree that the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was caused by shifting tectonic plates along the San Andreas Fault. Ellen White believed that it was God’s judgment on that wicked city. It’s a pattern that has existed from the very beginning.

In today’s Old Testament lesson there is an event and then there is an interpretation. Poisonous snakes bite some of the people of Israel and they die, and the author of Numbers tells us it was God’s judgment on their sin. Is that true? Or is that Ellen White explaining the San Francisco earthquake? Let’s talk about what may have actually happened, and then let’s talk about the interpretation.

Let’s imagine that God’s people were making their way toward the Red Sea along some wilderness road, just as it says in today’s text. Let’s imagine that they stopped for the night to camp, and while they were gathering firewood someone uncovered a nest of vipers. Let’s imagine that some people were bitten, maybe several people, and that some of them died from their bites. And then let’s imagine what happened next.

It’s possible that they tried to figure out why this thing had happened, and it’s possible that they blamed themselves by saying, “We shouldn’t have complained.” Maybe they did actually go to Moses and say, “We have sinned against you and against God by complaining about our circumstances. We’re sorry. Please ask the Lord to take away these snakes.” It’s possible that Moses did exactly that, but if you read the text carefully you will see that God did not answer that prayer. The snakes remained in the camp. More people were bitten. More people died. And so Moses made something out of bronze that looked like a snake and put it up on a pole and told the people that when they were bitten, if they would only look at that serpent, they would not die.

Again, if you were looking at this objectively, like a member of the scientific community and not like Ellen White, you might imagine that Moses had learned this trick from some of those Egyptian magicians who show up in the Exodus story,

that they had taught him that when there’s something that scares you, you have to face your fears. In this case you have to look at the thing that can kill you, and when you do—when you stare it down—you take away its power.ii

Now, there’s some truth in that, and it may well be that Moses fashioned that serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole and the next time someone was bitten and looked at that snake they didn’t die, and that’s the story that has come down through the centuries, that’s the story that was told around the campfires of ancient Israel, that’s the story that ended up in the Book of Numbers. There is an event, and there is an interpretation, and the interpretation is often left up to whoever is telling the story.

The traditional understanding is that Moses wrote the Book of Numbers, and if so, then he was the one who got to interpret that event. So, tell us Moses: what really happened?

“Well, Jim, it’s just like you said. The people were gathering firewood and somebody uncovered a nest of vipers and a lot of people were bitten and died. So they came to me and told me God was punishing them because they had been complaining about the food and I wasn’t about to correct them. I thought, “You know, maybe this will teach them a lesson!” But then they asked me to pray to God to take the snakes away and I did, but the snakes didn’t go away. If anything there were more. I don’t know why except that God may have been trying to teach the people that sin has consequences. You can do things that can’t be undone. Maybe God was trying to teach his people that if they couldn’t be grateful for all he had given them he could give them something else. He could give them snakes, and he did, and he didn’t take them away, but he did tell me to make a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole so that anyone who looked

at it would live.”

Wait a minute, Moses: God told you to do that? The same God who said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That God told you to make a serpent out of bronze?”

“I thought it was strange myself, but I wasn’t about to argue with God. I mean, it wasn’t an idol. I didn’t tell anybody to worship it. I just told them that if they were bitten they should look at the serpent, and it worked! Or at least, it seemed to. There were people who told me later that they had been bitten by a snake, but when they looked at that bronze serpent they could feel the poison losing its power, they could see the swelling going down. They looked at that serpent and lived.” And again, that’s the story that has come down to us through the centuries. There’s an event, and then there is an interpretation.

So, let me take a crack at it. That’s part of my job as your pastor: to stand up here on Sunday morning and interpret Scripture in a way that speaks to our times. When it comes to this particular Scripture I’m not sure the answer of the scientific community is helpful to us, except to make us more careful when we are picking up firewood in the wilderness. And I’m not sure how helpful the Old Testament answer is: it sounds as if Moses is saying that if you complain about your food you will get bitten by a snake. But this is a series about covenant and on the deepest level this is a story about covenant.

Last week I talked about the covenant at Sinai as the “wedding in the wilderness” and how God said to those former slaves, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” They said that they would and then they recited the Ten Commandments like wedding vows. But here they are just a few months later,

complaining about every aspect of their life as God’s people. It is not a happy marriage. So this event, however it came about, helps them realize that they are not living within the covenant. They have strayed away from that loving relationship with God. They have come to the point where all they do is complain, complain, complain. And when these snakes show up in the camp and people start dying it’s the people themselves who say, “It’s us. We’re the problem. We have complained against the Lord.” There’s an event, and then there’s an interpretation. What they do is confess their sin to Moses. They repent. They promise never to do it again if he will only pray to the Lord and ask him to take away the snakes. So Moses prays, the snakes are not taken away, but apparently their deadly poison loses its power. And in the typical progression of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness, it’s not exactly forgiveness God offers them, but it is a way out.

I think that’s what Jesus offers in this morning’s Gospel lesson. He doesn’t even talk about sin. He doesn’t talk about who’s to blame for the sorry situation in which the world finds itself. But he does offer a way out: he say, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” It’s not as if sin is removed from the world, but its deadly poison loses its power. Whenever sin bites us all we have to do is look on the one who has been lifted up, and we will be saved.

This sermon is called “Challenges to the Covenant,” and we probably need to admit that the biggest challenge to the covenant is us. We are the ones who tend to stray away from the path God has set before us, the path that leads to life. I was reminded of that when I was running with my daughter’s dog last week.

Brook is a French Pointer, and the vet has told us we will never be able to outwalk, outrun, or outjump this dog. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried.

Shortly after Catherine got her I tried taking her for a run, but Brook went at a full gallop and I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t try again for months. But sometime in December, just as an experiment, I took her out again and this time I discovered that she could trot as well as gallop, and that when she was trotting her pace was evenly matched with mine.

I started by taking her out for a mile or two, but since the beginning of the year she’s been running with me for what I call “the full five”: five miles on the streets of Richmond and often in the dark and in the cold. In those early days, if we passed another runner she would lunge hard and I would have to pull back on the leash. And if we were running down around the VCU campus and someone had dropped a slice of pizza on the sidewalk she would skid to a stop. And if we happened to pass anywhere close to another dog she would leap like a fish on the line, barking and foaming at the mouth.

That’s when I had to pull back hard on the leash, and do my best to keep her under control. That’s when I was glad for the leash, because I thought of what could happen to her without it. She could run into the street and be hit by a passing car. She could take on a bigger dog and be torn to pieces. That leash is like the covenant God made with his people: when they begin to stray it pulls them back onto the path. When they leap and lunge it pulls back hard. Its purpose is to keep them from getting hurt or even killed, to prevent the event that will have to be interpreted. They ignore that covenant at their own peril, and if they break the covenant there is nothing to keep them under control.

Here we are living in a world where it seems that everyone is off the leash.

People are going their own way, doing their own thing, and many of them have ended up bruised, broken, and bleeding. And yet Jesus didn’t come to condemn those people. It says so right there in John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” He didn’t come to punish people for breaking the covenant; he came to save them from the consequences. I notice that when Jesus refers to this story he doesn’t even talk about sin. He doesn’t say, “For as the people complained against God in the wilderness and were punished for their wickedness.” No, he says, “For as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” He doesn’t focus on sin; he focuses on salvation. He seems to understand that that’s what the covenant was for in the first place: to keep God’s people on the path that leads to life.

This is why it’s so important to look at the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. If you don’t, you might let that other interpretation stand. You might assume that God really did send snakes among the people to punish them for complaining about the food. You might assume that he really did tell Moses to make a serpent out of bronze that would work like a magic charm. And then you might start looking around for some idol of your own to protect you from evil, and when you did you would be breaking the covenant.

You would be snapping the leash.

Brook and I are doing better these days. We’ve been running together long enough that she trots right past those other runners without giving them a second glance. And if I see a slice of pizza on the sidewalk I can usually talk her through the distraction (“Come on, Brook. Run with me”). And if there’s another dog headed our way we cross over to the other side of the street so she won’t feel the

need to protect me. As I said, we’re doing better. And most of the time, these days, if she begins to stray to one side or the other all I have to do is give the leash a gentle tug and she’s right back on the path.

Don’t you think that’s what God would hope for with the covenant? That it would be there like a leash to keep us connected to him, and to keep us on the path? It isn’t meant to restrict our freedom, but to save our lives. And I’ve got to tell you: when Brook and I are coming up Arthur Ashe Boulevard in the morning, just as the sun is rising over the city, when she’s trotting along beside me in a steady rhythm, her pace perfectly matched with mine, well…it’s a beautiful thing to see. And when we get back home, and the door is closed behind us, I take her off the leash. And instead of racing away from me, barking, and waking up the entire household, she just sits there, looking up at me hopefully with those big, brown eyes. And, yes I do: I give her a treat. And I say,

“Who’s a good dog?”

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“A Conversation About Covenant: A Covenant Compromised”

A Covenant Compromised

First Baptist Richmond, March 3, 2024

Exodus 20:1-17

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

Often someone will say to me after a sermon, “You know what I’d like to hear? I’d like to hear a sermon on the Ten Commandments.” And when I say “often” I’m not exaggerating. In nearly four decades as a pastor I would guess that I’ve gotten more requests for a sermon on the Ten Commandments than on any other topic. Maybe that’s why, in the summer of 2020, I went off-lectionary and spent ten weeks preaching that very thing. I called the series, “People like Us,” as in, “People like us don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery.” I thought it was one of my best series ever, but after worship the next Sunday someone said, “You know what I’d like to hear? I’d like to hear a sermon on the Ten Commandments.”

You have to remember: it was summer, when people regularly take vacations or head to the river; attendance is spotty at best. But it was also the summer of 2020: we were struggling through the deadliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic during a bitterly divisive election year while monuments were coming down on the street in front of the church and people everywhere were protesting for racial justice and there I was trying to preach a ten-part series from a 3,000 year-old document. We were all a little distracted. But what did that person want, the one who asked me for a sermon on the Ten Commandments? He wanted things to be better than they were. He wanted to restore some sense of order, some decency. He believed that if everyone would just obey the Ten

Commandments, all would be right with the world.

And he wasn’t wrong about that.

I believe that if everyone would just obey the Ten Commandments all would be right with the world, or at least, the world would be a better place than it is if people didn’t murder each other or steal from each other or sleep with each other’s wives or covet each other’s possessions. That just makes sense! And that’s the kind of thinking that leads some people to say, “We should post the Ten Commandments in every public school in the nation! We should set up a monument in front of every courthouse with the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone!”

That’s fine until you realize that the Ten Commandments are not just rules for making the world a better place, not some simple moral code. No, the Ten Commandments are the very heart of the covenant God made with his people after he brought them out of slavery. They are ancient words, sacred words, holy words. As such, they are deeply religious, and America has a problem with posting religious words on the walls of public schools.

Let me remind you.

Baptists came to this country from England in search of religious freedom. They had separated themselves from the Church of England because that church insisted on baptizing their babies. It was how they became citizens of the State, how their names were added to the national census—through baptism! The people who would come to be known as Baptists couldn’t find anything in the New Testament to support the practice of infant baptism. They came to believe that it was unbiblical. And they weren’t about to participate in the government-sponsored baptism of their babies.

So, they left England. They came to this country in search of religious liberty. And it was Baptists like John Leland from Virginia who put pressure on James Madison to write religious liberty into the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s there, in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These new Americans didn’t want the government telling them they had to baptize their babies or that they couldn’t baptize their babies. But even before the Constitution was amended it was there, in Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” They didn’t want the government to decide you have to be a member of the Church of England in order to be president. So, let me say this as gently as I can: I don’t believe that America was founded as a Christian nation. No, I believe that what made America remarkable—both then and now—is the promise of religious liberty for all.

So, the next time someone asks you to post the Ten Commandments on the wall of a public school or even in a public restroom, say no, not because they aren’t ten very good rules and not because the world wouldn’t be a better place if everyone obeyed them, but because they are fundamentally religious; they begin by insisting that whoever follows these rules will have one God—no more!—and that the God they will have is the one who liberated the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their slavery in Egypt, the One who brought them through the treacherous waters of the Red Sea, the One who led them to the foot of Mount Sinai, where this covenant was made. If you read it in the right way this covenant is not only religious, it’s almost romantic.

God is like the handsome prince who rides across the desert to the place

where his beloved is being held captive by an evil king. He climbs over the wall of a fortress, fights his way past a dozen guards, props a ladder against the tower where she is being held, rescues her, and then gallops away to a secluded spot where he kneels in front of her, takes her hand, and says:

You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you—you’re special.

That’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Exodus 19:4-5 from the Message, and you can see why the Ten Commandments aren’t for everyone. This is God’s marriage proposal to Israel, out there in the wilderness, and the Ten Commandments that follow in chapter 20 are the wedding vows. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to post my wedding vows on the wall of a public school! They are the sacred promises I made to my wife on the day we were married, and the Ten Commandments are the sacred promises God’s people made to him on the day they embraced his Covenant.

Moses told them to wash their clothes and consecrate themselves. God himself came down on top of Mount Sinai in a cloud of glory. And then, like the minister at a wedding, Moses said, “Do you, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, promise to have no other gods than this one, the one who brought you out of your slavery in Egypt?”

They said, “We do.”

“Do you promise not to make idols for yourselves, or to bow down before anything other than God? Do you promise to keep his name sacred and his day holy?”

They said, “We do.”

“And when it comes to your relations with each other, do you promise to honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land? Do you promise not to murder each other or steal from each other or sleep with each other’s spouses? Do you promise not to bear false witness against your neighbor or to covet your neighbor’s things?”

They said, “We do.”

And Moses said, “I now pronounce you God and people. May you honor these vows and hold them fast as long as you both shall live.”

Or something like that.

And that’s why you can’t ask just anybody to keep the Ten Commandments. Do you remember what those fifth and sixth graders I used to teach in Sunday school would say when I asked them to define a covenant? They would say, “A covenant is a promise.” “Just any kind of promise?” I would ask. “No,” they would answer, “A special kind of promise, like the kind you would make at a wedding.” They were right about that, and in this series we have been looking at the special promise God made to Noah, when he put that rainbow in the sky and told him he would never again destroy the world with a flood. And the one he made to Abraham, when he told him that someday he would give to him both a land and a people. But the covenant at Mount Sinai is different. Here, for the first time, God’s covenant is conditional. Here, for the first time, God says, “If you will be my people, then I will be your God.” But the corollary is also true: “If you will not be my people, then I will not be your God.”

We need to be careful here because it would be easy to misunderstand. It would be easy to believe that if you don’t keep the Ten Commandments you won’t

be saved. Old Testament scholar John Hayes writes, “When it comes to the Ten Commandments we need to remember, first of all, that God has already saved his people [he has delivered them from slavery]. To obey the commandments, then, is to act in grateful response, to live out one’s role in a covenant relationship. Second, the basic force of these, as well as other Old Testament laws, is to define the limits of what it means to be a covenant people. One who fails to live by these stipulations has placed himself or herself outside the covenant.”i So, imagine this covenant as a circle—like a wedding ring, but a really big one—with God at the center, inviting you to come inside. You don’t have to do it; it’s completely voluntary, just like marriage itself. And you don’t have to keep the Ten Commandments—these wedding vows—to get inside the circle, but once you are in you will keep them just so everyone will know you belong to God.

Back to that person who asked me to preach on the Ten Commandments: I think he knew that if everyone would just keep them the world would be a better place. It would be, but it has to be voluntary. You can’t force people to keep the Ten Commandments (can you imagine what America would look like if that were true, if you got written up for coveting your neighbor’s possessions?). But can you imagine what America would look like if those of us who call ourselves Christian simply kept the Commandments? The latest surveys indicate that there are some 210 million of us in this country—nearly two thirds of the population. What if we had no other god but God? What if we didn’t make idols out of anything else, not money, sex, or power? What if we kept God’s name holy and kept God’s day holy? What if Christians were the ones who took the best care of their aging parents, the ones who never murdered, never committed adultery, never stole. What if they could be trusted to tell the truth in every circumstance and celebrated when

their neighbor got a new car. The world would be a better place, friends, the nation would be better, if only those of us who belong to God would live as if we were his.

—Jim Somerville © 2024