“Heaven-Shaped Relationships” (Heaven series, part 2)

This is the second of a four-part sermon series at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.  For more information, visit Trinity online.

Paul in prison

Text:  Philemon vv. 8-18

“Perhaps this is the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother–especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

I.

In 1942 the Second World War was waging throughout Europe and Great Britain.  During that time, the villagers of a little town in south central France, Le Chambon, decided to re-define who their neighbors were and save Jewish refugees from Nazi genocide.

Led by a courageous pastor, Andre Trocme, the town saw the Jewish people–both in their midst and those coming from all across France–not as people who looked different or believed different than they, but as God-image-bearers to whom they had a sacred responsibility.

The villagers quickly made false IDs for Jewish families, assimilating them to village life as seamlessly as possible.  Eventually the day came when the Gestapo visited the town to ask if they–the townspeople–were harboring Jews.  Pastor Trocme met with the Nazis and simply stated, “There are no Jews here; only men.”

Because the villagers took seriously God’s call to love neighbors, they managed to save some 5,000 Jews by the time the war ended.  You know, with all of the persecution and war that was taking place around this little town, it certainly wasn’t heaven on earth.  But it was close.

Last week, we began a discipleship series on heaven in which we realized that the Bible calls us to “set our minds on things above” rather than on the cares of earth.  We discussed the importance of seeing our world, our future, our very lives from heaven’s perspective.  We were reminded that the Lord’s prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven” is something that shapes and molds our priorities and commitments.

If this is the case, and we are to see our very life from heaven’s point-of-view, from God’s perspective, then we too are called to live differently with our neighbors and see people, not as foes, but as God-image-bearers in our midst.

II.

When we started this heaven series, we took a closer look at Paul’s letters to the Philippians and the Colossians.  Today, we are taking a closer look at one of Paul’s letters to a specific Colossian: Philemon.

We have to assume that, since Philemon was a Colossian, that he too received the letter in which Paul encouraged his readers to “set your minds on things above.”    The letter addressed to him, then, was merely an encouragement for Philemon to put that philosophy into practice by welcoming back a slave–Onesimus–as a brother in Christ.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is quite short, only one page in my Bible; and because it is so personal, scholars have a hard time figuring out all of the reasons why Paul wrote the letter in the first place.

There are some theories on who Philemon was and how Onesimus related to him:

  • One theory is that Onesimus was a servant whom Philemon sent to Paul to help Paul while Paul was in prison.
  • Another theory is that Onesimus was a fugitive slave.  He ran away from Philemon and went to Paul, hoping that Paul would advocate on his behalf.

Although we can’t figure out which theory is correct, we do have some of the facts:

  • Onesimus was definitely a slave.  Now, I have to clarify that slavery in the ancient world was very different than slavery we know of now.  Back then, slavery was not based on ethnicity, race, or even gender.  Rather, a person became a slave in different ways: birth, bankruptcy, war, and even by choice (indentured servanthood).We also know that slaves were not a social class.  Some slaves managed their master’s wealth or resources, some were highly educated.  Many were merchants, and others were simply beloved members of the family.
  • We don’t know whether Onesimus came to Paul because he was escaping slavery or because he was sent to serve; but, we do know that Onesimus underwent a transformation while in Paul’s care.  Paul uses the language of birth in v. 10, as if Paul “begot” Onesimus, which shows that Onesimus came under Paul’s teaching and mastered his teacher’s philosophy.The transformation is clear in the text: Onesimus became a Christian while serving Paul, and because of that fact, his relationship to both Paul and to Philemon fundamentally changed.

Paul’s letter to Philemon, then, is very clear: Since Onesimus and Philemon are both believers in Jesus Christ, both fall under a heaven-shaped relationship that redefined the master-slave dynamic.

Onesimus, as a believer, was no longer a slave (although he was still technically a slave in earthly fashion); rather, he became a “brother” to Philemon.  Onesimus joined the Body of Christ and became, in Paul’s words, like Paul’s “heart” (or “bowels,” splogna in the Greek–the very essence of a person) to Philemon and to other believers in their midst (v. 12).   Whatever the earthly relationship, heaven–God’s lordship and reign–defined the eternal relationship between the two men.

III.

The letter to Philemon shows just how powerful Christ’s reign is and what the implications of Jesus’ resurrection are.  Those who come to know Christ are now a part of God’s family–God’s very children–and must act as family.  There is no hierarchy in the family, and the old notions of master-slave, Jew-Gentile, rich-free, male-female no longer exist (Galatians 3:27).  Christ dismantled the old walls that separated people from one another.

This egalitarian idea was quite controversial in Paul’s time, and the Roman empire took notice.

  • When the Romans persecuted the Christians, one of the “accusations” against the Christians was that they were committing incest.  When one believer called another believer who was his spouse “sister in Christ,” the Romans took that a little too literally.
  • The Romans thought that the Christian communities–who were attracting slaves and the poor in large numbers–were scandalous because of the leadership and table-fellowship that occurred within the churches: Women became leaders like men; there was no division of rich and free in the sharing of wealth; slaves ate with masters at the same dinner table.  Each person now matter how well or broken broke bread and drank wine together!A letter from one Roman official, Pliny, to another noted that a controversy of one Christian community related to the fact that the church had for its leaders two female slaves as deacons.  Heaven-shaped relationships often lead to scandalous results!

“Heaven on earth” certainly redefined the boundaries between people, and we, like the people of Le Chambon, are forced to re-define who our neighbors–our “brother and sisters”–are from heaven’s perspective.

Now, here at Trinity, we have excelled in hospitality and showing guests a divine welcome.  We have worked hard to make our welcome more than superficial and have moved to a position of inclusion in our leadership and our very lives.

Yet, we here in Trinity still struggle with seeing our relationships from heaven’s perspective.  We still allow resentment, anger, annoyance, and even pride erect walls between us and our families, neighbors, friends, communities, and yes, even our church.

I don’t know what God is saying to you today about your relationships, but I’m sure that you can think of at least one person that you have yet to reconcile with simply because Jesus asked you to.

IV.

Sometimes the walls that exist between us and others are not as evident or apparent.

Kristina and I often watch a favorite movie called Couples Retreat starring Vince Vaughn.  In it, four couples go on an intensive marriage enrichment retreat on an exotic island.  On average, the couples do not seem to have many issues.  There is no real dysfunction, although the couples seem struggle with the normal issues other marriages have.

As the movie progresses, however, you find that the couples have deeper issues.  There may not be any deep-seated anger or resentment, but there is something going on and it takes most of the movie to figure out what that something is:  Each spouse takes the other spouse for granted.

There is one scene in which one husband upsets his wife, and the wife storms off into a jungle.  The other wives follow in order to encourage her and bring her comfort.  The husbands, meanwhile, argue over what exactly occurred and what to do about their wives.

The lead character played by Vince Vaughn tells the husband at fault that he–the husband–doesn’t appreciate his wife.  Suddenly, in the middle of the diatribe, Vince Vaughn pauses, looks intently at his friend and says with pointed finger, “You have an attitude!”

“You have an attitude!”  It’s one of my favorite lines.  It reminds me of our interim pastor, Jim, because Jim tells some folks now and then that they have an attitude.  We’ll be in Bible study, and one of the ladies will speak up and pick on Jim, and Jim will pause and say to another pupil, “You know, I believe this woman has an attitude.”  It’s classic and cracks me up every time!

When Paul writes to Philemon, Paul is basically telling Philemon, “You have an attitude!”

Folks, you may not have big issues with others and you may be living the dream, but it’s too easy to take others for granted.  You….You know what?  You have an attitude!

As a New Yorker, I know a thing or two about attitudes.  I have heard God tell me on more than one occasion that I have an attitude.

Just last week, my cat got stuck in a tree one night.  I came home around 9 PM, and Minnie the cat wasn’t in the house.  I called her and called her, and finally stepped outside to see if she got out.  She did, and all I could hear was meowing in the darkness.  She wasn’t running to the door like she usually does.

So I followed the meows and, sure enough, there she was about 20 feet up in a tree.  I got worried sick and, although my wife was certain she would eventually come down, I tried for hours that night to woo her down.  I even got a ladder for her even though it was about 8 feet too short.

I finally retired at 2 AM; and, the next morning, after I dropped the kids off at school, I came home and heard the meowing.  She didn’t come down, and I had to do something.  I got two ladders–one for me, and another one to hold up to her as high as I could.  By 9 AM, I was tired, the cat was tired and we were both annoyed and sick of one another.

And all the while, my neighbor’s dogs were barking at us.  I was trying to get Minnie down, and those dumb dogs kept barking and barking in our ears.  I got so annoyed at those dogs, as tired as I was, I got into my car, started my car, and drove around the block to my neighbor’s house to give him a piece of my mind.

When I pulled into the driveway, God stopped me dead in my tracks and told me, “Joe, you have an attitude.”

Now, Trinity, I didn’t have any situation or relationship in mind when I wrote this sermon, but there are times–and this may be one of them–when God comes along and tells you, “You have an attitude!”

You have an attitude, church family!

V.

I’m not sure what God is asking of you today.  Each of you will hear this sermon differently.  What I do know is that, as a missional community, our church is called to build heaven-shaped relationships in which we are to constantly re-define who are neighbors are.

We are to see one another as God-image-bearers who are called to be–and to act as–brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are to come together for the sake of the Gospel, to be Good News, in a divisive and partisan culture.

You never know: If we take this stuff seriously and see our relationships from heaven’s point-of-view, then maybe we too, like Le Chambon, will be able to save souls and win the world for Christ.  You just never know.

“On Things Above” (Heaven series, part 1)

jacobs_ladderThis is the first of a four-part sermon and Bible study series at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, during the month of January.

Texts:  Colossians 3:1-2; Philippians 3:12-21.

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

I.

What is your earliest memory of heaven?

I’m sure that one of the first things we learn about when we are church-going children is heaven.  We decorate our nurseries with things pertaining to heaven, like angels and clouds.  We tell our children stories about heaven as the place where God lives.  It appears in so many child-friendly Bible stories, such as the story of Jacob’s ladder.

One of my earliest memories of church is when I was in the preschool-aged Sunday School during a lesson on heaven and hell.  I’m not sure what the teacher was thinking at the time, teaching little preschool children about hell and scaring them half to death.

I don’t remember too much about what she said regarding heaven, but I do remember having a terrible fear that if I went to hell instead, I would be separated from my parents forever.  I’m not sure if I ended up crying, although I wanted to.

When you’re that age, you take everything literally.  For me, like so many other children, heaven was “up there” in the sky.  When I got older and studied astronomy, I realized that heaven wasn’t anywhere “up there.”  Jupiter and Sirius maybe, but not heaven.  And hell sure wasn’t down there, unless you consider China (or France) to be hell.

larsonAll of us grow up learning about heaven, and most of us eventually realize that heaven is much bigger–and a lot more abstract–than we first imagined.  It’s at that point–when we grow old enough to understand our cosmos–that we put heaven aside.  Sure, we believe in it–a majority of Americans do–but we don’t really talk about it or think about it.  Instead, we leave heaven to the likes of pop culture: cult leaders, cartoonists, and song writers, really.  My favorite heaven and hell cartoons come from Gary Larson, the late artist who did The Farside comics.

But, when you stop and think about it, many questions remain:

  • Does it exist?
  • What is it like and where is it, if not “up there”?
  • How do we get there, when do we get there, and who gets in?
  • Why does it matter?

Although these are important questions, we will not answer all of them over the next four weeks.  We’ll discuss a few, and definitely go deeper in Wednesday Bible Study.  But it’s important to note that we will address most of these questions in one form or another because it’s important to revisit this whole idea of heaven.  In fact, the Bible commands us unequivocally to “set our minds on things above.”  That is not an option; it’s a requirement.  So here goes…

II.

Since this is an introductory sermon on a larger series that will expand into Wednesday discipleship and the next four Sundays, I want to spend this morning getting the ground work out of the way so that we all have a good foundation.  (I hate to sound professorial as if I’m lecturing, so please pardon me if I do!)

The first place we have to start, then, is to debunk ever so briefly the myths surrounding our popular notions of heaven.  We may not have time to explore and wrestle with everything the Bible says about heaven this month, but we can definitely rule out some of the things the Bible doesn’t say about heaven:

  • Myth 1: When we get to heaven, we will sing and play the harp (or some instrument)…endlessly.  Yes, there may be some singing, but we won’t spend the whole time in passive worship.  Gary Larson portrayed this in one cartoon in which a man is sitting on a cloud with wings and all.  A thought bubble above his head reads, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.”  No, heaven is not a place to be passive.  And I can imagine that spending eternity playing something–an accordion, for instance–can actually be more like hell than heaven for some.
  • Myth 2: Heaven is what we make it.  We’d like to think that, but consider how “small” and anticlimactic heaven would be if this myth were true.  None of us has the creativity and imagination to make heaven that awesome.  We are too limited and narrow-minded to make heaven the ultimate place in which God’s glory becomes our own.
  • Myth 3: Heaven is out of reach and unimaginable.  This myth assumes that the Bible says little about heaven and the after-life.  That is not the case; the Bible is full of references on heaven, even implying what things we humans will do once we get there.
  • Myth 4: Thinking about heaven downplays the Christian’s role in social justice here on earth.  This is the myth of cult leaders who lead their flocks to places like Nebraska or Mexico.  The fact is that heaven should compel us to advocate on behalf of a better world here and now; this is clearly outlined throughout the Bible, even in Revelation.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “On earth as it is in heaven,” we are saying that a heavenly call includes justice, mercy, and humility here on earth.

With so many myths surrounding heaven, we start to see the great need to make this topic into a discipleship series.  Scripture teaches us that we are to “seek the things above” and “set our minds on things above,” so this sermon is about a fundamental commandment: What does it mean to “seek things above?”

III.

For this part of the sermon, I invite you to turn with me to Philippians 3:12-21.  We are turning there because, for one, Paul has some things to say about what it means to strive for heaven and reflect on our destiny in Christ.

Second, Paul was at a place in his life when thoughts of heaven and the afterlife took center stage.  He was in prison; and, if you’ve ever talked to prisoners, they tell you that the hardest thing about incarceration is being left with one’s own thoughts on mortality.

Paul was awaiting trail when he wrote this from Rome, which means that his own mortality was definitely on his mind.  Rather than running from that destiny, however, we find in Paul a confident Christian who encouraged others–even those who were free, like us–to set their minds on heaven because their destiny in Christ had the power to shape the present too.  Like Christ, who ministered from the perspective of the “heavenly call” his Father gave him, we too are to form our faith from a worldview in which heaven plays a major role.

IV.

Let’s start with Phil. 3:12.  Paul talks about “pressing on” to reach the goal of what lies in his future: ultimately, the glory that awaits all of us who believe in Jesus.  Jesus, as the first-fruit of God’s resurrection, has shown us what’s in store for our future: a resurrection in which we receive new bodies and abide in a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21).

Until then, however, we, like Paul, are to “press on” towards that goal.  This language is not for the faint of heart; nor is it passive.  It is an active faith, a worthwhile commitment, and a daily agenda-setting aspect of our faith formation.

Consider what scholars Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock say of Paul’s language in this passage:  “Paul’s language is vivid, tense, repetitious: pressing, stretching, pushing, straining.  In those words the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, and the heart pumps” (The People’s Commentary on the New Testament).

This is similar to the “seeking” and “setting” that Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Colossians.  This sermon series, if only for a few weeks, intends to help you get started with that “straining” if you haven’t started already.

Let’s move on to Phil. 3:13:  Paul says that he forgets “what lies behind” and strains forward.  When I was thinking about this text earlier this week, I figured that heaven is large enough to welcome everyone whom God creates, but I don’t think its large enough to hold everyone’s regrets.  Those of us who hold on to regrets are consumed and focused on “earthly things” that provoke feelings of shame (3:19).

Dwelling on the past is not the forward-looking posture that Paul advocated.  As a child of God, he cast off those regrets and moved on.  His destiny–and his hope for what was to come–was not shaped by his past, but by the future of living eternally with God.

What regrets shape your life to the point that your past holds you back from living vibrantly into a heaven-shaped present?

This question relates to verses 14 and 15, in which Paul uses the language of calling and unity to talk about the alternative to looking back.  God gives us a heavenly call, and we must focus our mind on that call.

I think this is one of the most important verses this morning because our mind is the primary battlefield in which spiritual warfare is waged.  While God calls us to look heavenward and catch the updraft of the Holy Spirit, we instead fall into the undercurrents and undertow of those things that distract us from focusing our minds on the things of God.

Society is vying for our mind’s attention and for our families’ attention too.  Consider the amount of entertainment and information we consume–in the mind!–in any given week.  If we don’t have the time to “set our mind on things above” much less “be in the same mind” as our fellow Christians and Christ, then we are doomed for sure.

In a later verse, verse 20, Paul stated that our mind is formed by the nature of our citizenship.  Those unbelievers who still belong to the world set their minds on earthly things (v. 19).  We Christians, however, are citizens of heaven, ruled by the Kingdom–or reign–of God.  (In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus used “Kingdom of Heaven” synonymously with Kingdom of God.)

Lastly, look at verse 21:  We are to set our mind on things above because our destiny is wrapped up in the promises of God, one promise of becoming people of “glory” when the New Heaven and the New Earth become as one. Note that Paul also used this language in Colossians 3:4.

If glory is our future, then why do we still act like this life is all that God gives us?  We walk around like desperate, lost souls that have no eternal home, and our witness of God’s power suffers because of it.

Glory compels us not to abandon this world, but to go forth into this world with the resolute urgency that others can share in this glory as well.  Glory is the greatest catalyst for being Great Commission Christians: people who see the lost not as souls destined for hell, but souls capable of turning to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

V.

In this way, I believe that any study on heaven can be a real source for revival.  It can help us re-align our own lives, awakening us to the destiny that God has for us–and it can inspire us to tell others of what is in store for all creation.

The heavenly call, then, is more than a one-time event that God does to us.  It is a lifestyle in which heaven’s agenda–God’s agenda, “on earth as it is in heaven”–usurps our own, limited agendas and gives us the freedom to re-imagine the world from heaven’s perspective.

Consider this, church family:  What if we measured the health of our church by a different standard–not by attendance or the budget–by the forward movement–the energy!–we spend in “straining towards the goal” of that heavenly prize?

Then, perhaps, we will see real church growth.  We will grow as individuals, as a community, and as a people on mission with a heavenly call to share the Good News of salvation with everyone we meet.   Let us be consumed by thoughts on heaven and the “paradise” that God promises each of us.  Set your mind on things above. AMEN.

Balancing between this world and the next

In last week’s article, I mentioned a question my daughter asked before her great-grandmother’s funeral.  “If Grandma is in heaven, then why is her body still here?”

She posed the question while we were on the way to the wake.  Since this would be her and my son’s first funeral, my wife and I explained what they needed to know and what to expect.  Yes, Grandma died, but she is in heaven with Jesus.  Yes, we can be sad, but we will still celebrate her life as we worship God in Grandma’s  Catholic church.

Her specific question, however, recalled my seminary days when our professors gave us some advice on these things.  “Be honest,” they said, “and explain your theology as literally as possible.”  Easier said than done.

I also found myself wrestling between two theological extremes as I sought to articulate an appropriate answer for her.  The first extreme emerged from a more evangelical point-of-view.  This was the theology of my upbringing and still remains an important part of me even today.

This perspective sees the spiritual world as the only valuable and “good” world, pitting it against a this-wordly, flesh-oriented sinfulness that exudes all creation.  In fact, the spiritual world is so superior that we Christians need not worry about how we treat the environment.

I was reunited with this theology when I drove behind a Hummer with a Christian fish sticker a while back.  Here was an ancient symbol–the Ichthus– Christians once used to communicate with one another during the height of Christian persecution under the Roman empire.

At that time, Christians consisted mostly of underprivileged and peasant classes (one ancient writer, Pliny, called Christians of this era the “dregs of society”), whereas the empire represented people of wealth and power.

While the fish continues to subvert power by declaring Jesus’ eternal promise of resurrection even in the face of the empire’s power, a Hummer, for all practical purposes, is a symbol of that very power and privilege.

(Before I lose you here, let me say that I’m not one to pick on people with fancy cars–Trust me, if I had a lot of dough, I’d be a proud owner of a 19-mpg Porsche.)

Driving behind the Hummer, despite my silly musings, certainly reminded me of the conflict that exists in putting two radically opposing symbols, one of self-annunciation in the name of Christ and the other of self-gratification in the name of prestige, together on one piece of machinery.

More significantly, a Hummer also seems to communicate that this world is not worth saving.  After all, who cares about carbon emissions when this world is  fleeting away before our eyes?

The second extreme is a more liberal perspective that seeks to combat this type of spirit-vs.-world perspective.  Liberalism, a product of the scientific revolution of yesteryear, downplays the spiritual realm so much that it barely acknowledges the spiritual realm at all.

It opines that this life is all that exists and any hope in an eternal, spiritual existence with God is a foolhardy dream.

A recent article on funerals printed in a liberal Christian publication pushed this notion.  The author’s words made me feel that my hope in Grandma’s union with Jesus in heaven is a mere “Gnostic denial that the person has died.”

In other words, since I cannot know for certain that Grandma’s spirit is with God, then why spend the time talking about it as if it is literally true?

As I drove to Grandma’s wake, I simply stuck with my professors’ advice.   I didn’t go the way of the Hummer, the fish, or liberalism.  I simply told my daughter that Grandma’s spirit is with Jesus in heaven even though her body is here because today isn’t the day when we all get new bodies from God.

There will be a day when God makes all things new; but, until then, we have to care for Grandma’s body–and all God’s creation–because it is as precious in the sight of God as heaven itself.

My answer balanced both my evangelical and more progressive leanings.  It left enough room for me not to be a hypocrite if I ever choose to purchase a tank of an automobile some day; and, most importantly, it allowed all of us to grieve and celebrate, mourn and rejoice.