Fresh Perspective, Fresh Outlook

Fresh Perspective, Fresh Outlook
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 21, 2016

2 Corinthians 5: 14-20 (The Message)
14-15 Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.

16-20 Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.

There was a New York Times article making the rounds on social media this week called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” This article was written by Kate Bowler, who is a historian of the American Prosperity Gospel, and the author of the recent book, Blessed. To oversimplify it a bit, the Prosperity Gospel teaches that faithful followers of Christ will be blessed with material riches, and author Kate Bowler explores the history and practice of the Prosperity Gospel in America in her book. The article in the New York Times, though, is about something a little different. You see, Kate, who is 35, found out a few months ago that she has stage 4 cancer. In light of this discouraging diagnosis, her New York Times article reflects on blessedness, and how we Christians in America tend to essentially “throw the word around” without any thought to it’s true meaning.

Listen to this reflection in the article: “Over the last 10 years, ‘being blessed’ has become a full-fledged American phenomenon. Drivers can choose between the standard, mass-produced ‘Jesus Is Lord’ novelty license plate or ‘Blessed’ for $16.99 in a tasteful aluminum. When an ‘America’s Next Top Model’ star took off his shirt, audiences saw [blessed] tattooed above his bulging pectorals. When Americans boast on Twitter about how well they’re doing on Thanksgiving, #blessed is the standard hashtag. It is the humble brag of the stars. #Blessed is the only caption suitable for viral images of alpine vacations and family yachting in barely there bikinis. It says: ‘I totally get it. I am down-to-earth enough to know that this is crazy.’ But it also says: ‘God gave this to me. [Adorable shrug.] Don’t blame me, I’m blessed.’”

If we are so “blessed” as we Americans tend to say we are, it begs the question, “Why are we still so miserable?” Why do we worry? Why are we anxious? Why does peace seem so elusive? Last week, we began our journey to find peace by trying to let go of those things that cause us worry and anxiety, and to focus instead on being grateful for all the good that is around us. As we continue to seek peace this week, I hope we can find a fresh perspective on life by discovering our true, God-given identity.

So let me just quickly begin by answering this question I’ve just raised. If we Americans are so “blessed,” then why are we still so miserable? The short answer here, which is also basically the conclusion of Kate Bowler’s article, is that we measure “blessedness” by the wrong standard. For us, “being blessed” often means achieving the American dream and all that goes with that. But listen to what Jesus says about being blessed: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Just give this a little thought with me for a minute. When was the last time you said, “My sister died. I’m blessed!” Or, “I’m so blessed! I got to break up a fight between some democrats and republicans today!” Or how about this one, “Someone got in my face today and told me what horrible slimebags Christians are, especially me. I’m certainly blessed!” We don’t say these things, do we? Such experiences don’t seem like blessings to us, and yet Christ tells us these are the ways of the blessed. So, as we seek peace, what are we to make of all this? Well, in short, we’ve got to realize that we’ve “got it all wrong.”

So much of the stress and anxiety we experience today is a result of the fact that we measure our lives against worldly standards. We consider “blessings” only in the American way. We want the great life our neighbor seems to have, or the promotion that our colleague just got, or whatever. And we drive ourselves crazy trying to achieve these empty goals. Or as Mark pointed out in his book, Finding Peace in an Anxious World, we criticize others to make ourselves look better. So, as Mark suggests, one step to finding peace in our lives is humbling ourselves; not criticizing others, not boasting about our so-called blessings, and not comparing ourselves to other people—in particular people who have achieved only worldly success. So humility undermines all the worldly trappings, but in order to be humble and really find peace, I think we have to take this one step further and ground ourselves in our God-given identity.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, part of which we heard earlier, Paul says, “Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God…” Or it might sound more familiar to you in this translation, “[I]f anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Christ gives us a new identity, and it is an identity that is completely separate from our worldly identity. But here’s what’s really amazing to me; it’s not just that we are given a new identity in Christ; Christ has also taken away the power of worldly influence in our lives. If we are solidly grounded in our God-given identity, then nothing can shake us!

Jesus has this funny little teaching that’s recorded in Matthew’s gospel. He says, “Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? We are children of God, each one of us, and God will take care of us. God will provide for us according to our need. Really, it’s the world that offers stones, and snakes. Trying to measure ourselves against the Joneses and the Kardashians only makes things miserable. But listen again to Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life…” When we humble ourselves and recognize our blessedness as children of God, we can find peace.

The really amazing thing to me, though, is that when each of us begins to connect with our true identity as children of God, it doesn’t just change us, it changes everything! Just imagine what it would look like if we not only began to see ourselves as new creations in Christ, but also the whole world. Our new identity gives us a completely new perspective, where we can imagine “a world where death and mourning and pain are no more; a world free from addictions; a world where mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, find love where there was mistrust; a world where marriages are joys instead of burdens; a world where everyone has a decent place to live; a world where children can be taught in safety by teachers who do not cry themselves to sleep; a world where people do not suffer in pain because medication is too costly; a world where women are not coerced into lives they cannot bear; a world where children do not settle wars that men create….” Imagine such a peaceful world. This is the peace we are seeking, and it is possible if we can keep ourselves from being distracted by the ways of the world and remain confident in our identity as children of God; an identity that is claimed and confirmed in our baptisms and should be lived out in faith every day!

So, here’s the thing about finding peace, it’s an active, participatory process. I think we will see this over and over again through the next several weeks. Remember, last week, we took time to intentionally set aside our worry and to focus on gratitude for God’s good work in our lives. This week, as we seek peace in our identity as children of God, we have these words from Paul, “God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.” This is our greatest blessing, our truest blessing. When God made a covenant with Abraham, God told him that he would be blessed so that he could be a blessing to others. In the same way, God has blessed us through Jesus Christ so that we can be a blessing to others. If we want to experience peace in our own lives, we have to work for peace in the world! This is not a situation where we can sit idly by and expect that someone else will make peace for us.

There was a great story in Wednesday’s Upper Room devotional this week. A woman recounted being appalled when a fellow church member sought prayers for the controversial leader of a war-torn nation. But as she reflected on her hostile reaction to this prayer request, the woman said she remembered Saul’s Damascus Road conversion and wondered if someone had prayed for Saul even as he viciously persecuted Christians. True peace may seem an impossible dream, but in Christ, peace is possible for this whole world. And as those whose identities are grounded in Christ, we must work for the peace we want to experience. We need to pray for the controversial leaders. We need avoid polarizing political rhetoric. We need to fight against human trafficking. We need to support teachers. We need to build homes for the homeless. We need to give teens alternatives to gangs. There is work for each of us to do. And here’s the thing, when we get busy working for peace, then we won’t have time to be distracted by all those worldly trappings that cause us so much angst and despair. When we get busy working for peace, then we will experience the true blessing of our identity as children of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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