Sermon – March 8, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Covenant, Part III: or Don’t You Get It?

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“But we proclaim and we preach a Christ Who is crucified, a Messiah Who is nailed to a cross. To the Jews this is a stumbling block, an obstacle they cannot overcome; to the Greeks this is foolishness, madness.” — 1 Corinthians 1:23.

Many of you know Tom Rasely. In case you do not Tom Rasely, he was our Music Associate— guitarist, composer, arranger, jack of all trades— with this church for a little better than five years. Then he and his wife Cindy moved to Southern Indiana some three years ago to be closer to their grandchildren.

Well, Tom and Cindy have decided to pull up stakes again and move to Southwestern Michigan, which is even closer to their grandchildren. Grandchildren are precious and proximity is desirable. Now, if you do know Tom, it would also probably not surprise you if I said he had been working as a church musician in Southern Indiana.

But he is moving. So last Sunday, his final week in that church musician post, he was also the preacher. If you know Tom that also probably does not surprise you. What follows is a précis of that message. (Slight pause.)

When I was younger, I spent the better part of 5 years on the road. I toured through 26 states and Canada, playing my songs at Christian music concerts. Most of the time at these events a musician is expected to deliver their own testimony.

I never did. I consider the typical testimony, the way it is too often given, as being more than a bit egotistical and egocentric. The standard testimony makes a presumption that I know something about God you don’t or that something happened to me which is way more special than anything that’s ever happened to you.

Additionally, the testimony most often heard centers around a particularly heinous problem which got straightened out: drug addiction or grand theft, for example. Shock rather than sincerity is obviously the technique used and is perhaps even the message intended.

The other type of testimony often heard is more personal but equally problematic. It’s the kind which says something like ‘I survived four or five major heart attacks and God saved my life.’ That makes a less than kind assumption. It assumes the person who did not survive one heart attack fails to be worthy as is the person who has survived five.

I think if I were to give a testimony, said Tom, it would go something like this: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” (Slight pause.) Well, that’s pretty boring, is it not? he said.

Even then, there are two first person singular pronouns in the statement. And my point is it’s not about me. It’s about God. It’s about God so loving the world.

Therefore, it’s not about God loving just me. And it’s not about God loving just you. It’s about God who so loved the world that God did not condemn the world. It’s about the Word Who became flesh and dwelt for a while among us.

And the bottom line is we meet here in church because God first loved us. That’s loved us as in loved everyone. And if that’s not the case, if God does not love everyone, then God does not love the world. And then we all ought to leave right now, go to McDonalds, have a cup of coffee and go home. (I know— those of you who know Tom can really hear Tom’s voice in that line!)

Then he said, you see we meet as community because God loves us. When we carry that message and that message alone out these doors and into the street, I think we finally hear a testimony worth giving. It’s not a testimony filled with I, me and mine.

This is a testimony given in community and a testimony filled with community. This is a testimony filled with love of the Creator. This is a testimony filled with love of the Creator that makes this claim: the Creator is the origin of love, itself. That’s a message we need to carry out of door and into the world. (Slight pause.)

Tom continued: we are now in the season of Lent. Lent is not a time of darkness, as some would have it.

Lent is a time of preparation, a time to consider what life would be like without the light of the love God offers. Lent is a time to remember we should arise and shine for (as Isaiah prophesied) our light has come.

We are, you see, not a people of the crucifixion. We are a people of the resurrection. God came to be with us in Jesus. God came to be one with us, to help us understand there is no gap. [1] — Tom Rasely. (Slight pause.)

And we hear from Paul in First Corinthians where these words are recorded: “But we proclaim and we preach a Christ Who is crucified, a Messiah Who is nailed to a cross. To the Jews this is a stumbling block, an obstacle they cannot overcome; to the Greeks this is foolishness, madness.” (Slight pause.)

Scholars are unanimous about this: not all the Epistles attributed to Paul are written by Paul. First Corinthians is one among the seven Epistles Paul actually wrote. Also, while Paul is a major figure in the work known as The Acts of the Apostles, most scholars think it’s unlikely the writer of Luke/Acts actually knew Paul.

Despite this lack of firsthand knowledge, the writer of Luke/Acts and Paul agree on a couple of basic facts about Paul. First, Paul was a devout Jew.

Second, Paul was a Pharisee, a member of a division within Judaism that said it’s important to maintain fidelity in a relationship with God. It’s important to understand the covenant of God and the God of the Covenant.

Last, at first Paul was a persecutor of Christianity. This means Paul knew enough about Christianity to oppose it.

All of these are factors about which Paul and the writer of Luke/Acts agree. When these things are placed side by side, the point being made is obvious: Christianity is a form of Judaism.

That raises a simple question: if Christianity is a form of Judaism, what do Jewish people believe? What is middle of the road Jewish theology? (Slight pause.) As has been noted for the last couple of weeks— this is part III of reflections about covenant. Jewish people are people of the covenant.

So, what does a theology of the covenant of God mean for Jewish people? [For each of these points the pastor counts them off by holding up an additional finger.] God is good. The God of Covenant is good. The covenant is a gift of God to humanity. And, having given humanity the gift of covenant, God expects nothing in return.

Given Jewish covenant theology, Paul’s position is obvious: in Jesus the covenant can be seen. In Jesus a continuation of the covenant can be seen. In Jesus the climax of the covenant can be seen. In Jesus the resolution of the covenant can be seen. In Jesus God has reached out in a very personal way to both each of us and to all of us. (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to Tom Rasely. I think Tom has it right in a number of ways. First, it’s not about us. It’s about God and, specifically, it’s about the God of the covenant.

Second, the God of the covenant sent the Word Who became flesh and dwelt for a while among us. Third, this God of covenant so loved the world that God did not in any way condemn the world. And that, by the way, goes back to the initial theological covenant premise of the Jewish people: God is good.

Last and therefore, we are not a people of the crucifixion. We are people of the resurrection. The resurrection is an affirmation of covenant. (Slight pause.)

I think the message of Paul is clear throughout the seven letters of the Apostle. Jesus is not and cannot be separated from the God proclaimed in Hebrew Scriptures. It is a whole. It is a continuum.

In fact, the entirety of Paul’s writings can be reduced to one basic message: “Don’t you get it? Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah is about the covenant of God, the covenant God made with humanity— a covenant of trust, a covenant of peace, a covenant of freedom, a covenant of love. This covenant is and has been established for all time, for eternity.”

Well, this is the way I see it: the message of the resurrection, the message of covenant embodied by Jesus, is not just that the covenant is real and true. The message of the resurrection embodied by Jesus says the covenant is eternal. Amen.

03/08/2015
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This [the Pastor holds up a Bible] is not a book. It is a library, a collection of books. If people make any mistake in reading Scripture it’s that they isolate stories and then read each story as an adventure story— the escape from Egypt, the life of Jesus— adventure stories. Scripture is not a group of adventure stories. It is a collection of books and the subject in each and every one of them and all of them together is covenant theology.”

BENEDICTION: This is the message of Scripture: God loves us. Let us endeavor to let God’s love shine forth in our lives. For with God’s love and goodness, there is power to redeem, power to revive, power to renew, power to resurrect. So, may the love of God the Creator which is real, the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding and companionship of the Holy Spirit which is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and care of God this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] This I believe is an essence of what Tom offered. These are, however, not exactly his words. Tom is aware that I have made some alterations and has granted permission for use of what he said. Note: Tom did send me a printed version of his original sermon and I was, hence, privy to his thoughts. Tom (and his music) can be reached at this website: <http://www.rasely.com/>

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