The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Pentecost XX – Reformation Sunday – 30 October 2011
Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12
From the Book of the Prophet, Micah:
The prophet wrote, But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might to declare to Jacob his transgressions and to Israel his sin.
From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
Addressing the faithful in Thessalonica to encourage them in the face of persecution, he wrote, And we also thank God constantly…that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it…which is at work in you believers.
And From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Teaching the people about the sins of hypocrisy and arrogance, Jesus said, He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
I have entitled this morning’s sermon for Reformation Sunday – Organized or Disorganized Religion because of the many ongoing conversations that I have with non-church people. Perhaps not so surprisingly, these conversations are very similar and have been so over the years. A commonality of mind seems to characterize those who opposed organized religion.
Now, most of these people believe in God – some even in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour of the world – but do not believe in the church. Actually, they believe in Jesus Christ as the Saviour but not the Lord. Lord implies obedience to His authority. They want the salvation part so that everyone can go to heaven when he dies, but not the Lord part that makes demands for goodness in this life.
And they will say those stereotypical words, I just don’t believe in organized religion. Since they do not believe in organized religion, one can conclude that they must then believe in disorganized religion. Hence, this morning’s sermon title. More on this in a few minutes.
When they comment on organized religion, particularly Christianity, the first thing that they criticize is the hypocrisy of the church. Now, for Christians, that’s the easiest criticism to make. The church of Jesus Christ is filled with hypocrites. It is now and always has been. And it always will be – until the kingdom comes.
There’s a reason for that – a good reason; in fact a great reason. And the reason is just this. Christianity proclaims the highest and most holy moral and ethical standard of any religion – organized or disorganized – in the world. Proclaiming the highest and most holy moral / ethical standard, none of us ever, under any circumstances can perfectly live up to that standard.
We can never perfectly practice what we preach, to quote St. Paul. Christians live in continual, perpetual reformation, both as individuals and as a church – reforming ourselves to become better people, more faithful to God so that we can serve more effectively as our Lord’s disciples. We practice what we preach only to the extent that our human nature allows.
Although we can never serve perfectly, we can serve very well indeed. Christians have done so from the beginning and continue to do so today however much perfection may elude us.
Those who dislike organized religion usually fail to take the church’s successes into account. If they did, they would have to concede that organized Christianity works for the betterment of mankind. It always has when practiced faithfully. History bears witness.
An example. We must always remember that wherever Christian missionaries have gone anywhere in the world, they have brought the Gospel of God’s redeeming mercy and saving love. Preached powerfully and effectively, these missionaries throughout history have successfully put an end to human sacrifice. From the ancient Romans Empire to the cultures of Africa, North and South America, and the Pacific Islands, human sacrifice was eradicated. Human sacrifice has always been a part of pagan practice. (It still is among those who endorse abortion.) Ending it has been one of he church’s great successes.
True Christians do not seek to kill – they seek to live in the fullness of life that Jesus promised. When people believe in Him and practice His teachings, goodness prevails – peace and prosperity increase. Christianity uniquely builds up, lifts up and raises up. At the center of this faith and religion is the resurrection of Jesus Christ – the defeat of death – the victory of life and eternal life. No other religion has this glorious reality at it center. Simple as that. In fact, resurrection power not only lives at the center of the faith – resurrection power is the beginning and the end as well. Obviously, disorganized religion accomplishes absolutely nothing compared to Christianity.
Imperfect service to God has always been the case even before God took on human nature in Jesus Christ. It applied to His chosen people as well. He had called them into a covenanted relationship with Him – no other people had such a relationship -and that covenant had its demands. Under the old covenant of the Law, the legal requirements were higher and more demanding than any of any other religion.
But, the history of God’s chosen people was the history of a people who failed to keep their part of the agreement – to keep the divine Law and exclusively worship and serve the One True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In their unfaithfulness, God continually sent to them prophets to recall them to faithfulness. Such was the case with the prophet Micah sent by God some 700 years before the birth of Jesus.
God had commissioned him to recall His chosen people who had abandoned their organized religion and fallen into the ease and indulgence of the disorganized religions of the pagan Gentiles. Filled with the spirit of the Lord, Micah declared the sin and transgression of the people in the hope that they would repent and return to the merciful covenant with the One True God.
We must not think that the other religions of the ancient world were entirely disorganized. Over time, they had developed an organization that had priests, temples, prescribed worship, rituals, and prayers as well as the various systems of animal and human sacrifice.
But the rules and regulations, the moral and ethical codes never equaled that of God’s chosen people. Disorganized – or even organized – paganism was then – as it is now – so much easier – so much more self-indulgent.
Disorganized religion had and has no checks and balances – a standard against which one can measure oneself. It allows for unrestricted self-fulfillment in unrestricted self-gratification. And the only judgment is one’s own failure to get what one wants when one wants it.
Pagan influence has been a problem throughout the church’s history as well. St. Paul found himself preaching the Gospel around the ancient world with great success only to discover that soon after he left any given city, some or many of the people either abandoned their Christian faith entirely or compromised it with the prevailing paganism.
Such was the case in Thessalonica. A bustling seaport city on a major trade route, Thessalonica enjoyed significant wealth. Roman paganism and other diverse philosophies and religions competed for adherents. Most of these philosophies and religions were intolerant of the Christians who would not participate in the pagan practice. St. Paul, sadden that many members of the church either left the faith or compromised with the prevailing culture, wrote to encourage the faithful to remain steadfast in their devotion as he reprimanded those who compromised.
Whenever the prevailing paganism becomes organized, those who practice disorganized religion will fall victim. Since no other world religion holds as high standard as Christianity – that being the First and Great Commandment – to love God above all else and to love your neighbor as yourself – and its extension, to love even your enemy – well, without that Great Commandment, cruelty – even brutality results. It did in the ancient world. It does today in those places where the Christian Church is designated as the Great Satan.
St. Paul’s admonition to remain faithful applies to our churches today just as much as it did to the congregations of the first century world. Casual Christians who do not believe in organized religion – who fail to do their part in the advancement of the Saving Truth revealed in the birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of the one Lord Jesus Christ may very well find themselves victims of the highly organized and brutal implementation of a religion that does not love them. Such is the case in many parts of the world.
In other places, weak resignation to deplorable evil is allowing that evil to grow. Evil can only succeed when good people fail to confront it. Bad religion flourishes when otherwise good people abandon the One True Faith.
Our job is the same as that of those first Christians who faced such adversity in the ancient world. Keeping our Lord’s saving sacrifice at the center of our faith, obeying His commandments and remembering that the Lord will lift up the humble and bring down the arrogant – then, as we practice our faith in authentic humility seeking not our own glory but rather the glory of God, we will contribute to a better world, advance all that’s good and right and true as we await his return to establish the perfection of His kingdom.
Until then, true believers, organized into faithful churches, must both keep and advance the faith celebrating the joy of our salvation given exclusively in Jesus Christ the Lord.
With this in mind, let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless your church with a full measure of your Holy Spirit. Enliven every heart with your saving Truth. Deliver those who claim your name from the temptation to compromise the faith or adapt to the prevailing deception. And grant your people success in proclaiming Christ crucified and risen, uplifting sin sick souls and offering your living hope to those brought down, cast down, broken down, put down and held down by bad faith and evil religion. Grant the full realization of the resurrection faith and make of us your joyful disciples.
We ask this in the name of and for the sake of
your Son, Jesus Christ,
the crucified and risen Saviour
of the whole world,