— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
With this great cloud of witnesses around us, therefore, we too must throw off every encumbrance and the sin that all too readily restricts us, and run with resolution the race which lies ahead of us, our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…
(Hebrews 12:1–2 REB)
Bumper stickers have always provided a bit of road-entertainment for me. While serving as interim pastor at Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church on Fort Myers Beach one Monday morning, I found myself following a pickup on San Carlos Boulevard. On the tailgate were three items—two bumper stickers and an attached symbol. One bumper sticker read: “If you come to take my AK-47, you better bring your own. You’ll need it.” The other bumper sticker read: “Warning: 20 rounds of ammo on board.” The third item on the tailgate was a little chrome Ichthus—the little fish symbol made with two intersecting arches. During the first four centuries, the Roman Empire persecuted Christians. The secret symbol of the fish was sometimes drawn in the dirt to discretely let others know that they were a follower of the Way of Jesus.
While driving into my “interim office” at Valdosta First Presbyterian Church one Monday, the pickup’s bumper sticker in front of me on a Holy Week Monday morning read: “Keep honking while I reload.” An emblem of a cross was attached to the rear windshield.
I don’t think I’ve seen any such bumper stickers in northeast Georgia yet!!
Through the years, Jesus has been a victim of identity theft. Just saying the name “Jesus” doesn’t mean much unless we make it clear just which Jesus we are talking about. Woody Allen once made the statement that if Jesus could see what people have done in his name, he would “never stop throwing up.”
Fewer people, these days, want to be associated with the church. I frequently hear comments like, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” or “I believe in God and the Way of Jesus, but I don’t want to get involved with a church.”
Nine years ago, novelist Anne Rice announced her resignation from Christianity. Soon afterwards, I saw “Miami Herald’s” Leonard Pitts’ article about Rice. Quoting Rice, his column read:
Today, I quit being a Christian…I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to belong to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else…In the name of Christ I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life…
Quite a mouthful.
Her resignation from Christianity on the Facebook posting followed the week after a church in Gainesville, Florida, the Dove World Outreach Center, announced “Burn a Koran Day” for that upcoming 9/11 day. Woody Allen is probably right; “If Jesus could see what people have done [and are doing] in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” People can say and do things in Jesus’ name that he would never have been associated with.
A fundamentalist TV evangelist fairly recently made the following criticisms directed at a peaceful presentation of Jesus:
In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
Where does this kind of thinking come from? A literal interpretation of Revelation 19:11-16? The book of Revelation is Jewish apocalyptic literature written to encourage Jewish Jesus-followers during great times of oppression…written by someone under the name of “John” from his exile on the island of Patmos.
I’ve never gotten into the fascination so many people have with this particular book. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very familiar with the book and its Old Testament counterpart, the Book of Daniel.
Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, and a host of other popular “end-time” pre- and post-millennialists have grossly missed the whole meaning of the book. They’re so busy promoting a “bully, beat-‘em-up Jesus” who is to return at the end of time that they’ve totally missed Jesus’ first coming. His second coming, if you need such a term, is in the form of the living presence of the resurrected Christ. Dispensationalism, premillennialism, pretribulation rapture, and such are the inventions of John Nelson Darby, picked up by Cyrus Scofield. It is the product of mid-1800 fundamentalism. The book of Revelation is highly symbolic and directed toward late 1st century and early 2nd century Christians.
Do we really think Jesus is a prize-fighter committed to making someone bleed, ready to crush people with violence? Do we really think Jesus has repented of what some may see as naïve gospel ways and converted to Caesar’s way to live by the sword? Has he really abandoned the way of the peace he proposed and concluded that Pilate’s way is better? Has he had second thoughts about forgiving “seventy times seven” and that on the 491st offense you pull out your sword? Has he really given up on “love your enemies” and that God’s strength is best manifest in a crushing dominance? Is the way of glory now not by one’s commitment to non-violent protests even if it means ultimately dying on a cross, but rather nailing others to a cross? Has Jesus traded in his donkey for a warhorse, chariots, tanks, and land mines?
Who, then, is this Jesus we say we follow? He is a window through which we can more perfectly see God. According to the opening words of the book of Hebrews and the opening words of the gospel of John, Jesus is the Word of God…one of the Words of Gods.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2 NRSV)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us…(John 1:14 NRSV)
For the first three centuries C.E. (or A.D.), the early church was known as people of the Way. They weren’t known for what they believed. That came after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. That’s when the religious faith named after Jesus became physically aggressive, began using swords, riding warhorses, and began the age of Holy Crusades. The bloody acts in the name of Jesus were ghastly. Prior to that, followers of Jesus simply followed the Way of Jesus. They were known not by creeds and steeples, but by their actions of hospitality, justice, kindness, and contemplation.
That’s why the writer of the great New Testament letter, Hebrews, starts the 11th chapter off with Abel, goes through a running list of Jewish notables that include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The progression of these followers of Yahweh moves from some rather seedy characters through tough experiences, always moving through refinement toward perfection. The last person to be mentioned in this first century passage is Jesus—the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
It is a difficult age for the Church in which some followers of Jesus seem to have little in common with that first century Jew for whom the Church is named. We would do well to consider that “great cloud of witnesses” which surrounds us and do what? “Throw off every encumbrance that all too readily restricts us, and run with resolution the race which lies ahead of us, our eyes fixed on Jesus.”
This writer of the letter to the Hebrews (which was really a sermon), as well as the Apostle Paul, loved the analogy of a runner to one who followed the Way of Jesus. Christopher McDougall’s “National Best Seller” Born to Run provides incredible insight into what he calls “mankind’s first fine art.” As soon as a child learns to walk, she or he begins running. We adults instruct them to “stop running.” “We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems, and run around for a good time,” McDougall writes. He says, “The Hopi (Native Americans who primarily live in northeaster Arizona) consider running a form of prayer; they offer every step as a sacrifice to a loved one, and in return ask the Great Spirit to match their strength with some of His own.”
Doing long-distance runs, any runner knows the high value and necessity of getting rid of everything that has a negative effect on the runner—unnecessary clothing, clothing that restricts or chafes, the grain of sand in the shoe, bad shoes. We don’t run very far with anything that “encumbers us or restricts us” to use the New English Version’s translation of that verse.
…let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 NEB)
Before we get too comfortable pointing fingers at all those who seem to have missed the true personality of Jesus—the real Way of Jesus—we would do well to check ourselves. What encumbrances do we need to throw off, what is restricting us from living life to its fullest? What characteristics do we have or should we have that would cause someone who has walked into a church for the very first time to say, “I want what they have”?
As individuals, what attitudes, what patterns, what actions, what negligence, what sins are restricting us, what patterns of living are an encumbrance to our running life’s race in such a way that our running, our living, is a form of prayer every step of the way? Well?
“Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer….” O God, we offer our lives as a living sacrifice to you, through Christ our Lord. AMEN.
1 McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York, Harper Publishers: 2010) 12.
2 Leonard Pitts, Jr., “Keeping Faith, Losing Religion,” from the August 4, 2010 issue of “The Miami Herald.”
3 McLaren, Ibid. 119-126.
4 Christopher McDougall, Born to Run (New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 2010).
SECOND READING HEBREWS 11:29-12:2
29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.39Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jeremiah 23:23-29 The Message (MSG)
23-24 “Am I not a God near at hand”—God’s Decree—
“and not a God far off?
Can anyone hide out in a corner
where I can’t see him?”
“Am I not present everywhere,
whether seen or unseen?”
25-27 “I know what they’re saying, all these prophets who preach lies using me as their text, saying ‘I had this dream! I had this dream!’ How long do I have to put up with this? Do these prophets give two cents about me as they preach their lies and spew out their grandiose delusions? They swap dreams with one another, feed on each other’s delusive dreams, trying to distract my people from me just as their ancestors were distracted by the no-god Baal.
28-29 “You prophets who do nothing but dream—
go ahead and tell your silly dreams.
But you prophets who have a message from me—
tell it truly and faithfully.
What does straw have in common with wheat?
Nothing else is like God’s Decree.
Isn’t my Message like fire?” God’s Decree.
“Isn’t it like a sledgehammer busting a rock?