Thursday, 28 September 2017

Taking Care of our Bodies

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
24 September 2017
Romans 14.1-12

So, are you going to do ‘Sober October’? Or ‘Dry January’?
            Are you going to give up red meat for Advent,
            or go ‘vegan for Lent’?

How’s that diet going?
            Are you getting your ‘five a day’?
            Are you keeping your carbs under control?

What does YourFitnessPal .com tell you?
            How’s your resting heart rate?
Are you tempted by the new Apple Watch
            with its updated health and fitness monitoring?

Are you getting enough sleep?
            There’s an app for that, you know,
            to tell you when it’s time for a duvet day.

Is your life in balance?
            Are you happy?
            Is there enough hugge in your life?

We have, as a society, become obsessed with our quality of life.
            And not without some very good reasons.

The obesity crisis, as it is called,
            is a ticking time bomb of hospitalisation waiting to go off.
The NHS tell us that 1 in 4 of us is overweight,
            and we have the highest level of obesity in Western Europe,
                        ahead of countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden;
            making us the so-called ‘fat man’ of Europe.
Our sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets
            are increasing our propensity to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,
with all of the personal and economic costs involved in treating these.

The general stagnation of wages
            and the seemingly never-ending rise in housing costs
has played a contributing factor in this,
            with more and more people ‘treating’ themselves
                        in relatively cheap but unhealthy ways,
            to compensate for their overall lack of resources
                        to take more strategically healthy decisions.

It’s a well-established fact that childhood obesity is a key indicator of adult obesity,
            and that children in economically deprived communities
            are far more likely to be overweight.

This is not just a problem of poor personal choices,
            it’s a structural and systemic problem
            that’s directly related to the inequalities that exist in our society.

Professor Susan Jebb, from Oxford University, comments that,
            “Obesity is a consequence of the abundance and convenience of modern life
            as well as the human body's propensity to store fat,”
And she goes on to note that,
            “The situation in which food is readily available for most people
            has arrived in a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.”[1]

We’re just not equipped, either personally or structurally,
            to deal with the seemingly unending availability
            of cheap and yummy sugar and fat.

And then of course there’s the rising stress levels
            that come with the combination of financial insecurity and poor physical health.
            We live with an ever-increasing expectation
                        that those who have jobs will put in longer and longer hours,
            and we battle with a culture of 24/7 availability
                        where we answer emails in the middle of the night,
                        and bury our heads in our phones whilst we are supposed to be on holiday.
            While those at the lower end of the income spectrum
                        either struggle to find work at all,
            or are taking two or even three low-paid jobs
                        to generate enough income to pay rent and bills.

And all this stress leads to family pressure, relationship breakdown, and time off work,
            with 11.7 million working days lost due to stress related illness in 2015/16.[2]
There’s just too much to do, with too little time to do it,
            and not enough resources to do it properly.

And what, you might well ask, has all this to do with God?
            Why has Simon started his sermon with a mini-lecture on public health?

Well, here’s the thing.
            I think that this is a deeply spiritual issue,
and in my observation it’s not one which we normally speak about in church.

I mean, just out of interest,
            when was the last time you heard a sermon on health and fitness?

Sermons on prayer? Yes.
            Loving one another? Yes.
            Forgiving one another? Of course.
            Working for peace? Absolutely.
But caring for our bodies?...

I think we too often confine our Christian faith to our so-called ‘spiritual lives’;
            and in so doing we deny the reality of the fact that we are embodied beings.

There was an ancient Greek philosophy called ‘dualism’,
            which asserted that the physical world;
                        the one we can see, touch, and taste,
            was merely a shadow of a more real, truly spiritual world,
                        where the imperfections of this world cease to exist.

So, the Simon of this physical world, with all his flaws and imperfections,
            would be understood as merely a shadow
                        of the true, perfected, spiritualised Simon,
                        that exists beyond this world.

Dualism was developed by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle,
            and it was the dominant worldview at the time Christianity developed.
So the early Christians, and those who wrote the New Testament,
            would have found themselves in a world where the split
                        between the spiritual and the physical
            was an accepted part of the way the world was understood.

Interestingly, the Jews had a different perspective,
            and they tended to view the spiritual and the physical as more of a unity,
            with both revealing the nature and glory of God.
In the Jewish understanding,
            worship and prayer were not attempts to reach across a void,
but the conscious opening of human life
            to experience of God who is ever present in and through all things.[3]

So when we come to the New Testament,
            we can trace something of this difference of opinion
            as to the relationship between the spiritual and the physical.

Sometimes it can seem as if God is beyond us,
            and we can only reach him through engaging our ‘higher’, more ‘spiritual’ abilities;
and sometimes it can seem as if God is thoroughly with us,
            at home in the frailty and fragility of our humanity.

However, once we move beyond the time of the New Testament,
            into the second and third centuries,
the philosophy of dualism really takes hold within Christianity,
            and largely eclipses the more holistic approach to life
            that came through the Jewish tradition.

So, the view develops within Christianity
            that ‘the physical world is secondary and shabby
            compared with that which can be experienced by the mind or spirit.’[4]

And we end up with a kind of Christianised version of the classical Greek position,
            where humans are seen as a combination of body and soul,
            arranged in a hierarchy, with the soul ranking ahead of the body.

So forms of Christianity emerged where people would deny or neglect their bodies,
            in order to focus on, or develop, or perfect, their spiritual side.

Of course, in a pre-antibiotic world of disease,
            with death and suffering constant companions through life,
you can see why it would be attractive to people
            to believe that they could transcend their mortal life
            by focussing on the eternal, perfected state of their souls.

Interestingly, this dualism also finds its way into post-enlightenment philosophy,
            to the extent that it is very much still with us today.

I’m not going to blame Descartes for this,
            but I do think we can point the finger at him
            as the one primarily responsible.

You may remember his famous dictum,
            ‘I think, therefore I am’?
Well, this takes us to the heart of his perspective,
            which is that the mind, with its consciousness and self-awareness,
can be distinguished from the physicality of the brain
            as the seat of intelligence.

In other words,
            Descartes asserted that the grey squishy stuff in our skulls
            is merely where our mind sits in our bodies.
According to him, our true being, our true identity as humans,
            is more than the sum of our neurons.

A lot of science fiction, and indeed science,
            has taken this as its inspiration,
as people have wrestled with the idea that our minds can transcend our bodies.

From Frankenstein’s Monster, to Data the Android in Star Trek,
            the question of whether our bodies are inherent to our humanity
            is a recurring theme.
And in medicine, the split between psychoanalytical and pharmaceutical treatments
            remains very much with us to this day.

Sometimes the order of the hierarchy gets reversed,
            with the body finding itself ahead of the soul in the order of priority,
but the underlying split between the two remains.

Are we body, or are we soul?
            Are we physical, or are we spiritual?
            Are we human, or are we dancer?
Should we pay attention primarily to our minds, or to our bodies?

In a sense, we have here the whole basis for the split in contemporary culture
            between science and faith.
If you believe that consciousness is an emergent quality of our physical evolution,
            then you may be tempted to disregard as pre-scientific
            any talk of the spiritual, the noumenal, or the transcendent.
On the other hand, if you believe that we are divinely created beings,
                        made in the image of God,
            then you may be tempted to disregard as un-spiritual
                        any talk of evolution or medicalised treatment.

In a nutshell – if you’re unwell,
            would you go first to your pastor for prayer,
            or to your doctor for medicine?

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy.
            The scientist ignores the spiritual to their loss,
            and the theologian ignores the physical to their cost.

But it is a deeply ingrained dichotomy,
            which we have inherited as the result of two thousand years
            of cultural and religious dualism,
so it takes a bit of unpicking.

And here I want to return to a comment I made earlier,
            which is that we are embodied beings.

It is simply not authentic to the broad witness of scripture
            to separate our souls from our bodies;
and we need to recover something of the Jewish understanding
            of the unity between the physical and spiritual.

Both reveal the nature and glory of God,
            and nowhere is this more clear
            than in the life of Jesus, God with us in human form.

Belief in the divinity of Jesus is not some abstract theological point
            which is increasingly less relevant to our scientific understand of the world.

Rather, it is a crucial challenge to those practices
            which would seek to separate the spiritual from the physical
            by perpetuating the ancient philosophy of dualism.

The idea of God-with-us in the person of Christ
            tells us that you cannot touch the human, without also touching the divine.
You can no more treat the body in isolation from the spirit,
            than you can transcend the physical to live entirely in the spiritual world.

The person who fasts for too long will starve to death,
            regardless of the state of heightened consciousness they achieve along the way,
and the person who attends only to the body and its needs
            will lose touch with the mystery of existence that calls us beyond ourselves
            and into works of love and service.

Many of you will know that I use language of spiritual warfare extremely sparingly.
            I’m not the kind of Christian who sees demons round every corner.

But I do think that sometimes it is appropriate to name evil,
            and in the naming of it to seek to disempower it.

And there are many demons in our world
            that slip through unnamed, and which therefore continue to exercise their hold
            over the lives of those they are seeking to destroy.

So I want to name some demons,
            and give us permission to talk about them and see them exorcised from our lives.

You have heard, I’m sure, the phrase ‘the demon drink’,
            and many of us, myself included, know the temptation
                        to drink a little too much, a little too often.
Well, there were 339,000 hospital admissions last year
            related to alcohol consumption,
and the stories of those who come through he doors of this church
            for our Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
give testimony to the capacity alcohol has to destroy lives
            if its consumption is not regulated in some way.

And related to alcohol are the other addictive drugs,
            which range from tobacco to painkillers, to cannabis and other illegal drugs.
And if we think this stuff doesn’t happen here, we’re wrong:
            the cultural acceptability of substance abuse is prevalent,
                        and Christians are not immune.
But if we perpetuate the dualistic myth that what we do to our bodies,
            is largely unrelated to our spiritual wellbeing,
then we not only give ourselves permission
            to continue in our destructive patterns of behaviour,
            but we deny the image of God in each of us.

And what about diet, exercise, and weight?

I’m very aware that here I stand on treacherous ground,
            because I’m a slim man
            and I don’t want in any way to assume the moral high ground here.

In fact, those of you who have known me for a few years
            may remember that I used to be much bigger then than I am now.
I lost several stone after my 40-year-old man health check
            showed that my cholesterol was significantly higher than it should be.

I remember a few years ago walking round the Christian Resources Exhibition
            (yes, there is indeed such a thing!)
and there was a stall there for an organisation,
            who promote healthy living from a Christian perspective.[5]

One of the people passing by remarked, scathingly,
            ‘oh great, so being fat’s a spiritual issue now, is it?!’
And hearing that really challenged me,
            because I realised that I had been guilty of focussing on my spiritual development,
            to the neglect of my body.
I was going to see my spiritual director,
            but wasn’t taking regular exercise,
and my diet had become one of fast, convenient food,
            consisting mainly of beer and burger, or steak night at Wetherspoons, and the like…

Was it any wonder I was overweight with high cholesterol?

And when I go to ministers’ meetings,
            and I look around me at my fellow clergy,
I see many others are taking the exact same decision:
            Ministers are, all too often, overweight.

We sit at our desks and write our sermons,
            we pray our prayers, and visit the sick, and comfort those who are suffering;
and we neglect ourselves,
            because we have prioritised the spiritual over the physical.

And what has challenged me personally is the realisation
            that this is not only bad practice, it is bad theology.

And the same applies to stress.

I remember my College Principal Brian Haymes once saying to us,
            that many ministers will leave the pastorate due to stress.
And that he wanted to challenge us to consider the possibility
            that this is because they are too lazy to take control of their own diaries.

It’s a provocative proposal,
            but there is some truth in it.

All of us struggle to take control of our own lives,
            and it’s so much easier to allow other people to set our agendas for us.

A church like Bloomsbury, where there is so much going on,
            will suck every moment we are prepared to give it.
There is always more to do, and the need is so great.

And then we factor in the demands of our families, our professions,
            and our other commitments,
and suddenly we find that we are no longer in control of our own lives.

It’s hard, disciplined work, saying no to people,
            and it’s doubly difficult to take back control
            of that which we have already handed over to others.
And yet if we don’t, we simply abdicate responsibility,
            and ultimately pay the cost in our own lives.

We cannot separate ourselves off like this,
            because we are embodied beings,
made in the image of God
            and reflecting the likeness of his son.

Now, the thing is, there is no one-size-fits all solution to these challenges.
            These demons of addiction, obesity, and stress
            will not be exorcised with one simple word.

And here we need to hear Paul’s advice to the Christians in Rome:

‘One person believes it is all right to eat anything,
            while the weak person eats only vegetables.
The one who eats should not despise the one who does not,
            and the one who does not should not condemn the one who does
            – because God has welcomed them…
One person reckons one day more important than another.
            Someone else regards all days as equally important.
            Each person must make up their own mind.’

Not everyone will take the same decision.
            For starters, I’m not convinced that being a vegetarian is a sign of weakness,
                        I mean, I don’t think I have the strength to give up bacon!
            And not everyone will become vegan.
            Not everyone will take up swimming, or jogging, or going to the gym.
            Not everyone will strategically reduce their working hours.
            Not everyone will take full control of their diary.

And it’s not our place to judge the decisions of others here.
            It’s far too easy for us to write our own choices onto the lives of others,
                        and then stand in judgment of them
                        when they don’t measure up to the standards we have set for ourselves.

As Paul puts it:
‘Who do you think you are to judge someone else?’
That is not what we are to do.

But it is our responsibility to ask ourselves
            where we stand before God on this.

And it is our responsibility to stand alongside one another
            as together we seek to live into being our commitment to love each other.

My biggest worry in raising this issue this morning
            is that it would generate feelings of guilt or condemnation.
But my hope is that we can together support one another
            as we find places for honesty about the struggles that each of us has
            to care for ourselves in both body and spirit.







[1] http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/statistics-and-causes-of-the-obesity-epidemic-in-the-UK.aspx
[2] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/
[3] http://girardianlectionary.net/res/wright_dualism.htm
[4] http://girardianlectionary.net/res/wright_dualism.htm
[5] http://www.fit-fish.co.uk/

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Do not be overcome by evil

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
10 September 2017

Romans 12.9-21
Amos 5.14-15; Proverbs 10.11-12; 12.15-20; 25.21-22
Do you have a motto for life?
            You know, one of those phrases or mantras
                        that you find yourself repeating, over and over,
                        despite the fact that you already know it?

Winston Churchill’s was famously abbreviated to ‘KBO’,
            which I’ll leave you to look up for yourself
            because I don’t want to get into trouble on a Sunday morning. Again.

But there are lots of other options to choose from.

When I was at school, I was frequently told that,
            ‘You can’t win if you don’t play the game’,
which as a Rugby-hating pupil I swiftly amended,
            to the much more pragmatic and enduring personal mantra
            of ‘If you can’t win, don’t play the game’.

And then there’s the calls to perseverance, such as,
            ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’;
which sits nicely alongside,
            ‘Don’t let the whatsits grind you down’;
which I’m modifying, in accordance with that other personal favourite of mine,
            ‘Don’t get into trouble on a Sunday morning. Again.’

And so I could go on with any number of further mottos
            that inspire us to ‘keep putting one foot in front of another’, as the saying goes.

But there’s a downside to this as well:
            some of us here will have taken deep into ourselves
                        far more destructive messages,
            which surface in our psyches with monotonous regularity.
                        ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’m so useless’;
                        ‘They don’t like me’; ‘Nobody loves me’; ‘Everybody hates me’.

Sometimes, the voice in our head does us no favours,
            dressing up lies as truth and tormenting us from within.

Well, one of the most destructive mantras of our society,
            which permeates all of our lives one way or another,
is the assertion that we have an absolute right to revenge.

Often dressed up as talk of justice,
            the deep desire to have our wrongs righted
            lies at the heart of so much of our communal narrative.

We live for, we long for, the outworking
            of what seems like a universal and unquestionable truth:
            that ‘Someone, somewhere, must be made to pay’.

From the criminal justice system,
            to the witch hunt and the lynch mob,
the mantra that, ‘someone must be made to pay’,
            has become the bedrock of so much that we hold dear.

And it is against this that I want to draw our attention
            to Paul’s words in the last verse of our reading this morning
                        from his letter to the Romans.
            ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (v.21).

Interestingly, for a passage which doesn’t actually mention Jesus,
            these few verses from Romans 12 are one of the closest places Paul gets
            to referencing the words of Jesus as we know them from the Gospels.
The parallels with the sermon on the mount are striking,
            and this final verse could pretty much stand alone
            as a one-sentence summary of the life and teaching of Jesus.

‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

This is radical stuff,
            and it was every bit as counter-cultural in the first century
                        as it is in the twenty-first.
Humans are well practiced at trying to overcome evil with evil,
            and we are very good at convincing ourselves
            that, contrary to the popular saying, two wrongs do indeed make a right.

The ideology of, ‘You’ve hurt me, so you must pay’, is very compelling,
            and determines everything from our interpersonal relationships
                        to our international politics.
Meeting evil with good is perceived as weakness and foolishness.

At school, we’re told that,
            ‘The bullies only understand one language: their own’,
and so in self-defence we learn to speak their language well,
            but then we carry that conviction into our adult lives,
                        and so we vote for a nuclear deterrent,
                        and for a strong defensive military capability,
                        and for proactive strikes on rogue nations
                                    who rattle their sabres a bit too loudly.

Well, if we are to listen to Paul on this one,
            we might need a re-think.
‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.

Of course, Paul isn’t speaking in a vacuum here,
            and neither was Jesus, when he suggested to his disciples
                        that those who are merciful peacemakers
                        are those blessed by God (Mt 5.7,9).

The Jewish wisdom tradition had a long history
            of wrestling with the futility of violence,
            and of trying to work out what the appropriate response to aggression should be;
and Paul, highly educated Pharisee that he was,
            consciously echoes that Jewish tradition
            in the way he shapes the passage we’re looking at this morning.

The little miscellany of verses we heard earlier from Amos and Proverbs
            give us an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about,
and so we hear the precursors to Paul’s own motto,
            in statements like: ‘Seek good and not evil, that you may live’ (Amos 5.14);
                        ‘Hate evil and love good’ (Amos 5.15);
            ‘Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses’ (Prov. 10.12);
                        ‘Fools show their anger at once, but the fools ignore an insult’ (Prov. 12.16);
            ‘Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil,
                        but those who counsel peace have joy’ (Prov. 12.20).

This is an ancient call to another way of living,
            where the narratives of retributive violence are challenged and rejected,
                        where the right to revenge is forgone,
                        and where payment for wrongdoing is released.

So my challenge for us this morning is deceptively simple,
            because it is incredibly demanding.
It is for us to commit ourselves, individually and communally,
            to living our lives by Paul’s series of statements, mottos, and aphorisms;
and to allow the Spirit of Christ
            to bring those words of life to life in our lives.

And it starts, of course, with love.
            ‘Let love be genuine… love one another with mutual affection’ (12.9-10)
Paul begins his great call to a new way of living
            by grounding himself in the one force on earth
            capable of instigating the kind of transformation he has in mind:
                        Genuine love which extends beyond the self to embrace the other.

Just as Jesus paired love of God with love of neighbour,
            so Paul pairs the genuineness of love,
                        with genuine affection and honour for the other.

It isn’t until we internalize the truth that God loves all his children equally
            that we are able to begin to loosen our grip
                        on the inner conviction that there is something unique or special
                        about our own place in the heart of the divine;
            but once we dispel the myth that God loves ‘us’ more than ‘them’,
                        the path is opened for the radical reorientation of behavior that is to come.

But Paul knows that, even with genuine love in our hearts,
            this will not be an easy path,
so in a biblical precursor to Churchill’s famous injunction
            to ‘Keep Buggering On’ (oops!),
Paul tells his readers to be zealous, ardent, patient, and perseverant.

This is the task we are called to, but as my father often says to me,
            ‘Simon, no-one said it was going to be easy!’

Remaining hopeful in the face of suffering;
            being zealous in serving others,
            and persevering in ardent prayer, are not easy tasks.

And neither is the topic Paul addresses next: financial generosity.
            It takes a conscious decision
                        to review our giving to the community of God’s people,
            but Paul is clear that we have a responsibility before God
                        to contribute to, as he calls it, ‘the needs of the saints’.

In a church like Bloomsbury, the need is always before us;
            from the homeless and the vulnerable that we welcome day-by-day,
            to the more structural needs that are met through this place,
if we do not share between us the responsibility
            of keeping the project going, it’ll fail.

But of course it’s not just about money,
            because Paul pairs money with hospitality.
If money is the mechanism, hospitality is the method.

Whether it is welcoming people into our own homes,
            or to the meal table downstairs in the Friendship Centre,
whether at a Sunday lunch, a Tuesday lunch,
            the Evening Centre, the Night Shelter, or whatever…
our commitment to hospitality is a spiritual discipline
            and a sacrificial calling every bit as demanding
            as the call to ardent prayer or financial giving.

One of our issues that we’re facing with our Sunday lunches
            is that the number of people attending from the church community is declining:
to the extent that on some Sundays,
            those who have been given a free ticket
            make up the majority of those who attend.

And I do get it, I really do.
            I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to a nearby restaurant
                        with their close friends for a nice meal after church on a Sunday?
            Who wouldn’t rather get on with their day,
                        already carved out of a busy life with too many pressures and not enough time.
            And I do get it that the food isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea.

But I don’t think these are the point.
            If we are to offer hospitality that welcomes the stranger
                        and speaks to them of their inherent value as dearly loved children of God,
                        then that involves actually extending hospitality;
            which is more than just paying for them to have a meal,
                        and it’s more than just cooking them a meal.

I mean, we wouldn’t invite someone to dinner at our house,
            serve them their food, and then leave them to it while we went elsewhere.
That’s not hospitality.
            It might be charity, but as I argued in my series of sermons
                        on Toxic Charity earlier this summer,
            we’re not called to charity, we’re called to sacrificial hospitality.

Which means extending a loving welcome to those we find difficult.
            As Paul says, ‘do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly’ (v.16)

But Paul then goes even further than this.
            Loving the other means loving those who we would think of as our enemies.
                        ‘Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse’ (v.14),
                                    ‘live in harmony with one another’ (v.16),
                        ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’ (v.18),
                                    ‘live peaceably with all’ (v.19).

This is where we start to find ourselves
            at that most difficult of Paul’s challenges in this passage:
            the call to nonviolence.

Sometimes people characterize nonviolence
            as the easy, passive, or even cowardly response to conflict.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
            Choosing to not ‘bite back’ is one of the most difficult choices we can make.
It is so utterly counter-intuitive
            to all that we think we know about how to live in human society.

We can only get to the point of proactive nonviolence
            once we have fully internalized all that has gone before.

We have to follow this passage through
            to get to the end with conviction.
Only once we have learned to love the other as we love ourselves,
            and learned to persevere in prayerful service of the other
                        through persecution and opposition,
            and learned to hold lightly to our money, time, and status;
only then are we ready to hear the command:
            ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,
            for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”’ (v.19)

And here I have my big problem, and it’s this:
            the vengeance of God doesn't look much like vengeance as I understand it
                        or as I want to see it.

Leaving room for the wrath of God is intensely problematic
            because God's wrath is not like my wrath,
            and he is not angry at the same things that attract my personal fury.

I want to take my revenge,
            but God takes the liberty of forgiveness.
I want to hate those who do evil,
            but God hates the effect that evil has,
                        not only on those to whom it is done,
                        but also on those who do it.

The great scandal of God's wrath and vengeance
            is that they end up looking a lot like forgiveness.

But nonetheless, Paul tell his readers very clearly,
            that revenge is not theirs to take.

This short passage is a one paragraph summons
            to an entirely alternative way of being human.

I find it very interesting that this is primarily a passage
            that emphasises orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy.

For those whose Greek is a bit sketchy,
            orthopraxy is about right action,
            whereas orthodoxy is about right belief.
And the central message of this passage is not, ‘believe in Christ’;
            it is more practical than that, it is ‘live like Christ’

So as we close, I want to come back to the observation I made earlier
            that our passage from Romans doesn't actually mention Jesus.

I have a kind of rule of preaching,
            which is that a church sermon really ought to mention Jesus
                        at least somewhere along the line,
            which is probably why I feel the need to return to this again at the end.

I think that Jesus, both his life, and his teaching,
            firmly lie behind Paul's re-invention of the Jewish wisdom tradition.
There are echoes here of the sermon on the mount,
            and the life Paul is calling his readers to
            is one firmly patterned after that of Jesus.

But he doesn't need to spell this out.
            Here is a call to living Christianly,
                        which is accessible to all,
                        including those who don't consider themselves to be disciples of Jesus.

It's as if the person and example of Jesus
            has opened, for Paul, a doorway to a better way of being human
            which then transcends cultic and cultural boundaries.

So here's the thing, and don’t take this the wrong way:
            I don't really care what you believe.
Rather, it's what you do that matters.

As Jesus himself said in the sermon on the mount,
            a good tree will bear good fruit,
                        and a bad tree will bear bad fruit,
            and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit,
                        nor can a bad tree bear good fruit,
            and by your fruit you shall be known.

Little Christianity has spent far too long
            defending what people think and believe about the guy who started it all,
                        to the point where we have all too frequently lost sight
                        of the message he left us,
            which is that the door is now open to a different way of living,
                        a new way of being,
            which is good news for those who hear it
                        because it releases us from those ultimately destructive
                                    mantras, mottos, compulsions, and convictions
                        that drive us into patterns of violence and retribution.

The call is very clear, it is to live like Jesus,
            it is to not be overcome by evil,
            but to overcome evil with good.