Sermon – What is Essential for a Christian? June 2, 2024 by Raymond Cuthbert

Let us pray: O God, let something essential happen to us, something more than interesting or entertaining or thoughtful.  O God, let something essential happen to us.  Something awesome – something real. Amen.

The Gospel lesson for today tells one of the more revolutionary accounts of the life of Jesus.  “One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”

It started with exegesis – that’s a fancy word for teaching from the Bible.  Jesus goes on to recount David’s experience of offering sacred bread from the house of God, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and for himself and his companions.”

Then – as he often did – Jesus did not change a word from the text but he simply said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

As Mark tells us, the story conveniently has a second illustration which reinforces the first.  Mark tells us, “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asks his critics a question for which the only answer was the answer they did not want to give.  But for Jesus this was not merely a rhetorical device – there was a real living, breathing and suffering person who needed help.  So Jesus helped.

We listen to this story and we may think that Jesus did what any of us would do – if we had the capability.  Sure, we’d all reach out and help if we could, wouldn’t we?  Well for Jesus, there was a cost to his offering help – a big cost.  Mark tells us “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”  You see Jesus was not going to be stopped from offering help, even though he knew it would infuriate his critics and cause them to become even more dangerous enemies lurking in the shadows of his life.

Now the Pharisees were the religious establishment in Israel in Jesus’ day. They believed that they had a terrific responsibility both to teach the Word of God and to protect the people from not overstepping the boundaries that their oppressors – the Roman Empire – had placed on them.  The Romans would not tolerate any sign of rebellion, so the Pharisees seemed to have to make sure that the status quo would be maintained, because that was what was safe.

We probably have no idea how difficult that balancing act was.  Nonetheless, when it came to Jesus, the Pharisees came down on the wrong side of that balancing act.  Ancient historian Josephus noted that the Pharisees were considered the most expert and accurate teachers of Jewish law.  The Pharisees were so strong on purity that they seem to have missed Jesus’ desire to see beyond the letter of God’s laws and find the spirit of God’s law.

One might say that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

If your Christianity is a burden to you; if your Christian faith is “I can’t do this” and “I can’t do that.”  If your faith is a series of “no, no’s” and a bunch of rules for you to now follow, you haven’t tasted the new wine of Jesus. Christianity is not a series of new rules and regulations, Christianity is freedom. What is it to be a Christian? I can tell you what it is for some people. It is a bunch of don’ts. Don’t dance. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t play cards. Don’t go to movies. Don’t marry outside the faith. Don’t get a divorce.

I can also tell you what it is for some other people. It is a bunch of do’s. Do love everybody. Make sure that you care about people who are different from you. Today we celebrate Pride Day and some people are comfortable with that as it is a part of their self-definition. However, frequently that doesn’t get lived out in their circle of friends.

Some of you may be aware that the majority of my ministry was done with folks who are not of the same ethnicity that I am.  How does a person deal with people who are not like ourselves?

Actually, that is the wrong question.  Once you get to know people who seem to be different than ourselves, we learn that they are not all that different from us.  They may have different skin hues; they may be gay when we are straight; they may be any part of the 2STLGBQ+ acronym. It is an acronym that stands for Two-Spirit, Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Questioning.  The plus sign is meant to include any identities that have not been captured by the other letters and allows space for people to define themselves along the spectrum of sexualities and identities.  This acronym changes over time, and many individuals and organizations use different variations.

Somehow, some religious people get hung up on all the wrong issues. If you read your Bible – if you read the Apostle Paul – you will find that you are free from all these hang-ups. You are free to love, free to die that others might live. It’s time to find out that being a Christian is not a series of rules to obey; the Bible is not a series of rules in a rule book.

I fell in love with my wife Grace. I don’t have a rule book that tells me how to love her. I don’t look up on page 42 of a marriage handbook, paragraph B, regulation 25 for Tuesdays that tell me I should be nice to her. I just love Grace. I don’t need some rule book to tell me how to love her. I don’t need a rule book to tell me how to love my son Michael or my daughter-in-law Charlotte. I am free. Free to love.

That’s what it means to be a follower of Christ. It means to be free from all hang-ups and free to love as Christ loved.

Our worship services are to taste like new wine. Every Sunday morning is a little Easter Sunday in which we celebrate the resurrection of Christ over death. Communion is like celebrating a wedding feast of forgiveness, with all its joy and happiness.

Sometimes, we convert our Sunday morning worship into the mood of somber and serious. For example, Communion is a time of celebration of the Risen Christ and the joy of God’s forgiveness. The word Eucharist means “the feast of joy.” Often, we don’t think of it that way. We feel sorry for our sins and go away from communion, feeling like we are still sorry for our sins. The new wine has a new taste, a new zing, a new effervescence, that we have been joyfully forgiven. Our worship services are not to feel like a time of mourning, like a somber funeral service.

This does not mean that everything has to be a joke when it comes to worship, but it does mean that the primary thing that we should be coming away from with when we leave this place on a Sunday is that sense of Joy.  The communion service is at the heart of joy because that is where we find God and where we have allowed God to find us!

In the church, when there is new wine, let me tell you, there will be new wineskins. That is the way it has always been; the church has always been finding new wineskins in every generation and every culture throughout human history. Today is Pride Day.  That is a day that no previous incarnation of the church could never have imagined.  It is a day that some of our ancestors and even some of our current-day brothers and sisters coming from more conservative backgrounds still can’t imagine!

This doesn’t mean the essence of Christianity has changed; it only means the wrappings are forever changing. The message of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal love never changes, but the wrappings do.  We, as Christians, will forever create new songs and new ways of doing things. Otherwise, the new wine of Jesus Christ will burst the old wine bags.

Each day is an opportunity for you and me to see, once again, what a simple moment of openness can do.  We have to be open in the way we allow God to change our opinions.  This does not mean that we believe that everyone should do whatever in the world they want to do.

What it means is that we choose our battles.  Some of you may be aware that I am an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  The Disciples were at one time the fastest growing denomination in North America.  That was a long time ago.

The Disciples came to be in the 19th century and one of the things that caused them to grow as quickly as they did was a reliance upon slogans – simple, short sayings that were catchy and people could remember.  One of my favourite slogans adopted by the Disciples in those days was this one:  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.”  Now we don’t really use the word “charity” in the way people did in the 19th century and earlier.  Charity comes from the Latin word “caritas” and we would probably substitute it with the word love.” So if you remember nothing else from what I am saying this morning I hope you will remember this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things love.”

What is essential to the Christian?  What is non-essential?  And no matter what – love in everything we do.  That’s how Jesus said his disciples would be known – by our love for one another.  Let’s do that!                                Amen.