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Unashamed of the Gospel ©

On Saturday, Nov. 3,  I preached the opening sermon at the 2018 Global Gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association held at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. Below is the text of the sermon. It was entitled “Unashamed!” and based on Romans 1:15-16 – “That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and to the Greek.” (Romans 1:15-16 CEB) Bishop Mike Lowry A legend arises out of the mist of early Christian lore of a crucial turning point in the life of the infant church, which merits reflection on this occasion. Like most legends, it carries a core kernel of truth. So compelling is the story that it was made into an award-winning movie entitled “Quo Vadis” in 1951. “In the Acts of Peter [a mid-second century Christian writing] we read that an upper-class Roman wife and convert sent word that Peter should flee Rome as he was to be seized and executed. For a time, Peter resisted their pleas to flee. “Shall we act like deserters, brethren?” he says. But they argue with him, “No, it is so that you can go on serving the Lord.” Reluctantly, Peter agreed. Putting on a disguise, he begins to flee the great center of the Roman Empire. As Peter exits the city gates, to his shock he sees the Lord entering this citadel of imperial might. “Lord,” Peter asks, “where are you going (quo Vadis)?” And the Lord said to him, “I am going to be crucified.” And Peter said to him, “Lord, are you being crucified again?” He said to him, “Yes, Peter, I am being crucified again.” The Acts of Peter records the following: “Peter came to himself; and he saw the Lord ascending into Heaven; then he returned to Rome, rejoicing and giving praise to the Lord, because he said, “I am being crucified.” (Steads translation, reprinted in Barnstone 1984:442; from The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark, p. 187) Back among the followers, Peter told them what had taken place and of his new resolve to be crucified. They again tried to dissuade him, but he explained that they were now to serve as the “foundation” so that they might “plant others through him.” In the crucifixion account that follows, Peter (crucified upside down at his own request) speaks at length from the cross to a crowd of onlooking Christians about the power of faith in Christ.” (The Rise of Christianity - by Rodney Stark, p. 187) We who gather this day stand again at the city gate. We too converse with good, well-meaning colleagues who believe deeply in a different path to faithfulness. We too, just as Peter so long ago, this day encounter Christ before us. The question put by Peter lingers in the air over our gathering. “Quo Vadis” – “where are you [we] going?” It is here, leaning on the gate pillars of conviction and commitment, that we must pause to seek again the guidance and insight of those first Christ followers. It is here we are bid to stop, worship, pray, reflect and anchor ourselves again in the heart, mind, and fellowship of the One crucified for our sake, and for the sake of this bruised and battered world. Focus with me on the Apostle Paul’s writing to Christians at the heart of the Empire. The great Apostle opens his greeting as a “slave of Christ Jesus.” (Romans 1:1) With uncompromising elocution, he has made his dramatic profession. “He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:4)  Paul takes time and space to share his thanksgiving for their faithfulness to Christ and the gospel. He lays out his plans to visit them. Now, in verses fifteen and sixteen, he anchors himself, those first followers, and we 21st century followers in the gospel. “That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel. . . I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation." (Romans 1:15-16) Scholars tell us that the claim to be unashamed of the gospel carries a distinctive weight and witness in Roman culture. That culture was built along lines of status, standing and shame. There is more going on here than simply a matter of pride or the marking of a partisan position. In Roman culture, honor was considered a crowning value. Shame represented the disgusting opposite of honor. To be a man was to be a person of honor, upholding cultural values of loyalty to Caesar as lord, social propriety, personal standing and cultural pride. Chrysostom puts it this way: “The Romans were most anxious about things of the world, because of their riches, their empire, their victories, and they thought their emperors were equal to the gods. . . While they were so puffed up, Paul was going to preach Jesus, the carpenter’s son who was brought up in Judea, in the house of a lower-class woman, who had no body guards, who was not surrounded by wealth, but who died as a criminal among thieves and endured many other inglorious afflictions." (page 30 of Ancient Christian commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI Romans) Now layer that conception with a deeper understanding of the interplay between religion and culture. They were not separate in ways we like to pretend today. Religion was not some side aspect to culture for the earliest Christians, a casual opinion that exists separately from the rest of civic life, nor should it be for us. But then, I am ahead of myself. New Testament Scholar C. Gavin Rowe in his insightful book ”World Upside Down” comments, “religion and culture are inseparable, and the difference in the perception of the divinity amounts to nothing less than a different way of life.” (C. Gavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, p. 51) In part, Professor Rowe goes on to chronical just how inherently destabilizing the Christian faith is to pagan culture. He writes, “the power of Jesus Christ is interpreted narratively [in Acts 16] as a force of subversion for the religio-economic habits of the polis (vv. 19-24).” (C. Gavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts int he Graeco-Roman Age, p. 25) Link now this sense of honor vs shame and human triumph vs death on a cross among criminals with a God so defeated that the incarnate God will die on cross for the undeserving and you get the outrageous sense of Paul’s claim “I am unashamed of the gospel!” Paul takes the very concept of shame and stands it on its head. It is a challenge flung boldly into the face of societies false presumptions and personal predilections. No wonder the gospel will be called a “scandal” and “foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) Come back with me now to today, for I submit that our situation today is not as dissimilar from the writing of Paul’s letter to the Romans as we are inclined to think. Make no mistake, the days of casual Christianity are over. The same issue of deep faithfulness is upon us. Once again, we are in a time when to be Christian is to be quaint, backwards and scientifically ignorant. For some, it is even a sign of being mean spirited and bigoted. And here we must pause for a moment confess that we have brought some of this on by ourselves through a narrow-minded refusal to love those who disagree and more often than we would like, a course indifference to the hurting, hungry and homeless, both physically and spiritually. Yet surely the response to our appropriate confession is not abject surrender to the whims of our hedonistically saturated civilization. Dean William R. Inge’s famous quote rightly reminds us that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself [or herself] a widower [or widow] in the next.” H. Richard Niebuhr famously delineated five different responses to culture. The culminating response, which is almost instinctively embraced by most of the present-day United Methodist Church, Niebuhr called “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” (H. R. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Chapter 6, p. 190f) I ask, is it not time to admit that instead of the transformer of culture we have been transformed by our culture? To borrow an insight from James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World, we have steadily sacrificed a Wesleyan commitment to sanctification for purposes of cultural acceptance and the result has been to steadily be marginalized by the culture itself. Is it not passed time to declare that the day of cultural accommodation is over?  “I am unashamed of the gospel.” (Romans 1:16) The earliest Christians were pressured to go along and get along through a causal polytheism that honored the gods and more specifically worshipping Caesar as lord. Unashamed, they refused to do so. So too, we are pressured to replace allegiance to Christ with a vague dusting of Christian language over a functional Unitarian United Methodism. Unashamed, we must refuse to do so. The earliest Christians were tempted to celebrate the gladiatorial violence in the arena and its concomitant human tragedy as simple sport. Unashamed, they refused to do so. So too, we are tempted to embrace violent solutions to our disagreements. Unashamed, we must steadfastly be principled instruments of Christ’s peace which truly passes all our understanding. (Philippians 4:7) The earliest Christians were urged to abandon unwanted babies at the city dump as was the Roman solution. Unashamed, they refused to do so. So too, we are encouraged to see abortion as an “acceptable means of birth control.” Unashamed, we must steadfastly “respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, ¶161(K), p. 114) You may readily add to this list of examples. I note that I have not even begun to talk about issues of human sexuality. To properly do so, we must begin by addressing heterosexual fidelity and faithfulness before we talk about the swirling issues of LGBTQ+ practice. The enlightenment project and much of our mistaken theology, has sprung from our human centric embrace of our preferences and desires. We have started with “I” as in “I think therefore I am.” (René Descartes) We must start, as Paul did, with God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit reconciling us and the world to our divine creator. Instead of leaning casually on the terminate infested wooden gate of fuzzy indifference disguised as tolerance, out of a deeper love and a higher loyalty, it is time again to stand for Christ. With Paul, our uncompromising declaration must be “I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) I was at a conference a few weeks ago where one of the speakers was the CEO and Co-Founder of New Story, a non-profit organization that is pioneering solutions to global homelessness shared some of his own pilgrimage. He talked about when he got out of college he was, as he put it, “pretty selfish.” For several years, he said he pursued the three G’s: Gold, Glory and Girls. At some point, the emptiness and pointlessness of his life hit him and he decided to commit to something worthwhile. His passion was stirred to do something about homelessness. This led him to launch his non-profit organization. While getting the organization up and running, he connected with a business man who became incredibly helpful - a mentor to him. The more the man mentored him, the more impressed he was with his life and the way he ran his business. One day, he asked his mentor where all that wisdom came from. The answer changed his life powerfully for the better. He said that the man shared his faith with me and “put me on the path of faith I am currently living.” (excerpts from a speech given by Brett Hagler to the Creative Leadership Imperative - Launch 1 Conference, Oct. 9, 2018) It was D. T. Niles who once said, “Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.” The Apostle Paul’s witness was just as straight forward. “I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) We gather this day at the city gate, the intersection of Christ and culture. Let this be our grace-filled witness. “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” (Romans 1:16a)  “So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me[us], his prisoner[s]. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power.” (2 Timothy 1:8) AMEN.