Living for God

June 13, 2004: Living fo

Living for God

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

June 13, 2004

Scripture: Galatians 2:15-21;
Luke
7:36-8:3

“For
I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.”

Galatians
2:19

The second century Christian
text entitled “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” tells the young
churches how they might spot a false prophet. These churches were house churches
and they received traveling apostles, teachers, evangelists and prophets. The
“Teaching” tells them to give hospitality to all such visitors but only for
a limited time. If a prophet wants to stay more than three days he or she is a
false prophet; that is how you tell. False prophets stay too long. My Methodist
tradition is one of itinerant ministers, and I think it was John Wesley himself
who said that if a preacher could not say all that he had to say in two years
there was something wrong with him, and so in any case he should move on.

I have been with you eight and a
half years now and by those standards I have been here much too long, but
circumstances have been different and it is not until recently that I have
become convinced that for the sake of the church I should move on. You need new
and younger pastoral leadership, and I have turned 65, a decent retirement age.
You need to hear the Gospel from fresh hearts and minds, more in tune with
contemporary suburban culture than I am. I have preached 421 sermons here, and
as I carried most of them, collated and bound, from my office to my car last
week, I felt how heavy they are. You have done well to endure them. Some have
found them helpful, even inspiring, for which I am grateful. Nobody excepting
perhaps my dear wife Rosemary (and possibly also Vic Fredericks and Bob Mullen
of the 8 o’clock group) have heard them all, but most of you have heard enough
of them and can now look forward to a change.

The text I take up on this my
retirement day is set by the lectionary, but is in any case a favorite of mine.
In Galatians 2 the Apostle Paul says that he had to die to religion in order to
live for God. “”For I through the law, died to the law, that I might live to
God.” The law here is the law of Moses, which is a symbol of the whole Jewish
religion into which Paul was born and for which he was so zealous, and thus a
symbol of all organized religion. So the saying amounts to an admission that he
found his religion to be a barrier to his communion with God; the more religious
he was the farther he drifted away. Thus Paul raises acutely the question of the
relationship between participation in organized religion on the one hand and
life with God on the other, and there is much in what he teaches to suggest that
in important ways we have to resist the former in order fulfill the latter. Be
that as it may it is not the theme I wish to dwell on today.

Rather I want to reflect on what
a life for God might be, as I look back on a life that has always at least
wanted to be such a life for God. Whether we succeed or fail we Christians all
have as a constant melodic line in the composition of our lives the desire that
they should be for God. Paul had to give up the religion of his ancestors, in
which he had attained great prominence, in order to live for God. He had to
sacrifice the promise of a great future in the religious establishment of his
time in order to be true to God. On that Damascus road he discovered that
despite his great learning and position of trust he was headed in the wrong
direction, and had to retrace and then repeat the journey of his life. It cost
him a great loss of prestige and wealth, great physical deprivation and
suffering, but he could call all such things “garbage,” by comparison with
the great gain of knowing Christ and being a part of Christ’s suffering in
this world, assured of being a part of his resurrection in the next (Philippians
3:8-10). In our text he calls this a being “crucified with Christ.” He had
to make a great sacrifice in order to live for God, and so might we.

Being crucified with Christ
means dying to the rewards and satisfactions that we gain from success in the
world of men and woman. We do this in order to follow Christ, in order to live
not for the world but for God. Listen to the Apostle as he explains what it
means to live for God: (I find these lines the most moving in all the Bible).
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who
lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of
God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The conviction that God’s Son loves me and gives himself for me is the
heart and soul of my own life as it is of the Apostle’s.
and of every Christian’s. I can scarcely take it in. He gave himself to
the cruelty and humiliation of the Cross, for me! For me! How can he then fail
to give me all things in due time?

On this day when I give back to
God the gift that he gave me, the gift of the privilege of preaching His Word, I
feel it as a crucifixion, a self-sacrifice, a dying. But it is a dying with
Christ, a dying to one set of satisfactions of in this world, in order that I
might live to God. God loaned me the honor of the pulpit for these years and now
I must give it back; but at this time of loss I know that although I no longer
live as before, Christ continues to live in me, and the life I now shall live in
the flesh I shall continue to live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and
gave himself for me.  He loved me and gave himself for me long before I loved him
and gave myself for him, and long after I can no longer because of frailty give
him much he will continue to give me all, because he loves me. So living for God
entails at the right time giving up the precious things God once gave us.

I have always found Paul a
special teacher and guide. Perhaps because I have the same stormy temperament as
he had, stir up enemies as readily as he did, irritate people, as he did. I know
it has not been easy for you to have me as your pastor. I apologize for that
aspect of my personality, but I assure you that I have always risked your anger
for a good cause, the cause of speaking the truth of God as I believed God gave
me to see it at the time. And of course you were never under any necessity to
agree with me. Living for God entails risking the anger of men and women.

Let us at this point take a peek
at our Gospel lesson in Luke 7. Simon the Pharisee who refused to show Jesus the
elementary courtesies due to a guest, – a kiss of welcome, water to wash the
dust from his feet, oil to refresh his head and face – is an example of what
Saul the Pharisee was like before he became Paul the Apostle. I believe that he
would not even have gone as far as Simon did to invite Jesus to dinner, despite
the fact that having invited him he insulted him. The woman must have been aware
of the insult, and made a move to mitigate it by offering Jesus her most
precious possession, the alabaster flask of ointment.
She weeps because her beloved, the one man of all the men she had known
and had known her, who really loved her, has been humiliated, and she cannot
stand it. She lets her tears lave his dusty feet, and wipes them with her hair,
and all the religious man, the representative of organized religion, can say is
that she is a whore and Jesus is a false prophet because he cannot see that. It
never occurs to him that Jesus receives her caresses precisely because she is a
whore, because he came to save sinners, because the power of his purity is
greater than any pollution that might come from her, and that as she lavishes
love on him he is cleansing and healing her, responding with pure love to her
exploited and exhausted love, taking it into himself and healing it. The
representative of religion can only censure Jesus, and thus set up once again
the sad conflict between the truth of God and the power of the religious
institutions. “Is it possible to live for God in such institutions?” one
asks.

When Paul says the he died to
the law through the law he means that his encounter with the risen Christ showed
him the cruel absurdity of that kind of religious life. The truth of God is not
the laws of religion or the customs of society but the divinely inspired
openness to the love of others that Jesus shows in this Gospel story. Jesus
shows us here the power of receiving love. He receives her love, he accepts her
caresses, he lets her tears fall upon him, her hair rub across his skin, this
filthy whore. We all imagine ourselves eager to give love, but are we able to
receive it? That is the more searching question of our Gospel text. Simon the
Pharisee, poor fellow, is able neither to receive nor to give love, because he
knows it all and controls it all within the patterns of his religious law. To
live for God he must die to the control of the religious law.

“The life I now live in the
flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Can you receive that love? Can you let Jesus love you? Or do you insist on
loving him and thus controlling the relationship. I can no longer control
anything in the little institution which is this church, if I ever could,
since I am giving up my role in the organization. So I pray that this
congregation will remain centered on the Son of God, and allow him to love you
and give himself for you and to you, and thus mitigate as far as possible the
temptation to live for religion rather than for God.

May I end on some personal
notes? Today is the third retirement day I have enjoyed in my life. The first
was in 1986 when I retired as the Dean of Chapel and Senior Minister of Stanford
Memorial Church. The second was in 1997 when I retired as Senior Research
Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.
And now Rosemary and I have the sweet sorrow of retiring from your midst here at
the Woodside Village Church. So many of you have become our beloved friends. We
have shared with you the birth and baptism of your children, your marriages, the
crises of illness, the joys of recovery, the solemnity of death. You have
listened to my preaching and taken the sacrament from my hands. I thank you for
the honor and trust of those relationships.

I have had five careers during
the forty years of ministry, as a college professor, a seminary professor, a
university professor, chaplain and administrator, a political researcher and a
parish pastor. For each of these God gave me the blessing appropriate to the
time and the challenge. Thus I am firmly convinced that God gives the
appropriate blessing for every stage of our life. Therefore we need not look
back longingly, but rather thankfully, and we need not look ahead fearfully but
rather expectantly, seeking the blessing God has for us this time, and time and
time again until the final blessing, for which in the end we all live. Living
for God means, therefore, living in the light and power of the divine blessing
given for the time we are now in, and promised for all time and for eternity. 

I bid farewell in the words of
Paul. He ends the letter to the Galatians thus: “But far be it from me to
glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been
crucified to me and I to the world…The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with
your spirit, brothers and sisters.

Amen.

 

 

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