A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on May 20, 2012.
Make ready, O God, the graduates of this spring semester. Make them ready for the new adventure of living. Bless each one that goes to a new place. Prepare friends for them who will bring out their best and who will counsel against the things that are dangerous or unwise. Use these students to do the same for others. Make them ready for the temptations that will come their way and strengthen their hearts and help them grow in wisdom. We do not ask that they be immune from the challenges of the world, simply that they would be ready to face them. May they each be victorious every time such a thing presents itself in their path. Use them for good. In friendships, in organizations, in classrooms, in the dorms, and every place they go, use them for some good and some greater purpose. Grant them Christian character to do well in all things. May they be patient with themselves and with others. May kindness and compassion extend from them toward all. May their speech be fitting of a child of God. Grant good things along the way. May their presence in schools, fraternities, sororities, and all the other places that they invest themselves be better because of their participation. Make each one more like your son, Jesus. Put his heart within them, for we ask it in his name. Amen.
The Commandments are one of the earliest attempts to lay down rules and guidelines to sustain community. The Commandments include the most severe violations and moral dilemmas in human life… They are for us the rules that, when honored, hold us together and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord, and violence.
—Chris Hedges in Losing Moses on the Freeway
At least locally, most graduations are over. There are a few parties left to go, and we are ready to move on. We are ready to see what great things will happen for the graduates and the young adults of our congregation. As the graduation season has drawn to an end, so does my sermon series which has been meant to encourage and speak to the younger adults in our church.
Today, I would like to simply state to you that as you see the vista of the future in front of you, I want to mention the one primary thing that the world needs from you, and I will not make you wait for it. I will tell you outright. It is character.
I have heard that more people now get their news from Twitter than from the network news, but however you get your news, it is filled with problems that often seem insurmountable. There are great challenges. There are economic challenges. If anyone is looking for a job, you know just how difficult the economy has been. There are political challenges. Particularly in the nation’s capitol where we seem to have perfected the art of gridlock, nothing seems to get done.
If you see information about the drug wars of Mexico and the horrible atrocities that are taking place there, we know that is a threat to our sense of safety. If you read things about how family life has frayed around the edges, we are aware that in almost every arena there are challenges. I would stay to you that every single one of them has a moral root. Every single one of them has a cause and a function that can be assigned to a lack of moral character. If we want to use a good, old fashioned word, it is sin. It is not that we need more economic regulation, but we need people of greater character to operate in the economic arena. I don’t think we need a third political party, but we need people of ethics. We need people of character and morality to operate within the system that we have. Can you imagine Jesus conducting any of the political campaigns that we will be subjected to come fall? Not likely.
We need more character. All of the challenges that we hear about on the news of the things that we have mentioned over the past three Sundays, including attempting the impossible, will be found in character. I would say that for everyone who has graduated, for everyone who is looking to the future, for everyone whose best days are ahead and whose hopes are in days to come, the one thing that the world needs from you is, indeed, character.
The reason for mentioning this today is where is character going to come from in our nation if it does not come from the Christians? There are good people who are not Christians to be sure, but where will you find the center of character and the basis for teaching character as we understand it if it is not from the base of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to live like Christ? But a very frightening thing is that more and more studies show that belief in Christ no longer correlates with things that we think of as morality and character. The correlation between believing in Christ and whether or not a person cheats is diminishing. The correlation between whether or not a person believes themselves to be a disciple of Christ and whether or not they participate in casual sex or binge drinking is diminishing to the point that it doesn’t appear much different than the population at large.
At the very time when we need character the most is at a time when people are picking and choosing what character means. Christians are picking and choosing whether or not a certain activity is important. More and more, people are putting aside the very things that, for centuries, have stood as a part of what it means to be a follower of Christ and are deciding whether to include or exclude it from our conduct. How will character really pervade the culture unless it is Christians who speak for honesty, unless it is a group of Christian people who practice moderation, unless Christians in some way express fidelity in their relationships? What we really need is character and young adults need it for their life, and as a nation and as a world, we need it from them. If there is any future or hope, it is going to be found in people of character.
This sermon is not meant to provide shame or guilt to anyone. All I really want to do is help you understand why being a Christian results in certain conduct and not other conduct. It is really that easy. We all think it is either that Christians are goodie-goodies or because God wants to stop all the fun in the world and will not let us do certain things, but it is really not like that at all.
When we talk about what it means to be saved, converted, or to be born again New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says that what Jesus wants to do for us is share God’s life with us. Somehow, our lives are brought into connection with God’s very life.
Think of it this way: If my right hand represents my life, and my left hand represents God’s life, and the two come and overlap and intercept, all of a sudden my life and God’s life are together. If I look at it from the front end, what on earth in my life do I want to bring in contact with God’s life? Do I want to bring some of the behaviors that I have participated in the past? Do I want to bring fornication, impurities, evil desires, greed, malice, abusive language, and slander? Do I want to bring all of those things in contact with God’s life?
If we think about it in relationship to after the relationship has come about, God’s very life has somehow intercepted my life and the two have come together, what can I leave in my life if God’s life now touches and wraps itself in mine?
This is the purpose of the text which we have from the third chapter of Colossians in which Paul is describing for the Christians there. This is your life. It cannot be like it used to be. Do you not realize that you are now in contact with God? God is in your life. How can we have God’s reflection in our lives and allow these things to stay a part of our lives? He says to get rid of these things because they are not appropriate for a life that intersects God’s life.
In the New Testament, there is no word for Christian. Paul often describes our relationship as being in Christ or Christ is in us, and that is a perfect understanding of that intersection of my life and God’s life. God is now in me. I am now in Christ. What conduct and quality of character needs to come out of that relationship?
It is important for my life because Christ is in my life, but the reason God wants these certain characteristics is not only because they are in Christ but because it is what makes life together good. It is what makes life together possible, healthy, and growing.
Today’s meditation text comes from a young man named Chris Hedges who wrote a book called Losing Moses on the Freeway. He is talking about the Ten Commandments, and what he says about the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament is true about all the moral teachings of the New Testament. These are the things that do hold us together. These are the things that sustain us. Would the world be a better place if there were more profanity, more cheating on tests, more casual sex, more anger, more greed, or would the world be a better place if the goodness of God that intersects my life begins to eliminate these things so that there is less of this? Instead of these things, we take on the absolute good things that God wants us to do. We are kind and compassionate. We demonstrate humility and meekness toward one another. Every activity we are involved in on Monday, Tuesday, Friday night, or Saturday night—not just in the sanctuary on Sunday morning—is done for the honor of the glory of God. What if God’s goodness really did invade this world? Would it not sustain a better life than the things we have been seeing in the news? How will this take place if not through the lives of Christians? Do we not understand that with all the problems we face as a world, the one thing that we really need is a generation that will have better character than our generation has had? What we really need is a generation that will rise up and demonstrate the spirit of Christ in all the things that it does. Would we not have a better world if there were people who truly followed Jesus Christ and did these things?
Christ comes to share God’s very life with us. If I invite the life of God into my life through Jesus Christ, what can I keep in my life that has been there before? There are some things that I have to get rid of, and this is what we speak of when we speak of repentance. It is simply eliminating the things that get in the way of God being fully in our lives.
If I am a Christian today and I look at my life now that God has come and intersected, what can I be satisfied with if God is truly a part of me? There are some things that are no longer fitting. Which of these things that I have to get rid of truly makes the world a better place? None of them. God’s gift to us is the fullness of life.
When we think about Christ sharing God’s life with us and we think about the fullness, this is what we call abundant life. If he has shared God’s life with us, then that will not stop at death and we also call that eternal life.
God’s life has come to us in Christ. How then can we live? How then should we live? What does the world need from us? If Christians do not bring character to the world, where will character be found? Nowhere.
God calls us to be like Christ, in all things and through all things, to do everything to the glory of God through Jesus Christ.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.