A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on September 16, 2012.
A lot of churches post signs in front of their property, on which they post the week’s sermon title or a “thought for the day.” Over the years, I’ve seen or read the signs of various churches, and some of the more interesting ones include:
Lowndesville Baptist Church – “Turn or Burn.” Happy New Year.
Church of the Cross – “Don’t Let Worries Kill You, Let the Church Help.”
Pilgrimage United Church of Christ has a sign that our Stewardship Committee might like to use as our theme for Pledge Sunday: “You Give God the Credit. Now Give God the Cash.”
Finally, Emerson Congregational United Church of Christ once had a sign that said: “Possessed by Demons. Visitors Welcome.”
For better or for worse, these physical signs tell us something about these churches, and they give us a clue as to whether we would want to be a part of their community.
In addition to physical signs, churches and individual Christians have spiritual signs. They might not be as evident to the person driving down the street, but eventually, once you get to know a church or its members, their spiritual signs become easier to read. In our Epistle Lesson this morning, the apostle Paul gives what seems to be a hodgepodge list characteristics or signs of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Based on this passage, I want to propose three images, or more specifically, three signs that reflect the main thrust of this passage.
The first sign that this text suggests is “Love.” If I’m not mistaken, in American sign language, the hand sign for “I Love You” combines the letters “I” and “L” and “U.” For Paul, a sign of a healthy church is that it is marked by love. In verses 9-12, Paul uses FOUR different Greek words for “love” to make his point. There’s agape love, the self-sacrificial love of Christ, mentioned in verse 9: “Love must be sincere.” But there’s also philostogus, the devoted, mutual love of parents and children, husband and wives, mentioned at the beginning of verse 10. At the end of verse 10, there’s also “brotherly love,” philadelphia, not in the sense of family siblings, but in the sense that as humans, we are all sisters and brothers. Finally, in verse 13, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to practice hospitality, philonexia, which is a love toward strangers.
How wonderful it would be if people associate the name “University Baptist Church” with “Oh yes, that’s a really loving church. You can tell that they sincerely and sacrificially love each other. They are devoted to each other like brothers and sisters. They also love those who are not part of the church by helping the poor, by welcoming newcomers and students, and showing hospitality by inviting them for lunch after church, by visiting those who are sick and homebound. They seek new ways to love and serve God.” As newcomers to the community, Beth and I have been heartened that when we tell people that I’m working at University Baptist, so many have said, “Yes, I know that church – I know an international student that attends an English class there,” or “the church hosts a homeless during the winter,” or “I hear the church provides quiet place for students to study,” or “my wonderful neighbor goes to that church.”
Love is the first sign. What’s Your Sign? When people see us, do they see love?
The second sign that this text suggests is the sign for “blessing.” The hand sign for blessing is made with the thumb, the index and second finger extended with the third and fourth fingers closed. Perhaps you have seen the Pope give this sign of blessing to those visiting him. For Paul, a sign of a healthy church is one whose members bless instead of curse. A couple of days ago, several members of UBC and I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia meeting at FBC Ashland, VA. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, or CBF, is the organization that we as a church partner with in mission and ministry efforts. At the Friday CBF meeting, we heard a story of how the youth group of Louisa Baptist Church blessed an un-reached neighbor. There was an elderly man living alone in a house that had a muddy, unpaved driveway. When the youth group found out about that need, they went to this man’s house, graveled his driveway, vacuumed his house and cleaned his drapes. When they finished, the grateful man had one more request. He said, “Please don’t forget me. Please don’t let this be the only time you see me.” Two weeks later, a couple of the youth group members, out of their own initiative, baked some chocolate chip cookies and paid that man a visit. Now, this once-lonely man is regularly blessed by the presence of Christ alive in those youth.
We live in a world filled with cursing, filled with folks bearing signs of hate, intolerance, and insult. In the midst of this, God calls us to be a blessing. What’s your sign? When people see us, will they see blessing?
Finally, can you guess what the third sign is? It can be found in verse 18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” The third sign is the sign for “peace.”
Paul writes in verse 17:“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” But that is SO against the prevailing attitude of our culture. Our culture says, “If people hurt us, we have to hurt them back.” When driving on Rt. 29, perhaps you’ve seen drivers so angry with a tailgater or a slow driver that they use an entirely different sort of hand sign . . . but we won’t go there.
The apostle Paul reminds us that while the world is filled with violence and vengeance, Christians will be different, relying on God’s ultimate justice and working for peace. Now, Paul is not telling us to be doormats. There is a difference between a peace-maker and a peace-monger. Peace-makers strive to bring about shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, which means wholeness, completeness and well-being for all. Sometimes, wholeness and well-being for all requires confrontation with the unjust systems and structures of society, because peace and justice go hand-in-hand. That’s why true peace-makers are often denounced by people in power as rabble-rousers and agitators. The lives of peace-makers contrast starkly to peace-mongers who are so conflict-adverse that they were not willing to speak truth to power, and not do what is right on behalf of people of low position.
Paul writes “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” True peace-makers focus on what they can control, on their own emotions and responses, and not on the emotions and reactions of others. In their pursuit of God’s shalom, peace-makers will encounter resistance and even hostility, but they will not repay evil with evil, but they will still strive to live peaceably with all. Somewhere I picked up this anonymous quote: “Who is stronger: he who says: “If you do not love me, I will hate you,” or “If you hate me, I will still continue to love you?” I contend that the strongest people who’ve ever lived were not the Caesars, the Hitlers, the Saddam Husseins and the bin Ladins of the world. No, true strength is found people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and true strength is found most perfectly in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As disciples of Jesus, this sign also reminds us that Christ has secured the ultimate victory and brought us peace with God. The church is a group of people living in the victory of Jesus’ resurrection. The church knows how the story is going to end: God will ultimately defeat evil and death, and God will usher in a peaceable Kingdom. We are called to live in this new reality called the Kingdom of God, to serve as living signs pointing to the peace of God. So what’s your sign? When people see us, do they see peace?
University Baptist Church has a sign that shows who we are, and it’s not just the one facing West Main Street. The real sign of the church is you and me, and they will know that we are Christians by our love, blessing and peace. These are the signs that Paul calls us to show, not just with our hands, but with our lives. May God grant us the grace and strength to lead lives that point to God’s love, blessing, and peace. Amen.