Sermon for Sunday, April 8, 2018: Beginning a series loosely based on the figures in the Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, KS, stained glass window that show the growth of The Church since Jesus’ resurrection. Today the timing of Martin Luther King’s assasination made the inclusion of his portrait in the window the starting point. The scripture references are included within the text of the reflection.
1968: The year was filled with notable events within our country’s history, but that does not make it any different than any other year along history’s timeline. But 1968 has a definite place in our lives as Americans and as Christians. And today, 50 years later on the Sunday after Easter, I cannot ignore some comparisons between the words spoken by Jesus and those of Martin Luther King, Jr.
These words are from the speech in Memphis, TN, on April 3, 1968:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
The words are prophetic, as MLK died the next day, assassinated.
Compare those experiences and the words of Jesus’s ministry and death. The similarities cannot be ignored. In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus’ words that are equally prophetic about his own death. John 13:31-36:
31 As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man[h] to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. 32 And since God receives glory because of the Son,[i] he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. 33 Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
36 Simon Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?”
And Jesus replied, “You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.”
These words come directly before Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will deny even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows.
Living ones Christian beliefs can place you in very critical positions between good and evil. And even though Jesus lived and died over 2,000 years ago, the conditions around us remain the same. There is good and evil competing for our attention.
MLK and Jesus experienced discrimination and their prophetic words as they neared their final day are eerily parallel. The discrimination experiences are different; but they are also the same. How both chose to confront discrimination was to follow God’s commandment: Love one another, as you want to be loved. Following that commandment mirrors the grace God provides us.
MLK was assassinated 50 years ago, but the Civil Rights movement continues.
Jesus was assassinated 2,000 years ago, but the Christianity movement continues.
Since the crucifixion and the resurrection, Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue his work:
16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!
18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations,[a] baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Mathew 28:16-20, NLT]
As the disciples stepped out of hiding and began to follow Jesus’ instructions, the community of followers developed into The Church,. And the Church is the vehicle that continues to move Christianity forward.
The Church grew. The movement continued and continues. God’s grace is a message so valuable that Christians have gone to great lengths to share the story.
The images that surround the Tree of Eternal Life in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window have all accepted the commission, “. . . to make disciples of all the nations,[a] baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Each one’s story is different yet the same. Each one’s story is God’s story—love one another. Another common trait is that they exhibit God’s grace.
Maybe understanding grace is a key to unlocking the value of Christianity. Theologians have defined grace a bit differently than a common dictionary would define the term.
- According to the on-line edition of the Oxford Dictionary, grace is
- Smoothness and elegance of movement
- Courteous good will
But then the Oxford Dictionary adds the third definition:
- (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.
- According to the website, wllaboutgod.com, grace is explained more fully in this manner:
- In the New Testament grace means God’s love in action towards men who merited the opposite of love.
- Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves.
- Grace means God sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty ones be reconciled to God and received into heaven.
The website includes the scriptural reference from 2 Corinthians 5:21, 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin,so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
This is the good news that The Church has carried forward since Jesus’ resurrection and commissioning of the disciples. God’s grace is for everyone that is the message filling Paul’s letters in the New Testament. The same website includes scriptures that develop Paul’s argument for accepting Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection in Romans 3:22-24:
22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
This argument fueled the earliest Christians to carry the movement forward. Each disciple, each man and woman and child who accepts God’s grace and believes that Jesus frees us from sin joins in the movement to spread the good news. The Church is an inclusive term that continues to evolve as it carries the story forward through the years and around the world.
MLK is included in the images of the window because he accepted God’s grace and lived to actively demonstrate that loving one another should erase all barriers between one and another. The civil rights movement is an evolving process—the word movement itself should remind us that change takes time and must continue forward. MLK wanted all people, regardless of race, to be included in society equally. If God loves all people, we are to love all people as we want to be loved. God did not segregate any peoples from his grace after sending Jesus Christ to teach us how to love one another as we want to be loved.
Paul shared how grace saves those who believe in the story of Jesus Christ with the church in Ephesus:
8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:8-10, NLT]
After the crucifixion, running and hiding must have been much easier than continuing to meet with the other Christians, who were certainly a minority in their communities, experiencing discrimination. No visual difference identified the Christians from the Gentiles, the Jews or the Pagans, but they were targeted as being different.
No political affiliation or nationality identified who was Christian or not. No, God sent Jesus to assure all people that he loved them all and wanted all of them to leave their evil ways and accept God’s grace. God’s agenda was to provide unconditional love and forgiveness to all individuals regardless of anything: there were no restrictions, no limits, no boundaries—geographical, political or racial. This is God’s unconditional love and accepting that premise results in knowing God’s grace.
As Christians we are part of The Church. Our job is to push forward, to keep the movement growing. God’s grace removes any barriers between people. MLK saw no reason for discrimination and he stepped forward. His dream is God’s dream:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. . . . And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” [Accessed on April 6, 2018 at kinginstitute.stanford.edu.]
How do you define God’s grace? Do you live by grace or do you live with grace? Did MLK live by grace as he led the civil rights movement? By following God’s one commandment to love one another as you want to be loved, are you perpetuating Jesus’ teachings by the way you live? MLK chose to live out God’s message because he knew God’s grace and wanted to do all that he could to assure that all Americans were free.
The Church today has weathered many challenges, but the message of God’s grace and the salvation available to us through Jesus Christ is the story, but do you live by grace or with grace? The Church lives by grace when is offers “courteous good will.” The Church does not always work smoothly or elegantly, but whatever it does to love one another continues Jesus’ work.
Today you live with God’s grace when you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior; and you live by God’s grace whenever you unconditionally love others as you want to be loved. You are part of the Christian movement that continues to grow and to spread the Good News. God expects each of us to do all that we can in any way that we can to demonstrate God’s grace to others through unconditional love.
Dear loving God,
Thank you for granting us grace
Thank you for Jesus Christ, our teacher.
May we each find ways to share
Your grace with all others. –Amen