Sermon 06-21-2020: “Living in Step with the Gospel”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 2:11-21

Over the past few weeks, the Lord has continued to lay this story on my heart to share with you. I’ve told the Lord “no” a few times, but he doesn’t seem to care. He really wants me to share it with you—and it does tie in to today’s scripture. 

In the summer of 1976, I was six-years-old. My parents had this crazy idea that what my two older sisters and I needed to do that summer was to take ice-skating lessons. Ice skating… in Atlanta. There was a skating rink at the old Colony Square shopping center in Midtown. So that’s where we had our lessons. For at least a few months, we spent a lot of time ice-skating.

My parents were not interested in their son becoming the next Scott Hamilton… although Hamilton has a great Christian testimony, which you can watch at iamsecond.com. But they didn’t want their son to be a champion figure skater. Here’s what I think they were thinking: My parents were both huge sports fans. And they had just got season tickets to the Atlanta Flames hockey team. Remember them? This was the first NHL franchise that Atlanta managed to lose! Anyway, I think my parents imagined that hockey might catch on in Atlanta, and if it did, their son would already know how to ice-skate.

Well, I never learned to skate very well, and hockey never really caught on… but I did take ice-skating lessons that summer. 

And here’s a memory that has haunted me these past few weeks. During the time I was taking these lessons, we had a baby-sitter who told me and my sisters a crude, racist joke. The punchline included the N-word. I didn’t understand the joke, but I knew it included this word that I wasn’t supposed to say. And it didn’t help that our babysitter prefaced the joke by saying, “Before I tell you this joke, you have to promise you won’t repeat it”—yeah, right… that’s just asking for trouble!

So either that day or the next, I was in ice-skating class. One of the girls in class was black. About my age. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her—I don’t think it was because she was black; I didn’t like girls back then. And I certainly didn’t like her when—either accidentally or on purpose—she pushed me, I lost my balance, and fell. I’m sure I deserved it. But it wounded my pride. It hurt my feelings. And I’m thinking, “Hmm… How am I going to get back at her? I know! I just heard this joke that had this punchline. I didn’t understand what the words meant, but I knew they were directed toward people like her. And I shouted the punchline out to her. 

And she cried and told her mother. 

And my mother, of course, was mortified. She made me go and apologize to the girl and her mother. 

And that was that… There was no lecture from my parents at home later. I wasn’t punished. I didn’t get a “whoopin,’” as my mom would say. We never talked about it again. 

On the other hand, what could my parents say? They grew up white and poor during the Depression in the rural Deep South—my mom from rural north Georgia, my dad from rural South Carolina, not far from here. Back in the ’70s, when I was young child, I heard the N-word a lot—from my parents, from my friends, from my neighbors, from my aunts, uncles, and cousins… and, yes, from my baby-sitters.

To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t grow up using the N-word after that experience. But it’s not even because I became enlightened. It’s just that I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. None of my friends or parents were from the South, of if they were, they did not talk with the same accent as my family—and none of them said the N-word. So I stopped saying it because of peer pressure. I hate to say it now, but I was ashamed of my family. I deliberately learned to speak without a southern accent. I didn’t want to be judged. 

And then… even by the mid-’80s or so, my parents and extended family, thank God, had stopped saying the N-word, too. 

Here’s my point… Until the events associated with the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath, I have rarely thought about that girl and that incident on the ice-skating rink way back in 1976. It has crossed my mind on average about once every two or three years… just a flicker of a memory… a moment of shame or embarrassment… and then on to happier thoughts.

But what about that six- or seven-year-old girl? She’s my age now. How often has she thought about it over the past 45 years? A lot more than I have, I’m sure! 

How should I feel about that? Should I take comfort in the fact that in comparison to all the other ways in which she’s been insulted and put down and made to feel inferior in her life because of the color of her skin—my little insult was nothing… at least I hope. Is that how I should feel?

No… My words gave voice to a very serious sin. My words caused great harm to her. A poet once said, “The child is the father of the man.” Or “the child is the mother of the woman.” I can only imagine how my words, and the words of others, helped shape her into the woman she became. Yet I got off almost scot-free. That hardly seems fair, does it?

And you may say, “Well, Brent, you were just a child! You didn’t know what you were doing.” Well, I knew enough to know that my words were going to hurt her. That’s why I said them. But by all means… there were plenty of people who influenced me in my young life, who shaped me into the person I’ve become—and many of them were racists, who used the N-word freely, who told me these crude jokes, who taught me that I was better than black people… By all means, they bear a lot of responsibility for their role in harming that six- or seven-year-old girl, yet they got off scot-free, too! And when they were using these words, and telling these jokes in front of me—they weren’t even thinking about how they were going to harm a six- or seven-year-old girl! Hardly seems fair, does it?

My point is, this sin of racism, which of course has been all over the news these past few weeks, is a deadly serious sin. And even when it doesn’t kill someone, which it often does, it causes lifelong harm to people.

And it’s a sin that we can even see in today’s scripture. In Galatians chapter 2, verses 1 through 10, which we skipped, the apostle Paul describes a trip that he and Barnabas made to the apostles in Jerusalem. They took along with them Titus, who was a Gentile believer. Paul says that none of the apostles required Titus to be circumcised—even though there were members of the church there, whom Paul describes in verse 12 as the “circumcision party,” who were pressuring the apostles to do so. 

The circumcision party, like the Judaizers against whom Paul is writing this letter, were telling the apostles, “If Titus, a Gentile, wants to be fully Christian, fully acceptable to God, fully saved he must first be circumcised.” And all of the apostles, not just Paul, said, no

In fact, all the apostles agreed that Paul was preaching the pure gospel, and they extended to him the “right hand of fellowship,” acknowledging that Paul’s gospel of grace alone through faith in Christ alone was the one and only gospel.

So that had just happened—and Peter was part of it. Peter agreed with Paul’s gospel. And then, no more than weeks or months later, the events in today’s scripture take place. Listen to verses 11 through 13: “But when Cephas”—that’s the Aramaic name for Peter—“when Cephas came to Antioch”—in Syria, where Paul’s home church was located—“I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James”—these men were members of the “circumcision party”—“[Peter] was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”

Do you get the picture? Peter had been eating with Gentiles—even though they didn’t follow Jewish dietary laws; even though, according to Jewish ceremonial law, they were considered “unclean.” And eating alongside them would make Jews unclean as well. That normally would have been reason for a Jew like Peter not to sit at the same table and eat with Gentiles, but no longer. Peter now understood that though faith in Christ, Jews and Gentiles are equals. Indeed, Peter had already been given this revelation directly from God back in Acts 10 and 11, which you can read about on your own.

So, to his credit, Peter had to step way outside his comfort zone to fellowship with Gentiles like this. This is not how he was raised to act. It was against his culture. He was raised to despise Gentiles; to look down on them; to believe they were filthy people, morally bankrupt. Like me in relation to blacks in the Deep South, Peter was brought up to feel morally superior to them.

But Peter understood the gospel, and it changed the way he behaved… at least at first!

I imagine that it was very easy for Peter to slip back into old habits and old ways of racist thinking—when these very conservative members of the “circumcision party” come to Antioch while Peter was there. Peter was scared of them, and so verse 12 tells us that he “drew back and separated himself” from the Gentile believers.

What message was communicated to these Gentiles through Peter’s action? 

Maybe the same thing my sin of racism communicated to that girl on the ice rink: “I’m better than you are. I’m more righteous than you are. You really don’t belong here, in this same space, alongside me.”

Peter’s silent message hurt these Gentile believers… What we’re seeing is the old Peter again… the same Peter who was afraid in the courtyard outside the high priest’s house after Jesus was arrested. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” No! “Didn’t we see you with him?” No! “Don’t you know him?” No! 

And here he is, probably 18 years later, doing the same thing… Once again, Peter is afraid… and he refuses to tell the truth… and he fails to live up to the truth of the gospel.

Aren’t you relieved to know that no less an Christian than Peter himself—even years after becoming a disciple of Jesus—after experiencing all the miracles, being an eyewitness to the resurrection, doing powerful, miraculous things, time and again, through the Holy Spirit—years after being called the “rock” on whose confession the Church would be built—after all of this, Peter, of all people, still doesn’t have his act together! Not entirely!

I’m not for a moment denying the reality of sanctification—that after we become Christians the Holy Spirit enters our lives and begins changing us from within. But that’s a process… And the apostle Peter, even after 15 years, still had a long way to go

That’s a relief to me! It’s a relief to know that Peter still didn’t have his act together. 

You know why? Because I don’t have my act together, either. And neither do you. After all these years of being a Christian! Right? We have a devil of time admitting it, don’t we?

One of the things I admire about Alcoholics Anonymous is that the only condition for joining is that you have to confess—you have to admit out loud—that you don’t have your act together. Listen, for whatever reason—because of God’s grace alone—I have never been tempted to alcoholism. No… all my current sins are more respectable than that. We like being respectable sinners, don’t we? Well, as my experience shows, being a little bit racist is a “respectable” sin—never mind how harmful it is to others!

But my point is, even though I’ve never been an alcoholic, I sure would like to be a part of AA. Because if I were, I wouldn’t have to pretend that I have my act together all the time! See, that’s what hypocrisy is… pretending to be someone else because you’re afraid of what others will think of you if they knew the truth! That’s what Peter was doing!

One of my favorite preachers is a presbyterian pastor in Florida named Steve Brown. He’s had a radio show for decades. You might have heard him. He talks in this really deep voice. And he’s always talking about grace… I mean, radical grace—a“Galatians” kind of grace. He preached on this same text one time, and he said something I wouldn’t have the courage to say. He said, “If you knew me the way Jesus knows me, you wouldn’t want me to be your pastor.” I don’t believe I would have said that. But you know it’s true! 

One time I confessed in a sermon—this wasn’t even my main point—but I confessed that I had a problem with the sin of profanity. I thought that was a “respectable” enough sin to risk admitting. And a dear sister in Christ whom I love, who was a member of my church, scolded me in the greeting line that day. She said her heart was grieved to hear me say that. And when I talked to her about it, it became clear that the problem wasn’t so much that I used profanity, but that I admitted that I did…  in church!

And in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “If you think profanity is bad,” good thing you can’t see the rest of what’s in here! [point to heart]

So you can understand why there’s a part of me wants to join AA—because I long to be part of a group that won’t judge me when I mess up—and they can’t judge me because we all know that they mess up too—in fact, that’s why come together each week. Because we mess up so much!

But even as I say this, I hope some of you are thinking, “Hold on! Isn’t the church supposed to be that kind of organization—a so-called “hospital for sinners, not a “spa resort for saints”? Well… I guess it’s supposed to be! How often we fall short of that!

Do you remember, years ago, when Prince Charles married Camilla? There was quite a scandal with Charles and Camilla because back in the ’90s the sordid details of their affair became very public. Charles cheated on Princess Diana, and she cheated on him, too. Well, it was just an ugly, awful, scandalous mess. 

Fast forward years later to the wedding between Charles and Camilla, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury—the highest-ranking clergy in the Church of England. And during the service, the archbishop had the two of them kneel and confess their sins… and it sounded like their sins were really bad. And it sounded like Charles and Camilla were just begging God for forgiveness. And journalists covering the wedding were like, “Ooohh… The archbishop is really letting these two have it because of their scandalous affair!” It was a harsh, sobering prayer!

But actually it wasn’t… The archbishop was just following the wedding liturgy in the Anglican prayer book. Charles and Camilla were just reciting the words that all brides and grooms are supposed to say when they get married! But I guess everyone watching at home agreed that these two really needed to confess their sins… because, after all, they were really bad people… You know, unlike the rest of us more respectable sinners!

But speaking of harsh, sobering prayers, listen to the normal prayer of confession in our own United Methodist Hymnal: 

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy.

When we pray this prayer, are we Methodists look around, thinking, “You talking to me?” Or are we thinking, “Sounds about right.” Because when we pray this prayer, we—respectable sinners that we are—are supposed to see ourselves in it. This is who we are… this is what we do!

Brothers and sisters, if we’re Christians, we do not have our act together—spiritually speaking! If you’re part of this Toccoa First family, you do not have your act together. If you’re pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, music director, or any staff member at Toccoa First, you do not have your act together.

And that’s okay

Did you hear that? It’s okay that you don’t have your act together. 

I emphasize this point, because if we don’t think it’s okay, do you know what happens to us? We Christians get together in church and pretend to be okay when we’re not… just like Peter… And we Christians get together in church and lie to other people about how okay we are when we’re not… like Peter…

Did you hear about pastor Louie Giglio? He’s the pastor of Passion City Church. It’s a very large multicultural, multiracial congregation in Atlanta with thousands and thousands of members. But Giglio got into hot water last week. He was hosting a conversation about racism, which included the Christian rapper Lacrae. Giglio was trying to be helpful, he meant well, but… he ended up saying something that hurt a lot of people. I’m not going to repeat it. You can Google it if you don’t know. But Giglio offered an emotional apology. 

But what disappoints me is the outpouring of righteous indignation and anger from all these other pastors and all these other Christians on social media. Just no grace at all

I just wanted to say to these my brothers and sisters in Christ, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”! Even if these white Christians who were heaping scorn on Louie Giglio have no problem at all with racial prejudice—even if they would never say anything hurtful on the subject of race—that hardly means that they have their act together. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers, megachurch pastors.”

I retweeted a tweet from Tullian Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson, who’s a pastor in Florida. He was undoubtedly referring to the Giglio controversy when he tweeted this:

Every time I look at social media or watch news programs two thoughts cross my mind: 

1) The good news is that we still believe in sin and it still really bothers us.

2) The bad news is that the sin that bothers us most is not our own, but other peoples.

Let’s be bothered by our own sin first! I think Jesus said something about that.

Listen, I began this sermon talking about how what I thought was one very small sin—which I hardly gave a second thought to—might have had profoundly harmful consequences. I did so in part to say, “This is how deadly serious our problem with sin is!” Indeed, Peter’s sin was a deadly serious problem.

My question to us is this: Will we set aside our pride, our ego, our delicate feelings and confess—right now—that Jesus needed to die for “respectable” sinners like you and me?

Thank you, Jesus, for doing that for me.

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