Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sermon: A Church for Hypocrites - Matthew 23:27-29

You can listen to the audio of this sermon here.

Please open your bibles to Matthew chapter 23. Today we conclude our sermon series entitled “Credible…Why Believing Makes Sense.” This morning we will tackle the topic of hypocrisy. In Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God he quotes two law students. Helen says “I have to doubt any religion that has so many fanatics and hypocrites…there are so many people who are not religious at all who are more kind and even more moral than many of the Christians I know.” Jessica, another law student says “The church has a history of supporting injustice, of destroying culture…if Christianity is the true religion, how could this be?” Many, many people, some sincerely seeking God, have had such incredibly awful experiences with Christians that the difference between Christ and those who claim to be following Him so closely jars them and scars them so completely they never return to faith again. Ghandi is quoted as saying “I would have become a Christian until I met one.” Before we continue, and examine why so many have had these experiences with hypocrisy, let’s read what Jesus said about the problem. I’m going to read Matthew 23, verses 27 through 29. This is a brief section of Matthew 23, but if you have your bibles open, just glance through the chapter. Starting in verse 13 Jesus uses the word for hypocrite over and over again. He seems to particularly be fond of the phrase that we begin with, Matthew 23:27-29:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. 29 [Here’s that phrase again] "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.

This is the Word of the Lord. So Jesus paints in fairly graphic terms what hypocrisy is. A hypocrite is one who pretends to be other than what they are. The word hypocrite in the Greek language meant actor. So translated literally Jesus says “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you actors!”  We are hypocritical whenever we put on a show, whenever the reality of our hearts, our true selves, does not match our external behavior. The greater this disconnect between the inside and the outside, the greater the measure of hypocrisy. Jesus is calling the leaders of the religious community, the teachers, out on the floor by saying that on the outside according to the things which they do publically they appear very much to be upright but that they are just actors putting on a show. On the inside Jesus says they are full of wickedness as he very graphically describes their hearts, their true selves as the rotting corpses that would be inside a tomb.

Read this chapter when you get a chance. Jesus goes off on these guys. The question for us today is, if we are the Church, the bride of Christ, how is it that over the last two thousand years hypocrisy  has continued to be such an issue for us? If Jesus, or Lord and master, the one whom we follow our whole selves is so anti-hypocrisy, speaks so clearly about this issue, why is this of all things something that the Church as a whole continually has to answer for?

There are three types of people that contribute to this image: the nominal, the immature, and the self-righteous.

When I graduated college, much to the dismay of my parents and their pocketbooks, I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted to be. So what do you do with someone who has a biology degree and no clear idea of their future? You make them a teacher and put them in charge of others at a stage of life where they are the most impressionable. One of the classes I was asked to teach was Environmental Science. I thought no problem. I grew up watching cartoons like Captain Planet and Swamp Thing where the heroes literally used their superpowers to stop pollution. Well as I taught this class through the year I began to realize that I was an environmental hypocrite. One day we talked about proper waste disposal and that evening I cooked myself a dinner of French fries. When I was done, I did what I usually did, I went outside and poured the hot oil out directly onto the ground, preferably on an ant pile or some other insect. As I poured the oil out I thought how just hours before I had taught about how, particularly in Florida, even cooking oil can become a contaminant to the groundwater which we all rely on and I realized what a hypocrite I was. I publically taught that we should dispose of oil, batteries, paint, etc… in a way to preserve our environment and be good stewards of the earth, and yet in private did no such thing. I claimed that I cared about the earth but my actions proved otherwise. I was a nominal environmentalist.

That word nominal means “in name only”.  I was, in name, an Environmental science teacher and but in action I was no such thing. I had thought that I was someone who cared for the environment simply because I grew up during a time when environmentalism was reaching its peak. Again, my Saturday morning cartoons were about fighting pollution. My entire culture was saturated with the importance of caring for our earth, so I just assumed that I cared for the earth. The same is often true in cultures that are predominantly Christian. Many people believe they are Christians when they are truly not Christians. Many grow up and are surrounded by a culture in which most everyone goes to church and they think, my family is Christian, my neighbors are Christian, I must also be Christian. In Mark 8:27, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say I am?” and they reply that “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others one of the prophets.”  There was an incredible amount of confusion and misunderstanding about who Jesus was in the 1st century. How much more misunderstanding is there today about who Jesus really is and what it means to be his follower? The Church is filled with those who misunderstand who Jesus is or don’t know him at all. When people join Trinity they share their faith journey with the Session and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard this, in fact its true in my own life:  I grew up thinking I was a Christian and understanding the faith, but never really got it until later in life.

How can we tell who is a nominal Christian? Those who are Christians in name only? Scripture tells us that while we can claim to know God with our words, our actions are also an expression of that relationship. In other words, if we are hypocrites, if our actions aren’t matching our claims, then one possibility is that we are actually nominal Christians, Christians in name only who in reality don’t know God. Titus 1:16 says “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.”

This isn’t always the case, sometimes we experience this disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do because we are immature in our faith. We know that when we become followers of Jesus Christ that we are not instantly made perfect, but rather we have a lifetime of being made more and more like Jesus.  The author of the book of Hebrews describes the fundamentals of the faith as milk such that infants would be sustained by, but that there comes a time when we transition to solid food and a more solid faith. Hebrews 5:14 says “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Most everyone has experienced physical immaturity of some nature and the same is true of our spiritual walks as well. 

The last type of person that contributes to this image of hypocrisy within the church are the self-righteous fanatics. Tim Keller describes this well:

 “Many people try to understand Christians along a spectrum from nominalism at one end to fanaticism on the other. A nominal Christian is someone who is Christian in name only, who does not practice it and perhaps barely believes it. A fanatic is someone who is thought to over-believe and over-practice Christianity. In this schematic, the best kind of Christian would be someone in the middle, someone who doesn’t go all the way with it , who believes it but is not too devoted to it. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement. Intense Christians would therefore be intense moralists or, as they were called in Jesus’s time, Pharisees. Pharisaic [or self-righteous] people assume they are right with God because of their moral behavior and right doctrine. This leads naturally to feelings of superiority toward those who do not share their religiosity, and from there to various forms of abuse, exclusion, and oppression…What if, however, the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling. The people who are [self-righteous] fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough.”

Galatians 2 describes this story where Peter comes to the city of Antioch where Paul has been sharing the Gospel with the Greeks there. At first Peter is great, he’s eating with Paul and the Greeks but then some Jewish believers come up from Jerusalem and when they arrived, Peter separates himself from the Greeks, the Gentiles, and doesn’t eat with them anymore according to Jewish law. Galatians 2:13 says “The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.” Peter has lost sight of the Gospel, that Jesus didn’t come to give us one more set of rules to try and follow as close as we can. The Gospel is that we are justified, we’re made right, not by observing a set of rules but by faith in Jesus Christ. In fact when Paul calls Peter out on this, he doesn’t say Peter you’re breaking the rules that Jesus gave us. We’re allowed to eat with Gentiles. Paul writes “I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” The true gospel brings us to a faith that is based on God’s grace and when our hearts are in line with this gospel truth, we can’t help but be humble. When our hearts drift away from this gospel back into moralistic religion we become self-righteous and hypocritical.

Those who know that it is by grace that we have been saved know that it is better to Be Broken than to Act Alright. If the Gospel is that by God’s grace, we as broken people are shaped day by day to look more and more like Jesus Christ, than it’s only natural to expect to find the Church filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually. Just look at the guy preaching to you. The title for this sermon, a church for hypocrites, is not meant to indicate that I think we’re especially hypocritical at Trinity, but that we believe that the church, as it is often said, is a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints. There’s a welcome video that we have on the Monday night service website that says “This church is not full of hypocrites, there’s always room for one more.” We all find our hearts, at times, out of line with the gospel, falling into hypocrisy because we are broken. We welcome nominal Christians in the hopes they might come to know Jesus as the Lord of their actions not just what they say. We welcome immature believers and hope that together we might grow in our faith to the place of being able to distinguish good from evil. We welcome the self-righteous fanatics that they might truly hear the gospel of grace and count their good works as filthy rags

When I first told people that I had become a Christian, I received a variety of responses. One that stuck with me, because I was so baffled by it, was when someone said “Oh, you’re Christian now, does that mean you think your perfect?” My response was “No, that’s why I am a Christian.” I became a follower of Jesus Christ, not because I thought I could be perfect, but because I realized I never could. When we act like everything is alright, when we put up fronts, or put on a show for others, we essentially close our hearts and our minds to the grace of the Gospel. It is so difficult to grow in faith when we refuse to let our faults see the light of day. So often we put on shows for each other, particularly when people hear I’m a pastor they try to act better when they are in front of me which is hilarious to me considering my own particular past. This is one of the reasons I like to stalk people on Facebook, particularly younger people, because it gives me a glimpse into their real lives. My hope is that we will be a church and this campus will be a safe place for people to admit they are broken rather than a place where we feel like we have to pretend and act like everything is alright.

This is the ultimate cure for hypocrisy, to be a church where people have experiences with authenticity. As much harm as hypocrisy has done, when people have an authentic, real encounter with those who love Jesus Christ, who are honest that they are broken people in need of God’s sheer grace, who are quick to repent, who don’t judge those outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12), who speak the truth in love, and who point people to Jesus rather than to trying to be as good as you possibly can, then God works amazingly through His Church. 

Often times people only have experiences with hypocrisy in the Church. We are called as the body of Christ, honest about our reliance on God’s grace, to be vocal, to be welcoming, so that others might have authentic experiences with God through us as His instruments. There are lots of well thought out answers from this sermon series that we can give to objections people might have to our faith, but unless they experience something real, unless they experience the authentic outflow of love and grace we’ve received in our own lives through Jesus Christ, those answers will mean nothing.

1 comment:

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