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A Bunch of Hypocrites

 
Pastor John Gibson preached this sermon on Acts 9:36-43.  You can also listen to the sermon.
 
 

When I was in sixth grade at Fishburn Park Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia, where I grew up, one day in class, we were discussing music. I said I liked classical music mainly to please our teacher Miss Young, an older woman actually, who did not like Rock and Roll. A few days later, as I was walking down a ramp at the school, Lewis Neal, a classmate and friend, grabbed me, shook me and called me a liar because I was singing a Rock and Roll song. I had been busted. While obviously I was only a child, many people dislike church because it is filled with “a bunch of hypocrites.”

One person on a Yahoo Answers page responded to whether it was okay to believe in God and not to attend church writing, ““I believe but do not attend …. My problem is with how people act differently in church as compared to the rest of their daily lives. Believing and trying to be "Christ" like is a 24/7's job or at least should be...........”

Today we’re beginning a new sermon series on The Church, the Body of Christ. Last week’s sermon, which is available online, was the transition to this series. We’re going to look at different accusations against the church to equip ourselves when we invite people who aren’t members of a faith community to come to Grace and to better be the people of God Jesus has called us to be.

This week we’re looking at the charge that those of us who attend church are hypocrites. The reality is - we are hypocrites, and I confess I am the biggest one here. Sunday after Sunday I tell you about God. Who am I to talk about the Almighty? Who am I to lead a congregation? I am unworthy. I repeatedly fail to live up to the ideals of our faith. If we are honest about it, we all do and those of us who follow Jesus have actually failed from the beginning.

The Quintessential Hypocrite

In today’s lesson from Acts, the circumcised party accuses Peter of hypocrisy, because he eats unclean food with Gentiles, which was prohibited for a Jew. Peter answers that the Spirit told him to eat with the Roman soldiers. The passage turns on the conflict of how to follow God faithfully for the early followers in the light of life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples were devout Jews. After the resurrection, Gentiles begin to believe in Christ. Jesus’ followers debated whether Gentiles should observe the various Jewish traditions such as keeping kosher, being circumcised, and observing the Sabbath. Peter actually goes back and forth. The apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he publicly criticized Peter because he stopped eating with the Gentiles due to pressure from those who believed they should keep the Jewish law.

We need to remember that Peter and the earliest Christians were still working out what it meant to follow Jesus in a rapidly changing, Gentile world. I think we are a lot like Peter in that we are also trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in our rapidly changing, modern world. The key, I believe, to the charge of hypocrisy is to humbly admit that we do not have all the answers and sometimes we get it wrong like Peter, who often spoke or acted boldly only later to recant or to backtrack. Peter denies Jesus three times after saying he would never desert him.

Peter is the quintessential hypocrite and Peter is the one Jesus chooses and he says is the rock on which Jesus he will found his church. Have you ever thought before that Jesus founded his church upon a hypocrite? I hadn’t before preparing this sermon but that is exactly what the Scripture tells us. I wonder if Jesus chose Peter for this very reason. I wonder if he chose him because he knew full well our own failings, weaknesses and hypocrisy. I wonder if Jesus chose Peter to give us hope that if God would make Peter the rock, he would also welcome and use us.

The word hypocrite comes from Ancient Greek where it meant “play acting.” The word in Ancient Greek had a positive interpretation, referring to actors or public speakers. The only instances with a negative connotation are in the New Testament. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes of being hypocrites saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…” (Mark 7:6 NRSV). In other words, they were acting as if they were something that they were not.

Middle America Hypocrisy

This issue, I believe, is not really just a question of faith. I believe it is deeply rooted in our middle class culture that values almost above all else respectability. It is important to us to live in good looking homes with well-kept lawns in neat neighborhoods. We look disdainfully on our neighbors who in some way or another fail to keep up the appearance of their property. In the middle class, we want to look like we have it all together even though our marriage might be falling apart, our health is a shambles and we hate our job. It is difficult for us to admit that we don’t have it together even though the truth is no one has.

Jesus liberates us from this never ending tyranny of keeping up appearances, because Jesus has it all together for us. Jesus is the only perfect one who has walked this earth. Part of the answer, I believe, to the charge of hypocrisy is to avoid pretending to be who we aren’t, to admit that we are members of the body of Christ only through God’s grace rather than through our merits, how good we are. When we are willing to be vulnerable, to admit our need for someone greater than ourselves, to admit our need for our savior Jesus Christ, we can finally find the acceptance we are looking for. We can finally be accepted for who we truly are with all of our strengths and weaknesses, trials and triumphs, rather than for who we think people want us to be.

Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Authenticity is what we hunger for and in fact what we ourselves want to be. We want to be real; we want to be authentic human beings. We ultimately seek not the perfect church, where everyone looks perfect and has it all together, but what we ultimately seek is a real church for real people, imperfect people, like you and me.

Room for One More

Saturday a week ago I attended the Invite Welcome Connect workshop sponsored by our diocese. The workshop offered ways to create a culture that reaches out, warmly greets and includes people who don’t attend a house of worship. The main presenter Mary Parmer showed a video of reasons people do not go to church. One of them was “Church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites.” Then on the screen, Rudy, a pipefitter, answered, “And there’s always room for one more.” It then spelled out letter by letter on the screen “Imperfect people welcome.” Except imperfect was first spelled “impirf” and then corrected to “imperfect.”

Admitting that we imperfect does not mean that we quit striving to walk in the way of Christ. We need to grow in grace, and, through God’s love, we can. In today’s lesson from Acts, the Holy Spirit reveals in a dream that all things are clean and then tells Peter to go to Joppa with the three men. For all his imperfections, the Holy Spirit works in and through Peter, and, for all ours, the Holy Spirit is working in and through us, too, not because we have all the answers or that we have it all together but simply through the mercy of God. All of us, whether members of a church or not, ultimately are on a journey toward God that we will only complete in the next life. Jesus never calls his followers hypocrites for all our faults and failings, perhaps because he knew that all of us who walk in his way are still learning, still seeking, and still growing in our relationship with God in Christ.