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Duration:1 hr 1 mins 28 secs

This morning we continue with our fall theme, “Treasures of Grace: Living the Reformation,” as we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Each Sunday during this commemoration I will be lifting up a theme or theological ideal which grows from our Reformation roots as we remember that we are a people of grace, completely dependent upon God’s love for us. This grace is a treasure known in our history which inspires us, for we know that God is not finished with us, with the church, or with this world yet, so we earnestly seek to live the Reformation.

On this Kirkin’ o the Tartans Sunday, we turn to a doctrine very much at issue in the Reformation – the doctrine of the church. What does it mean to be the People of God and what does it mean to be the Kirk or the Church? Our text is Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verses 15-23. Let us hear this word of God.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— 23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Once upon a time there was a Christian named Simon. Simon lived in Syria in the early part of the fifth century and longed for closeness with God. So he chose to make his home among a cluster of Christian hermits in the deserts of northern Syria, a respected path in his day. But even this did not provide Simon what he longed for, so in the year 423, when he was thirty years old, Simon began to live on a small platform on top of a pillar. At first the pillar was only about twelve feet off the ground, but it increased in height over the years until it was sixty feet in the air. Simon lived on his isolated perch for the rest of his life, another thirty-six years. This remarkable feat earned him the name, “Saint Simon of the Pillar.”

Michael Lindvall, the Pastor of The Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City likes to tell that true story about Saint Simon of the Pillar whenever he teaches a New Members class. Because while it is rarely asked, there is a question that always seems to at least be implied by someone in those classes. It’s true here at Reid Memorial too. And that question is: “Can I be a Christian on my own, or do I have to join the church?” Lindvall writes, “I answer the question whether it is asked or not, and I feel compelled to respond honestly. ‘Yes, you can. It’s been done. … But it’s extraordinarily difficult, and in spite of all the foibles of church, it’s not nearly as much of a joy.”

So yes, I guess it is theoretically possible to be a Christian all by yourself. But for the vast majority of us, at least those who know the joy of Christian faith and life, we know that Christians are not solitary creatures. In your own life, think about how it was that you first learned about God’s great love for the world in Jesus Christ. Were you walking alone in the woods when the idea suddenly came to you? Or were you sitting at the beach watching the sunset when you decided to follow a prophet from Nazareth you didn’t know anything about? Or did someone who already knew Christ as Lord and Savior share that good news with you as a child, as a youth, or as an adult? I would almost wager that if I asked which of those three options were true for you, almost all of you would raise your hands when I came to number three.

Unfortunately there are many Christians, particularly in America, who take Saint Simon of the Pillar as their patron saint. In fact, half of the more than 90 percent of Americans who claim in surveys that they believe in God, also admit to pollsters that they do not attend any religious gathering. If that is disturbing for you, then you won’t want to know that most researchers believe the actual number of Americans who attend worship in an average week is quite a bit lower than that 50 percent.

Yes, we live in a world that assumes persons are isolated individuals. We exist by ourselves, with an individual personality that is all our own. We are who we are and there is no one else in the world exactly like us. Therefore, only I can determine what is true for me based on my life experience and how I choose to see the world. So should it really surprise us that the practice of religion and faith also has become a private matter? As law professor Stephen Carter wrote more than twenty years ago, “Religion has become Americans’ favorite hobby.”

But my friends, just look around this morning. If it were the case that we were just isolated individuals; if it was just about me and God without concern for anyone else; if the preferred method of faith was to sit on a pillar 60 feet in the air, then this morning makes no sense at all. My friends, you have probably figured this out already, but we are not in Scotland. There are a mere handful of us with actual Scottish family roots. As best I can tell, I myself have zero Scottish roots. And yet we are celebrating together a Scottish Heritage Sunday. This is a wonderful day for us at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in part because it reminds us that faith is not all about us. That might be strange for you to hear, so let me say it again – church is not all about you.

In an article on this topic which generated quite a bit of controversy, called “If you’re a Christian you need to go to church. Regularly.” Pastor Paul Prather writes:

Your fellow parishioners, including your pastor, will make you mad, hurt your feelings and get on your last nerve. This is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Finding ourselves offended and disappointed lets us see just how shallow and petty we are. It sands down our rough edges. We discover that, by gosh, we’re no better than all those other hymn-warbling yahoos!

Also, watching God work miracles through the smelly, imperfect, hypocritical men and women who make up a congregation reveals to us the unfathomable depths of God’s grace and love. It renews our faith. We realize he can use anybody — even us.

If that is truly the case, and I believe it is, then you don’t need to be sitting alone on a pillar somewhere in the desert trying to get closer to God. No, you need to be in church, with your brothers and sisters in Christ, with the People of God.

That is certainly the vision that the Apostle Paul shares with us in our text for today. Our text is a praise of Christ. As an aside that is a good thing for the church to keep in mind. The more we talk about Christ, the more life we have as a church. The more we talk about ourselves, the closer to death we come.

Paul is interested in life, so he offers a long praise of Christ. Yes, “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” And Paul goes on to say, the one through whom everything that exists was created, who reveals God to us, is none other than “the head of the body, the church.” Christ reveals God to the world. The church is the body of Christ. Therefore, we too should reveal Christ to the world. Have you ever considered that – our life together as the people of God should be the chief and primary way in which both we and the world see Christ?

That doesn’t mean that the church is perfect. No, far from. But it does mean that the church is not just one voluntary society among many in which you might choose to spend your time. No, the church is the body of Christ and as a Christians we cannot have true life without it. Again, Pastor Prather writes,

Your fellow churchgoers will inspire and comfort you. Sure, some Christians will let you down, because they’re human and that’s what humans do. But you’ll also find disciples who’ll sit beside you in court when your kid’s up on drug charges, and who’ll hold your hand when your spouse is lying in a coffin, and who’ll bring you soup when you’re sick with the flu. When everything’s going wrong, they’ll assure you it’s going to be OK in the end, because they — and God — have your back. …

You’ll get plenty of laughs. You’ll sing and pray, sure. You’ll snore. You’ll grow fidgety. But as much as anything, you’ll experience joy — and mirth. Each church is a microcosm of the human comedy. When you’re not cussing about it, the sheer surreal madness of it just leaves you clutching your rib cage, shaking with laughter, tears of gratitude streaming down your cheeks.

My friends, Saint Simon of the Pillar doesn’t get any of that sixty feet in the air all alone in the middle of the desert.

So we celebrate this Kirkin’ o the Tartans today, but I ask to consider: when the pageantry of this morning is over, what does Augusta see when they look at us? When do they think of when they hear Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church? Do they see confession and repentance and forgiveness? Do they see those who have each other’s back because we know God has our back? Do they see a people unlike anything else they see in this crazy world? Do they see Christ in us?

That’s what I see. But how about you?

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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