Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
July 22, 2017
Text: Romans 8:13 O.T., Lesson: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24, N.T. Lesson: Romans 8:12-25
Presbyterians have become familiar with identifying themselves as Christians who live in the world, but are not of the world. Many Presbyterians like to think of themselves as walking about and interacting with people who are worldly. But it doesn’t affect who we are as Christians.
We like to think we’re people who know how to survive in this world which so often denies God’s existence. But we don’t think it influences what we believe about God. We’re taught the ways of the world by worldly teachers. But the lessons we’ve learned don’t change our faith in God.
Living in the world but not being of the world has serious challenges. It’s far more complicated than living as a community of faith apart from the world. Every day we sift through information – sights, sounds, and experiences – in which we’re called to live spiritually despite our humanity.
Rising above the world is the great challenge of Christian living. We Presbyterians don’t subscribe to a monastic life. Nor do we renounce civic life like the Amish. We follow John Calvin’s assessment. God created the world for us to live an abundant life. We’re to live in the world with appreciation for the Creator’s gift. Just live in it spiritually.
So, we live a balancing act. How far can we live in the world before we become of the world? To what degree can we appreciate the world before it becomes too important to us? Then, we lose our relationship with God who blessed us with the world’s gifts.
The answer lies in keeping our identity in God. When we keep our identity in God, we transcend the flesh of worldly living. We see ourselves as spiritual beings who are created to worship and serve God in the world.
When our personal identify is with Jesus Christ’s mission, we live in the world, but are not of the world. We transcend the world like Jesus.
Jesus lived among us. He lived the balancing act we live between being in the world but not of the world. Remember when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness? That was one of those times Jesus was called to transcend the flesh. When Jesus was surrounded by people’s needs and went off alone to pray, He was being called to transcend the flesh. When He was in the Garden of Gethsemane facing the cross, He was called to transcend the flesh.
Think of all the times you’re called to transcend the flesh – to live in the world but not be of the world. Christ is showing you how to keep your identity in God.
Many people identify themselves by things that happened to them. Some were by their own decision. Others were because of what others have done to them. Some of us feel we’ve failed because of relationships that didn’t work out the way we had hoped. We identify ourselves by having failed. Others of us are defined by what happens to us at work.
This is living in the world and being of the world. We are identifying ourselves by negative worldly experiences. God doesn’t look at us this way. God looks at us as spiritual people whom He loves.
This is the example Jesus gave us in His teachings and His love. He looks above worldly problems we use to define our identities.
Jesus doesn’t consider our worth by worldly success. In fact, Jesus calls us to live above the world’s definition of success. Jesus wants us to identify who we are and our purpose in life by God’s love for us. God’s love for us transcends the ways of the world.
Living transcendently involves identifying God’s place in your heart, your mind, your soul. Living transcendently involves prayer and contemplation on a regular basis. Use them to measure your life in the world as a spiritual being so that you give hope to other people.
Living transcendently depends upon God’s wisdom and God’s inspiration. It emerges from a God-shaped heart, with a God-shaped life. It refuses to be overwhelmed by worldly ways. It seeks a life of appreciation for the whisper of God’s hope amid the clamor of worldly temptations.
Richard Sterns is no different than you or me. He grew up in home torn apart by drugs and alcohol. His parents separated. His family faced bankruptcy and was evicted from their home. At the age of 10, Richard Stearns determined he would survive his childhood. He learned the world’s survival ways. Survival of the fittest depends on instincts, self-reliance, aggressiveness. But it doesn’t transcend life.
At age 13, he wrote for college catalogues from eight Ivy League Schools. Neither of his parents had finished high school. But, he had learned from other adults that education was the ticket to success.
While his friends were dating and socializing, Richard Stearns stayed focused being successful. That meant he had to overcome identifying himself by his family’s situation. He refused the temptations of alcohol or drugs – which devastated his family. He studied and excelled in school.
He was taken to church, although his parents never worshipped. But at age 15 he rejected the Church. It wasn’t for him. He didn’t see anything in Christianity that could help him. He was set on being successful. He was worshipping in the temple of self-reliance where worldly people worship.
Richard Sterns, the child of a single mother who rented an apartment in Syracuse, New York, was accepted at Cornell University. He was a step closer to moving up in the world. He was a self-professed humanist. He was self-reliant. He was dedicated to mastering worldly success to make his way in life. But all along the way, God teased him to hear Jesus’ message from the gospel.
It seemed each young lady he dated was deeply devoted to following Jesus Christ. None of them persuaded him to change the course of his life. But they were a reminder to look somewhere else for his identity. He graduated from Cornell and entered the Wharton School of business. His academic credentials qualified him to be a leader in American business.
But God continually offered Richard an alternative to use his gifts for Jesus Christ’s mission. He met his future wife, Renee, at Wharton. But Renee, like so many other young women who caught his worldly eye, was devoted to Jesus Christ. She had graduated from a Boston law school determined to help the poor. She was not impressed by Richard’s life. She challenged Richard about his goals and objectives in life.
Through Renee, Christ challenged Richard’s self-reliance. Richard offered the sinner’s prayer and committed his life to Jesus. But Richard had a long way to go. He was still driven by the need for success. He did what he needed to do to successfully marry Renee.
Richard Sterns gave his commitment to Christ when he was engaged. He impressed Renee by saying they should not accept wedding gifts of china and silverware when there were so many starving children in the world. He understood what it meant to be alone as a child in need.
Renee agreed and took Richard Sterns at his word.
In the irony of God’s blessings to live the abundant life, Richard Sterns became the president of Parker Brothers toys, at the age of 33. It seemed Richard still identified himself as a child of the world.
But God was challenging Richard to be in the world but not of the world. He lost his job. Richard found a job with the Franklin Mint. He made more money than at Parker Brothers. But God continued to challenge Richard to be in the world but not of the world. He lost this job.
Ironically, Richard was hired at Lenox China, rising to become its CEO. He was investing himself in the very items of the world he had renounced before his marriage. Renee still believed he would find God’s place in his life. But Richard was taking a circuitous path to being a spiritual person.
Richard and Renee had five children and lived in a 10-room field stone home on 150 acres outside Philadelphia. Richard traveled the world for Lenox, and met leaders of business and industry. These leaders went to church each Sunday, and were active leaders in their congregations.
Richard followed their role model believing he was living in the world, but not of the world. He was like so many Christians who walk life’s balancing act. But God saw things differently. To live transcendently, you must identify yourself with more than the opportunities given by the world, and follow a greater spiritual purpose beyond them.
If you commit your life to God, and your identity is in God, remarkable things happen. God’s spirit elevates you to new insights about His mission for you. And so, Richard Sterns was called one day by a friend who was on the search committee for a new CEO for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization.
The search committee wanted Richard Sterns to travel the farthest reaches of the world for Jesus Christ. He would have to give up his huge Lenox salary, his field stone house in Philadelphia, and move his family to Seattle, Washington. Then he could be Christ’s missionary to those praying to God for help.
But God wasn’t through testing Richard Sterns’ spirituality. He sent another opportunity to Richard just to see whether he was committed to living in the world, but not being of the world. At the exact moment the opportunity for World Vision came, another friend called Richard asking him to become CEO of a British fine china company that would promise his family an income of between $25 and 50 million dollars.
The Apostle Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh you will die. But if by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
What choice would you make if you were in Richard Sterns’ position? And the decision he made?
Today, Richard Sterns is daily tormented by poor children’s faces around the world, starving mothers, and dying fathers, who are praying to God for help. He goes with Renee to pray in the mountains of Seattle. He leads World Vision.
His vision transcends the success of the world to live by the Spirit of Christ, serving those in need. He lives in the world. But Richard Stearns is driven by a spirit of love that is not of the world.
He is content with God’s mission. He is grateful that God did not give up him, but gave him this opportunity to be like Christ, offering hope and new life for the poor and needy of the world.
Each day we live and breathe, each minute God gives us in this mortal world, we are presented with opportunities to transcend the ordinary and be an extraordinary servant of Jesus Christ. Every decision we make, every direction we take God presents us with the vision of transcendence in Jesus Christ.
Life in Christ rises above the values and virtues of worldly success. Life in Christ is an extraordinary view from above the madding crowd to bring hope and new life to the despairing hopeless who are grasping for hope that God offers with His love.
Life in Christ never retires from being merciful, from hungering and thirsting after righteousness, from being a peacemaker, from being a servant to the hopeless, a light to those in the darkness. Life in Christ is filled with the adventure of serving the Lord with gladness every day, every way, so that all people will know the joy of Jesus Christ.
A joyful giver transcends the successful life. A joyful giver is satisfied with the loving spirit of a transcendent God who is leading the giver through the world without becoming of the world.
Jesus calls you to identify with Him to give others hope and new life. Seize the moment Jesus is giving you to transcend the world! Amen.