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Soul Work

with Rev. Alex Lang

April 18, 2021

For the last five years, at the end of every service, we have been saying the words: Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World. But what exactly does this mean and why do we say it every week? This Sunday Alex begins the journey to answer why this tagline summarizes everything important at First Pres.

The Scripture

Mark 8:34-37 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Mark 1:15

15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

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Today, we’re going to do something rather strange. I’m going to preach a series that is comprised of only two sermons. I’ve been thinking about preaching these two sermons for quite some time, but I’ve never really had the chance to do so during the normal course of preaching during our usual sermon series. Therefore, I was looking at the schedule and thought to myself this was perfect because we have few weeks before we begin our spring/summer sermon series so I could fit it in.

In order to understand what this sermon series is about, I need to tell you about a Session meeting that occurred about two years ago. But before I can do that, let me just take a brief moment to explain what the Session is for those of you who are not familiar with what the Session is. The Session is the leadership board of this church that is comprised of elders. When I was young and heard that word elder, I assumed they were just talking about old people—I wasn’t too far off.

Finish reading

The word elder comes from the Greek word presbyteros, which is where the word Presbyterian comes from and it does in fact mean a senior or someone who is elderly. However, the word itself holds the connotation of one who possesses a lot of wisdom from having experienced life. Traditionally, elders are the ones who lead communities because they possess wisdom and are the most capable of making informed, educated decisions. Therefore, Presbyterians are churches that are led by a group of elders. That group of elders makes up the Session.

So about two years ago, we were in the middle of a Session meeting. All the elders were sitting around the big table up in our boardroom and we were having a discussion about asking the congregation about how they felt the mission of the church was going. This is when one elder said, “Honestly, Alex, I don’t think it makes much sense to ask that question because most people in the church probably don’t know what the mission of the church is. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what the mission of the church is.” Many of the elders sitting in the room agreed.

That’s when I responded, “Well, what about Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World.” Someone said, “That’s a tagline, not a mission.” Again everyone nodded in agreement. I will admit that initially I was a bit taken aback by this conversation—the members of the church don’t know the mission of the church and what I’ve been saying as the mission of the church every Sunday after service has clearly not been seen in the light I intended it.

After some serious reflection, I realized that this was nobody’s fault except for my own. All the times I had repeated the phrase Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World, I realized I had never gone through the process of providing a detailed explanation of what this taglines means. These two sermons are designed to fix that deficiency and hopefully answer the question of why we keep saying this tagline week after week.

As you can see up on the screen, this is a graphical representation of what each portion of the tagline means and how it informs our mission as Christians. What you can see is that at the top of the chart is it starts with the creation of God’s kingdom. The reason why this where we begin is because this is where Jesus begins. The first gospel written about Jesus’ life is the gospel of Mark and the first words that Jesus utters in Mark’s gospel are what we read this morning: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

What this tells us is that Jesus’ mission revolves around the creation of God’s kingdom, which begs the question: what exactly is God’s kingdom? I’ve spoken about this a lot in the past, but it bears repeating because it’s so critical to what we’re talking about in this sermon. God’s kingdom represents a future state of the world. It was an idea that many Jews in Jesus’ day believed in and were hoping for because their lives had become very hard.

Around the time that Jesus began his ministry, the economic circumstances were really dire. The economy had contracted to the point where most of the peasants were so far in debt that they were having to forfeit their land to remediate that debt. They were out of work, out of money and out of faith that the government cared about them. Their only hope was a prophecy that had been spoken about by the wise men and sages many generations ago.

They had prophesied that God would send a messiah, a savior who would lead the Jewish people and upend the oppressive rule of human kingdoms. In their place, God would establish a new kingdom that would rule over the entire earth. This kingdom would correct the injustices and inequality experienced by so many. God’s kingdom is a place where every human has food to eat, clothes to wear, a home in which to live and medical treatment for their illnesses. In essence, God’s kingdom is a place where no one is forgotten.

This is why when Jesus speaks of God’s kingdom, he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In God’s kingdom, everything is turned upside down. The wealthy and powerful would be made equal with the poorest peasant. No longer would one person have an advantage over another. The world would become a reflection of the ideal promoted in Genesis chapter 1—the ideal that all humans are created in God’s image.

The question then becomes, how will God’s kingdom come about? There are two ways God’s kingdom will be created. Either we have to wait for Jesus to return from heaven to create God’s kingdom for us or Jesus expects his followers to create God’s kingdom on earth in the present. If the former is true, then we are simply preparing ourselves for Jesus’ return. If the latter is accurate, then we need to become Jesus’ hands and feet in the world because creating the kingdom is our responsibility.

I choose to believe that we are the one’s responsible for creating God’s kingdom in the present. This requires us to simultaneously walk down two different, but equally important paths. Each path is necessary because each one helps to fuel and serve the other. The two paths that allow us to create God’s kingdom are social work and soul work.

Social work is what we find in Matthew 25 where Jesus calls on his disciples to serve the least by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick and visiting those who are in prison. Social work is also found in Mark 11 when Jesus calls on his disciples to follow his example of overturning systems of injustice that restrict or prevent our fellow humans from being able to experience the fullness of life that God intended for the creation.  

Soul work, on the other hand, is what we find in Mark 8 when Jesus tells us that any who want to become his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. In other words, Christians are expected to live a life of sacrifice. This is what I want to focus on today. Next week we’ll come back to social work and you’ll see how both of these flow together to create God’s kingdom.

Soul work has two equally important components: 1) strengthening our connection with God in our hearts, what is commonly referred to as spirituality, and 2) shifting our thinking in our minds. Soul work is the internal work we go through to transform ourselves to become more like Jesus. Let’s begin with the first component—strengthening our connection with God.

Very often, when we think of spirituality, we often think of things like prayer, reading the Bible, meditation and worship as all being critical to our ability to connect with God. And it is certainly true that these things can enhance your spirituality. But what’s interesting about Jesus is that he goes in a very different direction. Jesus tells us in Mark chapter 8 that our connection with God is forged primarily as a result of sacrifice. Now the question you should be asking is, “Why is sacrifice the ultimate way for me to create a spiritual connection with God?”

So Jesus tells us in Mark chapter 8 that if you want to be his follower, you have to take up your cross and follow him. The cross, just so we’re clear, is the way Jesus was executed by the Roman government. Because of what happened to Jesus, the cross has become a metaphor for sacrifice in the Christian faith. The idea is that if you want to become a follower of Jesus, you must be willing to sacrifice everything in your life. Jesus refers to this type of sacrifice as the denial of self.

I’m the first to admit that self-denial this is a tough concept to understand, but if you can wrap your mind around this idea, then you will be able to achieve a spiritual connection with God. So let’s see if we can break it down and make it simple. I think we can all agree that there are certain basic needs that every human has – food, shelter, and clothing. At our core, we are programmed to seek out these things because, without them, we will have a tough time surviving.

These needs are what propel us to work so hard because we want to make sure these things will always be present. But these needs are also the reason why humans, at their core, are very self-centered. You might not consider yourself to be a very selfish person, but I guarantee you that if I take away your food, your shelter and your clothing, you will become selfish very quickly.

Indeed, what many people fail to recognize is that our drive for success in the world is really a reflection of those three basic needs. The more successful you are, the more those needs recede into the background of our lives so we don’t have to think about them. In fact, these three needs are the reason why people are so reluctant to share their money. There is more than enough money in the world to end poverty, but we have this primal worry in the back of our minds that one day we may not have enough to care for ourselves, so we hold on tight to our money just in case something happens.

This is what denial of self is all about. It’s about letting go of those three worries and not letting that person rule your life. So when you die to yourself, when you let go of the concerns of the world, there’s a new person who rises in place of the old. This new person is not concerned with serving themselves, with the ambition to have everything the world has to offer. This new person is only concerned with being selfless, with loving others.

This new person finds their worth and value not in gaining for themselves, but in gaining for others. They know that they are not nearly as important as the people who they serve. So the idea is that once you release yourself from the worries of survival, the worries of the self, then you become a selfless person. So the more you have divested yourself of fulfilling those needs, the more you will have established a spiritual connection with God.

I refer to this way of being as the resurrected life. The reason it’s called the resurrected life is because you will have gone through a death and resurrection just like Jesus. You will have sacrificed or killed off that selfish part of who you are and allowed a new, selfless person to rise in its place. In essence, you will be resurrected into an entirely new person.

Now, achieving the resurrected life is not easy. It’s not something that just happens overnight. There is a path that we must take to achieve the resurrected life. This path is called The Way and it involves really investing yourself in Jesus teachings, particularly those found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. Jesus’ teachings are deceptively challenging. They often take years or even decades to master because the thinking and behaviors that Jesus asks us to adopt are not natural to our way of being.

It’s not natural for us to give our money away so we can depend more on God. It’s not natural for us to stand up for the oppressed and the downtrodden. It’s not natural for us to love our enemies and pray for their well-being. Therefore, as each of these teachings become part of our lives, a different part of us has to die and be reborn into something new. Sometimes it takes several iterations of death and rebirth to really live into the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings.

Perhaps the most important aspect of The Way is that Jesus’ teachings are lived. They must be practiced in the real world for them to become fully integrated into your life. You cannot experience the fullness of the Resurrected Life studying these teachings in isolation. This is why being part of a church community is so important. I view the church as a sort of training room, akin to a dojo (which literally means place of the way) for learning martial arts. The church allows us to focus on practicing Jesus’ teachings so that we can embody the skills that are necessary to achieve the Resurrected Life.

Achieving the resurrected life is a huge part of creating God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom comes about as a result of focusing on the needs of others. Therefore, if you are operating out of a place of selfishness, if you are primarily concerned with gaining for yourself, then it will be very hard for you to contribute to the creation of God’s kingdom. This is why soul work matters so much. If you do not have the right mentality, where you are willing to sacrifice what you have for the benefit of others, then there’s no way you can effectively contribute to the creation of God’s kingdom.

This is why at the center of our soul work is the need for sacrifice. So yes, it’s important to study the Bible, particularly Jesus’ teachings. Yes, it’s important to pray and meditate. Yes, it’s important to worship. But if you really, truly want to connect with God, then the primary focus of your soul work needs to be the resurrected life—killing off those selfish parts of who you are and allowing a new selfless person to rise in its place.

Now, next week, we’re going to talk about social work: the actions we need to take in the world to physically create God’s kingdom. This will also allow me the opportunity to explain how our tagline—Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World.—speaks beautifully to our mission as Christians and what we are trying to achieve as a church here at First Pres.

So as we leave here today, I hope that that you will contemplate the various ways that God is calling you to live out the Resurrected Life. What is God calling you to sacrifice so that you can become that selfless person who is only concerned with the needs of others? How can you become more focused on Jesus’ Way so that you can embody Jesus’ teachings? This soul work is critical to our success as Christians, because without it, the kingdom of God will never come to fruition. Amen.