A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on August 18, 2013 (Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5:15-20
In May, Lyonsville Church celebrated its 170th anniversary. I have been using that occasion as an opportunity to look back at some of the important events in the history of our church, and to reflect on how God was – and is – at work among us.
When Lyonsville Church was founded in 1843, one of the requirements for being a member was a pledge to abstain from intoxicating beverages. And the members of the church were also opposed to liquor being available in the nearby community. In his “Historical Sketch of Lyonsville Congregational Church,” written by Deacon Robert Vial – one of the founding members of Lyonsville Church — on the Sixtieth Anniversary of its Organization, Mr. Vial recalled:
“When the church was organized, May 14, 1843, it was voted that, as a standing rule of this church, we require of all who unite with us a strict adherence to the principle of total abstinence from the use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage. Although this has not been strictly complied with, the influence of the church has been for temperance. Some members who had used liquor all of their lives have left it off entirely. I have never known any of the original members nor their descendants breaking this rule.”
He went on to write:
“Intemperance has been strongly fortified in the village of Lyons… They tried to plant one of their batteries within a half mile of this church. They had a petition with a large number of signers asking for a license. As soon as we heard of it, Mr. Armstrong, our pastor at that time, and a few of the neighbors, went to the church and prayed that it might not be established… The result was that the man went on and got the frame up for his saloon. He was taken sick one night and died before morning. (His friends decided to bury him in our cemetery, but as it was unconsecrated ground no Catholic priest would officiate. They were therefore compelled to ask Mr. Armstrong to conduct his funeral.) His friends took the frame down and moved it away. A German Catholic said that Mr. Armstrong prayed it down.”
As Robert Vial observed, that requirement was not always strictly complied with, and at some time over the years it was dropped from our membership requirements. Still, our policy of not allowing alcoholic beverages to be served in the church building for social occasions, wedding receptions or other celebrations, is, in part, a recognition of that piece of our history.
Lyonsville Church was not alone in this attitude toward alcohol. Church people — and in fact anyone who is concerned with the health of people and families and communities — know the havoc that can be caused by addictions to alcohol, as well as other intoxicants or drugs or behaviors. Many religions prohibit the use of strong drink, including Muslims, Mormons, and some Christian denominations and churches – although Christians have never been united on this issue. Prohibition in this country (1919-1933) was strongly supported by Christian churches.
As I said, we don’t require temperance as a condition of church membership any more. I know many good people in this church, both now and in the past, who enjoyed a drink now and then. I even remember an occasion a few years ago when our Leadership Council went out together for a drink after a meeting! But this aspect of our church history raises what I think is an important question: What, if anything, does our Christian faith and our church membership ask of us in terms of behavior – how we live? Is there anything we do that distinguishes us from non-Christians?
In the early church (1st century), there seems to have been an expectation, reflected in the New Testament scriptures, that when people became believers in Christ, they would receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins and to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. After that, they were expected to live sinless lives until the time of Christ’s return and the Day of Judgment – which most expected would happen any day. The early Christians were urged to stay sober, to refrain from any sexual immorality (some even refrained from sexual relations altogether), to refrain from violence (including serving in the military), and to show love to one another. At times, it seems they were able to do many of these things. The early Christians became known in the Roman Empire for the way they loved one another, and they soon became a vital part of the Roman imperial government because of their honesty and integrity. They behaved differently than the non-Christians among whom they lived.
But when Christ’s return was delayed, they found that it became more and more difficult to live a sinless life for many years. The church had to come up with a way to deal with “backsliders.” Eventually the church developed rituals of confession and forgiveness.
In the early Congregational Church – and I assume at the time that Lyonsville was founded – anyone was invited to be part of the congregation for worship and to hear the sermon, but only the “visible saints” – those whose Christian faith showed in a changed life and exemplary behavior – could partake of the Sacrament of Communion and could be church members and leaders.
But it is hard to live a sinless life! We are, after all, human. We are vulnerable to temptation; sin is inevitable. Even if we manage to put on a good show in public, we all find our private demons to wrestle with.
And not everyone is in agreement that drinking alcoholic beverages is immoral or sinful – if done in moderation. Some people can do it occasionally or socially, without having it make a mess of their lives. It was occasionally suggested for those in the early church. 1 Timothy 5:23 – supposedly a letter from the apostle Paul to his young protégé’ Timothy, says, “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (maybe it was for medicinal purposes!) Jesus himself drank wine for ceremonial purposes, and there is that story in John 2 in which he turned 150 gallons of water into wine for a wedding party!
We may not be able to make folks abstain from all potentially dangerous activities. But perhaps we can do better than we do. Many Protestant Christians believe that we can grow in holiness, in Christ-likeness. That process begins with a gracious act of God. God accepts us as beloved children, forgives our sins, begins an ongoing relationship with us, and offers to us the gift of eternal life. We often mark this beginning as the time of baptism. We believe this is offered to us as a free gift. It’s not given because we are good enough; you can’t earn it or buy it. All we can do is accept it through faith in Christ. The traditional biblical and theological term for this is “justification.” We are justified – made right with God – by faith. What a precious gift it is!
But we don’t stay there. That is the beginning of our Christian faith journey, not the end. God then wants that new relationship to permeate our whole life. It is a process and journey we will never finish this side of the end times, when all is made right and perfect in God. The traditional biblical and theological term for this process is “sanctification.” Becoming more holy. It is a partnership with us and God.
I’ve heard it put this way recently: “God loves you just the way you are. But God loves you too much to let you stay this way!”
How do we do this? How do we progress in living lives that show forth our faith in Christ? Our text from Ephesians gives us some clues. There it says, “… understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery (don’t you love that word?), but be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:17-18).
So many of our actions and choices in life are not driven by our desire to understand and follow God’s will. In fact, many times they are not even driven by our own rational will. Instead, they are driven by desires we may not even be aware of, let alone have much control over. I’m sure you know what some of those are: addictions, the need for affection or approval or success, a desire to escape, a need to be in control of our lives or avoid suffering. There are countless unholy desires that drive us. They are different for each one of us.
These desires cause us to fill our lives with things other than God – things that are not holy. Even though we profess to have no other gods before our loving Creator, and no Lord and Savior other than Jesus, in practice we don’t do that – at least not completely.
I don’t propose that we go back to the church rule of prohibiting the use of alcoholic beverages. Even in the early days of the church it was difficult to enforce. And that isn’t everyone’s spiritual challenge. Instead, it is important for all believers to examine their own lives and to ask themselves what drives them that is not from God? How do we try to fill ourselves with things other than the Holy Spirit? Chances are, we might be aware of many different unholy motivators in our lives. Maybe we don’t even tackle the most difficult one first!
Then pray about it! If you don’t know what to pray, a good one you already know is, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God stands eagerly ready to help us, although I’m sure you know that the unholy never lets go easily. Sometimes we may need help from others, or from trained health professionals. As I said, sanctification is a lifelong process that will never bring us to perfection until the Last Trumpet sounds. But sanctification should be the way we make our faith a reality in our lives.
No, I don’t think we need rules prohibiting alcohol, dancing, gambling, or any similar activities, even though they have potential for abuse. Instead, we should be a people in the process of becoming more Christ-like. Jesus was a remarkable person because, more than any other person who has ever lived, he trusted in God’s will for his life – and his death! As he is quoted as saying as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, “Not my will but yours be done.” May that be our daily prayer as well.
Robert J. von Trebra