Mark 8:31-38

Romans 4:13-25

I owe an apology to those who read along in their pew Bibles for using the New International Version of the Romans reading. I couldn’t resist this translation that has Paul say, “God calls things that are not as if they were.” I think this phrase captures God’s creativity better than the idea of God’s “command” calling things into being. To me, the command sounds like it already happened, but this translation sounds like it’s still going on. God is not fazed by what’s not here yet, but She’s powerful and imaginative enough that what doesn’t exist – what we’ve lost about ourselves, what we haven’t become yet – God can treat that as the reality it is. God calls things that are not as if they were.

Jesus talks about this imagination and creativity when he tells his disciples about his coming death and resurrection. Peter had just made his famous declaration that Jesus was the Christ, God’s anointed Son, so Jesus gave him the rest of story: the Messiah will be beaten, killed, and finally raised from death. And Peter can’t handle it. He wants to protect Jesus, which is reasonable. He has identified that Jesus is the Christ, and he wants to hold on to that. This is a perfectly human reaction, just as we would react if Christ called us to give up our place in the world for the Good News. We’d react this way because we don’t naturally know God’s power to raise the dead to life and call things that are not as though they were.

Jesus rebukes this reaction. God calls us to a new beginning, new growth, and a new identity, as surely as He called Abram and Sarai to new life and gave them new names. This God who can speak into the void, into chaos, and speak the name of what will come, this is the same God that can look at our lives and invent something new we never could have imagined.

Our lives usually don’t feel open to this kind of change. Lives where we struggle to find friends to spend time with, where we constantly have to calculate how our interactions with other people affect what group we can belong to, where power comes along with expectations that we’ll behave in certain ways. That world is real. Maybe some of us find ways out, ways to comfortably float on margins, but the world is real, and it even claims to have a place for marginal people who don’t fit. There is nowhere outside this world to stand.

But God calls things that aren’t as though they were. God imagines opportunities to live as Christ in a world that has no room for Christ, because God is that kind of creative. This takes risk, putting aside who we’ve been without knowing what God is going to make us into. It takes stepping away from friends who are getting ready to pick on the kid it’s popular to pick on. It takes trying a new activity even though you don’t know or yet trust the people who are involved. It takes standing for principles you can’t deny but that set you apart from the people around you.

There is no room for these steps in our world, because they mean stepping out of your social world and following God into something new. It feels like we have to renounce our friends or accuse them of being bad people. It feels like we’re stepping off a cliff. (And I have to admit, sometimes it’s exactly that. Sometimes God calls us to completely, fundamentally start over, and then God provides friends and support we never knew existed.) But most of the time it’s not like that. Most of the time, you just end up leading the people around you in a new direction, or you realize that even if they aren’t going to go with you, they’ll at least support you in living out of a deeper set of priorities. But that’s something entirely new. It’s something that didn’t exist, but God spoke of it as if it did. God brought it into being through our willingness to become something ever so slightly different from what we were.

One of the things I love about communities like ours is that we have places for almost everybody who lives here. We have places for all the institutions that exist here, businesses and schools and governments and churches. Hope Community Presbyterian Church has a place in this community that our ancestors and we built over many years. The churches in Eveleth, Mountain Iron, and Virginia had places in their communities that have come together into the unique role we play. We’re a downtown church, a thoughtful church, a culturally connected church. An environmentally and socially committed church. Proudly the first church in Virginia, and proud of this beautiful facility we work so hard to maintain.

But what we do especially well is that we share our status, our roles, our sense of self with others. We open our doors on Sunday and throughout the week to people with extra needs, by giving rides to our less mobile members, hosting the Billy Bell Bakery, supporting the Deacons emergency fund, or in the past through Circles of Support. These look like low payoff activities at first. They look like things we can’t afford if we’re going to keep building open and heated. In no uncertain terms, these projects either did at first or do now look like threats to our identity. But they have become and still will become something we wouldn’t live without, because our God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as if they were. Even today, God gives us new life in spite of the death of our old selves, calls into our void the name of what will come to be among us next. It doesn’t exist yet, but that’s the kind of God we follow.