Monday, July 3, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - The Eagle on the Presidential Seal

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 2, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This was the fourth message in the series entitled "Living by the Spirit." You can hear a podcast of the sermon on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website ( for more church information.

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Well, here we are on week four of a summer series that uses what Paul wrote to the Galatians to understand how we might better live by the Holy Spirit. And I thought, given the fact that we’re on the edge of Independence Day, I thought some symbol of America would be right for the bulletin cover. But the reason I picked this one, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. 

Now, like I said, this is the fourth message in this series; therefore, before getting into anything new, I think it’s a good idea to touch base with where we’ve been. For example, in the first week, we looked at what we shouldn’t be doing, something Paul called the desires of the flesh. And then in week two, we talked about how love is both a decision and an obligation. And last week, we considered how joy is grounded in faith, strengthens the suffering, and is shared among Christians. Now, in a nutshell, that’s where we’ve been.

And this morning, we’re going to look at the third fruit of the Spirit, namely peace. And as I was thinking about how to introduce this on the Sunday before the Fourth, I thought about something I heard a couple of years ago about the eagle on the presidential seal. Now I don’t remember where I heard it, but it had to do with how the direction the eagle faces changes when the country goes to war. You see, when everything is peaceful, the eagle faces the olive branch, a universal symbol of peace. Now this means it looks in the same direction as the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. But when the country is at war, the eagle on the presidential seal turns and faces the arrows. Of course, this only happens during times of conflict, at least, that’s what I heard.

And as I thought about it, I think that’s sort of how we see peace, and I don’t care what kind of peace about which you’re talking. I mean, when things are calm and serene and tranquil, then we can focus our attention on the olive branch and the dove and that groovy symbol from the ‘60s, and I’m not talking about my birthday. Now that’s the direction we face, and we think about all the things that are possible when everything is chill. But of course, that’s only one side of the coin. 

When things are all stirred up and there’s a lot of anger and hostility in the room and we’ve read tweets calling us psychos or dumb as rocks or having a bleeding facelift (which I’ve got to tell you, I know is an insult but I really don’t understand), my gosh, when that kind of thing happens, well, war has been declared and it’s all hands on deck and I’ve just got to tweet something about how Cheerios are made for small hands. (As a country, I think we’re in real big trouble.) You see, when this kind of stuff happens, the head of the eagle has turned and peace just isn’t an option anymore. Now that sure seems to be the way it is in our world. I mean, peace may be fine, but sometimes you’ve got to knock a few heads together. 

Of course, that’s what our world, you know, our society tells us, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case in the Bible, certainly not in the way Paul used the word “peace” in his letters. I mean, not only did he offer it without an asterisk or qualification in his list of spiritual fruits, he wrote that peace must be a part of Christian living, you know, life in the Spirit. And I’ll tell you, when we look at what he had to say, he described three areas in which we might need to work a little peace into our character. 

For example, first, for Paul, God has called us to live in peace with ourselves, and I’m talking about within ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. You see, for him, peace just seems to be the way it’s supposed to be, you know, the normal state of things. And I think that’s what he was suggesting when he wrote this to Corinthians, and in this passage, he was talking about how worship shouldn’t be a free-for-all. He wrote, “Let only one person speak at a time, then all of you will learn something and be encouraged. A prophet should be willing to stop and let someone else speak. God wants everything to be done peacefully and in order.” [1 Corinthians 14:31-33a] You see, God is a God of peace, not confusion and chaos. And for people, as they look into their own lives, that should be even more clear for those of us who believe, you know, who trust in Christ. I’ll tell you, for Paul, knowing that we’ll be saved through Jesus should offer an inner peace that we didn’t have before we decided to believe him. For instance, just listen to what he wrote to the Philippians: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise. You know the teachings I gave you, and you know what you heard me say and saw me do. So follow my example. And God, who gives peace, will be with you.” [Philippians 4:8-9] And to the Colossians, he wrote, “Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him.” [Colossians 3:15-17] You see, for Paul, it’s God’s intention that we know peace, and I’ll tell you, this is really no different from what Luke wrote that the heavenly host said after the birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds: “Suddenly many other angels came down from heaven and joined in praising God. They said: ‘Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.’” [Luke 14:13-14] That we experience an inner peace, an inner serenity, an inner tranquility, that’s the will of God.

And I’ll tell you, I think that’s really good news for us, and I’ll tell you why. There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s happening in our world and in our country, in our community and in our congregation, my gosh, in our families and in our own lives that causes us to feel anything but peaceful. I’ll tell you, I think we run into all kinds of things that keep us stirred up all the time. And yet, when we tap into that spirit of peace that God has planted within our lives and when we consider that not only are we in his hands but that entire creation is under his control, I believe all that will calm us down a little bit. But more than that, it can keep us focused on how we might better conform ourselves to his will and his work. You see, God has created us to be at peace with ourselves. And that’s the first area of peace we can know.

And second, I think God has also called us to live in peace with himself. In other words, we’ve been given the ability and opportunity to live in a state of serenity and tranquility with God. And I believe that’s what Paul was driving at when he wrote this to the Ephesians: “Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. Christ gave his own body to destroy the Law of Moses with all its rules and commands. He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other. He also made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body. Christ came and preached peace to you Gentiles, who were far from God, and peace to us Jews, who were near God. And because of Christ, all of us can come to the Father by the same Spirit.” [Ephesians 2:14-17] You see, for Paul, it was the Law that caused all kinds of trouble, you know, separating Jews from Gentiles and people from God. Now that’s the way it was, but when Jesus died on the cross, he abolished the weight and power of the Law. And without the Law telling us what to do and separating those who do from those who don’t, now we can have peace not only with one another but also with God. Living is not longer about dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s. It’s about living within the love and mercy and grace of our heavenly Father. It’s like he wrote to the Romans: “By faith we have been made acceptable to God. And now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God. ...Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful. But there is more! Now that God has accepted us because Christ sacrificed his life’s blood, we will also be kept safe from God’s anger. Even when we were God’s enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us. Yet something even greater than friendship is ours. Now that we are at peace with God, we will be saved by his Son’s life. And in addition to everything else, we are happy because God sent our Lord Jesus Christ to make peace with us.” [Romans 5:9-11] You see, it’s also God’s will that we live in peace with him. 

And I’ve got to tell you, that’s another message I think we really need to hear, because a lot of very sincere and dedicated Christians seem to believe that peace with God has to be earned and deserved. And so they buy into a lot of rules and regulations, in other words a new Law, to make themselves right and acceptable. You see, that becomes both their focus and their fear. But when we accept that peace with God is his gift to us and whether we accept it or not affects us but not him nor his relationship with us, all of a sudden a lot of the pressure eases, and we can enter the world with a new sense of confidence and hope. Why? Because God has already given us the ability to live in peace with him. And that’s the second area of peace we can know.

And third, God has most definitely made us to live in peace with one another. In other words, regardless of what we think or feel, there’s no spiritual reason for us to feel hostility toward others, much less animus and hatred. And I think that was a point Paul wanted the Christians in Rome to understand. You see, back in the day, the church was splitting over an issue that the Roman believers thought was really important. Some members thought Christians should only eat vegetables and others disagreed. Now I know that may sound like small potatoes to us, but it was a big deal in the Roman church. In fact, for them just as big, as all the mess that continues to divide the modern church. And these Christians began doing what Christians have always done. They started fighting and scrapping and calling one another names, and so Paul wrote: “We must stop judging others. We must also make up our minds not to upset anyone’s faith. The Lord Jesus has made it clear to me that God considers all foods fit to eat. But if you think some foods are unfit to eat, then for you they are not fit. If you are hurting others by the foods you eat, you are not guided by love. Don’t let your appetite destroy someone Christ died for. Don’t let your right to eat bring shame to Christ. God’s kingdom isn’t about eating and drinking. It is about pleasing God, about living in peace, and about true happiness. All this comes from the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ in this way, you will please God and be respected by people. We should try to live at peace and help each other have a strong faith.” [Romans 14:15-19] And he wrote to the Ephesians, “Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. Try your best to let God’s Spirit keep your hearts united. Do this by living at peace. All of you are part of the same body. There is only one Spirit of God, just as you were given one hope when you were chosen to be God’s people.” [Ephesians 4:2-4] And remember, the peace we have from God abolished the hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. God wants us to live in peace with others.

And again, that’s something we need to remember, especially today. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I can’t remember a time when there was so much hostility and hatred within our country, and I think it’s filtering into the rest of our society. I guess in a nutshell, we really don’t treat one another very well. And we assume that we don’t need to listen to people who say things different from what we already believe; they’re all liars and fakes. And regardless of the issue, every disagreement should be seen as a personal attack. And in keeping with the result of these assumptions, we blame them, not ourselves, but them for the hostility that surrounds us. No wonder that, beyond name-calling, nothing constructive gets done. But of course, regardless of who’s at fault, the hostility and the hatred, the divisions and the conflict, man, they’re all contrary to God’s will for his children. And it’s up to us, as Christians saved by grace, to recognize that through God those walls we use to divide have been abolished. And with that clearly in mind, we need to do what’s necessary to come together in an atmosphere of trust and then to roll up our sleeves and do the work God has given us to do. I’ll tell you, even though it may demand that we smash some of our own idols, God intends that we live in peace with one another. And that’s the third area of peace we can know.

And I’m going to tell you, that’s actually in keeping with the eagle on the presidential seal. You see, even though Woodrow Wilson had the head turned toward the arrows in 1916, since 1945 it’s pointed in the same direction. And when President Truman issued the executive order that permanently turned the eagle’s head, he said, “This new flag faces the eagle toward the staff, which is looking to the front all the time when you are on the march, and also has him looking at the olive branch for peace, instead of the arrows for war...” In other words, President Truman wanted the eagle’s gaze to be seen as symbolic of a nation both on the march and dedicated to peace. And so it’s been for over 70 years. 

And I’ll tell you, that also applies to us. You see, as we move forward as Christians living by the Spirit, God has called us to live in peace with ourselves and with him and with others. And brother and sisters, that’s true regardless of the eagle on the Presidential Seal.

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