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The Power to Begin – Justifying Grace

John-wesley-150x150  When I was a teenager, I remember going to several youth
camps and conferences where we heard testimonies of people who had been
converted to Christianity out of some pretty amazing life experiences. We heard
stories of people who were strung out on drugs or who were successful athletes
or entertainers who reached the top and realized they didn’t have it all. We
heard from gang leaders who had changed, people who had survived abuse, people
with some horrible disease…on and on. These were amazing stories of
transformation, but while the goal was to teach us about how God can transform
people, what it made me think about more often was the fact that I didn’t have
a really good story to tell about my conversion!

I grew up in the church, went to Sunday School and youth
group, was always the obedient and dutiful child. I went on mission trips. Even
in college, I didn’t drink, didn’t enjoy parties that much, didn’t do much of
anything that is typical of your average student. I believed it was “hip to be
square.” I mean, I was the designated driver at my own bachelor party…that
should tell you everything you need to know.

 I remember being asked to give my “testimony” at camp and
there simply wasn’t that interesting a story to tell, at least to my way of
thinking. I was always taught that salvation was a dynamic event, a moment in
time, a flash of revelation—like Paul getting knocked off his feet by a
blinding light, or like that scene in Monty Python when God rips back the
clouds and tells King Arthur what to do. Well, I hadn’t really had that. I had
just kind of always “been there” with God. Sure, I had asked Jesus into my
heart when I was in second grade, but that didn’t seem like anything unusual…nothing
really changed. It always seemed like it would have been better to have had a
dramatic conversion…like I was missing something.

When I became a Methodist, however, I began to realize that
salvation or conversion isn’t so much about the story of our past as it is the
reality of our present. If we believe in prevenient grace—the grace that goes
before our knowledge and love of God—we begin to realize that no matter whether
our story is dramatic or mundane, God is the one who has moved toward us first.
Any story about our conversion begins with God, not with us, and the reality of
our relationship with God is that it’s not merely historical—it’s bound up in
the present.

 Last week we began talking about the foundational theology
of John Wesley and the Methodists—which we can sum up in one word: grace. We
talked about how we were created in the image of God, to reflect God’s glory,
and that our vocation has always been to be in relationship with God and God’s
creation. We talked about how the first humans were created to be “very good,”
but that the humans wanted more than to be in God’s image—they exercised their
choice to disobey God in order to try and become gods themselves in effect.
They chose for themselves—a choice the Bible calls “sin.” Sin separated them
from their intimate relationship with God and set them and their descendants on
a journey far from God. Sin is our legacy, it is in our spiritual DNA, and we
are all carriers of that original disease—even if we somehow still believe
we’re pretty good.

 But God did not and has not given up on us. God continues to
seek a relationship with us, to transform us, and renew us in the image of God
we were created to be from the beginning. Remember the “one thing”—the goal of
grace of according to Wesley: renewal in the image of God. Not just our
personal renewal, but the renewal of all of creation “on earth as it is in
heaven.” Prevenient grace is God’s movement toward us, the grace that woos us
back to God and God’s image. Prevenient grace is the “porch”—the place where
God meets us, wherever we have gone and whatever we have done.

 Prevenient grace stirs us to move back toward God at God’s
invitation, but there comes a point when we have to respond in order for a new,
transforming relationship to begin. There comes a point of decision, a point of
surrender, a point where we say “yes” to God’s offer of grace. It may happen in
a dramatic moment, or it may happen quietly and gradually, but grace always requires
a response.

 Wesley would call that response “justifying” or converting
grace. If prevenient grace is the porch, where we meet God, justifying grace is
the door—an entry point into a new relationship. We respond to God’s
invitation, and God responds to us. Our salvation, the beginning of our renewal
the image of God, requires something from us and something from God.

 Wesley would say, along with the apostle Paul, that our
response to God’s offer of grace is faith. Notice what Paul says in Ephesians
2:8,9 – for by grace are you saved through
. It’s not our good works, not being a “good person” that saves us—it
is only faith in the grace of God that can begin to transform us.

 What is faith? That’s a key question. For Wesley and for
Paul, faith was not merely an intellectual exercise but rather an active
movement toward God. The New Testament reveals that faith has always had two
components: repentance and belief. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus’
coming by calling people  to repent
and believe the good news. Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at
hand.” Paul told King Agrippa that his message was that people should repent
and turn to God (Acts 26:20). Repentance and belief are the movements of faith.

What is repentance? Well, when we hear that word it often
has a negative connotation. We think of it as being a bit depressing. I
remember one time after a worship service I had a woman come up to me and say
she really disliked it when we said a prayer of confession because it made her
feel bad. Well, that’s kind of the point. We can’t begin to change until we
realize that we need to change! To repent means to literall turn around—to do a
180, to move in a new direction. That’s all. It’s a change of course.
Repentance means change—which can be a good thing, but also a painful thing.

 When we repent, we begin to get a better picture of
ourselves. We realize that we aren’t what we should be or could be. We need a
course correction, or maybe we even need to stop and do an assessment of our
lives. Repentance involves another word we might find a bit harsh: conviction.
That’s a word we associate with prison! But conviction is actually an essential
part of repentance and change.

 Have you ever been driving around and suddenly your “check
engine” light comes on? What do you do when that happens? If it’s me, I start
looking for a mechanic right away. Something’s not right underneath. I’m not
sure what it is, but I need to find out. The repair might be costly, but it’s
the only way I’ll be able to keep moving forward and keep my car on the road.
Conviction kind of acts like the warning light of the soul—it brings us to the
point of change by telling us we have a problem. It’s only then that we can
begin to work on it, and we can begin to change.

 Repentance always comes before belief. It’s a reminder that
we have to turn from something to something. We need something new to replace
that which is old—we need what Thomas Chalmers called the “expulsive power of a new affection.”

 Belief, then, is the act of turning toward God. It is an
act, not just an idea or a thought-process. Belief is not simply agreeing to a set
of doctrines or propositions. Simply saying, “I believe in God” doesn’t mean
much. After all, even the devil believes in God!

 Instead, belief involves several important dimensions as a
component of faith. To believe means:

First, to have confidence and trust in the mercy of God.
Belief involves having a conception of God as love, that God is offering grace,
and that God wants to make us whole. It’s in vogue now for people to say, “I
don’t believe in God.” When they say that to me, my first question to them is,
“Which God don’t you believe in?” They usually say, “I don’t believe in a God
that is judgmental and arbitrary, a God who assigns people to hell, a God who
doesn’t do anything about the suffering in the world.” Well, I say, I don’t
believe in that God either. I believe in a God who wants to restore us through
grace, a God who loves us enough to die for us, and a God who engages our
suffering through his own suffering. That’s the message of the cross. We
believe in a God who doesn’t cut us off when we’re distant, but one who will
run to us and throw his arms around us when we return from failure in a far
country. Belief means that we have an assurance that this is the God who wants
to save us, and not the god of wrath, the god of hate, or the god of consumerism.

 Second, belief involves a change of allegiance. When we
truly believe in God, we engage in an act of surrender, giving up control of
our lives to the Christ who is Lord—Lord over everything in our lives—our
relationships, our vocation, our family, our finances. Belief means we
recognize that God is above all and in all. Belief means we engage another word
that has a negative connotation: obedience. When was the last time you heard
that word? To obey means that we are subject to another, but in the case of God
our obedience is not a negative. In a counter-intuitive way, obedience to God
is an act of freedom. When we obey God, we are free to become the people God
created us to be because we are free from the burden of trying to find meaning
in all kinds of other places. The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones
put it this way: Everyone obeys something or someone. And within obedience
there is freedom. An airplane pilot is free to fly anywhere he wants as long as
he obeys the rules of flight…(need rest of quote). Have you ever seen that
bumper sticker that says, “God is my co-pilot?” Now there’s a recipe for
disaster! God needs to be the pilot, or the flight is doomed.

 God moves toward us in prevenient grace. We are called to
respond to that offer of grace. When we choose to respond, we do so with faith
that is characterized by repentance and belief. When we respond with repentance
and belief, surrendering ourselves to God, God then does something for us and
in us—another movement of grace we call “justifying grace,” within which God
does two things: something for us and something in us.”

 What God does for us is what the Bible calls
“justification,” which Wesley defined as “pardon, the forgiveness of sins.”
When we repent and believe, when we confess our sins, our need for God, our
need for change, God extends forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is healing, a
wiping clean of our past, giving us a clean slate on which to begin writing a
new story of a life being renewed in the image of God.

 Truth is, we can’t ever be healthy and whole without
forgiveness. Forgiveness frees us from the prison of guilt and shame. When we
forgive someone else, we are released from the bondage of anger and the prison
of the past. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting—rather it is the
redemption of our memory. We don’t forget, but we do learn. It is the process
of transforming evil into good.

I’ve counseled a lot of people over the years, and I would
say without reservation that the failure to give or receive forgiveness is the
root of most of the problems that people deal with. People have a hard time
forgiving others, the have a hard time asking for forgiveness, and have an even
harder time forgiving themselves. This is why we need to understand the power
of grace. God does not leave us in this prison, but wants to free us!
Forgiveness is freedom! The good news is that God has offered to heal our
brokenness through the brokenness of Christ. We are forgiven! God has done a
new thing for us. We are free!

 Freed from the effects of sin, God also does something in us.
We are given a new birth, and we begin to come alive as never before. The new
birth begins our renewal in the image of God. We are “born again” to become new
people with a new future—God’s future for us and for the whole creation.
Through God’s grace, we are given the power to begin to overcome sin and its
effects, we are given a new vision of wholeness. God begins a new work in us.
God begins to perfect us in his own image.

 This is only the beginning, however. A lot of Christian
traditions emphasize being “born again” as though that is the primary focus of
God. Wesley would say that God works a new birth in us, but that God expects
that we will begin to grow up from there! A lot of traditions look at the
moment of new birth as the point at which one becomes a Christian—that the
moment accepting Christ is the ultimate goal. You accept Christ, you are a
Christian. Wesley (and I think Paul, too) saw the new birth not as an ending,
but as a beginning. We don’t fully become a Christian at that point of
decision, but rather we begin
becoming one. Becoming a Christian, becoming a follower of Christ, becoming a
person who reflects the image of Christ, is a life-long process—a journey of

 New birth doesn’t make us perfect. Sin is still a temptation
that we are predisposed to. But Wesley would say that God’s grace is always
greater than our sin. The more that we continue to grow in God’s grace, the
more that we are filled with the Spirit and love of God, the less of an
influence that sin has over us. Any return we have toward our former life of
sin isn’t a failure of God’s grace, but rather a failure of our will and a
failure of faith in God’s ability to renew us in his image.

For Wesley, salvation is a dynamic experience and not a
static one. The question for us isn’t “When were you saved,” but Methodists
always ask, “Are you saved now? Are you on a journey of grace? Are you being
transformed and renewed in the image of God?” That is a continual choice on our

 God will never rescind the offer of grace, but we can still
refuse it at any point. Someone asked me if Wesley believed that we can “lose”
our salvation, Wesley believed first and foremost in God’s grace. God does not
ever rescind that offer of grace—that’s what prevenient grace is all about.
But, because we have the ability to choose, Wesley did believe that we could
exercise that choice to refuse God’s grace. Like the prodigal son, we can walk
away and go on our own journey. We don’t “lose” our salvation, our inheritance
of grace, but we can squander it and give it away. There are consequences for
our choices.

 But even then, even when we have walked far away, the Father
still looks down the driveway, waiting for us to return home!

 See, it doesn’t matter what your past story is, interesting
though it may be. What matters is the story you’re writing with God right now.

Wesley was always asking the question, How is it with your
soul? Where are you in the journey of grace? Have you responded to God’s offer?
Are you ready to repent and believe? Or are you still in a far country? Have
you experienced the depth and breadth of God’s justifying grace? Have you
experienced his forgiveness? Are you ready to be forgiven? To forgive someone
else? To forgive yourself? Are you on the way to becoming the person God
created you to be?

Wherever you are on the journey this morning, I invite you
to join me in prayer…

A Chosen People: Methodists and Prevenient Grace

A Chosen People

Ephesians 1:3-14

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a video
featuring Jon Stewart of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, where in a piece
about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, who is a Methodist, Stewart said this:


“Methodists are like the University of Phoenix of religions.
Just send them 50 bucks and click ‘agree’ and you’re saved.” Now whether you
love or hate Jon Stewart, the fact is that his critique is pretty poignant
about what Methodism has become. In a lot of ways, our denomination has
forgotten who we are called to be as Christians and Methodists. As our t-shirts
suggest this morning, it’s time we did some “rethinking” of church. To do that,
we don’t need to focus first on something new, but rather pay attention to our
core identity. 

If you were to ask me to use one word to describe what
Methodism is about, I would tell you that word is “grace.” If you look up
“grace” in the dictionary, you see it defined as “elegance” or “politeness” or
“a pleasing quality.” We think of dancers and skaters being “graceful,” for
example. But in theological terms, grace has a much more powerful meaning when
it is applied to what God is and does. Biblically and theologically speaking,
“grace” means God’s unmerited favor—the fact that God loves us even when we
don’t deserve it. Grace is God’s greatest gift to us—God’s love offered to us
without any prerequisites or hoops to jump through. To put it another way,
grace is God’s movement toward us at God’s initiative.

John Wesley believed, as did many of the theologians of the
Reformation, that our salvation is only possible because God moves toward us by
offering grace. When we receive God’s offer of grace, we are “saved.” Now, in a
lot of Christian traditions, salvation is mainly about being saved from
something—going to hell when you die. I’ve been around a lot of Christians who
seem to be fixated on hell as much as, if not more than, heaven. Their idea of
grace is a theology of “turn or burn,” and salvation acts as a kind of “get out
of hell free” card.

Wesley would say, however, that while we do need saving from sin and its consequences, we are
perhaps even more so saved for
something as well—that God’s grace works in us to shape us into people who are
holy and set apart as people who reflect God’s own image. God’s grace enables
us to become the people we were created to be from the beginning—a people who
can walk with God and know the power of God in our own lives in the present.
Wesley was concerned as much about how we live as about how we die, and his
theology was less about a formula for getting people into heaven than it was
about a way to get heaven into people—the way of grace.

Using Scripture as his primary source, Wesley thus
understood grace as the means by which God works a change in us, transforming
us into God’s own image, making us fully whole and fully human in the way God
meant for us to be from the beginning. Wesley would say that God’s grace comes
to us in three movements, which he called prevenient, justifying, and
sanctifying grace. Everything that Methodist Christians do and believe flows
forth from this understanding of grace.

So, today we’re going to look at the first movement –
prevenient grace. Now, here’s a word you have probably never seen before.
“Prevenient.” It comes from the Latin praevenire, which means to “come before,
precede, or anticipate.” Prevenient grace is thus the grace that “comes before”
our conscious knowledge and love of God. It is the grace that God offers to us
even before we know who God is or what God is up to.

Prevenient grace recognizes that God has known us and cared
for us from the very beginning of our lives. Think back to our Call to Worship
this morning, which comes from Psalm 139 – one of the great psalms that remind
us who we are in God’s eyes. Listen again to the Psalmist’s words – “O Lord,
you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up…where
can I go from your spirit?…verse 13 – “For it was you who formed my inward
parts ; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am
fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very
well.” That reminds me, too, of the word God gives to Jeremiah when he calls
the young man to be a prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart.” God’s grace, God’s love, knows us
intimately before we are even aware of it (Jer. 1).

The apostle Paul understood this and reminds the church at
Ephesus that they, like Paul himself, were chosen in Christ “before the
foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…” that
they were “destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ” (Eph.
1:4-5). We were created for relationship with God, to be God’s own children
through adoption, made possible by grace. We are all “destined” for a
relationship with God, but Wesley would say that we have a choice whether or
not we embrace it. Grace is freely offered to everyone, regardless of their
past—as Paul will say to the Ephesians in chapter 2, “You were once dead
through your sins, all of us were, but God made us alive through grace.” God
chose us first, and invites us to choose him, too.

Now, as many of you know, I am an adopted child. My adoptive
mom used to tell me all the time that I was “chosen.” But like a lot of adopted
children, I have also understood the other side of that equation. Studies have
shown that a lot of adoptees struggle to define their identity because, often,
they come into the world as the byproduct of a mistake and can come to believe
that they themselves are a mistake. The result can be either a sense of despair
and low self-esteem, or a driven-ness that seeks to prove one’s worth to those
who gave them up, even if it was for a good reason.

A couple of years ago, I learned some information about my
birth parents, whose names I still don’t know. I was born in a Salvation Army
hospital in Pittsburgh to a 24 year-old unmarried woman. My father, according
to the caseworker, was an officer in the Salvation Army—a pastor. I am the
product of a scandal, a mistake. But when I read Scripture, I realize that I am
not a mistake—I have been chosen by God. All of us have been chosen from the
foundations of the world, from the time we were born, no matter the
circumstances—to be children of God.

We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God does not make
junk, and God does not make mistakes. God has formed us and created us for a
purpose, to be loved and to love, and to reflect God’s own image. We are all
adopted children. We are all chosen!

Problem is that we may begin to believe another script about
ourselves. Our understanding of our worth, our chosen-ness, our reflection of
God’s image, is distorted by what the Bible calls sin. When we don’t know or
understand God’s grace and God’s plan for us, we can begin to believe that we
are something else altogether. We can begin to believe that our worth is bound
up in things like success, wealth, power, and control. We start to search for
meaning in material things and medicate the pain of our loss of identity with
addiction, anger, and despair. Sin moves us farther and farther away from who
God has called us to be.

And yet, God still does not give up on us. Even when we
don’t know God or have walked away from God, God still pursues us. Prevenient
grace is God’s way of calling us back to himself. It’s a reminder of the truth
that God is always moving toward us.

 Some commentators have described Wesley’s concept of
prevenient grace as God “wooing” us—much like one lover “woos” another into a
relationship. That’s a great word, “woo.” How does God “woo” us?

Well, think about this. How did you “woo” your spouse or
your boyfriend or girlfriend? Let me talk to the guys for a minute, because
I’ve been there. Did you approach her like a lawyer, building a case for
yourself? Did you present her with a four-point plan and a Powerpoint
presentation outlining your good qualities and how dating you would offer a
wonderful plan for her life? No! (well, maybe did…I’d love to know how that
turned out!). If you were really wooing her, you’d want to be close to her, get
to know her story, tell her your own story. You’d enlist mutual friends to tell
her about your good qualities (most people get introduced to each other via
mutual friends). You would know that you can’t force her into a relationship
with you, you want her to choose you freely.

It’s an imperfect metaphor, so work with me here, but I
would argue that God pursues us in the same way. God does not come at us with
four-point plans, arguments, and flip charts—God comes at us with a story, his
story, and with an unconditional love. God reveals his love for us through the
beauty of creation, a love letter designed for everyone. God comes to us
through the witness of others who love him, who tell us about his love for us.
God never forces us into a relationship with himself—it is always offered as an

God chooses us, leads us, calls to us. I find it interesting
that the Greek word that is translated as “chosen” literally means “spoken
forth.” God has spoken us forth and has spoken for us. We are “spoken for” to
use the old language of betrothal!

But the invitation is not enough to save us and make us
whole. We have to accept it in order for that new relationship to begin.
Prevenient grace, when we become aware of it, convicts us of the reality that
we are not what we were meant to be. Prevenient grace makes us aware of the God
who is inviting us and reminds us that we are not worthy of that relationship
because of the sin that separates us from God. Prevenient grace can begin to
turn us toward God, however, and prepare us to accept God’s invitation. Next
week we’ll talk about justifying grace—the grace that we experience when we say
“yes” to God.

Another important thing to remember, too, is that our
salvation isn’t for us only. God wants us to be whole so that we can
participate with him in the salvation and redemption of the whole creation.
God’s grace comes to us always on its way to someone else.

John Wesley used the metaphor of a house to describe God’s
movement of grace. In that model, prevenient grace is the porch. When we were
buying our new home, one of the criteria for me was that it had to have a
porch. When I was a boy, my grandparents had a wonderful screened porch on
their old farmhouse, and I used to love to sit out there reading a book or
listening to the Pirates game on the radio, watching the cars and the people go
by on the road out front. From the porch you could see people coming, you know
who is pulling into the driveway by the barn. I could hear my cousins calling
me out to play ball from the porch.

It’s on the porch that we greet people for the first time,
it’s there that we observe the world going by in front of us. It’s on the porch
where hands are shaken, conversations held, and lemonade shared. A porch
invites a new relationship.

One of the reasons I love being a Methodist pastor is that
we have a theology of God’s grace that meets people where they are. As we
talked about last week, we celebrate an open communion, which extends the
invitation of God to everyone. We want everyone to be invited into a new
relationship with God, to step on to the porch and get to know that God who
loved them enough to die for them. We extend an open invitation because we
believe that God will meet anyone who will respond to his offer of grace and

In the same way, we not only baptize those who are old enough
to confess their faith in Jesus Christ, but also infants. Infant baptism is a
sign of God’s prevenient grace – a reminder that God is at work in the life of
this child even before the child knows who God is. Parents take vows, promising
to love this child and raise them so that he or she will know how much Christ
loves them and respond to his grace. Confirmation is the time when we invite
those baptized young people then to step through the door of justifying grace
and accept the relationship that God has been offering them all along. For
Methodists, baptism is always more about what God is doing through his perfect
grace, than it is about our often inadequate and halting response. We don’t
claim our baptism as a sign of how righteous we are, but as a mark of a grace
and love that we cannot possibly earn, only receive.

No matter if you’ve been a Christian (or even a Methodist)
your whole life, or whether you are coming here for the first time and
wondering what all this about, I want you to hear today the good news that God
is extending an invitation to you – an invitation to a new life. You have been
chosen. You are spoken for. You are not a mistake. You are beloved.

This is the message we Methodists should be taking to those
around us, particularly those whose image of God has become distorted. We have
been called to approach people with grace, not judgment, with invitation and
not condemnation. Prevenient grace is a doctrine that teaches us that God is
always and everywhere pouring out his grace on people, even to those who don’t
yet acknowledge or love him. If God is doing that, we must be doing the same. If
we have experienced God’s grace, we are always looked for ways to share it with

Methodists have nothing to boast about or feel superior
about, because we are all about grace. Grace is what defines us. We are chosen
people—Christians are a chosen people–not because we are pious and perfect,
but because of God’s unconditional, unmerited, and unbounded grace. We don’t
burn Korans to protest 9/11, we don’t hate people who aren’t like us, we don’t
see faith as a formula, and we don’t assign people to heaven or hell. We trust
instead in God’s grace for us and for the world, because God is the one who
chooses God’s people. We proclaim that grace through our worship and our
service, and we join God in offering it to the world, praying that the world
will respond to God’s invitation to be whole again.

My prayer is that we are no longer a people who are defined
by a lack of identity, but a people whose identity is all about grace!




The One Thing Needful

Text: Philippians 3:7-17

One of my all-time favorite movies is “City Slickers” –
starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. I always like movies that have
memorable lines in them and this one has one of the best. If you’re not familiar
with this flick, Billy Crystal plays a salesman who is approaching middle age
and wondering where his life is going, and he and a couple of friends head out
to a dude ranch for a couple of weeks to get away and contemplate the next
chapter in their lives. Jack Palance plays the tough old cowboy who turns out
to be a philosopher. Take a look at this scene:

(Note: If you're offended at Jack Palance's reference to, er, "crap," remember that the word that is translated as "rubbish" in Paul's letter to the Philippians is essentially the same word as Palance uses, just cleaned up by the translators)

One thing.

Every time I watch this movie I’m struck by that question,
and the more I think about it the more I realize that the failure to recognize
that one thing is probably the biggest issue that most people deal with.

A USA Today poll a few years back asked the question, “If
you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Some of the answers were
predictable, like “Why is there suffering in the world,” while others were
intriguing like, “Where do socks go when they leave the dryer?” But the number
one question people wanted to ask God was this: “What is the purpose of my
life?” In other words, what’s the one thing?

Our culture seems to driven by the pursuit of purpose.
Pastor Rick Warren wrote a bestselling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” but it
didn’t seem to quell the hunger for meaning. People are riding to and fro
across the landscape looking for purpose in things like wealth and power, in
sex, in relationships, in work or in getting 15 minutes of fame on TV or
YouTube. Some have pursued so many things that they are exhausted, while others
still haven’t found what they’re looking for and decide to check out by
spiraling into addictions and self-destructive behaviors. Most people seem to
be living their lives by simply sticking their finger in the air to see which
way the wind is blowing today.

It seems so simple. One thing. But somehow we can’t see it.

The good news, however, is that God does. God created us for
one thing—one purpose. When I was younger and in confirmation, we had to
memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first question of which was:
What is the chief end of man? (What is humanity’s purpose) – to glorify God and
enjoy him forever. Wesley would put it a little differently: “the one thing
needful is the renewal of our fallen nature.” – in other words, to get back to
the beginning, to become the people God created us to be from the beginning.

Our problem is that we can’t see it because there’s
something blocking the view—something the Bible calls “sin”. This morning, as
we get into our series on the Method in Methodism, it’s important that we take
the advice of the real trail boss and pay attention to the one thing that

A lot of Christian traditions talk a lot about original sin,
believing that sin is an inseparable part of our human DNA. We are thus
predestined for the eternal trash heap unless God does something for us. The
doctrine of original sin takes a very low view of humanity, which many in the
Reformed tradition call “total depravity.”

We know that is certainly true—humans are broken by sin and
are helpless to overcome it on their own. What we forget, however, is that,
biblically speaking, original sin only followed what Wesley called “original
righteousness.” God created humans in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27), and
called that creation “very good.” These original humans had a face to face
relationship with God, a relationship of complete openness and intimacy where
nothing was hidden. They reflected the very nature of God.

But these humans also had a free will, which meant they
could make choices. God knew that for these humans to be authentically in
relationship with him, they needed to be able to choose that relationship
freely. Love must be authentically chosen in order to be real. The snake
reminded them that they had a choice, and they chose against God, which is sin.

The question, however, is did they HAVE to choose against
God? Could they have chosen to remain as God’s perfect image? Well, think about
us…do we have to sin because we’re human, or can we choose otherwise? Wesley
defined sin as a willful choice against God, not an involuntary state of being.
If love is an act of the will, then it follows that sin must be as well. 

Sin has been the human family’s problem from the beginning,
and if you know anything about family systems you know that family traits are
passed down not only through our genes but also through the systemic emotional
and relational patterns we retain from generation to generation. Those systemic
patterns, while influential, aren’t necessarily prescriptive. Just because your
family has three generations of alcoholics, for example, doesn’t mean you HAVE
to become an alcoholic. You can choose otherwise, recognizing that it’s still a
difficult choice. We all have the disease…only God has the cure.

Sin, willful rebellion against God, is a human family trait
passed down from generation to generation, but it doesn’t mean we have to
continue the pattern. We can make the decision to turn toward God and allow God
to reshape us, reform us, and help us grow into healthy, whole, and holy
people. We can choose God because we know that God is always choosing us!

Methodists believe what Paul believed—that the one thing,
the most important thing in life, the goal of the Christian life, is to be
formed in the image of God which is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ—the one
who has chosen us and loved us from the beginning. I love Paul’s language
here—verse 12 – “I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

For Paul, for John Wesley, for us—the “one thing” that
matters is being renewed in the image of God. That renewal is not an event, but
a life-long pursuit. Paul didn’t believe he had arrived there yet and neither
did Wesley, but they understood that they were on the way. To be on the way,
however, means leaving some things behind.

Paul left behind a life that other Jews would have found
admirable and respectable. John Wesley left behind the comfort of being a
parish priest. These weren’t bad things in and of themselves, but they were
nothing compared to the irresistible love of Christ. Paul traveled the ancient
world risking life and limb to share that love. John Wesley risked the ridicule
of his peers and preached in the open air to people whom proper society had
forgotten. If we are to know Christ, to become like Christ, to be formed in the
image of Christ, then we have to be willing to put that one thing ahead of all

How do we get there? How do we begin to form an identity in
Christ? How are we to become renewed in his image? What does Christian maturity
look like? (after all that’s part of our church’s purpose statement)?

Well, we’re going to talk about that over the next three
Sundays, because these questions are at the heart of who we are as Christians
and Methodists.

Next Sunday, we’re going to talk about how God pursues a
relationship with us. Methodists believe that God always makes the first move
toward us, wanting to make us his own. Wesley called that “prevenient grace” –
the grace that God offers even before our own knowledge and love of God. Unlike
a lot of popular religion that seeks to find God somewhere out there, we
believe that God comes looking for us, just as he looked for those first humans
in a Garden long ago. We have our “Back to Church” Sunday next week, and it’s a
great time for us to invite others to hear how much God loves them and wants to
change their lives forever. 

The next Sunday we’ll talk about justifying grace—when we
respond to God’s offer of grace, we are given new life and new birth. The
barrier of sin is removed and we can begin to pursue the one thing that matters
most—becoming the people God created us to be. We’ll touch on baptism and how
that is a sign of this new life. 

Then, on the 19th, we’ll talk about sanctifying
grace—the grace that helps us move from new birth to maturity in Christ. It’s
the process by which we grow more intentionally into the image of God.

We don’t need to keep searching for the one thing—God wants
to bring it to us through his grace!

The Method in Methodism – Why I Preach It…

EDITOR'S CORNER: Too bland for our own good?Robin Russell, Sep 1, 2010


I think Robin's column is dead on here about the identity crisis in United Methodism. One of my convictions as a Methodist preacher is that our doctrines (and, yes, we have them!) provide a grace-filled, biblically sound, and transformationally-focused framework for introducing people to Christ, helping them to mature in faith, and equipping them for ministry in the world. I invite you to join us this Sunday as I continue a new sermon series, "The Method in Methodism!"

What My Teachers Taught Me – James 3:1-12

Ah, the first few days of a new school year. I don’t know
about you but when I was a kid I used to look forward to the first day of
school—new books, new teachers, new friends, new opportunities to learn.

I just got back from a month of cramming in classes and
writing on my doctorate, which leaves me a little less than excited about
school, but I’m also grateful for the additional education. The more I learn,
the more I realize I don’t know.

When I think about my education, however, one of the things
I’ve come to realize is that while the information we learn is important, the
teachers who deliver that information are even more important. I think the old
adage is true—more is caught than taught, thus teachers are really the
curriculum that students first encounter from the time they are born and begin
to grow. It’s our teachers, more than the information they bring, that provide
our real education.

I was recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers which challenges our long-held
assumptions about what makes a person successful. When we talk about successful
people, says Gladwell, “We want to know what they’re like—what kind of
personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles
they have, or what special talents they may have been born with. And we assume
that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached
the top…In the autobiographies published every year by the
billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the
same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit
and talent fights his way to greatness.”

But those assumptions are wrong, according to Gladwell. In
fact, he says, “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to
parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they
did it all themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of
hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that
allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others
cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong
to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our
achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what
successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are
from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

To put it another way, Gladwell is saying that it is the
people and circumstances present in our lives that make a difference in who we
might become. The messages we receive from an early age can shape us for the
rest of our lives.

As I was getting ready to come home from school, I was
thinking about this and thinking about all the teachers in my life who helped
to shape me into the person I have become—people that I am thankful for every

Jean Shaffer, my first grade teacher, who realized that I had
an unusual passion for reading and kept giving me more challenging books to
read and explore. I think of her when I look at all the books in my library.

Barb McElhatten, my fifth grade Sunday School teacher,
grounded me in Christian faith with her creative lessons and her constant
encouragement. Mrs. M’s kids had already gone off to college and careers, but
she kept teaching fifth graders because she loved Christ and loved helping
young minds learn to love the Scriptures.

Mike Formeck, my band instructor all through middle and high
school, was always fun to be around and challenged me as a musician to keep
getting better. When my home life was in chaos during those high school years,
Mike always kept tabs on how I was doing and let me hang out in his office when
I needed to talk. He also gave me my first real leadership position, appointing
me as captain of the drum line when I was a junior. I was privileged to be part
of the alumni team that set up his retirement party last year.

Strange to say it, but my Army drill sergeant, Sgt. Smith,
was another great teacher. He pushed me to my absolute limits, but once I got
there I found I could do a little more. He had steely eyes, was a world class cusser,
and had a tendency to put the brim of his campaign hat right on your forehead
when chewing you out, but I learned from him not only how to be a soldier, but
also that I could do anything if I set my mind to it and refused to quit.

In college, Dr. Wayne Smith became my mentor and fueled my
love for history and for writing. Prof Smith was a tough professor and most
students at IUP didn’t like to have him for the required history course, but as
a history major I loved the way he challenged me and pushed me to go deeper in
learning and research. I didn’t know that I would become a pastor when I worked
with him, but I attribute my ability and passion as a writer and biblical
historian to him.

At Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Don Joy helped me unpack
the baggage from my past, while Dr. Mary Fisher opened my eyes to reading the
Bible in new ways. 

I could go on, but I think you get the point. You probably
have a similar list of teachers in your own life who helped you become the
person you are. I would attest that Gladwell is right—none of us gets to where
we are strictly on our own (talk about your favorite teacher to a neighbor).

Teachers are vitally important, and not primarily because of
the information they impart. Interestingly, I can remember very little of the
content of the instruction of any of the teachers I’ve mentioned. The specific
lecture, the lesson plan, the questions on the test or the essay—none of that
is what seems to have mattered in the end.

What did matter to me—and what I think matters in any
teaching relationship—is character as much as content. The words used to teach
us information can also define us for a lifetime. If we receive words of
encouragement, hope, and love, we have the opportunity to grow into those
words. If, on the other hand, we receive words of scorn, derision, and hopelessness,
we will grow into those as well.

“Not many of you should teach,” says James, because teachers
will be judged by God with greater strictness because their words can make or
break their students. “The tongue is a fire,” he goes on to say, because it can
either purge us or destroy us. Words matter.

To understand James’ viewpoint here, we first need to look
at how the cultures of the first-century world viewed speech in general. Whereas
we’re constantly bombarded by words and idle speech every day in the form of
gossip, advertising and the white noise of a technological society, all
cultures of the first century, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, agreed that words
and speech contained both power and peril in ample supply. From the wisdom
literature of Egypt to the writings of Plutarch and Seneca to the wisdom
traditions in the Bible, ancient sages believed that silence was better
than speech
, that listening and not speaking was the pathway to wisdom and
that all human speech should be guarded, never expressing rage or envy. A verse
from the Apocrypha sums up this view nicely: “Honor and dishonor come from
speaking, and the tongues of mortals may be their downfall” (Sirach 5:15). The
biblical book of Proverbs is full of similar sentiments.

James employs a series of metaphors to indicate just how
dangerous even a little bit of indiscreet speech can be. The tongue is a small
part of the body, says James, but like the rudder on a ship or a bridle on a
horse, the tongue can steer us either to the path of wisdom or toward
destruction (3:1-5). It takes only a spark — a misplaced, unkind or untrue word
— to burn down a community that has been nurtured and established like an
old-growth forest (vv. 5-6). The tongue’s “deadly poison” is always just a word
or two away from infecting a whole group (v. 8). The power of words to both
bless and curse is a power not to be taken lightly, particularly when our words
are directed at God and, more precisely, at people who are created in God’s
image (v. 9).

But James also recognized that there was a positive use for the tongue, and
that is as a conduit for God’s own wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding among
you?” he asked. “Show by your good life that your good works are done with
gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). Our speech is merely the product of what’s
inside us. If we are filled with the wisdom and Spirit of God “from above,”
then our speech will reflect that. That wisdom is “pure, then peaceable,
gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of
partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17). If, however, our speech is peppered with
“envy and selfish ambition,” then that is evidence that our deeper motivation
is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (v. 15).

To put it another way, before we share anything with anyone we have to listen
to the inner voice. Before we use our audible voice, we should ask ourselves,
“Is what I’m about to share here coming from a desire to build up the person
I’m speaking with and share God’s wisdom, or am I reciting from the negative
scripts I might have been taught by someone else?”

I was down in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs last Sunday
evening serving dinner to homeless people and learning some of their stories.
Some of the folks there were dealing with severe addictions or mental illness,
while others just seemed to look and feel defeated. As I listened to them, I
began to realize that somewhere along the line a parent or someone else gave
many of these folks the message that they weren’t worth very much either by
their words or by their neglect. A lot of people think that the homeless should
just clean up and get a job, but it’s not that easy because human
transformation only begins when we begin to believe a different message about
ourselves. Old scripts, old messages, harsh words are difficult to overcome.

At the beginning of a new school year, we need to be
reminded that all of us who teach are shaping others through our words and our
actions. Our words can build or they can tear down. When we take the time to
listen to God, to ask God for the right words, then we are much more likely to
lift our students to new heights and offer them a fresh vision of the future.