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Three Simple Rules

Well, we’ve come to the end of this series on “The Method in Methodism,” and I hope that you have found this look at our foundational theology and practice to be helpful. My goal has been to provide a basis for understanding our identity as a church in this community, and to offer a Wesleyan way of looking at the gospel that I think can give us a unique voice within the Body of Christ.

 We’ve been talking a lot about grace—God’s grace, God’s movement toward us. That movement has a purpose. God seeks to reshape us into the image of God we were created to be, thus we can participate with God in reshaping and renewing the whole creation. This has been God’s mission since the first humans left the Garden. God doesn’t abandon us, but continually sticks with us to show us the way to salvation for a new future with him. Jesus is the image of the God we are to follow, and it is in Jesus’ own life, teaching, death, and resurrection that we find our ultimate purpose and identity. The more we conform to the image of Christ, the more we find our lives have meaning for eternity.

 John Wesley passionately believed that there is a way, a method, to being shaped in the image of God. It doesn’t happen haphazardly or accidentally, and it doesn’t happen by osmosis. It only happens when we surrender ourselves completely to God and engage in the kinds of disciplines, attitudes, practices, and worldview that are grounded in the Bible and lived out in our everyday lives. To be a disciple is to be someone who is always on the way to being perfected in the love of Christ.

 We’ve talked a little bit about how the early Methodists engaged the process through their class meetings—gatherings of 12-15 people who were accountable to one another for their spiritual journeys and practices. It was in those meetings, with the support of others, that people began to be shaped. Wesley understood that discipline and growth always happens best when there is someone walking beside you, encouraging you, and challenging you.

 Many of you know that I’ve been doing some conditioning classes at the Y. I used to go to the Y and work out on my own, but I decided to try one of the afternoon fitness groups. It was a little intimidating at first because the class was nearly all women, but then I thought, “This shouldn’t be too hard.” I got a lesson in a hurry as the first workout left me feeling like I had been hit by a truck. These women are tough, and the workouts trump anything we ever did in morning PT in the Army (and there’s a lot less yelling).

 Now the instructor knows my name, so if I miss class I hear about it! I’m improving every day (though I still get sore), and I’m convinced it’s largely because I’m not alone. I’ve also noticed more men joining the class, so I like to think I’ve set a trend as well.

 Our spiritual lives require a similar kind of partnership. We need each other if we’re going to really grow. The content of our conversations, however, needs to go beyond the surface to ask some challenging questions: How is it with your soul? How are you growing today in the knowledge and love of God? How are you serving your neighbors?

Wesley boiled all these questions down to three simple rules, which he called “The General Rules of the United Societies.” The class meetings were centered around these rules, and each member was challenged to talk about how they were following these rules of life. They are all three dependent upon one another. Fall in one area, and you fall in all the others. The rules: First, do no harm. Second, do all the good you can. Third, stay in love with God. Let’s look at these briefly.

 DO NO HARM

First, do no harm. On the surface, this seems to be self-explanatory. We shouldn’t intentionally harm anyone else physically or emotionally. And yet, in many ways, it is this rule that gets violated most often, particularly when we’re feeling anxiety.

 I’ve been listening to the radio recently and it’s always interesting to me to hear political ads. Candidates spend a lot of money spewing vitriol about their opponents. Rarely do you hear a candidate talk about their ideas, only that the other guy is a bad choice. Add to that talk show hosts who make a living by whipping up fear and anxiety and demonizing those who don’t agree, and a public that is deeply divided over ideas and there’s lots of opportunity to do plenty of harm. Rumors, half-truths, gossip, manipulation—it seems like that’s what drives our discourse every day.

 One of my mentors from afar is Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a family systems therapist. Friedman wrote that the thing that drives our society is anxiety about the future, anxiety about our present circumstances, anxiety about outsiders. When a society is driven by anxiety, people become highly reactive and sensitive. They begin to herd together and engage in group-think, where outside ideas are rejected. They begin to blame someone else for their problems. They engage in a quick-fix mentality that seeks to quell anxiety with short term solutions. And, finally, leaders in anxious systems tend to not be able to make any decisions on his or her own, but are driven by the need to quell the anxiety of the loudest voices in the family or society.

 Does this sound familiar? We’re in a culture where different ideologies are at war with one another, where neither side can hear the other, and where anger and anxiety block out civility and a search for solutions. Such a culture gives strength to the extremists, and we’re seeing that every day.

 Friedman wrote that one of the sure signs of madness is when people cannot stay in a relationship with others with whom they disagree. That cut-off of relationship breeds the demonizing, discounting, gossipy, half-truth culture in which we live.

 In that kind of setting, “do no harm” is a radical concept, but it’s one that we have to recapture, particularly if we’re going to call ourselves Christians. Friedman would say that the best way to shift an anxious system is to change the climate by changing yourself. If I am to do no harm in  that sense, that means I can no longer tolerate or spread gossip. I can no longer speak disparagingly of others, even of those with whom I disagree. I can no longer manipulate the facts, and I can no longer speak ill of others. “Doing no harm” is a promise that “I will guard my lips, my mind, and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure, or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.”

 This, my friends, is the way forward. Christians must not be a people driven by fear and anxiety, but by love. Bishop Reuben Job, in his book on the three General Rules, puts it this way: “When I am determined to do no harm to you, I lose my fear of you; and I am able to see you and hear you more clearly. Disarmed of the possibility to do harm, we find that good and solid place to stand where together we can seek the way forward in faithfulness to God.”

 Doing no harm, however, is just the first step. The second is even more radical. Wesley outlined the second rule like this:

 DO ALL THE GOOD YOU CAN

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as you ever can.”

 Jesus was the author of this rule. The passage we read earlier is a call to radical love and goodness, even and especially toward those with whom we are in conflict. Hear it again: “Love you enemies. DO GOOD to those who hate you…if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, do good, expecting nothing in return…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

 Not only are we supposed to do no harm, but we are to engage in radical goodness! This is the very example of Jesus, who offered forgiveness and love even to those who were nailing him to the cross. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say here, “Demonstrate your right-ness,” or “Defend your position.” He says, “do good—always, to everyone.”

 Notice, too, that acts of goodness are not dependent upon the positive reaction of the other. We don’t do good so that the good will always be reciprocated. We do good no matter whether the other person is appreciative, or changes, or whatever. We do good because that’s what Jesus calls us to do and because we are to be reflecting the image of his character and love.

 I was listening to an African-American preacher once who said something I’ll never forget. He said, “A lot of you all pray all the time, ‘God, use me.’ But then somebody comes along and does just that—they use you, and then you get upset. You shouldn’t be surprised. It’s what you asked for. To be used of God means that you give up claim on how and when you might be used and for whom. You do good all the time because that’s the only way that God can really use you!”

 We’re talking radical concept here, one that’s not easy—but then again being a disciple is not easy! The opportunities for doing that kind of good surely abound. Wrote Wesley, “There is scarce any possible way of doing good for which here is not daily occasion…Here are poor families to be relieved: Here are children to be educated: Here are workhouses, wherein both young and old gladly receive the word of exhortation: Here are the prisons, and therein a complication of all human wants.”

 What if we added people in power to that list? What if, for example, in these contentious days we Methodists were so bold to write a letter to a politician or someone else we don’t agree with that said, simply, that we are praying for them? What if you said, “I may not agree with everything you stand for, but I pray for you nonetheless and ask God to give you wisdom and strength to serve the people.” Our local officials are often under a barrage assault of negative emails and letters. What if we decided to do good by engaging in a campaign of prayer instead of a campaign of complaint?

 Non-anxious people have a much better perspective on life. When we choose not to be reactive, when we choose to lead always with goodness, we begin to see the world and our neighbors quite differently. Wesley understood that God had poured out his grace and love on us while we were yet rebellious sinners. If we’re going to grow in the image of God, we have to pour out God’s grace and love to others as well, even if it costs us something.

 First, do no harm. Second, do all the good you can to all the people you can…

 The third rule undergirds the first two, for without it we don’t have the capacity to do good and we have plenty of capacity to do harm. Wesley named the third rule,

 STAY IN LOVE WITH GOD

 “Attend to the private and public ordinances of God.” Bishop Job puts it a little more simply: “Stay in love with God.”

 What Wesley is talking about here is the practices and disciplines of the Christian life, the “means of grace” that enable us to grow more in the image of God. These practices include:

 Reading Scripture daily, not just for knowledge but for transformation. As we said last week, the Bible is the source for our life and faith and herein is knowledge sufficient for salvation. To be a Christian is to be a person of the Book!

 Daily prayer, recognizing that prayer is the way that we listen to God. Often, this is the biggest barrier for people. Even the disciples had to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray! Wesley said that prayer is essential and encouraged the Methodists to a daily time of peace with God, even if it’s difficult at first: “O begin!” he wrote in a letter to a friend struggling with prayer. “Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not. What is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way…Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice.”  

 Prayer is at the center of a transformed life. We need to learn how to pray without ceasing. This is something we’ll be working on as a congregation as we move forward together.

 Fasting is another discipline. We deny ourselves something, be it food or technology or whatever, so that we can be filled with God. Wesley fasted over two mealtimes each week and replaced the time he would have spent eating with prayer. I’ve done this. The rumbling of the stomach reminds me that I depend on God for my daily bread. Maybe you can’t give up food for health reasons, but there are other ways to fast. Turn off the TV or the computer, inject times of solitude and silence. Fasting is a discipline we need to recapture in order to really listen to God.

 Public worship is another discipline. We can’t be lone ranger Christians. We need the body of believers and, perhaps even more importantly, we need to worship God. Worship brings us into God’s presence and sends us out renewed by the encounter. Weekly worship, even if we’re out of town, is a vital discipline that connects us to the Body of Christ.

 Coupled with worship is the regular receiving of the sacrament of holy communion. As we have said throughout this series, communion is the outward sign of an inward grace, a sign that teaches us clearly about the love and grace of God. We come to the table to be reminded and to be transformed. Communion is kind of like our monthly altar call—a chance to come and once again confess our sins and receive the grace of God.

 Christian conferencing is another way we stay in love with God and with each other. We must not give up the habit of meeting together for fellowship, worship, study, and mutual support. We need each other if we’re going to be able to grow! Are you in a small group? A Bible study? If not, there’s no better time than the present!

 The early Methodists centered their lives around these practices. We must do the same if we’re going to be able to grow in the image of God and participate with God in the transformation of the world.

 Do no harm. Do all the good you can. Stay in love with God.

Three simple rules. May they be our guiding rule of life together.

 

Living Biblically – John Wesley on Scripture

Yolb_paperback Matthew 10:40-42

A couple of years ago, I led the Park City congregation through a year-long journey of reading the Bible. It was an exciting opportunity (we’ll be starting that next fall), but it was not without its challenges. For example, I knew that the tough part would be getting people through the book of Leviticus—not exactly scintillating reading, and it’s even a little disturbing. Get past Leviticus, and you could make it through the rest!

I’m speculating here, but perhaps the main reason many of us don’t delve into this part of the Torah, or into many of the other long legalistic passages of Scripture for that matter, is that reading all those laws, rules and regulations can become a real snooze-fest for a congregation (and a preacher). 

But what if you took all those biblical rules seriously? Even better, what if you took them literally? Some folks do claim to follow the Bible in a literal sense, but is that even possible?

A.J. Jacobs, a writer who has become known for chronicling year-long experiments like reading through the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, decided to give it a try. Jacobs committed himself and, by extension, his family and friends, to a year-long experiment in living the Bible literally. The result is a humble and humorous book on his experience titled The Year of Living Biblically.

Jacobs read through the Bible for four straight weeks, five hours a day, and compiled a list of “every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice” he found in both the Old and New Testaments. When he finished, he had a list that ran 72 pages with more than 700 rules. Jacobs saw that some of the rules would be good for him — things like telling the truth, not coveting, not stealing, and loving neighbors, for example. But, like those of us who wade through Leviticus and its ilk, he saw plenty of rules that didn’t seem to make people righteous at all; stuff like not eating fruit from a tree planted less than five years ago or paying the wages of a worker every day. Then there are those biblical rules that are just plain illegal today, like killing magicians and sacrificing oxen. Well, maybe the last one is okay if you call it “grilling.”

Given the wide range of rules, Jacobs had to establish some criteria for which ones he could actually follow. Like a good exegete, he figured that there were certain rules that were unquestionably figurative or symbolic, like Matthew 19:12, which is all about eunuchs, especially those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jacobs decided that anything that involved voluntary donation of body parts should probably not be part of his quest. Or how about Matthew 5:27-30, where Jesus says that if your right eye or your right hand cause you to sin, you shut cut them off and throw them away. Either Jesus is speaking in hyperbole here or we should all look be looking like pirates.

Armed with a revised list and with the help of some human and written guides from both Judaism and Christianity, Jacobs adopted a new persona for the year named “Jacob” and began following the Bible as literally as possible. He grew out his beard and hair to the point that he looked like Moses, Abraham or the Unabomber, depending on your point of view. He dressed all in white (Ecclesiastes 9:8), making sure not to wear any clothing of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19). To be safe, he had his wardrobe examined by a shatnez tester — kind of like an orthodox Jewish CSI who looks at the fibers under a microscope. He walked around with money rubber-banded around his hand (Deuteronomy 14:25). He carried around one of those combination cane/seat things called a “Handy Stick” so that he could avoid sitting where a menstruating woman might have sat (Leviticus 15:19). He could watch TV, but he couldn’t actually turn it on so as not to have made a graven image. He “stoned” an adulterer in the park, but since the Bible doesn’t specify how big the stones are supposed to be he just tossed pebbles at an admitted (and annoyed) adulterer on a park bench. The rules that Jacobs followed, and the reactions that he and those around him had, make for a fascinating and often very funny read.

What I love about this book is that Jacobs’ experiment really is an examination of how we read Scripture. Some people will try to claim that they read it and live it literally but, again, that’s not really possible or advisable, as Jacobs found out. It’s like the guy whose way of reading the Bible was to sit by the window and let the wind blow the pages around for a few seconds, then he put his finger down on the passage and would do what it said. One day he put his finger down on Acts 1:18 – 18(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 

He thought to himself, that can’t be right…Lord, show me another verse. Whereupon the wind blew the pages again and he put his finger down on Luke 10:37 – “Go and do likewise.”

When we read Scripture as simply a collection of verses, we get into trouble!

What we’re talking about here is biblical authority. John Wesley was very clear that Scripture is the primary source of life and faith, and in the Scriptures is “everything necessary for salvation.” But Wesley also understood that we all come to Scripture with our own particular lenses on of which we have to be aware. We don’t read Scripture in a vacuum, ignoring the historical and cultural context. We don’t check our brains at the door when we open the Bible. We can’t understand the witness of the Bible unless we see it worked out in our own human experience.

Wesley said that the Bible is our primary source, but that we always keep in mind tradition, reason, and experience when we read it. Tradition tells us how the church has read the Scriptures over 2000 years. Reason invites us to use our minds to discern all the aspects of the text in its context. Experience is the laboratory in which the truth of Scripture gets played out every day. The authority of Scripture lies not in the infallibility or inerrancy of the words themselves, but of the infallible reality of the God they point to.

We have to think of the Bible as a whole narrative—a story from beginning to end, a story that continues with us. The Bible is the story of God’s redemptive mission for all of creation, thus every passage of the Bible that we read is put in that context. We get into trouble when we pluck out a series of unrelated verses to prove our own theological points. We always understand that it’s the whole Bible that matters – the whole story of God.

That’s really a more Jewish way of reading the Scriptures, by the way. I have a good friend who’s a rabbi, and he’s always fascinated and a bit disturbed how many Christians will pull out verses and quote them out of context to support their position. For Jews, every verse is only important as part of the whole story. This is how Jesus read Scripture. In his day, to quote a verse from a passage was a shorthand means of quoting the whole thing. Take, for example his word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many people read that Scripture and speculate about how Jesus believes God has abandoned him. Did you know, however, that that’s the first line of Psalm 22? The psalm outlines the pain of one who has been rejected, but it ends with a deep trust in God’s ability to save. Rather than merely a cry of hopelessness, Jesus was crying out hope in the midst of pain and suffering. It’s all about understanding the context!

If we don’t bring in the whole witness, our use of Scripture only amounts to proof-texting. As one of my seminary profs taught us to remember:

 “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to say.”

The bottom line is that no matter what your theological bent, it’s indeed possible to commit idolatry on the Bible itself, worshiping the words instead of understanding the times and embracing the spirit (Spirit!) in which it was written. More importantly, as Christians’ we’ve been given a model of thought and behavior that transcends even written page. We have been given Jesus. If we’re looking to be literal at anything, we should be most literal in modeling our lives after his. A.J. Jacobs took on the personae of a person from the Bible’s past. We’re called to take on the personae the ever-present reality of Jesus.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10 were designed to prepare them for the missionary journeys they would undertake both during their time with Jesus and especially after his ascension. They were not to be people merely bound by rules and simply dressing the part of the righteous (that was Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, after all). Instead, they were to act as Jesus’ own representatives by reflecting his character, mission and message to the world.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus (Matthew 10:40). Like ambassadors in a foreign country, the disciples were to be the embodiment of Jesus and, by association, of God, to those they would meet and live among. That association would cause the disciples a lot of grief in the form of persecution (10:16-20), alienation from family (10:21, 35-37), and even martyrdom (10:28). People steeped in their own rules, regulations and worldviews have a hard time seeing an alternative, which was precisely what Jesus was offering — a view of God’s kingdom that would upset the status quo, turning over human power structures and ushering in God’s rule of justice, love and peace. Taken literally, the disciples’ mission would be dangerous, but the results would be world-changing.

In the midst of their mission of representing Christ, the disciples were to concentrate their best and most literal efforts on modeling him in their relationships, starting with each other. There’s some debate among commentators about the role of “prophets,” the “righteous” and “little ones” in Matthew’s community (10:41-42). Perhaps the first two were specific role definitions, while “little ones” refers to what we might call the “laity” today. Whatever the role, representatives of Jesus were to welcome one another and care for one another literally and liberally with the love of Christ. 

Jesus said that showing hospitality would result in “rewards” for those who modeled him. What’s that look like? When we do good deeds, follow the rules, we often expect to get something in return. Some might look at this passage and deduce that being nice to others earns you a heavenly “reward” to be cashed in when one dies and, in popular parlance, goes to heaven. But perhaps there’s a more immediate context here. The word for “reward” in Greek can also be translated as “wages due.” Being a “prophet,” for example, was no easy task. In fact, Matthew sees the prophetic ministry as being somewhat problematic, with prophets experiencing persecution (5:12), being unwelcome (13:57), and facing death at the hand of those who don’t want to hear the message they bring (23:30-37). 

In that context, a “prophet’s reward” may be a kind of backhanded compliment. If the prophet, representing Jesus, gets maligned by others, it’s a sign that he (or she) is probably doing it right and earning the proper wage! By contrast, the wages of a righteous person in Matthew’s gospel are paid in receiving the kingdom (13:43, 49; 25:34-40) and in “eternal life” (25:46). If you’re really modeling Jesus and taking him literally at his word, you’re going to receive “rewards” that reflect the very same things he experienced. We can’t truly represent Jesus without experiencing both persecution and suffering on the one hand and the power of resurrection on the other. There’s no crown without a cross (10:38).

Of all the items on the biblical rotisserie we can grab and be nourished on, however, perhaps the most important one is compassion. Giving a “cup of cold water” is a simple act, but it’s those simple acts of kindness, compassion and obedience that best represent Jesus in our everyday lives (10:42). In our quest to be “people of the Book,” we have to realize that we can never be outside the rules when we lead with love. 

Methodists, following John Wesley’s lead, are a “people of one book.” We understand that book and its witness primarily through the person of Jesus—God in the flesh—whose story is revealed there. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the prophets – to embody the word. We do our best work with Scripture when we embody it in the image of Christ, rather than merely debating and studying it to find our own agendas.

To put it another way, if the “one thing” that matters is renewal in the image of God, the we  must understand that the Scriptures give us the story of how that renewal takes place, and what it looks like—it looks a lot like Jesus! The Word became flesh in Jesus, and that same word, God’s Word, needs to become flesh in us—a people who perfectly love and glorify God, a people who are always leading with grace.

A.J. Jacobs learned from his year-long experiment that even as an agnostic there was a lot he could learn from taking on the character and lifestyle of a biblically based person. Says Jacobs, “The experience changed me in big ways and small ways. There’s a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I’m more thankful. I focus on the hundred little things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four things that go wrong. And I love the Sabbath. There’s something I really like about a forced day of rest … I also really liked what one of my spiritual advisers said, which was that you can view life as a series of rights and entitlements, or a series of responsibilities. I like seeing my life as a series of responsibilities. It’s sort of, ‘Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God.’”

Imagine living like that not for just a year — but for the rest of your life!

I am a fierce advocate for biblical literacy and what Wesley called “Scriptural Christianity.” I want to lead our congregation into becoming a people of the Book—a people of the whole book, a people who reflect the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We need to be shaped by that word. It’s not simply about more Bible knowledge, but about finding our stories within this story and then living that new reality.

When I was in Korea in February, I was impressed by the fact that Korean Methodist churches don’t have any books in the pews—everyone brings their Bible and hymnal to church with them and there’s an expectation that they’ll be using them during the week. They are a people of the Book. 

You may have noticed that the Lay Readers are now using the book when they read and not just reading verses from a sheet of paper. That gives us all a visual that the passage from which they’re reading is part of the whole witness of Scripture. We put the verses up on the screen for you, but I have to admit that I’m not really a fan of that. I would like us to use our Bibles to look at the Scripture each week, because we understand every verse within a particular context. We have Bibles in the pew, but I want to encourage you to bring your own Bible to worship—get familiar with it, mark in it, hold it, carry it.

The story of Scripture is the story of God’s redemptive mission for the whole creation. We find our stories within that story. We find God’s will for us in the midst of God’s will for the whole creation. It is here that past, present, and future find meaning and hope. The book is essential, but only if we take the whole story into our hearts and become the people that it calls us back to being.

John Wesley rose early every morning to read the Scripture and it shaped who he became. Scripture was the basis for his method of living the Christian life. May it be ours as well!

 

 

The Means of Grace: The Language of Faith

John 1:14-18, 1
John 1:1-4

When I was at Asbury this
summer I had a preaching course, which is something I haven’t had for awhile
(can you tell?). There were 19 people in the class, which meant that we heard nineteen
sermons in a row over two days. And you thought one a week was tough!

One of the things we talked
about a lot, however, is that the content of the message is always balanced by
the body language of the messenger. Do you spend too much time looking at your
notes? Then you’re probably nervous or unsure. Do you pace around a lot? That’s
dealing with nervous energy (you can make people dizzy that way).

Preachers tend to pick up
habits of those they respect. For example, when I was a kid my pastor used to
hold the Bible in his hand the whole time he preached and whenever he made a
point, it flapped. I didn’t adopt that particular habit, but I do something
that’s kind of an unconscious homage.

See, instead of flapping the
Bible, I have a bad habit of using my hands too much when I talk. When I took
my first preaching course back in seminary, we videotaped our sermons and then
would watch them in class. The prof would always speed up the tape to show us
our body language, and I looked like I was about to take off. Someone asked me
last week why I put my hands in my pockets…it’s to keep from taking off! (See video below for an example):


It’s interesting to notice how
much our body language, our little rituals, communicate for us. For example, go
ahead and cross your arms. That’s a sign of being “closed” to the person who’s
communicating something to you. I always worry if I look out at the
congregation and see a lot of crossed arms! Now, look down—is you right arm
over your left or your left over your right? It’s usually equally divided,
which says something about our listening position as well!  We learn a lot just by watching peoples’
hands.

Truth is, we’re communicating
all the time in sign language. We usually associate "sign language"
with the beautiful and effective means of communication developed and used by
the hearing impaired – American Sign Language. Not only does ASL make
communication possible for those with hearing and speech impairments, it also
sets them apart and identifies them as a distinct community of people.

But even American Sign
Language isn’t universal.  Like
spoken language, it has different forms, vocabularies, and dialects depending
on the region or country where it is used.  Christian sign language, the language of the sacraments,
however, is universal – recognizable and translatable everywhere from Colorado
to China. 

Today we look at some of the
“means of grace” that John Wesley talked about often – they means by which
God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace begin to shape us into the
image of God we were created to be. As we said last week, growing in Christian
maturity involves a lifetime of practice—the means of grace. For Wesley, there
were two categories of the means of grace – the “instituted means,” those
practices instituted by Jesus, and the “ordinary means” – things like Bible
study, prayer, fasting, etc.

Today we want to look at the
instituted means, which are the sacraments. In the Methodist tradition, we have
two sacraments – baptism and holy communion – because these were instituted and
commanded by Jesus (others add additional sacraments). When we talk about the
sacraments, we’re talking about God communicating with us through a distinct
and holy sign language. As we break the bread and take the cup today, all
around the world people in churches are doing the same thing, recognizing the
same symbols of faith, grace, and hope. 
It doesn’t matter if its Westminster Abbey, an underground house church
in China, or here at TLUMC, we all share a common language of faith:  a “sign language” of “visible words”
that transcends the boundaries of country, color, and culture. 
 

God reveals himself to us in
many and mysterious ways, because God desires us to know him, to experience him, not merely know about him.  If I send
you my resume, you will know something about me, but you won’t really know
me.  Knowing someone takes time,
effort, exploration, and experiencing that person in a variety of
settings.  If you begin to know
someone well, you will be able to identify them at a distance because of the
way they walk;  you can know their
state of mind simply by their expression, by the way they sit or by something
they do with their hands ();  you
can tell when they’ve been in a room just by a lingering feeling (or by the
socks they left on the floor – just ask my wife).  The smell of  a
certain perfume, the softness of a kiss, the wink of an eye all communicate
something that doesn’t require words. 

So it’s no wonder that God’s
communication of grace to us is more often beyond words.  We have not received merely a “word”
from God, but the “Word [that] became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The author of 1 John states at the
outset that it was not an idea or philosophy that he and his community were
proclaiming, but rather, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what
we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and
touched with our hands concerning the word of life.  It is the person of Jesus who is God’s supreme “visible word.”

It is that “visible word” that
we gather to experience today during this World Communion Sunday. It was
Augustine, the great bishop of the 4th/5th century who called the sacraments
themselves “visible words.”  In the
church’s understanding of the sacraments, the bread that is his body and the
wine that is his blood are “visible words” that proclaim Jesus Christ – the
history of his suffering, death, and resurrection, the mystery of his presence,
and a foretaste of his kingdom.  In
the sacraments  the ordinary
becomes extraordinary – not because the elements of water, bread, and wine take
on some meaning or magical form of their own, but because what they represent
(re-present): the presence of the Visible Word, Jesus Christ, and God’s grace
freely given through Christ to all of us. 
In a very real sense, water, bread, and cup are a form of language
through which God reveals to us the mystery of faith. 

John Wesley defined a
sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and
a means whereby we receive same.” British sociologist David Martin has
suggested that Christianity is basically a sign language: These things
"shall be a sign unto you." Christians are people who read the signs
and decipher the code. In fact, this is the best we can do – make sign language
about the eternal, the infinite, the God who does not think our thoughts or
whose ways are not our ways (Divinity in a Grain of Bread [London: Lutterworth
Press, 1989], 53-55, 69-70).

What do the signs of our
sacraments mean?

Baptism is the sign of
initiation into the church, a sign of God’s grace poured out on us. In our
tradition it’s not so much bound up in what our response is and it is a sign
that God is already at work in us. It’s a beginning, a new birth. That’s what
the water symbolizes. It’s only done once – because God’s grace is always good.
I remember the guy who asked me to baptize him a second time because it “didn’t
take” the first time. But I explained that God’s grace is still good and we did
something to remember his baptism.

Communion is the ongoing sign,
the regular practice – a sign of God’s grace and Christ’s invitation. We
celebrate it often because we can’t get enough of that grace! For us, the bread
and grape juice (not wine because of the early Methodist concern about
temperance) signify that Christ is real and present with us (not
transubstantiation, but “real presence”). These are universal signs – meal,
welcome, fellowship- and are open to all.

 The real language of the Christian faith is formed not with
our mouths but with our whole bodies – especially our hands. In many ways,
Christianity is what you do with your hands. Look at the hands and you know all
you need to know (cross formed when receiving communion). Faith is in the
handiwork. Jesus said, "Do this … in remembrance of me." Not say
this … or explain this … or perform this … or sing this … but do this.
       

Maybe we need to go back to
our childhood in order to really understand how this works. Speech pathologists
are even beginning to teach children and parents sign language as a way of
communicating before the child forms words.  Evidence suggests that this actually helps the child learn
speech more quickly.

Perhaps using a similar kind
of sign language helps children experience God more fully as well.  Before the Wesley children could even
speak, Susanna Wesley (mother of John and Charles and 17 other children) taught
them to pray by making signs with their hands. Historians are not sure whether
these signs were simply folding their hands during prayer, or whether it was
making the sign of the cross, as the Wesleys were to do later in life. But they
learned to pray with their hands before they could pray with their mouths. 

I think this is part of what
Jesus meant when he said, “unless you become like little children, you will not
enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I
think that’s an invitation from Jesus for us to go back to a time in our lives
when we didn’t worry about schedules and salaries, budgets and bureaucracies,
prestige and power; a time where “climbing the ladder” didn’t have anything to
do with promotions and stress and everything to do with snagging that freshly
baked cookie on the counter; a time where we didn’t have the vocabulary to
describe the indescribable, where words didn’t matter, but holding mommy’s hand
was everything.

It’s an invitation to simply
hold out our hands, to open our hands and receive the love and grace that God
wants to give us, his children. 
It’s an invitation to stop our ceaseless chatter, to put aside our need
to have everything in our lives quantified, categorized, and sanitized and
simply be:  be in the presence of
God, to listen, touch, feel, taste, smell, experience the indwelling message
and mystery of the Visible Word. 
It’s an invitation to come to Christ’s table, to allow him to love you,
to know you, to speak to you in ways that words cannot capture. 

Here is bread for the journey
of your life.  Prepare your hearts
to converse with God in a new language this day, the language of faith – taste
and see and the Lord is good! – and may his Word satisfy the hunger of your
souls. 

 

 

Christian Perfection: Holiness of Heart and Life

John-wesley-150x150  We’ve been talking over the last couple of weeks about the
Methodist emphasis on God’s grace. It’s grace that brings into a relationship
with God and grace that motivates us to serve. To review, we have talked about
how God created us in his image to have a relationship with God and with the
vocation of caring for God’s creation. God allowed the humans a choice to live
into that image and vocation, but they chose to go their own way—a choice the
Bible calls sin. The consequences of sin were separation from God, with the
ultimate end being physical and spiritual death.

 But even when humanity rejected God’s vocation and identity
for them, God did not give up. God continues to reach out to humans through
what Wesley called “prevenient grace,” God’s calling us back to himself. When
humans respond to God’s offer of grace and new relationship through faith, God
responds with justifying grace, forgiving our sin and giving us a new birth, a
new opportunity to become the people God created us to be.

 As we said last week, though, God does not offer us new
birth so that we will merely stay infants in faith. We eventually have to leave
kindergarten! Our salvation is not simply a moment in time, but a life-long
process of growth into the image of God so that we might participate with God
in the renewal of the whole creation. To borrow Peter’s words (which he lifted
from Deuteronomy) – our goal is to “be holy as God is holy”—to reflect God’s
glory embrace our vocation.

 So today we want to look at the third movement of grace. We
might call it “sanctifying grace” but John Wesley called this goal “Christian
perfection.” Now when we hear that word “perfection” we might react pretty
strongly. After all, no one is perfect, nor can we hope to be so. One of the
reasons that John Wesley got thrown out of most Anglican churches was because
he insisted on using “perfection” as the goal of the Christian life.

 Wesley’s problem wasn’t so much a theological one as a
semantic one, however. In the Scriptures, there is a Greek word, “teleios,”
that is translated into English in various ways. “Teleios” can mean: holy,
mature, complete, or perfect. “Teleios” is not something we achieve on our own,
but is always dependent upon God’s grace and initiative.

 To put it another way, we can’t ever be fully “perfect,”
meaning sinless, flawless performance, but we can be “perfected” or “made
perfect” through God’s transforming grace. Perfection/maturity/holiness is not
about holding up our performance (which would make it “holier-than-thou”), but
rather holding up God’s grace in our lives. The more we are in relationship
with God, the more we grow in grace, the more we mature from our new birth, the
more we begin to reflect the image of God and see the world as God sees it. It’s
not about perfect performance, but perfect love.

 When we lived in Park City we typically got 350 inches of
snow a year, which meant that we spent a lot of time snowblowing the driveway.
One day after a big snow I finished clearing off a foot and a half of snow I
looked over at the neighbor’s driveway and saw that it was really buried. He
was away on vacation. I knew he was coming back the next day, so I thought to
myself, “Well, I’ll be a wonderful neighbor and blow off his driveway so that
when he comes home he can pull right in and he’ll never know who did this noble
deed.” Nice, huh? So I run the snowblower over there and start blowing a couple
of feet of snow.

 Now, when you live in a place that gets that much snow and
if you run your snowblower often, one of the things you always have to think
about is—where did the morning newspaper land? Because if you hit it with the
snowblower, nothing good will come of it. I knew this from experience.

 Well, since Steve was on vacation, I had no thought of the newspaper
because, surely the paper had been stopped. Nay, nay…I hit the Saturday paper,
which caused a shower of multicolored confetti all over the pure white snow. I
muttered a bit, yanked the paper out of the auger, and kept merrily on my way
until, about halfway through, I hit the Sunday paper—with all the ads. Now the
confetti was like a mocking party (Yay! You’re an idiot!). The auger was
completely and irretrievably jammed. I banged on it with a wrench, said a few
non-pastoral words and finally had to take the snowblower to the shop to get it
unstuck.

 In the meantime, Steve comes home to a half-done driveway
and a sea of chopped up newspaper. He followed the snowblower tracks to my
house and said, with a smile and a laugh, “Thanks for attempting to do my
driveway.” He understood that while the performance wasn’t perfect, the intent
certainly was.

 Wesley would say that’s how Christian perfection works –
it’s perfection of intention, a constant desire to please God and reflect our
vocation in the image of God. The more we exercise that intention, the more our
performance begins to catch up and while we’ll never be flawless performers, we
can get better and better as we learn from experience. We learn to somehow
always look for the newspaper in the theological sense!

 Perfection in love, perfection of intention, a desire for
holiness and Christian maturity, is a learning process. Just as we aren’t born
mature and complete, so our initial salvation doesn’t make us instantly into
mature and complete Christians. We need a process of growth, a process of
transformation, a process that forms us continually into the character and
image of God.

 This week, I’ve been reading New Testament theologian Tom
Wright’s new book After You Believe.
Wright’s premise is that one of the key things that has been missing in a lot
of contemporary Christianity is an emphasis on the formation of character or
virtue. Instead, he says, most Christians have focused their thoughts in two
other directions.

 The first direction is an emphasis on Christianity as a set
of rules. In that view, the gospel looks something like this: I have disobeyed
the rules (sin), but God has forgiven me (grace), so that now I can go back and
obey the rules better. A rules-oriented Christianity is always looking for ways
to proclaim what it’s against. The rules become the operative principle, and
while these Christians claim they have been saved through grace by faith, they
act as though that grace is dependent upon strict adherence to the rules, and
they’re going to make sure that everybody obeys them.

 Here’s the thing, though…we can’t keep all the rules. That’s
why we’re sinners in the first place! Not only that, when we are driven by
rules we soon begin to realize that the rules don’t cover every situation, nor
can we even agree on the rules. Rules have loopholes, rules are debatable,
rules can have exceptions. When the rules fall short, what do we do? We make up
more rules!

 We see this at work whenever there’s a debate about putting
the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse somewhere. There are certain
people who believe that if we would just post the rules, then everyone would
somehow “get it” and obey them. We’ve had these rules for thousands of years,
and yet we still have a hard time with them ourselves. What makes us think that
posting them up more will make a difference? As long as the rules are
externally enforced, we’ll always be looking for loopholes.

 A rules –orientation can also push us into tempting
territory. A wise mentor of mine once said to me, “Be careful what you preach
against. It’s always better to be for something than against something.”
Otherwise, we risk falling prey to the power of the very thing we’re against.
Ted Haggard’s situation taught us this. To borrow from Shakespeare, we can
“protest too much.” When we live by the rules alone, we can die by them as
well.

 Hear me…it’s not that we don’t need rules. We do. They
provide us with boundaries. But strict obedience to the rules is not what grows
us toward maturity. God doesn’t even push the rules down the throats of his
people forever. Whereas in Exodus God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, a list
of external rules, in Jeremiah 31, God says “I will write my law on their
hearts.” It’s not the external rules that ultimately matter, but the inward
character that is formed through maturity in God’s grace.

 Wright also exposes the other way that people approach
Christian faith and that is by throwing out the rules altogether. Their version
of the gospel goes like this: In Jesus, God abolished the rules, accepted
people as they were, and urged them to discover their real identity within
themselves. The power is within you, goes this theological idea, all you have
to do is to “name it and claim it.” “Be true to yourself” and “be happy” is a
major theme of the culture and a lot of churches. TV preachers are famous for
this kind of message – you’re special, God wants to bless you, you just need to
release the truth that’s inside you.

 Problem is, this is more Oprah than it is Paul or Jesus. The
focus here is strictly on the individual—you just need to be authentically who
you are. Nobody can tell you who you are. Who am I? is the theme of most pop
songs today (well, that and sex). I am the most important thing to God, I am
the center of the universe. Everything I need is within me. God will bless
that.

 Here’s the thing…if we buy into that theology, then whenever
we go looking for God all we’ll see is a mirror image of ourselves. What’s
“within me” apart from God isn’t all that great because I’m still broken. My
“true self” apart from God is a mess! Remember the two aspects of faith:
repentance and belief. Repentance turns me away from my own reflection towards
the image of God, and belief is the act by which I give up control of my life
to the Lordship of Christ.

 Yes, a good self-concept is a good thing, but we do not find
maturity within ourselves alone. We need to understand that our true selves are
only found when we are embracing the image of God we were created to be!

 Instead of looking externally to rules or internally toward
ourselves, Christian perfection, Christian maturity, is about the development
of character—a shaping of our lives inside and out by the sanctifying grace of
God. When we are truly growing up in Christ, our lives will have a very clear
internal compass regulated by the Holy Spirit. People who are “going on to
perfection” don’t have to focus on rules because the principles are written on
their hearts, nor do they think much about being true to themselves as much as
being true to the self that God is helping them to become. People who are
reaching Christian maturity seem to know and do the right thing instinctively.

 How do we move toward Christian maturity? Well, Wesley would
say that it takes practice. There are certain habits, attitudes, and practices
that help us move in that direction. Wesley called these habits, attitudes and
practices “the means of grace.” These included worship, receiving the
sacraments, daily prayer and Bible study, fasting, and meeting together with
other Christians. We’ll look at those in a little more depth next Sunday. It’s
these practices, along with some others, that enable us to grow to the point
that our life is always reflecting Christ. Good habits and practices, honed
over years, enable us to act and function the right way, the Christ way, no
matter the circumstances.

 I can think of no better illustration for how this works
than that of the “miracle on the Hudson” which took place in January 2009. You
know the story—Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was piloting a US Airways jet
with 155 passengers and crew out of New York when the plane suddenly hit a
flock of geese and sucked several into the engines, causing them to stop functioning.
The plane was going down quickly. The only place to land was in the Hudson
River. 208 seconds – the difference between life or death.

 Capt. Sullenberger didn’t have time to check the rule book
on what to do with this situation. To debate all the options, find the
loopholes.

 Nor did he decide to “look within himself” for the answer to
the problem – because going there had the potential for panic.

 Instead, he relied on his training—honed over 30 years of
flight experience in the Air Force (he was USAFA class of ’73) and in flying
commercial airlines. Hours in the cockpit and in simulators, establishing
habits, practices, attitudes. He was formed, trained and experienced. As he
said to Katie Couric, “I felt like my whole life had prepared me for this
moment.”

 He landed the plane and everyone was safe. They call it a
“miracle.” Sully would say that it was training. He was formed over a lifetime into
being the right person for the right time.

 John Wesley believed that God wants to form his people for
the right time. That our faith isn’t just an idea that we embrace occasionally,
but the very ground of our being. When we respond to God’s grace, God forms us
in his image, forms us into the right people at the right time—God’s time—Kingdom
time.

 We will likely never be called to do what Capt. Sully did.
We may be called, however, to do even greater things for God—helping to save
the lives of people for eternity. For God to use us fully, we need to be
trained, we need to be formed, we need to be holy.

 So here’s the question of the morning – what is your life
preparing you for? Do you feel like your spiritual life is moving somewhere, or
is it just another nice idea? Are you growing up? Wesley would say that true
Christians are always on the way somewhere – on the way to being perfected.

 This is a key doctrine of Methodism, and one that I think we
need to take seriously. The early Methodists gathered in small groups called
“class meetings” where they took seriously the idea of spurring one another on
to perfection. Everyone was asked about the state of their lives, everyone was
expected to be growing.

 I’m convinced that a church, particularly a Methodist
church, ought to be spending the bulk of its energy in shaping people into the
image of God. It’s a different model of church than simply attracting more
bodies with nice programs. It’s a different kind of church because it doesn’t
always tell you what you want to hear. It’s a church that prepares you for
something grand, something dangerous – a church that prepares you for the
coming Kingdom of God.

 

 

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
faith
. 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
grace.

 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
part.

 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…