Monday, October 29, 2007

Prevenient Grace - United Methodist Distinctives

1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!

3 So Jesus told them this story: 4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”

Last week we looked at the bad news: Though God created us in His image and in perfect relationship with Him, by Adam’s sin and by our own sin, we destroyed God’s image in us and ruined our relationship with Him. Unfortunately that bad news became the normal human condition: we are without God.

Without God, the best we can hope for is a state of sleep. Like Rip Van Winkle, we slumber on, unaware of God’s touch all around us.

Fortunately for us, we weren’t left without an alarm clock. The seminary word for the alarm clock, the wake-up call from God, is Prevenient Grace.

Without God’s grace, the situation would be hopeless, but fortunately we do have God’s grace. God reaches out toward us before we are even able to reach out to Him.

John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible, tells us that God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but would have eternal life. Though the eternal life part is contingent on our belief, Jesus’ death is not. He died for us, whether we believed in Him or not – part of our communion liturgy is this passage from Romans 5:8: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.

Like the sheep and the coin from Jesus’ parables, we didn’t necessarily set out to become lost. In fact, it could be that the lostness had nothing to do with us. But regardless of how we became lost, we begin with several things in common with the sheep and the coin. First of all, at the beginning of the story, they were lost. It can be easy to point at certain factors to excuse someone’s lostness. They came from a bad upbringing. They had a rough life. They didn’t get enough attention. Or, on the other hand, it can be easy to point fingers at someone who "should have known better" but was lost anyway. They were brought up right. Their parents gave them everything. They came to church for so many years… Whatever the case, and however someone got lost, that is our initial state, and that brings me to the second commonality we have with the sheep and the coin. Like it or not, there’s nothing either of them can do about their lostness. The sheep can bleat, but that doesn’t do a lot of good out in the vast wilderness. A coin can’t do much of anything but lay there and wish it weren’t lost. We, in our sinfulness, can’t do anything on our own either. In sin, we’re lost and there’s nothing we can do about it.

But we also have something positive in common with the sheep and the coin. Did you notice that there’s someone searching for both of them? No matter how lost we may be, we can not stray so far that God isn’t still reaching out for us.

How, then, does God reach out to us before we even acknowledge Him? Part of how His grace works is called "moral law." This is what Paul was talking about in Romans 2:14-15, where he says, "Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and their thoughts either accuse them or tell that they are doing right."

If it was just a case of moral law letting us know that we were wrong, it would be a pretty heavy burden for us. But instead of simply telling us we’re wrong, it lets us know that there’s nothing we can do ourselves to be "right." Instead, it pushes us toward the gift that Jesus Christ gave to us through His sacrifice on the cross.

We’re a pretty individualistic, self-help-oriented society. We believe that within each of us is the ability to "pull ourselves up by the bootstraps" and to thus better ourselves, to achieve whatever it is that we set out to do. The "self made man (or woman)" is one of the ideals in our culture. On the other hand, there are also those who are for some reason unable to pick themselves up; how do we view them? There is a correct way to view them: as a whole lot more like us than we care to admit.

Did you notice the reason why Jesus told these parables? He told them because the religious elite were grumbling about the kind of losers Jesus was hanging out with. I can hear the complaints now: "He should wait until they clean up their acts before he hangs out with them!"
But He didn’t, and that’s exactly the point about His Prevenient Grace. He approaches us before we’re worthy to hang out with Him. Revelation 3:20 presents a great picture of Jesus, a picture which has been reproduced on stained glass on our east wall. "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me."

Maybe some of you are standing just inside the door today, hearing Him knock on the door. That’s Prevenient Grace! If you are there, it’s time answer the door, to invite Him in, to do a 180 turn from your sins. Because if you don’t let Him in, if you choose to remain in sin, there’s nothing else you can do for yourself. But if you’re willing to open the door to Him, you’ve taken the first steps along the journey of salvation!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Fall - United Methodist Distinctives

When I was a young teenager, Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently targeted our neighborhood. They would go out in pairs, knocking on doors, handing out their Watchtower magazines, trying to get new converts.

One day they rang the doorbell and my sister, who was in middle school, answered the door. They talked for a while, and soon it became apparent to them that they weren’t going to convert her. As they were leaving, one of them turned to her and said something along the lines of, "Even though we don’t agree with each other, it’s nice to talk to someone who actually knows what they believe."

So I ask the question today, "Do you know what you believe?" Could you have an intelligent discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses or other pseudo-Christian cults? This week, we kick off a series where we will be looking at the question of what do United Methodists believe. To get to that, we need to start with the very beginning… in the Garden of Eden.

One thing I often hear is that humanity is inherently good, that, given the choice between right and wrong, just innately, humans will generally choose right. If that’s the case, if we’re inherently good, which of you was the one who taught your children to fight? Which of you taught your children how to lie and steal? You didn’t teach them that? Of course you didn’t. They picked it up naturally. But that wasn’t the plan.

Genesis 1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:31: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

Adam and Eve walked with God, speaking with him face-to-face. Genesis 2 concludes with the statement that the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed. There was nothing dirty or pornographic about their nakedness – they had nothing to hide. They were completely innocent. There was no such thing as sin, and thus, there was no such thing as shame. They had no need to hide anything at all from God. This was the life we were created for – perfect relationship with our Creator.

In Genesis 2:16, God told Adam, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

And as you probably know, the very next event recorded in Genesis has the serpent tempting Eve and she and Adam disobey God and eat from the forbidden tree. Thus ended the perfect relationship with God. Though God did not kill Adam and Eve, they were banished from the Garden of Eden, and the process of dying began.

Physically, death was the consequence of disobedience. But the spiritual consequences were far more dire. Our completely holy God does not allow sin to remain in His presence, and so that sin created a gulf between humanity and God. Though God created us in His own image, that image was completely destroyed at the moment of original sin. We often refer to this sin as "the fall."

It was through Adam and Eve that sin entered the world, and humanity grew up showing a great proclivity toward that sin. As we continue on in Genesis, we read about Adam and Eve’s son Cain killing his brother Abel, and things went even more downhill from there. In Genesis 6:5-6 we read the following description: The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Verses 11-12 continue: Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.

Unfortunately, and in spite of some people arguing to the contrary, I don’t believe we’re any better than the people I just described. We continue to figure out new ways to sin and new technologies to allow us to sin more efficiently. Technology continues to make us more effective at murder than ever before. The internet allows unrestricted access to pornography and to illicit online romances as well as easy dissemination of hate and terrorism. More Christians have been persecuted and put to death since 1900 than in the two-thousand years previous, even in the time of the Roman persecution of the Church.

You don’t have to teach a child how to be greedy and selfish. You don’t have to teach a toddler how to lie or to fight. No, it comes quite naturally. And as adults, we don’t do a whole lot better. The Apostle Paul wrote about his struggle in the book of Romans, chapter 7, verse 15 and 22-24.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Since God will not allow sin into His presence, you might wonder why He even created us with the capability to sin. The answer is free will. He created us with the free ability to choose right or wrong. If He had simply created us without that ability, then we wouldn’t be truly free to love Him, and that wouldn’t be real love. True love is not forced – it must be chosen.

Unfortunately, in the state of sin, we can no more choose love for God than we can choose our hair color. Sure, you might be able to fool some people, but you just can’t trick God. A better analogy might be that in our natural, sinful state, we can no easier choose to love God than we can choose the content of our dreams. You see, in sin, we are in what amounts to a spiritual sleep. Like Rip Van Winkle, we slumber on, oblivious to the world around us.

This doesn’t seem very hopeful, and without the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, this would define our entire existence. However, we are not without God, so there is hope. But you’re going to have to wait until next week for the hope of Prevenient Grace.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Belonging - as a United Methodist

I am starting a series on the distinctives of United Methodism, and this is the introductory sermon.

You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor.

And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God. As the Scriptures say,

I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem,chosen for great honor,and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.
Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him,

The stone that the builders rejectedhas now become the cornerstone.

He is the stone that makes people stumble,the rock that makes them fall.

They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them.

But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

Once you had no identity as a people;now you are God’s people.Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.

Dear friends, I warn you as "temporary residents and foreigners" to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

1 Peter 2:4-12

When I was in 8th grade, my class was given an assignment – to write letters to ourselves, letters which would be mailed shortly before high school graduation. I mostly wrote about sports, about skateboarding, and about my friends, and then I promptly forgot about the letter for the next four years. Then in May of 1990, a month before graduation, I received in the mail a curious looking envelope. I recognized the handwriting, but from where? When I opened it, I was surprised to get a letter from myself.

As we all got those letters, we started sharing them with one another. One thing we all seemed to have in common was that we wrote down who our friends were. Now, my high school, like many, was full of cliques, but one thing that I found interesting was that everyone seemed to have included me as a part of their group of friends. It was nice to belong!

I know people who have turned to the internet for belonging. Social networking sites are the most recent craze. If you aren’t internet savvy, social networking sites go by names like MySpace and Facebook, and they are a way to keep in touch with people you know or to meet new people. One feature of these sites is the ability to name people as your "friends." You can generally tell how old someone is on Facebook or MySpace by how many "friends" they have – the younger the person, the more friends they have. You can put anyone on your list of friends, and it’s not uncommon to see pages with listsl of hundreds, even thousands of so-called friends..
Belonging seems to be one of our top needs. Whether it is belonging to a group of friends, to a sports team, to an organization, or to a church, it’s important to us to belong.

In the Bible there are all sorts of scriptures relating to belonging. In John 8:31, Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples." In John 15:19, Jesus tells his disciples that "I have chosen you out of the world." In Romans 1:6, Paul writes to Gentile believers, who he refers to as those "who are called to belong to Jesus Christ." But when we get to 1 Peter 2, we read that we are "a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession."

This is our identity as Christians. But why are we United Methodists? Over the next several weeks, we will be examining some of what makes the United Methodist Church unique.
We could spend weeks just looking at the Book of Discipline and the Book of Worship – not the most riveting of subjects. But although our rules and liturgies are contained in those books, that’s not our soul. From its inception, Methodism was always a practical movement – concerned primarily with salvation.

This is why, when someone joins the United Methodist Church, we have a full page of belief statements concerning our Christian beliefs, but the practical questions come when we pledge to join the local congregation. We vow that we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, presence, gifts, and services. Meaning that we will pray for one another and the church as a whole, we will show up for services, we will give our tithes and offerings, and we will serve in areas of our giftedness.

Did you know that the term "Methodist" wasn’t meant to be a kind term? When John and Charles Wesley and several of their friends began their "Holy Club," their goal was (obviously) holiness. They did everything they could to promote holiness – both personal and corporate. They realized that if they had a specific plan and worked steadily on it, that they would have a better chance of reaching their goal.

In today’s scripture, we read Peter’s comments about our identity: you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

"Once you had no identity as a people;now you are God’s people.Once you received no mercy;now you have received God’s mercy."

This is our belonging – as God’s chosen people, as royal priests, as a holy nation, as God’s own possession. Did you note why God chose us? So we can show others God’s goodness. This is a big part of what United Methodism is all about.

You see, there are two sides of holiness, and, just as you cannot separate a coin from its two sides, neither can you do so with holiness. One side of holiness is personal holiness; the other side is social holiness.

We have that identity: we know who we are. That identity, however, comes with a warning as well.

Dear friends, I warn you as "temporary residents and foreigners" to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

The early Methodists rose up within the Church of England because the Church of England represented dead religion. It encouraged neither personal nor social holiness. A true, living relationship with Jesus Christ encourages, even demands both. We, as United Methodists, as Christians, are called to live this life as temporary residents of this earth, not as lifetime members of a church or a town.

Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors, which will give honor and glory to God.