Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rules of the Road, part 2

I used to belong to the YMCA, and there was one thing that really bothered me. No, not the people who were obviously there to be seen, not to work out (“really, you’re going to walk on the treadmill in flip flops?” Or “you chose to wear that to work out in?” or “Not so much perfume next time, please!”). The one thing that really bothered me was the lack of attention to the rules. The track was the big place where some people constantly chose to disregard the rules, especially regarding the direction traffic was flowing. I don’t know how many times I had to dodge people who were going the wrong way!

My mom would laugh at me for saying this, but I am a rule follower. I like to know exactly what the rules are, and honestly I can tend toward a Pharisaical attitude toward the rules. I can find myself thinking, “Well, I would never do that,” when there are other rules I obviously would break. That reminds me of a parable Jesus told: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 18:10-14)

The Pharisee followed the rules, but it didn’t get him to God. This is why it’s important that as we look at the Wesleyan Rules of the Road, we looked at rule #3 first: stay in love with God.

The most important rule, as Jesus attested to, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). If we are focused entirely on loving God and loving neighbor, then the rules seem to fall into place.

This doesn’t mean that biblical rules are outdated or relative. Where God makes a command, who are we to think we somehow know better than he does what’s best for us? God doesn’t make rules just for fun; God’s rules are meant to demonstrate our need for him and to help us live. An example: current culture tells us that you wouldn’t buy a car without going for a test drive, so why would you marry someone without first living with them? First of all, you’re really comparing your potential spouse to a car? Really? And the truth is, living together first doesn’t establish your compatibility; all it does is normalize a low level of commitment. After all, if it doesn’t work out, one of you can just leave. But then when marriage comes around, you realize that you will perform just as you practiced. You’ve practiced low commitment – what makes you think you can now live out high commitment?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was extremely concerned with even the minutia of living a holy life, not as a Pharisee, but as one who realized that there are consequences to what we do – both good and bad. We are constantly reminded of the consequences of our bad decisions (or other people’s bad decisions), but there are consequences to our good decisions as well.

The General Rules of Methodist Societies, which we find in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, includes these words of John Wesley: “It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation…” (if we want to be in the church, it’s expected that we are moving forward in our spiritual journey). So we have the General Rules. Bishop Reuben Job wrote a little booklet called Three Simple Rules, and he paraphrased the General Rules this way: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

Last week we focused on staying in love with God. This week we are doing no harm and doing good. As we begin looking at these rules, I want to remind you that nothing that we do will “win” our salvation. Salvation is a gift that God gives us, completely by God’s grace, not because of how good we’ve been. We can never be good enough to earn our salvation, but God knew that and Jesus sacrificed himself on our behalf and nailed our sin to the cross.

So the first two rules of the road come in response to God’s gracious gift to us, as we demonstrate that our faith is real. I read earlier from James 2, where James writes that faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:17).  Our faithful actions come in the categories of Do No Harm and Do Good.

Let’s look at the first category: Do No Harm. Wesley directed that, if we desire to continue on the journey, we must continue to show evidence of our desire of salvation by doing no harm and by avoiding evil of every kind. Keeping away from evil has been a solid category for church people for a long time. We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls that do. Don’t dance. Don’t play cards. Do No Harm has become the obvious measure of a Christian. John Wesley included the following examples: no taking God’s name in vain, no fighting or brawling, drunkenness, slave holding, dodging taxes, or returning evil for evil.

These are pretty obvious. But Wesley also included these good ones: using many words in buying or selling; doing what we know is not for God’s glory, which includes putting on gold and costly apparel, softness and needless self-indulgence, laying up treasure on earth, and borrowing when you know you can’t pay back; and uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, “particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.”
                                                                                                          
So as you go to lunch today, remember that speaking evil of a minister is specifically forbidden by the United Methodist Church.

The problem is that our culture has moved so far from orthodox Christian belief and behavior that  we now get backlash for being so provincial as to actually think we need to follow these old, outdated rules. C’mon – everybody does it nowadays.

In fact, I’ve heard fellow Christians justify sinful behavior by quoting Paul: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules? (Colossians 2:20). Context, friends, context. Paul does not give a license for immorality! Most people I know who quote scriptures like that just do so to do whatever it is that they want to do, not to allow Jesus Christ to transform them completely.

When it comes to doing no harm and avoiding evil, I somehow grew up with the idea that this was easy. That immediately when we are saved, our behavior automatically changed. Guess how guilty I felt when I realized that it wasn’t true in my own life!?

That unfortunate thought has led to problems in the church, mostly problems of secret sin and hypocrisy. Since everyone in the church is perfect, nobody wants to admit that they are the odd one out. Especially not in a small town. If you are keeping your sin secret and are coming to church gatherings all dressed up and the fake smile plastered on your face, you are doing harm. The church was never meant to be a mausoleum for saints; we are called to be a hospital for sinners!

There are people among us who were involved in all kinds of sin before Jesus got a hold of them, and they were miraculously delivered. Others of us continue on the journey, daily asking God to protect us and to deliver us further.

Do no harm, and avoid all kinds of evil. If you have questions about how this applies to you, I invite you to pray and ask God to Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24).

Invite God to inform and transform your life.

That brings us to Wesley’s second rule of the road. We demonstrate our desire to live out our salvation: “By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have the opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.”

You see, it’s not just enough to avoid evil. Christianity isn’t about what we don’t do. It’s about who we are in Christ, and, because we have the Holy Spirit within us, we behave in certain ways. True belief in Jesus means we will act on those beliefs.

Our calling is to physically take care of others. In Matthew 25, Jesus compares judgment to a shepherd separating sheep from goats, pronouncing his blessing on the sheep, saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:34-36). When the righteous wondered when they had done such things to him, he replied, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).

Do you realize why our food pantry is so important? We are not just feeding various people around town; we are feeding Jesus Christ. I know there are many different schools of thought when it comes to what we should be serving people and how often they should be allowed to visit, but here’s my thought: we are not just serving “the least of these.” We are serving Jesus Christ himself. I am sick and tired of people thinking that Jesus deserves leftovers. A few years ago, I was listening to a radio program and the guest was talking about doing a call-in show, giving advice about preparing Thanksgiving dinner. One caller said that she’d had this turkey in her freezer for 6 years – would it still be good? The host responded that it probably wouldn’t be so good anymore, to which the caller replied, “OK, I’ll just give it to the church.”

You wouldn’t think of giving Jesus your leftovers if you stood face-to-face with him, so when you are serving others, remember that you are ultimately serving Jesus.

God does not only call for us to serve the physical needs of those around us; he calls us to meet spiritual needs. Indeed, what good is it for someone’s belly to be filled, just to end up in Hell?

This is why we are planning and working toward Vacation Bible School – there are children who have never stepped inside a church who are just waiting to be given life, true life. We not only have an opportunity to 
reach them with God’s wild love, but we have a responsibility to do so.

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his followers to Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

That isn’t optional. It’s not just for some of us. It’s a command. Part of the wonder of this scripture is that Jesus promises that when we carry out his will, he will be with us. You want to see Jesus? Then do his will, and he promises he will be with you forever.

This journey we are on is not easy, nor is it short. But we are never alone. Jesus goes with us.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Journey: Rules of the Road (pt.1)

A few years ago, I got the chance to visit my brother and his wife in England. While we were there, we went a few hours west of London for a few days. We rented a car; you might have guessed; I was a little wary of driving in England. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do; shifting gears with the wrong hand, driving on the wrong side. And that didn’t even take into account the fact that we were following unfamiliar maps on unfamiliar roads, going places we had never been before.

I found a couple of things very helpful. First, the traffic moved very politely. Secondly, though I missed my turn about as many times as I made it, there were lots of handy traffic circles. So every time I missed my turn, I knew in a mile or so I’d be able to easily pull a legal U-turn and get back on track.

One thing that is important to find out before getting on the road is what the rules of the road are. Are you legally allowed to make a U-turn? Who has the right-of-way in a traffic circle? The rules of the road exist to get everyone to their destination as safely as possible.

One of the difficulties on our spiritual journey is that often the rules of the road are a little hard to understand. We are used to black and white rules. This is good, that’s bad. Almost every child pushes the boundaries, but what they’re looking for is where that boundary is. No two year old will say, “Mommy, please give me firm boundaries,” but that’s exactly what they are looking for.

The problem with our culture is that we want firm boundaries, yet we won’t acknowledge where they have to come from.

I’ll tell you where firm boundaries generally come from in our culture: they come because somebody has found a loophole in the already-existing boundaries. When I started in youth ministry, I inherited a sheaf of papers, stapled together, with the title “Bev Rules.” Bev had been the youth pastor before me, and whenever the youth had done something bad, she made up a new rule about it. Some of them were pretty funny, and I’m pretty sure that some of them were written tongue-in-cheek, but isn’t that how we generally come up with rules? Until something goes wrong, we don’t figure we have to have a rule?

When I was growing up in Kokomo, Indiana, nobody in our neighborhood locked our doors. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my sister being a little obsessive, we wouldn’t have even known where our house key was. But then there was a break-in on our safe little court, and suddenly everyone needed to lock the doors. We had to put something in place because of what had already happened.

As we continue on the Journey, we’re going to look at some of God’s Rules for the Road. I know some people are already getting excited because you’ve been waiting for me to put the hammer down and start denouncing certain sins – just as long as they are the ones you aren’t involved in, of course.

That’s not what I’m here to do. In the scripture I read earlier, a Pharisee asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. He turned the question back to the Pharisee, who answered him: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27).

Jesus boiled down everything to two commands: Love God with everything you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you are doing, you can ask yourself those two questions: Am I loving God and loving neighbor?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was serious about entire sanctification, having the mind that was in Christ. He was very methodical (yes, this is where the name “Methodist” came from) and he came up with the rules of the road in a three part formula, which we can find in the Book of Discipline, entitled the General Rules of Methodist Societies. He writes: “It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation…” (In other words, he expected anyone who would call themselves “Methodist” to be moving forward in their spiritual journey. We all have the responsibility to demonstrate the fruit of our salvation.) To that end, he gave them the General Rules (as paraphrased by Bishop Reuben Job): Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

I’m going to start with the third rule, because if you are coming from any other perspective, you’ve missed the point. The most important rule, just like Jesus said, was “love God.” This sounds easy, but our culture has confused us when it comes to the meaning of love. I love Coca-Cola. I love long distance running. I love Thai food (extra spicy). I love my family. I love my friends. I love it when a plan comes together. So it’s hard to even understand what “love” means, let alone to understand the intimate, unconditional agape love that God has lavished upon us – the kind of love He asks for in return.

We are in a drive-thru society. We want everything now. We want “love at first sight,” and we even project that onto our relationship with God. You want to know how to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Give him your all. Spend time with him. I’ll go ahead and say this: if you aren’t setting aside regular time for God every day, not just on Sundays, then you don’t really love God all that much.

What does your prayer life look like? Do you just pray before meals? Do you just pray when you need something? Do you just give God your prayer list? I always liked the ACTS acronym when it comes to prayer: start with A: adoration. This is why the Lord’s prayer starts with “Our Father, hallowed be thy name” – God, Father, your Name is holy and set apart. You are great. Do you remember as you pray to acknowledge who it is you are praying to? This gives us the context into which we pray: we pray to a loving Father who wants His children to come to Him with everything.

Then move to : confession. If you can’t think of something you need to confess, just ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you. Whenever I have prayed that prayer, I have never been denied. Last week we prayed the prayer from Psalm 139:23-24: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Confess your sins to God – God already knows what you’ve done; it’s not like you can hide it anyway! Here’s what happens when you confess, though. God says, “I know, and I forgive you. I love you.”

As we continue praying the ACTS prayer, we get to T: thanksgiving. Thank God for forgiving you. We all have things to be thankful for. This week I was visiting someone homebound, and she was a bit depressed. Her health has taken some hits and she had every reason to be miserable. But as we talked, I asked her to think of things she is thankful for. She began coming up with more and more things – she already knew them, but focusing on them gave her a whole new perspective.

The last aspect of the prayer is S: supplication. This is just a churchy way of saying “prayer requests.” Ask God for help. Don’t just pray for everyone else. Pray for yourself as well. God wants to give you good gifts, too!

The only think that the ACTS prayer doesn’t include, and probably the most ignored aspect of prayer is: Listen. If you’ve never listened in prayer, you’re going to have to be quiet for it. And  understand that God doesn’t contradict himself. So if you want to listen to God, you’ve got to know him. How do we know God? By reading his Word. When do you do your Bible reading? I like to get into the Word early in the morning, before I start my work. That way I’ve got a fresh God-perspective in my day. Reading the Bible is not optional for literate American Christians. OK, there are multiple ways to read your Bible. There is the big picture view, where you read through the whole Bible, whether you do a Through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan or read it in Lent, this helps us understand the unity of God’s Word. This is important, but it’s not the only way to read. Reading scripture and meditating on scripture are two different things. To meditate on the scripture, actually ask God to speak to you through the Holy Spirit and through his Word. What is the Word that I need to hear today? What are you telling me through your timeless and changeless Word?

Ask questions of the Bible. Dig deep. Don’t just skim over familiar parts. Maybe God wants to say something directly to you, something you maybe never noticed before. This isn’t to say you can just make God’s Word say whatever you want it to say. Far be it from that. If it’s from God, the Word for today has to fit within the framework of the whole Bible. This is why both kinds of reading are important.

It’s also important to discuss God’s Word with other people. I’m afraid that some people got the wrong impression when we were launching our cell group ministry, because Rudy said, “These aren’t Bible studies.” He was trying to stress the fact that the cell groups aren’t only Bible studies. That’s not the only thing they exist for. But God’s Word has to be central for our groups. Otherwise what standard do we have for everything else? Since you’re reading the Bible every day, talk to other people about what you’re reading. Ask questions. Don’t just talk about what other people are getting out of the Bible – what are you getting?

Stay in love with God by bringing him with you into every relationship you are in. If there are places you go that you’re not willing to bring Jesus with you, that says more about you than it does about the places you are going or the people you’re going there with. Are you meeting with others for encouragement and prayer? Are there other Christians you’ve allowed to get to know you well enough that you can keep each other accountable?

Stay in love with God by putting him first. One time I overheard someone talking about one of my friends; they were pretty much calling my friend weird. My friend was weird because their family was strange. They had all kinds of weird priorities, like everything being centered around God. Their family didn’t do a lot of the things that other families did. They didn’t watch the same kinds of shows. They spent their money differently and made every effort to give a tenth of their income to the church. Guess what: loving God intentionally is going to make us behave differently than the world behaves. Try fasting. Go without something you usually enjoy in order to focus on God. Many of you wouldn’t think of that; it shows where your priorities are.

Stay in love with God. We demonstrate our love for God in our love for our neighbor. Jesus said that whenever we feed, clothe, or visit “the least of these” we are actually ministering to Him, but that if we neglect to do so, we are neglecting him. Do you really want to be the one to whom Jesus says, “I was hungry and you turned me away.”?  I have to say that I am immensely proud of everyone who has volunteered in the food pantry, by donating food or money or by serving in the pantry. Did you know that on Wednesday this past week, we served 55 individuals? We got 55 chances to serve Jesus himself, when I see you stepping up to serve, I am immensely proud. What makes me even prouder is that there were various activities going on at the same time: we had a whole troop of people setting up for the benefit for Becky Warthman, and they were incredibly accommodating of those coming in for food.

We are not simply concerned with people’s physical needs, however. We are concerned with entire people, people who God loves. It makes me sick when I see church people fighting with one another about petty things when there are people all around us who are on their way to Hell.

If we actually love people, we won’t rest until they have at least gotten a chance to know Jesus. This is not just my job. This is the job of every Christian. And don’t say, “I don’t feel particularly called to evangelize.” There was a time when Jesus “didn’t feel like” going to the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.(Mark 14:35-36).

What if Jesus decided, “I don’t want to go to the cross; I’m not feeling like it right now.” Think back to someone who was instrumental in your salvation, someone who brought you to church, someone who encouraged you, who taught you about Jesus. What would have happened if that person had decided, “I don’t feel particularly ‘called’ to share Jesus right now.”

Guess what: there are all kinds of things I don’t particularly feel like doing. I remember my dad used to ask me, “You want to go clean up the yard?” and he would get angry when I’d say, “no.” My mom told him, “Just tell Brian to get out there and clean up the yard. Don’t ask if he wants to.” Of course I didn’t want to. Just as an aside, it drives me nuts when people tell me they don’t want to force their kids to go to church when they’ll force their kids to do all sorts of other things. They never think twice about forcing their kids to go to school. Yet they don’t want to “force” them to come into a place where people are worshiping the God of the universe, putting themselves in a position to change their eternity.

We started out with three rules: Do no harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God. We have only gotten to the last rule, but I think we’d be best set to look at the other two next week.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On the Journey

On the Journey: Sanctification

As we continue in week 3 of “The Journey” I want to share with you something that happens every year at Annual Conference. In the course of Ordination in the United Methodist Church, every candidate must go before the assembled Annual Conference and answer what are known as “The Historical Questions.” There’s always a nervous laugh at one of the questions: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?”

But the first four questions we are asked are as follows:
1.      Have you faith in Christ?
2.      Are you going on to perfection?
3.      Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
4.      Are you honestly striving after perfection in love?

The first one is an obvious but unfortunately necessary question; faith in Christ is necessary for new birth; as we discussed last week, it’s the one condition of justification, which is when God declares our punishment paid by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. As we read in Hebrews 11:6: Without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

The next questions is where things start to get sticky. Are you going on to perfection? Over the last two weeks, we have prepared for the journey, as God’s Prevenient Grace calls us to himself, showing us our sins, which convinces us of our need for a savior. By faith, we step through the door of justification; though our sins were many, God declares our punishment paid. Relative to God, we become “just as if we had never sinned.” Now we are fully on the journey.

The seminary word for this journey is sanctification, which is the churchy way of saying: holy, set apart by God for God’s purpose. The difference between justification and sanctification is that justification is a relative change, meaning that our status relative to God has been changed. We have moved from “declared guilty” to having had the penalty of our sins paid. Therefore we are enabled to approach a holy God, in whose presence sin is not allowed, without hesitation. Unlike justification, sanctification is a real change. We are actually made right with God, not only having our sins forgiven, but having our sins actually removed from us.

Psalm 103:11-12 tells us For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him [this is like a little child stretching his arms out and saying, “I love you this much!”]; as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us.

God actually removes our sin from us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Who we are is actually changed when God sanctifies us. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

You aren’t the same old person. You are a completely new creation, called and set aside by God to accomplish His purpose!

This is what our UM Book of Discipline says about sanctification:
We believe sanctification is the work of God’s grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will, and to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

God enables us to live out our faith. Yes, it’s hard, but we are able to overcome. I also love the wording: to strive for holiness. This is an admission that holiness doesn’t come easy. This is why we recognize that we are on a lifelong process of perfection.

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought by every child of God.

Did you notice that last line: “it should be sought by every child of God.” If you aren’t seeking perfection, what are you seeking? This side of heaven, there is no end of the process of growth, so if you aren’t going on to perfection, where are you going? This life is meant to shape us into the kind of mature Christians God intended us to be. Holiness is the highest form of human happiness. Since sin is the chief obstacle to such love, we use God’s grace to heal our sin and shape us to become more and more like Christ.

The Christian life is a process. We are changed gradually from natural persons unaware of our sin, to convicted sinners, to justified believers, and finally to entirely sanctified persons. This process is characterized by highs and lows. There is always a need to watch and pray to keep from falling away from this life of grace.

So I ask you this: Are you honestly seeking to grow up into Christian maturity? No, I’m not talking about the kind of “maturity” that looks down on everyone else because they aren’t as good as you are. I’m not talking about the kind of “maturity” that brags about it; I knew a guy who claimed to be entirely sanctified, but his actions said something else entirely. In fact, the Book of Discipline goes on to say this about entire sanctification:

We believe this experience does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance, and mistakes common to man, nor from the possibilities of further sin. The Christian must continue on guard against spiritual pride and seek to gain victory over every temptation to sin. He must respond wholly to the will of God so that sin will lose its power over him; and the world, the flesh, and the devil are put under his feet. Thus he rules over these enemies with watchfulness through the power of the Holy Spirit.  United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶103, Article XI.

Being on the journey doesn’t mean we’ve already achieved perfection. Even the Apostle Paul admitted that he hadn’t “arrived” yet. We still have to choose every day and every moment that we’re going to grow in Christ’s likeness, to respond wholly to the will of God. In every aspect of life, not just some. You see, sin won’t release its power over you while you’re in the midst of sinning. When I was a teenager, my dad would take me on canoeing trips. We would camp out by the river and eat around a campfire. Those are truly great memories of time with my dad. If you’ve never been on the river, you might not realize this, but it stinks. If you’ve been on the river for several days, you’re going to smell horrible. My dad would bring along soap and we’d go down into the water and wash up. Guess how much that helped. I remember getting home one time and my sister had a boyfriend over and my brother and I tried to stink him out of the house.

The point is this: no matter how much soap we used, we were still in a stinky river. We were going to stink. Soap didn’t help when the water was dirty. Likewise when we’re living in sin; repenting and then going straight back to the sin isn’t sanctification! It’s not the road to Christian perfection.

A friend who is in recovery mentioned something like: victory today makes victory tomorrow more likely. In other words, standing firm against Satan right now will better prepare you to make the right choice later. We all know people who are going to start their diet or exercise regimen “tomorrow.” We know addicts who are going to “finish this cigarette and never have another one” or “after tonight, I’m never drinking again.”

I want to be clear on this: sanctification is not simply behavior modification. If you do something for three weeks straight, it’s going to become a habit. But God doesn’t want to just be your habit! God wants all of you. It’s also not about just checking off the list of things you don’t do.

Sanctification is growing more and more like Christ. As we become more like Christ, sin’s power over us gradually decreases. More and more the Spirit shapes our faith, hope, and love. The Christian life is one of growing in grace toward perfection in love, until one attains the mind which was in Christ Jesus.

Anyone, Christian or not, can buckle up their willpower and refrain from doing whatever bad things that people want to avoid. But that doesn’t address the real issue: relationship with God.

I’m not just going to follow the Ten Commandments only because they are the rules. The reason for following them is because I love God and I trust that He has the best in mind for me. It’s all about being in a loving relationship with our Creator!

Perfect deliverance from sin, in every sense of the term, is an integral part of redemption.  If you are a true follower of Jesus Christ, you will grow to absolutely loathe sin. We will struggle, realizing that the rest of our journey will be a struggle for complete deliverance from it. Whether we are living in continuous victory or daily defeat, that war must go on. This is why Paul tells believers to “stand firm” in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.

We need to acknowledge that there are different levels of Christian maturity. Sanctification is an instantaneous reality, where, through faith, God sets us aside for His purpose, but it is also a process by which God works to perfect us.  So it stands to reason that there would exist stages in our journey. In 1 John 2, John writes to children, young men, and fathers, various stages in maturity. We wouldn’t expect the same level of maturity from our little ones that we do from an elder. These stages do not always coincide with our chronological age. An older adult can be a “babe in Christ” and, in fact, anyone who is not moving forward in the journey of sanctification remains stunted in their growth. Hebrews 5:13-14 addresses this problem: Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

You do not grow to Christian maturity by being bottle-fed all your life. You aren’t moving forward in your journey if the only growth you receive is on Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship is not a one-stop shop for every spiritual need. You do not grow to Christian maturity by attending church once a week.

In John 17, Jesus is praying for his disciples. He prays that they will have his full measure of joy within them. He mentions that his disciples are not of the world. This is important, because a prerequisite to being a disciple of Jesus is being born again. If you’re not born again, if you haven’t been justified by God’s grace in Jesus’ sacrifice, then you’re not a disciple. You’re not moving to Christian maturity. You are not sanctified and set apart. You are not going on to perfection.

So Jesus prays this for his disciples: Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17) God uses truth to set us apart. What does this mean in a culture of relativity, where “your truth” and “my truth” might not match one another? It’s not about some proposition, about whose truth is truer than whose. This, too, is all about relationship, because Jesus Himself is the Truth. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).

The only way to continue on the journey is to walk daily with Jesus. So I ask you the question that is historically asked of those being ordained in the UMC: Are you going on to perfection? If not, where are you headed?

If that’s where you want to be headed, I want to give you a chance to pray a relational prayer from Psalm 139:23-24. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

(Benediction) 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Journey Begins

You can’t go on a journey without stepping through the door. Last week we started our preparation for the Journey, recognizing the Holy Spirit’s voice calling us before we ever called to the Spirit. We wouldn’t even know that there’s a journey to go on were it not for the Spirit, who calls us to Himself.  We call this “Prevenient Grace” – the Holy Spirit calling us to Himself, awakening the image of God in us.

One of our most important recognitions is that we are helpless on our own. In our sinful state, we cannot even think of going on a journey toward perfection. The best we could hope for would be “good enough” and, to be frank, “good enough” isn’t good enough. Without God’s direct intervention, we are doomed.

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus makes a radical command: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Think about it: if the aim is perfection, unless you’ve already been perfect for all of your life, that goal is unattainable. Think of a baseball pitcher: suppose the pitcher’s first pitch is hit out of the ballpark for a home run. After that pitch, the pitcher goes on to throw exactly 81 pitches: three strikes apiece to three batters each inning. Did the pitcher throw a perfect game? Nope. An unbelievably amazing game, yes, but not perfect.

Because of our sin problem, we are unable to come into God’s presence. It’s kind of like being under house arrest with one of those cute ankle bracelets on. Except it functions more like a shock collar. We are unable to overcome it; no matter how good we are, we cannot erase our own sin. Paul wrote to Jews in Rome about this. In Romans 2, he calls them out: Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. (Romans 2:25). This seems like an obscure passage, but circumcision was the mark of God’s people. If you were circumcised, you were one of God’s people, and the Jews believed that if someone was uncircumcised, they couldn’t be one of God’s followers. Paul is saying, “Fine, if you are circumcised, you’re God’s people, but only if you keep the law.” Our word “observe” doesn’t exactly match the Greek: prass─ôs means “to perform” or “to accomplish.” So Paul says, “If you are circumcised, as long as you accomplish all of the requirements of the law, you’re fine. But as soon as you break the law, you’re toast.”

One of the most quoted scriptures comes from Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but did you notice that it ends in a comma? The sentence continues in Romans 3:24: and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

This brings us to a really nice seminary word: justification. An easy way to think of justification is this: it is “just as if” I had never sinned. This is an important concept in Christianity; it changes everything. Unlike every other religion, where adherents are expected to work their way to salvation, Christianity has no such demands. In fact, Christianity says that we cannot work our way out of the hole we’re in. So Jesus gives himself to pay the penalty of our sins. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!  (Romans 5:8-9)

Justification is the first step of the journey. We might putter around the house, getting our stuff together for ages, but there comes a moment when we step through the door and begin our journey. Now the rest of our lives are spent on the journey. Next week we will get to this aspect: sanctification, which is both instantaneous and a gradual changing of a person from the sinful state to becoming increasingly perfect.

But today we are stepping through the door. Justification is this step. Once we realize that we are sinners and admit that we need Jesus Christ to save us, and when we, by faith, accept Him, we receive pardon. Justification is the legal state in which we, as sinners, receive pardon because Jesus Christ’s righteousness is credited to us. This doesn’t mean we’ve been declared innocent (we’ll get to that next week); in fact, it means we’ve been declared guilty. Imagine a courtroom where you are the defendant. Witnesses have been called, and the evidence has been brought.  Everything you ever did or even thought was brought before the court, and you have been justly declared guilty. Now it’s time for sentencing, and you already know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), that you face eternal separation from God.

But then Jesus steps in and says, “I have already paid the penalty.” He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25). There is no longer any punishment for our sin, because that would be double jeopardy. We do not have to face trial a second time for a crime we’ve already been declared guilty of.  I know some people who carry around with them the guilt of things they have long-since been forgiven of. Some of us weren’t the nicest people before you came to Christ. Some of us have done all sorts of things. Many people have lots of regrets for sins and for missed opportunities. Yes, by all means, take and learn from those sins. But your punishment has already been paid. You are free. You have been saved from the guilt and punishment of your sin!

It is important to note that salvation is not only our ticket to heaven. Salvation is present tense! Ephesians 2 twice tells us It is by grace you have been saved. (2:5, 8) Have been saved. We are already saved! We don’t have to wait for salvation! We can be free from the guilt of sin now!

So the big question is what do we have to do to receive this justification? There is one condition to justification: faith. The Ephesians 2 passage I referenced before, says It is by grace you have been saved, (meaning that it’s a free gift from God that we didn’t deserve) through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The condition of justification is faith. God’s grace gives humans the ability to respond, and God will not save them unless they do so. God does not force us to love him or to receive.

So what is this faith? Faith is what brings us to repentance. Repentance should be understood as a kind of low-level faith, where we understand that we have sinned and need God. We recognize that we need a change of heart, but we can’t do it ourselves. At the moment of justification, God gives saving faith to the believer and the believer trusts in God for salvation.

In his sermon “Circumcision of the Heart,” John Wesley defines faith as “an unshaken assent to all that God hath revealed in Scripture.” There is a cognitive component to faith, belief in God’s work in Jesus Christ. In other words, you actually have to accept that your debt has been paid.

But saving faith is more than intellectual assent. Theoretical belief doesn’t mean anything unless it motivates you to action. This is why Jesus told parables about a man finding treasure. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44). The man believed the treasure was valuable. He believed it enough that he sold everything in order to buy the field. There are a lot of so-called Christians who made an intellectual decision at some point in their lives and it hasn’t changed anything about their lives.

If your faith hasn’t made that short journey from your head to your heart, then it’s not really faith. If your faith doesn’t lead you to do anything about it, then it’s probably not saving faith at all. Evangelical Christians have for a long time focused on an individualistic faith that doesn’t do anything, as if somehow, since we “believe” then we don’t have to obey Jesus’ teachings. That’s not belief. That’s not faith. Faith doesn’t mean anything unless it’s willing to do something.

But faith is more. It’s a gift that enables a believer to perceive and understand things that were previously hidden. It allows someone to believe that God will provide for them, even though they don’t know where the money will come from. It allows someone to know that God will deliver them through their time of struggle or grief.

I want to quickly get to the results of justification. First is the negative result: what we are saved from. According to Romans 5:9, we are saved from God’s wrath. We do not have to worry about whether or not we’ll end up in Hell.

But we’re not just saved from Hell. We’re saved for glory. Romans 8:30 says: Those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. People like to get all caught up in the word predestined. All it means is “predestined.” A good way to understand predestination is like a bus heading for New York City. God has ordained that the bus will go to NYC, and it’s going there. But we have the responsibility to get on the bus. When we get on the bus, we have the responsibility to stay on the bus. But the result is glory. The result is eternal perfection.

Other results are that we have peace with God. Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1). The price for our sin has been paid, so nothing stands between us and our God. So God gives us access to his grace. Through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2). We also receive the promise of the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23) and an eternal inheritance (Romans 8:17, 1 Peter 1:4).

We are stepping through the door into a new reality, into a new state, a state of forgiveness, of right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Journey: Before We Start

In college, some students came up with a fundraising concept: the “suitcase party.” The idea was that everyone paid a cover charge to get into the party, and once you were there, they gave out some prizes, the biggest of which was a fantastic trip. The only rub was that you had to come to the party with a packed suitcase, ready to leave immediately if you won.

Preparation for a journey is sometimes harder than the trip itself. What do you bring? What do you leave at home? But before you can pack, you have to know where you’re going and where you’re coming from.

Today we are starting a new series on United Methodist Theology. We will be looking at the Way of Salvation, and we’re calling this series: The Journey.

To know where we’re coming from, we have to look back to the beginning. In Genesis 1, we read: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. (Genesis 1:26a) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27). God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis 1:31a)

Unfortunately things didn’t stay this way. Adam and Eve sinned, and they were banished from the Garden of Eden and their sin separated them from God, and, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15:22, in Adam all die. In other words, sin entered the world through Adam, and it tainted everyone. The result of sin is that the image of God in humanity was ruined. The theological term for this state is “total depravity.” Because of our total depravity, we are not inclined or even able to love God.  In Romans 3:10-11, Paul writes: As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

In other words, we are in bondage and we don’t recognize the chains that bind us. We’re sitting in our own filth, not even recognizing that it is filthy. We are in darkness, and we don’t even know what light is.

We have to realize that this is our starting place before we can even begin our journey. Why does this matter? It matters because the state we are in will not allow us to leave. However you want to describe it, on our own, we are unable to even want to leave.

It was into this world that Jesus came, the Light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:5) Because of original sin, and because of our actual sins (which everyone has – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God), we are eternally separated from God. Because of who God is, God cannot allow sin in his presence. So we are separated from him. We’ve got a journey we need to go on, and we can’t go!

Before we even start, we need help! This is where God’s grace comes in. 1 John 4:19 affirms that We love because he first loved us. Without God’s grace, we are unable to even love him. So the beginning of our journey does not come from us, but, rather, from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been preparing the way for us, calling us, drawing us toward Him.

We call this Prevenient Grace. “Prevenient” coming from the root “prevent” which, in John Wesley’s time, carried the meaning “going before.” This is the grace that goes before us, that calls to us while we remain in our sin. God speaks of this love through the prophet Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

The United Methodist Book of Discipline makes this affirmation about prevenient grace:
We acknowledge God’s prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our “first slight transient conviction” of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith. (UM Book of Discipline ¶101)

God’s grace goes before us, prompting us to please God, giving us our first understanding of God’s will, and helps us even know we are sinning. In John 16:7-11, Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going to leave them. Listen to his words: But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

It is the Holy Spirit’s role to convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. We don’t even know we’re sinning without the Holy Spirit. Even our very conscience is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work.

Starting with the Holy Spirit is important, because it is an acknowledgement that we on our own cannot approach God. So God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, approaches us. It is important to understand, however, that God does not force us, for that would not be love. In a philosophy class, our professor asked us, “If you had a true love potion, would you use it?” If you had a potion that would force someone to love you, would you give it? The problem with a love potion is that it would cause someone (who doesn’t necessarily even like you) to love you – but is that really love? So if God forces us to love Him, is that love? If we do not have the choice not to love, can we really say we love? Philosophically, we cannot. So unless God gives us the choice to love or not to love, then we do not actually have the ability to love.

The Church has long affirmed that God’s will is not resistible. If God wants something to happen, it happens. But since the Second Council of Orange in 529, Christians have, as a body, affirmed that the Holy Spirit is resistible. This is why you hear phrases like “the nudging” or “the leading” of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit never forces us to do anything. This is why the Holy Spirit approaches us in love. To give us the chance to love in return.

It’s also important that we start our journey with the Holy Spirit because for too long, the church has ignored the Spirit. We don’t even have an adequate pronoun for the Spirit – it doesn’t seem right to call the Holy Spirit “Him” or “Her” but it’s certainly not right to call the Spirit “it” because the Holy Spirit is personal and is the third Person of the Trinity. When we start with the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge our dependence upon the Spirit for everything, even our desire for God. And if we ignore the Spirit when we begin, why would we suddenly start listening to the Spirit later? How would we even recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us? How would we hear the Spirit convicting us of sin, encouraging our repentance, guiding us in prayer, and directing our steps?

In his sermon “The Great Privilege of Those Who are Born of God,” John Wesley affirms the necessity of our response to the Holy Spirit.
For it plainly appears God does not continue to act upon the soul unless the soul re-acts upon God. He prevents [goes before] us indeed with the blessings of his goodness. He first loves us, and manifests himself unto us. While we are yet afar off he calls us to himself, and shines upon our hearts. But if we do not then love him who first loved us; if we will not hearken to his voice; if we turn our eye away from him, and will not attend to the light which he pours upon us: his Spirit will not always strive; he will gradually withdraw, and leave us to the darkness of our own hearts. He will not continue to breathe into our soul unless our soul breathes toward him again; unless our love, and prayer, and thanksgiving return to him, a sacrifice wherewith he is well pleased.

“Prevenient grace partially restores our human faculties so that we might be able to accept or reject saving grace.” (Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology, Randy Maddox) This means we still have a responsibility to accept God’s grace and love. If we do not, we risk the same punishment as Paul describes in Romans 1. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:24)

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. Romans 1:28

In other words, God said, “You want to ignore the Holy Spirit? OK, fine. Live the way you want to. If you want to do things your way, I’ll let you, but you also have to face the consequences.” If you don’t want me, I won’t interfere. This is why Jesus calls blasphemy of the Holy Spirit “unforgiveable” – because without the Spirit, we cannot even turn toward God to receive forgiveness.

OK, this has all been pretty theoretical and philosophical, so what does it mean for us practically?

First of all, it means we have to start listening to the Holy Spirit. We have left little room in our lives to hear the Spirit’s still, small voice. We have a duty to listen to the Spirit. Carve out time in your already busy schedule to hear the Spirit’s voice. When you read your Bible, ask the Spirit to speak to you. When you go about your day, ask the Spirit to bring to mind people to pray for or to contact personally. Ask the Spirit to guide you in everything you do, in every thought you have.

Secondly, and this is for those who have already accepted God’s salvation, we have a job to do. If the Holy Spirit lives in us, we should act like it. I read a comment this week from someone in a friend’s church who met a 97 year old man, who said he doesn’t believe in our “myth” of the Gospel (his words). But listen to what else he said to the Christian woman who met him, “I wish I had your peace.” Friends, we who have the Holy Spirit need to look like it. What do we look like? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23). We know these as the Fruit of the Spirit, because they are what grows from the Holy Spirit. If you don’t look like that, if those words don’t describe you, it’s time for you to ask the Holy Spirit to transform you.

Then others, like the woman in my friend’s church, will see the Spirit in action and will also have a chance to respond. And now we’re ready to take the first step in our journey.