Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rebuilding the Walls

John 21:15-19

Last week we looked at Nehemiah 1, and admitted that we are largely a people with broken walls and ruined gates. That Satan has attacked and attacked, and at times it feels overwhelming. In Nehemiah 2, Nehemiah has gone to Jerusalem to inspect the walls and comes to a conclusion: Then I said to them [the officials of Jerusalem], “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” Nehemiah 2:17

We just need to exchange “Jerusalem” for “Millersport UMC” and remember that the walls we are rebuilding are spiritual. Come, let us rebuild the wall.

Would you take a moment and pray Psalm 139:23-24 with me? Let’s pray this prayer aloud together: 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.

Now take a moment and if God has revealed to you an area you need to turn over to Him, if God has shown you your sin, if your walls are broken down, if you have been hurt, acknowledge that with an X on your post-it. Then bring your post-it up and place it at the foot of the cross. If you have physical limitations, please send your post-it forward with someone else.

[Prayer time]

We have taken an amazing step by giving our hurts, our sins, and our struggles over to Jesus. Many of us have been carrying the burden for years – the burden of broken relationships, the burden of your sins and shortcomings, all the burden sitting solidly on your back.  

But the scripture I read today applies not only to Peter, but also to each of us. Everything we’ve done, every sin, every hidden sin, every bad attitude, every bit of guilt, we’ve admitted that was how we were. We’ve laid it at the foot of the cross. And Jesus asks of each one of us: “Do you truly love me?”

After Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me.” And he reinstated Peter by telling him, “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Follow me.”

So as we have laid all of these at the foot of the cross, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” If we do, we can show him by obeying his commands. By feeding his lambs, by taking care of his sheep, by following him.

But before you’ve done any of that, know this: you are forgiven. God offers his forgiveness to you. God offers you his healing. All of that baggage – you can leave it behind, because it is no longer yours. It is buried with Christ.

And now you are a new creation in Christ. You have probably heard that before – certainly if you are a part of this church you’ve heard it from the stage; it’s one of my favorite verses. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! But did you know what comes next? All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)

God reconciles us to himself through Christ – that’s what the Easter message is all about. We are no longer sinners, we are no longer strangers and aliens to God, but we are his chosen people, beloved and free from sin and guilt, reconciled to God because of Jesus’ gracious sacrifice on the cross.

And because of this, we are called to be reconcilers as well. We have the message of reconciliation. In other words, this freedom we have is not only for us, but it is for others as well.

This week Bill Simpson lent me Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God, and there was one quote that really stuck with me. The book is about the parable that we call The Prodigal Son, which is really the story of two sons and about God’s extravagant love and forgiveness, but in the book, Keller writes that forgiveness always costs. In the Old Testament, we had the sacrificial system, where the “cost” for forgiveness was prescribed specifically. We recognize that on Easter, Jesus paid the price to forgive everything we’ve done against God. But what about the things that we have done against one another? That forgiveness still comes at a price, a price that is borne by the one who is being called to forgive.

It is not easy to forgive. One price we pay to forgive is our sense of entitlement. Until we forgive, we feel entitled to our anger, entitled to be bitter and resentful, entitled to get revenge.  After all, that person hurt me. The pain is all mine. Now shouldn’t I at least get to enact some little bit of revenge? Can’t I get back at them? Or at least can’t I sit in my own bitterness, angry at the one who hurt me? Now, there’s a word for someone who feels hurt when someone wrongs them: that word is “normal.” Most of us have been hurt by people who were close to us, and it’s perfectly normal to feel betrayed, rejected, and offended.

But Jesus set the example in his reinstatement of Peter. It’s not like Jesus didn’t know what Peter said about him, that he claimed to not even know the man. But Jesus told Peter, “follow me,” and reinstated Peter, making the statement that he would not hold Peter’s denial against him, that he would not kick Peter out of the 12, that he would not hold a grudge, that he would not get revenge.

And by forgiving, you are making a statement that you are also giving the person who wronged you a clean slate. If you want a different frame of reference, think of it this way: I ask to borrow $.50 from you to buy a can of pop from the fridge. You have a lot of $.50s, and you know that the pop money goes for children’s ministry in the church, so you tell me, “You don’t have to pay me back. Consider the can of pop a gift.” Now I’m free to enjoy the can of pop.

In this transaction, you had every right to ask me to pay you back $.50… that is, until you forgave me the debt. But now that you have forgiven the debt, you can’t ask me to repay it, and you don’t have any right to badmouth me for being such a cheapskate that I won’t even pay you back. You don’t even have the right to hold a grudge. Otherwise you haven’t forgiven me at all. But this is the path to new life, to being a new creation. Because it takes a renewed mind. A renewed mind allows us to think differently about others, to care about them instead of being indifferent to them. To love them instead of resenting them.

And this applies to ourselves as well. Some of you have never forgiven yourselves. You have fallen short of the ideal God has for you and of the ideal you have for yourself, and you can’t forgive yourself. Did you know that when you hold on to that self-resentment, you are in a sense saying that your will trumps God’s, that you know better than God does? Listen for a moment what God says about you.

Jesus declares: “I have chosen you out of the world.” John 15:19b. Paul writes to the church in Colossae, calling Christians “God’s chosen people” (Colossians 3:12a). Peter calls Christians a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9a). What does this mean? That God chose you on purpose. God knows exactly who you are, what you’ve done, where you’ve been, and he chose you. You weren’t the last pick. You weren’t a consolation prize. You were God’s first pick. If it was the NFL draft, God traded up to get the first pick in the first round just so he could use it on you. You are God’s prized possession.

God thinks that much of you, so if you refuse to forgive yourself, you are saying that God’s will and wisdom don’t matter. God’s will is perfect, and his wisdom is better than ours. Can you trust God and accept that He has something fantastic in store for the world, and he wants to do it through you?

Once you realize that God thinks so much of you and has so much in store for you, the devil will oppose you with every ounce of his being. In Nehemiah, we see opposition to the rebuilding of the wall. Already in Nehemiah 2:19, we see these guys, Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab, and they are mocking and ridiculing Nehemiah. They accuse him of rebellion against the king. (When Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”)

Then, from Nehemiah 4, listen to the ridicule Nehemiah and the Israelites got:

When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble, burned as they are?”

Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side said, “What are they building – if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones.” Nehemiah 4:1-3)

The devil will try to tell you that you are weak and worthless, that there is no way you can have victory, that this church is doomed, that we have experienced our heyday and that now we should just die off and close the doors. Don’t be discouraged – this work is God’s work.

As Nehemiah and the Jews rebuilt the wall, things got more and more tense, and the people got more and more discouraged.  So Nehemiah introduced a new strategy. From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. Nehemiah 4:16-18a Everyone would rebuild the wall near his own house, and while one built, another stood guard. This is a great strategy, not just for Jews rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but for us, rebuilding this church to be new. You will encounter resistance, but God calls you to rebuild the walls around your own house. In other words, rebuild the destruction you have been near. Reconcile broken relationships you have been a part of. Forgive, accepting the cost.

But this is only half of what we’re called to, because that’s the hard part, the part where we’re vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. Because we’re left in this position of vulnerability, we’re called to stand guard for one another. Take up the full armor of God, not just for yourself, but for one another as well. The only weapon included in the armor of God is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Stand in prayer for one another, praying the Word of God. Satan cannot prevail over God’s Word.

You might not think that there is any rebuilding work to be done “in front of your house” so to speak – that simply means your job is to be diligently praying for someone else. If you know someone who is struggling or who has a lot of wall to rebuild, someone who might be going through a tough time, someone who you know has suffered through broken relationships, especially right in the church, or maybe someone who has broken down the wall themselves, a Christian who is difficult to get along with, that person is in need of a prayer guard, and you are the one called to prayer.

The result of this rebuilding and prayer will be renewal. I said it last week, but I’ll repeat it again this week for free: we’re not just going to get a new pastor here; Pastor Jerry is going to get a new church.

The renewal is why the rebuilding of the wall ended with this scene from Nehemiah 8:5-6: Ezra opened up the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded,“Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Will you worship the Lord, the great God as we release Him to do His will in this church?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Broken Walls

Nehemiah 1

Just before Easter, we were celebrating the Seder meal, and it was such a fantastic reminder of how important the Exodus from Egyptian slavery still is to the Jewish people. God stepped down into the world and showed his power through mighty plagues and empowered Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. When they needed Him most, God showed up in power and might. And this happens again and again throughout the history of God’s people. But unfortunately, soon after God shows His power and love, His people stray. They begin to follow their own ways and stray from God’s will. As this happens over and over, God gives His people words of warning. He raises up judges to minister to and lead His people. He sends prophets to preach truth, to point His people in the right direction. If they refuse to listen, God’s enemies overrun His people. How many of us have had to hit rock bottom before we stop and return to God?

To get to Nehemiah, you’ve got to go back a bit. Over one hundred years before Nehemiah, Babylon, led by Nebuchadnezzar, had demolished Jerusalem in 586 BC. He carted off many Jews, especially artisans and craftsmen, notably Daniel and Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednigo. Jerusalem was destroyed, especially the Temple. You have to understand how important the Temple was to worship and that the Jews were too poor to rebuild. But shortly thereafter, the Persian king Cyrus defeated Babylon. He enacted an edict that sent displaced people back to their homelands with the right to rebuild their places of worship. So exiled Jews in Babylon got to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild. Over a hundred years, and quite a few leaders later, Nehemiah returned and found “the wall of Jerusalem broken down and its gates burnt down.” (Nehemiah 1:3)

Now, I can imagine that many of you have already started thinking, “We’re pretty well set on buildings.” Thankfully the building we’re in is in pretty good shape. But Christian life isn’t about buildings. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the Temple, the massive curtain that separated the inner court from the Holy of Holies, was torn from top to bottom. And, as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, the place of God’s dwelling changed – from the Temple building to God’s follower. Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16)

The situation Nehemiah finds in Jerusalem is a city with broken down gates and walls, a city without defenses. Immediately upon seeing this, Nehemiah is overcome by grief and sorrow, and he sits down and weeps and mourns.

Today I want to talk about broken walls and gates. In my four years here, I have discovered that we are a people whose walls and gates are broken down. But I’m not talking about physical gates and walls; I’m not talking bricks and mortar. The gates and walls I’m talking about are spiritual and emotional. Our spiritual and emotional walls and gates are broken down.

Some of you have remained blissfully unaware of the battles that have been fought in this church. To you, people are people, and your job is to just love them all. This message might not hit you the same way it hits someone else. But be aware, that even if you are not in the midst of a battle, even if you’re new here and you’ve never shared a cross word with anyone from this church, that there is a war being waged, and the battleground is right here.

No, the skirmishes that we see on an unfortunately too-regular basis are not the war. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Satan has continually attacked, and we are left broken and exhausted. Who might be bold enough to admit that they’ve felt the attacks of Satan, that, at times, you’re tired of fighting, that there are times when you’ve felt like giving up?  Your walls and gates are broken. Your defenses are shattered.

Nehemiah comes back to Jerusalem and sees the devastation. And I have seen the devastation here in Millersport. One thing I’ve learned as an itinerate Methodist Pastor is that much of the destruction predates the pastor. Each pastor walks into the destruction that has been there for years. When Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem, he saw destruction that dated back 150 years. How long have you been broken? How long did it take for your relationships to go sour? When did you pick sides and, in the end, find that both sides lost?

Let’s start, then, with admitting that we have issues. They say the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that there is a problem. When Nehemiah sees the problem, he weeps. Then he gets to work. His first step is to fast and pray.

I don’t want to go too quickly beyond this step, because we can too easily just take one ruin and replace it with another. What might happen if we begin to fast and pray on behalf of this church? This is what I’m going to ask you to do this week. Fast and pray about the ruined walls and gates in this church.

Understand that there are all kinds of reasons for putting up walls. I remember hearing the old reports from East Germany where they were claiming that they built the Berlin Wall to keep Westerners out – those West Germans were just clamoring to get into the east. Yeah, and if you believe that, I’ve got a big piece of the Berlin Wall to sell you. The walls in Nehemiah’s time were there to protect Jerusalem from invaders. And with broken down walls, with broken relationships, with years-long grudges, with long-held, never healed fights, all this leaves us vulnerable to attacks by the Enemy. Here’s one way Satan likes to work in churches: he likes to distract us by making us fight with one another so we can’t adequately worship. Sometimes it looks like this: when I was in seminary, I had an issue with one of the worship leaders. It was a case where I had been promised one thing, but Todd had something else in mind, and Todd was in charge, so what I wanted and was told would happen didn’t. So for weeks, whenever Todd was up in front, leading worship, I would stand there with my arms crossed, thinking bad thoughts, unwilling to worship fully. Yeah, that’s exactly what Satan wanted. I let broken walls get in the way of my worshiping God. I couldn’t get past Todd up there. Meanwhile, Todd didn’t even know that I was upset at him.

Did you see what happened? I had a grudge against a fellow Christian, and Satan used it to keep me from worshiping God. The worst thing is that I’m not the only one who has ever done this. There is a problem, and with me, the problem was not Todd. The problem was me. There is a reason that Nehemiah began the rebuilding, not with bricks and mortar, but with prayer and fasting.

So let’s look at Nehemiah’s prayer. Nehemiah begins with the context – who he is praying to: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, (Nehemiah 1:5)

Remember that we are called by the One True God. Nehemiah’s prayer was in the midst of a pluralistic society in which the Persian king was allowing everyone some freedom to worship his own god. But Nehemiah knows that his god is the One True God, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God.

This is key, because this is the only god who can rebuild. Some of us need to acknowledge that we’ve been seeking other gods. What gods have you called upon to fix the ruins?  Maybe you never noticed the destruction around you. You’ve lived among the ruins so long that you don’t notice the living conditions. I truly believe this is the case for many people. You love this church, you love the history you have experienced here, and to even admit that there are problems is foreign to you. You see the broken down walls and gates, but you don’t see them. But if you do, what has been your response? If you knew about them and didn’t do anything, that’s worse than not noticing. By not doing anything, you demonstrate that you just don’t care. Or maybe you took it upon yourself to do something about it, but you never took the time to fast and pray and maybe get God’s perspective…

When I was in college, I became the “kitchen steward” of my fraternity. This means I was in charge of the kitchen. The first thing that happened when I took over the kitchen was the brand new health inspector closed our kitchen down. She had the nerve to slap a big “condemned” sticker on the door. It wasn’t that bad. I mean, didn’t most kitchens have cooks who smoked while cooking (and stubbed out their cigarettes on the floor)? Did other kitchens have refrigerators that kept the food cold enough? Or dishwashers that actually got the water hot enough? Perhaps the kicker was the bad water damage on the wall. Anyway, we got to work fixing things. We fired the cook, we checked the manual for the fridge and the dishwasher and figured out how to regulate them. But the wall was another story. We started by sanding down the bubbly wall, but all that did was create a big hole. We knew that an inspection was coming, so we stuffed the hole with newspaper and spackled over it and repainted. And we got our kitchen back.

The problem with this kind of “fix” is that it does not fix the problem. Getting a new pastor does not fix the problem. Leaving the church does not fix the problem. Only God can fix the problems in a church. So before we go about fixing walls and ruins, let’s find God’s will. Otherwise, all we’re doing is filling the problem with newspaper and spackling over it.

So Nehemiah prays: let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:6-7)

The first thing Nehemiah prayed was a prayer of confession. He continues his prayer, remembering God’s instructions to Moses and asking for success in his mission, but before he does that, he confesses that the Israelites, including himself and his father’s house, have sinned against God. They have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and laws they gave Israel through Moses.

This week, our task is to spend time in prayer and fasting, prepared to come back next Sunday and confess our sins. The only way for God to give this church success is not for the church to simply get a new pastor, but for the new pastor to also get a new church. We are asking God for success as a church – to faithfully make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world; to faithfully serve the poor, the needy, the lost, not only physically, but spiritually as well. To break down strongholds, to overcome years of sins. To break free from the trap of “doing things the way we’ve always done them” and expecting different results. To experience true freedom in Christ, through whom “I can do all things.”

This week as you pray and fast, pray 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.

Next week we will come prepared to confess our sins by symbolically placing them at the foot of the cross. But that won’t work if we simply come up and put something down without allowing the Holy Spirit to work in each of us. The walls are broken down, and we’re under attack by Satan. The enemy won’t stop attacking, but we can begin to rebuild the walls through prayer and fasting and confession of sin and forgiving one another.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dying to Live

Death has a good way of putting life into perspective. We generally accept the myth that we’re immortal until we have a brush with death. When you come face-to-face with death, things come clearly into focus, and priorities are re-evaluated. Followers – unlike fans – are dying to live.  Fans who refuse to die to sin and self are stuck trying to live, but end up frustrated and defeated.  

There are those among us who are very committed sports fans. Some of you have Buckeye Rooms in your houses. You watch every game, and attend as many games as you can – of course all the home games; you wouldn’t want those season tickets to go to waste. You paint your face. You bleed scarlet and gray. Your heart was broken last week when the Buckeyes lost to Kansas. But the problem is, there comes a point when you realize that a fan is just a fan. You see, the fan is just a committed enthusiast. The fan isn’t in the game. And often, when the going gets tough, the fan quits on the team. This is true of fans of Jesus Christ as well.

Last week we celebrated Palm Sunday, where the fans gathered, waving palm branches, celebrating Christ as King. So much happened during that week, but on Friday, the crowds turned on Jesus, shouting “Crucify Him!” The fans turned their backs on him.

We’ll get back to the Easter story in a moment, but let’s turn to something a little lighter for a moment. I have several favorite movies: The Blues Brothers, Uncle Buck, Better Off Dead, and probably the quintessential 80s youth group movie, The Princess Bride. In The Princess Bride, if you are familiar with the movie, there is this great scene where Billy Crystal’s character, Miracle Max, is trying to revive the brave hero Westley after he has been tortured to near death so he can go rescue his true love Buttercup from Prince Humperdink. Westley’s friends think he is dead but when Miracle Max examines him, he determines he is only “mostly dead.”  “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo Montoya: What's that? Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

When he says, “There’s a big difference between ‘mostly dead’ and ‘all dead.’” He’s got a point; when it comes to following Jesus, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.  This is essentially the difference between “fans” and “followers.”  Fans – to varying degrees – are mostly dead, or at least somewhat dead.  Fans abide by the rules of religion.  Fans try to do the right thing most of the time. Most fans regularly attend church. Some fans volunteer to serve in the church and community, some even taking leadership roles. Fans have died to some things that they consider to be of great value… but when it comes right down to it, fans are somewhat or mostly dead. By that, I mean that fans are holding onto certain things that they are not willing to give over to God. I’ll give you an example: when I was in college, I rededicated my life to Christ, saying I wanted to really and truly turn my life over to Him. In reality, however, I was still a fan, because I refused to surrender my relationships. I had to experience the heartbreak of failed relationships and bad choices in relationships before I was willing to surrender fully.

To use Jesus’ words in Luke 9:24, Fans are still trying to “save” their own lives. Fans want to have control. Fans trust Jesus to a point, but they stop short of trusting him completely.  The great tragedy of being a fan who is only mostly dead is that if you are mostly dead, you can only be partly alive. The only way to be fully alive in Jesus is to be all dead

When you experience this truth first hand or you watch it happening in the life of someone you are close to, it is unmistakable and inspirational. It has been amazing to be a part of this church, where I have seen some of you transformed in just four years. There are some here who are definitely fans of Jesus who are trying to live and are missing out. But others of you are followers of Jesus who are dying to truly live in Jesus.

There comes a moment in the life of every follower of Jesus when we have to make the decision to die. In John 11, Jesus is called to the home of his friend, Lazarus. Many of you know the story; Lazarus is dying, and his sisters call for Jesus. Recently the Jews had tried to stone Jesus, and his disciples are afraid that if Jesus goes back to Bethany, he will be killed. He explains to them that Lazarus is dead and that he must go to Bethany. In John 11:16, we see Thomas saying to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We often criticize Thomas, calling him Doubting Thomas, but he shows the lengths he will go to follow Jesus. Let us go, that we may die with him.

These are the words of a true follower of Jesus. If this is what it takes to follow Jesus, let us also go, that we may die with him. When I was in college, I went on a mission trip to Russia. As I was getting ready for the trip, people asked me, “Russia? Isn’t that dangerous?” When I got to Russia and explained that I lived in Chicago, my Russian friends asked, “Chicago? Isn’t that dangerous?” The problem is that people were asking the wrong question. The question isn’t “is it dangerous?” There is no question – being a follower is dangerous. It requires death.

Jesus did not mince words about it. If you want to be one of his followers, Jesus is clear. If you want to follow him, you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him.

Jesus didn’t just say it; he lived it. The Bible tells us that although Jesus was God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant , being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)

Jesus made himself nothing. Even He died to self, He took up His cross, and He obeyed God. So he not only talked the talk, he walked the walk, too. Jesus says “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Fans want to save their lives, no matter what. They count the cost, and if they don’t see the payoff, they will bail.

The fan says, “a losing season? I’m not buying season tickets.” A fan says, “No championship? Fire the coach.” The fan says, “Jesus died – that could happen to me, too. But the follower says, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” (Jim Elliot)

Following Jesus requires death. We can’t just be mostly dead. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. There will be many fans who will claim that their level of fandom qualifies them for a reward. Many fans will say, “I taught Sunday school for years. I was the president of the board. I served at the food pantry. I sang in the choir. I have served in every position in the church.” I am a really big fan.

To that, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Jesus doesn’t want fans. Jesus doesn’t just want to be your homeboy. Jesus wants followers, those who are dying to live.

Jesus always had a choice. He had all kinds of choices. He was already recognized as a great teacher who amassed great crowds whenever he spoke. He could very easily have overthrown Rome and set up his own earthly Empire. He could have done whatever he wanted. And he did. Because he had “died” before he died. Jesus had died to self, so even in death, Jesus was truly living. In Luke 22:42, we see Jesus earnestly praying in the Garden. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

This is the same death Jesus calls us to.

Romans 6:3-8 explains what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

We celebrate Easter because Jesus died so we can live. Jesus died to self, and physically died, but death couldn’t defeat him and the grave couldn’t hold him. He is alive! In baptism, we were dead and buried, and if we have been united with him in death, we are also united with him in resurrection and new life.

True Christ followers are dying to live! Once we have died, we can truly live. Remember that this is a daily process – Jesus said we have to shoulder our cross daily.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, he urges them: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3)

If you are a fan, you are only mostly dead, and your life is not hidden with Christ in God. You don’t have any choice but to try to control things yourself. Good luck with that. On our own, we have just enough power to discover our own powerlessness. We lose our retirement funds in the stock market. Health care costs continue to escalate. The doctor says, “Cancer.” Our children grow up in a society vastly different from and more dangerous than the one we grew up in. The worries of this world continue to grow.

And in the midst of it God says, “Die to self. I’ve got it.” You see, when we, as fans, try to assert our own control, we’re saying to God, “You’re not enough for me.” And by saying that, we’re making the assumption that we are enough.

But Jesus Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24

This is what Easter is all about. It is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, but it is also the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus’ followers. We, too, died, but by Jesus’ wounds, we are healed. We are healed from our sin disease. When Jesus heals us by his wounds, he makes us whole. He takes control. But he requires us to die.  This means that when we finally approach our physical death, we don’t have to fear.

We recognize John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, as a pillar of faith, but in 1737 he experienced a crisis of faith. He was 34 years old, having grown up in the church, the son of an Anglican priest, and had already founded the Holy Club with his brother Charles and others. Wesley went on what can only be described as a botched mission trip to Georgia. On the return trip to Oxford, the ship John Wesley was on went through a terrible storm. During the storm, there were some Moravian Christians who sang praises through the storm, but Wesley feared for his life.

In spite of his careful devotion and diligence in the performance of religious duties, Wesley felt that somehow, he himself still needed to be converted. He wrote: “I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert me ... I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near. But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled ... Oh, who will deliver me from this fear of death?”

Wesley understood that his fear of death was an indication that he wasn’t saved. In the terminology we’ve been using for the past six weeks, he finally understood that he was a fan, not a follower. When a follower of Jesus approaches death, our lives are worth celebrating, because we have already died. We die to truly live in Jesus. How about you? Are you a fan or a follower? Are there things you are still holding onto that are keeping you from experiencing true life in Jesus?  Maybe today is the day for you to let go – to surrender, to die – to make a decision to follow Jesus.  There are some fans in the room who will hesitate and miss this opportunity.  But there are some others that are going to cross a line today.  You will discover the joy of choosing to die so that you can truly live.  Your life will never be the same.  And the lives of many others will never be the same either.