Sunday, February 23, 2014

Living the Christian Life

When I was a little boy, we learned that the way of salvation involved confession, repentance, baptism, and a final step, live-the-Christian-life. I don’t think this was intentional, but the way I heard it, it seemed like adults never had any trouble with this last step. It sounded like living out the Christian life was easy.

Last week, as we looked at the Methodist way of salvation, we specifically looked at the end goal of Christianity, which is holiness, Christ-likeness, or Christian perfection. The last two weeks I have made the comparison of living the Christian life with riding the GoBus from Athens to Cincinnati. We have the choice to get off the bus at any time. But how do we stay on the bus? How do we live the Christian life?

John Wesley was very methodical; this is where the term “Methodist” came from. He and his Holy Club figured out what helped keep them “on the Go Bus” and regularly, even religiously did it. From studying the Bible to fasting to caring for the hungry and sick, they did it weekly. And while these practices did not save them, they did help them stay on the bus. John Wesley declared that “evangelical faith should manifest itself in evangelical living.”

In other words, a faith in the good news of Jesus Christ must demonstrate itself in living out the good news. To that end, Wesley wrote the General Rules for his societies. Before I get to that, let me explain societies a little better.

Initially, the societies were made up of people within the Church of England. Methodism was simply a movement within an existing church. While church members generally attended church once a week, the societies met additionally. This would be like a Sunday evening preaching service. In 1784, John Wesley set up a plan to set up the American Methodist Church as a separate entity from the Church of England, and the societies became church.

If you were a part of one of the societies, the rules included that members were to meet once a week in what was called a class. This isn’t to be confused with a Sunday School class – Sunday School was created to teach the children, especially the poorest of the poor, because most children did not attend school. Instead, the class meeting would be a small group focused on confession and prayer. They would consist of neighborhood groups of up to twelve people who would be committed to accountability and discipleship. Each class would be led by a lay person.

Hebrews 10:25 says, Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. When we don’t gather together, as commanded in the Bible, we tend to turn Christianity into an individualistic pursuit. One in which I can worship God without going to church, you know, the idea that I can more easily connect with God in the woods or the golf course than in a church building full of other people. To Wesleyans, Christianity is always a social religion. “To turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”

This verse is not just about coming to church on Sunday morning. In fact, we sometimes mistake this building or this Sunday morning gathering for “church” when, in fact, the church is the people of God behaving as the people of God. And for Wesley, it wasn’t just about the Sunday service. In fact, he believed that it was unethical to preach without providing a means for people to grow toward spiritual maturity.

He stated that “the preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer. How much preaching has there been for these twenty years all over Pembrokeshire! But no regular societies, no discipline, no order or connection; and the consequence is, that nine in ten of the once-awakened are now faster asleep than ever.” (John Wesley’s Journal, Volume 3, 1760-1773).

In other words, there had been preaching for twenty years, but nobody had done anything about it. They hadn’t gathered together, they weren’t encouraging one another, they weren’t accountable to anyone, and because of this, 90% of the new converts were back into their slumber (which is how Wesley often described the pre-Christian).

So we find Methodists gathering together in class meetings. They were so important to early Methodists that you would get a ticket at your class meeting and if you couldn’t produce that ticket at worship, you wouldn’t get Communion! The class meeting just showed how high-accountability the early Methodists were. They were all expected to follow John Wesley’s General Rules (which we will talk about in a moment), but the class leaders were also expected to give an account for those under their charge.

They were expected to see each person at least once a week in order to see how their souls are, to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, to collect an offering for the preachers, the church, and the poor. They were also to meet the ministers and inform them of who was sick or who were not living out the general rules. They were also to turn in the money they had collected.

If someone wouldn’t observe the rules or habitually broke them, listen to what the consequence was: “We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.”

What were the General Rules? Actually these general rules are still found in our Book of Discipline. They can be boiled down to three things: do no harm, do good, and continue to evidence the desire of salvation, in other words, do the things that help you stay in love with God.

To “do no harm,” Methodists were told to “avoid evil of every kind.” This goes with the passage from 3 John 1:11: Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

Of course, methodically, John Wesley spelled out what these “evils of every kind” were that we are supposed to avoid. He included some givens, like fighting, drunkenness, and slaveholding, and some other popular ones, like taking the Lord’s name in vain and working on the Sabbath. He also included some that have to do with money, so you’re not supposed to buy or sell untaxed bootlegs or charge unlawful interest.

There are some general no-no’s, like: don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us (kind of the negative side of the Golden Rule) and don’t do what isn’t for the glory of God.

This would include wearing gold or costly apparel; singing songs/reading books that do not tend to the love or knowledge of God; softness/needless self-indulgence; laying up treasure on earth; and borrowing without a probability of paying. And, of course, there are some random ones, like using many words in buying or selling or speaking evil of magistrates or ministers!

Though in the holiness tradition, we can tend to set up rules to help us avoid doing what we’re not supposed to do, for the General Rules to simply tell us what not to do would end up being pretty Pharisaic. So the General Rules also give a prescription for what Methodists are supposed to do.

We are called to do good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all. Physically, we’re called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Wesley didn’t write anything revolutionary or new here; he simply echoed what Jesus said in Matthew 25, where Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats – “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 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.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

Whatever you do for the least of these, you in fact are doing to Jesus. Even when it doesn’t look like Him. But our General Rules aren’t just about meeting people’s physical needs. We are also to do good to their souls, instructing and teaching everyone to obey all that Jesus commanded.

One interesting point to this is that many people have long given the excuse that “I’m not called to ‘this or that’” as an excuse to not evangelize or teach or tell how God has changed their lives. This is just a lame excuse. Our General Rules teach us to do good, regardless. Will this mean people might take advantage of us? Unfortunately, yes. This is why we’re called to run with patience the race set before us, denying ourselves, take up our cross daily, submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, even expecting people to falsely accuse us of all kinds of evil.

But even as we experience all of the difficulties that this life has for us, we are to continue to evidence the desire of salvation. As Bishop Rueben Job has paraphrased this aspect of the General Rules, “stay in love with God.” In other words, it is not enough to simply avoid evil and do good to others. That would be like expecting someone to go out and give rides to everyone wherever they want, but not allowing them to fill up their gas tanks.

John Wesley tells us to make sure our gas tanks are filled. How do we do this in real, practical ways? You won’t find anything new in this list. It includes publically worshiping God. So showing up for worship services with other people helps us stay in love with God. I don’t know how many times I have been encouraged by worshiping with other people. I don’t just say this to try to keep up attendance in this church; it is vital that we gather together with other Christians, not just for fellowship, but for worship!

We gather together for prayer as well; it is vitally important to not only worship together but to pray together. When I offer to pray for people, I don’t know how many times I’ve had them tell me that they don’t know the last time when someone was praying for them. To me that’s really sad. We need prayer. Every one of us needs prayer. So think about it; if you need prayer, so does the person next to you. What would happen if you stopped what you were doing and prayed for that person? Or when someone tells you of a struggle they are going through, what would happen if you stopped right away and prayed for them? Furthermore, I wonder how many families stop and pray together anymore? This is possibly the most powerful thing you can do.

Speaking of powerful things that many people don’t do, the General Rules advocate fasting; when Jesus talks to his disciples about fasting, he never says, “if you fast” – but always “when you fast.” Take a time to fast, go without, and use that time to pray, to ask God’s will, to focus on God. It is time and energy well-spent.

And in our gatherings, the Bible must be central. Not only should we make sure that the Scriptures are read during our worship services, but we should also spend our time searching the Scriptures on our own. There is no reason why we, with our high rate of literacy and the availability of Bibles, should not be spending our time in the Scriptures. Instead, we make the Psalm true: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105). Or how about this one, from Psalm 119:11 I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.

When we don’t just read the Bible, but meditate on it, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it, it is transformative. We not only learn new things, but it changes the way we think, the way we act, and the way we interpret the world around us. Add to that what happens when we get together with Christian brothers and sisters and discuss the Scriptures, and you have a recipe for a great way to move forward in a Christian life that is not always easy. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

You see, for Wesleyans, Scripture is always the cornerstone. The Bible contains everything that is necessary for our knowledge of God’s will, of Jesus Christ the only redeemer, of our salvation, and of our growth in grace. This is why United Methodist doctrine has always historically been under the authority of Scripture. No doctrine that cannot be found in Scripture can be required. Reading, hearing, and meditating on the scriptures is one of the ordinary channels by which God conveys prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace to human beings.

In seminary circles we often talk about the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which is boiled down to this: Our faith is revealed in Scripture, but it is also illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. It is never meant to be four equal sides, however. Scripture is the center, our anchor and our guide. But our biblical interpretation is guided by the other three. When we talk about tradition, we’re not talking about “what we’ve always done” – think of tradition as “how God has historically interacted with His people.” We are guided in our lives by how God has acted in history and interacted with humanity. So we consider what the church has always believed, understanding that some change is necessary, especially changing methods, but we learn from what our ancestors taught.

Experience is what God is doing in the life of the believer. It is the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace. There are times when it is hard to understand exactly what has happened; sometimes our friends can help us interpret our experience. I love the story in John 9, where Jesus healed a man who had been blind since birth. The Jews were giving him a really hard time about the healing and were demanding that he tell them how it had happened. They especially were attacking Jesus’ character, accusing him of being a sinner. He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25) Our experience helps us understand what God has done and what God will continue to do. It includes the experience of the whole church community as well as our own.

Finally, we get to reason. Don’t check your brain at the door! If you do a search of all the verses where God invites you to “consider” – you find that God is reasoning with us! Furthermore, hearing the Word requires us to think. Reason is not just human wisdom, but it is always assisted by the Holy Spirit. There are times when the wisdom of the world is foolishness; for example, the wisdom of the world would scoff that a sacrifice on a cross two thousand years ago would be sufficient to save us from our sins, but we know that to be true, as the Holy Spirit offers assurance to our spirits of our salvation. John Wesley went so far as to say:

“We cannot reason ourselves to heaven, but to hell. Faith is consistent with reason, yet reason cannot produce faith, in the scriptural sense of the word. Faith is an evidence or conviction of things not seen. A divine evidence bringing full conviction of an invisible, eternal world.” (Works, Vol. VI, p. 355)

And so, by avoiding evil, doing good, and doing the things that help us stay in love with God, together we continue on our journey of holy living, a journey toward entire sanctification.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Methodist Way of Salvation, part 2

A quote attributed to Zig Ziglar says, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” As Christians, we have an unfortunate problem that sometimes, in our attempt to be (as the Apostle Paul put it) “all things for all people,” we end up aiming at nothing and thus that’s what we hit. In its roots, the Methodist movement has always had holiness as its goal. Last week we looked at the difficulty for us; holiness is not so easily achieved because of our sin problem. We have so corrupted God’s image within us that we cannot even approach him…

Thankfully, because of God’s character, he bestows grace upon us when we least deserve it. The Holy Spirit extends Prevenient Grace, the grace that goes before us, and woos us, calls us, invites us to him.

But if this was where God’s grace stopped, we would be in trouble. It would get us to the door but no farther. It would be cruel, for God to show us our sin but to leave us in it. But that’s not what God does. God finds us in our sin and shows us our sin so that we can accept his grace and be freed from that sin.

When God confronts us with our sinfulness, through his grace, God also shows us the way out: faith in Jesus Christ. Some people talk about believing in Jesus, but that belief is more than just believing that Jesus was a real person. Believing in him means that we trust that what he did on the cross was enough to save us. Listen to this account from John Wesley’s journal:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. – John Wesley’s Journal

When we are confronted by our sin, we can do one of three things. We can ignore it. We can try to pretend that it didn’t happen. We can deny it. We can make excuses, blame someone else, postulate as to why it’s not so bad (for example, “everybody is doing it” or “at least I’m not…”), or we can own up to it. Owning up to our sin, or confessing, is the first step toward perfection. But simply owning up to our sin doesn’t cleanse us. As John Wesley wrote, we have to trust in Jesus to save us.

As we recognize what Jesus has done for us and confess our sin, two things happen. One is repentance. John the Baptist was famous for preaching repentance. Repentance simply means to turn 180 degrees. You’re headed in one direction, and you turn and go the opposite way. So when we are in the midst of sinning, our direction is death and hell. But we turn and go in the opposite direction. It’s not enough to just stop our sinful behaviors. Sometimes I get into the habit of thinking, “If I just get rid of sinful behaviors or thought patterns, I will be OK.”

Jesus told a parable about this. “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

So instead of simply emptying ourselves of our sinful behaviors and thought patterns, we need to be changed and filled with the Holy Spirit, so that when the temptations return, there is simply no room for the evil spirits.

Something else happens when we accept Jesus’ gift that he made in his crucifixion. The Holy Spirit, the imparter of grace, justifies us. This sermon is filled with those great theological words that we don’t ever hear, and justification is one of them. Justification is a legal term; God is declaring us forgiven: “just as if I had never sinned.” It means that God cancels the punishment of our sin. I sometimes hear people express guilt over past sins. Sometimes the consequences remain, but you do not need to carry guilt with you.

You do not need to carry the guilt with you because your heart has been changed. Your sins are forgiven, and God has restored you to his favor! Not only does God’s grace justify us, but he also gives us a new birth!

You have probably heard the phrase “born again” so many times that it doesn’t carry any weight anymore, but the picture that Jesus painted when he told Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3) is extremely weighty.

While we were born in sin, dead to God, this new birth is a spiritual birth, but it is truly a new creation who is being born. Not the sin-dead old self, but a completely new person. The old is gone, with all of the guilt and shame.

Now, in justification and the new birth, God has declared my slate clean. But God’s grace isn’t finished. One of the most exciting aspects of God’s grace immediately begins to work: sanctifying grace. While justification deals with the penalty of sin, sanctification deals with actual sin. In justification, God washes your slate clean, but when he sanctifies you, not only does he set you apart for his purposes, he actually makes you clean. Not only has the guilt of sin been lifted, but he takes away the actual sins! This is why sanctification immediately follows justification. You do not need to carry that guilt with you because you are no longer the same, dead sinful person who sinned! Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Sanctification is a confusing subject, because it is both instant and gradual. By God’s sanctifying grace, you are sanctified at the moment of your salvation. When Jesus tells his disciples to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) he doesn’t leave us to try and do it on our own, but he actually does it for us. In an instant, not only are we forgiven, but our sins are gone. I remember being told that God forgets our sins when he forgives us. It sounded good when I first heard it, but there are problems with it. First of all, it perpetuates that tired old God-as-grandfather-in-the-sky stereotype. You know, the friendly old guy who just gives good gifts and conveniently forgets when we’ve been bad. Like Santa, except without the coal. That’s not God at all!

God doesn’t just conveniently “forget” when we’ve sinned. God actually takes the sins we have committed and disappears them. They are gone. I have heard sermons preached and read tracts about judgment and how God will take this big book or maybe it’s in movie form, but whatever the case, you will be confronted with everything you have ever done. This scenario offers only guilt, shame and fear… about things that no longer have any bearing, because they are gone! In 1 John 4, we read about God’s love being made complete in us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:17-18)

I have seen the courtroom judgment scenario pictured too many times to count, (you know, you die, and all of a sudden you are in a court room with the devil as the prosecutor, naming all your sins. After all of your sins have been listed, God proclaims your guilt and names the punishment: death. But then Jesus steps up to accept the punishment). It is a pretty good understanding of the legal view of the atonement, but the problem is, this scene doesn’t happen after death. This scene has already happened.

So as Christians, we are no longer under the fear of death or judgment! This leads to the doctrine known as assurance. When we sing “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” we are singing of the witness that the Holy Spirit bears to our spirit. John Wesley’s “heart strangely warmed” was his heart bearing witness. He knew that he knew that he was saved. That God had forgiven his sin. Instantly.

Now, assurance doesn’t mean once saved, always saved. What it means is that the Holy Spirit assures us of our salvation. Remember the illustration of the Go Bus I gave you last week? Where the bus starts at Athens and goes all the way to Cincinnati, whether you stay on it the whole way or decide to get off in Jackson? When it comes to our salvation, we remain free to decide to get off the bus if we so desire.

But staying on the bus is moving toward entire sanctification. Remember how I said that sanctification is both instantaneous and a process? If I let you think that the moment of justification, new birth, and initial sanctification was the final goal, I would be leading you astray. Unfortunately, and inadvertently, sometimes our traditional cultural style of evangelism has often led people to think that it is. We have large rallies, crusades, and revivals, where the end goal is to get people to the altar. While getting people to the altar is a good thing, a very good thing, it is not the final step! It is more like the starting line.

The starting line of initial sanctification is followed by the gift of grace by which God continually refines us and perfects us. John Wesley describes Christian perfection in two ways: first, as having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” – which we recognize from when Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(Matthew 22:36-40)

Jesus comes right out and tells the Pharisees that love, both for God and for neighbor, is the greatest commandment. And as God perfects us more and more, we will overflow with God’s love. The more of God’s love we experience, the more we will love him. And the more we love him, the more we will love our neighbor. This is why Jesus tells his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Reaching out with Christ’s love isn’t optional for the Christian. If you are Christian, you will reach out with His love. This isn’t to say how we do it, or that the way you do it will look like the way I will. When we first became foster parents, I arrogantly thought, “since God called us to take care of orphans and widows, then everyone ought to be foster parents.” Like I said, that was pure arrogance on my part. Not everyone is called to that ministry. But just because everyone isn’t a foster parent doesn’t mean that we’re not all called to minister to orphans. So for living out our Christian lives, loving our neighbors as ourselves, it looks different for each one of us, but it is not optional.

If we are moving toward Christian perfection and entire sanctification, we cannot do it on our own. Make no mistake: the things that we do to demonstrate our love for our neighbor is not what moves us toward Christian perfection. It is a work of grace, God’s love pouring out through us and being expressed in our love for neighbor. As we receive God’s grace, we love more.

But perfect love is just the first demonstration of Christian perfection. John Wesley also understood it as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.” In other words, Christlikeness. Wesley gets this from 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

The reference Paul that is making is of Moses, who talked with God face-to-face. After these encounters, Moses’ face would glow, literally glow, with God’s glory. It actually scared the Israelites, so Moses would wear a veil after being with God. Paul is saying that our faces are unveiled and that they reflect God’s glory as the Holy Spirit transforms us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This only happens, however, when we’ve been in God’s presence.

Next week we’ll get deeper into how Methodists traditionally spend time in God’s presence. In the meantime, this week’s homework is not to do homework. If you’re anything like me, you work really hard to make sure you’re doing your best for God. You won’t get more grace or more sanctified or more perfected by working harder. You won’t earn God’s love more by working harder. Just enjoy God this week. Enjoy his grace. Take the time to just relax in his love.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Y.U.M. - The Methodist Way of Salvation - The First Step

e are in the second week of our series Y.U.M. – as we discover what is unique and special about United Methodism.

For a denomination that came about partially through the methodical nature of John and Charles Wesley, United Methodist doctrine is a slippery subject. Slippery because, if you ask 100 United Methodists, clergy and lay, we will probably have 200 descriptions of what constitutes our doctrine. And the differences between those descriptions are as different as the Methodists who make up our connection.

One of the reasons this has happened is because United Methodist doctrine is primarily practical. Unlike other denominations with their well-designed creeds and affirmations and philosophical underpinnings, the United Methodist movement began as a practical movement within an existing denomination, the Church of England. John Wesley, in his methodical practices and through intense study of scriptures, simply figured out what works.

“What works” is a loaded phrase, because to know “what works” you have to know what your goal is. If my goal is preparing for a marathon, running a whole lot of mileage is “what works.” If my goal is losing weight, eating healthy and getting exercise (and making sure I don’t have other medical issues) is “what works.” If I want to be on good financial standing, I’ll check with Dave Ramsey; that’s “what works.” So to understand “what works” in Methodist doctrine, we have to know what the goal is. John Wesley recognized that the chief end of the Christian religion is holiness.

We serve a holy God who calls us to holiness. As we read in 1 Peter 1:15-16: But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Our holiness is more problematic than it might seem, because of one factor. The kind of holiness God expects from us is perfect holiness. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summed up all of the rules this way: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

It started that way in the Garden of Eden. Then God said, “Let us make man in our own image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27). God created us in his image, but we know what happened next; sin entered the world through Adam and Eve. They were not only banished from the Garden of Eden, but original sin also so corrupted the image of God within humanity that rendered us completely unable to save ourselves. Our nature has been corrupted and is inclined toward evil. This is why nobody has to teach a child to be selfish (whoever has to teach their two year old to say, “Mine!”); it comes naturally.

Why is that? Because God is the God of life, and when Adam and Eve sinned, they died that day. When God told them they would surely die if they ate from the tree in the Garden, he wasn’t slow in keeping that promise. No, they died immediately.
“They died to God, the most dreadful of all deaths… The body dies when it is separated from the soul, the soul when it is separated from God.”  (John Wesley Sermon 45, “The New Birth”).

“The natural consequence is of this is that everyone descended from [Adam] comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly ‘dead in sin’; entirely void of the life of God, void of the image of God, of all that ‘righteousness and holiness’ wherein Adam was created. Instead of this everyone born into the world now bears the image of the devil, in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires. This then is the foundation of the new birth – the entire corruption of our nature.” (John Wesley Sermon 45, “The New Birth”)

Because of our sin nature, it’s only natural that we commit sins. So when Bible tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23), it’s no surprise. We’re dead in sin, and so we commit sins and continue to sin. The problem here is that God is a holy God, and being so, he cannot permit sin in his presence.

The fair payment for our sin is death (Romans 6:23a), and since we are already dead in sin, we are incapable of breathing life into ourselves. This is one reason why our good deeds can never outweigh our bad; because the image of God is so corrupted within us that we are incapable of even responding to God on our own.

Furthermore, the kind of holiness that is the chief goal of religion requires perfection. Not perfection from here on out, but absolute perfection. So it’s no wonder that the heart of United Methodist doctrine is soteriology – the study of salvation.

When we study salvation, we have to start with our need for salvation and our absolute inability to do it on our own. A moment ago I mentioned that sin has so corrupted the image of God within us that we are utterly unable to approach God on our own. But by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf, seeking us, wooing us, inviting us. This grace is called “Prevenient Grace” – meaning the grace that goes before us. Make no mistake about it; we are not the cause of God’s Prevenient Grace. It’s not because of who we are or what we’ve done that God bestows this grace on us; it is all because of God’s character.

God revealed his character to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 34, after Moses had chiseled out two stone tablets (again, after he had broken the first ones after seeing the golden calf) and went up to the mountain to meet God.

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7a)

This is God’s character, full of compassion and grace, slow to anger and full of love and faithfulness. Because of who God is, God sends his grace, which is what draws us toward him and prompts our first wish to please God. It is by God’s Prevenient Grace that we even begin to understand that we’ve sinned against God, for, in our sin-dead state, we don’t even know that we’re sinning.

While we recognize that we do bear the image of God, so we are fundamentally different from the animal kingdom, but with that image corrupted by sin, much of our behavior isn’t all that different. In his third sermon, called “Awake, Thou That Sleepest,” John Wesley describes our natural state as being asleep. Apart from being awakened by the Holy Spirit, we do not even recognize our own sinfulness, and thus our lives are characterized by natural human behaviors that are also sinful. There are all kinds of things that come naturally that are not right.

You don’t have to teach your children to be selfish. Nobody has to teach a two-year-old how to say, “MINE!” Lust is natural. Greed is natural. As is envy. And in our natural state, we don’t even know it’s wrong!

So what’s next?

By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit convinces us that we are sinners. The word we have traditionally used for this is “conviction.” God sometimes uses prophets to help convict his people of their sin. This was frequently the case in the Old Testament, and this was certainly John the Baptist’s role. Sometimes as humans we end up calling out someone’s sins simply to make ourselves feel better (as in, “at least I don’t…”). Sometimes we do it to make them feel shame or guilt. This isn’t God’s end goal whatsoever. God does it to help us realize how far we are from him. It’s truly the first step of coming to him.

Just as the alcoholic must first admit that he is an alcoholic, so too must the sinner first admit that he is a sinner.

Our Reformed brothers and sisters understand God’s grace to be “irresistible,” meaning when the Holy Spirit approaches someone, because of God’s sovereign power, we have no choice but to follow. There are problems with this view, however. If God gives us no choice, then can we really love God? Without the choice to not love, do we really have the choice to love? Do we love God if God strong-arms us into it? My seminary philosophy professor used to ask the question, “If you had a surefire love potion, would you slip it to someone who didn’t already love you?” The idea that you could make someone love you against their will is not a positive proposition whatsoever. And that they would love you based on force means that there is not necessarily anything lovely about you, nothing that would cause someone to love you. But unlike the love potion scenario, God doesn’t force our love. By the Holy Spirit, God extends grace and asks us to respond.

If God’s grace is truly irresistible, if we cannot choose to accept God’s grace or not, then we have to change our view of God and how we understand God’s view of humanity. We believe in an all-loving, all powerful God. An all-powerful God could compel everyone to love him. But as we discussed earlier, that wouldn’t necessarily be love.

We need to consider God’s love for humanity. Jesus tells us in John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. So we have to determine what this love looks like.

If God truly loves the world, and if God’s all-powerful grace is irresistible, then is there a situation where God wouldn’t save everyone? The only acceptable conclusion is universalism; that God would send everyone to heaven.

Otherwise, God is choosing to create some people just to condemn them to hell. This doctrine is called “double predestination.” If God predestines certain people for salvation, philosophically, this requires that God also predestines everyone else for destruction. But this stirs up some questions, because predestination is definitely a biblical concept. There is no question about that.

One of my favorite verses in scripture is Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love, who have been called according to his purpose. Immediately following that verse comes this: For those who God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30).

So predestination is biblical, but it might not mean what you think it means. There are many who think that predestination and foreknowledge means that God orchestrates everything, like a puppet master. But these are actually two separate subjects. Foreknowledge simply means that God knows what you’re going to do before you do it. That doesn’t mean God causes you to do what you’re going to do. It just means he knows. Before his accident, I knew that every morning Bruce Kuntz would go to McDonalds. Does that mean I made him go? Think about it this way: God is not bound by time like we are. We see time as linear. We even have the concept of a timeline. Time starts, we live each day, one day at a time, and then, when our “time comes,” we die. God is not bound by time like this. There is no “timeline” in eternity. God can see it all in one glance.

As for predestination, this simply means that God has determined the destination in advance and the means to get there. In Athens you can get on a GoBus. While the bus is going to Cincinnati, you have the option to get off the bus in Albany, Jackson, Piketon, Peebles, Seaman, or Batavia. But even if you get off the bus, that bus is still going to Cincinnati. Likewise, God has preset the destination to heaven and Jesus as the means to get there. God’s desire is for everyone to be saved, but God will not force us to accept the gift Jesus gave us on the cross. God will not force us to love him. Bill and I like to talk about God’s “Holy 2x4” that he sometimes uses to get our attention, but even when he uses that method, God doesn’t force us to make the right decision.

When Peter writes to the church about the end times, he writes this: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slownesss. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9) If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, God could save everyone, but if that’s not true, if God doesn’t save everyone, then there must be a reason. Is the reason that God arbitrarily chooses to create just to condemn? Or is it because we have free will to accept the grace that God lavishes on us?

When it comes to predestination, this is what it really means. God decreed to send his Son who would destroy sin by his death. God decreed that those who repent and believe would be reconciled to God, and God appointed the means and power by which he would achieve his purpose. The emphasis is not on individuals but on Christ.

Next week we will more fully explore what happens when we admit that we are sinners and trust that God can save us, but suffice it to say God will give himself to everyone who asks. When we come to him, admitting that we cannot save ourselves, then we find that God not only can, but will.

Monday, February 3, 2014

YUM: Why United Methodist: Who Are These People Called Methodist?

We live in a church-saturated culture. There are all kinds of churches in all kinds of denominations. In fact, we have three churches on our block, all of different denominations!

Many people have good reasons why they are in a certain denomination, but for many, it is more circumstantial than anything else. For example, Roy Gilliland (a well-known member of our local church) tells the story of becoming Methodist – when he was a boy, the Methodist church had heat. Others became Methodist because their parents or grandparents were Methodist or because they started dating a Methodist or married a Methodist.

So a good question to ask is “Why United Methodist?” The sermon series we are starting today will explore some of the distinctive features of United Methodism, a denomination so varied that it includes 4George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton!

I became a United Methodist after seminary, and it was all John Wesley’s fault. Truly to know what a United Methodist is, you have to start with John Wesley. Actually, you have to start with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, and with the church. The church started out Jewish; to truly understand Jesus, you have to understand what it meant to be Jewish. I understand that I can’t fully explain what it meant to be Jewish in the time I’ve set aside for it, but it all started with God calling Abram. In Genesis 12:1-3, we read this: The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

God’s blessing is true life, abundant life, which only comes from God. So God is saying to Abram, “I will give you life and you will be a life giver. Through your descendants, you will offer full life to all peoples on earth.” Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram; he says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10b)

God is not satisfied with us just getting by. His gift is life and life abundantly, and Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. It is through Jesus that this life is given. However, Jesus had an interesting conversation with his disciples, namely Peter. In Matthew 16, Jesus was asking his disciples who people thought he was. They answered that people related him to John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. But when he asked them directly who he was, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 1:16-19)

And so Jesus founded the first Christian church, giving us the responsibility of being the means which God has chosen to bring Himself and His blessing to the world.

Have we done a perfect job of it? Well, no. There have been numerous splits and schisms. In fact, there are three branches of the Church that all lay claim to being the One True Church: the Coptic Church (in Egypt and Ethiopia) is perhaps the oldest church. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church were once one church, but they split and now both claim that they are the true Church.

On the Western side, Martin Luther brought about the Protestant Reformation and split from the Roman Catholic Church, but in England, King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church – mostly because he wanted the Church to annul yet another failed marriage. He formed the Church of England, otherwise known as the Anglican Church.

John Wesley and his brother Charles were Anglican priests at Oxford who joined together with several classmates to form “the Holy Club” – what amounted to an accountability group. They studied the Scriptures, prayed, fasted, worshiped, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Though you might think this is normal behavior for seminarians, they were ridiculed and called “Bible Bookworms,” and because of the way they methodically went about their practices, they were called “Methodists.” So, if you didn’t know it already, the name of our denomination started out as an insult!

The Methodist movement spread all over England and even to the American colonies. In fact, the Church of England was booming here. Churches were being planted – if you ever wonder why so many Methodist Churches are so close together, there are two reasons: the obvious and most recent one is because when the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church merged, many local congregations (like the two in Wellston) did not merge. The other reason is that the early Methodists planted churches close enough together so that the circuit-riding pastor could make it from one church to the next in a day’s ride on horseback. The church was growing quickly, but there was a problem. That problem was the American Revolution. If you can imagine the scenario, the State-run Church of England didn’t take too kindly to the American Revolutionaries and withdrew all of their pastors except for Francis Asbury. So children remained unbaptized and there were many who hadn’t received Communion in years. So John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke “superintendent” and conferred upon him the ability and responsibility of ordaining American elders. Later, Coke and Asbury had assumed the title “bishop” and took leadership of what became the Methodist Church in America.

The Methodist movement was not necessarily intended to become its own church, but especially with the American Revolution, that’s exactly what it became.

John Wesley had strong opinions on the nature of the church. As we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, we believe in the holy catholic church. This is not a nod to the Roman Catholic Church; here, the catholicity refers to the universality of the Church. This is why we are not in competition with the Baptists or the Presbyterians or the Catholics or Nazarenes and why I will never encourage “sheep stealing” (trying to lure members from other churches to join ours). We are truly part of a bigger picture, and that bigger picture is that the Church is One. Yes, we have our issues. No, we don’t always agree on everything. But think about it this way: does your family have issues? Do you always agree on everything? But are you still one family?

In fact, the One Church, across denominational lines, has more in common than different. This is one reason why the Bible has so much to say about how Christians are to treat one another. We are to be devoted to one another in love and honor one another above ourselves. (Romans 12:10).

This is why we are to live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16), to stop passing judgment on one another (Romans 14:13), to accept one another (Romans 15:7), to be of one mind (2 Corinthians 13:11b), to humbly and gently bear with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2), to be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32), to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13), to encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18, 5:11), to spur one another on to good deeds (Hebrews 10:23) and to meet together regularly (Hebrews 10:24), offering hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9)

The Church is one. One body, united by one spirit, having one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

The Church is One universal Church, and we can be one because the Church is Holy.

This statement, “the Church is Holy” has two distinct areas of emphasis. The first is that the church is the Church of the Holy Spirit. When I first went from being an associate pastor to being the solo pastor of another church, people from my first church wanted to congratulate me on getting my own church. I let them no in no uncertain terms that not only was I not getting my own church, but I don’t want my own church! I have never enough to save anyone from their sins. I can’t save myself or my family; therefore, I am not worthy of having a church of me. The Church is Jesus Christ’s, but even moreso, the Church is the Church of the Holy Spirit. If you want to track to the origin of the Church, there are two distinct moments that mark its beginning. The first is what I already told you about Jesus and Peter: on this rock I will build my church.

The other comes at the beginning of Acts 2, after Jesus has ascended into Heaven. When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)

So if you’ve ever wondered where the United Methodist cross and flame symbol comes from, the cross is for Jesus and the flame is the Holy Spirit. The two origins of the Church.

The birth of the Church came on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down in power. So truly this is the Holy Spirit’s Church, not mine, not the human founders, not those who have gone before us, not our leadership team, and not the people in the pews. It is the Holy Spirit’s Church.

But that doesn’t put all of us off the hook. The Church is Holy because it belongs to the Holy Spirit, and because its members are holy. Listen to what Peter writes to the church: But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16)

God calls us to be holy. “Holy” means being set apart or separated by God for God’s work. God’s holiness is understood as being wholly other. God isn’t one of us, which is why it is all the more astounding that Jesus became one of us to lead us to be more than we were. You see, while holiness is something God demands of His Church, He also provides the means by which we can be holy. We will get into this much more fully in the weeks to come, as holiness is a key feature in Methodism. Indeed, John Wesley believed that the chief goal of religion was holiness.

Finally, the Church is apostolic. Jesus told Simon Peter that it was upon this rock that he would build the church, and we recognize that Apostles are the rock upon whom Jesus built it. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples: “Therefore 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)

The apostles lived that out, and it has become our DNA. Why? Because the Church has carried out the doctrines and practices of the apostolic church, doing essentially what the apostles set out to do. Over the past two thousand years, the Church has continued to carry out the Apostles’ mission of making disciples.

Since the Methodist Church is not a new religion, we hold more in common with other denominations than we have differences. In fact, when we affirm the Apostles’ Creed, we do so in unity with many denominations around the world and throughout history, as we recognize this as an affirmation of our shared, unified Christianity. In the coming weeks, we will explore what is unique about United Methodism. In the meantime, will you join with me in affirming our shared faith?