Friday, March 28, 2014


Luke 13:1-8

Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is one of the most important philosophical questions the Christian can answer. In seminary, this question is known as theodicy, and it deals with what is called “the problem of evil.” Simply stated, the problem of evil is, how can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to happen. It is a valid question.

Before we deal with this question, we have to look at the context in which it is asked. In the passage in Luke, this question is being brought up for a specific reason. It is a distraction. Jesus’ preaching is making people uncomfortable. Luke 12 records Jesus preaching, first to his disciples, then to a crowd of many thousands, so many, the Bible records, that they were trampling on one another.

Jesus warns them to “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15). He also warns them against worry – reminding them that God will take care of them. Then he gets into preparation for the end times. “But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Luke 12:39-40)

But Jesus isn’t finished. Anyone who thinks Jesus was just a nice teacher who spent all his time petting cute little lambs and blessing children probably hasn’t read the rest of Luke 12, where Jesus warns about coming division, saying things like, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) He warns the crowd that he will bring division to the earth, that families will be divided against one another. Some of us know this first-hand: that following God and trusting the Holy Spirit with everything can drive a wedge into family relationships.

Finally, Jesus ends chapter 12 warning about the future, calling the crowd out as hypocrites who can predict the weather but can’t read the signs of the times.

So now we find that there were some in the crowd who brought up the incident about Pilate mixing the Galileans’ blood with the sacrifices. Now, you have to know that when the Gospel authors wrote down their accounts of Jesus’ ministry, they did not always do it chronologically. They ordered the stories to suit the purpose of writing the Gospel. Sometimes they put certain stories together because they support one another. They left out stories – John even says: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:25).

This is why trying to write a harmony of the Gospels is not a good thing. You dilute the intent of each writer by trying to “harmonize” their accounts.

So anyway, this is a reason why time and place markers in the Gospels are so important. The writers will let you know if the setting has changed, and when they do, it’s a good indication that this is a segment change as well. But in this case, there is no setting change. The only thing that has happened is in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, some people bring up an objection. This happens all the time. When people find out that I am a pastor, one of the most common things to happen is that the conversation is immediately derailed so they can tell me why they don’t attend church anymore. This is the same thing that happened when Jesus met the woman at the well. He has told her that he can offer her Living Water. She wants this Living Water, so he tells her to go get her husband and come back. When she makes a partial admission - that she has no husband, Jesus tells her the hard truth, that she has had five husbands and the man she currently lives with isn’t her husband – all of a sudden she starts asking religious questions. I don’t think she really wanted to know where the right place to worship was; she was trying to distract Jesus’ attention from a touchy subject.

Likewise here. People in the crowds, knowing Jesus was targeting them as hypocrites, decide to distract Jesus with questions about a local tragedy. First of all, I wonder if they really wanted answers or if they’re just trying to get him off calling them hypocrites. Or possibly they are trying to find where his allegiance lies (the Galileans might have been rebelling against Rome, while the ones in Siloam could have been working for Rome – maybe if Jesus sided with one side or another or called one group sinners, suggesting that this was God’s judgment against them, then they’d know where his allegiance lay).

So they asked an age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? If you pay attention to the talking heads on TV, any time tragedy strikes, there are always more than enough so-called experts who chime in with their opinion about why it happened. When Haiti was ravaged by the earthquake, Pat Robertson asserted that the Haitians themselves were to blame for, as he put it, making a deal with the devil during their slave rebellion in 1791. He likewise blamed Hurricane Katrina on the sin of those in New Orleans and blamed the 9/11 attacks on gays and liberals and the removal of prayer in school. Bad things happen. There is no doubt about that. Sometimes we are happy when bad things happen to certain people. I didn’t lose any sleep over Osama bin Laden’s death. Nor did I mourn Fred Phelps.

There are times when we say (sometimes out loud, other times just to ourselves), “He got what he deserved.” If you ever catch yourself saying this, remember that the reason Jesus went to the cross for us while we were still sinners was because we deserved Hell.

In the example where Galilean pilgrims were executed while offering sacrifices, was their sin worse than others’? In other words, why did bad things happen to good people? Do you notice how Jesus responded to that question?  

He said their sin wasn’t worse. So if you’ve ever been told that someone suffered or died because someone didn’t pray enough or some other ridiculousness like that, know that Jesus already specifically debunked it. In essence, Jesus said, “Bad things happen.”

But he didn’t stop there. Jesus went ahead with the audacious warning: But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3) Likewise with the second tragedy, the eighteen who died when the tower fell on them. They weren’t more guilty than anyone else in Jerusalem. But their death should stand as a reminder: But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)

What Jesus says boils down to this: life is full of difficulties. Evil, even. But Jesus doesn’t go into why. He keeps to his context – look at the signs of the times; when disaster strikes, remember that it is by the grace of God that we don’t perish, not just in this life, but for eternity as well!

Just to be fair, there are all sorts of reasons why evil happens. It all goes back to the fall of humanity; not only are we are full of sin and do evil things, but the whole earth has been affected by the Fall. Human evil is based on sin and on our free choice – the choice to love God or not and the choice to sin or not. If we did not have free choice, there wouldn’t be sin at all, because God would cause everything, and we couldn’t go against God’s will if God’s will was for us to do evil. And if there wasn’t free choice, we couldn’t really love God, because we wouldn’t have the choice to not love him. But with free choice comes the choice to sin and to do evil. And because God values our real love, God gives us free choice. Including the choice to do evil.

Just because God allows us to commit evil, it doesn’t mean that God won’t use our evil acts. Jesus even shows how; use the evil around us as a reminder of the brevity of life and our need for repentance.

So Jesus tells a parable.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

I’m not a farmer, but even I recognize that if a tree isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, all it is doing is wasting space and nutrients. If you look through the Bible, a fruitful tree is often used to symbolize godly living. Psalm 1:3 compares the one whose delight is in the Lord to a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Psalm 1:3. If you are taking notes, Jeremiah 17:7-8 makes the exact same comparison.

Yet, that’s not what Jesus pictures in his story. He presents a tree that for three years has borne no fruit. Again, most of us aren’t farmers, but imagine you are. Imagine your livelihood depends on growing a crop. Imagine you’ve got only a certain number of trees… and one of them isn’t producing.

Or if you can’t get your head around the farming motif, imagine you are a boss in a factory, and you have ten employees, and one of them just likes to sit at his desk and play games and goof around with his phone all day. When you check to see how much work everyone has done, he hasn’t done anything. For three years.

So the logical response is to cut down the tree. It is wasting valuable space and nutrients. It isn’t doing its job. If you have already figured out that the tree isn’t a tree, you’re a step ahead. The tree is us. And there are ineffective churches who aren’t making disciples and haven’t seen a baptism in years. There are “country club” churches where it’s more important to be seen there than what is being taught from the pulpit.

There are ineffective pastors who are more concerned with a paycheck or the benefits of the job than making disciples. There are ineffective pastors who are burned out or depressed or tired or hurting or just not good at being a pastor or serving in the wrong context.

We need to evaluate what we’re doing. If we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need to be doing something to make disciples. And we should be seeing some results. Some “fruit” if you will. And if there is no fruit, if we are not making disciples, then there is something wrong. You might expect Jesus to finish the parable with an axe.

After all, the tree is not doing what it is created to do.

But Jesus doesn’t end this parable with an axe.

Jesus finishes the parable with grace. “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:8)

The message is clear. This tree, whether it’s an individual Christian or an entire church, needs someone to come alongside them with a plan. This is exactly what was wrong with the way the district dealt with Trinity Church and what is right with the way the district is dealing with Victory Chapel. I love the grace that the caretaker demonstrates.

There are times when someone who is wrong cries out, “Just give me one more chance” and then a chance is given and nothing has changed. The caretaker isn’t asking for that kind of chance. The caretaker is saying, “Let me work with the tree. Let me do the things that might lead to fruit on the tree.”

Notice that this isn’t cheap grace; the caretaker doesn’t say, “leave it forever.” The caretaker asks for a year. In other words, this parable goes along with Jesus’ response to the interruption earlier. Take every sign as an opportunity to repent, to grow with Jesus, to re-invite the Holy Spirit to take over. To use every opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to evaluate us and lead us back to himself and to his path. For even in the mercy shown by the caretaker, the message is still clear; now is the time to repent and live fruitful lives.

I want to close with this question: if you died today, how would you be remembered? One of the saddest things at funerals is when a eulogy is given, and we hear that “grandpa loved golf” or “grandma loved nature” or “mom was a great cook” and we never hear about the person making any impact whatsoever for the kingdom of God. The good thing is that most of us probably won’t die today – we have the rest of the day, and tomorrow even, to change that obituary. We can make a difference, starting today. The good news is that Jesus Christ can take a dead tree and bring it to life, transforming it! We can all bear fruit! So what would happen if we all decided to make a difference for Jesus Christ between now and Easter?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Set Your Face

How many of you have ever given something up for Lent? I never gave something up for Lent until I was in seminary, and when I did, I gave up pop. Now, you have to realize that I was dirt poor at the time, and my pop consumption was pretty low. I would buy a Pepsi from the machine at the Laundromat for $.35 when I did the laundry, probably about once a week. But the second day of Lent that year, I went to a seminar, and in the intermission, they had a table set out with all kinds of free snacks and free Coke and Cherry Coke… and of course, I had given it up the day before.

I still remember and kind of groan about it, and, upon some reflection, I think I know why. My focus was off. I was focused on myself and what I was giving up. The whole reason I gave it up was because I felt like I was supposed to give something up for Lent. While I have fasted and have seen that discipline help me, I admit that there are times when I have done it for the sake of fasting. Or even because everyone else was doing it or because as a pastor, I figured that everyone expected me to.

The problem is we can practice Christian disciplines without experiencing Christ. Sometimes we aimlessly go about our daily routines without thinking of where we are headed. In Luke 9, we find some remarkable stories. The chapter starts with Jesus sending the 12 disciples out on a teaching and healing journey. He told them to go without supplies for the journey, no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. I can sort of relate to this!

Jesus was making a clear point: trust Me to provide for you. I find it a little remarkable that when the disciples returned and they were debriefing, the crowds found them and came for teaching and healing, but the disciples got all riled up because there wasn’t enough food for everyone. 

Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.”
He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” (Luke 9:12-13)

And so Jesus, using five loaves of bread and two fish, feeds five thousand men (plus women and children). Following this, Luke records several events: Peter’s “great confession” that Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus predicting his death; the transfiguration on the mountain; Jesus healing a demon-possessed boy who the disciples couldn’t heal; and Jesus predicting his death a second time. Even as Jesus is doing all of this, his disciples don’t understand. They are now seen arguing over who would be the greatest.

There is so much going on, but I want to look closely at one verse in the midst of all of this. It is Luke 9:51, and Joel Green, whose class on Luke I took in seminary, called this verse the turning point in the entire gospel. As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Luke 9:51

From now on, everything in Luke’s gospel points to the cross. Jesus wasn’t playing around before, but now he is resolutely set out toward Jerusalem and the cross. I like the way the King James Version puts this: he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Now, we are presented with all sorts of things we know we ought to do. Especially after our vacation (and anyone who has been on a cruise can give me an amen), I know I ought to go on a diet and lose a few pounds. As a student, you know you need to stay in and study, but when the Spring air turns warm, it gets hard. As a parent, there are things we all need to do with our kids or teach our kids to do, but sometimes it’s easier to just do it ourselves. We all have chores we ought to do.

Besides the things we know we ought to do, but sometimes don’t do, there are also things we wish we could do. As a kid, I thought I might become a college basketball player. I had a wicked hook shot and was generally a better player than most of my friends. But unlike my friend Blaine who religiously worked on his basketball moves and his jump shots and free throws, I didn’t practice all that much. So combine this with a lack of natural talent and add a less than optimal height, and all this equals someone who didn’t make the seventh grade team. I wished I could be a player, but I didn’t do anything about it, and although Disney doesn’t want you to believe this, there are wishes that don’t come true.

There are also things in life that we want to do and work at… for a while. Sometimes what we give up for Lent falls into this category. We know that there is a time limit, and we can do anything for a while. New Year’s resolutions are often in this category, where we know we ought to do them, and we really want to do them, and we do them for a while, but after a while, we trail off. I remember belonging to a gym; January was a crowded nightmare, as was the week before Spring Break (hint: if you took months to gain that weight, you aren’t going to be in bikini shape after a week of workouts). But other than that, it was pretty empty.

But what we see Jesus doing here was none of those. Jesus resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem. There is no question that he knew what he was in for. He already told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die. But Jesus set out to accomplish that which he had been sent to earth to do.

Jesus knew that the road he was walking was no vacation or pleasure trip. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem for fun and games. He wasn’t going for entertainment. He wasn’t going because the people were neat or because he liked the music. He wasn’t going for the history or the architecture. He wasn’t going for a better job opportunity. Jesus was going to Jerusalem for one reason, and one reason only. Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die.

I want you to let that sink in for a moment. Jesus resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem when he knew that his mission in Jerusalem was his death. Jesus told his disciples that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22) He wasn’t speaking allegorically. He wasn’t speaking hypothetically. Jesus was speaking the plain truth.

But he also had some plain truth for his disciples. Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26)

We are used to being pretty comfortable in our Christian lives. We do whatever it takes to keep us comfortable. I had to laugh in a former church I served because decidedly more people sat on one side of the sanctuary. I found out that they used to have padded seats on the one side. The pads had all gotten old and nasty and had been thrown away, but that’s where people sat. It was more comfortable. That’s something that in the big scheme of things is unimportant – sit where you are most comfortable in the worship service. But when it comes to important things, sometimes we treasure our comfort and our personal taste over what God treasures.

Jesus asks, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25). In everything we do, we are called to evaluate to determine if what we are doing is moving God’s kingdom forward or not. Even some of the good things we do end up getting in the way of doing the best thing, the thing which God has called us to do, the things that God prepared in advance for us to do [For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10]

Most of us have come to the place where we have said to Jesus, “I will follow you.” In our baptism, we have made a clear declaration that we will follow him; not only is Jesus our Savior, saving us from our sin and guilt and death, but Jesus is also our Lord. We, who pride ourselves in our independence and freedom, have voluntarily become slaves to Christ.

Yet we hold a lot back. In the scripture I read earlier, Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road, and someone comes along and tells Jesus (in Luke 9:57) “I will follow you wherever you go.”

This sounds like a good thing. Jesus has asked us to follow him. This person is not only answering that call, but he tells Jesus that he will follow him anywhere. No matter what. But instead of graciously accepting him into the fold, Jesus offers this response: (Luke 9:58) Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Is he saying this to discourage the man? Does he not want someone to follow? No, that’s not the case. But Jesus wants the man to know the cost of following him. Sometimes we evangelicals, in an attempt to get people to the altar, paint a rosy picture of what it means to be a Christian. If you accept Christ, everything in your life will be perfect. You will get rich. You will be restored to full physical health. You will get your dream job. Your children will obey you. You’ll win the $1 billion dollars for a perfect NCAA bracket. Life will be easy. You will be in-right, outright, upright, downright happy all the time. But Jesus says, “Do you want to follow me wherever I go? I am homeless. Are you willing to be homeless?”

There is a cost to follow Jesus. If you have never had to give something up for the sake of Christ, I would suggest you do some evaluating. Or, better still, ask the Holy Spirit to do that evaluating. I’m not saying that you’re not a Christian if you haven’t given something up; that’s not my place or my intention. But I am suggesting that Jesus doesn’t call us to a comfortable, easy, self-sustaining life where we never have to depend on God for anything.

Let me put it in real terms. When I went to seminary, I asked a friend to write a recommendation. Before he would write it, he asked me, “Is there anything else you can do? Anything at all?” He wasn’t trying to discourage me, but he wanted me to know that if there was anything else I could do, I should. I shouldn’t go into the ministry for any other reason than that God was calling me to it. It’s the same with our missionary journey to Zambia. We aren’t going because we think it’s going to be easy or comfortable. We are going to Zambia because that’s where God is telling us to go. We are going to have to depend on God like never before.

As I was thinking about those words, “depend on God like never before,” I realized how wrong that is. It is wrong to think we will have to depend on God when we are in Africa as if we don’t have to while we are here. We have to depend on God in every moment, no matter if we are here or there.

So, does the would-be disciple continue to follow Jesus? We don’t know. I think Luke purposely doesn’t tell us. He left it open-ended to invite every would-be follower to evaluate: how will following Jesus effect our lives? Are we willing to live with the ramifications, no matter how difficult?

But Jesus isn’t finished. In Luke 9:59 and 61, we find two more would-be disciples who cite family obligations: burying one’s father and saying appropriate goodbyes to another’s family. He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” / Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

It would seem that these are reasonable requests, even falling within the scope of the Old Testament Law. Burying the dead father and saying goodbye to the family would seem to fall under the heading of “Honor your father and mother.”

Listen to Jesus’ responses to what sound like reasonable requests: in Luke 9:60 62). Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” / Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

This sounds unreasonable and harsh. But Jesus will later say (in Luke 14:26): “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” What does this mean?

It means that Jesus has not only radically reordered life, but it demonstrates the seriousness of the demands of the discipleship journey. Jesus doesn’t want half followers. Jesus doesn’t want cultural Christians who won’t follow when the going gets rough. Jesus wants fully devoted followers.

For some of you, this doesn’t seem like good news. Maybe you are beating yourself up because you’d be back, burying your father, saying a long goodbye to your family. Maybe looking at the total picture like Jesus did, the demands seem too great. It is too hard. And my response is, yes, it is too hard. We cannot do it on our own. Even Jesus’ disciples couldn’t do it on their own. When Jesus was arrested, they scattered. It wasn’t until the day of Pentecost when things changed – when the Holy Spirit came upon them.

And we are post-Pentecost people. We live in a world where God has sent the Holy Spirit to live in us, to empower us, to lead us, to comfort us, to guide us. On your own, maybe you’re one who can’t take a step of faith at all, but with the Holy Spirit, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Philippians 4:13).

Also, God doesn’t call you to take the whole journey in one step. God just calls you to take the next step. Yes, our next step is to Zambia. But it is just the next step for us; we have been taking “next steps” for a long time to get us there. So what is your next step? Is it around the world, or across the street? The Holy Spirit will guide you if you let him and obediently follow.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Means of Grace: the Sacraments

As a coach, there is one thing I’ve found that seems true over all age groups and in pretty much any sport. That truth is this: if you focus on the basics, you will be more likely to succeed. Not just focusing on the basics, but practicing them over and over. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a football player try to “thud up” a ball carrier or an outfielder get ready to make the big throw before the ball is in his mitt or a basketball player blow a slam dunk when an easy lay-up would have done just fine. I even remember a soccer teammate who tried to do a fancy backwards overhead kick to clear out the ball and ended up scoring on our own goal.

As a Christian, and as a pastor, I’ve found that sometimes we can focus a whole lot of attention on the little things, and some of them seem really important, but if we don’t spend time focusing on the main thing, we can forget the whole point. A prime example would be a famous pastor and public speaker who has always focused on lost and lonely and alienated people, people who have been pushed to the margins. In exploring some ways the Church has failed these marginalized folks, he recognizes that instead of winning souls by showing them the love of God in Jesus Christ, some churches have instead tried to scare people into heaven by threatening them with Hell. Instead of basing his study and counsel on Scripture, he bases it on emotion, and concludes that a loving God would never send anyone to Hell. As an aside, a loving God does not take a permissive attitude of boys-will-be-boys or humans-will-be-humans. A loving God is also a holy God of justice and will not allow sin to go unchecked; our sin separates us from God, and the due payment for sin is death, and without the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross, our destination is eternal separation from God, and that is what Hell is. Denial of the existence of Hell does not come from studying the scriptures. In fact, an extremely liberal retired pastor friend of mine who happens to be a universalist, even admitted to me point blank that his universalism does not come from the scriptures and he understands that the biblical authors were not universalist.

So anyway, we have been looking at some of the basics of the United Methodist Church. What do we believe? What makes us unique?

One of the things that is most basic for the church is our understanding of the Sacraments. A Sacrament is an action that Jesus Christ commanded as a symbol and a pledge of our love to God and of God’s love toward us. Additionally, the sacraments are the main means of grace, things we do, but through which God works to strengthen and confirm our faith. If you grew up in a different Christian tradition, you might have a different understanding or even count a different number, as Roman Catholics celebrate seven (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing the Sick).

The reason why we have two rather than seven is because Jesus only specifically commanded two: Baptism and Communion. While the others are important rites, Martin Luther first made the distinction that only these two were explicitly commanded by Jesus. Furthermore, not all of them are available for everyone – for example, not all are called to marriage. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul even states that he believes it would be better if unmarried people and widows would remain unmarried, like he was. Likewise with Holy Orders; not everyone is called to be Ordained. In fact there are some who have sought it who might not be called to Ordination…

As for Baptism, not only was Jesus himself baptized, but just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus came to [his disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Jesus commanded baptism.

Baptism signifies the entrance into the family of faith. The United Methodist Church baptizes infants, children, or adults, and we sprinkle, pour, or immerse. This is different from some of our Christian brothers and sisters, some of whom only baptize adults or who only baptize by immersion. John Wesley’s teaching on baptism is kind of funny. Although he was usually so methodical in spelling everything out, he doesn’t do this regarding baptism, presumably because he simply accepts the Anglican view on it. There are some tensions, however, within the scope of United Methodist teaching on baptism.

The first of those tensions is that John Wesley teaches from the Bible that baptism accompanies regeneration, that is, the new birth. In Acts 2, Peter was preaching on the day of Pentecost. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:37-39

Because of this reference, many theologians have continued to link repentance, baptism, and salvation. One of the difficulties in this is the question: if baptism is required for salvation, is it a “work” – and we know that salvation is a gift of grace by faith, not of works. For it is by grace you have been saved, 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) We can never work our way to salvation. So we do not understand baptism as being our salvation, but John Wesley explains that the reason we should be baptized is because Jesus commands it. That should be enough for us. I know many of us fought against that mentality ever since we were kids and our parents told us to do something and when we asked, “Why?” they told us, “Because I’m your mother and I told you to.”

There are times when we might chafe against obedience “because Jesus told us to” until we reflect on the fact that, as we read in Isaiah 40:13-14: Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?

We don’t always know why God tells us to do certain things, only that God’s mind is more than ours, and we know that God has a plan.

Back to baptism. Along with other Christian denominations, we understand it as a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.

When it comes to baptizing children, we recognize that in many occasions, entire households were saved at once, including the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. Paul and Silas were in jail, but God caused an earthquake. The jailer thought everyone had escaped and was preparing to take his own life, as he knew his life was forfeit anyway as soon as his superiors discovered that prisoners had escaped during his watch. But they hadn’t left at all. After Paul spoke the word of the Lord to him and his family, At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. (Acts 16:33) Though the Bible doesn’t explicitly show children being baptized, it doesn’t prohibit them. Indeed, to be careful, one might apply Jesus’ words from Matthew 19:14: Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Furthermore, we believe that baptism is the mark of a new covenant between God and humanity. Through circumcision, children of Abraham were included in the covenant, and through baptism, children are included in the new covenant by their baptism. This is a reminder that baptism is not about us! It’s about God’s grace which God pours out on us!

But baptism is a means of grace that is administered through the Church. If you come to me and ask me to baptize your out-of-town-grandchild who has no connection to this church except through you, I’ll have to tell you no. Because Christianity isn’t just between you and God; it’s between the Church and God. Did you know that the baptismal covenant includes asking the congregation if they will nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include the newly baptized person in their care?

Because children are recipients of God’s grace and are heirs of the kingdom of God, they are acceptable subjects for Christian baptism. But the children of believing parents through baptism become the special responsibility of the Church. They should be nurtured and led to personal acceptance of Christ, and by profession of faith confirm their baptism.

When I was serving in Gahanna, we had mice in the parsonage. We tried poison, snap traps, and glue traps (those are terrible – use snap traps; at least they aren’t so horrible), but nothing would work. I told the senior pastor, and he told me what to do: baptize them and confirm them and you’ll never see them again.

This is not what baptism is all about! Baptism and confirmation are not fire insurance or “Get out of Hell Free” cards. You need to continue in the faith even after you’ve been baptized or confirmed. This is why at our Conference office there is a fountain with the inscription, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Jesus not only instituted baptism, but he also instituted the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. This is the second of our Sacraments. In Luke 22:19, Jesus actually commands his followers to celebrate Communion. And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) Do this in remembrance of me.

One of the reasons that Methodism broke from the Church of England was that during the American Revolution, there were no clergy to give Communion in the American colonies! It was so important that they got to celebrate Communion that John Wesley took matters into his own hands and ordained bishops for America. And when you do that, you cannot expect to stay a part of the original institution!

There are reasons why Communion is so important for us. The Lord's Supper is a representation of our redemption. Every time we receive it, we are reminded that we are redeemed people. We are no longer dead in sin, but we were bought with a price. Indeed, God’s grace is free, but it wasn’t cheap. It cost Jesus dearly. So Communion is also a memorial of the suffering and death of Christ.

This is a reason why we don’t play around with Communion. It is a very solemn celebration – always respectful and dignified, because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did for us. In my youth ministry days, there would always be questions like, “Can we celebrate Communion with potato chips and Coke?” Here is my answer to that: Jesus celebrated Communion using bread and wine. From its beginnings, Methodists were strongly opposed to the “manufacturing, buying, selling, or using intoxicating liquors,” and so the use of wine in church services seemed hypocritical. So Thomas Welch developed a method of pasteurizing grape juice to make it non-alcoholic. So this is why grape juice is acceptable. But bread and the fruit of the vine were what Jesus used. If you are ok with changing the symbols of the faith, then you can be ok with changing the elements of Communion – for example, since Jesus was executed on a cross, we use the cross as one of our main symbols. To update that symbol, you might us an electric chair or a lethal injection needle as a symbol of execution. To me, that wouldn’t be the same, though we could all stand to evaluate what it means to wear a cross as an ornament. So the same reasoning would fit for the Communion elements.

Also, consider the contextual evidence: the images of bread and wine are found throughout the Scriptures, and Jesus’ use of these elements for Communion falls directly into their use in other places. The imagery goes all the way back to the original Passover story, to God feeding Moses and the Israelites with manna and continues with Jesus feeding the 5000 with bread and calling himself the Bread of Life.

Communion is primarily between us and God, but, like Christianity itself, it is not meant to be solitary. Communion is a demonstration of the love and unity which Christians have with Christ and with one another. There is one loaf, given for many. This is why it is important that we see the one loaf being broken – reminding us that we are partaking of the same bread because we are indeed one body. This is why the Communion liturgy asks us to demonstrate signs of peace with one another. This is why we are told to confess our sins and to reconcile before we partake; because to do otherwise is to take Communion wrongly and unworthily.

But all who rightly, worthily and in faith eat the broken bread and drink the blessed cup partake of the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual manner until he returns.

Remember that the means of grace are not ends in themselves, but are the means to the end of holiness. In other words, we baptize not just for the sake of baptism, but to welcome someone into God’s family and help them continue along the path of holiness. We celebrate Communion as it helps us identify with Jesus and know his sacrifice, and it unifies us, which was Jesus’ prayer for his followers.