Sunday, August 25, 2013

What Do Methodists Believe? (John 3:1-7)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.  He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus replied, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born?  It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.  Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be surprised that I said, 'You must be born anew.'"

Today we are wrapping up a four-part series of messages called, “What Do We Believe, Anyway?”  I invite you to take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil so you can jot down whatever you want to take with you today.  Back at the beginning of this series, I shared a common occurrence that happens when people find out I am a United Methodist pastor.  They often cock their head to the side and say, “United Methodist, huh?  What do you people believe?”  Through this series of messages, my hope is that when people ask you, you can give them an answer.

The first thing you can tell them is that Methodists believe what most Christians believe.  Our basic, essential beliefs, the things that are at the core of our faith are also at the core of the faith of other Christian communities, and those just happen to be the beliefs we’ve been looking at over the last three weeks.  We believe in God the Father, who loves us unconditionally because God is love.  We believe in Jesus Christ, who is the love of God with a human face, and we are to believe in him so much that we become like him.  And we believe in the Holy Spirit, who is the ongoing presence of God’s love in our lives.  The Holy Spirit is always a unifying spirit, because God’s love is stronger than other things that might divide us.  These are our most essential beliefs, beliefs that are not exclusive to United Methodists, but are held in common by most other Christians, as well.

Of course, those basic, essential beliefs are not the only thing that we have convictions, opinions, and preferences about.  So, the second thing you can say is that Methodists believe many things.

Some people think this means we are hard to pin down.   Betty Butterfield has a series of videos on YouTube that chronicle her visits to different churches.  She says, “All I had ever known about the Methodists is that they’re sorta like a Poor Man’s Presbyterian, or else people who had left the Anglican Church ‘cause they got tired of squatting, or else Baptists that had gone back to drinking and didn’t want to get judged.  Right there in the middle of all the other churches, if you don’t fit in nowhere else and you ain’t real extreme on nuthin,’ then you can be a Methodist.”

Kidding aside, there’s some truth in that!  Since the time of John Wesley, Methodists have been influenced by a wide variety of other traditions.  Methodism has always been a practical faith – if it works to help people see, know, and experience God, we don’t care who came up with it, Methodists will use it! We borrow from other traditions all the time!  It’s why people of all different backgrounds can come to a Methodist Church and feel at home.  How many of you are lifelong Methodists?  How many of you came from a different faith tradition, but felt strangely at home when you came here, or even recognized that there are certain things we do that remind you of where you came from?  That’s no accident!  We know how to make room for others at the table.

We come from many places and have many perspectives.  United Methodists are, by design, a diverse family of faith.  For instance, did you know that the United Methodist Church includes these two people among its members? 
Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush are both United Methodist Christians.  That’s really something when you think about it!  You belong to a church whose table is wide enough to have a place at it for two people with vastly different political ideologies.  But, how can we have a church that is wide enough to include both the far left and the far right of the American political spectrum and still stand for anything?  Depends on what we think is worth standing for. 

Look, even within my own family, we are across the map in terms of our politics.  My brother is here today, does everyone in our family have the same politics?  Of course not!  There are staunch liberals and conservatives within the family with very strong opinions, yet we hold it together as a family because we’re family – at the end of the day, what unites us at the core is stronger than what could divide us on the periphery.

The same is true for us as a family of faith.  What unites us at the core – Jesus and his love – is stronger than what could divide us on the periphery.  We are secure enough about our core beliefs and convictions, that each of us can make room for those whose opinions and preferences are different from our own.  I’m proud to be part of a church who witnesses to the reality that Jesus is bigger than the distance between these two, and bigger than whatever distance or division we might feel in our own lives.  We maintain a strong conviction and clarity about our essential beliefs, while remaining open and accepting to various points of view, because we are a people of grace. 

That’s the third thing you should know about what Methodists believe: we believe in grace.  In fact, if you remember nothing else about what we believe, remember grace.  Our understanding of grace is the primary reason I’m a United Methodist and not something else.  We believe in grace because of everything we’ve already said about who we believe is.

Grace is the love and mercy given to us by God not because God has to, not because we’ve done anything to earn it or deserve it, but because God wants us to have it.  Grace is a gift from a generous and loving God to every single person who ever has and ever will live.  God’s grace is universally-lavished on all people, in all places, throughout their lives.

God is working in our lives even before we know it.  The scripture we’ve read today from John 3 is the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a Jewish religious leader – a prominent, well-respected member of the community, someone who is lifted up before others as an example of living a life close to God.  You may know that Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t always get along so well.  The Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat to their religious authority, and Jesus saw the Pharisees as a threat to God’s grace.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under darkness.  From a practical standpoint, it’s easy to see why he comes to meet with Jesus while it’s dark.  He has an image in the community to protect and it could be disastrous to be seen with Jesus, or maybe by the time he finished his duties for the day, it was dark, and that was simply the first opportunity he had to go see Jesus.  And that may very well be, but darkness also has a symbolic meaning in Scripture, representing sin, ignorance, temptation, and unbelief.  So let’s use that – there is a darkness of some sort in Nicodemus’ life, yet something about Jesus calls to him in his darkness, and draws him to Jesus.

You see, God is at work in our lives even when everything seems dark.  Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our lives all sorted and figured out, to get our questions resolved, to have our doubts and fears and anxieties and worries eliminated.  The grace of God is working in every heart long before any awareness of God exists.  We find that long before we ever made our first reach toward God, God’s arms of love and mercy were already open; God’s grace was already at work.

We call this “prevenient grace,” which comes from Latin and literally means, “to go before.”  And so, prevenient grace is God’s love and mercy that goes before us and is working on us and in us before we ever think about taking a step out of our darkness toward the Light of Christ.  We believe in grace, specifically that God is working in the lives of all people, regardless of their age, whether or not they acknowledge God or are even aware of God’s presence.

Back in the text, Jesus tells Nicodemus, who is still cloaked by darkness, that the way to see and enter God’s kingdom is by being born again.  Depending on what faith tradition you might come from, you might call that “getting saved,” or “giving your life to the Lord,” or “getting right with God.”  The terms themselves don’t matter so much as the sentiment does – a real turn in our lives in God’s direction.

Nicodemus misses the fact that Jesus is speaking symbolically here, using an analogy that is common to every single person – birth.  Does anyone here remember their own birth?  I don’t remember mine either.  But, in the context of this story, think of birth as the transition from darkness into light.  Think about that.  Before you were born, all you ever knew was darkness.  In fact, you probably didn’t even know it was darkness because you had never had light to compare it to!  Jesus isn’t inviting us into a literal re-birth; he is, however, inviting us to move from our darkness toward life that unfolds in the sunshine of God’s delight.

But God’s grace doesn’t stop at that new birth – we just keep growing in God’s grace.  Ann Duncan and I were talking about her newest grandchild this week, and she commented on how much newborns change and grow, even on a daily basis.  They just keep growing.  When parents give birth to a child, once the birth is over, do the parents say, “OK, we got this child born; our job here is done!”  Of course not – birth is the starting point.  That’s true in a spiritual sense, too.

At our spiritual re-birth, grace moves us into God’s light, and the light transforms us and continues to grow us, and before we know it, God’s light and love is shining out of us in every single direction.  Just as God has been gracious toward us, we are gracious toward others.

I once heard a complaint from someone who didn’t like my preaching – too much love and grace, not enough wrath and judgment.  He said, “Every time I come to church [which, now that I think of it, wasn’t that often], you’re up there going on and on about how much God loves us and how we are supposed to love each other.  Grace and love – that’s all we hear.  How about you tell the truth about wrath and judgment and sin.  There’s a lot of people who need to shape up and fly right out there.”

I said, “Well, rather than singling out the sins of others, what do you say we talk about your sins?  Which one would you like to start with?”

We believe in grace.  How gracious would it be to invite people to come to church with us, with the promise of introducing them to Jesus Christ and his love, and then to beat them over the head with what we perceive are their shortcomings and failures as soon as they walk in the door?  Rather than pointing them toward God’s warm and loving light, that would be the equivalent of throwing a blanket over the head of someone struggling around in the darkness.  We’re not gonna do that.  God was working in us to draw us toward the light of Christ while we were still in darkness, could it not be that we are called to do the same for others?  We believe in grace, we experience grace, and we practice grace.  My wife says that often in our lives, we find we are hemmed in by God’s grace, cleverly disguised as people.

We preach and teach and experience and practice grace here.  Let the Pharisees cling to judgment, but we will cling to grace.  That may not be for everyone, but as people called Methodists, that’s unapologetically who we are and what we’re about.  Grace is what you’re gonna get when you come here.

So, what do Methodists believe?  Yes, it’s true that we believe what other Christians believe and it’s true that we believe many things, but what we really believe in is God’s grace – unconditional, unearned, free and for all.  We believe in grace because we have experienced God as a loving parent, who commissions us to share his love.  God was working in us to draw us toward the light of Christ while we were still in darkness; we are called to bear that light to all others.  We believe in grace – God’s love shining in us, God’s love shining through us.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

We Believe in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-7,11-16)

If you are just joining us for the first time today, we are in the middle of a series of messages called, “What Do We Believe, Anyway?”  This is a four-part series of messages, and today is the third in the series.  I invite you to take out your sermon notes from your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil so that you can jot down anything of interest to you.  If you want to go back and take a look at this or any other sermon, I post them online each week, and you can see where on the top of your sermon notes.

All along, in talking about believing, we have maintained that believing in something is more than having certain thoughts or opinions about it – rather, believing is a matter of trusting it and leaning into the convictions that are most critical and crucial to the life of faith.

We began by affirming our belief in God the Father.  The Scriptures clearly teach “God is love” (1 John 4), and so we begin with the belief that God is much more of a loving parent than a strict judge, and that no matter who we are or what we’ve done, God loves us unconditionally because that’s simply who God is – God is love, Amen?  Last week, we affirmed our belief in Jesus Christ, who we said is the perfect embodiment of God’s love on earth.  Jesus is the love of God with a human face, and we who believe in him are to believe in him so much that we become like him, Amen?

That may sound all well and good, but maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Be like Jesus?  How is that even possible?” Not only is it possible, but in John 14, Jesus tells us that we will do even greater things than he did when we receive the Holy Spirit, who is God’s active presence in our lives.  Whatever God wants to do in the world, whatever God wants to do in and through us happens through the Holy Spirit.  Believing in the Holy Spirit is so important because that’s where the power is.

I have a friend who is also a United Methodist pastor, and one day he was receiving some good-natured ribbing from some Pentecostal friends, who were wondering out loud if the Holy Spirit showed up at a Methodist church, would we even know it?  My friend replied, “The Holy Spirit, does, in fact show up at the Methodist church; he just knows to mind his manners when he’s here.”

The most common place we hear about the Holy Spirit is in the story of Pentecost, in Acts 2.  Pentecost takes place 50 days after Easter Sunday, and it commemorates the story of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the first disciples of Jesus, such that they became bold witnesses of all that God had done in Jesus Christ, going outside themselves, outside their comfort zone, out into the world to share the good news of God’s salvation, inviting people into new life in Christ. 

One of the ways the Holy Spirit showed up that day was as a mighty, rushing, violent wind.  In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God's activity among them, the Biblical writers were saying that the Holy Spirit is like God's breath, like a holy wind. It could not be seen or held: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8). But the effect of God's Spirit, like the wind, could be felt and known.

Wind can be a powerful force.  The many wind storms we’ve witnessed just this summer remind us of that!  At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit showed up among the first followers of Jesus as the rushing sound of a violent wind.  Not a gentle breeze, not a pleasant zephyr - but a violent, hurricane, tornado, typhoon sort of wind.  The Holy Spirit is not a slight stirring of air that makes the windchimes on the back porch sing on a summer evening; the Holy Spirit is a mighty, powerful, take the roof off and blow your shed into the neighbor’s pool kind of wind.  And when the Holy Spirit blows into our lives, it is strong enough to rearrange our priorities and line up our will with God’s will, empowering us to bear witness to the love of God in this world.

We say the church was born on Pentecost – this movement of Jesus followers was spun into existence through the wind-powered testimony of witnesses who were filled with the Holy Spirit, and on that first day alone, the fledgling church grew from 120 people to over 3000.  But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done in one day; The Holy Spirit is still guiding, growing, and gifting the church. 

The scripture we’ve read today from Ephesians tells us that perhaps the most distinguishing and recognizable aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work is that the Holy Spirit is always a unifying spirit.  If God is love, and if the Holy Spirit is God’s enduring presence among us, does it not follow that the Holy Spirit’s prerogative is to unite us in love?  When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s love just radiates from us, spilling out of us in every possible direction, our behaviors and attitudes reflecting those of Christ our Lord. 

Funny story on that.  I was preaching on the Holy Spirit one Sunday, especially how the Holy Spirit works and transforms our hearts to make us more Christlike, and a lady came out with a scowl on her face.  Nothing newsworthy there – she usually had a scowl on her face, being a rather sour, disagreeable person, with a reputation for a quick temper and even sharper tongue – let’s just say “Christlike” is not the first descriptor that came to mind about her.  She said, “I don’t believe in all that Holy Spirit business,” and it took every ounce of self-control I could muster to not say, “Lady, tell me something I didn’t know.”

Friends, it’s not hard to tell if someone has the Holy Spirit in their lives.  If something is truly of God, it will build people up and draw us closer in God’s love, not tear others down and split us apart in fear and hostility.

Today’s text from Ephesians is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is always a unifying spirit.  To be clear here: unity is not the same as uniformity. So, there are differences and there will be differences.  But, being filled with the Holy Spirit ushers us into a reality where the ligaments of love and peace that unite us in Christ are strong enough that we not only withstand, but embrace our diversity, celebrating the many ways in which we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, put it this way: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

God’s design is not to make us all exactly the same, but that the Holy Spirit unite us with the ligaments of love and peace.

Here’s a question to consider: how many churches are there in the world?  If you were to add up all the congregations of every denomination and non-denomination, what would be the total number of churches – any guesses?  There would be exactly one.  There is only one church.  The one church expresses itself in a variety of ways, but through the Holy Spirit, we believe in the unity of God’s church – that there is only one.  It’s one of the things we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed.

You know that line, where we say we believe in the holy catholic church?  I’ve known some folks who crinkle up their nose and cross their arms and say, “I don’t say that part because I don’t believe in that,” which only goes to show that this is perhaps the most misunderstood line in the creed, at least among Protestant Christians.

A lot of Protestants don’t understand what the word “catholic” means.  They think it refers to the Roman Catholic Church, that Christian body headquartered in Rome headed by the pope.  It only means that if we use the word “Catholic” with a big “C.”  However, when we use the word “catholic” with a small “c,” as the Apostles’ Creed does, it means something altogether different.  The word “catholic” with a small “c” means “universal,” describing a church that is comprised of all believers, of every time and place, a church that is bigger than any one nation or tradition or denomination.  The church of Jesus Christ bridges all of those potential divisions.  The unity of the Spirit is a bond that’s stronger than all those differences – it’s something I believe because I’ve experienced it.

During my seminary years, my greatest support system was a group of 11 of us who met every Wednesday morning for breakfast, Scripture study, prayer, reflection, and accountability.  The members of our group were United Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Roman Catholic.  Every Wednesday, I experienced God at work in my life through these friends, and the Holy Spirit bore witness with my spirit that we were, all of us, united to each other because we were united to Christ.  The body of Christ, the church universal that is bigger than each of our respective tradition, was built and strengthened in love.

The Captain and Tennille were on to something when they sang, “Love will keep us together.”  Perhaps a teaching on Christian unity is not quite what they had in mind, but the sentiment is still applicable to us as people of faith – the bonds that hold us together are ligaments of love, and we believe that we are held together in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why is it, then, that so many Christians are prone to argue with each other?  Can you imagine such a thing?  Christians – church people arguing, even fighting about something!  In your wildest imagination, could you ever believe such a thing to be possible?

Here’s what I have come to realize – 99.9% of the arguments that Christians have amongst ourselves are over things that don’t really matter.  Amen?  Most disagreements between Christians are not over essential beliefs, but over personal preference.  I will go so far as to say that the things that divided Christians into one denomination or another, fights between Catholics and Protestants, East and West, conservative and liberal, issues that have splintered congregations, whatever – all the ink and blood Christians have spilt back and forth in wars both actual and ideological has been a colossal waste of time and energy.  Further, such divisions have testified something about God that is quite the opposite from the unifying bonds of peace and love to which we, as people of Christian faith, are called.  If the effort that has gone into winning fights had instead gone into loving others, how much better off might our world be?  If we believe what our faith claims, if what we say is true, if grace really is so amazing, then Christians need to be the ones leading the way in love and peace and reconciliation, not the ones creating dissent and division, Amen?  Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?

We believe in the Holy Spirit.  Today we give witness to the reality that the Holy Spirit is a unifying spirit.  The Holy Spirit equips and empowers us to share God’s love with the world, starting with each other. 

Supplemental Material

When We Say the Apostles’ Creed, what are we really saying?

The third clause of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.”

The Holy Spirit
Along with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is one of three persons who make up the Trinity, or God.  We have already said that God the Father loves us unconditionally: no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or where we’ve been.  God in Jesus Christ embodies unconditional love on earth; Jesus is the love of God with a human face, and we who believe in him are expected to follow him so closely that we become like him.  But how can we do that?  The Holy Spirit: God’s enduring presence on earth.  The Holy Spirit empowers every believer for Christlike living – being full of the love of God and neighbor.

Everything that follows?  The Holy Spirit is the agent that makes all of that possible:

The holy catholic church
This is probably the most mis-understood aspect of the creed among Protestant Christians, and it has to do with the word “catholic.” Did you know, “catholic” with a small “c” means “universal?”  It reminds us that there is only one Church – comprised of all Christians regardless of denomination.  When “Catholic” is used with a big “C,” it refers specifically to the Roman Catholic Church – that Christian body headquartered in Rome led by the pope.  In the creed, we affirm our belief in the small “c” catholic (universal) church – meaning we believe that, regardless of denominational expression, there is only one Church, and Jesus is the head of it.

When Jesus prayed in the garden on the night before his crucifixion, his prayer was that his followers would all be one (John 17).  Being filled with the Holy Spirit, naturally breaks down our suspicion and mistrust of other individuals, congregations, and denominations.  The Holy Spirit helps us look for and recognize the activity of God in places and traditions that are different from our own.  When you find yourself suspicious or untrusting, pray for a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit.

The communion of saints
In the New Testament, “saint” is simply one of many ways of referring to a Christian believer.  “If anyone is in Christ, new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Certainly, anyone who is in Christ, anyone who is participating in God’s new creation, is a saint.

Death is not the end of the story; even death shall not separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). Death shall not separate the saints, who are in Christ, from each other.  We have unity (communion) with the whole body of Christ, whether saints on earth or saints who have gone on to the Church Triumphant.

The forgiveness of sins
The Bible, in its broadest terms, describes sin as a “condition of separation from God.”  The early church fathers described our human will as curvatas, meaning curved away from God.  This is our sin condition, which leads us to commit “sins” – things that are damaging to our relationship with God others, and ourselves.  The Greek word often translated “sin” is hamartia, meaning “to miss the mark.” You can see that a sin is way of missing the mark.

The Holy Spirit makes possible the forgiveness of sins.  “Forgive” means to make things right, to restore, to reconcile.  The Holy Spirit first corrects our curvatas and lines our will back up with God’s will.  The result is that we no longer miss the mark because our lives are lined up with God.

The resurrection of the body
This has less to do with believing in the resurrection of Christ than in the firm conviction that what God did in the lifeless body of Jesus, God will do in us, as well.  We serve a resurrected Lord, and we are called to live resurrected lives.  We expect the Holy Spirit to work a real change within us, to transform something of us from death into life, from despair into hope, from a dead-end into a brand-new beginning.

The life everlasting
It is a myth, a popular one but a myth nonetheless, that eternal life begins at death.  The truth is you don’t have to wait that long.  Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).  Full, abundant, rich, glorious, eternal, everlasting life is available now, and it begins when the Holy Spirit comes in and dwells within us, re-arranges the furniture of our hearts (our priorities), and begins the process of transformation at the depth of our being to make us more like Christ, living lives that forever reflect the glory of God.

One last word on the Apostles’ Creed, and it’s actually the last word of the Creed.  “Amen.”  We say this word all the time, but did you ever think about the word means?  It’s a declaration of affirmation, it literally means, “so be it.”  When you say, “Amen,” you are signing your name for all to see, offering your will for God to do whatever God wants with you and in you and through you.  You should take saying the word “Amen” as seriously as you do before you sign your name to a contract.  God will assume you meant it, and place the Holy Spirit within you to further align your will with God’s heart of unconditional love, to empower you for Christlike living in the world, and to continue the work of transformation that only the Holy Spirit can do.  Amen, and Amen!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Going further in "We Believe in Jesus Christ"

We are in the middle of a sermon series right now called, "What Do We Believe, Anyway?"  We are looking at our most essential and basic beliefs - convictions that are held by Christians of every stripe and flavor.

The series loosely follows the clauses of the Apostles' Creed.  Rather than teaching the creed from the pulpit, I am focusing on aspects of the text from the day and how they affirm our most basic beliefs.  This, of course, leaves many of the aspects of the creed itself unexplored.  Each week, I am putting together supplemental material that accompanies the sermon notes to provide some teaching through the Apostles' Creed.  Here is the supplemental information that was included in the sermon notes for "We Believe in Jesus Christ."

When We Say the Apostles’ Creed, what are we really saying?

The second clause of the Apostles’ Creed says, “[I believe in] Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

Jesus is the name given to our Lord in infancy (Luke 2:21).  “Jesus” comes from the Greek word for the Hebrew name “Joshua,” meaning “savior.”  The angel “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  His name is more than just a name, it tells us what his life would be about.

The New Testament word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah, meaning, “anointed one.”  Anointing with oil was the rite and ritual for consecrating a king.  The disciple Simon Peter says, “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16).  In confessing Jesus as the Christ, we submit ourselves to the values of his kingdom, which are love, compassion, and grace.

God’s only Son
On one hand, we are all children of God.  But here, Jesus is described as God’s only Son.  How do we reconcile this contradiction?

John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.”  The word “begotten” is derived from the Middle English word “beget” which means “to procreate, to father, to sire.”  It suggests that some part of the parent is passed on to the child, that they are made from the same stuff.  When we speak of Jesus as God’s only Son, we are saying that he is made of the same divine stuff as God.

Our Lord
When the earliest Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord,” they were making a controversial political statement.  In those days, people were required to make an oath to the emperor, pledging their ultimate allegiance to and reliance upon him.  The oath was simple: “Caesar is Lord.”  The early Christians knew they were playing with fire when they said, “Jesus is Lord.”  It means, “Jesus is the boss.”  Jesus is in charge, Jesus is running the show.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary
We affirm the full humanity and the full divinity of Jesus.  Jesus is fully human – sharing in all our sadness and all our gladness and the full range of whatever we experience; and Jesus is also fully divine, doing for us only what God can do.

Suffered Under Pontius Pilate; was Crucified, Dead, and Buried
The cross is Christianity’s distinguishing mark.  We worship a suffering servant, a righteous Lord suffers at the hands of the unrighteous.  The cross is an instrument of cruel torture, suffering, and shame.  Yet, Jesus transforms it from a tragic symbol of a cruel and unjust death into an enduring sign that the Master’s work is finished.

Even today Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him to.  We proclaim the central message of God’s kingdom, the message of love, grace, compassion, kindness and inclusion, and to remain faithful to that message even to the point of death.

The Third Day He Rose from the Dead
But death is not the end of the story.  We place our faith in the One who is stronger than death and overcomes death.  St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans said, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Ascended into Heaven, Sitteth at the Right Hand of God the Father
Jesus departed earth in such a way as to teach us that he was no longer physically present on earth, leaving his followers as his ongoing physical presence in the world.  Over all other powers, God reigns.  And at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus has all the majesty, power, authority, and glory of God.

Judge the Quick and the Dead
Judges in courts of law discern guilt and innocence and meet out punishments to fit the crime.  This, however, is not the way the Bible speaks of the role of a judge.  If you think back to the Old Testament, in the period before the kings of Israel, you will recall that the people were governed by judges.  Judges weren’t primarily concerned with matters of guilt or innocence, or making distinctions between who was God and who was bad.  Rather, judges were advocates before God on behalf of the people; if you want to put it in our trial language, judges were more like attorneys than anything else.

Likewise, Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead – he is our advocate before God the Father.  It is as if we have hired the best trial attorney in the world to represent us.  Yes, Jesus judges every single person, which means that he pleads our case before God the Father.  So, when we think of Jesus as our judge, that is not a statement that should fill us with fear, but one that should fill us with hope.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

We Believe in Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 16:13-16)

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.  But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of humans, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”  He said, “And what about you?  Who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

I invite you to take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil so you can jot down anything that you’d like to remember from the message.  Today is the second in a four-part series of messages called, “What Do We Believe, Anyway?”  Human experience confirms that we do not all think the same things – even within one church family, we are a beautifully complex and diverse tapestry of many people with many opinions about many things.  That’s a good thing, too.  John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, seemed to anticipate that, because he said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.”

For our purposes, it is helpful to make a distinction between our beliefs and our views.  We were reminded last week that “believing” something is more than simply having thoughts or ideas about it.  To believe in something is to trust it so much that we lean into it with every fiber of our being.

Our beliefs represent essential things, and those non-essential things?  Those are our views.  Beliefs are a matter of conviction, whereas views are a matter of preference.  You may prefer one color carpet over another, or a particular style of music.  Your views may cause you to pull for one ACC team over another, such that you prefer light blue or dark blue or red or gold and black.

In the life of faith, we are really onto something when we can hold to common, essential beliefs, while making lots of loving room for those whose views are different than our own.

The first essential belief we explored last week is our belief in God the Father, who is much more of a loving parent than a strict judge.

Today it’s this essential belief: “We believe in Jesus Christ.”  May we pray.

My Papa Thomas was born in 1908, and he used to make all sorts of outrageous claims about his age.  For instance, he told us he was so old, that he was the one who first taught baby bullfrogs how to swim.  He told us he was so old that his drivers’ license number was 7, and his social security number was 12.  Of course, I didn’t understand the rhetorical device of hyperbole then, and I believed every single word of it – what innocent child would ever suspect that his grandfather would just stand there and lie to him with such outrageous claims?

Jesus made some outrageous claims about himself, as well.  C.S. Lewis famously said that when it comes to the claims of Jesus, we have one of three options as to how to take him, either as “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.”

And if he is Lord, as our faith claims, everything we said last week about God the Father, who sees us when we are still far off, whose arms are open to receive us, no matter who we are, no matter where we've been, no matter what we've done – Jesus is the embodiment of all that.  Jesus is the one who shows us what it looks like when God shows up in our world; Jesus is the love of God with a human face.

The scripture we read from Philippians 2 is a beautiful, poetic expression of this belief.  Picture Jesus, seated in the splendor of heaven willingly leaving all that, humbly coming to this earth as one of us, accepting ridicule and shame, punishment and even death, both to give us the gift of new life, and to show us the best way to live in our new life.

The hymn ends with this climactic refrain:Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father – words that are so familiar and comforting to us we forget how controversial and inflammatory they were when spoken by the earliest followers of Jesus.

Why?  Because in the time of the Roman Empire, everyone within the empire was required to take an oath of loyalty to the emperor.  What was that oath?  “Caesar is Lord.”  It meant Caesar was in charge, in control, the boss.

Along come the early Christians, and they start saying, “Jesus is Lord.”  Caesar stood as the most powerful figure of the time, commander of a great army, ruler over a vast and prosperous empire – and he only asked one simple thing – “Just call me Lord.”  And yet, the early Christians instead said, “Actually, Jesus is Lord.  You know, that guy over in Palestine who preached love and humility and forgiveness and acceptance, who was executed as an enemy of the state and was buried in a borrowed grave – the guy who couldn’t be any more the opposite of the earthly power of wealth of the empire, you know the one – yeah, he is Lord, not Caesar.  You heard us, Jesus is Lord.  We believe in Jesus.”

As if they aren’t in enough trouble, they start singing this little hymn from the 2nd chapter of Philippians, with its outrageous claims that a day will come when every knee will bow before Jesus, and every tongue will confess he is Lord.  Every knee, every tongue - presumably including powerful, wealthy Caesar himself.  They knew the consequence for such an outrageous claim would be certain death, yet their belief, their trust in Jesus as Lord was so firm, they just kept right on singing.  Even the threat of death paled in comparison to the joy and new life they were already experiencing in Jesus Christ – and I can’t help but wonder what it would look like for us to have a faith as deep and life-giving as that.

We believe in Jesus Christ.  Despite what you might have heard somewhere, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, but it does help us identity him.  It tells us more about who he is and what he’s up to in our world.  From his first disciples down through the generations, we recognize him as the “Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek – but in any language, we believe that Jesus is God’s anointed One – the one who not only announces God’s kingdom of peace, but ushers it into existence – the one who is literally going to save the world.

Wow.  I wonder what it’s like to know something like that about yourself without letting it go to your head.  I daresay that if someone said that about me, I think I just might get a good ego boost out of that! But here’s the kicker – Jesus responds with humility.  As Rob Bell says, “If anyone didn’t have a Messiah complex, it was Jesus.”  He leads by serving, and expects us to do the same.

Going back to our Philippians text, “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus,” or another translation is “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, “Be like Jesus.”

Did you ever think about why we call ourselves, “Christians?”  The word “Christian” literally means, “Mini Christ.”  It was originally used to make fun of the first followers of Jesus – “Look at those people who are imitating Christ!” but it struck a chord with those followers that made them say, “Actually, yes!  That’s what we’re about!  Being like Jesus – that’s the whole point!  Thanks for noticing!”

The office manager at my wife’s church goes to the Disciples of Christ Church, known as the “The Christian Church.”  She has worked at the Methodist church for years, and the whole time, people in the church have been trying to get her to start coming to church there.  She told me, “They’ve been trying to make a Methodist out of this Christian.”  I responded, “That’s funny, because I’ve spent my whole ministry trying to make Christians out of Methodists!”

With God’s help, being a Christian and following Jesus means doing as he did – not seeking the things that feed our own egos and satisfy our own needs, but choosing instead a humble life of loving service and sacrifice that gives worth, dignity, and even life itself to those around us, to the glory of God our Father.

Friends, that’s the goal.  It’s my hope and prayer for you every week when you come to worship – that something in this time we spend together on Sunday morning, something we sing, something we pray, something I say, will help you become a better Christian, a better reflection of Christ, looking a little more like Jesus when you go home than you did when you walked in.  I’m hoping and praying [and even expecting] that something of his mind and heart rubs off on you while you’re here – that you take on some of his character, that you grow in his love, that you’re better equipped to serve in his name – if, by the grace of God, that actually happens for you, then it’s been a good day in worship.  If our faith is leading us to become more like Jesus, then we’re onto something truly life-changing.

We believe in Jesus.  Believing in Jesus is so much more than having certain thoughts about him or making certain claims about him.  Believing in Jesus will change our lives.  May we believe in him so much that we become like him.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

We Believe in God the Father (Luke 15:11-24)

A certain man had two sons.  The younger son said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.”  Then the father divided his estate between them.  Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away.  There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need.  He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his field to feed pigs.  He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.  When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!  I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.  Take me on as one of your hired hands.”  So he got up and went to his father.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion.  His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.  Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.”  But the father said to his servants, “Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him!  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!  Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it.  We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life!  He was lost and is found!”  And they began to celebrate.

You know that conversation you have with a complete stranger on an airplane or waiting for your car’s oil to be changed?  That conversation that is little more than polite small talk – both of you passing the time more than anything else – you familiar with this conversation?

There comes that point in this conversation where your new friend turns to you and says, “So, what do you do?”  When I tell them I’m a United Methodist pastor, one of three things happens – conversation shuts down completely and they make some excuse to get away from me, they start gushing their life story and confessing and apologizing for not going to church more often, or they say, “What do you people believe, anyway?”

Today we are starting a four-week series of messages called, “What do we believe, anyway?”  For us, as United Methodist Christians, that can be a tricky question to nail down. We are a diverse faith family, a patchwork tapestry of many people with many opinions about a great number of things.

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, wrote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  So, what is essential?  The easiest and most direct way to answer the question is to affirm the statements that are made in the Apostles’ Creed, which we affirm as a clear and accurate statement of our faith.  It tells us who God is, who we are, and what God is up to in our world.  It’s a statement of belief, the word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, literally meaning, “I believe.”

Many churches use the Apostles’ Creed every week in worship, others have never heard of it, and then there are churches like us who use it sometimes.  One argument I’ve heard against using the Apostles’ Creed weekly is that people recite it without giving a whole lot of thought to what they’re saying and the words lose their meaning.

I think of it a little differently. 
Ashley and I are just an old married couple at this point – we’ve been married almost two years by now, and she knows I love her, so I don’t need to keep telling her I love her, do I?  You know, if I say it too much, it just won’t mean as much, she certainly doesn’t need to hear it from me every day – ladies, am I right?

To be sure, I can mumble the words “I love you” without any thought or feeling, but the better thing – both for our relationship and my physical well-being – is to really mean it every time I say it.  Likewise, we can mumble through our words in worship – our prayers, our creeds, our liturgies, our songs, but the better thing is to really ingest and be transformed by every word we hear and say in worship.

The Apostles’ Creed begins with one sentence: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  That’s an essential thing we believe!  But, what are we really saying?  It’s only one sentence, but when you start to break it down, it’s a mouthful.  What does it mean, to say that we believe in God the Father?

Well, first, let’s talk about what it means to believe something.  When I was on staff at Boone United Methodist, our senior pastor stopped at Hardees to pick up a sausage biscuit on his way in.  He was wearing his Boone United Methodist Church polo shirt, and the guy in front of him looked at and said, “United Methodist, huh?  Do y’all believe in the King James Bible over there?”, to which my friend, John, replied, “Believe in it?!  Shoot, I’ve even seen one!”

But there’s more to believing in something than simply thinking that it exists.  Believing is more than a mental exercise, it is more than an idea in our head, it is more than what we think and feel about something.  In the life of faith, believing is a matter of trusting so much that we place our weight on it, we lean fully into it, we stake our very self and our whole identity on it.  And so, when we say, “We believe in God the Father,” it’s more than a mental exercise.  We are proclaiming that we trust and are leaning fully with every fiber of our being into the heart of God our Father.

God our Father
God is the Father whose heart beats with love for all of God’s children, and this image comes through clearly in the Scripture we’ve read today from the 15th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  It is the parable of the prodigal son – a story Jesus told about a man who had two sons.  The younger son, in an act of selfish disrespect toward his father, demanded his share of the inheritance.  I always expect the father to respond as my dad would have when I was a teenager and say, “If you want some money, GO GET A JOB!”  Not in the story Jesus told, however.  The first clue that this story is more about the character of the father than the son is that the father responds completely unexpectedly: he says, “OK, here is your share.”  No sooner is the check deposited and the son packs up his new car and heads off to some distant place where there’ll be fun, fun, fun and no one to take it away.

In no time at all he has made the sort of friends one makes when one has more money than sense.  You wouldn’t believe the stuff he bought, either, most of it was just a waste.  In fact, the word, “prodigal” means “one who wastes money,” which is why Jesus called this the story of the prodigal son.  It’s not hard to see how his money eventually ran out, and when it did, so did all of his new so-called friends.  He is left with nothing, and since the economy crashed about the same time as he blew through his money, he ended up feeding some guy’s pigs, and was so hungry he often found himself fighting with the pigs for whatever scraps were in the slop bucket.

His life was low.  In the basement, rock-bottom low.  As he wrestles a half-wilted pod away from one of the pigs, he thinks, “What am I doing?  Has my life really come to this?  Even the servants in my father’s house have food to eat.  I will go and beg my father’s forgiveness – I’ve squandered my right to be called his son, but maybe, just maybe, he will let me work for him as the lowest of his servants.”

I sort of imagine the son rehearsing his apology speech all the way home.  He isn’t looking forward to this conversation with his father.  He is so ashamed, so embarrassed.  How will his father react?  Will he be angry?  Hurt?  Wrathful?

Here’s where the Father does something else unexpected, and this, again, should tell us a lot about this father.  As Jesus tells it:  While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion.  His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.  Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.”  But the father said to his servants, “Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him!  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!  Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it.  We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life!  He was lost and is found!”  And they began to celebrate.

It says the Father saw him when he was still far off.  That means the Father was looking for him!  Every day since the son left home, I have this picture of the father standing on the porch, looking off into the distance, walking out to the front gate and scanning the horizon – just hoping and praying that this will be the day his son returns.  Not because he’s angry, not because he wants to give him a piece of his mind, not because he wants to punish him, but because he still loves him.  Though he is disobedient, though he is selfish, though he has wasted and squandered everything ever given to him, though he has done all of that – the father continues to act out of love for his son, grieving for the lost relationship, and longing for the day when it will be restored.

Friends, we believe in God the Father, who sees us when we are still far off, who is running to meet us even when we don’t know who we are or where we belong.  We believe in God who is much more of a loving parent than a strict judge; we believe in God who is for us, and not out to get us.  Never forget that.  We believe in God the Father, whose arms of mercy and grace are already open to receive us, and whose love and compassion for us are greater than any bad thing we may have done.  God loves us unconditionally not because God has to, but because that’s simply who God is.

I like the way this little song from Wendy Francisco puts it: (Play “God and Dog” video at

We believe in God the Father – whose love is as deep as the ocean and as high as the mountain, as innumerable as the stars in the heaven, and as sure as a parent’s embrace, thanks be to God!