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.

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