Sermon: Growing in Grace

Relationships are complicated.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a relationship with our significant other, a family member, a close friend, or someone we work with. In general, a relationship with another person is complicated and filled with various emotions and stages.

There are periods when everything is going well. Everyone is happy. There is a lot of sharing of life. There is solid communication. There is a deep level of connection and trust.

There are times when the relationship is just not great. The people in the relationship may be in the same room, but no one is talking. In fact, they haven’t spoken in days. There is no connection, and there is no sharing of life. No one is happy.

Then there are those times when the relationship is “eh.” Everyone is just there, and doing what they have to do to maintain the status quo. There is a minimal amount of connection and sharing. The relationship is on cruise control. There is no excitement and no true joy.

We’ve all been in relationships. We have felt the joy of a relationship that is going great. We’ve felt the pain of a relationship that is on the rocks. We’ve even felt the emotional disconnect of a relationship that is just going through the motions. Each relationship goes through these stages, and sometimes multiple times over a life of a relationship. That is why commitment and consistency is so important in our relationships. A relationship built on commitment can manage the highest of highs, survive the lowest of lows, and be encouraged in times of disconnect.

Would you believe that our relationship with Jesus Christ goes through these stages?

There are times when our relationship with Christ is on fire. We feel the presence of the Lord. We are sharing our life with Christ. We are growing in the likeness of Christ. Things are going great.

There are times when our relationship with Christ is not great. We feel distant to God. We feel as though we don’t know Christ as we should, or maybe as we had once before. There is a void in our relationship with Christ.

Then there are times when things in our relationship with Christ are just “eh.” We’re reading the Bible, and having times for devotion, but we’re not getting anything. We come to church, but we don’t feel the presence of the Lord. We pray, but we’re empty. We are going through the motions.

In our relationship with Christ, we are going to experience those emotions. Wherever you are in your relationship today, I want you to know it is OK. If you feel on fire for the Lord today, awesome. If you feel discouraged or disconnected with Christ, I want to encourage you. Press forward, because I promise you Christ will meet you when you least expect it.

Our relationship with Christ is one of the central themes in our Scripture passage for today. Jesus says we are to remain in him, and, then, Christ will remain in us. Christ calls us to grow in our relationship with him, and to press forward at all times. When we remain in Christ, when we allow Christ to be at the center of our hearts, Christ promises us that he will meet us there through the Holy Spirit. He will grow in us and transform us to be what God desires us to be.

We’re called to continually grow in our relationship with Christ. So, how do we grow in our relationship with Christ? How does Christ respond?

We grow in our relationship with Christ is by observing the Means of Grace, which is a central idea in the Methodist movement. We believe these are expressions of our faith God uses to bestow his grace upon us. They help us grow in our relationship with God. These are spiritual disciplines that are found in the words of Scripture. They help us grow in our faith, and experience the presence of the Lord. They help us remain in our relationship with Christ.

What are the Means of Grace? There are two groups – instituted and the prudential. The instituted means of grace are disciplines Christ specifically instituted and called his disciples to use. The prudential means of grace are disciplines that we are encouraged to do as expressions of our faith in the world, such as doing good, caring for the poor and hungry, saving our money, giving to others, and opposing slavery.

We’re going to focus specifically on the instituted Means of Grace. If we are practicing the instituted Means of Grace, then the prudential Means of Grace will flow out as a part of our life. As we look at these spiritual disciplines, I hope you will see is that they help us grow in our relationship with Christ, in the good times, the bad times, and the times when we are going through the motions.

The first Means of Grace is communion. In communion, we remember the cost of our Lord’s death. Christ’s body was broken because of our sin, and his blood was poured out so that we may live as people of the New Covenant. At communion, we seek to be forgiven, both individually and as a community, through the grace of our Lord.

Communion helps us to look forward. As we experience the presence of the Lord, we are transformed to be the living witness of Jesus Christ both here and in our communities. Communion deepens our relationship with Christ by allowing us to experience the living presence in our lives. We remain in Christ by remaining the presence of the Lord always.

We also experience the living presence of our Lord when we read Scripture. The words of Scripture contain our story. It is the story of God who created this world out of nothing, of God who continually sought after humanity, of God who sent his Son to live among us – to die the death of our sin, be resurrected, and live still today – of God who lives among us today through the Holy Spirit. In reading the story of God, we can find ourselves in this story. We see God’s love for us, and how God has interacted and cared for this world.

In Revelation 10:9, the Apostle John was told to eat the words of the scroll given to him by the Angel of the Lord. Scripture was the nourishment, the food, for his soul, just as it is to be for us. The story of Scripture is to be our source of life. It is our story. This is what we mean by reading Scripture. We want to eat these words, to meditate on these words, and allow them to become part of who we are. When we know the story as our own, we live the story of God in our lives and in our interaction with others.

I know the hesitations when it comes to reading Scripture. “Pastor, I just don’t have time.” “I don’t understand it.” Let me make some points, for all of us, as it relates to Scripture. First, start small and work your way to a bigger devotional life. If all you can do is a chapter a day right now, then that’s great. The point is to immerse yourself in the story of Scripture, and not fit some self-imposed goal to read a certain about each day. Build yourself up to the point where reading Scripture becomes natural. Even more, read all of Scripture. You cannot know your story unless you know the entire story. If you want a target, have this in mind: If you read four chapters a day, you will read the entire Bible in a year. If you have a difficult time understanding Scripture, I want to encourage you to find a translation that works for you, and that you can comprehend. Also, find a good a study Bible, which offers notes and thoughts on verses. These are great tools in reading Scripture and helping you grow in your faith and relationship with Christ.

If we are take time to read Scripture, then we will know the story of God as our story. I’m not speaking of knowing verse and chapter, but knowing the entire story and how it impacts our lives. This will shape us as individuals, as we will know our place in God’s story. It will shape us as a community, because we will serve others with an understanding of how we each play a role in God’s kingdom.

Another means of grace is prayer. Richard Foster writes that in prayer we are in “communal relationship” with the father. Prayer is our way of talking with God. In prayer, we humbly seek God. Prayer follows the flow of the Lord’s Prayer, as it glorifies God, seeks his provision in our lives, confesses our sin, and ask for God’s protection. In prayer, God enters the depths of our soul. Scripture is filled with passionate prayers where we see the full range of emotions given over to God. The Psalms are full of prayers of love, desperation, anger, hope, and pain. In prayer, we share with God the entirety of our lives.

Like any relationship, we need to talk and communicate fully with the person we are in relationship with. So is it with our relationship with Christ. If we are not talking with God, honestly and openly, we are not growing in our relationship. Prayer fosters the relationship by allowing God to be in our hearts, while we seek God’s heart for us individually, and as a church. I encourage you to find time to simply talk with God. Find moments when you are alone and can seek God, and talk with God as you would a friend. These tender prayerful moments will be times of growth in our relationship with Christ.

We are also called to grow in our relationship by fasting, which means giving something up for a period of time. In fasting, we find the obstacles in our relationship with God and give those things up. In the times when we do those things (whether it is eating, watching television, spending time on the computer, or what have you), we give that time to God. In Joel 2, fasting occurs as a time of repentance. It is that time when we confess our sin, and, through the working of the Holy Spirit, remove obstacles that stand in the way of true faith in Christ.

We often think of fasting during Lent, but I want to encourage all of us, myself included, to find time to fast. I don’t believe it always has to be a food fast. A fast can including anything that stands between you and God. Find those things, and then take time to seek the Lord. When we do, I believe we will find that our relationship strengthened and renewed. We find we didn’t need that obstacle, and we can grow in relationship with Christ. When we fast, we see we can do nothing apart from Christ. We need Christ for our provision, our care, and our growth and maturity in the faith.

Finally, we are called to be in community with one another. We cannot grow in our relationships alone. We need each other. The same is true with our relationship with Christ. We need the witness of the community of Christians, the church, to be together, and strengthen one another, through our words, our presence, and encouragement to one another. Acts 2 reminds us that the body of Christ is called to be there for one another. When we meet together, we feel the Lord’s presence. When we are encouraged, the living presence of the Lord strengthens us and abides in us.

We cannot grow on our own, but together we can, through the working of the Holy Spirit, grow in our relationship with Christ individually and as a community.

These are the graces, the disciplines, God has called us to observe. You might be doing some of these today. If you are, I want to encourage you to keep at it. If you’re not, I want to encourage you to put into practice one of these disciplines this week.

A relationship cannot be sustained on its own, and neither can our relationship with Christ. These graces, these disciplines, are there for us to feel the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, so that we may grow in our relationship with Christ.

These graces will sustain our relationship with Christ in the good, it will encourage us in the bad, and give us focus in the times of “eh.” Be strengthened and encouraged in your relationship with Christ, by being a people of communion, Scripture, prayer, fasting, and community.

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Saturday Evening Thoughts

Here are some things that I am thinking about tonight:

The St. Louis Cardinals proved me wrong … again.

I gave up on the Cardinals sometime in the summer, and didn’t believe the team would make it to the playoffs. Even when they made the playoffs, I had no notion that a World Series title was possible.

I am glad to be proven wrong … again.

I say again because the script of the 2011 season is similar, for me, as it was in 2006. That year, I gave up on the championship potential of that group only to be proven wrong in October.

This group had a lot of heart and poise throughout the postseason. I firmly believe that we will be talking about this team, and the comeback, for decades to come. It was a coming out party for David Freese, a long-awaited championship win for Lance Berkman and Arthur Rhodes, and another legacy building moment for Albert Pujols.

Now with the offseason in hand, Pujols is a free agent. I firmly believe that Pujols will be back in St. Louis in February. I can’t see Pujols wanting to be anywhere else, and I can’t see anyone, other than the Angels, really make a major stab at the soon-to-be 32-year-old first baseman.

We’ll soon see. Right now, though, I’m enjoying a championship, and being proven wrong … again.

One of the things that has been on my mind, lately, is the embracing of the occupy movement and the liberal wing of the church. There seems to be an immediate appeal and attraction to the group, just as there is between the Tea Party and some of the conservative bent.

I wonder, though, if it is good for the church to openly embrace political movements such as the occupy movement and Tea Party movement. Once you get beyond the rhetoric, both are ideological movements geared towards the accumulation of more power. Both have attempted, at least through supporters, to use faith as a justification of their political goals and dreams.

When the church seeks to grab power, it weakens its ability to proclaim the truth of the Gospel that transcends both liberal and conservative movements. To identify solely with one group, or one ideology, is really an idolatrous approach to engagement with the world.

Because of the over political climate we live in few will understand this concept. They will, instead, operate under the assumption of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” When the church aligns itself with these movements, it becomes nothing more than a partisan expression of the Gospel, even though the Gospel speaks above our political fray. In our attempts to engage the deep issues of the day, we confess that our true god is political power and not serving the true God.

The church has every right to engage politically, but it should not be partisan. It must speak to the wrongs committed by both sides, and not simply say “my side is right, and God agrees.”

I yearn for true Christian engagement. As we enter the 2012 political season, I do not expect to see it from the church, which is in desperate need of leaders who will rise above partisan rhetoric and occupation protests, and offer deep, honest, and humble perspectives on the issues we face.

Maybe, I should do that more.

Finally, I want to offer you a chance to read a great article on a family member, Michael Sobeski, who is playing for the No. 5 Clemson Tigers.

Sermon: Be Imitators of God

As children, we were quite inventive with the games we would play. We would pretend that we were a cop on the chase of the bad guy; a soldier being deployed into the battlefield; or some other character with heroic qualities.

Our imaginations were limitless on the identities we would create, and the lives that we would imitate when we were playing games. When I played sports, I would imagine that I was making the game winning shot, even if it took me several dozen tries to get the ball into the hoop. I was just fouled a lot, I would think to myself.

Do you notice something here? When we imitate someone else, we always take on the best qualities. We never imagined we were someone who wasn’t worth following. You were always disappointed if it was your turn to be the robber. When playing sports, no one pretended to be the bench sitter, or even the water boy. You wanted to be the best, because that is what was worth imitating.

Even today, we want to imitate the best things in life. That sentence gets to the heart of what it means to imitate someone. We take the best qualities about someone we admire and make them part of our own life. In other words, that which we admire becomes that which is our own. For instance, if we admire the work ethic of our parents, we are more likely to have a strong work ethic ourselves. We are not going to imitate something we do not find admirable. If a friend is a cheat, and we see what has happened, we probably will refrain from cheating in our own lives.

As the saying goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We honor someone, and show them our affection, when we take on something we admire about them as our own. I want you to think about that as we go forward in our time together today. So, let me say that again. We honor someone, and show them our affection, when we take on something we admire about them as our own.

Our passage for today talks about this idea of imitation, but points it in the direction of God. Paul says we are to “imitate God” because we are God’s “dear children.” When we accept God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ, we are adopted into God’s family and become one of God’s children. Since we are part of God’s family, we want to imitate God and make God’s character part of our own life.

That is a deep thought. It is a thought that helps us to consider what it means for us to be followers of Christ who happen to be Methodist. The idea of imitating God gets to the heart of one of the key points in how we, as Methodists, understand faith. In imitating God, we are take on aspects of God’s holiness and make it part of our life. To live lives that are holy is what it means to imitate God because we are God’s children.

When we think of holiness, we mean the setting apart of God’s children by taking on some of the qualities of God. As Christians, we are called to not look like the world, but to instead reflect the character of God in our personal and public lives. Often, this is the point that gets lost in our relationship with God. We’ve missed what it means to “imitate God” because we are God’s children when we cannot tell the difference between a follower of Christ and someone who is outside a relationship with God.

Holiness gets to the heart of sanctification. As Methodists, we believe God’s grace works in three specific ways. First, is the grace that goes before us. This is God’s prevenient grace. The second grace, justification, is available to us when we believe that Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin. The third grace is sanctification. By sanctification, we believe God’s grace is at work in transforming us into a new creation. This happens in the renewal of our souls and character through the work of the Holy Spirit. at the depths of our soul so that we may reflect the character, and the holiness, of God in our lives. In John 14, Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will be with us, and working in us, to show us the way to the Father, and what it means to maintain His teachings and following Jesus in our world. The pursuit of sanctification is what it means to be on a journey of faith, a pathway of holiness.

Sanctification, or holiness, is not a backdoor attempt at works righteousness. We cannot be saved by our own doing. Our salvation does not come from being the nicest person, the biggest giver, or the person that goes on the most mission trips. We cannot earn points for our good deeds. Our good deeds are a fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ, and not the cause of our salvation. It is only faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior that we are saved. Sanctification, or holiness, is a fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ. It flows out of relationship with Jesus Christ. When our souls are planted in Jesus Christ, fruit begins to spring forth as we grow in Christ’s love.

As we grow in our relationship with Christ, Christ’s love for us, through the Holy Spirit, begins to transform us. When we allow Christ to be at work in our lives, we become a new creature, a new person. We become what God has always desired us to be, and we become equipped for ministry and service in the kingdom of God.

There is a key word in that sentence. The word is become.

Sanctification and holiness helps us understand the “being” aspect of faith in Christ. It is not enough to simply have a “get out of jail free” card, but we are called to grow in the likeness of God, and to participate in God’s character and mission in this world. God is the perfect One we should imitate, because God, by God’s own very nature, is the perfect picture of righteousness. This is why our holiness is important. Because God is holy, we are called to participate in God’s character by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us. As a new creation, we become a reflection of God’s character here in our world.

We can see this throughout Scripture. In Leviticus chapter 20, God says we are to be holy because God is holy. If we truly want to be in relationship with God, then we must be concerned about holiness in our lives and in our community. In 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Paul writes we are called to live “holy lives, and not impure lives.” This gets back to the idea that since God is holy, we are to participate in God’s holiness, and imitate God by participating in that life in our own lives.

What does God’s holiness look like, then? God’s holiness is about God’s character. At the center of God’s character is love, forgiveness, hope, justice, peace, reconciliation, grace, understanding, truth, salvation, and so on. These characteristics make up who God is. When we grow in faith, this is what we are participating in. For us, holiness become the fruit of the spirit, as we see in Galatians 5:22-23. In sanctification and growth in our relationship with God, we become known by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, among other gifts and graces bestowed upon us by God. We are called to be holy, because God is holy.

What does this call to be holy mean for us as today?

The first thing is that holiness means there are things we cannot support, because it goes against God’s character. If we are to participate in the life of God, and what God is doing in our midst through the life of Jesus Christ experienced through the Holy Spirit, then we must be concerned about sin. We cannot ignore sin that exists in our own lives, and in the life of our community. For too long, we have allowed sin to be ignored. The turning a blind eye to sin causes a problem in our relationship with God. If God calls us to be holy, and we ignore this command by seeking our own will, then what god are we truly serving? When we do something that is counter to what God desires, when we sin, we place an obstacle in our relationship with God that can only be removed through repentance and forgiveness.

Holiness means we must be set apart as a holy people. This doesn’t mean we hide from the world. Instead, it means that we are called to in the world, but not of the world. We live in this world, but we are not defined by the things of this world. Instead, we are defined by our relationship with God. If we are a people who are set apart for holiness, then we cannot be a people defined by impurity, greed, falseness, and other sins. We cannot be identified by things that do not come from God.

This is where, I believe, the church globally is missing the point. In our concern about declining numbers, we have weakened the idea of being set apart from the world. In fact, we have ignored holiness all together. In some cases, there is not much difference between someone who confesses a faith in Christ from someone who doesn’t. In thinking about this, my heart goes to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 when he says many will say, “Lord, Lord,” but that he does not know who they are.

I fear this is the place many in the church today find themselves. We confess a faith in Christ, but we do not look much different from the world around us. Instead of reflecting the character of God, we reflect the character of commercialism and self-centeredness. We must repent of this sin as a church universal, and return to what it means to truly follow God. We must be a church that proclaims the truth of the Christian message, even if it means the message is too difficult for some. If we are true to the message of Jesus Christ, we will encounter our own rich man, who when Jesus told him the cost of being a disciple simply walked away.

Finally, holiness is a journey. It is a process. We will make mistakes. We will fall. None of us are perfect, but we are called to grow in our relationship. We do that by allowing Christ to grow in us. We take our faith in Christ seriously, not just as a key to salvation, but as a key to living the life of the kingdom here, as we await the fullness to come.

We do not grow in isolation. We are called to grow in community. We cannot grow in holiness alone. I encourage you to find a community – small group, a Bible study, or an accountability group among friends – who will each partner with each other to grow together in sanctification, through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If you want some help in starting this, see me, because I believe this is important not just for you, but for my life, and growth as a Christian, as well.

Holiness is a central aspect of faith. This is not just something for a few, but all of us as the royal priesthood of believers. Each of us are called to enter this journey of sanctification and to grow in a life of imitating God, because we are God’s children. Let us imitate God’s character, and grow in a relationship that reaches the fullness of a living faith in God.

So, ask yourself a question. Who are you imitating? Are you imitating the God, or are you imitating the world?

 

Sunday Thoughts and Sermon Notes

Today, I did something that is quite vulnerable for anyone including a pastor.

I told my story of faith during the sermon time at both churches. It was an emotional time, as I walked my journey of faith through the lens of God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. After being at Mackville and Antioch for four months, this Sunday seemed like the right time to tell my story. I’m glad that I shared it.

I am truly blessed by God’s love and the journey my faith has taken, both the ups and the downs. I wouldn’t be who I am today without God’s love.

Today might have been the most rewarding and humbling day in my short pastorate life.

Typically, I will post the text to my sermon on Sunday or Monday. This week, I do not really have a text for the sermon. That is because of the nature of this week’s sermon. Instead, here are some talking points of what we talked about, along with my story.

Those talking points are:

  • Grace is a word that gets tossed around easily in the church. We say that grace is love, forgiveness, hope, peace, and mercy. It is all of those things and more. Grace is the unmerited free gift of God’s love given to us.
  • Grace is one of the central themes of the Methodist movement and Wesleyan theology. Our understanding of God’s grace helps us to understand God’s love for us, and to see how God desires us to live in response to the free gift of grace.
  • In Wesleyan theology, we believe that God’s grace can be seen in three ways. The first is God’s prevenient grace. The second is God’s justifying grace. The third is God’s sanctifying grace. In our relationships with Christ, we have been touched by these three graces.
  • God’s prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us. This is especially true before we come to know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. God’s grace goes before us and prepares the way for us to come to know who Jesus is, and what he did for us on the cross. One way we see this grace is in the lives that impacted us before we came to faith.
  • God’s prevenient grace, through the Holy Spirit, opens our heart to the sin that exists in our lives. We believe that sin is the voluntary disobedience of a known law of God. It is by the Holy Spirit’s work in our heart that we come to seek repentance, and recognize our need of Jesus Christ.
  • God’s justifying grace was evident on the cross when Jesus Christ died the death our sin deserved. On the cross, Jesus became the atonement sacrifice for our sin. When we accept this grace, and believe that Christ died for us, we are called cleaned and justified by God. We become the redeemed children of God.
  • This free gift of grace is available to all. It is not for a select few. It is also possible for someone to reject God’s grace. We do it when we decide to live for ourselves, and our own agendas, instead of God’s will.
  • We are called to grow in faith in Christ, by the Holy Spirit working in us. The Holy Spirit guides us on the path of holiness or sanctification. God’s sanctifying grace is the grace that goes with us on the journey of faith as we grow in our relationship with Christ.
  • God’s sanctifying grace, through the Holy Spirit, helps us to grow in what it means to love God and love our neighbor.

Sermon: Understanding the New Birth

We saw the word as we walked into church this morning.

It is written on the marquee. It’s on our bulletins. You can’t miss its iconic logo – the curved flame next to the cross. It’s everywhere we turn.

We are united by that word. We are Methodist … United Methodist at that. We gather as a body of Christians united by the spiritual heritage of a revolution that took place in the 18th century in England. It was inspired by the works and witness of John Wesley, and was led, in America, through great spiritual leaders such as Francis Asbury, Thomas Cooke, and others. When we gather to worship God, we do so as believers who hold onto a spiritual lineage that traces back to these great leaders.

But there are questions that hang over us as we look at that word. What is a Methodist? Who is a Methodist? And what does it mean to be a Methodist in the world today?

These are probably questions that many of us have never wrestled with before. For many of us, we have simply come to the Methodist church because it is the same church that our families have always gone to. That is special, and I honor that, because our families are important in informing who we are. They help us understand what we believe and how we have come to understand our faith in God. But I believe we should wrestle with the question of our spiritual identity in Christ. Our spiritual heritage as Methodists helps us see who we are in Christ, how we understand our faith, and interact with our communities and world around us.

That is what we will do over the course of the next few weeks. We will wrestle with some of the things that we, as Methodist and Wesleyans, hold dear. We will comb through some of John Wesley’s most historic sermons and bring them forward to today. This will help us get an idea of what it means to believe in the new birth, that we saved by faith, the call of Christians to grow in sanctification, and the practices that help us to grow in our faith. What I hope is that this series will inspire you to ask this question: What does it mean to be a United Methodist?

Before we fully get started, I should at least offer a disclaimer of how I see denominations. As Christians, I believe we are called to work together, across denominational lines, to serve the poor, to seek justice, and to proclaim the truth of the message of Jesus Christ. For too long, churches and denominations have seen themselves as competitors for God’s attention, and church attendance, instead of partners in ministry. But I believe there is value in having different theological perspectives. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we have one angle in seeing Scripture. It’s like looking at a baseball. If you hold it up one way, you can see the stitches, but that may be all you see. Another view, another theology, can help you see the fullness of what it is you are looking at. There are things that we are going to challenge and see as wrong theology, and we have to be willing to wrestle through our differences – not in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude, but in a posture of “how can we grow together in our understanding of Jesus Christ.”

For me, and I hope for you as well, Wesleyan theology, the theology of the United Methodist Church, helps me to see the grace and love of God the most. So, let’s begin to wrestle with this theology and the question of what it means to be a Methodist.

We will start with the idea of a new birth. It is a cornerstone belief for all Christians. The belief is found in the words of our Scripture passage for today. In the middle of the night, Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, comes seeking Christ. He has questions, and Jesus has answers for him. Very early in the dialogue, Jesus tells him that unless someone is born again they will not see the kingdom of God. That unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, they will not be able to experience the beauty of God’s kingdom. What is Jesus speaking of here? He is talking about the need for all Christians to be baptized, yes, but also about becoming a new creation through the Spirit working in us. When we confess our belief in Christ Jesus, and repent of our sin, it begins the process of a regeneration in our souls. We are no longer beholden to sin, but are transformed into a new being, as children of God, and called to live lives “worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But what does it look like to be born of the Spirit? Jesus says that seeing someone born of the Spirit is like the wind – you don’t know where it comes from, but you know it is there. The transformative life in Christ Jesus came from the Spirit of God’s work in us. It is a process that cannot begin unless we have been born again, and come to a realization of our need of Jesus Christ in our life.

Holiness in our lives cannot be experienced with out first being born again. There are some identifying marks of this new birth. Wesley said there were marks of this new birth, or things that are distinctive about someone’s life that has been born again by the Spirit of God.

The first is that a person born again by the Spirit is a person of faith. What does Wesley mean by faith here? He is not speaking of faith as a merely intellectual idea. This is not faith that agrees with the basic idea that God exists, that Christ died for us, and that the grace of God is freely available to us all. By faith, we mean a sure confidence and assurance that Jesus did die on the cross for my sin, as well as the sins of humanity. We cannot do anything on our own to secure our salvation. Our salvation cannot come from our own good works, but only through the blood of Jesus Christ. We’ll talk more about this in the weeks ahead, but it is only through faith that we are saved. Only belief in Christ within the depths of our soul, and that full assurance that Jesus died for us, is the key to the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter if you are a good person, or did nice things – if you have not known Christ, believed in him, and recognized that he is the Lord and Savior, you will not get into the kingdom of God.

This mark of the new birth is not just a get out of jail free card, but it should transform how we live in our communities and the world around us. We are called to live by faith. Paul says that we are to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Our faith in Jesus Christ should inform and be at the center of our entire lives. Too often, our faith is an afterthought, something we only consider in times of trouble. A living faith in Jesus Christ informs how we love our families, how we serve the poor in our communities, how we conduct our business at work, how we engage our communities, and live in this world. Our faith should be central to who we are and what we do. But a living faith is more than that. It gives us power to overcome temptation. Faith provides the way out of the temptations we all face. As Wesley taught, a living faith in Jesus Christ overcomes the desire and willingness to sin. We become the image that Christ desires us to be.

A second mark of the new birth is that we are called to live by hope. Our hope in Jesus Christ is our anchor. It is what secures us in difficult times and gives us humility in times of plenty. Hope is our confidence and trust in the grace and love of God to be at work in our lives. It is the “blessed assurance that Jesus is mine.” In hope, we know that Christ is alive and is at work. It’s not just a throwaway conviction, but is something that speaks to us at the depth of our soul.

We trust that God is alive, and it defines who we are and how we live in this world. We do not hold onto multiple hopes, as if to place our bets on multiple ideas to make sure we are in the right when that final day comes. No, we have one hope, in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Nothing else gives us hope to live in this world but the fact that Christ died for us, and that the grace of God is freely available to all who believe and seek to repent of their sins. Hope should define us.

As should love, which is the final mark of the new birth. If faith and hope are inner activities of the soul, then love is both an inner and outer mark of the new birth and faith in Christ Jesus. Both have something to do with the idea of what it means to love God. Paul writes that the greatest gift that God has given us is love. It is love that should define our relationship with God, and that love should permeate the depth of who we are. We love God, because God loved us first. God is our first love. We love God with our obedience and faithfulness. This love is expressed in our gratitude and thankfulness for God’s grace and willingness to send his Son, to die the death we deserved to die. To be born again means to have a deep love and affection for God because of God’s free gift of grace in our lives.

That love of God doesn’t stay on the inside. No, it becomes expressed as a “faith that works through love” as we engage the world in Christ’s love. This mark of the new birth is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to see everyone in our community as someone that God loves. We are called to serve in love, to seek justice, and to see Christ in the needy, the hurt, and the oppressed. Love is not just a feel-good virtue, but it is a way of life and a way of proclaiming the truth of God’s free love and our hope in Jesus Christ. Love should define us as individuals, as a community, and as a body of believers – in our two churches, as United Methodist, and as Christians. If we are not defined by love, then we are being defined by something else… something that is not from God.

Faith, hope, and love are the greatest gifts from God, and come out in our walk with Jesus Christ. They are marks of the new birth, and marks of our life in Christ Jesus. The new birth is not the end of our walk in our Christian journey, but it is only the beginning. These virtues will only be developed as we grow in our relationship with Christ, and our strengthened in the love of Christ working in us and through us. As we grow in Christ, these virtues, through the Holy Spirit, will transform us and shape us into new beings in Christ.

The question for us is have we experienced this transformation through the love of Jesus Christ? Are we new creations in Christ’s love? Are we a people of the new birth, marked by faith, hope and love? If not, then it is never too late to experience the love of Christ, and to be reborn in the Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus it was never too late, and it is not to late for us today to be a people defined by the new birth and our faith in Jesus Christ.

Sermon: In Remembrance of Me

It seems appropriate with my family here today that I should tell a story from my childhood.

 

When I was a young child, we attended the United Methodist Church in our town of Shady Spring, W.Va. The church was a typical church in a rural community. We had great singing, some great pastors, and amazing times of fellowship.

 

Like any church, we would partake in communion on a regular basis. I can’t remember it being all that regular, but from time to time we would celebrate this grand sacrament. You never knew when it would happen – at least that was what I thought in my young mind. You only found out that it was a “Communion Sunday” when you opened the bulletin, and at the end it said “Communion.”

 

I will admit I dreaded those moments. At that time, communion meant several things to me, none of which was what the pastor wanted it to be. For me, communion added an extra 5 to 10 minutes of church, which meant the Baptists down the street were going to get on the road first and clog the only road back home. Sunday lunch would be delayed by a few minutes and we would not make it home in time to watch the start of whatever game I wanted to watch instead of doing my homework.

 

Thankfully, my opinions have changed over the years. Where once I perhaps had an unknowing relationship with communion, today it is one of the places where I experience and feel the presence of God the most in corporate worship. Communion is a central part of who I am as a Christian, a pastor, and a leader in the church.

 

We have all had various experiences with communion. You may look forward to this time of bread and juice as an important moment in your spiritual walk with Christ. You may look at it as something you don’t quite understand, but recognize it is important. Or, maybe you just don’t understand why we do what we are preparing to do in a few moments. As I said, we each come to this time with different experiences and memories of this sacrament.

 

On this World Communion Sunday, a day set apart to celebrate the unity of Christians across the globe as one body in communion with one another, I believe it is appropriate to examine why we celebrate communion. What does communion mean? What does the bread and juice represent? How are we to live in response to celebrating communion?

 

Our text for today gives us a glimpse into an early celebration of Communion, which is also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and discussing some of their worship practices. As is the case with many of Paul’s instructions, he had received word about the practices of the Corinthian church, practices Paul could not support. In those days, communion was celebrated in church members’ homes. It was only later that worship existed in buildings that we have come to call “churches,” and that the sacrament of communion was separated from a fellowship meal. Christians would come together to share meals with one another, and part of the meal would have been a communion celebration of some sort. In this passage, Paul is not criticizing their practice of the sacrament, but how they came together in the first place. Most likely, divisions would have been created in where people sat in the homes. The rich – and closest friends to the home owner – would have sat in the dining room, while the poorest in the church’s community would have been outside in the courtyard. Paul criticizes the people for this practice, because they were not really interested in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but were more interested in their own desires.

What Paul is telling us is that in celebration of communion, we are brought together in unity in Christ. At the center of the celebration is the recognition that we are all one in Christ. When we partake in the bread and the juice, we do so as one body not just here in Mackville and Antioch, but together with all the Christians throughout the world and the saints in Heaven. Communion is a communal act, and fellowship is one of the central feature of this sacrament. Together, we come to the table and experience the presence of the Lord as a unified body.

Communion also helps us to recognize our daily need of Christ in our life. At communion, we remember that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. We are in need of God’s forgiveness in our lives. Paul writes to the Corinthians about not eating “this bread” or drinking from “this cup of the Lord” in an unworthy manner, because to do so would make one “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” Paul warns us that our celebration of communion should not provoke divisions or disregard for others. When we celebrate, we must do so as one body together. We must not take the sacrament in a way that disregards the presence of the Lord.

There is also another aspect here that is worth consideration, and it is based on Paul’s command to “examine ourselves” before we take this meal. In this, we are called to look in the depths of our soul and prepare ourselves, both individually and corporately, for communion. We prepare ourselves for communion by asking God to cleanse us of our disobedience and sin, and forgiving us of any inequity that stands in the way of true and deep relationship with the Triune God.

This is one of the central aspects of communion, and many have focused on this in different ways. John Wesley, who was the founder of the Methodist movement, would prepare for communion several days before the service. Some Amish communities will focus on forgiveness a month in advance of a community celebration, and will even postpone communion if they believe the community is not fully prepared to partake in the sacrament. We should prepare ourselves for communion prior to coming to the table. Communion is a means of grace that brings us closer to Christ. Do not allow a false sense of unworthiness prevent you from experiencing the depths of God’s love for you at the table. In partaking in communion, we are taking a “step of obedience,” as Steve Harper writes. However, there may be times when we are living against the will of the Lord without a desire to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. In those times, it is best to perhaps skip communion. I would encourage you to contact me, so we can talk  about it.

Communion also reminds us of the words of Christ, which play a special importance in the sacrament. We know that the Lord’s Supper gets its root from the meal Christ shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. In the Upper Room, Christ took the bread and the cup and instituted this sacrament.

The first thing Christ did was to take the bread, broke it, and said “this is my body, which is given for you.” What does Christ mean by this bread being our body? To answer that, we have to look at this issue of the Real Presence of Christ that exists in the sacrament. Some believe that at communion the bread is transformed into Christ’s body. Others hold that Christ exists with the elements, while others say it is just a memorial symbol.

None of these gets to the heart of what Christ means in this passage, I believe. When we celebrate communion, we recognize that Christ is really here in our midst, but it is not in a bodily way. Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father as we share in this meal. Christ’s body is with us in a spiritual presence that is revealed through the Holy Spirit. Christ is truly here through the Spirit as we celebrate, and as we come and eat the bread, and drink the juice, we can feel and experience the living presence of the Lord. It is a presence that can touch us in the depths of our soul, and transform us in living our lives in reflection of Christ working in us and through us. It is why we celebrate open communion, because we believe a person can come to the table, experience the living presence, and be transformed to live for Christ for the first time, or renew their life for Christ.

After eating of the bread, Jesus took the cup, gave thanks to the Lord, and said “this cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood.” What is Christ saying, here? Christ is pointing us to the cross, and his self-sacrificial act of dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin. It was on the cross that Jesus became the atonement offering for humanity’s sin, and it was by his blood that we are forgiven and set free from our sin. Christ’s act took away the wall of a relationship between the Father and humanity, and allows us to live in a new relationship with God.

This act inaugurated the new covenant, the new relationship between God and humanity, one that is brought about by Christ’s blood. We are called to live as a people of the covenant, to be in obedience to God and to be in communion with other Christians, both locally and across the world.  When we share in the cup, we are recognizing that we are all together in Christ.

In the eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup, Christ says we are to do all of this “in remembrance of him.” When we share in communion, we remember all that Christ has done for us. Communion calls us to remember Christ’s dying on the cross for our sin. It is a memorial that calls to mind the depths of Christ’s love – to freely die the death that we deserved to die. But, communion is also a remembrance that transforms us to living witnesses of Christ’s love each day, and in every place we go. As we leave this table, we are transformed and called to live our lives as a living remembrance of Christ’s love. We recognize that the spiritual living presence of Christ doesn’t just exist here at the table, but goes with us through the love of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives. Communion reminds us to be a people in communion with one another, and to live as Christ’s people in this world. So, when we eat of this bread, and drink of this cup, we are not only remembering Christ’s death, but we are also remembering Christ’s call be disciples in all aspects of our lives.

Christ’s presence is wrapped in the majesty and simplicity of this meal. It is a special meal that we celebrate together as a community. As we celebrate communion, I invite you to experience this meal and the depths of Christ’s love living through this meal. May you experience the love of Christ working in your heart, and may you be transformed to a witness of Christ, to be a living remembrance of the love of Christ, wherever you go and whatever you do.