New blog entries began in July of 2020. Methodist Life’s LifeTalk essentially replaces this blog.
New blog entries began in July of 2020. Methodist Life’s LifeTalk essentially replaces this blog.
We admire people of action. We make movies about action heroes, be they fictional superheroes, laconic cops, or the crusading Erin Brockoviches of the world.
Good Friday is about the ultimate action, Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, he sought relief from the terrible work that had to be done. But once that work was underway, “He never said a mumblin’ word.” By that, we mean nothing he said could be construed as complaining or reluctance.
Today calls for a simple response from Christians. Give thanks for the work that has been done. It is the ultimate action story. In it Christ gathers us in his arms, yanking us from death’s tight grip and delivering us to eternal life. As you pray, try to come alongside Jesus as he walks to the cross. As he hangs on the cross, some ultimately run and some stay for the burial, but remain with him for as long as you can.
And remember, good action has good consequences. That’s a story for Sunday, though.
Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)
Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.
Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.
Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:
It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.
For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.
Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.
We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.
This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.
In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.
And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.
Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.
Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.
Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.
Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.
The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.
Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.
Genesis 3:8-15 (ESV)
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
When we explore the larger story of “the fall,” that first act of disobedience to God, we often focus on the attractiveness of sin. It’s not hard to construct reasonable-sounding arguments for why we should disobey God; sinful acts themselves can be quite alluring, at least initially.
Today’s verses call us to examine the after-effects of sin. The false beauty projected by sin fades rapidly once we recognize sin as rejection of the source of all beauty, God.
The loss in this story is incalculable; our text today opens with God arriving to walk with the man and woman, eventually known to us as Adam and Eve. That simple fact is poignant to the point of being distressing, for we see the couple had what most of us crave, a simple, close relationship with God.
Oh, to be able to walk among the trees of Paradise with our maker, asking him anything that comes to mind and receiving a clear answer! Before sinning, Adam and Eve thought such walks were perfectly normal, the way things would always be. Shortly after sinning, they were hiding among those trees, fearing the One they had previously trusted as a perfect Father.
What they feared and what we fear is that moment of confrontation after sin. Even in our fallen state, we have enough of a sense of God’s righteousness to hate that impending moment. We can spend our lives hiding from it, even running from it.
There is nowhere to run, however. If we don’t have that moment of confrontation in this life, we certainly will have it in the next life.
We wriggle to find ways to justify ourselves, too, as if we can sort out the blame and defer the punishment on our own. As we see in today’s story, the first sin is also the first example of passing the buck.
Adam, who was first to hear God’s commandment about the tree, blames Eve. Eve, who clearly knew the simple “don’t eat” commandment, blames the serpent.
The serpent—well, he was the agitator, the twister of words who started the problem. The author of Revelation later would associate “that old serpent” with Satan, the ultimate bringer of confusion. To me, the talkative serpent is interesting in that he accepts his curse in silence, knowing he is facing his Creator, just like everyone else.
What the man and woman needed, and what we need, is a better way to move through that moment of confrontation.
Instead of buck passing, we need repentance. Whatever the sin, don’t try to rationalize it, don’t try to justify it. Don’t try to argue it’s really not that serious compared to what others have done. Just say:
You can do terrible things and still never get around to saying, “I did it.” King David committed adultery and murder to have Bathsheba as his wife, but until the Prophet Nathan used a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man’s lamb, David wasn’t able to say, “I did it.”
Psalm 51 artfully records David’s “I did it”: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
Saying “I did it” doesn’t fix everything. We’re still a long way from the fix, but at least we’re on the right road, the road that passes through repentance to salvation.
When Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden as part of their punishment, they found themselves on that road. God worked through them to begin a change that would make possible our restoration to Paradise.
I’m talking, of course, about events revealed in the great narrative of the Bible, the grand story running from Genesis to Revelation. Yes, we are trapped in sin from the moment we are born, and we are put in a position that makes us want to hide from God.
For thousands of years, a small group of people we call the Israelites tried to get back into relationship with God by following his law. We cannot get back to God on our own, however. As those Israelites fell in and out of the relationship, humanity remained lost.
A new solution was needed. As he did in the garden so long ago, God walked among us for a time as one of those Israelites, raised in a rural place called Galilee.
He actually took on flesh for his three-decade walk on Earth, and we call that God-Man Jesus. I hope you know the story and let that story shape your lives. Jesus went so far as to suffer and die for our sins, in the process explaining more deeply the importance of intertwined love and obedience.
We repent by saying “I did it, and I regret it. I want to put it behind me.” We believe in what Jesus has done, and we are saved from sin.
It is that simple. And in time, we are invited back into the Garden of Eden, the Paradise where we exist in the presence of God.
We have different ways of talking about the life to come. “Going to heaven” is one way to describe the experience. We also have elaborate imagery from the Book of Revelation, symbolic scenes of creation restored to holiness and heaven and earth re-joined.
What I look forward to is a walk in the garden in the cool of the day with my Savior, asking him whatever comes to mind.
The featured image on this blog page is “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Thomas Cole, 1828.
Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NLT)
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.
“On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.
“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.”
Is the idea of a Holy Sabbath day even important anymore?
After all, we Christians certainly have shifted the meaning of “Sabbath” a lot, going so far as to change the day. When Moses gave the people of Israel this commandment—the fourth of ten commandments and the last one specifically defining how we are to relate to God—they were thinking of Saturday. With a few exceptions, those of us who call ourselves Christians think of Sunday when we think of the Sabbath.
The reason for the shift in days is obvious. Jesus’ resurrection happened on a Sunday, and as more and more non-Jews came to follow Christ, Sunday became the logical day of worship for us. The Israelites spent the Sabbath day remembering how God saved them from slavery; we remember how Jesus Christ, God among us, saves all of humanity from sin and death.
In recent decades, European and North American Christians have shifted seismically in how serious we are about Sunday as the Sabbath. In my own lifetime lived in the Southeast United States, I have seen Sunday move from being a quiet day when most stores and restaurants were closed to a day when pretty much everything is open, Chick-fil-A and a few other retailers being notable exceptions. Ball teams even hold practices and games on Sunday mornings, something that would have been unthinkable or even unconscionable in the South 30 years ago.
The Sabbath of Others
About ten years ago, I asked a very bright young adult in my congregation why churches have such a hard time getting people under the age of 30 into worship. He looked at me wryly and asked a question:
“What are you going to do after church is over?”
“Well,” I said, “We will probably go out and get some lunch.”
“Who do you think cooked the lunch, cleaned the tables and got the restaurant ready?”
Duh. Of course. Who is most likely to be working on Sunday mornings? Young people just starting out in the labor force.
Those of you who go out to lunch after worship may not like me saying this, but we Christians who care about reaching teenagers and young adults are shooting ourselves in the foot every time we eat out on Sunday. The same principle applies any time we take up an activity that may impact working people’s ability to worship.
We’ve still not answered our first question, however: Is the idea of the Sabbath important? If you take the Bible seriously, it’s hard not to say yes.
Through the law, God established some underlying behaviors and principles that simply are good for us—we follow them and prosper in our relationship with God, or we ignore them and slip into confusion and misery.
God’s idea of the Sabbath can be summed up in one short word: “Stop.” I’m not talking about stopping and freezing like a statue. The Sabbath is more of a contemplative stop.
If you’ve ever read any survival books, you may have learned that stop is not just a word, it’s an acronym: S-T-O-P. When lost in the wilderness, this acronym defines a pattern you should follow. First, the “S,” which stands for—you guessed it—stop. Second, you think, going over where you’ve been and what has happened since you began your journey.
Third, you observe: Are you on a trail? Are you near water? Can you hear road sounds? Is night coming soon? What are you carrying?
Fourth, you plan what to do next. In one of my survival books, there’s a picture of a hunter who got lost, panicked and froze to death in the snowy woods. When would-be rescuers found him, he was next to a pile of dry brush, a box of dry matches in his pocket. Obviously, he didn’t S-T-O-P.
God offers us a Sabbath so we don’t go through life running in panic like a lost hunter. We stop to be with him. We think of him in prayer, worship and fellowship. We observe the tools God has given us, in particular his holy word, and where we are in our Christian journey. And then we plan how to move forward.
And yes, as part of our Sabbath, we go to church on Sunday. We S-T-O-P together. After all, there’s far less danger of getting lost as a group. And even if we do find ourselves a little lost, it’s so much easier to get back on the right path as a group.
The Habit of Worship
There is a basic principle regarding worship attendance that has been repeated for years. I cannot find who first came up with it, but after leading churches for 15 years as a pastor, it sounds right to me.
If you miss church three weeks in a row, there’s about an 80 percent chance your worship attendance will become very irregular. To get back to your original attendance pattern, you have to make the decision to show up for worship at least three weeks in a row.
Judging from the book of Hebrews, irregular attendance has long been a problem for Christians. In the tenth chapter, the author writes this:
Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
Ironically, when you miss worship, you’re also missing a lot of the good work that happens on the Sabbath. God may have told us to take the day off, but it doesn’t mean he’s taking the day off.
We meet God in worship to be changed into the holy creation he intended us to be. We meet God at church to be healed spiritually, emotionally and even physically. We meet God on Sunday so the week to come can be lived fully in God’s light, be it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
Once we’ve considered the importance of the Sabbath, I suppose we’re left with some additional questions. What happens if I miss the Sunday when God intended everything to change for me, my spouse or my children? What do I lose if I fail to stop on the Sabbath where God waited for me?
We should never let the frenzy of work and play separate us from the gifts God offers us when we stop.
What is this Holy Spirit, this flame igniting the birthday candle of the church?
Well, first I have to correct the question’s grammar. Sometimes we slip and say “what” or “it” when we talk about the Holy Spirit, but it’s more appropriate to say “who” or “he.”
The Holy Spirit is God, expressed in a way we can sense directly, and as we might expect, the experience is overwhelming and mysterious. The Holy Spirit is deeply personal, touching us in ways that are provocative and emotional.
Even though God is more than biologically male or female, we use the traditional pronoun “he” because it keeps us in that great, long-running scriptural metaphor of the husband wooing and pursuing his errant, adulterous bride. In the metaphor, God is the husband or groom and we of the church, men and women, are his bride. At Pentecost we see a deep spiritual ravishing, our souls exposed one to another and known in full.
The Holy Spirit transforms. The Spirit sounded like wind and looked like fire on the day of Pentecost. When wind and fire sweep over a place, everything is changed. When we think of natural disasters, the image is frightening. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit it—the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping over us frightens us as much as the idea of being in the middle of a firestorm.
When we are transformed by God, we may do strange things. We don’t like the idea of seeming strange, of looking different to the world.
If we’re transformed, we may demonstrate a kind of enthusiasm and excitement people haven’t seen in us before. “Nuts!” people may say. “Drunk in the morning!”
We’re liable to find ourselves capable of doing things we did not imagine possible, and with that capability, we may find new demands upon us. Again, the possibility of sudden change is intimidating.
When the Spirit, recognizing our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, gives us gifts, he doesn’t expect us to tuck them in the closet, however. We should get those gifts out and use them!
The ability to declare who Jesus is, the insight to discern and declare what truth is, the deep desire to help others—We should wear those gifts out! It’s okay to use them up. The Holy Spirit honors faithful use of our gifts by replenishing them.
And besides, left sitting in a closet of the soul, those gifts dry up and crumble. They become useless.
Speak the truth of who God is, of what God is doing through Jesus Christ. Engage with people you never saw yourself among before.
For example, if you’re called to go among youth or children, God will give you the words and actions you need. Or if you find yourself mixing with a crowd that used to frighten you, fear not—God will make you attractive and understandable to them.
The Spirit will not burn you as it sweeps over. The Spirit will refine you, for once you know Jesus Christ, you do have the potential to be holy. Let the Spirit touch you long enough, and you will shine like the purest gold.
The Holy Spirit is power. Sometimes as Christians, we talk about power as if it is a bad thing, as if wanting power is inherently evil. We’re thinking of worldly power when we criticize such pursuits. Seeking God’s power is a different matter entirely.
The latest Star Wars story comes out Friday. I remember seeing the very first Star Wars movie when I was 12, entranced by all those light sabers and this talk of “the Force.” These are not the droids you’re looking for. Oh, to be able to wave my hand and say, “This is not the student who forgot his homework.” And if I could just get my hands on a real lightsaber, swinging it with the power of the Force in me!
George Lucas based the Force on the impersonal energy of certain Asian religions, an energy that supposedly binds all things together, flowing through them. It took me a few years to figure this out, but the Holy Spirit is the real Force, one capable of touching us more deeply than Asian religions or George Lucas ever imagined.
Christians believe in a personal, loving God. His Holy Spirit is the personal, loving Force. When we are open to the Holy Spirit, God’s creative power goes to work in us. The Holy Spirit works in us so that we help accomplish God’s eternal will. Go into the world with power, you Jedi Knights of Christ.
This Holy Spirit marks a new era, one in which we now live. Properly attuned to him, we all are supposed to have a sense of the times, our dreams and visions revealing what is coming. What is coming? A remaking of all things, of course. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross triggered a new order to creation, visibly seen first in his resurrection.
Satan, wielding sin and death, used to be the power broker, but no more. With the Holy Spirit in us, we can tell Satan, “Be gone!” We move through time toward the full, visible return of Jesus Christ. His kingdom is present now, and we make it more present each day by declaring the kingdom to be real, living as if it has fully arrived.
Let us follow Peter’s exhortation. Let us call on the name of the Lord and be saved, and let us be sure all those around us have the same opportunity. The Spirit will sweep over us as a church once again, the fire will burn, and we will be comforted and strengthened for eternity.
1 John 5:9-15 (NLT)
Since we believe human testimony, surely we can believe the greater testimony that comes from God. And God has testified about his Son. All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.
I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.
This is the final sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.
“What is truth?” This must be the question of questions. Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, asked it in the presence of the King of Kings, the source of all truth.
The scene, found in John 18:33-40, is particularly sad because Pilate doesn’t seem to want an answer. I imagine the tone of his rhetorical question, aimed more at the air than at Jesus, to be weary and cynical.
We should do better. We at least need to take the question seriously. What is truth?
When I say “we,” I’m addressing Christians, of course. Non-Christians, like Pilate, have to wrestle with the question in a different way, beginning with the notion of whether there is any truth at all.
The Great Story
Christians sometimes forget what it means to have “Christ” as part of their religious moniker. Such forgetfulness is a little strange, if you think about it, but we also have to remember how we remain immersed in a world trying on a daily basis to ignore or challenge Christian versions of truth. Perhaps it is not surprising that we sometimes listen to those voices, rather than the voice of God expressed in the Bible through faithful writers.
The author of 1 John certainly is one of those writers concerned with the notion of truth. He recorded the “what is truth” scene in the Gospel of John, and in the letter we’ve been studying, he asserts the answer to the question.
Understanding Who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is doing lets us define truth. If you were in Life Groups last week, you talked about evangelism, the act of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. To evangelize successfully, you have to grasp the truth, which is rooted in a story you are called to relate to others.
Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God. To John, the word “son” means much more than a simple biological progression, a passing of genes from one generation to another. The spiritual essence of the man known as Jesus is God, and that aspect of God has always existed. The Word took on flesh to live among us. Again, see the opening of the Gospel of John.
What is Jesus doing? He is the fulfillment of promises made long before God took on flesh. These were promises of restoration and healing, assurances God would provide people a way out of sin even though we deserve nothing but condemnation.
In a great act of sacrificial love, Jesus fulfilled these promises by going to the cross and dying for our sins. Through the centuries, Christians have tried to describe how salvation works in more ways than I can count.
Jesus bore the punishment for us; he served as a ransom to free us from Satan; he accepted our shame; he bridged the divide between us and God—likely, every orthodox explanation takes us in the right direction, but alone, each also falls short of describing the magnitude of what God has done as Christ.
John is clear about the result, however. Instead of death, we have eternal life. Death is now but a veil, something we pass through to begin our life fully aware of the presence God.
This Great Story, and all the little stories that fill it out, are remarkably beautiful when we let them sink in. The Great Story has penetrated nearly every culture on the planet for a reason. God’s grace is something every human has the potential to understand.
And yes, the claims we make about Jesus’ identity and work representing truth are quite exclusive. To have eternal life, we must know God as expressed through Jesus Christ. As John writes in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, quoting Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”
This brings us to a sticky point in Christian theology: What is the fate of people who never get to hear about Jesus Christ? It seems unfair for them to be condemned.
As Dr. Ben Witherington at Asbury Theological Seminary has pointed out, salvation is not about what is just or fair. Thank God! None of us would be very happy if we thought we were to get what we deserve when standing before God.
Salvation is about grace. God’s grace makes it possible for all people to sense the presence of God, the reality of God, if only through the limited ways we sense God in nature.
Says Dr. Witherington: “You are held accountable for what you know about God, and what you do with what you know about God.” It is reasonable to expect that God will give those who never heard of Jesus Christ the opportunity to respond to his work on the cross in some way we cannot currently understand.
Back to Us
Of course, not knowing about Jesus Christ is strictly theoretical for us. We’ve heard of him. We know the story, and by calling ourselves Christians we are accountable to the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in unique ways.
As Christians we are truth bearers. I mentioned earlier how the non-Christian world approaches the question of truth differently, either denying there is some universal truth or debating what the standard for truth might be.
We don’t want to attack them; that kind of approach led to some of the great sins of the Christian world. But we also certainly should not ignore them. God calls us to go into the world and declare who Jesus is and what he is doing.
As Americans, we are particularly blessed to live in a place where we can enter what is supposed to be a marketplace of free ideas and explain what we believe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we should learn to do this winsomely—we have the greatest love story ever told on our side!
Do you know the story? Can you tell the story in your own attractive way?
One of the great things about being in a church is we learn the story and celebrate its truth in worship until we can tell it well. It is a joyous duty, and I pray we all learn to take more seriously this call to declare truth.
1 John 5:1-8 (NLT)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
And Jesus Christ was revealed as God’s Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross—not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with his testimony. So we have these three witnesses— the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and all three agree.
This is the fifth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.
Before I went into professional ministry, my family attended Forest Park United Methodist Church in Georgia, and most Sundays we had a habit of eating afterward at a nearby Wendy’s. A lot of the church members ate there, as did other people we knew from the community.
One fellow we saw regularly was an older man named Steve. He and I volunteered at the same youth center. Steve and his wife attended what I thought of as a fundamentalist church.
Steve liked my son Charlie, who enjoyed talking about Bible stories even at the age of six. Steve always had some kind of Bible question for Charlie to see what the little guy would say.
One Sunday, Steve walked over to Charlie, held up his big black Bible and asked, “Charlie, what’s this book about?”
Charlie swallowed a bite of chicken nugget, studied Steve’s Bible cover for a second, and said, “Love.”
Steve pursed his lips and raised one eyebrow. “No, it’s obedience. Obedience!” He then walked away to order his lunch.
Charlie looked at me quizzically. “It’s okay, son,” I told him. “You’re both right.”
If you’re paying any attention at all to our text today, you can see why this story came to mind. Two threads that have been dancing around each other in the letter of 1 John, love and obedience, twist together as one. Scripturally, they really cannot exist without each other.
The easiest way to understand what I’m saying is to imagine one without the other, although it really doesn’t take much imagination. Most of us at some point have tried to live as if one can exist without the other.
Love can be a good feeling, of course. It is good to love and be loved.
John has reminded us already in his letter that love is an action. Love is what we do. But love without obedience to shape our actions can quickly dissolve into something meaningless.
A husband might tell his wife, “I’ll always love you, but to be happy I’m leaving you.” Even if he’s telling the truth about how he feels, the effectiveness of his love has been destroyed by his wrongful action, his unwillingness to be obedient to the marriage covenant God asks us to live under.
Or maybe we love someone who lives a lifestyle clearly opposed to God’s will. As Christians, if we say “I love that person too much to speak the truth,” our failure to declare God’s will is a betrayal of whatever love we may be feeling. We have chosen to leave someone we love in a state we believe might ultimately separate that person from God for all eternity.
James, the earthly brother of Jesus, understood this: “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” (James 5:19-20)
Obedience simply means that we listen to God’s guidance, particularly his guidance in Scripture, and align our behaviors with God’s will.
Obedience without love becomes something rigid and repulsive. Obedience without love is actually disobedience, because God is love, and love is the major part of his plan for salvation.
Religious obedience without love usually ends up being expressed as some form of legalism. Jesus spent a lot of time going after the legalist Pharisees for emphasizing rules while ignoring love.
Matthew 23:27 comes to mind: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”
I hesitate to boil all this down to what is now a Christian cliché, but “What would Jesus do?” was a pretty good notion back in the 1990s. The question can be applied to most situations, particularly if we’re willing to study the Bible with some seriousness.
The Bible is, of course, the ultimate source for understanding God’s will. Even when God’s will seems to be revealed to us in other ways—in prayer, in visions, or in holy gatherings, for example—those ideas have to be tested against what we find in the Bible.
In the Bible, we see Jesus was perfectly loving, and our best lessons are drawn from Jesus in action. Jesus was very welcoming to all who were drawn to him. He also was quick to say to forgiven sinners, “Go and sin no more.”
John, having twisted these threads of love and obedience together, switches somewhat shockingly to the language of battle and conquest, as if he has fashioned a whip instead of a string. We have to remember the highly metaphorical nature of how he speaks. His churches had no worldly power, and were happy to get through the day without being persecuted.
He did, however, have great faith in the power of love and obedience working in tandem. He was saying that when we combine the two, we achieve something ultimately more powerful than swords, guns or even atom bombs.
Evil will be fully defeated by God’s obedient people working in the world in loving ways. Again, John’s language is startling. It is as if each of us, standing with God and filled with God’s love, has the individual potential to finish the job.
We conquer primarily by evangelizing, telling the world the truth about the God who loves us so much he would die for us, about the God we should seek to emulate in every moment of our lives.
Those of you in Life Groups will talk more this week about what it means to evangelize, to tell others of the Good News about Jesus Christ. Approach this lesson with both love and obedience in your hearts, and the Holy Spirit will lead you.
This is the fourth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.
Here in the fourth chapter of 1 John, the author builds toward an idea that John Wesley found very important, the notion that we can “move toward perfection.” A modern way of saying this might be, “More and more each day, we can grow in our ability to love.”
I think today it is best if we simply follow the path the author has laid down for us, a path toward perfect love. I’ll try to ensure at each milepost we understand what John is telling us.
Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Absent a context, the opening words of today’s Scripture can seem like a trite assertion. Yeah, Christian love—we hear that phrase over and over. Don’t forget what John’s church has been through, however. There have been sharp disputes, and after such conflict it is not hard for good people to fall into bitterness and anger, emotions that will hang on long after trouble has ended.
A people forced to fight for what they believe usually need healing once the struggle ends. Even among those who have stood together, trust may have eroded. In Ephesus, the ones who turned away from the truth about Jesus Christ had once been trusted members of the churches in Ephesus, pledged at their baptisms to the same concepts as those who remained faithful.
Let’s also remember what we’ve already learned from the author. Love is an action! When I imagine these people heeding their leader’s words about loving each other, I see them traveling house to house, worshiping together, serving the world side by side, and getting back to the basic business of being in church.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.
Now we’re really back to basics! First, we hear the core gospel message, an echo of John 3:16. Also, we hear that God first loves us before we love him. It has to be that way. If God were not constantly using love to penetrate the dark cloud of sin surrounding this world, we would not even be able to know on our own he exists. And through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the cloud is being driven back!
That appropriate response to God’s gift, our obedience to his will, is best expressed as love. And we also hear the beginnings of where John is taking us. God is love, God lives in us, and that love inside us is a dynamic experience. It will grow toward “full expression.”
And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.
This is an expansion on the idea of God living in us once we declare Jesus Lord and Savior. It also is clear evidence John thinks in terms of a Trinitarian God. It is true the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the idea of God working as Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes up repeatedly, and particularly in John’s writings.
God works in us as the Holy Spirit. John is able to attest to having seen God at work in the world in flesh, as Jesus Christ. We cannot say we have seen God in the flesh, but we are reminded we can have just as direct an experience of God—more direct, in fact, if having God in us, whispering to our spirits, is a closer relationship than having God stand before us in the flesh.
I think we do have a closer, deeper experience! We are a blessed people, we who know God in the post-Pentecost era!
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.
We live in God and we move toward perfection. This is not an arrogant, obnoxious declaration that “we are perfect.” The word in a Wesleyan sense simply means it is possible to love others with the intensity Jesus showed when he went to the cross to die for the whole world.
As we move closer to perfect love, there also is great reward. Love drives out fear! In particular, we have no reason to fear God’s judgment, and that should mean our little fears are driven away, too. Most of those fears are rooted in a negative view of death, but Christians trust there is nothing beyond death but acceptance and bliss for all eternity.
I have actually been told by church people that it’s not wise for me to remind people they are going to die, but I decline to heed that advice. Unless Christ returns beforehand, I’m going to die, you’re going to die. People of faith, hear me: So what?
I invite you to confront the reality of your deaths boldly and without fear. I’m not asking you to invite death. Life in this world can be just as wonderful as it is painful, and it’s worth experiencing in full! But you will live this life so much better if you let your love grow, in the process becoming more fearless each day.
If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.
Yes, John closes us out today with something like a test. It is a test many of us are going to fail from time to time, for we can become angry at fellow believers, at times even hating them. When we fail in such ways, we can at least feel confident our loving Savior will give us another chance. His grace is abundant and magnificent.
Anger, particularly anger with our fellow church members, is a signal we need to get back to basics. It may be that some legitimate dispute needs to be resolved—let’s never forget the model for dispute resolution Jesus gave us in Matthew 18:15-17. (There are some important concepts related to forgiveness right after those verses, too.) But to cope with our anger, we also need to be more intentional about loving God in worship and in prayer, and we need to immerse ourselves in God’s holy word.
In all those actions, we encounter God’s love, we are healed, and our love moves toward perfection.
1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)
We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?
Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.
Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. [goes to prayer life; perhaps something on how we avoid a breakdown in community]
And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.
This is the third sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.
Last summer, during one of the sermons in our long series on the book of Romans, I made mention of the concept of hospitality. Reading our text today, I feel invited to further explore this tame-sounding concept that actually is quite radical.
John begins by telling us what real love is, pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote down the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
This action-based love John keeps discussing is also deeply sacrificial. In the church community, such love calls us to go so far as to die for each other.
Certainly, risk-taking is a big part of a love so deep that we are willing to give up our lives. The taking of risks undergirds this concept of hospitality. Hear what I’m saying: The Christian life is supposed to be a little dangerous.
In my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you have to guard your stuff from others who might want it.
Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low, and we reach that low point before we even begin to consider risking our lives for others. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution.
A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of their social problems simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done. Our discord over abortion in this country long has served as a good example.
Rights vs. Responsibilities
As a crime reporter in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time covering anti-abortion protests. It quickly became obvious the opposing groups had no political middle ground, with one side calling for women’s rights and the other declaring life begins at conception.
About the same time, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay that demonstrated how hospitality, properly practiced and understood by the church, offers a solution that could make the demand for abortion subside.
The essay, entitled “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” makes some startling assertions, at least if you’re a typical American Christian. When we become Christians, Hauerwas says, we should stop thinking in terms of rights and instead begin thinking in terms of responsibilities. Christian thinking has little to do with politics. It has everything to do with seeking and following God’s will.
Forget about what Congress or the Supreme Court has to say about the issue. For Christians, what the state has to say about abortion is unimportant. What’s important for us is whether we function so well as Christ’s community that the need for abortion becomes irrelevant.
In the essay, Hauerwas embeds a sermon from one of his former students, and it is there we see a couple of examples of the church truly being hospitable. There is the black community church, where the people welcome a pregnant teenager into their midst, placing her and ultimately her baby with an older couple so both mother and child can have hope-filled lives.
There is another church where a divorced Sunday school teacher becomes pregnant, and rather than finding herself ostracized, she is instead cared for and even financially supported by the church. In both cases, the temptation to abortion is eliminated by community, and the babies in effect become “children of the parish.”
A Matter of Space
How we help the homeless is another example of where Christians could make decisions in our own lives to impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians choose to have “Elisha rooms,” creating a simple space for people in need. The underlying Bible story is in 2 Kings 4:8-17, where we also see how those who offer hospitality are sometimes blessed by the people they help.
Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But one reason we can obey Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” is that when we live in well-crafted, Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality. If we find our homes too isolated for such outreach, it is best if we figure out how to be hospitable as a Christian community.
Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. On the advice of an older pastor who had been through a few such expansions, I limited my role to spiritual encourager. The church leaders did plop the blueprints down in front of me one day, however, asking if I had any input.
“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”
The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.
The Church’s Call
Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to fully embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.
Where do we get the strength, personally and communally, to take such radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable to each other, and even to the world at large? Well, we begin small, and we grow in strength.
The Life Groups we are starting at Luminary UMC are great places to better study and implement hospitality. When a church has enough such groups, they become a built-in rapid response system, and great works of welcoming can be done.
John also points out a cycle of growth we can experience as we demonstrate that love is an action. Our actions show we have accepted the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As our work draws us closer to our savior, the guilt of our sin subsides, and we find ourselves emboldened to come to God in prayer, trusting he will protect and provide in the riskiest of circumstances.
It is my prayer that one day the American church at large, regardless of its denominations, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.