Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Members of the Body of Christ

We United Methodists need to re-claim a Biblical and historic practice of church membership. You see, the current paradigm is that joining the church is the same as joining a club or civic group. We ask prospective members a couple of perfunctory questions about loyalty to The United Methodist Church and participating in the local congregation by their prayers, presence, gifts, and service (even though they should be asked the Baptismal questions (UMH 34) first) and they’re in. I many congregations I’ve visited, the pastor does all the asking and welcoming. There is no congregational response or participation in receiving new members.

Consequently, being a member of the church is regarded as just like being part of a club, society, or civic organization. Only in the church, because we have open minds, hearts, and doors its much easier to join a United Methodist church. We have very low expectations. We are like a religious social club. Members expect to be served and to have their various needs met. The paid church staff are the servants of the church members. They are their to provide religious goods and services; to make the members feel good about themselves and to not make too many demands upon their time or money. When they feel their needs are not being met, members feel free to begin shopping for a better place.

This understanding of membership is, of course, not biblical or historic because the church is not a religious social club or society. The church is the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12ff). Being a member of the church, therefore, is like being part of a living organism. Membership in the body of Christ is not the same as membership in a club or civic group. The privileges and benefits of membership in the body of Christ are loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. This love sets you free for joyful obedience and service with Christ in his work of preparing the world for the coming reign of God.

When we see the church as the living, breathing body of Christ it becomes more difficult to join and to separate from the body. Both require very deliberate processes. Both involve effort and some suffering on the part of the member and the body.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons so many people are leaving The United Methodist Church is because they realize that we don’t take membership seriously. We treat it like any other group. But the church isn’t just any other group. And they know it. They want to be part of the body of Christ, not a religious social club.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Worship Goes Big-Screen

I read this article in today's online edition of the Washington Post: "Worship Goes Big-Screen and Hi-Fi, With Direct-Deposit Tithing"

There's nothing new here. However, it is yet another brick in the wall that turns worship into entertainment, confuses evangelism with new member recruitment, and equates church growth with making disciples. The line that jumped off the page for me is,

"But mostly, leaders are hoping that all the high-tech equipment will help lure more people to their pews and make their places of worship more interactive and user-friendly."

We've come to a very trying place when a writer will, in all seriousness, put conjoin "worship" and "user-friendly." As if the worship of the living and holy God, the crucified and risen Lord of the Universe could or, ever should be, "user-friendly." This makes me grieve for the church that has apparently lost nearly all consciousness of the mission of God for the world and replaced it with marketing and church growth strategies.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

No Accidental Disciples

In Opening Ourselves to Grace: Basic Christian Practices[1] Douglas Yeo, a trombone player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, talks about how discipline and practice set him free to make music. To illustrate his point he tells us what his teacher told him years ago:

“World class trombone players do not just happen. Their talents are forged in the dual furnaces of determination and diligence.”

From this Mr. Yeo learned that “nothing good comes about simply by accident. That there is work involved.”

Jazz is the music that has taught me the most about discipleship. Jazz is always played with at least two players and as many as 50 or 100. Jazz helps us understand discipleship because it is an expression of freedom and new possibilities drawing us closer to God. A typical performance begins with the band playing a melody. The leader then begins to improvise. As he or she plays with the theme, the band plays supporting chords. As each player takes a turn at improvisation, he or she is supported by the band. Improvisation requires skilled and close listening to one another.

This process of listening and mutual support sets each player free to play with the music and see where it can lead them. The goal is to allow the music to take them to new places and new possibilities. All the practice, discipline, listening, and mutual respect for the music and one another allows the musicians to get out of the way and allow the music to play them.

In the waters of baptism God calls us into discipleship. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is very much like becoming a musician. Certainly, God does not give everyone the gift of making music. However, because we are all created in the image of God, we are all given the same gift: the capacity to give and receive love. The goal of discipleship is to develop this gift to its fullest capacity. Along the way our character, which has been damaged by sin, will be restored to wholeness into the image of Christ. As we grow and mature in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, love becomes a natural response and way of life in the world. This process is what John Wesley called “holiness of heart and life,” “sanctification,” and “Christian perfection.”

Making disciples, like making musicians, does not happen by accident. It is done with intention born of love for God and love for those whom God calls into God’s household in baptism. The Baptismal covenant provides the compass headings for how to make disciples. In it United Methodist congregations will find guidance for developing an intentional process, or system, for making disciples of Jesus Christ. Such a system will be immersed in the grace of God from which all of the respective pieces emerge. The goal of the system is a community whose form and witness in the world are defined by holiness of heart and life.

[1] A video (DVD) presentation of grace and the means of grace in the Wesleyan tradition. It is available from Discipleship Resources (800-972-0433) and Cokesbury.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Sermon for September 16, 2007

“A Dangerous and Unpredictable Love”
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

As I was walking our dog yesterday morning and listening to my iPod,
I heard a song that helped me understand the message in today’s Scripture lessons. The song is “Just One More Thing” by singer/songwriter, Sara Groves. There’s a line that she repeats a couple of times: “At the end of your life your relationships are all you've got.”

Life ultimately comes down to our relationships; with our spouse, children, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, classmates, and co-workers, neighbors, strangers, and even our enemies. But, and this is where today’s Scripture lessons come in, our ultimate, most important relationship, the one that determines the character and shape of all others, is our relationship with God.

Today’s Scripture lessons tell us that our ultimate, most important relationship is with God. How we relate to God determines how we live our lives and relate to others. We see this in Luke 15:1-2,

"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”

Jesus had a proper understanding of his relationship with God, his Father. Therefore he was very comfortable with all people; particularly, those who knew themselves as sinners. These ones Luke refers to here saw themselves as sinners because their world and its culture told them so every day of their lives. They were “sinners” because of the kind of work they were consigned to do: shepherds, ditch diggers, garbage collectors, tax collectors, prostitutes, and beggars. They were the people relegated to the margins of society. They were the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind, the deaf, and mentally ill. They were also the Gentiles, people from non-Jewish cultures. It was believed that they or their parents had done something to earn God’s disfavor and, therefore, their condition and status as “sinners.”

The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, saw themselves as good and righteous people; servants of God. They were confident that they were God’s chosen ones because they kept all of the religious laws and rituals. They were the keepers and teachers of the law of Moses. They believed that righteousness was derived from doing all the right things: reading and studying the Scriptures, praying several times a day, abstaining from certain foods and behaviors, and, to the best of their ability, keeping all of Moses’ law. Because they believed themselves to be the righteous ones, they felt justified as they looked down upon those who were different from them, and to call them “sinners.” Which is why they complained about Jesus as a man who regularly hung out with sinners and tax collectors. They were scandalized by Jesus’ behavior.

I once heard a story that illustrates the problem Luke reveals here:

Two men approach the pearly gates. Saint Peter greets the first man saying,
“Vinny! We’re very pleased to welcome you to Heaven. We’ve been watching your life closely and have deeply appreciated your work. Give Vinny one of the fine silk robes and show him to his mansion. Then Saint Peter turns to Pastor Johnson. “Welcome to Heaven Pastor Johnson. We’ve been expecting you. Give Pastor Johnson one of the cotton robes and show him to his efficiency apartment. Pastor Johnson then protests, “Wait just a darn minute. Why do I get a cotton robe and efficiency apartment when Vinny gets a fine silk robe and a mansion? Don’t you know who I am? I was a United Methodist pastor for forty years. I baptized countless babies, married hundreds of couples, preached thousands of sermons and did my very best to serve your church. I worked really hard at being good. Don’t I deserve something better than a cotton robe and an efficiency apartment? After all, Vinnie was just a cab driver. He rarely went to church and he was known to frequent taverns, and mix with people of questionable character. Why does he get the silk robe and mansion instead of me. St. Peter listened patiently to Pastor Johnson. Then he said to him, “It’s not about being good or doing a lot of good deeds. It’s about knowing who and whose you are and being open to receiving and giving God’s love. “Besides, when you preached people went to sleep. When Vinny drove his cab, people prayed.”

You see, Pastor Johnson acted like the Pharisee and scribes. Because he devoted his life to serving the church he thought he was better then Vinny. Vinny, on the other hand, knew that he was a sinner. Pastor Johnson, who should have known better, could not admit that he was a sinner, no better and no worse, than Vinnie.

This is the point Jesus is making in the parables we read this morning.
Paul also states it very clearly in the passage we read from his first letter to Timothy. We must understand accept that we are sinners before we can receive and accept the gift of salvation with open hands and hearts.

Paul is a Pharisee who got it right. Remember, that before he became an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul was Saul of Tarsus. He describes his credentials in Philippians 3:4-7,

"If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ."

Even though he had done everything right throughout his life in accordance with the law and was a Pharisee, because of his relationship with the risen Christ, he understood that God does not accept us because of our accomplishments. Nothing we do can be good enough to earn God’s love and acceptance. And nothing we do can ever be bad enough to stop God from loving us and trying to restore relationship with us in Christ. This love is what we call grace.

It is grace because it is pure gift. Jesus Christ is this love come to earth in human flesh and blood. Paul describes the good news of God’s love for the world in 1 Timothy 1:15,

"The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost."

God loves the world so much that he became one of us to defeat the powers of sin and death. God loves the world so much that he took all the evil and sin of the world into himself on the cross and suffered and died. God loves the world so much that he rose again and defeated the power of death forever. God’s love and life is offered freely to all who come to him with empty hands and open hearts. This love is unpredictable because it is given freely to all who come knowing themselves to be sinners in need of forgiveness and healing. It is dangerous because it will set you free to love as God loves. In this world that is worships merit, coercive power, and security God’s love and those who are its ambassadors, are regarded as threats that must be persecuted.

God’s love is the source of all love. We can love only because God first loved us. In the presence of God’s love we realize that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a good news, bad news, good news story. It begins with the truth that we are created good in the image of God. God created us good to live as his children and members of his household. The bad news is that we are fallible creatures made of flesh and blood, and God gave us freedom to choose good and evil, and we too often choose evil. We take advantage of the freedom God gives us and convince ourselves that we can make our own way in the world without God or God’s law of love. This propensity to get off course, to live by our own wants and desires, to set ourselves up as gods in control of our own destiny, is what the Bible calls Sin. This sin results in alienation from God and from one another. It leads to individualism, self-centeredness, violence, and disease. But, there’s more good news! We heard it stated by the apostle Paul: “… that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners …” The writer of John puts it this way:

“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” (John 3:16).

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives the gift of new life and freedom from sin, fear, and death. All we have to do is allow God to honestly acknowledge our own brokenness, that we are sinners who need forgiveness and healing. When we come to God as sinners, knowing that God is God and we are not, then we come to God with empty hands and open hearts to receive the love, life, and healing that comes only from the living God.

“At the end of your life your relationships are all you've got.”