Friday, March 28, 2014

Living as People of the LIght

            Our theme this weekend (March 29 & 30) is light and darkness.  The theme comes from the foundational scripture for our services, which is Ephesians 5: 1-2, 6-14.  The key from the scripture is verse 8:  “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light.”  We are all familiar with the contrast between darkness and light.  Sometimes this contrast can be extended from darkness and light, to sin and redemption, death and life.  God calls us to be people of Light and Redemption and Life.

            But, what does it mean to be people of the Light in the 21st Century?

            We will be exploring this question at our services over the weekend.  In his Letter to the Ephesians, the writer catalogs a number of unethical behaviors, such as fornication, impurity, and greed, which are characteristics of Darkness.  Many of these behaviors are timeless in the sense that they are just as immoral today as they were at the time of the early church.  When we fall prey to temptation and commit unethical acts of darkness, then we sin.  Ultimately, sin is simultaneously turning away from God, while also defacing ourselves as children of God.  Yet, through repentance and confession, we can turn back towards God.  Even more wonderful is that we can be healed by God, so that we are renewed as God’s children of Light and Redemption and Life.

At the same time, there are other ethical dilemmas that confront us, which are unique to our time and place.  We live in a time, where we are confronted by great and rapid changes that create uncertainty about what is the right thing to do. Many of these ethical dilemmas are created by advances in technology. 

For instance, within modern medicine our ability to prolong life at the end has advanced incredibly over the past 50 years.  Today, we can sometimes continue a person’s biological functioning, in a “vegetative state," even though they may no longer be conscious and able to talk, interact, or think.  Persons in this condition may be kept alive indefinitely through “extraordinary life support procedures.”  It is at this point that families may be asked for permission to remove these extraordinary life supports and allow their beloved to die peacefully.  That is, the family must decide if it is time “to pull the plug.”  When faced with this ethical dilemma, how do Christians make the right choice for Light and Redemption and Life?

Ephesians tell us that we should be “imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (verses 1-2).  In other words, we should pattern our lives after the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  Our lives should be like a mirror reflecting the life and teachings of Jesus, in all that we say and do.  But, sometimes it requires great moral strength to withstand temptation and stand for what is clearly morally correct, while in other cases, the ethical dilemma is muddled and confusing because of uncertainty created by modern technology or contemporary society.  So, it takes great strength and insight to live as children of Light.

Come and join us this weekend, as we explore what it means to be people of Light in the 21st Century.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, March 14, 2014

“I’m Spiritual, But Not a Church Person…”

            What can we learn from the very first church?

            We will turn to that question this weekend (March 15th & 16th), as I conclude a three-part series on “The Nature and Purpose of the Church in the Twenty-first Century.”  Perhaps the clearest scriptural description of the very first church appears in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2: 41-47.  I believe that we can learn a great deal about how to be a Twenty-first century church from this description of the very first church in Jerusalem.           

            Throughout this series, I have stressed that vital congregations must have five healthy dimensions.  The very first church was clearly alive and active in each of these five dimensions:

1.      Worship and Praise.  Luke tells us that worship in the Temple, as well as praising God in their homes, was an integral part of the first Christians’ weekly life.

2.      Study and Prayer.  Even after we have accepted Christ through faith, becoming a faithful disciple is a lifelong project, as we grow and mature in our faith.  Thus, an integral dimension of the church is study and prayer.  In Acts, the very first Christians devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, who were eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

3.      Service to Others.  Faithful Christians reach out to help those in need, as a natural response to God’s love for us.  In the very first church, members pooled their resources and shared them with everyone, “as any had need.”  Within the life of our church today, an important dimension is reaching out and making a real difference in the lives of those who are hungry, homeless, without healthcare, unemployed, or otherwise in need.

4.      Invitation.  We know that the early church steadily grew in new members.  Certainly, some of these new members came to faith through the preaching of Peter and the other apostles.  Yet, others must have become Christians through invitations from their friends, neighbors, or family members who had already become Christians.  So also today, an essential dimension of vital congregations is that their members are continually inviting others to discover their church.

5.      Fun and Fellowship.  The first Christians really knew how to party.  Luke tells us that they shared fellowship with one another, frequently meeting in each other’s homes for good food and friendship.  He says that they spent this time together “with glad and generous hearts.”  Similarly today, vital congregations enjoy social time with one another.  We need to be able to laugh together as well as pray together.  Even when we are serving together, there should also be moments of fun, fellowship, and celebration.

          Many of us have heard someone say, “I’m spiritual, but not a church person…”.  Others have told me, “I can feel closer to the divine by simply taking a walk on Sunday morning, rather than getting all dressed up and going to church.”  Statements like this reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ.  Christianity has never been a solitary faith.  From its inception with the very first church in Jerusalem, Christianity has been all about growing in one’s faith within a community of fellow believers.  It takes a full community of disciples to create and grow disciples.

            During a Bible study this week, someone observed that they could study the Bible alone, all by themselves.  However, they continued, that they learned so much more when they studied the Bible in their small Bible study group.  We can and should read and study our Bibles by ourselves.  Yet, it is also important to complement that Bible study with group study because it is the group which can correct us, when we begin misinterpreting scripture—or, when we begin reading our own prejudices and biases into the text.  It takes a full community of believers to teach us; motivate us; and hold us accountable as disciples of Jesus Christ.

            There is so much that we can learn from the very first Church in Jerusalem.  However, we must be able to take what we learn from the first Christians and re-shape it, so that it fits with our context in the twenty-first century.  For instance, building and becoming part of a Christian community takes a great deal of time, energy, and work.  It can seem like a lot to do for people who are already super busy.  How do we create a community that genuinely feeds and energizes us, instead of simply draining us, with “one more thing to do”?  This weekend, we will be struggling with these types of questions about church.  I don’t guarantee that we will determine all of the answers, but I can guarantee that even in the quest for answers, there will be energy and empowerment.
Join us at Meriden United Methodist Church this weekend as we learn what the very first church has to teach us about being a vital congregation in the twenty-first century.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sheep & Goats

            How much is enough to be saved?

            Our scripture passage this week is Matthew 25: 31-46.  This passage is sometimes referred to as “The Great Judgment” because it is the only passage in the New Testament that explicitly discusses the final judgment. 

In these verses, Jesus provides detailed criteria, laying out what one must do for salvation.  Jesus describes the final judgment as a process of separating sheep from goats.  In this case, it is far better to be a sheep because they will be invited “‘to inherit the kingdom prepared…from the foundation of the world’” and eternal life.  By contrast, the goats will be sent “away into eternal punishment.”

The criteria for separating the sheep from the goats concerns whether we have cared for our fellow neighbors.  Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (vv. 35-36)

I have always appreciated this passage of scripture.  For me, it’s as though Jesus has provided a study-guide for the final exam.  Perhaps you remember study-guides from your school days.  They were guides, sometimes with practice questions, designed to help students focus their studying exclusively on the material that would be covered by the final exam.  So, in essence, in this passage Jesus is telling us that what is important for our salvation is service—that is, helping others.  I suppose that this is the ultimate study-guide of all time.  J

Biblical scholars have pointed out that all of the criteria named by Jesus in the parable have to do with “right practice” (orthopraxy), as opposed to “right belief” (orthodoxy).  It’s interesting.  For literally centuries, Christian theologians have been engaged in bitter arguments about highly nuanced understandings of orthodoxy.  (In the “Great Schism of 1054,” the Eastern and Western sections of the Church split in large part over different interpretations of a preposition!)  Yet, as important as it is to struggle with the theological implications of our faith, the passage suggests that the final judgment is all about orthopraxy.  It is all about how well we live out our Christian faith through service to others.

During a Bible study this week, I learned that not everyone appreciates this passage as much as I do.  One of the parishioners at my church finds this passage “guilt-inducing and manipulative.”  She asked, “How much is enough to be saved?”[i] 

            I think that it’s important to look at this question from a broader perspective.  The Christian life should not be about guilt, manipulation, or bare minimums.  Instead, Christian life should be lived with joy and love in response to God’s love for us.  Through faith in Christ, we experience God’s love pouring down and filling us to overflowing.  Out of this overflowing love, we respond with love and concern for our neighbors who are suffering—just as the sheep in the passage.  We can’t help but respond in this way because we are so filled with God’s love.  All of this is through faith.  Goats must not be able to experience the full in-flowing of God’s love because they don't respond with full love and concern for their neighbors.

            John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that there were two avenues for spiritual growth.  The first route he called, “works of piety.”  By works of piety he meant attending worship, prayer, Bible study, and especially receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  The second route he called, “words of mercy.”  By works of mercy he meant the works of the sheep in Matthew 25; feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, etc.  While Wesley believed that both types of works were vitally important, he believed that works of mercy were primary. 

Wesley makes an important point.  Not only do we care for others in response to God’s overflowing love for us, we also care for others as a means of growing spiritually closer to God ourselves.

This weekend (March 8th and 9th), my proclamation on the “Sheep & Goats” is the second in a three-part sermon series on “The Nature and Purpose of the Church in the 21st Century.”  Come and join us as we explore in more detail why vital congregations focus so much on service to the community and the world.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] (We also wondered:  If Paul is correct when he says in his letter to the Romans that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” then what does that mean for the goats headed to “eternal punishment”?  Does that mean that even in eternal punishment the goats will still experience God’s love—and by implication some sort of relationship with God?  This is a fascinating question which I cannot pursue during my message Sunday.)