Good News to Bad Christians

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

 –1 Corinthians 1:10-17

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 –1 Corinthians 1:1-5

It seems that our country is divided over everything.  I mean, we can’t even have a little fun when IHOP changes its name to IHOb just to draw attention to itself.  We all want to claim the moral high ground based on the values that are important to us.  For some, obeying law and respecting authority is the highest value.  For others, justice and mercy are the highest values.  And then there are many others who find themselves on a spectrum between multiple other values that include the two I listed already.  We don’t think the same way.  But we must acknowledge that we are influenced by powerful values and the leaders who embody those values.

I find it fascinating how the Apostle Paul dealt with a church that struggled with many divisions.  The church in Corinth was his most diverse community and most divided church.  There were many social, political, and economic divisions within the church alone (Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell points to 15 divisions Paul addresses in his letters).  How did the people of Corinth deal with their problems?  They separated into “factions” based on partisan issues (partisan means strong supporter of a party, cause, or person).  Each of these factions claimed their own ‘leaders’ – they co-opted Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Jesus!  Christians were slandering and quarrelling.  Paul addressed this by sending good news to bad Christians in 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts his letter by writing, “let there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose…it has been reported there are quarrels among you…some say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ””.

I love how Paul does this.  He starts with himself as the lowest “claimed faction” leader and moves up to Christ.  After all, if your are in a faction that claims Cephas (Peter) or Christ you have way more authority than Paul or Apollos!  But Paul calls this for what it is: if you think you have the moral high ground just because you claim Christ and turn him into a leader of your faction, you are sadly mistaken.  You think that makes you right?  Christ can not be divided.  Christ is “faction-less”.

If we want to follow Christ, we must follow Christ.  You can’t follow another faction leader or even their ideals.  You can’t divide Christ and claim him for your faction.  You can’t slander the leaders of other factions.  You can’t slander or quarrel with members of a different faction.  If you are followers of Christ, you must love one another in the midst of your differences and you must stop tearing each other down.  This is Paul’s central lesson in 1 Corinthians.  “You have divisions…okay; but what are those divisions rooted in?  Your faction’s belief system?  That is not what I taught you.”  Christ is not a faction and he is our primary leader.  Christ gets the highest allegiance over every other leader.  No one gets more loyalty than Christ…not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, and not any other earthly leader.  Only Christ…and we don’t get to divide Christ’s teachings into what we like and the what we don’t like.  We must follow his teachings and embody his actions.  We must remind ourselves of the greatest commandment he gave us and lay the rest down at his feet.

  • First reflection: How much of our quarrel, slander, emotional frustration, division, etc. is rooted in one of our factions?  Can we acknowledge that we are part of a faction that influences us more than Jesus’ teachings? (nationalism, political party, ideology, denominational, etc.). These are questions we can only answer for ourselves if we hope to be transformed by Christ.  It starts with me.

The second thought has to do with HOW we deal with our divisions.  Have you noticed how frustrating it becomes engaging in discussions trying to outdo one another with facts, resources, words, definitions, history, and laws?  You say something, I counter with another fact, you counter back, I counter back…it escalates and escalates and all we are left with is bitterness and frustration.  We try to out enlighten one another…as if some report or study or quote will convert the person we disagree with.  We post a new article from our favorite faction-news-outlet and…BOOM!  (Mic drop…walk off stage).  It doesn’t work that way.  Why?  Because as long as we have loyalty to a faction, whatever that faction is, we will remain loyal.  Our worldview will not be changed by any human argument against it as long as our allegiance is locked in.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  His quote evolved into, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Use all the articles and news reports you want from your faction outlets.  Those who disagree with you will discount them before they even read them.  There will be no boom.  There will be no mic drop.  Just more frustration and anger.

This is what Paul addresses to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use “words” to argue divisions or try to solve the problem.  Words won’t work.  Paul knows the same words that created the problems can’t solve the problems.  Paul wrote, “when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I decided to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…my speech and proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”  Paul realized he had to shine a light on the demonstration of the Spirit, not words.  He reminds them that he didn’t proclaim Christ with words but with the power of God.  Corinthians were brilliant, cosmopolitan people…words alone would not convert them.  Paul did not depend upon the wisdom of the “rulers of the age” (whether philosophical or political), instead he pointed to the things taught to by the Spirit…spiritual things modeled in loving action…things embodied by the life and teachings of Christ, revealed by the power of God.

  • Second reflection:  In what ways do we depend on words, teachings, eloquent rebuttals, news stories, research data, etc. to try to convince other factions they are wrong?  Are we willing to admit that we look for information and listen to the voices of our own “factions”?  Can we see the fallacy of depending on the wisdom of the rulers of the world to try to change other peoples views?  How do Paul’s words challenge those of us struggling with divisions in our own country and our churches?  What would it look like to discuss our differences in a new ways that could reveal the power of God and build unity?

Let me close with some honest admission paraphrasing Paul.  Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  When I am a bad Christian, my struggle is being a part of the Christ faction.  I have to constantly test my loyalties to make sure I haven’t made Christ the co-opted, claimed leader of my own faction.  All Christians, good and bad, should wrestle with this.  Paul wrote these words to me…but I thought I’d share them with you:

“Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God…so let no one boast of human leaders…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

— 1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Unity

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  – Messiah Jesus, John 17:17-23

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My daughter Maddie’s picture under The Cloud Gate Sculpture in Chicago – surrounded by people from across the globe.

Unity.  What does it even mean? The dictionary says, “the quality or state of not being multiple; a condition of harmony; the quality or state of being made one.” But for United Methodist Christians the word is laden with different meanings.  As the United Methodist Church struggles with actual unity, the word ‘unity’ has been co-opted.  Some refer to it as a ‘totem’, a ‘code word for mushy moderates’, ‘an idol’, ‘selling out full justice’, and ‘a holy-sounding argument for those who want to avoid the issue altogether’.

I have a different perspective on unity.  It is rooted in my understanding of scripture and the experience in the context I serve.  Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is unique.  It is actually a collection of diverse worship communities (churches) who live out their faith as ONE church.  The Sanctuary, Mercy Street, Contemplative, Upper Room, The Branch, Fair Haven, and Holy Family are each very different.  Most people who spend a weekend with us and visit our differing services realize this is not their parent’s church.  Different lead pastors, different contexts, and really diverse people.

Our worship community pastors, the lead pastors of each community, are a tight-knit group.  We really love each other, we spend a lot of time together, and we are very different:  Male, female, white, black, hispanic, asian, young, old, married, and single.  We come from different parts of the country and we’ve been educated in different schools.  We have all been formed by different experiences.  There is very little ‘uniformity’.  But there is a deep unity.

Last week, we met to discuss how we want the Holy Spirit to help us lead Chapelwood through the next few years as the UMC struggles with the issues before us.  We started with our own stories.  We shared our personal beliefs on the issues surrounding scripture, the life of Christ, marriage, sexuality, gender, and many other issues.  We’ve had these conversations before, but we were very intentional this time to press each other to go as deep as possible with our struggles, beliefs, and dreams for our church.  When we finished, a few things were clear to me:

  • We do not all see the issues the same way and we do not all long for the same outcomes…
  • We are currently wrestling with many of the issues…
  • We love the people we serve and we grieve knowing there are people on all sides of these issues in our communities – some who may find staying in the UMC difficult…

And, with all the differences we shared, we left our time together with more commitment and love toward each other than when we started.  The power of the Holy Spirit actually pulled us together – not apart – as we shared our different stories and our different dreams for the church.  I left more focused on Christ.  Jesus was glorified in our sharing.

And this is just one reason why I wholeheartedly disagree with people who say unity is some type of totem, excuse to avoid conflict, or excuse to exclude others.  Unity is not the end…the glory of Christ is the end…unity is the means by which we get there.  Unity is very challenging.  People who claim unity is an excuse to avoid conflict have never actually contended for honest unity in a diverse community.  It is far easier to draw bold lines in the sand, state what you believe, and then stand far removed on one side of the issue.

I do not fear schism and separation in our denomination.  Why?  Because it’s easy.  It is intellectually and spiritually lazy.  And it relieves the tension of the day (until the next issue arises).  Schism is definitely messy, but it’s not horrifying.

You want to know what I fear?  Unity.  I fear, revere, dread, cherish, dismay, exalt, and esteem unity.  Why?  Because unity means I have to give and take, live and die, learn and be taught.  It requires deep humility, love, and grace – things I don’t always do well with.  I am blessed to live in a community that seeks to live into the prayer Jesus prayed.  And my prayer is that ‘we also may be sanctified in truth…that we may all be one…so that the world may believe that God sent Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.’

Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.

 

God’s Will and Messy Faith

Colossians 1:9-10
9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

This past Sunday, I announced that our family will be moving this summer to serve as the next Senior Pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.  It was an emotionally difficult day announcing we are leaving Wesley at Frederica.  We love Wesley.  We love the people of the church.  We love the community.  Ministry together over the past five years has been deeply rewarding, encouraging, and powerful.  As I shared with the congregation, I am better because I have served Wesley.  Wesley made me better than I ever thought I could be.

I shared Sunday the difficulty of the decision.  How do we discern God’s Will when confronted with two wonderful opportunities?  Deciding between the clearly right and the wrong things should be easy (although, I recognize sometimes it can be a hard decision as well), but how do you go through the process of discerning between two great choices?  Is there only one right path?  Will God only bless the one and not the other?  I didn’t do as good a job explaining Sunday as I hoped to due to the nature of the day.  But let me explain a little more how I believe discernment between two good choices works.

As Wesleyan Methodists, we don’t believe in “determinism” – that God scripts every action, every step, and every move of our lives.  Determinism says we don’t really have choice, we just have the perception that we choose, but God scripts everything.  We see this in language when we say, “It’s all God’s Will,” or “God knows what He’s doing,” or “it’s all in God’s plan.”  This understanding is rooted in a different strand of theological thought than Wesley’s theology.

Others believe God creates the world, sets it in motion and stands back never involved in the creation.  It just operates like a clock that has been wound up and let loose.  Called deists by some, they understand God to be the great Clock Maker.  God is not involved in our lives.  We have total freedom and we can choose any path we want.

A more balanced approach is rooted in our Wesleyan theology.  We believe God is actively involved in our lives.  But we also believe give gives us the freedom to choose.  Freedom of choice can sometimes disrupt God’s purposes for us, but choice also allows us to love God more perfectly.  After all, how can it really be love if have no choice?

Thomas Merton wrote, “A [person] who is afraid to settle their future by a good act of their own free choice does not understand the love of God.  For our freedom is a gift of God given us in order that He may be able to love us more perfectly, and be loved by us more perfectly in return….He Who loves us means to leave us room for our own freedom so that we may dare to choose for ourselves, with no other certainty than that His love will be pleased by our intention to please Him.”

And that is the key…when confronted by two great choices; we are given the freedom to choose.  I truly believe God is involved and can work with us in either choice.  I believe God is pleased by either choice as long as it is our desire to please God.  We use a lot of factors to make our decisions…meditating on scripture, prayer, contemplative listening, listening to wise counsel, watching for opportunities, and sometimes miraculous signs!

The hard part in my decision to leave Wesley and serve Chapelwood is that I had to choose.  That can cause anger and hurt.  This is why in the Methodist Church we Methodist preachers like to have the Bishop simply appoint us.  That way we don’t have to accept any responsibility for moving.  We can let all the anger project on the Bishop and Cabinet.  It is also easier to talk with “deterministic” language about this decision.  God desires this and God led me and it is God’s will.  After all, you can’t be mad at me if God is the one pulling all the strings!

The complexity of discerning God’s will when we face good choices is evident.  My counsel to you is to spend time in prayer, spend time in God’s scriptures, talk to those you look up to and admire spiritually (seek those who are on both sides of the choice), spend time listening to God, and listen to your family.  Then, when time comes…make a decision, know God can work in and bless either choice.

This has been a difficult decision, but I truly see God in it.  I am excited about going to Texas to serve with the wonderful people of Chapelwood, but I am also grieving at the thought of leaving behind the wonderful people of Wesley.

This is a part of the journey, my friends.  As my friend Samuel Ghartey used to say, “I am struggling peacefully, my friend.  I am struggling peacefully.”

I Believe in Life Everlasting

Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5
21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

22Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Several years ago, after my father died, we took his ashes to be scattered over my grandfather’s family’s grave plot behind Zion Hope Baptist Church in Crisp County, Georgia. The scattering of my father’s ashes was not what affected me as much as looking around and seeing all these tombstones of men and women dating back to the early 1900’s…all with my last name. There was even a Corporal John Stephens, a soldier who fought under both General Joseph Johnson and General John Bell Hood as the Union General Sherman marched from Chattanooga to Atlanta.  My grandfather told me that was his grandfather’s brother and died at home after the militia disbanded with the fall of Atlanta. Being at that cemetery and hearing my grandfather tell of his grandfather and their families gave me a sense of history about my own life. There is something powerful about knowing where you come from.

My grandfather, Rome Stephens (I called him Coach), told me of his childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia and how all the businesses would close at noon and how he and his father would go fishing most afternoons. He shared about how my great-grandfather died in 1937 at 57 years old of a heart attack while at work. My grandfather was 15 at the time.  Coach also shared with me that at his wedding to my grandmother Edna when the minister asked if anyone had any reason why these two should not be married my great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side stood up and said, “He didn’t ask me if he could wed my daughter.” My grandfather was frozen in fear as silence gripped the house. My grandmother looked at my grandfather and the preacher and said, “Don’t pay any attention to him, he’s kidding around.”  That helps to explain a lot about my sense of humor.

Stories that tell us where we come from are stories of origin.  They have tremendous power to help us understand where we came from and why we are here. But stories of origin have counterparts: stories of destination.  Stories of destination tell us where we are going.  As meaningful as our stories of origin are our stories of destination are more powerful, shaping force.  Stories of destination point to ultimate destiny. They answer the question “Where are you going?” in a much broader sense: Where are you headed? In what direction is your life taking you? What is your true destination? Such stories are the counterpart of stories of origin.

The book of Revelation is a story of destination just as Genesis is a story of origin. The common center in both our stories of origin and destination is God – God is the center of both our stories of origin and our stories of destination.

The stories of my past are not the stories that give me hope…they merely help me understand who I am in the present. The stories that give me hope in the present are stories of where I am headed. Belief in “The resurrection of the body” is a powerful statement of hope to me and all of us who see our bodies failing and wasting away day by day. There is something deeply comforting to know that as my body breaks down and grows old, that in the end, I will receive a new body.
The reason why this last line is in our Apostle’s Creed each week, is to reconnect with our story of destination – we are headed somewhere particular. We are headed back to God. In the end, we will dwell with God just as we did in the beginning before the fall. God is the beginning and God is the end.

As we have journeyed through the Apostle’s Creed, we have been confronted with our core beliefs that we recite each week. Here, in the final line of the Creed, we are met with our story of destination. It is appropriate that the Creed begins with our story of origin and ends with our story of destination.

The Apostle’s Creed reflects our faith, but it does much more. It forms us each week because it gives us both our story of origin and our story of destination – and everything in between!

I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

1 Timothy 1:12-17
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

I remember in college a young girl who asked me, “Is it possible to forgive someone who is dead?” She asked it after our college youth ministry team was leading a lock in and several of us had shared about forgiveness. I had shared about my father walking out on my family when I was 14 years old and how my forgiveness of him was important to my spiritual growth. After the program, she felt she needed to forgive to be able to grow in her faith.  As we inquired about the question  she told us that her uncle had died a year ago.  When she was very young he had abused her in ways that were disturbing and atrocious. Now that he was dead, she wondered if forgiveness was possible and if her relationship with God was in danger.

My first reaction was connected to the kinds of examples we had shared in our time with the youth and how insignificant they were to the level of wrong done to this young girl.  Second, as I thought about it then and have thought about it since, I have asked this very human question. “Does that guy even deserve forgiveness?”

Paul, in this passage of scripture today, is also reflecting on some very personal things with his young protege, Timothy.  Paul says, “I am grateful to Christ who has strengthened me…even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence.”  Paul is sharing his own personal confessions with young Timothy. In a wonderful moment of gratitude, Paul sums up the central understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to forgiveness, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is true and worthy of full acceptence. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am foremost.”

Wow! Talk about authentic and self-revelatory (and I remember my preaching professors telling us to never use our personal lives as examples!) This is quite a confession, but the confession is not really the focus here. For Paul, the focus is the grace and mercy and forgiveness showered on us in Christ Jesus.

When we declare each week that we believe in the forgiveness of sins in the Apostle’s Creed, we are first and foremost giving thanks to God in Christ Jesus who forgives us.

Theologian Stephanie Mar Smith, refers back to Martin Luther (1483–1546) when reflecting on this passage because of his similar emphasis upon the mercy of God in the face of human sinfulness. In his early years, Luther was ridden with anxiety because he believed that he could not live up to God’s righteous standards. Then, as he studied the Scriptures, he realized that the righteousness of God was not a standard to which he must attain, but rather a gift from God: a mercy by which persons are made righteous through the righteousness of Christ.

The depth of sin was revealed, which Luther interpreted as the human arrogance that attempts to justify oneself before God (I am sure this doesn’t apply to anyone here – no arrogance and no one who attempts to justify their actions before God and others).  In addition to the revealing of our sin, God justifies us and declares us not guilty through the righteousness of Christ, who acts, loves, and believes on our behalf. This is important to grasp, because many of us don’t really think we are that bad.  We don’t believe we are really deserving of punishment – certainly not hell. But in order to understand how God’s grace works in forgiveness, we must first grasp the grace and mercy God has shown to us for our sins – which is what Paul reveals in this morning’s passage.

The first thing we have to do is get in touch with our sinfulness.  As Methodists, we don’t really preach those kinds of “hell, fire, and damnation messages.”  We prefer the “you are loved of God” messages.  This hasn’t helped our people understand the need for extravagant forgiveness and mercy.  While I am certainly not encouraging us to beat each other up, a healthy dose of our position before God would help us deal with our arrogance as it relates to sin.  How can you really be thankful for forgiveness if you don’t feel you need it?  Which leads to another problem as we begin to think about forgiving others…

If we truly believe God has forgiven us, then it is easier to forgive others as God forgives us. Jesus indicates in the gospels that if we do not forgive others, we in turn cannot receive forgiveness – not because God chooses not to forgive us, but rather because we choose to close off the channel of grace.

Simply put, I like to think of grace flowing through us like a drain.  If we identify our deep need for forgiveness and receive great mercy and grace, we are more motivated to forgive others.  If we really don’t feel we need that much forgiveness, we don’t have that much grace to share with others.  Also, if we refuse to forgive others, we do not allow the grace of God we have received to be shared with others which shuts down our ability to receive grace.  When the drain is clogged nothing comes out…and nothing more can go in.  Forgiveness is a spiritual act between you and God. We must forgive the other because if we don’t, our spirits become narrow, distorted and selfish. That in turn keeps us from receiving the grace of forgiveness from God. When you forgive another, it is something that takes place in the spirit – you are set free to be a channel of grace again.

Forgiveness is required and necessary.  I will never forget that brave young girl in that small church in South Georgia who desired to be a whole person and a vessel of grace. I don’t know where she is now or what she is doing, but I can tell you this. If my God is willing to forgive me…and if that girl was willing to forgive her uncle…than, by God’s help, I can forgive anyone who wrongs me. Lord, let your grace and mercy flow through me.

I Believe in the Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-31
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton actually borrowed that ancient phrase from a saying that dates back centuries – “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Simply put, he is saying I did not get here by myself and that is true for all of us. We are not who we are on our own. We each owe a debt of gratitude to more people than we can name for who we are and for what we have done.  And not just thanks to those we’ve known in our lives. We owe a debt to the generations who have come before us that we don’t know! We have all stood on the shoulder of giants. For those of us who are Christians, we are who we are because of the community of faith that has brought us here. That community of faith is the CHURCH.  (My church members were concerned that somehow this statement was connected to recent presidential political banter “You didn’t build that”.  That is not in my mind at all here, so please don’t place your political fears here!)

In the Apostle’s Creed, each Sunday we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” When we say it, we are declaring the unique role the church, the body of Christ, plays in our lives.

Now let me clear something up at the very beginning, the holy catholic church (with a little c) is not the same as talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The word catholic, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “of broad scope, relating to all humankind, universal”. For the first 1,000 years there was only one Christian Church, the universal church, the catholic church. When we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” we are not aligning with Roman Catholicism. We are saying we believe that the church universal is the body of Christ and no matter what denomination we are we are.  We are a part of the ONE, UNIVERSAL body of Christ.
If you have a “universal remote control” at your house you can help your understanding of small “c” catholic by referring to it at the “catholic remote” from now on.

The church is important. God’s design and will is that the church is Christ’s body on earth. This is important for us to understand as we think about how God works in the world and how we are a part of that.

There are those who say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” And that is true. Just like you can be an American and not vote or participate in making your country a better place to live. It is true one can be a believer in Christ and not go to church, but it is also true that to be fully committed as a Christ follower and disciple, you must be connected to the community of faith. Trust me, I’ve known hunters and golfers and others who tell me they find God in a tree stand or on the fairway on a beautiful morning. And I will say, sure you can see God there! Christian theology for 2,000 years has taught that God is revealed to all through natural revelation – i.e. the birds and the trees.  But it is only through what theologians call “particular revelation” that one can live distinctly as a disciple of Christ.  In our faith, we believe this “particular revelation” comes through the church.

The second type of person I have experienced as a pastor quite a bit is the one who says, “I will go to my Bible study at my friend’s house and that will be my church.” Or, “I will be involved in Walk to Emmaus or Gathering Place or “(insert valid ministry here)” and that will be my church. Just as Paul stated, the ear is not the eye and the foot is not the hand. These parachurch ministries are vital and important and they are extensions of the body of Christ, but they are NOT the church by themselves. Churches are not perfect, I will be the first to admit. And many of these ministries and groups sprout up because the church hasn’t done its job, that is true. But Paul makes clear that the church, the body of Christ, has a distinct personality because it is God’s prescribed way to save the world. Imperfect as it is, it is God’s vehicle that provides the fullness, balance and accountability we need in our lives. It is okay to supplement your church with other studies and groups, but to abandon the church is not healthy. There is no tradition, obedience, submission, or covenant involved beyond the church. When we look for substitutes for church, what we are really looking for is church on my terms. That is selfish and gives us over to the temptation of power in our lives.

The church calls us to submit to Christ.  One thing I know about people, is we don’t change naturally. I don’t become a better person or a better Christian just because I know I should. The way we change is when others come alongside us and encourage us, and yes, sometimes admonish us lovingly.  If left to my own will, I would do only the things I think are good and worthy. The church calls us to more. To not forget about the poor, the marginalized, the needy – in our world and among us.