The Witness of Unity

John 17:20-26
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that 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. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I 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. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

We just celebrated World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October.  On that day, we lifted up our unity as Christians in the church universal by sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion along with thousands of other Christians worldwide.  There is an urgent need right now for Christians to be a witness through unity, especially in our American political climate.  First and foremost, Christians are fundamentally called to demonstrate our faith guided by Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, during this season of presidential politics many of us seem to guided more by our commitment to political ideologies than the teachings of Christ.

Let me give you two examples.

I have a good friend who is a Christian and a Democrat. She started visiting a new church in the community where she lived.  While she thought her faith and politics lined up, she learned very quickly that the people in her new church did not agree.   In a Sunday school class conversation, several seemed to imply (and one person directly stated), that one cannot be both a Christian and a Democrat. She liked her church and knew everyone did not feel this way, but here she was in a congregation where leaders of her class were telling her that her political views were not Christian. What kind of church would say such things?

I know another man who shared with me his pain around faith and politics. He is a Christian as well and a faithful member of his church. He never told me his political affiliation, but he expressed some deep pain from friends and congregation members who sent out partisan emails. He is the kind of guy who studies the facts and whenever he would try to point out the errors of certain emails (of which most were partisan lies), the response back to him was not exactly in keeping with the kind of love Jesus modeled. They responded to him harshly and he had not even asked to be sent those emails! Someone just included him in all the FWDs. One man said to him, “Don’t talk to me anymore!” What kind of church would say such things?

Actually, both of these people attend the same church.  And the church these two people attend is the church I pastor.

I appreciate some aspects of both parties and disagree with others. I have voted for persons in both parties. Jesus would not perfectly fit either political party. The truth is we Christians have damaged our witness when it comes to how we participate in partisan politics.  I know many people of strong faith who become very un-Christian in their behavior when they begin to talk about politics.

In John’s gospel today, Jesus is talking about unity. As we gather around the table to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we celebrate unity in the Body of Christ. Our faith teaches that we are one body and Christ is the head. This does not mean we are all the same or that we all see the world the same way. We struggle in our differences; I get that – I struggle as well. But we must remember that just because we are commanded to be ONE doesn’t mean we have to all be the SAME.  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  In this section of the gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that our unity is rooted in our faith and that our witness to the world will not be about “right belief” but rather about “right living” – Jesus models the Father, and he calls us to model him. Our love of God and one another, if it is true and authentic, should rise above any difference in our political ideology.

Let me encourage you to be a faithful witness to the love of God in these coming days and weeks. Remember the teachings of Paul from Ephesians 4, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another.”
I want you to be involved and engaged in the political arena, but I want you to remember that you are an ambassador of Christ first and foremost. Our faith should not be trumped by our loyalty to a political party. If it is, we compromise our witness to the world.

Are you a witness to the cosmic power of Christ in our unity? Or is your witness of Christ compromised by our lack of love and unity?

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 Holy Spirit

John 15:26 – 16:15
26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest reflects back to a time when he is a child and he and Jenny are standing on a dirt road in front of his house. Bullies approach and begin to throw rocks at Forrest. Jenny helps him up, touches him on the arm and cries out the famous line, “Run, Forrest, Run!” With her encouragement, standing beside Forrest, he is energized and begins to run.  As he runs, he shatters his leg braces (what he calls his, “magic shoes”). In that moment of pressure and persecution, Jenny gives him the encouragement he needs to run free. Forrest says, from that moment on, if I was going somewhere “I was running!”

We all need someone to come alongside of us. Whether it is in our moments of joy or our moments of grief, we all need someone who will help us up, touch us on the arm, speak the truth to us and give us the encouragement we need to run free.
Each week in the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” When we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, we declare our faith in a God who has come alongside all of us in every moment of our lives.  In order for Jesus to be in every one of our hearts and lives, he would have to send the Holy Spirit – the person of the Trinity who dwells in every one of us and comes alongside every one of us.
The Holy Spirit is God with us. And Jesus says in our scripture today that the role of the Advocate is to speak the truth to us and encourage us in our lives.

Jesus tells us in verse 13 that when the Spirit comes, He will guide us in all truth, speaking to us the things He hears the Father saying. I hear people often say the Holy Spirit is our conscience and I do not believe this is correct. Our conscience is our conscience.  I have known people whose conscience have led them to do good things and others who are led to do not so good things.  The Holy Spirit is wholly other than your conscience. The “Spirit of truth” speaks truthfully and bears testimony on Christ’s behalf. The Holy Spirit speaks to our conscience, if we are willing to hear him. But the Spirit will say precisely what the Father and Son have said – nothing different. The Holy Spirit will strengthen the community of believers and enable them to speak the truth about what they have experienced of Jesus the Son. I can’t tell you how many times I have come across Christians who have said, “the Holy Spirit told me ______________ (fill in the blank)” and I think to myself, “That ain’t the Holy Spirit.” If you ever wonder whether it is your conscience or the Holy Spirit, just put it up against the truth that the Father and the Son have already revealed. And, does it glorify the Son.  That’s your test.

In John’s Gospel the essence of love is to be connected to and share deeply in the presence and work of Jesus. In Jesus’ farewell discourse we see him dealing with the disciples’ love and sorrow at his impending departure. Jesus, anticipating the grief they will feel, prepares the disciples for his return to the Father. Although it is time for him to leave them physically, he will continue to be with them spiritually through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is assuring us that he will indeed remain alive in the community, and not just in the community – in the individual Christian.

I think of so many of you who have gone through or are going through difficult times. My mind and heart goes out this week to a young man in our community who was in a car accident Friday, Tucker Anderson. As difficult and horrible as all these things are for friends and family, I continue to see how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those impacted bringing comfort – reminding them of the presence of God.
Every single one of us has been touched by or will be touched by moments of life where we need the presence of God in our lives to be real and powerful. The Holy Spirit is always with us, but often it isn’t until we really need the encouragement of God that the eyes of our hearts open to sense that he is alongside of us – helping us up off the ground, giving us the encouragement we need to trust for the next moment.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who is with us, guiding us in all truth and coming alongside us to heal and encourage.

Weddings, Water and Wine

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Every time I read this passage I envision Cal Naughton, Jr. at the dinner table in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby as he says, “ I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-Shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party.  I like my Jesus to party.”  As irreverent as that is, this is exactly the Jesus we see in John 2.  Attending a formal party…a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

This opening miracle, or as John calls them “signs”, in the Gospel of John seeks to help us understand the nature and character of Jesus.  But before I lift up a few of the relevant portions of this passage there is something we need to discuss – wine.   Because the bottom line is this – this story is all about wine, but not about wine as you and I think about it.

In order to truly understand John 2, we need to reclaim a Biblical understanding of wine.  Unfortunately, most of our understandings and misunderstandings about alcohol come more from our culture than the Bible.  If we refuse to open ourselves and gain a Biblical understanding of wine, we will totally miss the point in John 2.

Wine in the Bible is first and foremost a symbol of blessing, abundance, and redemption.  There are numerous verses to support this understanding.  In Genesis 14, the Priest Melchizedek gives the Abrahamic blessing to Abraham communicated with the symbols of bread and wine – in scripture, these are basic fundamental symbols of providence, abundance and blessing, along with oil.  Bread, oil and wine are symbols of God’s creative sustenance and abundant blessing.  Isaac’s blessing to Jacob and Esau, given over bread and wine.  And we see in the blessings passed along by the patriarchs, the hope that God grant you “heaven’s dew, earth’s riches – grain and new wine in abundance.”

In several passages wine is brought as a drink offering to God, the aroma of which, is pleasing to God.

In Psalms and Proverbs, the signs of bread, oil, and wine overflowing are signs of blessing and peace from God, “God will give wine to gladden the heart, oil to shine the face, and bread to sustain the heart.”  During the feast of the Passover, and the Last Supper, there are four cups of wine, representing the four redemptions promised by God to the Hebrews – (The Cup of Sanctification, The Cup of Judgment, The Cup of Redemption, and The Cup of Restoration).

I could go on and on and on, but what I want you to hear is this – wine is a symbol of redemption, abundance, blessing, sustenance and redemption.  If you don’t get this, you won’t get John 2.

As a pastor, I do want to be careful here.  None of this has anything to do with the warnings the Bible gives regarding the abuse of wine – as with anything in God’s creation – the basic symbols of God’s creative sustenance; bread and wine can both lead to sin – too much bread is gluttony, too much wine is drunkenness.  There is a time and place for a discussion or two on the abuses bread and wine, but not today.

The point today is if we can get out from behind our culturally formed sensibilities regarding wine, we are able to see this story and hear its message.  Because after all this talk about wine, let me surprise you.  This story is not as much about wine as it is about who Jesus is.

This is the first sign or miracle in the Gospel of John.  This sign defines him, his ministry, his purpose.

Weddings have meaning in the Bible far beyond the joining of a man and a woman.  The wedding has eschatological overtones – we are called upon to pay special attention because a wedding points to fulfillment, fullness of God’s design and plan, and the culmination of all things.

The celebration of the wedding is confronted with a problem – the wine has run out.  Jesus’ mother comes to him and says to Jesus, “They have no wine.”

Jesus’ response to his mother is hard for us, but let me explain.  “Woman” was not an uncommon greeting for a stranger.  It is neither rude nor harsh.  But it is odd for one to address their mother this way.  Why does Jesus speak to her like this?  Jesus at this moment plays down his family relationship with his mother.  What concern is that to you and me is not rude, but rather disengagement.  Professor Gail O’Day points out, “In this one exchange, Jesus establishes his freedom from any and all human control – not even Jesus’ mother has a claim on him.  He is governed by only one thing – God’s timing and direction.”

And here we see a fascinating image.  Very descriptive, six stone jars for the ritual of purification, each holding 20-30 gallons.  The cleansing of hands, arms, and face before eating is tied to wholeness, blessing, and spirituality.  You receive the blessing of food and life once you are ritually/spiritually clean, so you bless God and you wash – then you eat and drink.

When Jesus turns the water from these jars of purification into wine – the biblical image of abundance, redemption and blessing, we see something amazing.  The sign and symbol of wine will also become the symbol of Christ’s blood – wine, blood, redemption, blessing, abundance, ritual cleansing….

Jesus is the new wine, his blood will purify us.  This gift is not a rejection of their faith, but rather the fulfillment of it.

The last thing I will point out is not only the superabundance of gifts given through Jesus (think about the feeding of the 5,000 and how much food is left over).  But the vast amount of wine is only surpassed by its vintage – it is the BEST wine.  We are not talking $4.99 Trader Joe’s here.

The sacramental nature cannot be missed.  Wine in John 2.  Bread in John 6.  The symbols of life, redemption and sustenance.  The symbols of God’s blessing.  The symbols of life.  They symbols of Jesus.

This miracle is about more than good wine and parties.  It points to the one who comes to embody the blessing of God.  Jesus is the new wine.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Jesus is the redemption of the world.

Murky Water and the Means of Grace

There is an ancient story told by the Desert Fathers, early Christians who lived in the desert of Egypt that goes something like this: There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found him also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see him who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Means of grace are “signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for the purpose of conveying to humanity preparing, accepting, and sustaining grace”. Any expression or action that makes clear God’s grace is an act of the means of grace.

There are interior means of grace. John Wesley called them Works of Piety and they are simply spiritual disciplines. Interior means of grace communicate God’s preparing, accepting and sustaining grace to US. Prayer, searching scripture, fasting, the sacrament of Holy Communion are the primary means by which God’s grace clearer. Prayer clears the murky waters by bringing us close to God’s heart. Scripture gives us a clarity of who God is. Fasting causes us to separate from our selfishness through self-denial and gives greater clarity to who we are and our need of God. Holy Communion is the means by which God’s grace is actually communicated in the bread and wine. These personal means of interior devotion are important in helping us to continue toward holiness and sanctification.

I love this quote of Thomas Merton. It helps me to understand why the interior means are so important. He wrote, “Every man becomes the image of the God he adores. He whose worship is directed to a dead thing becomes a dead thing. He who loves corruption rots. He who loves a shadow becomes, himself, a shadow. He who loves things that must perish lives in dread of their perishing. The contemplative also, who seeks to keep God prisoner in his heart, becomes a prisoner within the narrow limits of his own heart, so that the Lord evades him and leaves him in his imprisonment, his confinement, and his dead recollection. The man who leaves the Lord the freedom of the Lord adores the Lord in His freedom and receives the liberty of the sons of God. This man loves like God and is carried away, the captive of the Lord’s invisible freedom. A god who remains immobile within the focus of my own vision is hardly even a trace of the True God’s passing.”

There are also exterior means of grace. John Wesley called these Works of Mercy. They are works of service and action that communicate God’s preparing, accepting, and sustaining grace to OTHERS. When we help those in need, work to feed, clothe, and support the poor and needy, when we actually take physical and tangible steps to help those around us and show God’s grace – we engage in exterior means of grace.

In Acts 2, we see exterior practices of the disciples of the early church that not only helped those in need, but communicated God’s grace to those around them. So much so that everyone else spoke well of them and others were added to their numbers –they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

As we live our lives of faith, let us utilize the means of grace to help make God’s grace clearer to ourselves and to a world in need.