Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Means of Grace (Malachi 3:7)

Sin was and is a reality, even in the lives of Christian believers, John Wesley said. Christ’s sacrifice broke its power, and as his grace works in our lives, we watch it diminish and grow weaker. But it won’t fully disappear until God’s final judgment.

So what do we do in the meantime? We “wait for God’s grace.” Ooookay. How long? How do we wait? How will it show up? What else do we do in the meantime?

Wesley preached this sermon because there were some groups in his Methodist movement that suggested things like communion, Scripture reading, baptism and even prayer were idols. Only God’s grace saved people, and these other things could make people dependent on them instead of on God. A person who felt a close connection to God during communion, for example, might be substituting communion for God, especially if they didn’t feel that connection any other time.

These people said that the proper way to worship and serve God was to wait for him to lead them through the Holy Spirit. Anything else was trying to use things to influence or direct God, and that was idolatry.

Wesley disagreed. According to his church and his understanding of Scripture, the means of grace were prayer, study of Scripture, and communion. God worked in people’s lives through these things to influence their hearts, minds and spirits and draw them closer to him.

Jesus himself had directed the disciples to pray and to take communion, and Paul reminded Timothy that Scripture was designed to teach, correct and guide people in walking with God. If Scripture itself directed people to do these things, then how could they be idolatry?

Of course people could abuse them, Wesley said. They might use prayer as a way of showing off their own righteousness, or take communion as routine, or pick and choose Scripture to make their own points without exploring what it might actually mean. But that didn’t make the means of grace themselves wrong – it meant the people who’d misused them were wrong.

When we take a look at these, it’s not hard to figure out how God works in prayer and Scripture reading to guide us, and to affect our lives with his grace. Real prayer, prayer that listens as much or more than it speaks, allows us to hear God leading us. Perhaps it’s towards a call he has on our lives, or perhaps it’s away from a harmful situation or bad habit. Even bringing our concerns and joys before God helps us focus on the source of our joy and our help.

In Scripture, we may also find ourselves guided. And challenged, and confused, and comforted, and stimulated and probably just about anything else that can help us grow in our faith. The stories of people meeting God and dealing with God’s presence in their lives offer us patterns and conversations that open God’s grace to us, and help us open ourselves more to God’s grace.

Communion’s connection is a little trickier, maybe, to see at first sight. But Wesley reminded us that Jesus himself directed us to take the bread and cup, as a way of remembering him. If it were only a memorial to a dead man, then I doubt very much we’d still be doing it today, some 1,900 years later. Memorials fade with time, and there’s nothing special about getting killed by the Romans. Lots of people did it.

But in communion, we remember one who was dead but is alive, one who died and was raised. He told us the bread and wine were his body and blood, and when we take them, we become his body for the world, united by the blood shed in his sacrifice. The molecules of the bread and juice, after they’re digested, spread to every part of our bodies. We, as the body of Christ, spread throughout the world to do what his body did during the years it was on the earth: Proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand at that God loves all his children.

Grace is God’s all-purpose tool for remaking and reshaping us so that we more and more resemble what he always intended us to be. As we remember that though death came to Christ, its power was broken, we are reminded that not even death can separate us from God. Those reminders help chip away at the fear and hate that keep our sin alive, reassuring us that God loves us and we need fear nothing. As both fear and hate diminish, more of God’s grace becomes apparent in us and to us.

Just had to wait on it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption (Romans 8:15-16)

Methodist founder John Wesley was fascinated by what he saw as a process of salvation. On the one hand, God saved people once and for all through the work of Christ on the cross. On the other hand, Christians didn’t all seem live that out the same way. Some followed Christ’s path closely while others could make an onlooker wonder if Jesus made any difference in their lives. That “split personality” might also change over time, Wesley noticed.

The situation interested him because he saw the pastoral need of helping people move forward in their faith, and because it also matched his own experience. His long years of doing every good work he could think of hadn’t eased his spirit the way God had when Wesley was at the study meeting at Aldersgate.

When he looked at his own life and listened to others talk about their own spiritual journeys, Wesley saw that people seemed to live in three different places on those journeys.

The first he called the “natural” state, or being asleep. People who lived a life in the natural state weren’t really aware of God or of their need for him. Even if they had heard about God and about Christ, they weren’t really interested or moved to find out more. They had other goals – like the satisfaction of their own desires and wants. Today, these people might have bumper stickers that say, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” or “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Or they might be good and compassionate people. The key is their indifference to God and an unawareness of any need for God.

Well, sooner or later, the alarm sounds and wakes up the sleepers. Wesley might have called the alarm “life.” Eventually, even the most unconcerned people wonder a little about the purpose of their lives. Wondering why we’re here is something that human beings do and other animals don’t. When I watch “Meerkat Manor,” for example, I don’t recall any meerkats asking each other what it means to be a good meerkat. Which is good, because that would be a really boring show.

Such people might become aware of their sin and start fighting to overcome it. In the terms I like to use, they wake up to the reality that their relationship with God is somehow broken, not what it was supposed to be. So they try to repair it. They try to bridge the gap and try to live like God would want them to.

Problem No. 1 rears its head here: It can’t be done. Like quicksand, sin seems to drag us more heavily the more we try to free ourselves from it. Paul says it this way: The good I want to do, I don’t do. And the bad that I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. Wesley calls this the “legal” state, and said it’s characterized by a spirit of bondage to sin.

Someone in the natural state isn’t really aware of sin, so while they’re stuck in it just as deep, they don’t know it. But someone in the legal state knows about sin, knows its consequences and problems, but can’t get free from it. Wesley said this was his own story, talking about all of the different things he did to try to work his way to salvation.

But God’s goal is that we know the spirit of adoption, to live as believers. He called this the “evangelical” state. God doesn’t want us living as slaves to sin, but as his adopted daughters and sons, heirs with Christ. We may still sin, as another Wesley sermon mentions. Now, though, we know that we are not slaves to it and we are given strength by God to conquer and overcome it.

My tendency when I hear about stages or states or levels is to think they line up and I progress from one to another in a nice neat line. Of course, life is not a nice neat line – it’s messy. And Wesley told his people that people might have different parts of their lives in any of these three states.

I might not be aware of how something I do separates me from God, for example. Or I might be aware of it and trying to master it on my own. Or I might have, through God’s grace, conquered it and be free of it – in order to sin that way again, I have to deliberately act against what my spirit now wants to do. I have to ignore the witness of the Holy Spirit within me, testifying to me that I am a child of God and I don’t have to follow that spirit of slavery any more.

The spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God. What good news.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The First-Fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:1)

If the Church of England had given John Wesley a church to pastor, we might never have had a Methodist movement. Since he couldn’t focus on one congregation, his eyes opened up to all the people outside the church walls who needed to be pastored, who needed to hear God’s word and who needed to be shown that the Kingdom of God included them also.

The world, he said, became his parish.

His sermons often come more from real pastoral issues than a desire to set out a system of doctrines. He made sure he based what he said on traditional Christian teaching and doctrine, but he used them in service to meeting the pastoral needs of his people.

For example, one of the prickliest questions Christians face is the reality that although we are saved and set free from sin, sometimes we don’t act like it. In fact we still have sin in our lives, even though we believe God has restored us to the full relationship he designed us for to start with.

Are the wrong things we do after we’re saved “sin,” like the sins we committed before coming to know God? Are they a different kind of wrong thing? How do they affect our relationship with God? Do they mean we’re really not as right with God as we believe we are? Lots of questions.

Sometimes, Wesley said, people might be so aware of how they seem to be no different than before that it drives them to despair. How could God love them when they kept turning their backs on him? How could they call out to him again knowing that they had made promises and pledges before that all fell through?

Other people might look at their sin and shrug their shoulders about it. Hey, they’d been forgiven already, right? Christ on the cross had covered all their sins, both before and after they accepted him. Sure, trying to do better might be a good idea, and everyone could be a little nicer now and again, but the flesh was sinful, so whaddaya gonna do?

Neither extreme sat well with Wesley the pastor, and he preached this sermon, “The First-Fruits of the Spirit,” to talk about them. As he understood it, neither way of thinking took the Holy Spirit into account, or the work it did in the lives of believers.

For the folks who went all “No worries” about their sin, Wesley pointed out that the new relationship God offers begins with a person being aware of their own sin and repenting of it. Not just feeling sorry for it or regretting it, but genuinely wanting to turn away from the path it represented and take another. These people desired to be freed from their bondage to sin.

Someone who professed Christ as savior but wasn’t all that worried about their own sin should probably ask himself how real his relationship with God was, Wesley said. A relationship where one person doesn’t care what the other one wants isn’t much of a relationship, he noted.

The Holy Spirit moved within believers to show them their shortcomings and sins, so they could reach out to God for forgiveness and help.

Wesley knew that sometimes people felt overwhelmed by their own sin. The work of the Spirit made them wonder if they’d ever make any real changes in their lives. They might figure that they were hopeless and give up.

Of course not, Wesley said. If God loved them enough to reach out to them when they hadn’t yet accepted him, why would he abandon them now? Did they think that these new sins could somehow overpower God’s grace when their old sins couldn’t?

Johnny Cash sings a song where people in church testify they were headed straight up to glory faster than a rifle shot, no detours. Or just like a rocketship. But an old woman stands up and acknowledges that she’s slipped and slid a little along the way, but she trusts God, and she’s getting closer to heaven too, even if it’s only about a half a mile a day.

Wesley would have understood her words well, and he might even have agreed with her. One thing about someone traveling really fast – it’s hard to catch up, even if you want to go where they’re going and they invite you to share the journey. But someone going about a half a mile a day – well, I can match that pace. I’d be happy to join them.