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.

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