Sunday, December 22, 2013

Peace (Acts 26:28)

In the old King James version, Agrippa exclaims to Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian!" That's the phrase that fired John Wesley's imagination in preaching one of his best-known sermons, "The Almost Christian." His main theme was to measure what it meant to be "almost a Christian" against what it meant to be "altogether a Christian."

The first important point to make was that the judgment of being almost or altogether a Christian was one that people made for themselves -- no one was ready to make that kind of distinction for another person. So, Wesley asked, how would people know the difference in their spiritual lives? Well, it wasn't necessarily by what they did or said. Both almost and altogether Christians could be found regularly attending worship, regularly reading Scripture, regularly praying and regularly helping other people.

And they would do these things because they believed them essential to living Christian lives, not just because they looked good to other people or because they brought about good things. They would both help people in need because it was a part of following Jesus and because those people were also God's children.

The difference comes, Wesley said, in why they do these things. The almost Christian is trying to be good enough to earn God's love and his forgiveness. He or she believes that just a little bit more work or just a little bit more effort will get them across the finish line. Wesley knew this belief quiet well -- he would have said that from his early adult years through the Aldersgate experience, he would have been much more an almost Christian than an altogether one. He would rise before dawn to pray and he put himself through a long and miserable sea-voyage in order to try to minister to American Indians in South Carolina. He kept a journal that assessed his spiritual state every 15 minutes during the day.

But, as he pointed out more than once, such efforts brought him no peace. He was constantly trying to earn God's favor but he never received any signs God approved of what he did, so he tried harder, which didn't work either. The peace his Moravian fellow-travelers had shown in the face of a dangerous storm eluded him. The Aldersgate experience, in which Wesley said he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and a direct experience God loved him and forgiven his sins, showed him the difference.

Altogether Christians do what they do not to get God to love them, but because God loves them. They live their lives dedicated to God out of thanksgiving.

You can see what kind of difference this would make. If I believe that I'm almost a Christian and if I just do a little bit more I'll cross the finish line, then I'm always wondering if I've done enough or if I've slipped back below it. If God requires me, like Jesus says, to make sure everything I do and say shows the most love for God and the most love for my neighbor possible, I can never be sure I've done that right. Who couldn't look back on something he or she did a week ago without wondering if there was a way to better display love of God and neighbor in that situation? There may be some great works done in such a way of living, but there is no peace.

But if we live our lives knowing that God loves us, that the sacrifice of his Son was made on our behalf to do what we couldn't do, then we can know our failures don't disqualify us. They are forgiven even as all our sins are forgiven. We regret the shortfall and we try to do better next time and ask forgiveness for the error, but we know it doesn't break the grace God has offered us. In that way of living we find the peace we never will when we try on our own.

The irony is that it's harder to be an almost Christian than an altogether one -- all our efforts can't earn what God freely offers.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joy (Acts 26:24)

So you may wonder what a verse in which Paul is accused of being a few leaves short of a laurel wreath has to do with the idea of joy.

Well, we'll look first at the sermon that John Wesley preached from this verse and I'll see if I can't connect the dots. Wesley was often accused by his detractors of fomenting "enthusiasm" among those who listened to his preaching, which did not mean the same thing it does for us today. After all, we can probably point to a number of church folks who would never be accused of enthusiasm and a number of preachers who wouldn't dream of fomenting it.

But in church use in the 18th century, "enthusiasm" referred to overt responses and displays during a worship service. Sometimes it might be one of the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament, like speaking in tongues. Sometimes it might be breaking down in tears or displays of great happiness, or some other demonstrative act. The common thread was that proper people didn't act like that in church. It was poor behavior. Well-bred, well-brought-up people knew better.

Wesley rejected the idea that "enthusiasm" had no place in worship. Obviously, there were and are standards of behavior in worship that avoid rudeness to fellow worshipers and display courtesy to them and the speaker. But if the Holy Spirit was at work, then those standards took second place. After all, he often preached to people that the proper preachers didn't bother with, since he was speaking in fields, village squares and hillsides. Many of them may not have ever heard the gospel before, and learning that God loved them in spite of the fact that they were not well-to-do or the "right kind of people" could bring a powerful response. What his critics called "enthusiasm" Wesley called proof of the Holy Spirit at work in the people listening to him preach.

When Paul testified before Festus, he not only explained how he was innocent of the charges against him, he also talked about Jesus and what he had done. In other words, he testified in both the legal and church senses of the word. He did so as a response to what God had done for him, and Wesley said that his listeners did what they did in the same way.

And "joy" is the same kind of thing. We often confuse it with happiness, but they are not the same. Happiness often depends on external circumstances. We know that we might feel happy now, but something could happen that makes us unhappy soon enough. Maybe we get tired. Maybe someone cuts us off on the road, or brings 40 items to the 20 items or less line. Or maybe something serious happens. We know that happiness doesn't always have staying power.

But joy as God gives it is different. It's like Paul's testimony or like Wesley's enthusiastic listeners -- a response to something God has done, rather than a feeling that depends on what goes on around us. Joy may come in the middle of great things, certainly. But sometimes it comes in the middle of hard times. When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, which is pretty much dunked in joy, he was in jail and awaiting word about whether or not he would win a legal appeal that would save his life. He wrote about joy not knowing whether he was living his last day.

And joy can come in perfectly ordinary circumstances as well. If you saw the video of US Air Force Orchestra musicians doing a "flash mob" concert at the Air and Space Museum you can get a picture of that: People are just going about their business at the museum when all of a sudden musical instruments appear and begin Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

In that sense, I guess Festus was right. We Christians may have lost our minds, because situations that might provoke despair or boredom or even nothing at all often seem to bring us none of these things. Instead, we respond with joy. The trade seems like a good one to me.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Love (First Corinthians 12:31)

Because 1 Corinthians 13 has such an amazing impact and a long history by itself, it's sometimes overlooked in its context, part of Paul teaching the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts.

The Corinthians seem to have developed some kind of heirarchy of gifts -- the spiritual gifts that draw more attention are seen as "higher" gifts that are signs of a holier person or someone that's a better Jesus follower than someone else. In fact, Paul writes to the church members as if they now have an entire congregation trying to reach "up" to speaking in tongues, which for some reason has become the signal of true faith or of deeper devotion than others. No, Paul says. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given as needed for the ministry of the body of Christ. A congregation truly seeking God's direction would recognize that each person's spiritual gifts are essential in following it, and that if the Spirit needed everyone to have all the gifts then everyone would.

He pivots just where ancient Christians divided chapter 12 from chapter 13 -- having told the Corinthians about the need for all of the spiritual gifts, he then offers his understanding on one quality that could make each gift even greater than it is -- the "more excellent way" of 12:31 is to use whatever gifts we have under the guidance and direction of Christian love. Love not only clarifies the spiritual gifts so sought after by the Corinthians, it actually amplifies them.

The most tongue-tied and ineloquent speakers can make a world of difference if they speak their words in love, and compared to them the language of angels is meaningless by itself. But should someone have such a gift and not only use it, but use it in love, then imagine what kind of impact he or she could have?

A child's simple words, spoken in love, can show many something important about the truth of faith that the most educated and wisest among us could never fully explain on their own. So imagine what kind of impact that great wisdom might have when it is given guided by love? Surely that expression of wisdom would be a "more excellent way."

Methodist founder John Wesley, in a sermon on this passage, suggested that the idea of the "more excellent way" could apply to every aspect of a Christian's life. Supposed someone who followed Jesus decided to abstain from unseemly entertainments, for example. For Wesley, those kind of entertainments included live theater, so we can tell he lived in a different time -- but the idea stays the same. He said a Christian who, persuaded by their conscience that such entertainment was not spiritually healthy, decided to stop patronizing them in his or her leisure time was doing a good thing.

But a Christian who then chose to spend that leisure time in some kind of help for people in need or personal study of Scripture or by meeting with others to study and discuss matters of faith was pursuing the "more excellent way." Helping others or offering aid to the needy was an expression of love for our neighbor, and prayer or study and learning was an expression of love for God.

Or doing those kinds of good works because the Scriptures direct it was obedience to God, which was a good thing. But moving forward and doing good works for others because we love God and our neighbor? A more excellent way!

During Advent, we may think we have done our Christian duty because we didn't speculate on the parentage of the person who took the last parking space or the specific item we braved the store to buy. And not acting bad -- now or at any other time -- is most definitely a good thing and a good habit for us Christians to develop. But love can inspire us to do more -- to not just omit wrong, but to seek after and include right. And if a time of making ready for the coming of the King is not a good time to seek a more excellent way, I don't know what would be.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Hope (Philippians 3:12)

It being Advent, I am now seeing a slowdown in the number of Advent and Christmas-related advertising we receive at the church. It’s all very nice, and of course a lot of it repeats itself. Much of the repeating stuff focuses on the different themes that are given to the Sundays of Advent – hope, love, joy and peace.

When we focus on these ideas, sometimes we focus on them as abstract qualities that are designed to inspire people. And they can, a little bit, but as abstract qualities they don’t really offer anything all that deep. “Hope” by itself is, well, a good thing, but most of the time if we’re going to face anything really tough we find ourselves needing a hope in something. Rather than just a kind of cloudy noun, we need a verb that connects to something. Unless we’re hoping in something particular, it’s like we’ve been thrown a rope that doesn’t connect to anything.

So what is something we as Christians hope in or hope for? There are many things, I’m sure, but one that I have heard talked about a lot is the hope of growing closer to God and of being more like the person God wants us to be. The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, used the phrase “Christian perfection” or “being made perfect in love” when he talked about this hope.

We can balk at these terms, especially the word “perfect.” We automatically think it means something flawless or without fault, and we know that we don’t measure up to that standard. Plus, people who claim some kind of perfection for themselves are usually bragging or boasting about it and we know that kind of attitude has nothing to do with following God.

Wesley realized those problems, and he was clear what he didn’t mean when he claimed Christians could be expected to be made perfect or holy not only in the life with God to come, but in this one as well. Christians could not have perfect knowledge – there’s stuff we don’t know and there’s stuff we’ll probably never know. For decades, math teachers have been trying to find x, for example, and each year they have to ask a bunch of new students to hunt it up.

Seriously, though, we don’t know what goes on in people’s lives or their thoughts, as well as so many other things, so we will always have only imperfect knowledge. But even when we know something, we as limited human beings have only imperfect judgment about what to do based on what we know. We might think we should act a certain way when we learn something, but our action may not be what’s needed.

There are a host of other imperfections we have that Wesley said are parts of the human condition that we won’t overcome. But we can be “made perfect in love.” We can devote so much of our time and energy towards seeking God’s will that we sort of change our default mode, if you like.

Instead of automatically responding to something by seeking out our own best interests, we find ourselves asking how best to serve God. What action or what word will show the most love of God and love of neighbor? Most of us, most of the time, have to stop and think a little on that before we do something. But those who are “perfect in love” will find they have allowed God’s spirit to direct them so fully they reach for those loving actions without the stopping and thinking.

Think of walking. When we learn to walk, we are obviously processing every step when we take it. Even though we don’t have the words yet, we are thinking, “Left foot out, lean over, left foot down, right foot out, lean over, right foot down.” But after enough practice, we do that without thinking about it. Of course, sometimes we miss something in our path and we stumble, or our movement is off somehow and we might fall. In the same way, our “Christian perfection” might falter a little bit because – remember from earlier – we don’t have perfect knowledge or perfect judgment or perfect ability.

In Wesley’s day, “perfect” could mean flawless like it does for us today, but it could also mean “completed” or “matured.” James Bond villains, you know, always perfected their schemes or death rays – right before they crossed paths with 007, anyway, and that sense of the word is closer to Wesley’s understanding.

So what do we hope for in this idea of Christian perfection? We hope to become so close to God that we and God together “will one will,” using another Wesley phrase. And we know that this will depend far more on God than on us, so we find that even just hoping for God to work in us can be a way of drawing closer to him. Because we are not just hoping in some vague idea or concept. We are hoping in our Lord and Savior, and he does not disappoint.