Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 (NRSV)
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Romans 10:9-13 (NRSV)
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13 (CEB)
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.
God of signs and wonders, who speaks the world into being, speak again your words of life and death. May your word be ever near us, on our lips, and in our heart. Transform us as we hear your word this day, that we may respond with faithful praise. Amen.
As we come to the first Sunday in Lent, we are called into a spiritual journey that begins with Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the period of 40 days, not including Sundays, that lead up to Easter. So the number 40 and the wilderness both have significance for us as we begin our journey.
First, the number 40 was a key number in the story of God’s people. Noah spent 40 days and nights inside the ark as the earth was being flooded, Moses spent 40 days and nights fasting on Mt. Sinai in preparation for receiving God’s Law, Elijah spent 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness before hearing God’s whisper, and of course, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt as God formed them spiritually before bringing them into the Promised Land.
In Deuteronomy chapter 1, verse 3, we read that “it was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses spoke to the Israelites precisely what the Lord had commanded him for them.” If you were to read the entire book of Deuteronomy from beginning to end, it reads like one long sermon – even longer than one of mine! As Moses gives them God’s divine law, he explains that instead of being merely a list of Do’s and Don’ts, it is a gift meant to help order and sustain human life, “so that you may live and increase” (Deut. 8:1). He goes on to tell them that the 40 years of manna in the wilderness was designed to prepare them to receive the law, by humbling them and highlighting God’s ordering, sustaining presence in their lives (Deut. 8:2-3). In other words, the daily manna, or bread from heaven, was a way of forming them into a people who could trust and depend on God for everything needed to sustain them. So after 40 years, when they finally entered the land of “milk and honey” they were able to recognize that it was God’s gift, instead of being tempted to say “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17)
In fact, they are told that even after they have lived for a long time in houses they did not build and harvested from trees they did not plant, that they are bring their first-fruits to the temple to be consecrated and to recall their story, which begins with, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” Rehearsing their story in this way is a reminder that even when they have inhabited the land for such a long time that they come to the Temple with their arms laden with the fruit of their harvest, they never forget to whom the land truly belongs and the story of how they came to be. Their story grounds them in a tale of survival and struggle, even when (perhaps especially when) they begin to get comfortable and are tempted to forget that it is God from whom all blessings flow.
With this in mind, now, let’s consider Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Luke tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness. Remember that John the Baptist also spent time living in the wilderness when he began preaching his message of repentance. And so Jesus seems to be going into the wilderness for an intentional time of spiritual formation; he goes full of the spirit and led by the spirit in order to have his heart humbled, strengthened and transformed by God before he began his public ministry. He observed a fast, during which time he did not eat. And it was at the end of this fast, at the end of the 40 days, when Jesus was as his most vulnerable, that the Tempter began whispering in his ear.
Several of the commentaries I read in preparing for this sermon warned that we should not try to make light of Jesus’ fast by comparing it to the Lenten fasts in which we tend to partake, such as giving up chocolate or meat. In fact, they cautioned against making comparisons to ourselves at all, because the temptations that Jesus faced were aimed precisely at Jesus as the Son of God. So let’s consider them from that point of view.
The Greek verb translated “to tempt” in verse 2 (peirazō) implies hostile intent. Repeatedly Jesus is approached by the devil with temptations to become other than the Son of God he is created to be. The first temptation, to turn a stone into bread, is on one level a temptation to satisfy his physical hunger. But when Jesus quotes Moses in Deuteronomy 8 by saying, “One does not live by bread alone,” (Deut. 8:3) we see that Jesus is recalling the story of God’s people who were humbled by their dependence on God. Jesus seems to be thinking, I’ve learned the ancient lesson of the manna: God is the true source of my sustenance, physical and otherwise. Bread certainly has its place, but every good thing - including bread! - comes from God’s graceful decrees. Jesus overcomes this temptation to supply his own needs “with the power and might of my own hand” and surrenders himself to God’s graceful provisions.
The second temptation was to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. One of my commentaries noted, “Whereas Matthew describes the kingdoms of the kosmos (“world”), Luke uses the politically laden noun oikoumenē. For Luke, kosmos typically refers to creation (9:25; 12:30), while oikoumenē generally refers to the political order (as in 2:1; 21:26; Acts 17:6). Luke conceives of a struggle between two kingdoms. The social-political order previously presented as under the charge of Rome (2:1; 3:1) is here revealed as a counter-kingdom ruled by the devil, whose authority now dangles before Jesus.” (Alan P. Sherouse. Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press.) Jesus could have become the ruler of the social-political world; he could have overturned the Roman empire and set up a new government. But instead, he knew that God’s reign could not be contained by human laws – that loving God and loving others could not be legislated. Jesus responds again with words from God’s divine law, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” (Deut. 6:13) – Jesus chose not to elevate himself in a political power grab, ruling as an earthly governor or king, but embraced his call to minister to the poor, the sick, the broken and the brokenhearted, as the One who would bring God’s spiritual kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Finally, Jesus is tempted to put God to the test – to throw himself off the Temple to see whether God loves him enough to save him. What a temptation! Perhaps Jesus was already struggling with the human fear of the end, or questioning God’s presence with him. To make it worse, the devil himself quotes scripture from Psalm 91 in order to make it even more enticing. That’s right, sometimes those who are quoting scriptures may have evil or selfish intentions. But Jesus recalls again the story of his ancestors, when out of their thirst, they tested God in the wilderness, crying out, “Is the Lord even among us?” Surely Jesus must have wondered that himself at times; but recalling the story of his people strengthens him even further, and he resists again with the words of Moses, saying, “Don’t test the Lord your God.” (Deut. 6:16)
Ultimately, the devil tempted Jesus with opportunities for self-reliance, self-power, and self-gratification. But Jesus shows the devil who he really is, God’s beloved Son whose relationship is built on his communion with God and his “insufficiency” apart from God, who is the “fount of every blessing” at the center of his life. And so the Gospel message for all of us is this: God longs to be at the center of our lives, as well. God loves each one of us as God’s beloved child, and every good gift in our life is God’s mana from heaven – our daily bread – for which we give thanks, and pray for it to be new every morning, expecting nothing as we come to God with open hands and humble hearts. As God forms us into grateful, loving and serving people, we are also called into ministry to spread the news of God’s salvation for all, and to build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
As we will continue to read throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ journey out of the wilderness will take him to the cross. As we are called to follow Jesus today, we are called to a similar journey of self-awareness, realizing that the power we are tempted to worship in our world today is the power that Jesus resisted. That the kingdom Jesus brought forth and calls us to help build is a counter-cultural kingdom of humility, vulnerability and self-denial. The journey of Lent can be a test for us to see where we are on our discipleship journey… are we really willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus? Are we really willing to let our hunger and thirst mold us into a dependence on God, instead of on money, power, status, popularity, self-righteousness, physical comfort, entertainment, etc. to meet our needs? What kind of Lent are you being challenged to practice? What are the temptations that risk pulling you away from your relationship with God?
Throughout these 40 days, as we begin, or recommit to, our own spiritual journey of growing closer to God, our scripture readings from today can help us to remember who God is, and whose we are, especially in those times when we feel like we are wandering in the wilderness of our own hearts. We will need to be reminded over and over again, just as the Israelites were, that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
O God, you have spoken to us today through this word of faith. Embolden our spirits by your Spirit, that your words may be made manifest in all that we say and in all that we do to bring your kingdom on earth. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson: Luke 9:28-43 (CEB)28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.
33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.
35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.
37 The next day, when Jesus, Peter, John, and James had come down from the mountain, a large crowd met Jesus. 38 A man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my only child.39 Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures him and rarely leaves him alone. 40 I begged your disciples to throw it out, but they couldn’t.”
41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon threw him down and shook him violently. Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father. 43 Everyone was overwhelmed by God’s greatness.
Well, if the weather had cooperated we would be finishing a three-week series today on the General Rules that John Wesley gave to the early Methodist societies at the time this new religious movement was being formed in the early 1700’s in England. I know that some of you have been keeping up with the sermons and weekly scripture readings and devotions that I’ve been sharing in my emails and on our website. So I want to be faithful to complete this series. So let me give a brief recap of what I’ve shared so far.
John Wesley, son of an Anglican priest grew up in and followed a call to be ordained himself within a church that he had come to realize was formed around high worship practices on Sunday mornings, in ornate buildings with well-to-do parishioners who seemed to be living a Sunday-morning kind of faith. He envied the faith of a group of Moravians he had met on his mission to the American colonies, who seemed to have a kind of faith assurance that gave them a deep sense of peace and joy, even in the face of life-threatening challenges. Wesley’s own faith experiences had been based on trying to be “good enough.” But after his encounter with the Moravians, he began searching the scriptures, searching his soul and opening his heart to the work of God’s Spirit within him, which culminated in what we Methodists call his “Aldersgate” moment – a meeting of a Moravian religious society in which his heart became “strangely warm” in response to the realization that he did trust in God and God alone for his salvation, which led to a rekindling of his faith in response to God’s amazing grace.
You see, early in his life, Wesley was depending on doing and believing all the right things in order to earn his salvation, instead of understanding that God’s grace comes first – there is nothing we can do to earn it. And once Wesley understood that, and accepted this grace as a freely given gift, it changed everything. Wesley had finally fallen in love with God!
His faith was on fire for preaching this new understanding of God’s love for all of us that he took his message out to the countryside and other places where people had been left out of the Church’s high and holy and well-to-do Sunday services. He preached in fields and streets corners and even on top of his father’s grave so that everyone had a chance to hear about God’s love. And hundreds of people, many of whom were part of England’s working-class poor, dedicated their lives to following Jesus. So Wesley formed them into faith communities, called Methodist Societies and gave them these three rules for helping them live out their faith in the real world:
I love you, Lord. And I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul, rejoice.
Take joy, my King, in what you hear; may it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.
In our scripture lesson today, Jesus and his three closest disciples – Peter, James and John – have gone up on a mountain so that Jesus can pray. In the gospels, especially in Luke, there are pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry when he goes of by himself, or in the company of his closest disciples, to pray. In fact, on Wednesday, we’ll be entering the season of Lent – those 40 days leading up to Easter when we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness in an extended time of prayer before he began his public ministry. So we see that prayer was always the first thing Jesus did before taking whatever next step was ahead of him in his ministry.
John Wesley also found that prayer was an essential part of his relationship with God and his ability to follow God’s call in his life. He would begin his day around 4:30 or 5:00 every morning with prayer so that his first thoughts for the day were of God. He would offer himself to God anew every morning, praying for God to direct his steps throughout the day, and he would pray for others. Then, he would use the chiming of the hour throughout the day to reconnect with God, offering another longer prayer to God at noon, and again in the evening. When he prayed before bed, he would recount his day with God, making confessions for the times when he had failed, making plans to make amends with anyone he had harmed, and entrusting himself to God’s care for the night.
We’ve talked before about how prayer is simply our way of being in communication with God. God loves each one of us so much that God longs to be in relationship with us. John Wesley didn't understand this in his early life. I didn’t understand this early in my life, either. I want to ask you to think about the person you talk with the most. Is that your spouse or other significant person, your best friend, a sibling, or parent or other family member? And would you say your relationship with that person is stronger when you make time to talk with them? What happens to our relationship with others when we get too busy to sit and talk, when we go through our days getting all the things on our “to-do” list accomplished, but not making time for the significant people in our lives? Do we get grouchy? Do they? Do we feel lonely, or anxious or frustrated? Early in our marriage, Thomas and I read a book with our small group at church about the importance of communication in relationships. And it encouraged couples to carve out time in their calendars every week for “couch time” – for time just to sit and talk. And it warned couples to schedule this first and to make it a priority, not letting other events or activities, or even children, take this time away. We found that when we did this, our whole week together was better for it. We also found that if we did intentionally work at guarding this time, it would certainly get overtaken with other things. So how is your relationship with God these days? Are you making couch time for God? Are you spending time talking with God, your friend, your comforter? Are you telling God about the problems in your life and asking for God’s advice? Are you confessing your secrets to God, or asking for help in overcoming something that is robbing you of time, energy or joy? God is here for you. God wants to be in relationship with YOU. So what do you need to change in order to make prayer a priority in your life?
Wesley also believed that “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the searching of scripture.” He called himself homo unis libri – a man of One book. And he believed that scripture, the Living Word of God, had a unique way of bringing people to encounter the Living God. Our scripture lesson today is a perfect example of the way that what we have in scripture is a way of discovering God’s overarching story of love, rescue, mercy, and fulfilling God’s promises to restore the world to its intended wholeness.
Verses 29-30: “29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.” Remember that Moses also ascended a mountain and came face to face with God’s glory – an experience that left his face glowing! And the encounter in which God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, helping to form them in their relationship with God after having been freed from slavery in Egypt. And Elijah, the Prophet, also had an encounter with God on a mountain, the same Mount Horeb where Moses received the Law. Only this time, God spoke in a still, small voice. And here, Jesus has his own encounter with the full glory of God, along with these two central figures from God’s ongoing story in the life of God’s people – the Law-Giver and the Prophet. There is so much to appreciate and try to understand in this passage. Here, God is bringing together the long-held memories, expectations and hopes of God’s people. And in a voice from the cloud, God confirms that, “This is my Son. Listen to Him!” Wow! Can you imagine being Peter, James or John in that moment? Seeing these two Heroes of your faith standing there with God’s own Son?? Reading scripture allows us to learn God’s whole story – the story that is still being written through the people God is still calling to help God’s kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven.”
How much of God’s story do you know? How long has it been since you opened the pages of your bible and dared to have your own encounter with the Living God through God’s Living Word? Today, so much of scripture is taken out of context and hurled around as little darts meant to shape God into our own image, or fit God into our own agendas. I am convinced that this is the reason our denomination has come to such a deep divide over the issue of human sexuality. When I try to consider God’s whole story, I consider it all – even the scriptures of the Old Testament – through the lens of Jesus Christ. We cannot afford to misrepresent God’s love in our world, and in our communities. John Wesley spent nearly half his life working very hard for a faith that was not bearing fruit in his life – he was finding no joy, no peace, no assurance of God’s love in his life. Once his heart melted, though, he fell in love not only with God with all of God’s people. His heart was moved with compassion for those he saw that had been excluded from Church, for those who were living on the margins of society and those who were considered less than fully human and openly sold as property in the slave trade.
It has been said that scripture is God’s love letter to God’s world. And we should read it that way – as one whole letter, as one whole story – from creation to re-creation, and the always-working grace of God to bring all of God’s beloved back into its intended wholeness, in a relationship of mutual love for God and neighbor.
Finally, John Wesley believed that Worship and the Lord’s Supper were vital means of staying strong in our relationship with God. He had no patience with people who thought they could live as Christians without being in community. He wrote, "holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The holy gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness, but social holiness." When we come together as the gathered body of Christ, we experience Christ’s presence in our midst. Jesus said, where two or three are gathered, I am there.” Worship is a way for us to praise God, to give thanks for all that God has done, and to be held up and encouraged by one another as we look around and see that we are not alone! We are not trying to live our life in a vacuum; we have friends in Christ, who loves what we love, who cares about the things that we care for, and who has the same kingdom goals we have of doing kindness, loving justice, and walking humbly with God. And we have the presence of Christ in the gathered body of Christ to hear our prayers, to pour out God’s Spirit on us for another week of trying to do life as God calls us, and to comfort and cheer us. Yes, worship and prayer can and should be done as individuals – but how sweet it is when we come together as the body of Christ to love and support one another as we experience Christ in our midst.
Let me say a word here about what worship is NOT: it is not about a building, it is not about the style of music, it is not about the paraments or the candles or whether or not we have stained glass or a cross hanging on the wall. When Peter, James and John saw the transfiguration of Jesus, with Moses and Elijah, Peter wanted to build shrines and stay and worship, and just escape all that was waiting for them in the valley. Luke adds this aside, “but [Peter] didn’t understand what he was saying.” Peter got caught up in the dazzle of it all, and forgot that the dazzle wasn’t the point! The Church is us. And Church can happen anywhere two or three are gathered. When we take our eyes off Jesus, we can get distracted trying to build shrines to Jesus instead of remembering the purpose for which Jesus came. Jesus came to restore sight to the blind, to set the captives free, to heal the sick and the broken, and to call disciples to join him in doing these same works of mercy that demonstrate God’s amazing love, God’s amazing grace… so that the whole world will know that they are God’s beloved, and God is their God.
We remember this through the sacrament of holy communion, when we remember the night that Jesus broke the bread of life and shared the cup of forgiveness with his disciples, with his friends. When we remember that Jesus knelt in that room as a servant to wash his disciple’s feet and explain to them that we are all called to serve as Christ served. When he gave them a new commandment to love one another as Christ loves us. We remember that even though Jesus stood on a mountain top and brilliant light like lightening burst through every pore in his body, in a dazzling display of God’s full glory within him, that days later he was stripped, beaten and put to death by a religious system that could not see the whole picture of God’s amazing love. Love that laid down its own life so that every single person would know their sacred worth. Love that gave its own Son so that every single person would know that they are also God’s beloved Daughter. God’s beloved Son.
Love does no harm. Love always seeks to do good. God is Love – so let’s make a commitment today to attend to the ordinances of God, to commit to way of life that helps us to stay in love with God by being in prayer, reading scripture, and gathering as the body of Christ to worship and remember the mighty acts of God, in order to be filled up with the grace of God to go out to serve – to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to visit the sick and those in prison, and to share the love of God with all.
May it be so.
Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:1-10
At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. 2 You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. 3 At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.
4-5 However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! 6 And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. 7 God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.[a] This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
Today, our denomination is meeting for a special called General Conference in St. Louis, MO for the purposes of praying, listening, discerning and ultimately deciding what our denomination’s policy will be regarding the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons. This is a debate that our denomination has been having for 47 years, ever since the language was added to our Book of Disciple that “homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching.” I’ve spoken already about the ways that faithful, Bible-reading Christians can read the handful of scriptures that reference what we now call homosexuality and, with reason, tradition, experience and examination in the light of Jesus’ teachings on love, can come to a different interpretation of these scriptures than others, who hold to a more literal interpretation.
For the weeks surrounding our general conference, I wanted to lead us through a short study of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church, some of the foundational theology around which our denomination was formed. Last week, we learned about how John Wesley, son of an Anglican priest, and himself a priest in the Anglican Church, had an encounter with a group of Moravian Christians that led to a period of soul-searching, and eventually a change in heart about his faith. Unlike the very methodical faith he learned to practice, the Moravians seemed to be experiencing joy, peace and assurance even in the face of challenges that John Wesley had not experienced. In a journal he explained that though he tried to be good, he continually failed, and eventually concluded that he lacked saving faith, saying, “I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. … I fell and rose, and fell again.” On May 24, 1738, he had an experience that completely changed his faith. In his journal he wrote,
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
This experience led to a reawakening of John Wesley’s faith, and to a movement of preaching which led hundreds of England’s working-class poor to hear and respond to the gospel. John Wesley began organizing these new Christians into Methodist Societies, and it was to these small communities of faith that he gave the General Rules:
All three of these rules were meant to help these new Christians to be able to live out, in practical ways, Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Last week, we explored the first rule, to do no harm, which requires us to think not only about the more obvious commandments such as, do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, or worship idols, but also those things that may cause unintentional harm. Some of these may be on a larger scale, such as consumer practices that contribute to environmental harm, systemic poverty or racism; as well as on a more individual scale, such as withholding God’s love and grace from others, speaking ill of others, or refusing to give or accept forgiveness. We also have to be aware that sometimes, our actions may even cause ourselves harm.
So the next rule, then is to do good. John Wesley lived by a personal motto which says, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Once John Wesley had his “Aldersgate moment” he realized that he had previously been trying to earn his salvation; that if he just prayed more, read scripture more often, and tried harder to be good, that he would somehow feel God’s grace as more real. Once he experienced God’s grace shed abroad in his heart, he realized that he had gotten it all backwards – that God’s grace comes first, and that everything we do once we awaken to God’s grace in our lives is in response to that grace.
In our scripture lesson today, Paul made that same point to the new Christians in Ephesus. Chapter 2, verses 8-10 says, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” John Wesley eventually came to believe that God’s prevenient grace is present in our lives from the very beginning. Before we are even aware of it, God is loving us unconditionally, and wooing us, inviting us to draw close to God, to love God in return. It’s there with us, even in the darkest times, just waiting for us to turn around and recognize it and accept it. Wesley calls this the Awakening or Convicting Grace – when we, like he did at Aldersgate, realize God’s loving presence in our lives and our hearts are ‘strangely warmed’ – when we, too, say yes to a relationship with God. Then, Wesley says that we begin our journey of transformation, of becoming sanctified and going on toward Christian perfection – of living out our lives in response to that saving grace that we couldn’t earn. So good works are not to earn our salvation with God, but to say thank you to God, and to become the vessel for God’s grace to reach others.
John Wesley had a heart for the poor, the sick and those in prison. And he encouraged those in the Methodist societies to live out their faith by doing good to the least, the lonely and the lost. Today we see that in addition to those living in poverty, there are others who are living on the margins of society who long for expressions of God’s love in their lives, as well. Those who are caught in addiction, those who are unwelcome and unaccepted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation, and those who are fleeing violence and abuse. Our response to God’s grace is what Wesley called acts of mercy – unselfish acts of love that bless others with wanting recognition or anything in return; giving grace upon grace to others.
I’ve known self-professed Christians who seem to believe that as long as their own heart is right with God, and they avoid doing evil themselves, then they are doing all that is ‘required’ of their faith. In other words, they believe their faith is limited to a personal relationship with Jesus. But over and over again in the gospels, we see that Jesus, too, has a heart for blessing those who were excluded from the religious community of his day – those who were considered ‘unclean’ due to illness, injury and disease, those who were considered ‘other’ because of their gender or ethnicity, those who were considered ‘less than’ because of economic or social status. Jesus demonstrated that being his disciple included acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the poor, and visiting the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25: 35-36).
John Wesley knew that people’s real-life needs had to be addressed in order for them to believe the good news he was preaching. In his own experience of trying to practice a self-focused faith, where his intention was on personal piety, or personal righteousness, his faith remained cold and he felt distant from God. But when he experienced God’s grace as something he could never earn, something he didn’t deserve, and something that came from God’s unconditional love, he was moved to share this same grace, this same love with others. And it moved him to have compassion on others, to do all he could to bless them so they would come to know this overwhelming love of God, as well.
We were created to do good in response to God’s love. Jesus demonstrated a real-life way to bless others. So the question to us today is, how are we doing in responding to God’s love in our lives? Are we out there, sharing it by feeding the poor, clothing the needy? Are we visiting the sick and the lonely and those imprisoned, whether in a literal prison or a prison of their mind or bodies? Are we doing all we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can to bless others?
Our denomination is at a crossroad. We don’t know what will ultimately be decided this week. But as individuals, and as part of this community of faith called Maple Grove, we can decide that our way of living will be one that seeks to do no harm, and one that does as much good to others as possible. Whether or not we remain United as Methodists, our faith and understanding of God’s grace has been shaped in a way that calls us to look outside of our church walls to those in our community who need someone to share with them that God is already with them, already loving them, already beside them with arms wide open, waiting for the day when they turn around and recognize that love, and accept that grace to transform their lives. But how will they know unless we tell them, and show them?
We know that our culture is changing in a way that makes it much more difficult for families and young professionals to attend church on Sundays. That’s part of the reason why I am exploring possibilities for new expressions of faith in our community. I’ve invited some of you to begin a weekly bible study with me over lent to begin discerning what these expressions may look like. But I want to invite all of you to begin praying daily for this effort. How will the 60% of our community who are unchurched or dechurched come to know the amazing love of God? It’s up to us. Pray also that God will lead you to personal ways that you can bless others. Our faith isn’t something we get to keep to ourselves – it is meant to be lived in such a way that others see the difference God’s grace has made in our lives, and that changes the way we treat others; it is meant to be shared with those who are walking through struggles in their lives, and those who have been marginalized because of status, race, religion, orientation, or other things that leave them less than, lonely and lost.
In Bishop Rueben Job’s book, Three Simple Rules, he writes, “I do not need to wait until circumstances cry out for aid to relieve suffering or correct some horrible injustice. I can decide that my way of living will come down on the side of doing good to all in every circumstance and in every way I can." (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.) In other words, do good NOW. Love others NOW. And if you have never turned around and recognized God’s grace in your life – if you want to say ‘yes’ to accepting God’s grace to transform you into a disciple of Jesus who lives your life in response to this grace by loving God with your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, and by loving your neighbors as yourself, then respond to God NOW.
John Wesley’s brother Charles, also a priest in the Anglican church had a similar change of heart and faith. And he wrote a beautiful hymn that captures these experiences they and other new Christians have described. The fourth stanza says,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
God’s amazing grace – freely given and present with us all our lives – is calling us to be people who seek to do no harm and to do good. Let’s look for ways that we can share God’s love this week. Do good NOW. Bless others NOW. And share God’s amazing love with every person you meet. Amen.
Romans 12:9-18 (CEB)
9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. 18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.
Romans 13:8-10 (CEB)
8 Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9 The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Ghandi that says, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Can’t we all think of at least one person we have known who was extremely religious, but not very nice? I saw a meme on the internet this week that said, “God’s truths are not bricks to throw at people. They are bread to feed people.” We’re beginning a three-week study today of the United Methodist General Rules – the three guiding principles by which Methodists, and all Christians, really, are encouraged to use to guide their words and deeds in order to follow Jesus’s commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
These general rules came to us from John Wesley who formed the Methodist movement within the Church of England in the early 1700’s. As a priest in the Anglican Church, John Wesley and his brother Charles were asked to be part of a mission to the American colony of Georgia. Things didn’t exactly go well, and they returned to England with their faith shaken. But during their travels, they met a group of Moravian immigrants whose assurance of faith made a lasting impression on John. After that, he began having regular conversations with a man named Peter Böhler about Moravian spirituality, which included the belief that Christians have an assurance of faith experienced as love, peace, and joy. Those emotions were not part of the methodical faith that the Wesley brothers knew, but John became consumed with these ideas, and poured through the Bible for evidence of Böhler’s claims.
Eventually, both brothers came to know this faith for themselves, each of them describing a particular moment when God’s Spirit touched their heart. In a journal, John Wesley wrote:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Even though John Wesley was the son of a preacher and grew up in a devoutly religious home, the dynamic connection to God that he made at Aldersgate was new to him. Dale Patterson, General Commission on [United Methodist] Archives and History explains that this led to a complete re-thinking, or re-framing of faith. He says, “I think he came to his adulthood with one particular concept of how the religious life should work for him. And I think that’s what he had to relearn. He had initially planned to live life in a certain way and that was going to make a great relationship with God. And what Aldersgate taught him was he had to flip it. He’d gotten, unintentionally, the cart before the horse.”
The reason I’m sharing this with you is because I think it is important to realize that the church we know as the United Methodist Church might not even exist if John Wesley, an Anglican priest who thought he had God and religion all figured out, had not been willing to question what he was taught, and have Spirit-led conversations with others whose faith seemed to be producing fruit that his did not, and then to be willing to open his mind and his heart to experiencing God in a new way. In fact, once he did have that “Aldersgate moment” he was so on fire for preaching and sharing his experience and his new-found faith with others that he, in effect, started a religious revival! As people heard him preaching and became Christians, he began forming them into societies, similar to the Moravians that we might call today, churches or communities of faith. Then within those, he formed them into small classes and bands, which we might call Sunday School and small groups. It was to these societies, who met weekly for the purpose of instruction and prayer, that he wrote the general rules as a way to give them real-world guidelines to help them live out their new faith.
These “General Rules” were:
Former Iowa Bishop Reuben Job wrote a very short and simple book about these three “simple” but challenging rules, because he saw the signs that American Christianity, including those in the United Methodist Church, seemed to be reverting to a practice of Sunday-morning religion that didn’t necessarily make its way into our daily living the rest of the week. In his book he asks a series of questions that I would ask us to consider today: “Those who seek to follow Jesus must be asking if this is the way Christians are to live. Are we really measuring up to our calling as children of God? Is there a better way for us to practice our faith? A way so simple and substantial that none are turned away and all are able to practice as together we engage in our quest for faithful living? Do we look at one another and see movement toward our oneness in Christ? Do others look at us and see God at work in our life together? Is our way of living life-giving rather than life-draining? Is our way of living one that will enhance the quality of life of each of us for as long as we live?” (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.)
Wow. Those are convicting questions, aren’t they? A simple way, but not an easy way. But a way that can show God to those who don’t know God, a way that gives life instead of draining it, and a way that actually makes the quality of life better for everyone! That’s a life I want. So how do we do it? First, do no harm.
What does it mean to live life in a way that does no harm? In the medical community, when a person’s life can literally be in the hands of a medical professional, the healer has taken an oath to first do no harm. That means on purpose, or accidental. I all of us can easily think of ways that we can intentionally do harm to others. If you’re having trouble with this, think of the ten commandments: Thou shalt not… what? Murder. Commit adultery. Steal. Take the Lord’s name in vain. Be envious of your neighbor, or give a false witness against them. And there is an entire theology based on this type of doing no harm, called deontology, based on the Greek root deon which means duty, or obligation. It’s a way of thinking of morality as defined by behaviors that are considered evil, no matter what. In other word, there’s a list of “thou shalt not’s” and it’s pretty black-and-white. Where this begins to break down, in my opinion, is that if one lives their life only in terms of not doing the “bad things” does that make them a good, moral person? And even if they do things that are technically “not bad” but that in some way causes harm to another person, is that okay? Jesus himself seems to challenge this way of thinking when he says in Matthew 5, “You have heard it said ‘don’t commit murder; don’t commit adultery’” … “but I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment; that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5: 21-22, 27-28) So there can even be thoughts and attitudes that can be harmful, and that’s not so black-and-white.
So there’s another theology that is based more on the idea that we are all moving toward God’s divine purpose for our lives and for all of creation, and that’s called teleology, based on the Greek root telos, which we’ve already discussed means purpose, or end result. And in this theology, instead of saying, well, here’s a list of bad behaviors to avoid, it asks instead to consider the ramifications of everything you do so that it is always in alignment with movement toward God’s kingdom goals of reconciliation and restoring everyone and everything to its intended wholeness. So in this spirit, we can begin to think of our actions in terms of whether they cause harm.
Let’s think about big-picture things for a moment, like the environment. Scientists are warning us that our earth is getting warmer which is creating devastating changes in climate, that deforestation and other agricultural practices are putting the environment and some species at risk, and that globally our use of fossil fuels are contributing to the larger issue of climate change. So one way to do no harm in light of these areas of concern would be to think about the ways we may be part of the problem instead of the solution. Our denomination’s social principles state that it is “the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.” Some simple ways to do this might be to turn off the lights when you leave the room, or not to let water run while you’re brushing your teeth. But we can take other steps like only purchasing eco-friendly materials that are recyclable or that did not come to us from practices that are harmful to the environment. The UMC and the UMW has lots of information on their websites about ways that we can be intentional in doing no further harm to God’s creation.
Another big picture concern might be poverty. Are there things you and I do that contribute to global or US poverty? Are there ways we are causing harm to those struggling to get by on less than a living wage? To answer this question, we may need to educate ourselves more about the factors that contribute to poverty, or the practices of the places where we shop and do business. For example, one of my best friends is married to the president of a local auto worker’s union. And through them, I have learned that there are many workers in the US who are working multiple jobs because some corporations make it their practice to hire the majority of their workforce as part-time employees, thereby saving millions if not billions of dollars by not having to provide health insurance. So when people cannot find gainful employment because we give our business to corporations who don’t pay their workers fairly, are we causing harm? My friend and her husband have made the decision that in addition to working within the political system to try to increase minimum wages or improve employee benefits, they will also no longer shop at or support corporations that treat their employees poorly, even though it means driving out of the way or paying a higher price for household items or groceries.
These two issues might give us pause to consider other big issues such as refugee and immigration policy, systemic racism, gun laws and a whole list of other policies that can have a negative impact on people’s quality of life. As followers of Jesus, are we spending time thinking about the big ways that our actions can unintentionally cause or contribute harm?
On a different scale, there are ways that even religious systems can cause harm. Going back to the theological arguments I outlined earlier, John Wesley became convinced that the best way to live out our faith was not to emphasize one way over the other, but to strive for both personal holiness and social justice. That means that when we’re making our decisions about what we say, how we behave, what and from where we make our purchases, and every other conscious decision we make, we should strive to do no harm. I have had countless conversations with people over the years who have been harmed by some of those in the “moralistic behavior-driven” camp. Some Christians, and groups within church systems have become so narrowly focused on certain behaviors, such as abortion and homosexuality, that their words and actions seem more like those bricks being hurled at others, instead of trying to build relationships where space is given for the grace of God. I am sure there are issues over which we do not all think the same. We’ve had different experiences and we’ve been created uniquely with different ways of learning and seeing and interpreting our world. But our God is so big that I don’t think any one of us knows God or God’s intentions completely. So while we may not always agree about everything, I hope that we can always leave space for God’s grace to cover both of our shortcomings and the realm of things that we cannot know.
As John Wesley was forming his religious societies, he spoke out quite boldly about what he called religious bigotry, and had this to say: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”
Our denomination is headed to a special called General Conference next week to try to find a way forward even among the varying opinions over human sexuality. Our Methodist church has been here before. We’ve had similar disagreements over the issue of slavery in America, and over the ordination of women. In one case, the divide was so deep that those within the denomination chose to split. In 1884, we became the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. We stayed divided until 1939, and then joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. Interestingly enough, we’ve been having this same argument since language was added to our Book of Discipline in 1972.
Originally, in the Social Principles was a statement that read, “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” Someone at the 1972 General Conference wanted to know what it meant for ‘homosexuals to have their human and civil rights ensured,’ and that question lead the addition of this statement: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
44 years later, we are still debating this question. And here’s what I personally know: I personally know people, young and old, who were raised to know and love God, and who have dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ and to following his way, and who have experienced and strived to follow a call by God to a vocation of ministry. And these individuals who show the Spirit-produced fruits in their lives and ministry are the same as me except, they identify as LGBTQ. Most of them have said they knew this about themselves from a very early age, that it was not a choice – and that if it was, they wouldn’t have chosen it. Nevertheless, they have been formed in the faith the same way many of us have been, and yet there are those who want to debate whether they are incompatible with Christian teaching. Real harm has been done to these individuals by having debates about them instead of with them, by hurling hurtful words that demean and deny, by kicking them out of congregations and even families – this is not Christian behavior, no matter what the issue is. No matter what we may believe about another person, Jesus encouraged us to love our neighbors and even those we would consider enemies. Paul’s letters to the church in Rome, from which our scriptures today come, implore Christ-followers to show love without pretending, to treat each other as members of your own family, to welcome strangers, and to bless people – bless and not curse them – to consider everyone as equal, and even to show respect for what everyone else believes is good; and, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with all people. (Romans 12:9-18)
I don’t know what will happen next week. I but I do know what I hope happens here at Maple Grove. I hope that we are a church that will be known in this community – not because we have a historic building or a new building – but because we show love to our neighbors. I hope that we will be known as that group of Christians who get involved in our neighborhood elementary school and who make friends with the families who live nearby, and who show radical welcome and care to everyone they meet. I hope that we are known as the church who loves its neighbors – no exceptions; where everyone is welcome – everyone; and where there is genuine care and concern and meaningful relationships; a church where everyone belongs.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Bishop Job: “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God's children or to any part of God's creation. As did John Wesley and those in the early Methodist movement before me, I too will determine every day that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than with the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God—a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved—just like myself. And it is this vision of every other person as the object of God's love and deep awareness that I too live in that loving Presence that can hold me accountable to my commitment to do no harm.” (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.)
May it be so.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 46; Matthew 6:25-34;