Monday, February 9, 2009

Staying In Love With God

Stay in Love with God

A. Introduction

1. “Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our needs.” Methodism more than any other denomination, more than any other religion is steeped in grace. Grace, God’s unmerited favor that surrounds us, immerses us, moves us, saves us, changes us. Grace that is available for everyone. Jesus said, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. The world is immersed in grace for us to respond to or reject to accept or to set aside. We live in a world of grace. And we live in a world of choice. Grace; choice. Whether we know it or not. And whether we recognize it or not..
a. Grace nudges us toward God even before we know it. Wesley called it prevenient grace. A friend of mine says that it’s grace before it’s convenient. It might be best called nudging grace.
I talked to a friend of mine at minister’s school this week. She described a couple that was unchurched, the man had never been churched, the wife had grown up in the Catholic faith and hated it. As adults with children 2 and 4 they had a hole in their lives and they had no idea what it was. They tried filling it with other activities to no avail.
A friend suggested that they go to Margie’s church. The hole in their lives had been grace. Their friend who suggested they go to Margie’s church had been grace. The message they received in that little rural Methodist Church had been grace.
Grace, nudging grace. Margie knew their background. Margie was bowled over after one Sunday service when they stopped her and said they wanted to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. He wanted to be baptized. They both wanted to join the church. They were first nudged.
Then they were brought into a saving relationship with God. Grace brings us into that relationship with God, grace saves us, grace makes us just in the eyes of God. Using the words of the book of Romans, Wesley called this grace justifying grace. A printer’s term, it squares the print at the margins, just so it squares our relationship with God. Justifying Grace. Margie’s new parishioners, through their profession of faith, their belief in Jesus Christ, have been made just by grace in the eyes of God. Grace, God’s unmerited favor.
b. Nudged, saved, but grace does not leave us alone. Grace grows us, matures us, brings us closer to God, it sets us apart, sanctifies us for God’s purposes. Wesley called this grace sanctifying grace. Jesus said we are to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The Greek word here means maturity, wholeness. It is what Wesley meant when he said that we were to go on to perfection. Steeped in grace we would mature in our faith if not in this life time then in the instant we crossed over to heaven. But our objective ought to be that we immerse ourselves in sanctifying grace so that we become mature, whole, perfect in this life. There’s an ancient document of the faith that says that God sees us as we would be… that is perfect. That’s how God sees us. That’s what we should be striving to be. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Be mature in your faith as God sees you.
c. We all begin our Christian walk as infant Christians when we are born anew. Margie’s new parishioner had had no religious education at all. He may be a toddler in the faith now or a young boy. Grace will gradually move him on to a teen, then a young adult, onward toward perfection.
It is grace that changes us. We are nothing without grace.

B. Body

1. The past two weeks we have been studying Bishop Reuben Job’s small book, “Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.” They are 1) Do no harm; 2) Do good; and today we tackle number 3) Stay in love with God.

2. When people came to Wesley and said, “How do we escape the wrath to come?” He said, “First, do no harm; then do good; and practice the ordinances of God.” Ordinance is a strange word, a city law, but also an authoritative command or order. It came to be known as those practices instituted by Christ, those things the early church came to understand that we were ordered to do, such as the Lord’s Supper. Christ called us to do those things that kept us in a relationship with God. Wesley called them means of grace. Those things that immersed us in God’s grace so that we could respond to him in love. Bishop Job tries to simplify all the words by saying to us “Stay in love with God.” We do that when we allow God to change us, to mold us, to form us in response to grace.

3. A wise woman by the name of Joan Chittister wrote in her book, “The Illuminated Life,” “All we have in life is life. Things—the cars, the houses, the educations, the jobs, the money—come and go, turn to dust between our fingers, change and disappear….the secret of life… is that it must be developed from the inside out.”

4. Last week we described the three rules this way. We as creatures created in the image of God are endowed with the intellectual awareness to choose how we are to react to the world around us. We can be proactive. We react in accordance with our principles and values. Regardless of what happens to us, we can choose to do no harm. We can choose to do good. The values that we act on in doing so are modeled after Jesus Christ and powered by the Holy Spirit. We learn those things when we immerse ourselves in grace. They become a part of us. They become a part of our maturity. They are a gift of God’s love for us through grace, and we respond to God’s love by doing no harm and doing good. We stay in love with God and are molded by grace from the inside out.

5. Wesley suggested that we stay in love with God by doing the practices that Christ instituted during His life on earth. He called these practices means of grace. Means by which we immerse ourselves and recognize and respond to the love and grace of God in our lives. Today we might call them spiritual disciplines. By disciplines we mean those things that shape and form our habits.

6. Bishop Schnase would call this process, this practice “Intentional Faith Development.” He says, “Intentional Faith Development refers to the purposeful learning in community that helps the followers of Jesus mature in faith, such a Bible studies, Sunday school classes, short-term topical studies, and support groups that apply the faith to particular life challenges.” We’ve talked about the Five Practices before, and we’ll probably revisit them over and over, just as we must practice the piano or study. That’s why they’re called practices. Five Practices has become an important book. To let you know Bishop Schnase has hit the mark not just in Missouri, not just in the Methodist church, but in Christendom with his Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. To give you an idea. When we were working on his website some 18 months ago, he said the publisher told him that such a book was successful if it 1500 copies. It had sold 2500 by then and was going into its fourth printing. They have since told him that selling 25,000 copies is the apex of this kind of publication. Let me tell you that your Bishop’s book has now sold over what? 75,000 copies! And it’s being translated into several languages. Five Practices was the focus of Congress of Evangelism in Nashville last week. The whole denomination and more are focusing on Five Practices to produce Fruitful Congregations. “Intentional Faith Development” is part of that. And “Intentional Faith Development” is the Spiritual discipline or disciplines by which we are formed. Again, Wesley called them means of grace. Grace is the operative word.

7. It makes sense that we are shaped and formed in response to grace. Here are Wesley’s means of grace:
a. Worship. We participate in the life of a worshipping community. We come together to worship God. When we gather, it is not about us, but about God. “Here I am to worship. Here I am to bow down. Here I am to say that you’re my God.” Jesus worshipped God and told us, “Worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” Worship is not about us, but about submitting our will, our allegiance, our lives to the God that shapes us.
b. Scripture. Jesus was steeped in Scripture. It was part of his very make up. He responded to temptation with Scripture. He responded to questions with Scripture. He fulfilled the prophesies of Scripture. If we want to know him, if we want to follow him, if we want to be like him, we find him in Scripture. And Scripture finds us. As we read and study and meditate, we find that these ancient texts find us just where we are. They reveal God to us and they are God’s revelation for our lives. The words guide us and form us, give us values and principles by which we guide our lives. And we best study Scripture in a group, just as Jesus’ disciples learned from him in a group.
c. Prayer. “Our Father….” Jesus spent long hours in prayer, in spiritual communion with the heavenly Father. Prayer is communications, it is sharing our every concern with God, it is placing our burdens before him, it is giving thanks, have an attitude of gratitude; and just talking to Him about the things going on in our lives. Paul said we are to pray continuously. Jesus said we are to be persistent in our prayers. Prayer changes us. Communication, listening, talking to the Lord of the Universe forms us into the being what He intends us to be.
d. Community. Wesley called this Christian conferencing. Christianity is not a solitary faith. God called a people, Israel. Christ formed the Church. He began a community with 12 disciples who learned from him and learned from one another. After he ascended, he left his Church guided by the Holy Spirit who gathered, prayed, studied, learned from one another and held one another accountable. Community is a means of grace. Community forms us. Bishop Schnase emphasizes that there are certain things that you just cannot learn outside of community. You cannot learn grace by reading a book; you cannot learn to love in solitude; you cannot learn forgiveness outside of relationship; you cannot learn patience apart from others. We need community. Christianity is not a solitary faith. Wesley said, “There is no gospel without a social gospel.”
e. Acts of mercy, doing good. Jesus said to Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep…feed my lambs…feed my sheep.” Jesus called us to love one another—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is a verb. Active. Do good.
f. Finally, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Holy Communion is a means of grace. A means of physically remembering the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ, and spiritually recognizing the presence of Christ here and now and as a force in our lives.

C. Close.

1. In communion we remember God’s mighty acts in history and recall that in the fullness of time he sent his Son into the world as grace, his unmerited favor, to save us from the burden of our sin. Something we cannot do for ourselves. We are saved only by the grace of God.

2. We know that on the night before he died for us he gave us a simple act and a simple command by which we are to remember him and experience him anew as oft as we will.

3. We are going to experience Christ in our pews as the disciples did around the table as they passed the bread and cup serving one another. As you pass the bread, hold it out so the person next to you can break a small piece and then you say to them, “Remember Jesus.” Next, as you hold the cup for them and they dip a corner of the bread in the cup, say to them, “Stay in Love with Jesus.”

4. The table of the Lord is ready. It is not the table of Smith Chapel, or the United Methodist Church. It is not the table of any one denomination. It is the Lord’s Table and all are welcome. All that is required is a belief in and love of Jesus Christ, and a readiness to share in the bread and cup. You may choose not to do so, and that is no problem. If so simply take the loaf when it is offered and turn and offer it to the next person saying, “Remember Jesus.” And take the cup when it is offered and turn to the next person and say, “Stay in love with Jesus.” Or ask me to take the loaf and cup from you.
“Remember Jesus.”
“Stay in Love with Jesus.”
5. Prayer after Communion. “Lord, in this simple act of bread and wine, you call us to remember you, to know that you lived among us, that you gave your physical body for us in the greatest act of love that one can have for another and that you call us to love you, to stay in love with you by keeping your word. Strengthen us through this simple act of communion with you and with the whole Church that we may serve you and serve the world in the strength of your Spirit. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

(See Blog from 1/20/09 about the blessing from this communion service.)