Sermon Notes ~ Sunday, August 12, 2018
Pastor Bruce Jones
This Fall I am preaching a sermon series on “Life in the Spirit.” This is a phrase that is very important to the Apostle Paul; we have heard it in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. Sometimes it is expressed as “Walking by the Spirit,” or “being led by the Spirit.”
It’s a very rich idea and very close to another theological phrase that Paul uses considerably, being “in Christ." In either case, whatever the phrase that Paul employs, he’s grappling with the idea of what it looks like to be redeemed. What does it look like to be in an active and healthy relationship with the Father? What are the characteristics of a life that – from one day, month, year to the next – is increasing lived in the wholeness and holiness of God? Are you “in Christ?" Are you walking “in the Spirit?”
It’s a big idea, and it’s important for us to consider it carefully: we are – after all – United Methodists. As such, our church comes from the holiness tradition. What does that mean? The holiness movement – especially in America – has a lot of different looks and manifestations. The Salvation Army is a descendent of the holiness tradition. Most Pentecostal church’s are holiness churches. The Nazarene Church is a holiness church.
What do we share with them? We don’t all speak in tongues during worship, nor do we all wear military-style uniforms and operate soup kitchens and homeless shelters. What makes for a holiness church?
Here’s my (very modest) take on this: The holiness movement convinced that you can get better. You can get better in actual, measurable ways. You can become more loving, more at peace, and generally joyful as you grow older. The holiness movement believes that key to all of this is a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. We are loved, because God is love. And because we have received that love and pledged our fidelity to Jesus . . . “there is no condemnation for us who are in Christ Jesus." So we are forgiven, God has dealt decisively with our sinful guilt and shame. We are redeemed.
But that’s not all.
The rest of our life is about moving towards our final perfection. So we get better. And better. And better. We do this not because God requires it of us; this is not a new way to feel guilty. It’s not a new set of rules that stand ready to leave us condemned. No, say it again with me: "There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”
Why do we get better, then? Because, it is our nature – if we are “in Christ” – to assume the nature of Christ. As an acorn develops into an oak, a tiny bud unfold into a rose, so we – who bear the image of God – find ourselves drawn into openly and passionately aligning our lives with that image.
Maybe. The Bible is very clear that this is not automatic. It’s something that we are called to become. Salvation is all about our relationship with the Father. And that is the work of Jesus on the cross. But salvation is also about purpose. "Why am I here?" "Where is God calling me?” “IS God calling me?"
And that’s what the holiness movement is all about. These are not impossible questions, eternally vague and frustratingly ineffable. On the contrary, God speaks to us, calls us, leads us, develops us, shapes us.
If we let him.
But much of the time – I think you might agree – we spend our time just trying to hang on. Hanging on to what we have achieved, hanging on to our careers, our marriages, our families, our investments, our paycheck, our house . . . just hanging on. Just hanging on it is exhausting an sometimes painful.
Years ago, when my children we little, we lost a brand new glider on the rooftop of the garage. I told my kids to be patient; eventually the wind would blow it down. Two weeks went by, and it hadn’t budged an inch. So – good father that I am – I pulled out a ladder and went up on the roof to retrieve our toy.
But something went wrong. Upon the roof, I slipped, fell and slid off -- kicking out the ladder – and landing on my back in the yard. Amazingly, because the lawn hadn’t been mowed for about three weeks, the fall itself did no damage. I had the wind knocked out of me. But I was okay.
Except that I was bleeding profusely. From the tips of my fingers. In the few milliseconds I spent sliding off the roof, I was desperately trying to hang on. The asphalt shingles were like heavy sandpaper. Ouch!
Let me ask you today, are you – mostly – just trying to hang on for dear life? Or do you feel called to move forward? Is that call coming from Jesus?
Which brings me to our text today:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” [John 14:1-6]
Notice that the abiding sense of this story is that we are bodies in motion. We are following Jesus to the Father. There will be a time of Sabbath rest, but at the moment, we are moving, moving in a specific way. A specific direction.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
For most of my life, I have misunderstood this verse of scripture. Even though it stood at the center of my faith in Jesus, I think I got it completely wrong.
And I bet a lot of us have got it wrong. Not because we’re bad people, or somehow unfaithful to Jesus. And it’s not as though we are – in a phrase I especially dislike – somehow … IN ERROR. No, it’s not a commentary on our relationship with God or our fidelity to the Kingdom…it’s none of that.
I think, instead, it’s because of the culture we eat, breath, and drink. It’s a perspective so encompassing and DEFAULT that it’s hard to identify it. It just seems so natural.
When I was in college I heard evangelical Christians sometimes accusing regular church-going Christians as being “cultural Christians." Ever hear that before? I think when we fielded this accusation (and yes, I was among the elect, in this case) we were expressing our disdain for a generation of believers who believed because, well, because that’s how they were raised. I have a family photo that features my great grandfather (a Cherokee), who went by the name, “John Wesley Jones." He was, and I imagine that is parents were…Methodists. And so was his daughter, and so was my father (and my mother) and so am I. I don’t ever remember a moment in my life when I wasn’t.
But when I was a teenager, I realized that my cultural inheritance as a Methodist, wasn’t going to save me. If anything it was going to lull me into a false sense of Eternal security. One night, I decided to give my life to Christ. What an amazing night that was. I have never been the same. Praise God, I have continued to learn and grow “in Christ." The Father has invited me to live in the Spirit – and though I have had my share of stumbles and backsliding – God has been faithful.
In my first few years as a Christian, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” became a memory verse for me. It was a core belief. And it still is. But for years, no decades, I really didn’t get it.
I just didn’t get it. And maybe you were just like me in that regard.
So what didn’t I get?
Easy. I failed to see that this was a message for the church, for the followers of Jesus.
Here’s what I used to think: this was about brand loyalty. Jesus is my Lord, and he’s the only Lord. So whatever God you serve, whatever belief you hold, whatever you think you know about Eternal Life, if it’s not about Jesus, it’s just plain wrong.
In short: I took this verse to be a litmus test of the true believer. It makes sense doesn’t it? I mean it is utterly clear in that regard, on numerous occasions, Jesus warns people about the consequences of refusing to honor him. The Pharisees and Sadducees, of course. But also his hometown crowd and the neighboring towns of Galilee.
But the problem with a litmus test is that…once you’re done with it. You’re done with it. You stop listening to it. You think that they primary audience is somebody else. The non-believer. Or the non-true-believer. This is a banner to fly in the face of the opposition.
And then what happens is this: our love for God and our faith in Jesus becomes a matter of brand loyalty. The Cross of Jesus becomes an event in ancient history that purchased my admission to heaven…and that’s that. Been there done that, Got the t-shirt, seen the video, stamped my passport. I’m good to go. But what about you?
The reason we misunderstand this verse is that we don’t understand that it was given to the original followers of Jesus to comfort them and to guide them through some tough times. Jesus was going to leave them. He was going to the cross. He had told them this again and again and again. But they couldn’t hear it. They couldn’t comprehend it. They needed something to hang onto.
But this isn’t really about hanging on. It’s a call to move forward. It is reassuring, however. But the reassurance is that Jesus is taking us with him. We are not static. We do not stay put. Our lives are not put on hold.
So what does it mean, what does it mean, when a man tells you “I am the Way,” when he is going to be publicly executed in less than 24 hours. What does it mean?
I think it means that “The Way” is the way of the Cross. It’s not only what justifies us before the Father, but it’s also our principle for living. It means that – whatever else we value, compassion and forgiveness among our highest. Whatever else we are trying to obtain, we are most passionate about God’s dream for humanity: forgiven, redeemed, and whole. The cross is that which saves us, justifies us, but also brings us into the future. It is – by no means – a singular event in ancient history. It is a look into the heart of God. And that look transforms us forever.
Over the next few weeks we will look at the various “means of grace” that God has provided for us to experience transformation. You will discover that much of what we count as “righteousness” is actually the act of mirroring what we have already received from God. Prayer, then, implies that God is communicating with us. And it is possible to hear from God!
Forgiveness – our subject for the next few weeks – is something that you receive and give. God’s forgiveness creates our relationship with God; then it flows into the lives of those around us. One can’t happen without the other.
So Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Here we learn not only the character and nature of the Father, but where God intends to take us. If we let him, God can take us on a journey into the very heart of the Trinity.