I’m back from vacation. While I was gone, I had the opportunity to worship at a large, well-attended United Methodist “First” church. The service was what I call “Methodist traditional,” much like my own church’s 11:00 service but on a larger scale. I didn’t know the pastor or anything about the church.
I like going to church on vacation. Every once in a while, it’s nice to worship in a place where I know no one, I have no responsibilities, and no one knows I’m a pastor. I thought I had given myself away, however, when some elderly women in front of me complimented me for how boisterously I sang the hymns! “Tone it down, Brent,” I told myself.
Anyway, the pastor preached the epistle reading from yesterday’s Revised Common Lectionary—Colossians 2. His sermon had one point, repeated frequently throughout: Knowing Jesus is more important than anything else. To his credit, the sermon was very clear in this regard. While he was a generation ahead of me in mainline Protestant seminary, he probably learned, as I did, that a “good” sermon is supposed to have one main point. (I don’t follow this rule.)
Nevertheless, he over-illustrated this point with three relatively long, mostly personal anecdotes. While I understand the temptation to tell entertaining stories for their own sake (after all, I frequently worry that I won’t have enough to say about a particular sermon topic and a good story takes time), it wasn’t clear why one illustration wouldn’t have sufficed.
After a brief discussion of the context in which Paul wrote these words, he shared another personal story, something that happened to a former parishioner, or the parishioner of a preacher friend—I can’t remember.
The moral of the story? Faith is more about what we do than what we believe. This made me suspect that he’s progressive on the main issue that’s tearing our denomination apart, but I could be wrong.
But here’s my main concern: I was never clear, from his sermon, on what value “knowing Jesus” has, except that it helps us “do loving things” better. Does knowing Jesus make any kind of difference for eternity? He didn’t say. Does knowing Jesus make any more difference in our lives, for example, than knowing the teachings of MLK or Gandhi or the Dalai Lama? He didn’t say. How does one get to know Jesus in the first place? He didn’t say.
There was no gospel in his message. Just a little bit of Law—actually a couple of dollops of Law: “Love like Jesus, or else be a judgmental hypocrite.” As if “loving like Jesus” were something that any of us could accomplish!
Many years ago, N.T. Wright cautioned against this kind of moralism. If our message is, “Just follow Jesus’ example,” isn’t that like saying, “Just play golf like Tiger Woods”? It’s discouraging.
Actually, if I were preaching this text, I might go for that kind of discouragement, at least at first. I would amplify our utter inability to live up to Jesus’ high standard of love. I’d quote Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I’d quote Paul from Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I would let the Law do its main work: to utterly condemn us.
And then… I would pivot to the gospel: “Jesus did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Here’s how.” Then I would go to the cross, where (I believe) all good sermons must go.
So I believe this was a missed opportunity: Notice how low the stakes were: Even if everything the pastor said were true, what difference would it make? Why does it matter? How does this message connect with our experience of life in this world? He didn’t say.
Yet I suspect this passes for a fairly typical “good” UMC sermon, preached in churches across the land.
If you’re Methodist, is this true in your experience?