Sermon for 03-07-10: “Putting the Method in Methodist, Part 1: The Means of Grace”

Sermon Text: John 16:12-15

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The following is the original sermon manuscript.

This sermon series is called, half-jokingly, “Putting the Method in Methodism.” But only half-jokingly. The term “Methodist,” after all, was originally used as an insult to John and Charles Wesley and some of their Oxford classmates who began meeting together daily (and early in the morning) to practice the historic Christian disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, Holy Communion, and service to the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. Many of the Wesleys’ Oxford classmates thought that that was a bit much. That was a bit fanatical. It’s all well and good to go to church and all that… But this?

Sure, practicing these spiritual disciplines—which John Wesley and the Church call means of grace—seemed like a great deal of work. But think about friendship. Think about the work that goes into our friendships: We invest so much of ourselves—our time, energy, resources, and creativity into our friends. Think about the great lengths or expense we sometimes go to in order to get that perfect Christmas or birthday gift. It’s worth it in order to express our love. What wouldn’t we do for a good friend? We don’t feel put out or used or inconvenienced or resentful when we do something for a good friend.

A few months ago on Facebook, I noticed that my friend count dropped by one. One day it was something like 205, and the next day it was 204. And I thought, “Who dropped me? Why? What did I do?” I put something about it in my status about noticing this, and one of my very good friends outside of the Facebook world said, “Are you bothered by the fact that someone dropped you as a friend or that you actually knew what your friend count was?” Spoken like someone who doesn’t have many Facebook friends, I thought. No, I don’t usually keep track of that, but I did happen to notice the number the day before.

Show of hands… How many of you are on Facebook? How many of you have over a hundred friends? Over 200? Over 400? Over 500? Show of hands: How many of us have Facebook friends we’ve never even met—and wouldn’t know them if we saw them? Clearly, when we have over 500 friends and we don’t know some people that are called friends, I’m pretty sure that we’ve loosened up the definition of friend. “Friend” has been defined downward.

Of course we don’t have that many friends in real life. Among our dozens or hundreds of Facebook friends, who are the friends about whom we receive that encouraging message, “Write something on this person’s wall,” or, “Re-connect with that person.” Quite a few, probably. Of our dozens or hundreds of Facebook “friends,” how many of them do we communicate with yearly? What about monthly? A tiny fraction? How about weekly? Who are the friends, by contrast, whose posts, messages, or links we actively look for and look forward to? Who are the friends whose profiles we’ll check frequently? Who are the friends we “stalk” online? No, we don’t do that! Who are the friends whose names we want to see “online” in the box in the lower right so we can chat?

The point is, we know who our true friends are: the ones we want to frequently communicate with; the ones we seek out; the ones we look forward to hearing from; the ones whose messages we respond to immediately. In a sense, living a Christian life means learning to be friends with Jesus. In John 15, Jesus told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”1

Being a Christian is about being in a relationship, a relationship—a relationship that is closer, deeper, and more meaningful than any other relationship in our lives. And it’s a relationship that we spend our lifetimes developing and nurturing. Being a Christian means letting Jesus be that friend that we turn to first when we have good news to share. It means letting Jesus be that friend that we trust more than any other with our deepest secrets—that friend we can confide in. He’s the friend we turn to first when we face trouble. He’s the friend we turn to first when we need help or guidance or direction. I wrote a poem for a class in seminary about the way I pictured my relationship with Jesus. It spoke to a very deep and intimate friendship—a friendship that I at least aspired to have with Christ. I can honestly say that the words are truer today than they were four years ago. The poem began like this:

You’re in the lull of conversation,

This space between notes—

A comma with an exclamation

Point, this catch in my throat.

My silence of prayer unspoken,

Prayer not unlived. Broken words—

Broken words and tears I give

You. Co-conspirator, you’re there,

Eternal Word,

Speaking my best self in time and space.

I still like the idea of Jesus as someone who is found in the pauses of a conversation with friends and the space between the notes of song. Someone who’s that close, that present. I like thinking of Jesus as a co-conspirator in my life—like we’re in on a secret plan together—to change my life for the better and, through the Church working together, to change the world. What images would you use to picture your relationship with Jesus? If you picture Jesus as a Facebook friend, would he be someone whose postings you actively looked for or someone about whom you’d get the message, “Write something on his wall,” or, “Re-connect with him”?

Jesus himself emphasizes this need for an ongoing relationship in today’s scripture. He is gathered with his disciples in the upper room after the Last Supper before he was arrested in Gethsemane. Jesus says something remarkable to them. He says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus still has many things to say to them? Good grief, there aren’t too many more red-letter words of Christ left in the gospel! If Jesus has many more things to say to them, when does he say them? He says them throughout the course of his disciples’ lives. He says them through the Holy Spirit—in an ongoing, living relationship, a continuing conversation.

And so it is for us… When we do come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, through justification, we are not equipped with everything we need all at once to handle everything that happens in our lives—what lies ahead, in our future—our successes, our failures, our struggles, our heartbreaks, our illnesses, our grief, even the prospect of our own deaths or the deaths of loved ones. But Jesus promises to be with us—reminding us through the Spirit, at just the right moment, of things he said through God’s Word, or enabling us to hear familiar scripture in a new way, or helping us to find new meanings in old, familiar words, or new ways of applying these words to the different circumstances of our lives. Jesus Christ spoke, and Christ continues to speak to us today, if only we’d listen. Even if it were possible to memorize all of the Bible—to have instant recall of every verse—we still wouldn’t have all we need. Not without Jesus Christ continually teaching us, continually speaking to us, continually giving us what we need.

So… What does that mean? It means we have to keep on listening to hear God’s Word, who is Jesus, as he speaks to us. How do we do that? Through the spiritual disciplines, the means of grace: through prayer, through worship, through Communion, through Bible study, through fasting—or what we sometimes refer to in Lent as “giving something up”—through service to the poor and the marginalized. And there are other ways. These means of grace are what one Methodist bishop and writer described as “practices that will keep us positioned in such a way that we may hear and be responsive to God’s slightest whisper of direction and receive God’s promised presence and power every day and in every situation.”2

Don’t we want that? Don’t we want more out of life? Don’t we want to go deeper? Aren’t we tired of going through the motions of religion and church? Aren’t we tired of grasping after happiness only to find it slip away? Aren’t we tired of always doing things our way and failing? Aren’t we tired of being enslaved by sin and destructive patterns of behavior? Aren’t we tired of feeling sad or depressed or angry or worried or anxious or lonely or envious too much of the time? Don’t we want to know true peace? Don’t we want to know true joy? Don’t we want to lay our burdens down? Listen, the bad news is that we are helpless on our own. If we trust in ourselves, man, we’re stuck! There is no way out.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t leave us that way. Jesus doesn’t leave us trapped in our sin or stuck with no way out. Jesus isn’t offering us what the world offers: you know, just a little self-help, a little self-improvement—a new spiritual program, an enhancement on the margin of our lives. Jesus is offering us new life. If we want to be saved, our old life won’t cut it! We need a new one! We need to let Jesus give us that life! It seems like too many of us Christians are living our lives in a prison cell when the door of the prison stands wide open, and Jesus is beckoning us to come out—come out in the daylight, come out in the warm sunshine where we belong. But Jesus knows that it costs everything we have. There are no shortcuts.

I grew up in a church singing that hymn “I Surrender All.” “All to Jesus I surrender/ All to him I freely give/ I will ever love and trust him/ In his presence daily live/ I surrender all…” That song makes a liar out of me because I’m still learning how to do that! How about you?

The most important way we learn to surrender more and more of ourselves to Jesus is through these means of grace, which we’re going to focus on during the next few Sundays. Next Sunday we’ll talk about fasting, or “giving something up.” Then we’ll talk about scripture and studying the Bible. Finally, we’ll talk about worshiping and sacrament. When we talk about these means of grace we’re not talking about doing something to earn credit with God; it’s all about what the Holy Spirit does through these means. Also, they’re called means of grace because they are a means to an end—the end being experiencing all of this abundant and eternal life that Jesus Christ makes available to us. [Invitation to Holy Communion.]

1. John 15:13-14.

2. Rueben P. Job, Three Simple Rules (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 55.

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