Archive for June, 2010

For the past month or so, the lectionary has taken us through the book of Galatians — and that’s where I’ll end up on July 4th.  And the common theme throughout this month of lections, or passages, has been the contrast between what we try and fail to do for ourselves through rules and regulations and do’s and don’ts and what Jesus does for us through grace.

I love grace.  It’s probably one of my favorite topics for a sermon since it’s so closely linked to Jesus.  I even have a daughter named Grace.

But grace isn’t easy.  We can do sermon after sermon on how grace means that we are on the same footing before God.  We can talk about how we’ve all received a gift through grace that we could not possibly earn on our own.  We can talk about how, in the light of grace, all of humanity is created equal.

And then we leave the worship service and go right back to withholding grace from some that don’t fit our definitions of what it means to be a believer.  Or we look at the way someone is dressed or hear the way they talk, or we smell them and think that’s not the type of person I want to speak to or share my story with or even spend time with in church.

I have to constantly remind myself of grace even in my own dealings with other people.

But it goes to show this difficulty that grace presents to us.

  • We can’t on one hand talk about how the only requirement to be a believer is to have faith through Christ and then say, “If you don’t agree with me and the political party  I support, you can’t possibly be a Christian.
  • We can’t on one hand talk about extending grace, love and mercy to all people and then completely ignore a group of people because they fall below the poverty line, or because they don’t look like us.
  • We can’t on one hand claim to have open doors to our churches, but then through our actions, our words and our body language show others that they really don’t belong in our groups.
  • We can’t talk about how we love our neighbors as ourselves in churches on Sundays and then on Monday share racially tinged jokes with one another, or stereotype whole groups of people because of the color of skin, or assume that all people of Hispanic dissent are (1) Mexican and/or (2) Illegal immigrants.

Grace is something that’s easy to talk about, but hard to put into practice sometimes.  But it is a focus on this grace through Jesus that is the key to the future of the church universal.

With declining attendance numbers in nearly every major denomination, we have reached the place where we have to realize that we can no longer afford to withhold grace from anyone who seeks it in the doors of our churches.

And when I think I’m in a place to do so, there’s always that person I see in the mirror and the reminder that grace was given, EVEN!, to someone like me.

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They were just having a little fun.

It was just a group of college students staying in a hotel room and a chaperone who was letting them drink. And things got out of hand.

Let’s do something. Let’s mess with some people down there.

They looked out their fifth-story hotel room and they saw two people on the street below. Those two looked to be having a good time, laughing and joking with other.

Quick. Get some cups! They’re still there!

And a shower of beer rained down on the two standing on the street. The indignity of being covered in alcohol was bad enough to bear, but this group wasn’t finished yet.

This prank turned into something else.

And then they shouted some racial slurs.

And they laughed at their prank, thinking it was just some harmless fun.

  • It’s just a little beer
  • It’s just a few words said in fun.
  • No harm, no foul.

And below on the street two people were left to deal with the aftermath of what had just happened. Two friends who had been leaving the hotel to go out and explore the city now faced something they had not dreamed of.

For one of them, it was the first time in his life that he had encountered racism to this extreme. For the other, there was a pain in the eyes that seemed to say, “I thought this was behind me. I thought I’d never have to go there again.”

Simple words. A harmful prank. A little fun.

And two lives that were altered because of it.

This feeling that it is okay to separate ourselves from another through our words and actions without even caring about the consequences — is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since creation. It flows through the Bible and we see it played out over and over again in just about every facet of modern society.

Paul’s situation bears some resemblances to most of our encounters with the bad “isms” of our day – racism, sexism, genderism, classism.

Paul, if you remember, was a devout Pharisee. The Pharisees were lay persons who worked jobs during the day and, at night, devoted themselves to studying the Jewish Law. They knew the law backwards and forward and they believed in living it out and following the steps. And there was a separation that started to happen. Pharisees viewed themselves as more holy than the unclean and common people that they came in contact with. And, of course, Jews were “God’s people” and the Gentiles were just outsiders.

Paul’s life changed on the way to Damascus when he encountered Jesus. Paul, who was still a Jew, devoted his life to helping Gentiles – non-Jews. So maybe you can see some of the beginnings of the problem here – A Jew helping Gentiles and not his own people.

Paul establishes the churches at Galatia and he preaches them the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus. Their lives are changed because they have faith in Jesus.

But Paul moves on to the next town to establish another church and this clash of cultures hits again. Some good, upstanding Jewish religious folks rolled into the churches at Galatia and they started telling everyone that Paul is completely wrong.

He’s teaching you a bad version of the Gospel.

What you Gentiles really need to do is to become Jewish like us.

  • You need to obey our laws.
  • You need to observe our rituals.
  • You need to look and to act and to be like us.
  • We are really God’s people. You aren’t.

We weren’t there when Paul was writing or dictating this letter to the Galatians. But the way it is written, the fact that he leaves out one of his standard sections his letter (the part that says how thankful he is for them) indicates that he’s NOT HAPPY.

And when I read this passage in Galatians 3, I get a sense of frustration and anger and an impassioned plea to just believe and have faith. It’s the image of two ways – one is a way imprisoned to the rules and the regulations and the other is the way that is free that is through faith in Christ.

But hidden in this message is something that Paul gets. He understands human nature and the desire for things to be comfortable. We want to be in control and in charge. We want to possess things.

And rules provide us a way to do that.

To truly know Jesus is to step out into an unpredictable and sometimes uncomfortable world that takes us places we might not want to go.

But the problem is that instead of taking Christ into the “rule-driven world,” we’d rather bring the rule-driven world into our experience with Christ.

I had a conversation earlier with someone this week about a situation at a church. Someone had used the church oven to bake a cake and one of the members found the evidence of this cake-baking incident in the trashcan. She was convinced that someone was breaking into the church and using “our” equipment. She pressed church council and the trustees until they decided to get new locks for the church and new keys. And the end result of all of this was that someone who was leader for the Girl Scout group meeting at the church was shut out because they didn’t attend church enough to get a key.

And I laughed as I talked to him and said, “it would be amazing if we could put as much energy into getting people into God’s church as we do at trying to keep someone out of our church.”

That church situation, the issues Paul addresses in Galatia and many of the problems that we are encountering today in the Christian church when it comes to attendance and membership dropoffs comes back to a single issue.

We just don’t get it when it comes to grace.

Grace is our way of saying that Jesus’ resurrection opens the kingdom to all of those who make the choice to believe in faith. And if we as a group of Christians believe in grace, if we as a church believe in grace, then it has to completely alter the way we see ourselves and others.

Paul states it so much more eloquently than I ever could. Through faith in Christ, we are all sons and daughters of God. We have the ultimate “Father” and are part of the ultimate family.

And because of that, because of our realization that we did nothing to earn this grace, we have to walk away realizing that it is open to everyone, to ALL people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Or how about in modern terms?

  • There is no Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian or Catholic.
  • There is no white, no black, no brown…
  • There is no male or female.
  • There is no upper class, middle class, lower class or poor.
  • There is simply a family of believers who have faith in Jesus.

That is to be our present reality. That is our future blessing.

We are all one in grace through Jesus

Welcome to our future.

I admit that I’m not much of a listener to country music, but I am a Brad Paisley fan and the song “Welcome to the future” really captures this idea that Paul is reminding us of in Galatians.

If you don’t know the story about the song, it’s really written to try to encompass three generations. There’s the reference to his grandfather who fought in the war – all of those who came before the writer. There’s the writer’s generation where life had been wrapped up in the things of the moment – like standing in line to play video games. But so much has changed from that generation of the past to the generations of the present.

But, it’s the future where now everything is up in the air.

And yes, it is a song that he penned while he was watching the inauguration of President Obama. It was a moment that many people thought they would never see in their lifetime.

And Brad Paisley’s view is that because of what his children have witnessed in their lives, and because they now aren’t chained to the past that those who came before us were chained to, they are freed to see a new world, a new future.

Welcome to the future.

The Bible is our ongoing conversation with God. And yes, we believe that God still is speaking to us through it. But that conversation centers us and focuses us on Jesus.

And what did Jesus do in his life that demonstrates to us what Paul is saying in these verses:

  • Jesus’ ministry begins with the statement that he is preaching Good News to the poor.
  • He reaches across racial and ethnic lines in his life – He talked to Samaritans.
  • His ministry brought him in contact with the most undesirable of people – the poor, the lepers, the sick and the hurting.
  • One of the biggest criticisms of Jesus from the Pharisees was that he spent too much time hanging out with those unclean sinners.
  • Even in the cross, the Son of God is treated as a common servant and is executed between two criminals.
  • Jesus lived the life that he has called us to live and he showed us that it will work – and it will change the world.

If you haven’t figured out from the story that I opened with today, I was a part of what happened. I wasn’t one of those students in the room. I was standing outside the hotel with my friend who happened to be African American. That day, I had an upclose and personal encounter with hate.

And I’ve struggled many times over my life with the events of that day. I really didn’t want to forgive those students for being so stupid and hateful and hurtful. But as a Christian, I realized that I had to let go of the pain and the anger that I carried from that event. I had to practice what I’m preaching and realize that grace is just as available to those kids who did something stupid, to those who are bigots and racists, to those who hold others back, to those who put down people because of their sex or gender. Grace makes it difficult to hold something against them because I realize that we are just as valuable in the eyes of God.

This week as I was thinking through this sermon, I sent a note to my friend who now lives in Alabama.

He shared something with me about that situation and others that he had encountered in his life – in those times when we have not lived out of the idea that we are one in Christ.

After experiencing some of those hurts and pains from comments and actions of others, simply because he has a dark color to his skin, my friend would go home to his parents. He would spill out to them the pain that he was experiencing. And after he had finished his father’s words for him were simple.

“Son, the only thing you can do is to pray for them.”

And as he describes it, to this day, he’s come to realize that the only thing that will ever change it, the only thing that will ever bring us this present reality and future promise that Jesus offers, is to pray for those who hurt us just as much as we pray for those who love us.

So what do we do today?

I often use two phrases in sermons that can sound overpowering – those phrases are “share with others” and “transform the world.”

What about this thought of sharing? I don’t expect that when you walk out of here today that you’re going to go out and start preaching a sermon to everyone that you come in contact with. I think that if you built some relationships in your life where you felt comfortable sharing your story of faith, you would find it to be a great blessing. But I know that you may not be there yet.

One of the greatest ways you could share what you believe is to live it and let others see you living it out. What a powerful sermon we preach when we say hello to someone that everyone else ignores or when we help someone who needs it. We share the Gospel when we take time to listen to others and to let them share their burdens with us.

And what about transform the world? That seems like a big task doesn’t it?

Well, we follow the example of Jesus and we start to change the world and build the future one person at a time. A transformation in this world comes when a daughter or son refocus on loving their parents. Or when a husband recommits himself to his wife and his family. Or when a father reprioritizes his life and spends more time with his children.

And the world is changed when people start to notice that something is different about you. Maybe you seem to be a little more upbeat and happy. Maybe you smile and speak kindly more often to others.

And they want to know what has happened to you.

And it is through those moments that we realize that the Future is now. Grace abounds and we love others passionately and radically.

That is when we can proclaim, “Welcome to the future where we are all one with Jesus.”

The story of two sons

Posted: June 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

Thursday was a big day for me and my life in ministry.  In the clergy session of the South Carolina Annual Conference of the UMC, I was elected as a provisional elder.

This is a cool step forward, but it’s just a step.  Remember, ministry and salvation are parallel — they both are journeys and not a single moment in time.

It was also awesome to see so many of my friends either becoming provisional elders or being elected as full elders.  Our service of commissioning and ordination will be Saturday night.

As Bishop Taylor began yesterday, she read a passage of scripture that included a parable that’s been on my ever since.  It’s the parable of two sons and it goes something like this.

A father has some work that needs to be done and he asks his two sons if they will do it.  The first son tells the father that he will do the work, but then he never goes.  And the second son tells his father that he’s too busy, that he won’t do it.  But then, that second son goes and does the work.  Jesus question, “Which one of them did the work of the father?”

Obviously, it’s the second one and that’s probably a common theme for many in ministry.  It’s not easy choosing to accept a call to ministry.  It has a lot of impact upon so many other things in your life including your family’s life.  It makes you drop everything and start over.  It makes you see the world in a different way.  It opens you up to decisions that are beyond your control.

But then, after much handwringing and praying and fussing and complaining and trying to argue with God about it, you realize that there’s only one way to go.  God has given you an invitation like no other.  Ministry gives you the privilege of entering into some of the most sacred of moments in the life of other people. It’s a call to become a member of extended families.

But I started to think that sometimes that parable also applies to life in the church.

It’s easy in the church for people to say, “Yes, we’ll do that. We’ll do whatever you want.”  But too many times it seems, that commitment does not carry over to action.  We become passive in our ministry and passive in our response to the world around us.  Maybe we need to be a little more intentional in talking in through, in praying about things and then responding to God.

Passive faith is really no faith at all. It’s time for action. Too much is riding on it.

Scripture reference: Galatians 1:11-24

It’s always scary to step out and start to talk about some of the things you believe in.  So let me share with you some of my beliefs.

  • I believe that one of the single biggest problems facing the world today is poverty. Most, if not all, of the social problems today have their roots in poverty.  At the very least, the effects of these social issues are magnified by poverty.
  • I believe that peace is – far and above – preferable than war.
  • I believe that in all ways, Pepsi is better than Coke.
  • I believe that far too many lives in this world end prematurely due to abortion.  At the same time, I believe that the mother should have equal rights to the child she carries.
  • I believe that the New York Yankees are ultimately better than the Boston Red Sox.
  • I believe that all humanity should have access to adequate and basic health care and life-saving drugs.  Far too many lives end because of no access to basic medications that are common and relatively inexpensive elsewhere.
  • I don’t believe in paying to watch movies that make you cry.  I can stay home and watch the news and do that for free.
  • I believe that the best place that we can be on Sundays is in the middle of a community of faith.

And I believe many more things.  But you know something?  Absolutely none of that stuff I just mentioned makes me a Christian.  None of it all.  All of what I believe pales in comparison when it comes to one and only thing that makes me a Christian – the relationship that all allows me to experience the transforming love of Jesus through the Grace and Mercy of God.

So, Why does all of this matter?

For that, I’m going to turn to John Wesley.  Wesley is, of course, the founder of the Methodist movement and one of the reasons we are here today. 

In one of Wesley’s sermons, “The Almost Christian,” Wesley presses home two ideas.  First, the good works that you do might be good, but they don’t save you.  So, there’s no earning your way into heaven, because you could never earn enough to afford it on your own. Second, what really matters is that we have a belief, a faith, a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ.

In other words, being a Christian isn’t about sounding churchy or religious, or saying the right things at the right time, or singing the right songs.  It’s about a relationship with the one who loves us, sacrifices for us, and saves us.

So, then, let’s compare the ideas of religion and relationship and talk about where that leaves us. 

What is religion?

A religion is often defined as a set of beliefs or ideas in a group or a sect – for example, the Christian religion.

Religion is not, inherently, a bad thing.  There are certain things in our religious order that help us to navigate through communions and baptisms.  We have order in the way that we are organized as a church and as a denomination and we have a Book of Discipline that serves as a guide for us.  We have liturgy – the spoken words – that lead us through all types of worship services including our normal worship times, weddings, funerals, services of healing, etc.

Throughout history though, the problem is that religion often turns out to be more about following a particular set of beliefs and rules and less about faith and individuals.

In reading through the Old Testament and even into the gospels, it’s apparent how much religion moves from obeying God to being tied to a set of rules.   God gave Moses a set of laws to help guide life in the wilderness.  Over the years, Jewish religious leaders added even more rules and regulations.  By the time you get to the New Testament, there are hundreds of laws to navigate through in religious life.

When religion is all about the rules, you’ll never run out of rules.  There’s always a new situation and a new rule.

And that’s part of the problem that Paul is addressing in the letter to the churches he’d help get off the ground in the area called Galatia.  Shortly after Paul leaves, a new group, sometimes called Judaizers, moves into Galatia.  The Judiazers would tell people that Paul is preaching a watered down version of what Jesus called for.  They question Paul’s authority to speak for God. They hint that Paul’s message is just made up.

And what they really want is for these new Christians who have experienced the freedom of a relationship with Jesus to go back to the rules and laws.  It’s not enough for the Galatians to be Christians, they have to becomes Jews too. 

They want the new believers to follow the food laws and to be circumcised.  And so Paul responds in this passage from today and points to a creator, a God, that is not in the rules, but active in the world.

The problem? 

Today, we still have some of the same issues.

We still are ruled by our laws about who can and who can’t be a part of our worship services.  Here’s some of the rules you might hear today.

  • You really aren’t reading the Bible if you don’t read the Authorized King James Version from 1611.  I saw that on a bumper sticker a few weeks ago.
  • You have to wear your “Sunday Best” if you want to be a part of the service. That doesn’t come from scripture by the way. I even had an instructor in seminary who said if he was in charge that women would never be allowed to wear anything but a dress to church.
  • I don’t care whether you’re visiting or not, you need to move because you’re sitting in my pew!
  • Dancing is bad!
  • We don’t allow women to fill our church pulpits.
  • We don’t allow children or nonmembers to participate in our communion.  That’s only for insiders.
  • We must only sing one kind of music in church.  It can only be played on certain instruments.

And then, if we’re lucky enough to get visitors through all of the rules we have about worship, then we have to navigate through all the rules, sometimes unwritten that we tend to put in place in other areas of the church.

If we survive that, we have written and unwritten rules on who can or who shouldn’t be allowed to become part of our church.  Sometimes that unwritten rule is as simple as, “Our church doesn’t need those kinds of people.”

At its best, religion helps us to stay focused on our relationship with Jesus.  At its worst, our version of religion keeps people from ever starting a relationship with Christ.
So what about the relationship?

Relationships are connections and involvement. The key in a relationship is who is involved – that determines the quality of the relationship.

Leonard Sweet, a prominent United Methodist and author, and Frank Viola have teamed up together for a book called the “Jesus Manifesto.”  In a video introduction to the book, Sweet reveals what he sees as the most prominent problem in the church. 

We now have two competing voices within most churches.  There are those who are influenced by the political left and they want the church to become a reflection of their political leanings. There are those who are influenced by the political right and they want the church to become a reflection of their political leanings.

And what has been left out of both views is the entire purpose of the church … Jesus.

So, where’s Jesus in religion that’s all about the rules and the regulations? And that leads Sweet to ask a question, do we focus too much on telling people they need to come to church and not enough on telling people, even those in the church, that it’s really about coming to Jesus.

In other words, do we practice a stifling religion or are we involved in an active relationship?

Paul didn’t just move from being a Pharisee to being a Christian missionary because of something in the Jewish law.  Paul’s life changed because he encountered Jesus and developed a new relationship with God.  Before this experience, Paul was Saul, the Pharisee who was doing everything in his power to shut down the Christian church.  But, all of that changed on the road to Damascus.

For just a moment, I’m going to call a timeout and briefly insert something here.  It’s one of those things that sets us apart as Methodists from some of the other denominations and religious groups.  In our system of beliefs, we do not view salvation as a single moment in time when everything is complete.  Instead, we view salvation as a lifelong progress of moving closer and closer to the image of Christ.

And the second important thing is that I’m not talking about a personal relationship with God. To say that salvation is only individual or personal is to gut the entire meaning of the New Testament. Jesus tells Peter, “On this rock, I’ll build my church.”  He doesn’t say, “On this rock, I’ll let all of you build your own individual and personal churches.”

Our salvation is dependent upon our community of faith.  Think of the image of the cross.  Up and down is our relationship with Christ, but side to side is our relationship with everyone else. In fact, in the book of John, it says, “If I say that I love Christ, but I don’t love my brothers and sisters, then I am a liar.”

Time out over and back to the story at hand.

What Paul shows us in the relationship with God is that it is  essential to have relationships with other believers. Paul spends three years in study and prayer but he does go to visit the Disciples in Jerusalem. He does receive their blessing to do the work that he’s doing.   Our relationship with God and our relationship with others in our community of faith defines the quality of our Christian life.

So what does it all say to us today?

Sometimes, we have to make a choice. And it’s this simple:

  • Do I want a dead religion of rituals and rules and do’s and don’ts, or
  • Do I want a living, growing and thriving relationship with Jesus and other believers?

There’s a problem when we get hung up on the laws.  Laws do not value relationships.  In fact, laws can limit relationships and keep them from ever forming. 

What happens when we as a church choose relationships over rules?

A church that is focused on the relationship of salvation is a church that is worth being a part of.  A church that is focused on the relationship can’t help but be an active and growing church.  That relationship has to spill over and out into the world around us.  When we have a relationship with Jesus, everything has to change.

But, you can also tell churches that simply follow the rules of religion.  They are generally rigid places.  There is generally no diversity. They generally only show growth by adding a few people here and there of like mind.  And churches that are focused on religion instead of the relationship with Christ are generally shallow places where it is completely possible to be friendly on the surface but with know true connections and loving relationships underneath.

At its best, religion helps us to stay focused on our relationship with Jesus. At its worst, our version of religion with all of its written and unwritten rules keeps people from ever starting a relationship with Christ.

In the time in which John Wesley delivered the “Almost Christian” sermon I referenced earlier, here’s some of the things that were being said about him.

  • He was viewed as a troublemaker and a renegade.  He was banned from basically every pulpit in England.
  • When he decided to go to field preaching, in other words, taking the  message directly to the people, the bishop labeled Wesley’s actions as “shameful.”
  • The Methodist Societies of the day were labeled as politically controversial because of their support for such issues as free public education, libraries, abolishing slavery and housing and medical care for the poor.
  • And yet, if John Wesley had been concerned with the rules, we wouldn’t exist as Methodists today.

The reason that we exist today, as Methodist, is that John Wesley and those who worked with him valued the relationship and people more than they valued the rules and the laws of religion that wasn’t answering the problem.

Where are you in all of this?  Is religion for you duty bound by the rules? Are you more focused on doing the things you are supposed to do and avoiding the things you are supposed to avoid?

Or do you have a relationship that leads to salvation – Do you focus on a loving relationship with a savior who broke a lot of religious rules in his own day?  Does that love and relationship of that savior flow out of you into loving connections in your own community of faith?

One leads to an active life of faith. Another leads to a dead life of duty. Choose the relationship. Choose to be active. Choose to break the rules.

This past year, in some ways has been very good for me, but it’s also been extremely stressful.

One of the biggest challenges was the ongoing paperwork and interviews to move on toward becoming an elder in the SC Annual Conference of the church.  It’s about 40 pages of paperwork, a sermon and a three hour-interview for the chance to go before Annual Conference in June and be commissioned.

I’ve had some recurring medical issues that have included a lot of steroids and antibiotics.  And I feel so wiped out from them.

As a church, we’ve had a lot of folks who are sick or in the hospital. We’re remembering them in prayer.

And there are some other things that have me thinking too when it comes to Lupo.  A few weeks ago we did a pledge to pray for the church and to support it with our gifts, service, presence and witness. And in that time, giving has dropped and so has attendance

And so honestly, there are days when I’m frustrated and down.  At times I feel disconnected as a pastor and as a person.

My prayer life isn’t always what it could be. There have been some moments when I’ve been more than a little angry at God and I’ve been asking a lot of questions.

And woe is me.

Some of you have it much worse than I do and you’re asking your own questions and struggling in your own ways.

And then the lectionary, the list of suggested scripture passages, brings me to Romans 5:1-5.

This passage reminds me that all of the other stuff that can sometimes seize my thoughts doesn’t matter in the bigger picture of the God who loves me and desires for us to be connected.

I needed a Paul pep talk this week because Paul usually doesn’t hold anything back.  In fact, these words are so complete and so inclusive that they absolutely sum up Christian life.  Nothing else really matters.

And it starts at a point where we find ourselves sometimes.  We’re asking, “Why?” and we’re concerned about, “Why God could love someone like me and use them in ministry and service in his church?”

And Paul reminds us of something that it’s easy to forget in the busy-ness of our lives.

Things are good between us and God. It’s made right through Jesus.  Big fancy word – But it’s called justified.

Through our faith and trust and belief in Jesus Christ, we are, in the words of Paul, living in peace with God. In other words, we’re not at war with God anymore. We’re not rebelling against him and fighting against him.  We have reached a truce, a peace treaty if you will. We’ve laid down our weapons and we join the family of God.

It is through Jesus that we receive our introduction to the kindness of God.  We call that Grace and Mercy.

  • Grace means that we receive something we don’t deserve.  Grace is a gift and we do absolutely nothing to earn it.
  • Mercy, on the hand, is not getting the punishment that we do deserve.

Romans 6:23 reminds us that the earnings, the wages of our sin, is death.  But in God’s grace and mercy, and through our belief and faith in Jesus, that debt has already been paid.  In other words, things are cool between us and God.  It’s all good.

And by entering into grace and mercy, we have a chance to experience the glory and the power of God. And up to this point, most of us would probably nod our heads in agreement and think that this sounds pretty good.

But things are going to get much more difficult in the next few verses.

SUFFERING

Most of us like the idea of believing in Jesus and being connected to God, but it gets really difficult when we start to think about what that belief in God can mean.

It means that there’s the distinct possibility that we are going to face some bad stuff in this world. We’re going to suffer because we believe in God.

If you haven’t experienced it yet, this world is pretty harsh when it comes to the things of God.  In this country, we do have some freedoms and protections to practice our religious beliefs.  Somewhat.

And in other places in the world, it’s much worse.

But, in the words of Paul, when we are faced by a culture that runs counter to what we believe, we “gladly suffer.”

I have trouble with Paul on that one.  There’s nothing glad to me about suffering. I hate suffering. I hate conflict. I hate it when people are mad at one another. I want to step in and help to make peace.  I hate it when things are out of whack and beyond my control.  I hate it. Period.

And yet, Paul reminds me – and well all of us — to be joyful about our suffering.

And what do you know, Paul, about suffering?

Paul suffered just about every indignity we can think of for his belief in Christ and for his willingness to share the Gospel with a world that didn’t know Jesus.  In fact, most believe that it is this desire that led to the end of Paul’s life via an execution at the hands of Emperor Nero.

And Paul’s not alone in this view of suffering.

In James 1:2-3, the author writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

And then, sometimes we have a revelation of our own when we stop to think about these guys and what they went through in their lives.

  • In the day in which they lived, people were cut off from their families and the synagogue for believing in Jesus.
  • People were thrown out on the street and shunned.
  • Believers were whipped and beaten and stoned to death.  They were hung on crosses and tortured for being a part of this Christian movement.
  • And when we think of our ultimate example, Jesus, we realize just how much suffering he had to do to get to the cross.

And Paul and James and others in the Bible tell us to rejoice, to find joy, in suffering. They tell us to consider it an honor to walk beside Jesus in this way.

Why?

WE DEVELOP PESERVERANCE

Because whatever we’re going through in that particular moment in our life leads us to something called perseverance.

Have you ever had someone in your life tell you that you couldn’t do something?  That you’d never be able to finish it?  That you had no chance?  And something inside you just kicked in and you set out to prove that person wrong?

That’s kind of what Paul is writing about here.  When we’re facing those tough times, there should be a reaction inside us as Christians.  Our response should be – bring it on!

We know that what we face is only temporary. We know that something much better is on the other end.  Even if whatever I’m facing in this world, in the present, hurts me or even takes my life, I’m still going to win. My suffering can not defeat me!

In the words of the Bible, perseverance means holding fast.  It means having endurance to finish the race – notice I didn’t say WIN the race.  Perseverance means that when we as a believer approach a task we are not going to be deterred from completing it.  And to see our ultimate example of perseverance, of following through to the end, we look at Jesus who completes the task of going to the cross and dying on our behalf.

Why is it so important for us to stick to the task and to see it through?  Because, according to Paul, it leads us to the next step.

CHARACTER

Through our perseverance, we build something that the Bible refers to as experience or character.  This is a hard word for us to take from the Greek and bring into English because we struggle to find a comparable word.  Some of the various translations use these words:  character, experience, proven character or just proof.  It seems to try to express the idea that what we get as a result of perseverance is that we are tested and proven worthy of serving God.

In fact, the most important proof of God’s existence in this world is that proof that another person sees of God in us.  It’s what really matters.

So, there’s a tie here between our faith in God, the suffering that we go through, the endurance that we build in that suffering, and the proof, the character, the experiences that we form as a result of that endurance.

It is through this experience and through the way in which it makes us ready that we are able to truly experience God.

But all of this leads us somewhere important.

HOPE

It leads us to the idea of hope.

Hope is a strange word in the Bible. When we talk about hope today, we generally think of it as an expectation of something good.  In the time in which Paul is writing Romans, and in the Greek language, Hope is a neutral word.  In other words, hope is just an expectation – an expectation of good or an expectation of evil.  That’s why Paul, for us, might seem to be repeating himself when he says, “this is hope that never disappoints.”

What Paul is really saying is this. You might have experienced the world’s version of hope and you were probably disappointed. It wasn’t what you thought.  But this Hope, this hope from God, is the real deal. It’s authentic.  It’s hope that lifts you up and makes you stronger.

In the middle of our worst years or months or weeks or days or minutes, we have, through God, a hope, an expectation, that never disappoints.

Paul has created for us a cycle.  Hope gives us the ability to handle suffering.  Suffering gives us the endurance to complete the task.  Endurance builds up our character and proves us worthy.  And our character leads us to more hope in God.

Then Paul says what might be the most important statement in this entire passage.

All of this happens because God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit and it is the Holy Spirit which fills our hearts with love.

For just a moment, I want to talk about the “heart.”  Our understanding of the heart today is not the same as what Paul would have thought about the heart.

We can see the heart in basically two ways.

  • There’s a physical organ we call the heart that pumps life-giving blood throughout our body.
  • Generally, we equate heart and mind.  The heart then is the center of our reasoning and emotions.
  • That’s not the way that Paul, as a former Pharisee would have viewed “heart.”

For Jewish believers, the heart is the spiritual center of the body and it was most often equated with the stomach.  That’s why there are so many laws about the holy and unholy things that you can eat.  If you eat something that is unclean, that unholiness spreads throughout your body.

The heart then for Paul is that part that nourishes the body, that spreads life-giving nourishment throughout.  So if the Holy Spirit is in your heart and it is filling you with God’s love, then your entire body is being essentially nourished or fed by the love of God.

In other words, if the Holy Spirit is truly in you, then you are filled with the love of God. It’s undeniable. It has to show up.

AND SO WHAT?

Why does this matter to us today, sitting in our seats at Lupo Memorial UMC?

It’s this simple.  If you haven’t experienced the Holy Spirit in your life, you haven’t really experienced God.  But there’s an invitation there for you to do so.

  • You don’t have to go through the bad days alone.
  • You don’t have to try to endure these things alone.
  • You don’t have to try to build experience alone.
  • You don’t have to have an empty hope in a God who might or might not show up.

If you have the Holy Spirit, you have the love of God in you – moving and flowing through you.  And wherever you go and whatever you do, God is with you through the Holy Spirit.

We are only completed and perfected as people through the power of faith in Jesus, the hope available in God and the love and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Where do you stand today?  Have you felt a heart that has been “strangely warmed” as John Wesley liked to put it?  Has the Holy Spirit moved and flowed through you? Can you look at your life and say, yes, the Holy Spirit has been there with me?

Or are you unsure?

There’s only one way I know that we can change that — pray…