Epistle

Children, Make Room

1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.

Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. [goes to prayer life; perhaps something on how we avoid a breakdown in community]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.


This is the third sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Last summer, during one of the sermons in our long series on the book of Romans, I made mention of the concept of hospitality. Reading our text today, I feel invited to further explore this tame-sounding concept that actually is quite radical.

John begins by telling us what real love is, pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote down the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This action-based love John keeps discussing is also deeply sacrificial. In the church community, such love calls us to go so far as to die for each other.

Certainly, risk-taking is a big part of a love so deep that we are willing to give up our lives. The taking of risks undergirds this concept of hospitality. Hear what I’m saying: The Christian life is supposed to be a little dangerous.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIn my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you have to guard your stuff from others who might want it.

Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low, and we reach that low point before we even begin to consider risking our lives for others. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution.

A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of their social problems simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done. Our discord over abortion in this country long has served as a good example.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

As a crime reporter in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time covering anti-abortion protests. It quickly became obvious the opposing groups had no political middle ground, with one side calling for women’s rights and the other declaring life begins at conception.

About the same time, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay that demonstrated how hospitality, properly practiced and understood by the church, offers a solution that could make the demand for abortion subside.

The essay, entitled “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” makes some startling assertions, at least if you’re a typical American Christian.  When we become Christians, Hauerwas says, we should stop thinking in terms of rights and instead begin thinking in terms of responsibilities. Christian thinking has little to do with politics. It has everything to do with seeking and following God’s will.

Forget about what Congress or the Supreme Court has to say about the issue. For Christians, what the state has to say about abortion is unimportant. What’s important for us is whether we function so well as Christ’s community that the need for abortion becomes irrelevant.

In the essay, Hauerwas embeds a sermon from one of his former students, and it is there we see a couple of examples of the church truly being hospitable. There is the black community church, where the people welcome a pregnant teenager into their midst, placing her and ultimately her baby with an older couple so both mother and child can have hope-filled lives.

There is another church where a divorced Sunday school teacher becomes pregnant, and rather than finding herself ostracized, she is instead cared for and even financially supported by the church. In both cases, the temptation to abortion is eliminated by community, and the babies in effect become “children of the parish.”

A Matter of Space

How we help the homeless is another example of where Christians could make decisions in our own lives to impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians choose to have “Elisha rooms,” creating a simple space for people in need. The underlying Bible story is in 2 Kings 4:8-17, where we also see how those who offer hospitality are sometimes blessed by the people they help.

Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But one reason we can obey Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” is that when we live in well-crafted, Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality. If we find our homes too isolated for such outreach, it is best if we figure out how to be hospitable as a Christian community.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. On the advice of an older pastor who had been through a few such expansions, I limited my role to spiritual encourager. The church leaders did plop the blueprints down in front of me one day, however, and asked if I had any input.

“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”

The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.

The Church’s Call

Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to fully embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.

Where do we get the strength, personally and communally, to take such radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable to each other, and even to the world at large? Well, we begin small, and we grow in strength.

The Life Groups we are starting at Luminary UMC are great places to better study and implement hospitality. When a church has enough such groups, they become a built-in rapid response system, and great works of welcoming can be done.

John also points out a cycle of growth we can experience as we demonstrate that love is an action. Our actions show we have accepted the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As our work draws us closer to our savior, the guilt of our sin subsides, and we find ourselves emboldened to come to God in prayer, trusting he will protect and provide in the riskiest of circumstances.

It is my prayer that one day the American church at large, regardless of its denominations, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.

 

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Children, Abide

1 John 3:1-7 (NLT)
See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.

Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous.


This is the second sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


As we’ve already discovered in our opening sermon and first Life Group study, God is relational. Most of us have heard the assertion “God is love,” but we sometimes fail to make the connection that God’s love implies a desire for a close relationship.

Thinking God wants us near him is hardly a leap of imagination, though. “I have loved you from afar” is a poignant statement, not a happy one. We automatically understand a long-distance romance to be a difficult situation for lovers. Loving parents do not want to be separated from their children indefinitely; there may be no greater pain for a parent. God’s love for us is no different.

Created in God’s image, we also are very capable of love, although our ability to love is hampered by sin. As we understand how much we are loved by God—as we experience how love was expressed in action on the cross, feel that love through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and grow in that love by being in community—we should find ourselves able to love more freely. And as we grow in love, we also see the reason for pursuing holiness, an act of love that has so often been misunderstood.

Love in Action

Holiness is just a churchy word meaning we behave as God would have us behave. It’s a difficult concept for people who resist or reject Christianity because they perceive conversations about holiness as evidence of God’s authoritarianism, or worse, a church’s attempt to control society at large.

By the way, this is why I don’t like to see Christian behavior forced on people through government legislation—such tactics simply reinforce the idea that churches exist to impose rules rather than offer a loving relationship.

But the call to holiness you hear from God in Scripture and through Holy Spirit-inspired churches has nothing to do with such negative motives. We simply are being reminded to live in a way that should be a natural response to God’s overwhelming love.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeJohn goes so far as to make a bold, flat statement: “Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin.” That’s from the New Living Translation; older or more formal translations use that wonderful but slightly anachronistic word “abide.”

John is talking about people who stay so spiritually close to Jesus that it is as if they were pressed against him, like the beloved disciple in the dinner scene in John’s gospel, or the woman who knelt to anoint the Savior’s feet and wash them with her hair.

Abiding is much more than being in the building with Jesus, or even the same room with Jesus. When we find ourselves asking, “Why am I still trapped in sin,” a good follow-up question might be, “How far have I strayed from Jesus lately?” Odds are, we’re not truly abiding, gazing at him through our study of Scripture or leaning against him in prayer and worship.

Little Children

Let me switch back to the image of a loving parent and child. Where are children the safest? Well, when they are near a loving parent, of course. It’s hard to get into trouble when you’re holding a parent’s hand.

In the wrong setting, even the slightest distance between child and parent can mean potential trouble. As good parents, we’re always trying to manage that distance, sometimes literally keeping our children on a short leash.

When my oldest child was beginning to move from toddling to real walking and running, we bought a springy little wrist tether so she would have more freedom to move when we were out in public. I still remember attaching the adult end to my left wrist and the complicated system of velcro and watchband-style straps to her right wrist.

Being spatially gifted, she studied it for about five seconds and had it undone, proudly handing it back to me. I did the only thing I could do—I went back to holding her hand.

It’s good for children to have that desire to be independent from us. Ultimately, their instinct to go it alone makes it possible for them to grow into independent adults, although parents certainly have to manage those impulses over a couple of decades.

Acting like independent-minded children in our relationship with God is a bad idea, though. We are not little gods, needing to pull away in order to grow. We instead are part of God’s creation, designed to abide in our Creator for all eternity. We grow by remaining close to the Father.

In fact, the author of 1 John makes an interesting promise: Abide long enough, and we not only will see Christ, we one day will be surprised at how much we resemble the one who has shown the greatest love of all. We will not be gods, but we will bear the same purity and speak the same glorious truth as our Savior.

Those of you in Life Groups will learn more this week about how we can help each other live into our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In the meantime, stay close to God every moment of every day, and if you fail in some way, run back to the one who loves you perfectly.


The featured image is a depiction of Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus’ feet. It is a detail from an altar in Saint Vincent Church in Heiligenblut, Austria.

Children, Seek the Light


1 John 1:1-2:2 (NLT)

This is the first sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Quick: In your mind, define what you mean when you say “God.”

Humans are bound by finite time and space, so none of us can hope to provide a complete definition of an eternal being. That doesn’t mean, however, that God is unknowable. People of faith believe there have been powerful revelations from God about God, and from those we can assert certain important truths.

We gather in church, a short word for a Christian community, primarily because we have a common understanding of these truths. If we are not gathered together because of a common understanding of God, we remain a community, but we cannot call that community “church.” We instead would be some kind of club or civic group.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John understood in a most practical way the importance of church members having a common understanding of God’s nature. Later in this letter, it becomes quite clear the churches he led in the vicinity of Ephesus had divided because some of their members asserted a different understanding of God. In particular, a dispute arose regarding whether Jesus was fully God in real human flesh.

Those who disagreed, saying Jesus simply appeared human, eventually left. There was little point in people who couldn’t agree on God’s nature staying together in worship. For all practical purposes, each group would have been worshiping a different god.

Just as the author does in the opening to the Gospel of John, he gets directly to his point in this letter to the churches. Let me tell you some important details about God, he is saying. Let me tell you about those truths that bind us together as a church. Let us cling to the idea of who God is with our very lives, letting the truth about God shape our behaviors.

He speaks as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and also certainly as one who experienced the full presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  He speaks as one touched by the divine mind. This is deep stuff.

The message in the opening of 1 John is very similar to the message in the opening of the Gospel of John. Even before taking on flesh, the aspect of God we call the Word existed, “from the beginning,” an echo of the assertion in John’s gospel that the being we now think of as Jesus was present at the creation.

We also hear that within the being of God, there is fellowship—God is naturally relational regardless of whether we or any other intelligent part of creation exists. Through Jesus Christ, a full and complete relationship is offered to human beings despite our sin.

Living in that relationship is like living in light. There is no shame when we stand with Christ, and therefore, nothing needs to be hidden in the dark.

Because of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, living in the light also cleanses us. The more we place ourselves in that light, the more we are purged from our sins. We are like sheets initially cleansed in the wash and then thoroughly sterilized while hanging on a line during a clear, sunny summer day. (Does anyone do that with their sheets anymore?)

In this letter’s opening, we also see how repentance is necessary for salvation. People who try to claim they aren’t really sinning have not yet reached this first step toward salvation. “Yes, what I’m doing is wrong, it offends God,” we have to say to ourselves. From there, we can begin to hand our sins over to God, trusting they no longer have power to make us repeat them or cause us condemnation.

As a sinner in the room, I pause when I hear this call to repentance. Have I thoroughly and completely examined myself—how I live, how I think—trusting God’s revelations in Scripture and prayer to guide me? Can I say I repeat this process from time to time?

This process of self-examination is the only way we can achieve the goal of John’s letter. The author wanted us to not sin, to put aside our brokenness. The author also was a realist, however. Even when we let Christ into our lives, we are human, and we are likely to continue sinning. Are we humble enough to continue to go before the throne, admit our mistakes, and let the light continue to do its work?

Whatever state of sinfulness or holiness we find ourselves in, we move toward eternal life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no other way forward, there is no other path out of darkness and death and into light and eternal life.

Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done, and what he offers us—is the central truth of the community we call church. As we move further in 1 John over the next six weeks, we will hear much more about how we live and grow into this truth together. We’ll do this as we are gathered in worship, of course. I’m also particularly excited about the deeper experience some of you will have in Life Groups.

Let’s be praying for vibrant life in our church as we go through this process.

 

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

Creation Stories


Genesis 1:1-5 (NLT)


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 2:4-9 (NLT)

This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil. Instead, springs came up from the ground and watered all the land. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


“In the beginning.” These are, of course, the opening words of the Great Story we celebrate in our lives, the story in which we participate whenever we gather for worship.

It is the Great Story, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that explains who God is, why God matters, and how God relates to his creation, particularly people. We discover that people are central to the Great Story, too—in fact, we matter so much, we are loved so much, that God does some very strange things to maintain the relationship.

Ultimately in the Great Story, there is God in flesh, and a cross, and resurrection. But today, we’re going to re-introduce ourselves to the creation stories, those first two chapters of the Holy Bible that set the tone for everything to come.

Being Biblical

I am going to be as biblical as I can be today; by that, I mean I am going to let the story as it is told shape what I say as much as possible. (God help me, and God forgive me where I fail in this area.) Traditionally, one of the great things about being Methodist is that we let the Bible guide us, trusting that it is God’s inspired word, communicating truths that transcend cultural biases.

That does not mean you will hear what some call a fundamentalist or literalist presentation of the creation stories’ highlights from me. As I understand those explanations of the creation stories, they at times can contradict the purposes of Genesis 1 and 2. Fundamentalists and literalists have been known to take lyrical tellings of who God is and how God relates to humans and reduce them to strange science, missing their larger points.

Ultimately, I want to get to the deeper truths being communicated at the opening of this sacred, wonderful Great Story. For there are great truths, the kind of truths around which we should build our lives. When I say I believe Scripture is true, I’m talking about a mystical kind of truth that underpins and holds together the very cosmos.

The Stories

There are two creation stories before us in Genesis. Most scholars agree the first one runs from Genesis 1:1 through the first statement in Genesis 2:4, where we hear the concluding statement, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” The second story then begins, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …”.

There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. In both cases, we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of three biblical manifestations or persons of God. In the first creation story, God’s Spirit hovers over a dark, watery, formless earth. In the second story, the Spirit is present as God’s breath, entering the human formed from the ground to create life.

There also are significant textual differences between the two stories, including the name used for the Creator. In the first account, God is, in Hebrew, simply ʼElohim, while in the second account we see “Lord God,” YHWH ʼElohim, the addition being the “I Am Who I Am” secret name of God revealed to Moses in the story found in Exodus 3.

The basic purpose of the first creation story seems pretty clear. We see God standing outside all things. God is complete. God is not dependent in any way on creation. Why does God create? It would appear that creativity simply is a key part of God’s character. As God sees things are “good,” he experiences the satisfaction a human writer, painter or sculptor might feel.

We also see how creation is made to be responsive to God. Pay careful attention to the shift in language at Genesis 1:11-12. With God’s power, the land begins to participate in the process of creation, sprouting and producing seed-bearing plants which then beget more life.

The pattern is repeated as animals are created. God gets everything rolling and creation joyfully imitates. Ultimately, humans are made in God’s image, ruling in miniature on behalf of the one who made all things.

I carry this truth away: I am just one of billions of humans who have existed, but I am important. You are important. As responsive bearers of God-given life, made in his image, we have so much potential! Treasure the life you’ve been given.

Yes, the story goes on in chapter 3, and sin introduces horrible encumbrances to weigh us down. But remember that potential, and remember the powerful truth that Christ came to redeem us from sin. Through Christ, we are re-created, restored to that potential.

Deep Love

The second creation story accomplishes another important task. It is, in a way, God’s valentine to us, as he says, “See how much I love you?”

Here, the Lord God is much more personal and relatable, shaping the first human from sod and blowing life into his nostrils. He then carves out a special place in creation, a holy garden where the man can learn pleasurable, fulfilling work alongside his creator. He also is called to learn joyous obedience by following one simple rule: Don’t eat from that tree.

There is to be no sadness or sense of isolation in this place called Eden. We see this as the Lord God fashions animals, and then finally a woman, for the man. We are left with a picture of perfection, man and woman together, relating to one another and God in idyllic peace.

Again, sin mars the picture as the Great Story progresses. But thanks to the work of Christ, we can look at one another, and look to God, and say, “We are loved!” And never forget that the Great Story, the whole story of the Bible, returns us to this Paradise, this perfection of relationships.

It is all true. These stories are not science or history as modern people understand these two fields of study, but these stories are true.

Let these creation stories lead you into the eternal story lived with God.

The Last Episode

1 John 2:28-3:3 (NRSV)

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.


As in several other places in the New Testament, a reader can discover what seems to be a tension between ideas in 1 John.

First, the author is emphatic that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the path to salvation. In chapter 1, verses 7 through 9, he writes, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But later in the letter—just beyond our reading for today—the tone changes, as if those who are in Christ cannot sin. “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. … Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

The two ideas pull at each other, but the tension is there to keep heresies from developing. If we forget salvation is an act of grace, an unmerited gift from God, we can start thinking we somehow earn our salvation on our own, and we begin to live like Pharisees. But at the same time, when people do not make a conscious effort to stop sinning, we can cheapen Christ’s sacrifice, saying to ourselves as we sin, “It’s okay—Jesus will forgive me.”

I think all of this is easier to process when we consider our text today. The author of 1 John is inviting us to live as if we know how our story ends. Why? Because we actually do know how our story ends.

If you’re standing on a train track, and you hear a whistle and feel a vibration under your feet, what do you do? You get off the track.

If you’re crawling out of a dark cave and you see a beam of light, what do you do? You crawl toward the light.

If you know your boss is going to walk through the door at any moment, what do you do? You work like you’ve been working hard all day. (That’s actually an extreme paraphrase of one of Jesus’ parables; see Matthew 24:45-51.)

If you genuinely believe you’re going to see Jesus face-to-face one day, what do you do? You put aside sin, those things displeasing to him. You certainly put aside those things that are recurring; if you keep reading 1 John, you’ll see the author seems particularly concerned about repetitive patterns of sin.

We know how to handle situations when the end result is clear. We change our behaviors so we are aligned with future circumstances.

Here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to live like the people who are oblivious about the end result. I’ll give you an example: We don’t want to be like the characters on “Seinfeld.”

Most of you who are regulars know I have a deep affinity for “Star Trek,” and I’ve promised to limit my references to that show. But what many of you don’t know is that I also love “Seinfeld.” In particular, I think the show’s final, two-part episode in 1998 was deeply theological, whether or not the writer Larry David intended it to be.

For nine seasons, the characters on the show went about their lives without ever considering the consequences of their actions. Jerry, George and Kramer wrecked women’s lives with abandon; the toxic glue on cheapskate George’s discount wedding invitations killed his fiancée, for crying out loud! Elaine was just as adept at ruining the lives of men around her.

There also was the constant lying and deceit, whether it was Jerry trying to avoid visiting his parents at Del Boca Vista in Florida or the whole group trying to get soup from the soup Nazi. And those of us who watched the series throughout loved every minute of it. As long as we’re watching fiction, it’s amusing to see people living their lives as if there is no ultimate end in view, particularly when they are so hilariously sarcastic about everything.

It was the theologian in me, however, that made me think the final episode was brilliant.

In short, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George find themselves far from home, in a small town that actually has what most of us consider normal values. Fictional Latham, Mass., has even gone so far as to enshrine the need to help each other in the law, requiring people to come to the aid of someone in trouble.

Seeing a very overweight man being robbed, the Seinfeld Four choose to film the event rather than helping him or calling for help. They make fun of the victim the whole time, as they’ve always been prone to do. They end up under arrest for not providing aid, and being the first people put on trial under the law, the courtroom scene turns into a spectacle.

People they have victimized over the years arrive to testify against them. Jerry stole an elderly lady’s marble rye; she’s there, and she’s still angry. The Bubble Boy explains how they nearly killed him during an argument over Trivial Pursuit. (Moors! Moops!) Teri Hatcher shows up, and that’s all a pastor can say about her character.

An old girlfriend tells how George fled an apartment fire by pushing children and an elderly woman out of the way. There are references to uromycitisis poisoning, the puffy shirt, cockfighting, and how Jerry was “all the time mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. Now it is Abu’s time to mock!”

And of course, they are all found guilty. The series ends with them in prison. The Seinfeld universe, as weird as it was, is put right in the last episode, with goodness affirmed and badness condemned.

As complicated as he can seem, the author of 1 John is telling us how the same principle plays out in real life. We have a last episode coming. It is already written. We know whom we see when we arrive in it. The good will be affirmed, even rewarded, and the bad will be condemned.

As people who already know the story, we are called to live our lives accordingly, no matter how much we might think we are entitled to that marble rye.


The featured image is Joos van Cleve’s “Final Judgment,” circa 1520.

Smooth Talkers

Romans 16:17-27 (NLT)

And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words they deceive innocent people. But everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord. This makes me very happy. I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Timothy, my fellow worker, sends you his greetings, as do Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my fellow Jews.

I, Tertius, the one writing this letter for Paul, send my greetings, too, as one of the Lord’s followers.

Gaius says hello to you. He is my host and also serves as host to the whole church. Erastus, the city treasurer, sends you his greetings, and so does our brother Quartus.

Now all glory to God, who is able to make you strong, just as my Good News says. This message about Jesus Christ has revealed his plan for you Gentiles, a plan kept secret from the beginning of time. But now as the prophets foretold and as the eternal God has commanded, this message is made known to all Gentiles everywhere, so that they too might believe and obey him. All glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.


We have reached the end of our Romans series. For 37 weeks, we have heard from Paul the core truths about Christianity.

Again, there is this matter of the Good News. Anyone making it this far through Romans should have a clear idea of what the Good News is. Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah, and in dying on the cross, he made salvation available to all people anywhere. God’s promise to Abraham that his people would be a blessing to all the world is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Paul also has given his readers ongoing reminders of God’s holiness. What conforms to God’s nature is holy, and what defies God’s nature is sin. We are called not only to salvation, but also to a remaking through the work of the Holy Spirit, growing in our ability to reflect God’s holiness in our own lives.

We must put sin aside, exploring God’s revelation of his will in Scripture so we know what he calls holy and unholy, rather than trying to define these matters for ourselves. In Methodist terms, we are to experience sanctification as the gift that follows salvation.

With all this in mind, Paul has one last pressing concern as he wraps up his letter—the danger posed by people who selfishly bring division to a church. It is not that the Christians in Rome necessarily have a problem in this area; in fact, Paul seems to indicate they don’t, saying “everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord.”

Paul knows, however, that the issue of division is a serious one, and that churches must prepare for its possibility in times of unity so they know what to do in times of discord.

Having just discussed core Christian concepts in his letter, Paul’s warning is a relatively simple one. As mature Christians, you know enough already; you understand God’s will, you know what is important. Don’t be swayed by “smooth talk and glowing words” designed to steer you away from these core truths.

As we know in our own time, words without content can be quite effective. We live in a culture where people use pretty, empty words to get what they want. Try this exercise: Pick a politician and break down his or her political speech. Really listen closely. Outline it. Analyze it. How much is actually being said clearly and forthrightly?

I’m not calling all politicians empty suits. We do have deep thinkers in politics. I’m just saying you won’t have a lot of trouble finding politicians who get elected while talking a lot but say nothing. You can do the same kind of exercise with television commercials. What do you really know about what’s being sold once you’ve analyzed what is said?

Where there is no substance in an appeal, we usually find emotion. More than 300 years before Jesus ever came onto the scene, Aristotle showed how emotion could be used to drive rhetoric. And yes, this happens in religious communities all the time. In fact, it may be easier in such communities because the people present have very personal commitments to God and each other, as well as other concepts like family or nation.

We actually have an easier time testing people’s words than the early church at Rome would have had. In many ways, they were still teasing out the implications of a risen Christ, with people arguing about his humanity, his divinity and other details of how God was working in the world.

We now have Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture and centuries of solid Christian thinking, what we sometimes call “church tradition,” to give us guidance. Our core doctrines are largely a settled matter. No one has to invent another wheel to keep the cart moving forward.

Paul also gives us another way to test people who bring discord. Ask, “What does this person have to gain?” If people are serving their own personal interests rather than the kingdom as Christ has described it, there is a problem.

Here, Paul causes me to think of a book called “Antagonists in the Church,” which a mentor convinced me to read when I first went into professional ministry. The author, Kenneth Haugk, argues most people who would bring division are pretty easily identifiable by their particular behaviors and strategies. They raise certain flags, and if you see enough flags coming from a person, beware!

I’ll not get into all of those flags—I do recommend the book—but I will say this: Nearly all the bad behaviors and strategies are borne from an antagonist thinking, “How can this benefit me,” rather than, “How can this benefit the kingdom?”

One of our earliest Christian documents we have outside the Bible is called The Didache. It was sort of an early church Discipline, giving all sorts of guidelines for how to run a church.

The Didache addresses this problem of self-centeredness masquerading as prophetic speech. In the early days of Christianity, travelers calling themselves prophets would show up in communities, and members of the local churches never knew whether to take these people seriously.

A particular guideline was very specific. If the traveler claimed the Lord had declared the church should have a fellowship meal, a real prophet would make the proclamation and move on before the food had been prepared. If he tried to stay and eat, he probably was a fake.

As we wrap up this trip through Romans, I hope you’ll take much away from your time in this holy book. There are two ideas I pray stay with you, as they will determine the future health of any church.

First, there is Good News! Understanding that news and its implications is critical to the Christian life. I’ve said it in different ways throughout this series: Bible study, mixed with a healthy dose of prayer, is the path to understanding.

Second, have the courage to spread that Good News. Good deeds are not enough. People need to hear about the source of goodness, the giver of eternal life.

Jesus is overcoming the evil that temporarily grips this world. Trusting in his power, what will you do to conquer a part of the world for the kingdom?

Lord, thank you for the gift of the Book of Romans. Continue to inspire us as we stay in your word. Amen.