church life

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.

 

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Through the Wilderness: Perseverance

Numbers 13-14:25

I find the concept of perseverance a little difficult to define, even with multiple dictionaries handy. From time to time, it certainly requires courage to persevere, but there also is more to persevering than having courage. Courage usually happens in a moment, while perseverance happens over a long period of time, perhaps most of a lifetime.

Sometimes you hear people talking about other people having “grit.” I like that word. It evokes an internal quality, a kind of spiritual fortitude that comes from deep down inside but manifests itself in very real, outward ways. If you have perseverance, or grit, you may die trying, but you’ll likely die standing on your feet. (I fear I may be channeling John Wayne here.)

To sum up this story from Numbers about the Israelites in the wilderness, I’ll just say they lacked grit. Their past experiences as slaves had crushed their spirits, and far too few of them were willing to persevere, despite the promises of God and the tremendous rewards that lay before them. Their lack of grit cost them mightily—instead of life in a rich land that “flows with milk and honey,” they became a people condemned to die in the desert, their hope and joy transferred to a generation to come.

Grit is needed and developed in a variety of different ways. If we’re going to succeed in life, we have to develop a little grit. There’s even research now showing that the ability to persevere may be as important or more important than intelligence. That research explains something most of us have observed at one time or another: It’s not always the most intellectually gifted people who are the most successful in this world, and it’s not unusual for an average classroom performer to do astonishingly well later in life.

I think we can go beyond the personal lesson and move to a national one, too. Just as we see in the Numbers story, a group of people may or may not, as a whole, have grit, even if their leaders do have it. Moses, Joshua and Caleb have grit, but the people won’t follow them. Later in the Old Testament, you see the problem in reverse, too. Armies or citizens know the right thing to do, even the hard thing to do, but an unspirited leader keeps them from succeeding.

I frankly think that’s what we lack as a nation now, a sense that we need to somehow persevere as a group. I’m not sure we’ve had such unity of spirit for some time. It would be nice if someone would develop a National Grit Index and publish the results on the business channels alongside the stock reports.

I’m reminded of the World War II generation, what we now call “The Greatest Generation.” As a group, they had incredible grit, developed as they grew up in the Depression and then tested as everyone at home or abroad sacrificed to fight a great growing evil on two fronts. Given a common vision for why we exist, I wonder if we could be like them.

Now, everything I’ve said so far could be safely used in a high school commencement address without a complaint from the ACLU. “Develop your grit; let us persevere as a nation.” But this is a sermon, and this Bible story has an obvious spiritual call embedded in it, one most useful in this season of Lent.

Let me ask you this first, my fellow Luminarians. Do you feel certain God is with you individually, and with us as a church? By that, I’m asking you whether you’ve fully embraced Jesus Christ as your savior, understanding this belief changes everything. By that, I’m also asking if you think we’re bound together as a church by God’s Holy Spirit and able to move as a group according to God’s will.

If your answers are “no,” we need to have a whole different conversation. We have to get that part right first, this idea that God is with us. We don’t want to be like those first-generation Israelites in the desert, with God obviously present among us, but whining how we want to go back to our old ways, crying that the future is too daunting, too frightening.

I’ve not really known you that long, but I’m sure I see faith in you as a group. And I’m confident enough in you that I’ve spied out our promised land a little.

Ultimately, our promised land is the same as everyone else’s, an eternity beyond death, a constant blissful abiding with God. But we can have a taste of its joy now. We can live into it in this church now.

I see a shining building on a hill that becomes a symbol for life with Christ, not because of the building, but because of the people who go in and out. I see it filled up on both floors with people of all ages, children playing and learning to love Jesus, their parents growing in their commitment to God and each other, and our elders deepening themselves spiritually and rejoicing together at what has come to pass because of their early commitments.

I see babies and adults lined up for baptism. I see hungry children and adults in our community fed physically and spiritually every day of the week.

We can get there. We can become that church.

There are giants to slay. I’ve given names to a few. One is called Halfheart; he’ll tell you worldly, secular concerns are more important than spiritual matters. He’ll even convince you there are better places to be on Sunday.

Another is called Hesitation—he’s the one who convinces you that maybe you had better hold your time and money in reserve, just in case this God thing doesn’t pan out in the end. I’ll call another one Eyepoke: He wants to blind you so you can’t see how real the grace of God is, how much better grace is than anything else you’ll experience. And then there’s the giant Lookback: he’ll actually try to make you long for your past life, your past pain, the way the Israelites longed for slavery.

Those four giants, and some others, are a problem, but they cannot stand against us. It takes grit to fight them, but God is on our side. And we want to be the generation to see the promises fulfilled.

A Mighty Prayer for a Mighty Church

Ephesians 1:15-23

Some people want to declare Christianity a dying part of our culture here in the United States. Our Ephesians text today reminds me of how quickly any local church can move back toward life and vitality, and the simple step to make such a reversal happen.

The Apostle Paul, who many scholars believe was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote this letter, described the church at Ephesus in a way most churches would like to be described. The Ephesian Christians first of all had faith in Jesus. It almost sounds like a “duh” statement—the Christians had faith in Christ.

But is it? It’s not unusual for churches to lose track of why they exist. Perhaps this was also a problem in the early days of Christianity. So much has to be managed on a daily basis, even in a small church. In Acts, we see the early church in Jerusalem struggling with an administrative matter, how to ensure proper, fair care for all the widows in the church, and division ensued. Such day-to-day concerns can cause us to forget why we cluster together in the first place, and likely were as much a danger to churches then as they are now.

The Ephesians, however, must have been keeping their eyes on Christ—on the stories they had learned about their Savior, on the evidence and miracles provided by the apostles and other leaders of the church. This is what any healthy church must do. Want to know the most important way to hold pastors and teachers accountable? If you’re not hearing from them regularly about Christ’s work on the cross and the power of the resurrection, call them on that omission.

Paul also described the Ephesians as being loving “toward all the saints.” This is usually interpreted to mean the church at Ephesus was involved in supporting Christian congregations and ministries (Paul’s, for example) in other parts of the known world. The church was what we Methodists call “connectional.” We know we have to go beyond our own communities. There is strength in unity with Christians, even the ones we may never meet in person in this life.

The Ephesian Christians sound like what we would call a strong church. They also sound like a lot of churches I know today—committed to Christ and loving and caring for one another. But what Paul described was not the be-all and end-all for church life. Something much greater was and is possible.

Paul began to outline his prayer for the Ephesians, a prayer best described by one word: “ongoing.” Now, there’s no doubt the Christians at Ephesus already had received wisdom and revelations from God regarding their particular role in the growing kingdom of God. But there was more, Paul said, an ongoing growth in understanding.

He spoke of the kind of growth in understanding that comes from a long-term relationship, growth similar to what you see in a holy marriage or a decades-long friendship. No matter how much Christ is known, he is eternal and can be known more and more.

As we know him more, the “eyes of our hearts” are enlightened, and we better understand the hope we have and the true riches that are ours, changes in our lives given to us in ever-increasing quantities by the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, how does a Christ-centered, loving church seek more? Paul modeled the method, saying he would pray for the Christians at Ephesus without ceasing. By this, he certainly meant he would incorporate them in his regular prayer time. He also could be pointing to the incorporation of prayer into the heart, along the lines of what we see in the Christian classic “The Way of a Pilgrim,” where every breath becomes a prayer, a connection to God.

We have to ask ourselves, as a church, are we praying enough? Are we praying deeply enough as a group? Are the eyes of our hearts open wide enough to truly see and trust God’s power?

God, may your Spirit guide us and teach us to pray. My the vitality we find draw others to us.

Face to Face

I never cease to be amazed at how poorly Christians handle hurt feelings and perceived slights within the church. Judging from my own experiences over the years and from what I hear from other pastors, it must be a widespread problem.

Churchgoers, consider whether this sounds familiar: Christian A (insert here pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, choir director, the person in the next pew, etc.) offends Christian B. Rather than discussing the situation with Christian A, Christian B grumbles to others.

What we're trying to avoid, with Jesus' help.

What we’re trying to avoid, with Jesus’ help.

Christian B’s confidants then mumble those grumbles to still others. Emotional and spiritual wounds fester, and the Christian love we’re supposed to feel for one another in church fades. Sometimes, factions even form.

It’s particularly disappointing because we have clear guidance from Jesus on the proper handling of even serious conflict among church members.

Jesus’ teaching, found in Matthew 18:15-20, is rooted in a situation where a sinful church member has in some way victimized another church member. And the situation doesn’t have to be as serious as you might think when you hear the word “sin.” It’s easy for us to classify offensive behavior in others as sinful when the words or actions simply stem from mild pride, selfishness or simple thoughtlessness. (Lord knows, those are three areas that get me into trouble.)

Here is Jesus’ recommended strategy:

Step 1: The wounded person should go to the offender and explain the problem. Implicit in this step is that there has been no griping to others about the wound inflicted. This step creates the potential for the problem to be resolved one-on-one, keeping bad feelings and misunderstandings from spreading.

Step 2: If Step 1 doesn’t bring reconciliation, the wounded person should involve one or two others in speaking to the offender. Discretion remains important, however. “One or two” means one or two, not five or fifteen. This step also acts as a corrective to someone who may be overreacting. If the wounded person cannot find one or two people who are willing to say, “Yeah, that sounds like a problem,” then a little reflection on what was said or done may be in order.

Step 3: If Step 2 does not bring the offender around, the wounded person takes the problem before the “whole church.” At this point, I should say that we have left the realm of dealing with simple disagreements or misunderstandings and are now dealing with a very serious situation, one probably involving blatant sin. Most reasonably organized denominations have a procedure for Step 3 and also Step 4, which involves the temporary or permanent removal of an unrepentant offender from the church.

It’s been my experience that when Christians practice this scriptural model in a loving way, situations that have triggered hurt feelings are quickly resolved at Step 1. Mature Christians are horrified to realize they’ve wounded a sister or brother in some way.

I realize it’s not always easy to talk to certain people, particularly if the offended person has a more shy and quiet personality and the offender is louder or more authoritarian. As I think about how accessible I am to others, I try to keep in mind something my wife, Connie, once told me: “You have got to learn that you frighten children and small animals.” And because some people find pastors a little intimidating, I always welcome anyone offended by me to bring someone along for support during the conversation.

Adults in Christian community owe it to each other to first discuss our hurt and confusion with the one who caused it—we’re talking about a behavior that keeps us unified, allowing the Holy Spirit to work among the church more effectively. As Jesus said, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”