Conquering the World

1 John 5:1-6

This sermon may sound a little old-fashioned.

Talking about the basics of Christianity will do that to a preacher. Lately, a lot of us are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important the converted remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said later. He just knew when he saw that cross. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, period.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone; if momma ran off when you were a baby and daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

Look at it this way. If you had a bad family experience growing up, you can always learn about God from the negative example. How would you have liked your family to behave? Through belief, God is offering you such a family, in this life through a spiritually healthy church and in the next life in God’s full presence.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians in downtown Kingston, Tenn., last week. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching the scene, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring a careful balance of law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—in our Discipline, we call sin a sin, and we recognize unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Abortion is another example. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas and a few other writers have helped me understand how we should stop thinking we’ve dealt with the contentious issue just because we’ve entered a voting booth or courtroom. A mother responding to her pregnancy by considering abortion is a mother experiencing deep fear—fear of family, fear for her future, fear about something.

Here’s a basic question for any church: If abortion is such a serious matter in God’s eyes, what are you doing to eliminate that fear so the mother will drop abortion as an option? Have you told her she has people around her who will help? Are you willing to put the time and money in place to help her rear the child? Can you make her part of the family of Christ, too?

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We join with God in conquering the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its original, holy state. That opportunity in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.


Not Quite Home

2 Corinthians 5:1-10 (The Message)

When it comes to the subject of home, I suppose my family and I have had a different perspective than the traditional one in recent years. As I’ve transitioned careers, going to seminary and then through my first couple of appointments, we’ve moved enough to understand that a house is not a home.

Our middle child, my son, Charlie, has a particularly acute sense of this truth. At 19, he’s just old enough to remember every house we’ve lived in as a family, and just young enough to have experienced all the moves. (Our youngest child, Bonnie Rose, has no memory of Georgia and little memory of our seminary time in Kentucky. Our oldest child, Pollie, was living on her own before this last move.)

I asked Charlie not too long ago what place he thinks of as home. He puzzled over the question for a moment and said, “I guess wherever you all are.” He shares with military kids and gypsies that transitory view of home.

Home really is a state of mind, I suppose. We moved just a couple of times when I was a kid, always in what was basically the same town, and when asked I will tell people that Jonesborough, Tenn., is my hometown. The odd thing is, none of those houses really serves as the location of home in my head.

The place that seems to have wired itself into my brain is my maternal grandparents’ house in Bristol, Va. Until my granny passed when I was 14, I spent a lot of time there—weekends, summers, holidays. My strongest, clearest memories of childhood are of that house, on Bristol View Drive, a high hill overlooking the mall. When I was a child, the families in the houses around us were kin to my grandmother, a Johnston by birth. (My grandfather seemed to be very aware of being surrounded by in-laws.)

Everything about this split-level house was compact: the covered narrow front porch, the entryway running straight to the stairs that went down to a tiny den, the sharp left into the living room, the sharp right up the polished wooden stairs to the bedrooms and bathrooms. My grandparents’ bedroom had a neat little wrought-iron balcony looking into the woods.

I can dream about events that have nothing to do with my grandparents or childhood, but the dream will be set in that house, as if it’s now some sort of empty stage where my mind can process matters large and small.

One vivid dream more than 22 years ago played out in front of the house. Connie (my wife) and I drove up the hill, and as we turned into the driveway, it was all lit up, every room aglow like a house in a Thomas Kinkade painting. I looked at Connie and said, “Well, we’ve come full circle.”

The dream ended suddenly because Connie woke me up. “I’ve got something to tell you,” she said.

“You’re pregnant,” I sleepily responded. She had just taken her home pregnancy test, and wanted to surprise me with the positive result. I guess the dream spoiled the surprise. By the way, that child, my daughter Pollie, is named after my grandmother, an honor we had planned for a daughter before my dream.

That place is burned into my mind not because of the house itself. It’s there, I think, because I learned in that house so much about what it means to be loved. My granny was one of those people especially gifted in showing people love, and needless to say, her grandchildren, of which I was the first, got the full dose. Her house is a symbol for me of what we all crave most, unconditional love.

I bring all this up because today is homecoming at Luminary. For many of Luminary’s members, homecoming evokes all sorts of memories, many of them set in a building we no longer occupy as a church, having built a new building on a new site 11 years ago.

I’m guessing your best church memories, while tied to a place, are actually rooted in an experience of unconditional love. You saw such love in people around you, many of them no longer here. You experienced that love directly from the Holy Spirit, perhaps while singing, or during a baptism, or maybe while hearing the word of God very clearly for the first time. I pray you really sensed it when you first understood the message of the cross, and realized Christ died on the cross because of his love for you.

I do sympathize with what we feel when special places change or go away. I got to go through my granny’s house a few years ago; I was next door visiting my cousin as he dealt with his parents’ failing health, and the current owner asked me to come in and tell her what was original and what was not. Houses change, particularly when people want to tear off little wrought iron balconies and replace them with large wooden decks. Houses of worship change, too, even when you don’t change locations.

But that’s okay, isn’t it? The love that comes straight from God remains despite what changes in this world. It imprints itself on us fully. And not only that, the love we feel now points us toward what we will experience with God for all eternity. And that love will never change. Nothing will ever be taken away.

In fact, what we have lost here we will find there, in our real home.