sanctification

Sinning After Salvation

Romans 6:1-14 (NLT)

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.


I suppose I should give up theft, as Paul says we should not keep on sinning. But I’m stealing this morning from a great preacher named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who in the 1960’s gave us a very useful analogy to help us understand what Paul is saying in today’s text. I want us to meditate awhile on the image Lloyd-Jones offers.

Imagine two fields separated by high rock walls, typical of fields in Lloyd-Jones’ Wales. Or, for our context, we could say “separated by barbed wire,” as that is what surrounds most of our fields here in Tennessee. The point is, you are born in one field and you cannot get out on your own.

In that field, you have a master, Satan, and feeling obligated to respond to Satan’s voice, you sin. Of course you do. You were born in his field, and you really know nothing else.

Now, here’s the great miracle. Through Christ, God comes along and plucks you up from one field, setting you down in the adjacent field, the field God controls. Satan, who for many good reasons is terrified of God, will not move from one field to another to regain control over you. You are free!

You also are new to this field. In terms of behavior, all you really know for sure is life in the old field, a life of sin. Now, Satan won’t cross into the new field to get you, but he knows you. You were born in his field. He trained you to his commands.

And, being the kind of determined fallen angel who never wants to let go, Satan calls out commands over the divide between your old life and your new life, hoping you will obey. You are in a new field, but you find yourself committing some of the same sins that were part of your old life.

“Ah, I hate that,” you say to yourself, cringing in the after-effects of your sin. “Why do I do that? I’m in this beautiful new field!”

Or to quote something we’re going to hear Paul say in the seventh chapter of Romans: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

This is our situation as Christians. We accept Christ, we know we are accepted, and yet, we continue to defy, at least from time to time, the one who has gone to such great lengths to rescue us from sin.

Here’s another analogy for those of us who grew up rural: You can scrub the pig up all nice and shiny for the county fair, but if you don’t watch the chubby porker closely, he’ll wallow in the mud the first chance he gets. It’s what the pig is used to doing. (For those of you not from the country, the verb is pronounced “waller.”)

The solution to the problem, or at least the beginning of the solution, is to hear again what I said earlier: You are free!

Satan no longer has a hold on you, thanks be to Jesus Christ and the cross on which Christ died. You don’t have to listen to Satan’s voice. You can tune Satan out, with no repercussions.

Yes, you really have the power! People are often shocked to learn that the devil cannot make you do it, whatever “it” may be.

When Satan issues his old commands, it’s okay to put your hands over your ears and say, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening … .”

Look around you. Look at the glory of your new field. There is a new voice in this new field. It’s … it’s strange, at first. In a worldly sense, the old voice could sound wise and even beautiful, but it kept hurting you, right?

Would any of you disagree that the old voice kept leading us down paths of sin, and that ultimately, sin hurts, even if it initially seems like a good idea?

The new voice is different, though. The voice of Christ calls us to peace. The voice of Christ tells us, “Fear not,” while the old voice ran his field on fear—fear of not measuring up, fear of finishing last, fear of running out, fear of aging, fear of loss, fear after fear after fear.

The voice of Christ calls us toward a kind of beauty that is otherworldly, that never fades. Everything the old voice offered you looks cheap and dangerous compared to what we are offered in this new field.

Oh, it just struck me—some of you considering what I’m saying today may still be in the old field. Guess what, even from there you can hear Christ calling you to a better place, a better way of living now. All you have to do is call out, “Save me!” and you’ll be lifted into the new field.

Once we’re in the new field, we have to do something very important. We have to move away from the old field, away from the divide. Run from your old owner. Run deeper into the new field so it’s harder to hear his voice.

Recovering addicts and reformed criminals know exactly what I’m talking about. What’s the first big rule when you start a new life? Avoid the people who are part of your old life. Through your old friends, you will hear Satan’s voice calling you back. Stay away from anything that may be a conduit for Satan’s old call.

Eventually, you may be strong enough to run and jump in the new field and call over the divide, telling the others the way out of the field of sin. “Hear a different voice!” you’ll cry out.

I had a friend several years ago who worked with people who struggled with the same kinds of addictions she had once suffered. She estimated a person needed to be clean of a particular sin at least ten years before trying to help people with similar sins. The siren call of Satan is too strong early on, she said, despite the fact we are free.

There is more to the Christian life than simply running from Satan’s voice. It’s important you know that. Oh, there is so much more. This is a rich, beautiful field, one we explore with great excitement now and for all eternity.

There are ideas and experiences here to give us great joy. That is what we will talk about next week: how to explore the field, how to move deeper into it, how to truly experience our new home.

Until then, stay away from the fence.

At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.


We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.


The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.

And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.


Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.

 

The Need to Endure

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

When is God done saving you?

Today’s Scripture reading, and a whole lot of other Scripture readings, bring us back to a very Methodist understanding of salvation. Yes, we have a moment, often a very memorable moment, where we consciously step toward God and say, “Lord, I am yours.”

That moment may come before or after baptism in a structured way, for example, during a confirmation class. It also may happen in an unstructured way, perhaps during a contemplative walk or while quietly reading God’s word. It might be a “hot” moment, where the Spirit seizes you and shakes you. It might be a “cool” conversion, something that occurs after years of exposure to the story of Christ.  But there is a moment.

We are to understand, however, that conversion goes beyond a moment. Once God has used his grace to draw us in, gaining our voluntary cooperation, there is additional transformation to come. It is the difference between saying “I was saved” and “I am being saved.” As exciting as the moment can be, the promise of ongoing, life-changing interaction with God should be even more exciting.

What does God move us toward? In short, what we were meant to be—what we would have been without evil in the world, and what we will be when evil is no more.

Here, I think, lies the big struggle for many American Christians. We like having the moment, and we’ll even continue to cling to Christian practice for some time as long as we can feel the glow of the moment. We are a people who love instant gratification. Moving from a moment to a lifetime process is very hard for us, however.

If you struggle with the idea of ongoing sanctification, of salvation being a continuing process, try this analogy. You are drowning. A boat comes along; a hand reaches down and pulls you up. At that moment when your head clears the water and you sputter, spit and begin to breathe, you know you are saved. And yet, the process of salvation has not ended. You still must be pulled into the boat. Someone must dry you off, warm you, and check your lungs. Even the boat ride home is part of being saved. And you certainly don’t want to fall out of the boat!

This idea of ongoing salvation isn’t just some vague theological notion; we need to live it day by day. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you the story of one of the closest friends I ever had.

As you might expect, this close friend was a fellow clergyman. We were about the same age and had a lot in common. He also was a second-career pastor and had entered ministry a few years ahead of me. In many ways, he was my model for the pursuit of holiness, a concept he seemed to take very seriously.

Our church assignments separated us over time, although we tried to stay in touch. A couple of years ago, Connie and I got word from his wife, also a close friend of ours, that something astonishing had happened. He had suddenly left his wife, sons, ongoing advanced education and ministry—pretty much everything that mattered—for another woman, moving far west to help her raise her kids. (The real shocker: The other woman was a pastor, too.)

What caused such a shift in thinking and behavior? One thing seems certain. My friend did not endure, and now he is completely dependent on God’s resurrecting power to undo the damage he has done.

It is a sad story, and I tell it as a reminder that none of us is immune to such error. Satan’s servants are going to aim at all of our weak points in an effort to take as many of us down with them as possible.

I have no formula for how we endure, other than to say any formula is framed by engagement with God through prayer, Scripture, worship and the taking of the sacraments. A lot can vary within that framework, though. Like our saving moment, that ongoing engagement with God will be unique.

I’ve recently been trying to grow by meeting God in formal prayer three times a day, using prayer books to lead me. I know it helps me because prayer now brings me a kind of joy I’ve not had before. The same kind of prayer techniques may not bring you the same joy, but ask yourself, what does?

Connect with God according to your design and you will find continuing joy and spiritual growth, helping you endure any demon you may encounter.

Out of the Fire

2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.


The Apostle Peter, the head of the church after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat.

The stars and the planets spun out of them “pass away with a loud noise,” a kind of theological Big Bang announcing the end of creation rather than the beginning. Not all is destroyed, however. The earth remains, stripped bare, with it and all its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.

Peter gives us perhaps the starkest scene of judgment in the Bible, one that grows in audacity as our scientific understanding of the size and design of the universe expands. When I read his words, I see an ash-covered earth hanging in the darkness, with all the people who have ever lived on it looking up, put in a position where we recognize our complete dependence on our creator. We see only with whatever light God chooses to provide from his throne. We become actors on a barren stage, no costumes, no props. At this point, nothing matters but our relationship with God.

Peter’s words could be just fantastic symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality. If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy maker, stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.

Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to undergo our own personal purifying fire now. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.

Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.

After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work on the universe through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.

So,how do we submit?

Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear God is patient. He has provided a path to holiness through belief in Jesus Christ, and has stayed the end for nearly 2,000 years, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” When the time of patience ends, however, it will end quickly, either in Christ’s return or your departure from this life.

Acceptance of Christ as Savior certainly is enough to save us. Even a sincere deathbed confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is enough. Those of us blessed to come to Christ earlier in our lives are called to something more, though. We’re given a chance to undergo the refining fire in this life, anticipating the life to come.

The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.

First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things? These usually are actions large and small that are easy to identify, although often hard to stop. Ask any recovering addict.

Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity? There’s a lot of evil in the world, and it takes a lot of goodness to push back against it. We cannot earn our salvation, but once we find ourselves part of Christ’s contingent, it’s nice to help the kingdom grow. In fact, that’s a good way to measure if an act is good—is it a victory for God’s kingdom over the ruler of this world, Satan?

Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant taking those actions we know will keep us in a relationship with God: public worship, study of God’s word, receiving communion, prayer, and abstaining from activities that can be a distraction from God.

When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not miss the dross that is burned away.

 

 

Action!: The Precious Present

James 4:13-5:6

Where is your head right now?

I’m asking you to think about what you’ve been thinking about. How many of you are absolutely, perfectly focused on worship? That is, when we sang, all you thought about was the song; when you prayed, all you thought about was the prayer; when I started preaching, you were rooted in the giddy excitement you always feel when a sermon begins.

Conversely, how many of you know that in the last half-hour or so your minds have wandered off into the past or the future? Maybe you saw a friend and started thinking about the warm words you exchanged a few days ago. (Or maybe the opposite happened.) Maybe your stomach rumbled and you started wondering where you’ll go for lunch.

The human mind is a time-traveler. Our bodies are always in the present, but our minds jump into the future or the past at will. In fact, it is very difficult to keep our minds perfectly in the present.

That’s not necessarily a problem. I’m simply describing a fact regarding how our minds work. Both the past and our vision of the future help us to make critical decisions. I mentioned last week, however, that James tells us our words sometimes betray our failure to keep God central in our lives. That idea is the core of our Scripture reading today, in particular when we consider how we talk about the future.

Again, a little context helps. Last week, I mentioned James wrote his letter at a time when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. It helps to know exactly who the rich were; basically there were two classes of rich.

The first class was the landed gentry, people who did little work but profited from vast tracts of land they had inherited. Like plantation owners in the Old South, they had very high status in society. They also were sometimes criticized for cheating the laborers who worked their fields.

The second class was made up of merchants, who in James’ day were often richer than the landed gentry, but of very low status.

James was not being critical of wealth, just as Jesus was never critical of wealth. Both warned, however, of the incredible distraction wealth or the pursuit of wealth can become. James took particular note of the merchants, running from city to city and planning years in advance, with no acknowledgment of their own mortality or need to rely on God.

Jesus told a parable found in Luke 12:13-21 along these lines, although his story was aimed more at the landed gentry. A rich landowner, pleased with his abundant crops, begins talking about the future as if he is in control. He’ll tear down his barns and build bigger ones, he thinks, store the excess, and then take it easy. Little does he know that death will come for him that night, and he will face the maker his riches were intended to serve.

An interesting side note: When the Jews rebelled and the Roman army responded by destroying Jerusalem in the year 70, the Jewish landed gentry were for all practical purposes wiped off the face of the earth. Both Jesus and James were being prophetic in their teachings.

There’s a simple, very true cliché that Jesus or James could have used: “You can’t take it with you.” And if you can’t take it with you, why would anyone who believes in God pursue wealth with disregard to God? As one Christian commentary notes, such an attitude is the “sin of arrogant presumption.”

Learn to think about the future in the right frame of mind—with the right attitude toward God— and your relationship with wealth and possessions can become much more healthy.

James helps us to achieve the right attitude by giving us another simple phrase to keep in mind, “If the Lord wishes,” as in, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” In the South, we might say, “Lord willin’, I’m gonna do that.”

Similar phrases serve almost as a mantra in other parts of the world. You may have heard that devout Muslims will use the phrase “Insha’Allah” before making plans or beginning events with an uncertain future. Translated, they are saying, “God willing.” Interestingly, it’s not just Muslims who use that phrase. Middle Eastern Christians, for example, Coptic Orthodox Christians, use the exact same phrase, taking James’ advice as they look to the future.

Using such a phrase doesn’t mean they or we are simply surrendering to fate, succumbing to the weak theological notion that God causes every tiny event, good or bad. What they and we are doing is remaining mindful that as followers of Christ, we should make all of our decisions conform with God’s will for this world.

This is where James’ lesson becomes freeing rather than restricting. First, we put our minds in the present, that place I call the precious present because it’s the one place everything is very clear and real. If you’re uncertain about God’s will, you can go to Scripture now to seek God’s truth. You can pray now, staying with God fully until you hear from God. We encounter God in the here and now, when we allow ourselves to do so.

Understanding God, we then can look to the future with a big-picture understanding of what we know God will do. That’s what James is doing when he talks about riches rotting and gold and silver rusting. It’s a metaphor for a time when riches are useless, when there is nothing left but the loving relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ. We may reach it at death; we may reach it when Christ returns. Regardless, the time is coming, and no form of wealth or material possession has a role to play.

When we get our heads around these ideas, it’s not hard to understand how we should handle possessions and wealth. Certainly, God sustains us in this life, giving us what we need. And where we find abundance, we’re called to ask ourselves how God is leading us to use those riches to grow his kingdom.

The concept of tithing, giving 10 percent of our income toward the church’s work to expand Christ’s kingdom, fits into all of this, of course. Tithing has nothing to do with church budgets. As I’ve said before, if Cassidy UMC had a million dollars in the bank, I would still encourage you to tithe because you need to maintain that connection between your financial resources and God’s work.

The same goes for how we allot our time. In particular, I become concerned when I see Christians delaying their involvement in Christ’s work, waiting for the day when the education is out of the way, when the career is where it’s supposed to be, when all is settled and the future seems clear. That day never really comes—one of my regrets is the time I wasted thinking in such ways.

If you’re an investment-oriented person, think of James’ teaching this way: What better return is there than the eternal reward we gain from faith in Christ? And even better, it’s a return we begin to see right away in the changes Christ makes in our hearts.

Action!: A Battle-Scarred Tongue

James 3:1-12

First of all, I want to be sure we remember the primary lesson from last week. We can do nothing to earn salvation; all we can do is believe that Christ’s work on the cross is effective, and then receive salvation as a gift from God.

Christians talk a lot about works and deeds because we expect them as a result of a vibrant faith. The Holy Spirit works inside us, changing us, making us more able to love as Christ has first loved us. These changes should be visible to people around us, serving as a testimony to the new life we’ve taken on.

Our reading from James today asks us to consider how we speak to others. As James notes, “all of us make many mistakes,” and we’re all familiar with what we sometimes call a slip of the lip. For the preacher, the advantage of these verses lies in their ability to make everyone squirm. The disadvantage is the preacher has reason to squirm, too. The problem is universal.

Our tongues reveal much about where we are in our walk with Christ. Unless we have reached a state of true holiness, our words will reveal our flaws. And yet, James isn’t saying, “Oh, well, nobody’s perfect.” Instead, he’s making it clear that we need to do better, that we need to develop a Christian way of speaking to each other and to a hurting world in good times and in bad times.

The Book of James was written in what most people would call bad times, less than 30 years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Not every scholar would agree with me, but I side with the view that the Book of James was written by none other than James the half-brother of Jesus, who was the first leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem.

James wrote this letter during a tumultuous time in Jerusalem. Jewish revolutionaries were fomenting rebellion against the Roman Empire. Class distinctions had become much too evident—the rich had gotten richer and the poor had gotten poorer—and there was a lot of angry talk in the streets, in the temple, and in people’s homes. At the same time, the Jewish religious leaders were becoming increasingly concerned about the Christians among them, a group they considered a heretical sect.

Some time around A.D. 62, Jerusalem was between Roman procurators. (A procurator was a kind of governor, sent by the empire to keep the peace.) The Jewish high priest used this gap in oversight to arrange to have James tried by a Jewish court and executed. Some ancient records indicate James was thrown from the highest point of the temple and then finished off by stoning after the fall did not immediately kill him.

By A.D. 70, the Jews were in full revolt and the Roman army came to crush the rebellion. In the process, the temple and most of Jerusalem were destroyed.

This history is important because it gives us some context for James’ teachings about how we speak to one another. This wasn’t some vague theory James espoused. He was trying to show angry people a better way, a way that he must have hoped would help the people of Jerusalem avoid the disasters that eventually did consume them.

A lot of what James says about speech is very practical. Earlier, in the first chapter of James, we are advised to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, “for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” In many ways, James is simply repeating advice that had been circulating for centuries and still is valid today.

When I worked for a corporation, I had a boss who taught me this principle in regard to e-mail. Thanks to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, and such, we can now quickly lash out at someone while typing. A short-tempered project manager had used e-mail to attack me for something I had not done. I was furious, of course. My wise boss’s advice: Ignore it for 24 hours. “Write the response if you want,” he said, “but don’t hit ‘send’ until you’ve waited a day and considered it.”

I wrote it, and the next day I read my words again. In a calmer frame of mind, I actually deleted my response rather than hitting ‘send.’ I suppose it was the Christian thing to do. It also was a lot of fun because the project manager figured out on his own he had made a mistake, and for months I could see he was very nervous every time he was around me. I wondered what he was thinking: “Did Chuck get the e-mail? Does he know something I don’t? Is he friends with someone higher up the company ladder? WHAT’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN TO ME?”

Okay, maybe I enjoyed that last part in ways that weren’t so Christian. But the calm approach did have practical results, for angry words, whether they come from our tongue or our fingertips, can be a very dangerous thing. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there’s not practical wisdom in the Bible.

A lot of this really is about self-control, isn’t it? Be the calm one. Be the one who speaks softly when others are angry. Control yourself, and you’ll control the situation. Bite your tongue. I preached on the marks of a Christian a few months ago—perhaps we’ve found another mark, a battle-scarred tongue, one that’s been bitten so often you can see the teeth marks.

There’s more to all of this, however, than just practical lessons. James raises the issue of how we speak, and other issues of behavior, so that we can look at ourselves critically and move toward holiness. Our tongue can act like a litmus strip, telling us if we’re out of balance with Christ.

James is saying we’ve got a problem when anything angry or vile comes out of our mouths. We are revealed as being “double-minded,” a term James uses to describe someone who claims to believe one thing but thinks and lives another way.

Here’s a roundup of kinds of problem speech mentioned by James throughout his letter:

1. Bad theology. In particular, in verse 1:13, he says you shouldn’t blame evils like temptation to sin on God. This ties to his admonition that one shouldn’t choose to teach unless he or she is clear about biblical truths.

2. Making distinctions based on worldly criteria. Christ came for all, regardless of where they were born or how much money they have.

3. Speaking empty words. James reminds us that it’s not enough to say kind words to people in need. Words of grace require acts of grace.

4. Speaking negatively of others, particularly of brothers and sisters in the Christian community. (It’s hard, I know. We spend a lot of time with each other.)

5. Speaking of the future as if we’re in control. We don’t think about this one much, but it’s a powerful indicator of whether we’ve really turned our lives over to God.

If you’re feeling convicted about how you’ve used your tongue—I know I am—you may be asking that question the Jews asked after hearing Peter’s sermon at Pentecost: “What should we do?”

Biting your tongue does help, but it’s not a long-term solution. Remember, we cannot work our way into salvation. You could gnaw your tongue off trying to achieve holiness through your own strength. We begin with faith that Jesus saves us, and works proceed from there.

Do those things that grow your faith. Pray. Study your Bible. Be a true disciple of Christ, and not just someone who walks through the door on Sunday morning on a pretty regular basis.

As we open ourselves to God, the Holy Spirit takes greater control of our lives, as we let him. At some point, he finally gets hold of our tongues, and we then have taken great steps toward holiness. Over time, our words even can bring holiness to places where discouragement and despair once ruled.