scripture

Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.

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The Otherwordly Life

Colossians 2:6-15

Words matter.

A little over four months ago, I stood on the dais of Luminary UMC and used words to join in marriage my oldest child, Pollie, to a young man named Derick. I said some words, they said some words, and their lives were irrevocably transformed, so much so that my daughter now uses the word “Morelock” for her last name instead of “Griffin.”

Pollie and Derick will grow and change, but they can never deny that on March 19, 2016, she began to call Derick “husband” and he began to call her “wife,” bound in a Christian relationship intended to last as long as they both shall live.

Words have great power. Two of the Ten Commandments deal directly with how we use words, one prohibiting the vain use of the Lord’s name and the other prohibiting deceitful words in our dealings with each other. And then there are the words of life, the words that save us from the power of sin, the words putting us in a relationship with Christ forever.

Those of you who are baptized Christians likely answered three questions as part of your faith walk. Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? In the Methodist baptism liturgy, the answers are in the form of the Apostles’ Creed, rooted in truths “contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”

Those answers open you to God’s grace, poured out through Jesus Christ on the cross. Modern medicine doesn’t give eternal life; there is no pill you can swallow and live forever. There is no fountain of youth in Florida—with so many of you vacationing there, I’m sure we would have found it by now. When it comes to living beyond the grave, the world has failed you. Only Christ can save you.

I speak to two groups today, those who call themselves Christian and those who would consider taking on the name. Understand the serious nature of declaring Jesus Christ is Lord. I offer you the same message Paul sent to the church in Colossae in our reading for today. When we call ourselves “Christian,” everything is supposed to change.

This careful, deliberate use of words brings on more than just a shift in worldview. We are to develop an otherworldly view. We escape the ideas of this world, the emphases of this world.

No doubt, it is difficult to make that separation. The Colossians were struggling with the influences of the world around them. They had legalists in their midst. They also had temptations very familiar to us today. Improper sexual desires and greed are specifically listed in Paul’s letter. The world beckoned to them just as it calls us.

Hey, I know how the world comes calling. With digital technology, it walks right into your house and plops down to stay like a friendly dog. I particularly love a story well-told in 30 minutes to an hour. And yet, when I pause to consider the ideas behind some of what I watch, I’m astonished at how out-of-tune the premises and storylines are with what I believe as a Christian. I am constantly challenged to be “in the world and not of it,” to paraphrase John 17:14-15.

But be encouraged. The same media that deliver what can challenge us also offer a continual stream of otherworldliness. We have God’s word available to us in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago. I can read God’s word in paper form, of course. I also can read it on my computer or my Kindle, parsing the words and studying centuries worth of analysis just by touching a screen.

I can have someone read me the recorded word or watch video depictions of important books of the Bible. What a gift digital audio and video represent for people who struggle to read or simply need a little extra stimulation to stay engaged. In medieval times, such people (often, most of the population) had to rely on a preacher and some stained glass. Now the stained glass moves and talks.

Scripture is so ubiquitous we can forget what it represents. We have thousands of years of  encounters with God laid out for us, each one revealing a truth about our creator and his love for us, his plan for us. If we didn’t know such writings existed and then suddenly, we found them, billions would clamor to know what truths they contained.

If you call yourself Christian but don’t know what is in those writings, you owe yourself a lot of otherworldly study time, the kind that will “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

A Truthsayer’s Respite

We’ve heard two stories about the Prophet Elijah, both making clear the tremendous power God showed through this truthsayer. At a word, Elijah could make it rain or not rain. With an intense prayer, he could save the life of a young boy. The prophet even could call down fire from the sky, vanquishing enemy priests in the process.

In 1 Kings 19:1-15, we see the difficult side of engaging with God in such direct ways. We are reminded how human even the most faithful of us are, and how patient God is. Take time to read the story, please, before you go further.

So, what happened to Elijah? How can a man working so confidently on God’s behalf suddenly collapse into a catatonic mess?

We get no explanation from the story, or at least no direct answer. Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life—old news, really—and suddenly he was full of fear and fleeing into the wilderness. I think the answer is simple however, and familiar to anyone who has ever tried to do the Lord’s work.

Elijah simply was tired. Dog tired. Worn out. Driven by love for God and his people, the prophet had pushed himself to a physical and emotional breaking point, and then he broke. He needed a rest. Win or lose, battling evil is exhausting.

The beauty in the story is how God, through his angels, met Elijah in his need. There is a sense of urgency that the prophet “get back in the game,” so to speak, but God also had a deep desire to care for this man who had given so much. The food Elijah initially received was enough to propel him 40 days deeper into the wilderness.

To go on with his calling, the now-complaining Elijah had to encounter God directly. Not only that, he had to still himself, center himself, and calm himself enough to remember that God only occasionally chooses to speak through fire falling from the sky. God’s usual way of communicating is still and soft. You have to wait for his voice, even strain to hear it.

Are you starting to hear the lesson? All of us who take on Christian identity will find ourselves called to serve the kingdom in some particular way. Let me go ahead and tell you the tough news now. Life won’t get easier when you try to do God’s work. Life will get harder.

Evil will threaten you and try to deter you. And yes, you will get tired.

There is heavenly food and water galore, however. Don’t struggle and strain and then nearly die of spiritual starvation before consuming it.

There is God’s word. You know whether you’re in the Bible. I know whether I’m in it. Get in it. Get in it in Sunday school. Get in it in a small group in someone’s home. Dig into it in your private time. Devour it. Let God’s revelation of his truth lift you up and carry you along.

There is prayer. You don’t have to rattle on all day, working your way through mental lists of people and situations. It is good and important to pray for others, but I’m talking about developing the kind of prayer time where you connect, the kind where you breathe so God’s whispered response moves to the depth of your soul.

There is the ekklesia, the gathering of believers, the church. Perhaps Elijah’s greatest problem was loneliness. As he complained, he kept going back to that theme: I alone am left, I alone am left. You are not alone, not ever, for Christ has come and left us with his Holy Spirit to gather us, bind us, and help us work together as a church.

Lord, grant us great strength and energy as we work in your name. Elijah moved his people toward renewed holiness and understanding of God. Help us to do the same as we join in your renewing work made possible by Jesus Christ. May we complete with joy the journey to the great city, the eternal life you have promised your followers.


The featured image is “Elijah and the Angel,” 1898, Providence Lithograph Company.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in an indestructible state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transforming, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be relieved by an inner experience of God. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something more than the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.