Sunday, June 3, 2012
Holy Covenant UMC
Rev. Matthew Johnson, preaching
I would venture to guess that if you walked down the street today and asked random people to tell you what it meant to be a “Christian,” you would probably end up with a different answer from every person that you asked. “Christian” is a loaded and explosive word in our culture. People who call themselves “Christian” build bridges and while others who do the same blow them up. Some extend helping hands and others throw punches. Some speak with a kindness unmatched and other’s words strike with paralyzing venom.
The lack of commonality in our faith is incredibly frustrating for me. So much of popular faith is built on incendiary words and dogmas. We hear them, and a fire is lit within us or in a ring around us. We hear them and we remember the way they were used to welcome and harm. The way they were used to embrace and exclude.
It is frustrating, so I understand why so many give up on Christianity or never try it at all. I understand why so many become activists and dedicate their lives to a kind of faith that is consistent with the person of Jesus and his redemptive and radical love. And I can understand why so many become confused, and eventually become content to live in a religion of apathy.
For the summer, we are going to do our best to engage these words that are used to describe Christianity … to break down the context around them and give them new focus … a focus sharpened by pulling tight on what God has been doing throughout history and into today.
This will not be easy; there are challenges that come along with this. We must be willing to open our hearts and minds around things we may assume to already understand. Over the coming months, we will share in traditions from the ancient to the post-modern. We will celebrate and argue with parts of our Wesleyan heritage and future. Sometimes, it may make you feel a bit squirmy.
Which is why it is essential to not let what is presented in the worship hour be the end of the conversation. Every week, there will be multiple opportunities for you to engage in structured discipleship conversations. Please take advantage of them, and don’t be afraid to have impromptu ones with your friends as well.
And the biggest challenge this summer will bring, I believe, is that it will ask us to be more intentional about our discipleship … that goes for all of us from those who are just encountering Jesus for the first time today to the cradle-Christians and everyone in between. This will take our practicing what the Spirit does in our midst, our growing it into habit, and our putting that it into action. If we can agree on that as our covenant to one another — openness, continuance and practice — I believe we will be surprised by what happens to us all.
Can we agree to that? To be open, to continue the conversation, and to practice with intentionality?
With that out of the way, we begin today with a passage from scripture that is loaded with many of these incendiary words and dogmas. There probably isn’t a chapter of scripture that is full of more of them than the third in John’s gospel. “Born Again,” “Judgement,” “Salvation,” “Belief,” “Everlasting Life.” “For God so loved the world…”
This chapter of John has long been used to prove an exclusive faith. That a certain brand of belief in Jesus qualifies or earns one a trip on a fluffy silver cloud to an other-worldly heaven with streets of gold and devoid of all those heathens we can’t stand. It has been used to say that salvation is something that happens when you confess the name of Jesus as the name above all names. It has been used to reinforce the ideas of a burning hellfire; to deny that God can be at work in other faiths.
But what if we look at it through a different lens?
I want you to imagine a world with me for a moment. In this world, factories are closing, leaving for more profitable locations and taking the jobs with them; In this world, substandard wages and depressing conditions lead to a dramatic increase of addictions to alcohol, drugs and gambling. Both parents in a house are forced to work, leaving children to fend for themselves. Many of those kids roam the streets and fall into lives of crime. Entire populations are displaced. The jails are filled with minorities and the poor; widows and orphans rely on handouts to make it through the day. Unemployment is at an all-time high, and homelessness is on the rise. “Someone save us!” cry the people. “Someone liberate us from this world of oppression!”
This, of course, is not an imaginary world I am describing. It is our nation in the early 2000s. And it is England in the early 1700s. A visit there may give us a different way to see John’s gospel. Because on a trip there, we would find couple of preachers’ kids were struggling with this same thing. (more…)