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.
What is salvation and why does it happen?, they wondered. They knew the conventional answers, but in their hearts they found them lacking. They heard the cries of the people. And they were unsettled by the exclusivity of a church which portrayed the creator as a judgmental God handing out cloud rides. (You must be this righteous to be saved). Is this kind of salvation really going to save them? It was questions like this, in time like that, that led those two preachers kids — John and Charles Wesley — to begin the Methodist movement.
In John and Charles’ day, the theological world battled to answer the question of “which came first: judgement or grace? damnation or re-creation?” You might find the first partner of the these couplets a bit troubling, but it was (and still is) an issue. Is God’s primary motive to judge and damn people? This is what some of the field preachers were saying to those crying “save us” in England.
Piling on to their misery, these preachers said that — from the very beginning — God had pre-judged creation and found all of it wanting … that all people were created devoid of the possibility of redemption and only a few would be chosen by God to be “saved.” They went so far as to say some were created to be saved, and others were created to be damned … specifically to populate hell. To a people who had nothing to hang on to, this was a terrifying prospect. Their very person-hood had been stripped away by the industrial machine, and now their God and divine parent may very well have never cared at all.
The Wesley’s joined with third century theologians who chose to answer that question about God’s primary motive not with damnation, but with love … with the grace found in the narrative arc of scripture. They looked at the book-end poetic prologues of the Genesis creation story and the creation story in John’s gospel … Where light comes into the world and it is GOOD. They looked at how, even in the most draconian moments of Genesis when destruction comes by flood or fire, the aim of God’s work was not to obliterate and punish, but to redeem and make right.
They listened to the future predicted in God’s word to the prophet. Like in Jeremiah, where God says “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” They looked to Jesus, his parables and all who are included; they looked to the parable of the patient father who waits for the ignorant and self-absorbed son to return home.
And, of course, they looked at passages like this one today from the famous (and infamous) third chapter of John’s gospel. “God didn’t send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Damnation wasn’t the motivation of God … the Wesley’s would come to say … re-creation was. This is grace … the powerful gift of love that none of us deserve, yet God chooses to share it lavishly and abundantly with all people. Grace is leading with love. And it has always come before — “preveniently” as the Wesley brothers would say.
It is grace…not judgement…that comes before any human decision or endeavor; it is grace…not judgement…that is at work before we are even aware of it.
This “before” grace is the love of God wooing all of us; it is the will of God drawing all of us, it is the desire of God pursuing all of us; it is the gift of God freeing all of us; it is the activity of God empowering all of us. There is nothing you can do to leave the protection of this grace.
Grace was the inspiration of God to create us. Grace is the invasive force that seeks to reconcile all of us to one another. It is the firmament that covers the life of every person on the earth. And there is nothing that can separate us from it.
In the Wesleyan understanding, Grace is always first and will never be subservient to sin or damnation. “No person is devoid of the grace of God … everyone has a measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens everyone who draws breath. Nobody sins because they don’t have grace. They sin because they don’t live through the grace they have.”
This was revolutionary thought … that the universe orbits around God’s love. And it was like lightning in a bottle in the time the Methodists began. By giving people hope, they grew like a wildfire. It was so revolutionary, in fact, that many believe the grace preached (and lived) by the Methodists prevented a civil war in England between the heads of industry and labor. It was as if they had been awakened from a nightmare to see that, while they were sleeping, God was chipping away at the evil powers that had them gripped with fear.
This is where salvation begins … by God’s leading with love. Eventually, the love that was planted at the beginning will give birth to a new creation in all of us. It will cast out all fear. It will change this life. It is a love that sings like a note struck with infinite sustain … it is a love that will not rest until all have heard it and received it. For God loves the world. That is the verdict and it needs no call for judgement. God loves the world.
And God wants us to live in that love … desiring that we choose to follow the path of discipleship; that we love above all else; that we serve the reign of God in thanksgiving. As you continue the conversation this week, I challenge you to point out the ways the grace of God is becoming more evident and clear in the lives of those around you. I challenge you to be comforted and strengthened by the ways others see grace at work in you, and I challenge us to think of ways we, as a community can be feeding grace to a world that is being consumed by fear and judgement. May you feast on the abundance of God’s presence in the world. Be humbled in the grace you have already been shown. And be hopeful in the truth that God is not finished. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end … a creation fully redeemed. Amen, Amen.