When God Breathes – 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Meet Father Roland E. Murphy. He taught at Duke Divinity School when I was a student there. I took one class with him that I will never forget. It was his last class as he was set to retire after that year. He was a renown Biblical scholar, having collaborated on the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

Near the end of the semester, a student asked, “Father Murphy, why don’t you get a new Bible. That one looks kind of ragged.”

With his 6’7” frame, arms that were at least half that, with his booming voice, he reached over the lectern and shook his ragged old Bible, “You ought to pray your Bible looks like mine one day!” Then he just let out a big belly-laugh. But we knew he was serious.

I have a Bible like that that I am proud of. Mark through Acts is liable to fall out at any time. The cover has been reattached with duct tape. I wrote “BIBLE” down the spine in Sharpie. I thank God every day that I have been able to accomplish Father Murphy’s goal. This Bible is worn out from study.

But I still am not a master of Scripture. Not even close! The Bible is more complex and deeper than any book ever written.

It is misleading to even call the Bible a “book.” It is a library of books. It is poetry. It is history. It is a law book. It is theology (“God talk”). There are places where me must remember to read poetry as poetry and not history, for example.

We Christians have become fond of saying that the Bible is “the word of God,” that it is “inspired by God.” We say that – but aren’t really clear what it means.

Let’s go right to the source – 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. (CEB)

What does “Inspired” mean? Literally, it means to “breathe into.” Webster’s Dictionary says:

  • to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on
  • to influence, move, or guide
  • to draw forth or bring out

Typically, when a word appears in Scripture whose meaning is vague or varied, we look to other parts of Scripture where the word is used. This is especially helpful because the language of Scripture is ancient and obscure.

We might say, “We’re not sure what Paul meant here, let’s see what he might have meant somewhere else.” We usually learn the meaning of new words with contextual clues and the word’s development across uses in many other places. In this case, there are no other uses!

2 Timothy 3:16 is the only place that particular word is used. No additional clues are available. So, we creative humans have come up with a variety of possibilities:

  • That God composed to Bible “word for word.” (In English, that might be “All Scripture is composed by God,” or “dictated by God.” If so, what do you suppose Luke meant in chapter 1 when he told his reader, Theophilus, that he had “investigated everything carefully” and “decided to write a carefully ordered account” of the life of Jesus? That sounds like after-the-fact research, not divine dictation.)
  • That the Bible is completely without error, true and accurate in all matters – theology, science, history, everything! (I’m standing in a church full of “rocket scientists.” Do we actually take Joshua 10 literally when it says “the sun stood still”? Did the sun stand still? I thought it was already still and it was the earth that was moving. What would happen in that case? We’d burn up? Freeze to death on the “dark side” of the earth?)
  • If you’ve ever read the King James Bible, you might notice that there are no paragraphs like in normal writing. Every verse stands on an equal footing with all other verses. One of the variations of “inspired” has lead us to believe that all verses are as important as any other.
    • But – is the genealogy (the “begats”) of Matthew 1 as spiritually important as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?
    • Are the lists of tribes and family members from the book of Numbers as inspiring as the description Jesus’ birth in Luke 2?

There is always room for interpretation when the original meaning is unclear. We cannot know precisely what Paul meant when he said, “All scripture is inspired by God . . .”, but we can make some educated guesses or guided interpretations.

What does Paul mean when he says “All scripture?” Remember that, when Paul wrote, Scripture meant something different than it does for us. He would have been referring to the scrolls and documents that were revered by the Jewish and early Christian people. Its unlikely he was referring to the Gospels as we know them, his letters, and even other books of the Old Testament.

Did he mean every single word written therein? Or just the concepts? The ideas? It is unclear and requires some interpretation.

The Greek word he writes in that sentence is theopneustos:

  • Theo – meaning “God”
  • Pneo – “to breathe out” or “to blow”

Scholars think Paul just made up a word out of two other words to say what he wanted to say. It could mean something like “God-breathed,” or “God-exhaled.” Unless the pneo referred to the Greek word pneuma which means “spirit.” Then, he could have meant something like “God-spirited.”

I think it is the height of idolatry to suggest we know everything there is to know about the Bible. Because, every time we claim such, we find that God surprises us again! Any time someone tells you they know what this word means, they are giving you an interpretation – even me!

One thing is clear. Paul created a metaphor to describe how God is present in Scripture.

So, lets interpret that metaphor. Could it be that Paul is referring to the moment when God breathed life into humanity? Genesis 2:7 says that God, “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life.” When God breathes, even common clay becomes fully animated.

Was Paul suggesting that when God breathes on the human words of Scripture, they become alive? Fully active, useful for “teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good?”

Could he mean that it is God’s living presence breathing life into Scripture every time we open the book?

Scott Barry Kaufman; Harvard Business Review:

“Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities.”

And could it be that even today, when the living, eternally active God meets us in Scripture, the words come to life and inspire us? Propel us from apathy to possibility? Albeit differently than they inspired our ancestors? Differently than the person next to us, because God has made us all infinitely beautiful and different? Thereby approach Scripture with different eyes? Different lives? Different experiences?

When God breathes, it inspires even the words on a page to transform us.

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says the Scriptures are our “primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine”; that “Scripture is primary,” that it “reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation,” and “containeth all things necessary to salvation.”  (paragraph 104 and 105).

So, when we wish to more fully understand what  Scripture is saying about God, we have other sources to which we can turn;

  • Tradition – the work scholars and theologians, creeds, doctrine, sermons – we are not the first to ever try to understand scripture. There has been thousands of years of tradition.
  • Reason – We employ the disciplines of history, geography, archeology, science, biology to help us understand. God gave us brains to use!
  • Experience – what is the Spirit saying in our lives, right now.

AdamHamilton describes these criteria as “colander” that holds the important things while the undesirable are washed away.

Let’s add another criterion – Jesus, the definitive, “Capital W” Word of God. When we come up with a question, perhaps the answer is found in the heart and character of God revealed by Jesus Christ.

Example: the laws in the book of Leviticus command that “the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, . . . she shall be burned to death.” Yet, many places in the Gospels show Jesus forgiving, defending, or befriending a prostitute (see Luke 7:36-50). When there is this kind of inconsistency, we hold on to the witness of Jesus.    

Let me recommend a book to you: Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. This sermon is largely indebted to his discussions in chapters 14-18.

In a similar blog post about the phrase “The Bible says it and I believe it”, Hamilton says:

While Paul teaches us that the Bible was inspired by God, the biblical authors were not mindless writers, simply taking dictation. They were human beings, writing in particular times and places, and for particular purposes. We see their personalities in their writings. We recognize their differing writing styles and vocabularies. Their life experiences and their historical context shaped their faith, theology, and ethics.

Wesleyan Politics

This was written before the election. Thanks to the one person who asked me to post it, here it is!

I have these three friends that are all the same but different:

  • There’s me – an Alabama fan and a Democrat
  • Scott – an Auburn fan and a Democrat
  • Charlie – an Alabama fan and a Republican
  • Jeff – an Auburn fan and a Republican

How can we still be friends? During football season we joke with each other on Facebook – Jeff or Scott usually posts some meme making fun of Alabama, or Nick Saban, Charlie replies with one about Auburn, I chime in . . . and so it goes.

Scott and Charlie argue politics all the time. Scott can’t resist getting in any dig at any time! Jeff is a City Councilman in his hometown and a life-long United Methodist Lay person, so he and I share many mutual friends in the ministry. How can we still be friends, when so many people with as many opposites as us cannot carry on a civil conversation?

Because we have something bigger that binds us together: time, friendship, history, love.

wesleybros.com

That comic strip “The Wesley Bros.” reminds us of an uncomfortable truth of 2020 life: Christians find it hard to talk about certain subjects, like politics, because sometimes, our assumptions hurt more than our words! When did it get this way?

I’ve probably already said a couple of words that made some of you stop listening – “Democrat,” and “Republican.” How did you feel when I said those words? Think for minute. Tense? Anxious? Uncomfortable? Did you turn on any “filters” in your head as to what I might say next?

I’m going to go ahead and say a few more, just to get them out of the way. Let me make it very clear, this sermon is not about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, or Kamala Harris. Take a deep breath. This sermon is about the bonds that Christians ought to have that are bigger than any political party or ideological allegiance.

Wesley was no stranger to political involvement. He was a long-time abolitionist. He spoke out against the injustices in his English society. Recently, around our Presidential election, one of his quotes has become known:

“October 6, 1774
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

Consider the time – in 1774, the Revolutionary War was raging in “the Colonies.” King George was in the palace. Not everyone had a vote. This was not the Democracy that we know in America where all eligible adults can vote. House of Lords, House of Commons, all had different constituencies.

(In case you’re wondering: Prime Minister Lord Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, and his party defeated the Whigs and Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, rather handily in 1774.)

In one of Wesley’s most famous – and still most used – writings, The General Rules, he begins with “Do no harm.” Refraining from harm is even more important than doing good. (That’s #2) If we do harm, or “speak evil” any good we might do afterward will be tainted. Let’s be honest -people remember the bad things we do much longer than the good. If we are harmful people, then our good will be “cancelled out.” Refraining from harm is more important – “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.”

The journal entry from 1774 regarded “those in our society.” That means the people that were part of the Methodist movement, who attended Methodist Society meetings. Wesley knew, his people knew, that they had a bond that was larger than any political perspective. It was larger than any class (upper class voting for House of Lords, lower for House of Commons, lowest no vote at all). Their respect for one another was based on a spiritual bond.

Recently, a group of UMC Bishops in the United States released a statement that echoes that thought. They remind us that both our church and our nation are democratic institutions. “The right to vote,” these Bishops say, “is rooted in a commitment to the value of all persons, created in the image of God as individuals of sacred worth.”

As Christians and United Methodists, we must not do anything to undermine the people’s confidence that voting matters.

“It is incumbent upon those who participate in democratic processes not only to ensure each citizen’s right to cast their ballot, but to respect the result of those ballots once counted. When we resist this aspect of our democratic franchise, we undermine the whole and corrupt the foundation of our republic.”

Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple in the 20th century, said, “If we choose wisely, God reigns.  If we fail to choose wisely, God reigns.”

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church affirm that we “hold governments responsible for the protection of the rights of the people to free and fair elections.”

We United Methodists have always had a stance on such issues. For some reason, maybe fear, maybe just plain ol’ manners (never discuss politics or religion at dinner), we’d rather not talk about it.

Wesley’s 1774 journal entry still resounds in our modern church as we are reminded of the importance of elections, exhorted to treat each other with respect, and respect the differences found among the children of God.

Diana Butler Bass, in her blog, “The Cottage,” says, “We need a new story of American faith — what it means to be a citizen, to love the land we inhabit together, and to treat one another with grace and dignity.”

Ephesians 6:10-17 – The Whole Armor of God

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[c] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

When Paul wrote this, it was not the first time in history evil had taken root, and he knew it would not be the last. Fast forward to today, and we understand as Paul did that we are perhaps living in such a time. His words are our blueprint for action, in general and particularly in the days leading up to the election.

  • First, Paul makes it clear that “we aren’t fighting against human beings.” When we choose a political side, WE ARE NOT FIGHTING AGAINST EACH OTHER. We are advocating for a point-of-view – an important point-of-view, a point-of-view that makes a difference – but a point-of-view is not our brother or sister. If we miss this, our actions will not be Christian.
  • we fight “against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.” Richard Rohr, “Evil is a societal darkness, a pre-existing condition (Is that “one of those words?” Breathe.), a mindset that precedes any of our individual expressions. It soaks into us in a variety of ways. By whatever interpretation, evil is real and active, using systems and groups as its instruments.”
  • Rohr rightly notes that evil masquerades as goodness.
  • In our Baptism vows, we are called to resist…. “evil in whatever forms it presents itself.” Resist the evil without harming our brother or sister.

Paul uses the garb of the Roman soldier to teach us further:

  • Sometimes we hear, “Things have been bad before. They will get better. They always do.”  This way of thinking uses history as a way to justify “keeping quiet” and not “rocking the boat.” It is a mantra that breeds passivity. Often, things only get better when people speak and act to make them so—when they labor to overcome evil with good.
  • To voice this second phrase is to insult the saints who have rolled up their sleeves and given their lives to resist evil. Instead of being passive, we must say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In such times, we put on the full armor of God.
  • Paul reveals that the power to overcome evil with good is grace. Every item of the soldier’s gear was provided to them; it did not arise from them. They are able to fight because they have been given the means to do so.

In the ensuing Wesleyan tradition, the grace to resist (using the contemplation/action combo) came to be described as the works of piety and the works of mercy.  

Means of Grace

The works of piety form our character; the works of mercy shape our conduct. Taken together, they provide the grace to resist evil and overcome it with good.

Looking at our public, Christian expressions like this reframes the whole matter of social justice. It is never protest for the sake of protest, but a public act of justice, directed toward God, not aimed to “take down” our brother or sister.

What if this were to become our “new story of American faith?” Instead being a story of destructive in-fighting, our story became one of making visible the justice of God?

  • Spend time in prayer, not only reflecting on whom you should vote for but also asking God to guide your words, attitudes, and actions toward those with whom you disagree.
  • Reflect on the candidates you will be voting for. Are these candidates “most worthy”? If so, why? How has your faith informed your decisions?
  • Think about the candidates you won’t be voting for. Reflect on these candidates’ good qualities and reasons why other people consider them “most worthy.” Don’t assume the worst about opposing candidates and their supporters.
  • Resist any urges to write nasty, anonymous comments about opposing candidates on the Internet. And, if your candidate loses, don’t write ridiculous things like “This is the end of America as we know it” or accuse the winning party of cheating.
  • Pray for the well-being of the nation and the world, regardless of which candidates emerge victorious on November 6 (or after long, painful recounts).

Remember that your president, governor, senator, congressperson, state representatives, etc. represent you, regardless of whether you voted for them. Let these people know what issues matter to you and why. Work with these elected officials for the benefit of all people, and particularly those whom Jesus called the “least of these.”

Easter at Home

I’m 56 years old. I’ve probably celebrated Easter in a church for 55 of those years. I figure, somewhere along the line, I had to miss one. For 33 of those 55 Easters, I’ve been leading worship in one form or another. In public, in front of hundreds of people. Not today.

April 12, 2020. Easter at home. Not by choice but by necessity.

I just watched my church’s online worship service. Aside from the strange feeling of watching yourself talk to yourself on a computer screen, I was moved to tears. Each of us who would normally be in front of a gathering, did their part from their home. Through the magic of video, it was edited into a coherent whole. Butterflies flew. Candles were lit. Guitars played. A sermon was preached. Scripture was read. Prayers were said. A virtual choir (little individual pictures of people singing and playing brass instrument) ended to service with that familiar “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

I can’t believe it, but I finished the service with a lump in my throat. A lump of longing. I long to be back together – singing, worshiping, hugging, praying!

This Easter morning I feel like one of those early disciples. They were apart. They were sequestered in the upper room. They didn’t know if they’d ever celebrate again. Then . . .

A voice. Mary, one of them, breathlessly panting, “Somebody took his body!” Peter, always Peter, must have cursed, “What now? Could this day get any worse?!?” It wasn’t until he and John arrived at the tomb that the evidence convinced them of the opposite – this day could not get any better!

I awoke this morning to storm warnings and messed up Facebook videos (ask me about the valiant attempt at a Sunrise Service and how Facebook creepily knows what is playing and who owns 58 seconds of out of 90 minutes of video). Could this day get any worse?

Then, a voice. Some music. Some butterflies. By the end, I had seen the evidence of resurrection. Through it all, in spite of all difficulty, this day could not get any better!!

Thank you, church!

You Never Forget Your First Easter

I guess that all good preachers remember their first Easter at a new church. For me, though, they all run together. That Sunrise Service where it was so cold I had to play guitar with numb fingers? Could have been Carbon Hill, could have been Reform. The time I got a phone call complaining that our Sunrise Service was a pagan celebration because we were worshiping the sun? Definitely Carbon Hill. You don’t forget something that unusual.

Plus, I have Belinda’s services in my memory, too. When was it she got the real donkey to come to church? Or was that Christmas? It all runs together.

But, I will never forget my first Easter at Aldersgate.

Sure, Coronavirus, quarantine, and all that stuff . . .

The real reason I will never forget this Easter? This is the first Easter when I have spent Lent truly pondering what is essential to my faith. Not just “ponder,” I lived it! I’ve come to realize what is absolutely necessary – while I was giving it up. That’s a first for me.

I don’t like to deny myself any pleasure. Family members have been much more into self-denial during Lent (soft drinks, sweets, etc.). I tried to add disciplines to my life, like letter writing, more scripture reading. During this season of Lent, I have been forced to give up what is most important to me.

I imagine that in 2021, someone will ask, “What did you give up for Lent last year?”  Where in the world would I begin?

  • Gathering weekly with my fellow believers and singing hymns and songs of praise.
  • The rush of adrenaline I feel when I stand up to preach
  • Hugging, shaking hands, real connection – computer screens will have to do, I guess. For now.
  • HOLY COMMUNION!

Lord, let me never take those things for granted again.

I know how the disciples felt while Jesus was in the tomb. Those three days must have felt like an eternity. I don’t know how long all of my essentials will be “in the tomb,” but on the day when they spring forth anew – what an Easter that will be!

I will definitely never forget my first Easter at Aldersgate – when we all gather together once again and laugh and hug and pray live and in person!

24/7 Discipleship

If someone were to tell you they were a football fan, how would you know?

  • They would likely know something about the sport, understand certain terms, have a favorite team or player that they like.
  • They might wear certain clothes – a t-shirt, hat, jersey – of their favorite team.
  • They would watch football games whenever they could, even attend those games in person.

If they said they were a fan, but didn’t show any evidence of that fact, we would doubt their word. We might even call them a liar.

If someone were to tell you they were a Christian, how would you know? Some of the evidence might be similar:

  • They would likely know something about the faith, understand certain terms, have a favorite church.
  • They might wear certain clothes – t-shirts or a hat – that expresses something about their belief. Depending on the particular form of Christianity they claim, they might even have certain styles of dress that are required of them.
  • They might even attend worship services, or church gatherings, whenever they can, even watching some on TV or the internet.

If they claimed to be a Christian, but showed no evidence of that claim, we might doubt their claim. We might even call them a liar.

How do we – the church – know who we are when we cannot do the things we are accustomed to doing? “I’m a Christian because I go to church every Sunday!” Not this week! Not next week, not Easter. How will people know I’m a Christian?!?

We can’t go to church but we can still be the church!

Through all this COVID-chaos, we are learning what Christians have known since the beginnings of the movement. Christians were first called people of “the Way” (see Acts 9:1-2). You know when scripture first calls them that? When we learn that Saul was chasing them down to arrest them. Even under great persecution, those who believed in Christ had a distinct way of life.

How do folks know we are Christians if we can’t do the things we normally do to show our faith?

In a time of limited activity, limited connection, the way we perform those small acts of connection matter tremendously. The qualities of faith, hope, and love become even more important than they were pre-COVID.

I do not know when this will end; but, I do know that whatever I am able to do amid this isolation – walking around my neighborhood, conducting Zoom meetings with my congregation, patronizing a local restaurant by ordering take-out, handing out food at my church, or taping a worship service to be broadcast later – I will do everything with an extra dose of faith, hope, and love.

A New World?

I just watched Aldersgate’s first online worship service. Life in the times of COVID-19! As the clock counted down, I was as nervous as I have ever been; my knees were bouncing as I was poised over the laptop to reply to comments. We taped it on Thursday (3 days ago – interestingly symbolic at almost-Easter time), so I knew how it went. But still, technology is technology and sometimes glitches.

A quick scroll down Facebook when it was all over showed me TONS of people doing the same. Big churches, small churches, praise bands, and preachers alone in front of their phones. God help us as we try to stay connected while our bodies can’t be in the same room!

I’ve heard lots of people predict that things will never be the same after this experience. I think they’re right. Once we realize the power of social media worship, will we ever go back? Our service connected to 983 people, according to Facebook. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds pretty wonderful! We “talked” during church. We offered prayer requests and commented on the sermon. Nobody looked disapprovingly and shushed us.

The first time we are all together again, I hope we value the time so much more! I can’t wait for the next time I get to hug someone. I’ll never take it for granted again.

Here is the link to the service – CLICK HERE

It is also on our YouTube channel

Keep talking. Keep connecting. We will survive! I love you all!

In Honor of Aldersgate Sunday

I wrote this in May of 2019, but never posted. I knew that I was moving to Aldersgate UMC. What I didn’t know was how appropriate the message of peace would be almost a year later.

The year, 1736. The place was Oxford University. John Wesley and his brother Charles left England for “The Colonies;” Governor James Oglethorpe needed religion in Georgia. Being loyal members of the Church of England, the Wesley brothers answered the call. Truth be known, they might have been tiring of their routine. John, Charles, and their friends were so rigorously devout, so bound by routine, that others had taken to derisively calling their little group “Methodists.”

For whatever reason (Why is it that young men seek adventure?), the two felt called to the frontier of Savannah, Georgia. Imagine the 4,000 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Benjamin Franklin reportedly made the trip in six weeks, while it took the Mayflower two months (over a hundred years earlier). The Wesleys were not likely to be first class passengers. It was not a luxurious passage. Rough seas, seasickness, disease, bad food, all were possibilities.

As was common in such a long voyage, a storm hit. It was so strong that the decks flooded and the main sail ripped. The English passengers, John and Charles included were terrified. John writes in his journal:

“At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before. At seven I went to the [Moravians].

During the voyage, Wesley had noticed their humility. They would do jobs no one else would do, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts . . . Their loving Savior had done more for them.” As the storm raged, Wesley says he was curious to see if they dealt with fear as well as they dealt with pride. He continued:

“In the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The [Moravians] calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”

Wesley concludes:

“I went to their crying, trembling neighbors, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not.”

When his life felt threatened, Wesley’s faith was found wanting; yet, he found faithful men and women who were not afraid. These Moravians knew how to survive a storm that threatened their bodies and their souls. It is a lesson that John would need to remember during his professional struggles in Savannah and his spiritual struggles when he got home.

Today’s scripture was spoken by Jesus to the disciples in the Upper Room, where they spent their last hours together. Their storm was about to begin. Jesus knew that. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus spoke those famous words that we hear at so many funerals – “Do not be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions . . .”

He follows that up with the equally famous, “I am the way, the truth, the life . . .” Through all the chapters of 13 – 17, Jesus clearly states that he is leaving. He is equally clear that he “will not leave them as orphans,” that God, the Father, will be sending the Holy Spirit, The Companion, the Advocate, to be with his followers.

Jesus knew that his twelve disciples would not be able to weather the storm alone. The Holy Spirit would help them. During the coming storm, they would need Jesus’ presence and peace most of all.

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home (abide) with them.24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled (worried) or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.

In Jesus’ absence, the disciples will feel his presence. How’s that for a contradiction? They will feel Jesus beside them because the Spirit will be near.

That happens when we love Jesus; and when we love him, we keep Christ’s commands. We usually boil all his commands down to two: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. In chapter 13 (just a few “minutes” earlier), Jesus makes it even simpler:

“I give you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

It’s easy to love Jesus. The picture we have of him is holy and kind and loving. It’s easy to love God – big, gentle God up in heaven, made the world, all that stuff. But loving the mean, nasty, smelly, argumentative, conceited, judgmental loser sitting next to you? See what I mean?

But, if we love Jesus (really love him, not just “saying words”), we will do what he tells us to do. What he tells us to do is LOVE EACH OTHER. When we do that, Jesus will “make his home” with us. Some translations say “abide with us.” In The Message, Jesus says, “we’ll move right in to the neighborhood!”

How do we feel Jesus’ presence in the midst of chaos and turmoil? We keep his commandments. We love one another.

Take Wesley’s example. He knew that these Moravians had something that he needed. They sang Psalms while the mainsail shredded and the boat was swamped. Rather than laugh, rather than act tough, rather than act like he didn’t need anybody of anything, he went to them, during the storm. He reached out to strangers, people who were different, who might have more faith than he did.

When we get bounced around by life’s winds, reach out! Too many of us isolate ourselves when trouble comes. We don’t want people to know and think we are weak. We pretend there is no problem, that we can handle it. What if we can’t? What if someone else has the answer? The arms to open in welcome? What if you don’t have to be alone?

Christ commands us to love one another. We should even do so when there is chaos all around us. When we love one another is when we feel the presence of Christ, abiding, living with us!

We have divine help. The Holy Spirit, the Companion, will teach us and remind us when we forget. Don’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit. In my experience, the Spirit has whispered Jesus’ words in my ear at just the moment I need them the most. The Spirit might make me cry, but they have always been tears of Joy.

Stereotypes would relegate the work of the Holy Spirit to people “speaking in tongues,” or dancing some ecstatic dance in a worship service. For me, the Spirit has been more like Jesus’ loving arm around my shoulder. That’s how we feel Jesus’ presence when he is absent.

Along with his presence, Jesus brings peace to our storms. Peace, “not as the world gives,” but a peace straight from Jesus. By “peace that the world gives,” Jesus meant the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Rome created peace by enforcing order. Under Roman rule, life was peaceful because any behavior other than total compliance was punished! They were afraid to do anything else!

The peace of which Jesus speaks does not mean the absence of conflict or suffering. It didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Twelve; it certainly doesn’t mean that for us. The peace of which he speaks wells up from within, and will go with us in any situation.

Wesley never forgot his experience with the Moravians. They seemed to enjoy the peace that Jesus gave, but he didn’t! After returning to London as a failed missionary, he confessed his doubts to Peter Bohler, a Moravian leader. On March 4, 1738, Wesley records that he had considered leaving the ministry and even doubted his own salvation. Bohler encouraged him to continue.

A little over two month later, on May 24, 1738, at 8:45 in the evening, Wesley discovered the peace that only Christ can give:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Storms will occur. Turmoil comes. Change must happen if we are to live. Knowing and Loving Christ, following his commandments, leads to a never-ending presence and an ever-lasting peace. I pray we all feel such presence and peace in the coming weeks and months.

How Will They Know? – John 13 and 17

God is at work in our lives before we even realize it. God has placed a longing for the eternal in each of us – a longing for meaning, for answers, for a way to “make sense” of this world. 

This is true for all of us, because we are God’s children – just because we are blind or deaf to God’s work in our lives, doesn’t mean he is absent!  

Everyone, whether they know it or not, is waiting to hear more about God. We all need a spiritual dimension to our life to be whole. Some people may only understand “God” as “something more to life,” or “some unknown force in the universe” or a vague feeling that they are “a religious kind-of-person.” According to UMC.org, about 32% of people seeking deeper meaning in life are looking for a welcoming church. 

That means every third person who is looking for meaning in life will find it in a church with open, and welcoming arms.  

People are looking for God (God is placing that need within them – if they realize it or not). People don’t know God until they see Jesus; people don’t see Jesus until they see him in us! 

Guess what? Jesus knew this. He taught this when he had “saved the best for last” in the gospel of John.  

In his last hours with his disciples, he showed them humility and service by washing their feet. He warned them of the troubles that were about to come – through the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Then he said to his disciples, his. closest friends: 

34 I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35) 

How will people know disciples of Jesus are indeed disciples of Jesus? How will people know they have found the answers they seek? How will they know it is Jesus that provides those answers?  

By watching us love each other.  

Some church leaders, teachers, or preachers may favor outreach over “inside the walls” relationships, but if we – within these walls – don’t love one another, then no one is ever going to believe we love Jesus. And they’ll never believe Jesus loves them, if they don’t see it in us! 

 Relationships are built as we express God’s grace by accepting all people (because God loves them) and inviting them to discover the fullness of God’s love for themselves. 

This is more than just “getting along” with each other; more than just “liking each other,” or “being happy where we are.” This kind of relationship takes work – prayerful work! We pray for the grace to accept and invite; we pray that when people accept our invitation, they see Jesus among our relationships with one another.  

Jesus prayed for that, too, in his last meal with the disciples (John 17:20-23): 

“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 

Jesus prays that we (the ones who believe because of the words of the disciples in that room): 

  • will be one – just as he and God are one.
  • Will be “in us” – that our closeness with God will grow, and become Jesus’ closeness to his Father; with the goal of “being one as they are one.”
  • Will, by our unity with God and one another, show the world that God loves them just as he loves his own Son.  

Phil Maynard, in his book Shift: Helping Congregations Back into the Game of Effective Ministry, lists three specific ways that our relationships can help people know Jesus.  

Forgiveness: we can’t go through life without messing it up from time to time. We hurt others. We get hurt b others. How do we respond when we get hurt? How do we respond when we do the hurting? 

When others hurt him, Jesus responded with forgiveness. Daily, he was persecuted. Daily, he forgave that persecution and kept going. He held no grudges. Can we say that about our relationships?  

The very last earthly thing he did for us was to forgive. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  

We are constantly challenged with opportunities to forgive. Yet, many times we allow hurt to fester. Little slights grow into relationship-destroying barriers. One of the ways sin works in our lives is to cause us to ruminate on small hurts, hurts that might be a result of miscommunication or mistake. We add other hurts to it, ascribing conspiracies where there are none. Have you ever had a problem arise in one relationship and start to look at everybody suspiciously? Assume that they’re all “talking about you,” that the first person has “turned them all against me!”? 

Don’t let the little slights destroy relationships.  

There are bigger injuries that take long, arduous work to forgive. I am, by no means, insinuating that we need to ignore abuse. God doesn’t want any of us to suffer like that. Some relationships need to end for the health and safety of one, or both, partners. But most of our relationships get torn apart by the little things.  

The relationships that show Jesus to the world happen in this room, between church members. Don’t let our witness be destroyed because a small hurt became a gaping wound. 

Acceptance: day after day, in every interaction, Jesus exhibited acceptance. 

All four gospels tell us that Jesus accepted and welcomed the outcasts of his world. The handicapped. The sinners. Those excluded by religion or race – Samaritans and Gentiles. He consistently welcomed and ministered to all.  

When he met a woman with a questionable reputation, who was a member of a different branch of his religion – the “Woman at the Well” – he talked to her like a friend. He treated her with respect. He showed love to her.  

Jesus famously “ate with sinners” because he knew that they needed his love, too. He didn’t close off his heart to them.  

The least amount of tolerance Jesus ever showed was with religious people who didn’t accept and love. He condemned those who should have known better, who should have “loved because God first loved them,” but insisted on judging and condemning and casting out.  

Then, the Holy Spirit exploded on the scene and that acceptance only increased. The Book of Acts is full of examples – Peter preaching to Gentiles; Paul being chosen; the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch; Peter and Cornelius. One barrier after another was torn down by the Holy Spirit.  

Look around. Do we show that same kind of acceptance? Look around. Who, in our lives, might not feel welcome here?  

Accountability: even when Jesus condemned the behavior of another, he did so with the goal of repentance. With the “Woman at the Well” he knew all about her many husbands, and understood how that had made life difficult for her. He still offered her a chance at acceptance and forgiveness.  

When the “Rich Young Ruler” approached him, looking for meaning in life, Jesus held him accountable for his greed. He pointed out the sin in the young man’s life. It’s not enough to follow all the rules, Jesus said, you’ve got to rid your life of the things that get in the way of you approaching God; in this case, that would be your possessions.  

Wesley founded the Methodist movement with the same value on accountability. Examine our hearts, confess to one another, seek to grow closer in a relationship with God. Back then, Methodists would help one another do that.  

 People everywhere are looking for meaning in life. They might be watching us to see what life means to us. Do we, by our actions with each other, show what life means?  

When some people look for meaning, they look to Christians and the church to provide that meaning. Are we showing them Christ?

Coming Out

It’s time for me to “come out of the closet.” Not that closet. I’m not gay. And I would never pretend that I was even slightly as brave as the men and women that I know who are and are out.  No matter if I’m “in” or “out,” I’m still a white male in the South – and that’s a pretty privileged place to be. So, don’t for a minute think I am putting myself on their level.  

I’m coming out of a closet of fear. I’m sick of being afraid to tell you who I really am and what I really think. While I still care about your feelings, I’m through hiding mine to avoid hurting yours. I think you’ll survive. I think we’ll all survive.  

I know a lot about hiding. I’ve hidden a lot over the course my life. I grew up hiding. My father was an alcoholic; a high-functioning, successful business man, good provider for his family, but still an alcoholic. We had a code – TELL NO ONE. Its where I get my well-developed ability to catastrophize anything. “We can’t tell anybody,” my mother would say, “because they won’t buy groceries from us anymore.” Then, the end of the world would arrive – losing everything because PEOPLE WOULD KNOW.  

Looking back, people knew. They had to! Didn’t you have friends whose mom or dad drank? I did. Didn’t you know something was “a little off” about them sometimes? Sure. Did you stop hanging out with that friend? No.  

I’m sure people knew that Daddy “drank a little,” but they never worried that he was going to start spiking the Tro-Fe Dairy orange drink with vodka! The vodka stayed well-hidden. It was behind the firewood in the garage. It was in a filing cabinet in his private office at the store. It was in an old golf bag at home (that was fun to find when I was actually playing golf one day as a teenager!). The only thing that was more well-hidden was my fear and uncertainty.  

I know a lot about rushing headlong into situations where I have no clue about what to do. At a moment’s notice I could become my mother’s therapist or my dad’s rehab counselor. It really wasn’t a surprise that God called me to ministry; I’ve been in ministry since I was 11 years old. I was ordained in a Buick Electra (which was roughly the same size as the office in which I sit today) on the way home from school in about 1975 when Mama said, “Your daddy has a problem . . .”  

After that, any time there was an office to run for, an award to win, a team to make, I was there. I had really no idea what Class President, Student Body President, or Fraternity Rush Chairman was supposed to do, I just knew that if I won that office, no one would ever guess the truth – that my family was broken because my daddy was an alcoholic. I was the “Standard Bearer.” It was easy because I was tall, so I played basketball; I was white, intelligent, and well-mannered, so principals and teachers liked me.  

I know a lot about putting on a mask and playing a role. I was good at it – until I wasn’t good at it anymore. That happened about age 25, after college, after seminary. I couldn’t fake my way through real life (marriage, job, etc.) on my good looks and charm.  

Somewhere along that way, I realized I had to be real. I had to own up to the fear and uncertainty. I had to acknowledge when I didn’t know what to do next, when I wasn’t sure how an adult acted because I had been faking it for so long. Thanks to a really good Pastoral Counselor named Luther (No, really. Not the Luther-15th-century-reformer – a real man named Luther Kramer), I became real. 

I’ll resist the temptation to lapse into quotes from “The Velveteen Rabbit.” You’re welcome. 

I’ve come a long way to tell you that I am uniquely prepared for this slow-motion train wreck we call “General Conference.” I’m scared and worried (and believe me, I know the feeling!). I’m not sure what to do next. I am guilty of some catastrophizing, spending many hours worrying about not having a church to serve, or having to work at Wal-Mart (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  

I have survived enough “Ends of the World” to know – it’s never the end of the world. There is always a tomorrow. “Tomorrow is another day,” “It’s only a day away,” yes, Scarlett O’Hara was right. Annie was right. Someday we’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind us . . . thanks, Dorothy.  

We remember those lines because they are true. I know that. I’ve lived that. 55-year-old Earl would say to 11-year-old Earl, “It won’t always be this way. You’ll be okay. It will be over soon.”  I would sit there, on that Sear’s NFL bedspread, or maybe we’d sit on the shag carpet, and say, “It’s going to work out. Pay attention and learn some stuff on the way.” Like learning to be calm in a crisis. Like learning to be able to talk about anything (when you can ask your daddy where he hid the bottle, you can talk about anything). Like knowing that nothing is the “end of the world.” 

I know. Some of you are saying (shouting, maybe), “But what if it really is the ‘End of the World?’ What about that, Mr. Smart Guy?!” In that case, the day after the real “End of the World,” I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong. 

I’ve survived an alcoholic family. I’ve survived moves (try moving from Huntsville to California with a toddler!). I’ve survived loss (our first year of marriage also saw the loss of my mother and Belinda’s grandmother within a month of one another). I’ve survived church conflict like most have never seen (one side to be “guarding the Holy Spirit” from the other side – no lie!). I’ve survived being an Atlanta Braves fan in the 70’s and 80’s. We will survive this!  

At first, I was afraid. I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But, other than a disturbing tendency to lapse into disco at inappropriate moments, I’ve come through it. This post really needs a soundtrack. I’ll make you a playlist.   

It occurs to me that we know what is coming and we know when we will know for sure what the consequences will be. A week from today (February 19) we’ll almost be there!  

It also occurs to me that Jesus knew what was coming. He knew the cross was coming, and even that wasn’t the end. He knew the cross was coming but he still invited the disciples to go on living. He even cooked them breakfast (John 21:12) – how normal was that!? 

It’s hard to be normal these days. It’s hard to even act like things are normal. They aren’t. But they are survivable. I know. I’ve been through some stuff. God has been with me, even redeemed some pretty awful stuff! God will be with us, too. We will survive.   

Hope is Never Hidden – Jeremiah 33:14-16

In his book, Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller says that Christmas is the only Christian Holy Day that is also a major secular holiday. Sure, there’s a secular component to Easter. We’ve got the Easter Bunny and the Egg Hunts to go along with the cross and the resurrection. But Easter’s secular side pales in comparison to the onslaught of lights, carols, sales, TV specials, and SALES, SALES, SALES! Easter has Good Friday; but, nothing to compare to Black Friday – consumerism’s kidnap of Christmas. 

As I was writing this sermon, I was listening to a Christmas song by Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere:” 

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas everywhere
Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas pullin‘ out my hair
Shoppers lined up out the door
Traffic backed up miles and more
It’s Christmas time, so what the heck
Let’s go spend the whole paycheck 

But, when you focus all your annual financial success on this one month, one weekend, no expense is too great to draw customers in. So, Christmas, real Christmas, is hidden beneath a mountain of secular images in an attempt to make money.  

I recall one “Black Friday” I spent in the University Mall in Tuscaloosa. Technically, it still felt like Thanksgiving Day – we left the house about 10:00 pm (so, we hadn’t been to bed!). I sat on one of the benches, just like all the other “old men!” Thousands of people hustling back and forth with bags and boxes representing even more thousands of dollars in cash purchases and credit card debt. They carried sale flyers, celebrating each acquisition with glee.  

Over the din, I could hear the faint strains of Christmas carols over the loud speakers:

“O Little Town of Bethlehem . . .” 

“What Child is this, who laid to rest . . .” 

And perhaps the most ironic – “Silent night, Holy night . . .” 

There was very little “holy” about that night. No child “on Mary’s lap” would sleep through this commotion. The “hopes and fears of all the years” probably wouldn’t meet until the bills came due in January.  

In America, its “Hark the Herald Angels” versus “Holly Jolly Christmas.” We know who wins. Santa takes it every time! 

The secular, consumer side isn’t going away any time soon – not when there’s so much money riding on it! But, really, we Christians shouldn’t worry about all that. The true, holy roots of the season will always be present.  

The problem comes when the secular, consumer side drowns the holy roots that seek to sink deep in our hearts. Buying lots of presents isn’t the problem. The problem is when the accompanying greed drives compassion out of our hearts.  

It’s bad when we move away from the justice and righteousness that God brings during Advent. 

Jeremiah was a prophet of longing. His ministry, his preaching, came during a time of great suffering in the land of Israel and Judah. They had been defeated in war. Most were taken off into slavery and exile in Babylon. It is common for the First Sunday of Advent to draw our attention to the longing for a coming Messiah. Our desire for peace, justice, and righteousness isn’t much different from the longings of the ancient Jews.  

Today’s scripture is from Jeremiah: 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16) 

Jeremiah speaks of longing, but uses words of certainty: 

“The days are surely coming . . .” 

“When I will fulfill . . .” 

“He shall execute justice and righteousness . . .” 

The season of Advent – the lead-up to Christmas Day – is a season when the church can no longer contain the unfulfilled desire for all God promises. A cry breaks out, “O Come, O come Emmanuel!” Lord, hurry up! Come and fulfill your promises! “Execute justice and righteousness” in our world! 

My longing breaks forth into a cry when the prevalence of hate begins to “turn my stomach.” 

I want to cry out when I see people dragged down into addiction and poverty. 

I want to do more than cry when I see people shot in malls and children tear-gassed at our borders. Merry Christmas, y’all! 

They say that despair is the absence of hope. Maybe it’s hope that is the most hidden in all this worldly cynicism. The God for whom Jeremiah longs is not absent – not hidden. He is coming, and, for us, has come! 

Even amid all the hype of Black Friday, the holy roots of Christmas can still be found. Christ can be found in the everyday lives of his people. Christ can be found in our acts of love. Christ can be found when we show compassion.  

Like a Christmas Carol refusing to be drowned out by the noise of shoppers, if we listen closely, we hear the hope! We hear the hope as we sing: 

“Glory to the Newborn King . . .” 

“God and sinners reconciled . . .” 

“Born that man no more may die . . .” 

“Born to give us second birth . . .” 

If we listen closely, we discover the source of all our hope, even under the sound of cash registers and commercials. If we open our hearts to the presence of “God with us,” Emmanuel, we will see . . . 

That the days are surely coming . . .  

That God’s promise will be fulfilled . . . 

That justice and righteousness will burst forth in all the land!