Sermon notes are available for you to use in your weekly personal or group study as you walk with God.
(The Wesley Challenge #2)
14-16 Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.
Reflection on the Word:
1. What does it mean to “Go out into the world uncorrupted”?
2. What is the “Light-giving message” God has given us to carry? What does it mean to ‘carry’ this message?
3. What does it mean to provide others with a glimpse of the living God?
Family Time or Small Group (Better Together) Discussion:
1. Am I proud?
2. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
3. How do I spend my spare time?
4. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying
5. How can I pray for you?
Taken from The Wesley Challenge: 21 Days to a More Active Faith by Chris Folmsbee (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017).
Sermon Progression “An Upward Focus” based on John 15:1-8 by Rev. Daniel Guenther:
One of the things I’ve seen displayed since I started at GBUMC amongst the staff and the congregation is the tough love of being a parent. Our passage for today is kind of an example for this, although not at first glance. It’s Jesus instructing his disciples, and for us it’s a reminder to remain in and deepen our relationships with God so that we can grow as disciples and display the fruit of that growth for the world to see. This is a commonplace idea. And we like commonplace. We have services that we go to consistently, prayers that we pray repeatedly, and songs that we sing regularly. We do this because we find comfort in the midst of a world that can oftentimes be super stressful and overwhelming.
But Christianity is about more than routine and doing what comes naturally for us. And if you peel back the layers, that’s what Jesus is telling his disciples in our passage. If you want to understand this passage really, you need to read it as Jesus’ final message to his children. Jesus had travelled all over the Palestinian region, performing miracles, teaching lessons, and for most of that, the disciples had been right at his side. But this is the night of the Passover. In a few hours, Jesus will be arrested by Judas and the religious elite. The next morning, he will be crucified. On the night that our passage recounts, I picture Jesus sitting in a circle with his disciples. Reminiscing. Remembering. And you know for certain that if anyone really knew them, really got what made them tick, what made them excited, what made them sad, it was Jesus. So you can hear the pain in his words, as he remembers that tomorrow, if they fall off their bikes and skin a knee that he won’t be around to clean the cut.
So in this context, it’s kind of shocking that Jesus tells them not simply to remain in him, but to bear fruit. To abide in his love in order to produce something. To project that love out into the world so that others can smell it, see it, and taste it. And he says this to them in a world of persecution and martyrdom. We forget that people like Judas, and Pilate, and the chief priests, and the Pharisees, chose to kill Jesus and did everything they could to ensure Jesus’ death would happen because it was advantageous for them that he be removed from the scene. In this world, ‘remain in me’ might as well be translated as “Pray to me, even though every prayer will be dangerous. Worship me, even if you have to do it with the lights off in your basement. Love me, even though loving me will take you far beyond your comfort zone.”
A lot of time has passed since then. But our passage for today is a reminder that to truly have an upward focus is to keep our eyes on God even when God asks us to do things that take us way way way out of our comfort zones. That’s why, today, we’re starting the Wesleyan Challenge sermon series. In the 18th century, John Wesley challenged the early Methodists to step out of their comfort zone and pursue a deeper relationship with God. He asked them hard questions to determine where their hearts really were. Over the next twenty one days, we’ll follow his example by asking ourselves hard questions like the discussion questions I’ve put with this sermon.
These questions are there to remind us that we’re called to remain in God, to live attached to the vine, not simply to plug into it when we want. And sometimes, these kinds of questions can be a way of God showing us that tough love a parent might show their child. When I was a kid, there were few things that could stop me in my tracks like a look from my mom. That look would always freeze my blood cold. It would make me stop whatever I was doing. Today, God is giving us that look. However many times we’ve been to church, however many times we’ve been to Sunday School, however many books we’ve read or scripture passages we’ve memorized, it’s time for us to ask “Do I really have an upward focus?”
Now before I go any further, I need to, need to acknowledge something. I have been given this message by other people before. And so often it felt like someone was trying to force me into piety. When Jesus told his disciples “Remain in me,” this is not, not, not what he meant. Because our God isn’t a bully. Our God is a God of freedom. When Jesus said “Remain in me” he might as well have said “Remain in me because I love you. I’m connected to you, as a vine is to its branches. So when you hurt, I hurt. When you suffer, I suffer. And I’m willing to die so that you can experience new life.”
This is what the Wesleyan challenge was all about, both in the eighteenth century to the original people called Methodists, and to us who are gathered here today at Great Bridge United Methodist Church. What God is calling us to is to embrace a radical new life in which every step we take is covered by the love of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains us. About five years ago, I spent a summer serving as an intern at a church in Winston Salem North Carolina. Like GBUMC, this church provided space for a group of recovering narcotics users to meet and support one another in their efforts to stay clean. One day I was invited to sit in on one of their meetings along with one of our church members. This man was, and still is, a wonderful man, kind to a fault, always looking for new ways to help people from his position as director of a non-profit. We sat together in the fellowship hall, and I listened as person after person sat there sharing their stories, which, by the way, always began with the statement “Hi, I’m so and so, and I’m an addict.” And then the man I’d come in with stood up, and said “Hi, I’m Sean, and I’m an addict.”
In the days and weeks that followed, I got to learn more and more about this man. I learned that he’d gotten into drugs and struggled with family. That he’d been homeless and poor. That for a while he’d battled to stay alive. And then he gave himself over to God, mind, body, and soul. And God changed him. He went from the selfish, scheming man who’d do anything for a high to the kind, gentle man who wept during a rendition of “Give me Jesus” at church. This is what happens when we remain in Jesus. This is what happens when we turn our focus upward.
The beautiful thing about this story, to me, is that versions of it play out every day. Even in places like GBUMC! Over the next twenty one days, my hope for this congregation is that whatever prayers we love or scripture passages we find meaningful, that we might put our whole selves out there before God. Just like being reminded to eat our vegetables, this might be difficult a time or two. But in the end, the result will be new health and new life for us all. Wherever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, God has something new and radical to show us. It’s time we started looking. Amen.
When I was a kid, my least favorite part about going to church was getting ready. The work of getting up early on a Sunday morning, showering, picking out clothes, and having my shoes on by the time my parents came screaming down the stairs to load my brother and I into the car and drive off. Even in high school, Sunday mornings were generally the only time I’d bother to comb my hair and the only time I’d think about wearing a button down or polo shirt. And I think as a kid the effort--however small it seems to me now--of getting ready for church in the mornings really convinced me, perhaps subconsciously, that our outward appearances were very important to God. Today I regret that I internalized that. Not because I suddenly believe in slacking off on Sunday mornings, but because I really wish I’d spent less time fussing over my collar, and more time actually listening to the pastor. I wish I’d spent less time worrying about what I was wearing and more time worrying about who I was underneath.
Oddly enough, I think that’s fitting. And I say that because that’s where we are as a culture right now. Content to focus on the externals. Not so interested in the internal stuff. Questions like “What kind of a person do I want to be” are ones that some of us--myself included--struggle to reflect on as often as we should. And if there’s any one proof of that, it’s the fact that if, the next time you’re in a social event, you ask a friend about how they’re doing on their quest for holiness, they’ll probably look at you like you’re crazy. Holiness is one of those ideas that seems hard to discuss in groups because it’s so personal. Being a ‘holy person’ is so much about what we do when no one’s watching that it’s hard to bring it up, which means that, as time has gone on, we’ve lost the ability to talk about what holiness really is.
So what does it really mean to be holy? Well I’ll tell you that when I think of holiness, I tend to instinctively think of purity. You notice how my alb is pure white and has no stains on it? That tends to be the sort of image we get when the word ‘holiness’ comes up. This view that says to be holy is to always do the right thing, to never make mistakes. To always go where we’re supposed to go, do what we’re supposed to do, to get it right every time. And I think Paul had something like this in mind when he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi. Paul told the church at Philippi to be a ‘breath of fresh air’ to the society they were a part of. He told them to carry God’s light out into the world. He told them to provide a glimpse of good living. These commands all remind us that, as Christians, we’re supposed to walk into a room and make it different. If we’re a breath of fresh air, then the air in the room should change when we walk in. If we’re carrying God’s light, the room should brighten up when we come through the door. If we’re providing a glimpse of good living, the people in the room should feel challenged to do better and also encouraged that doing so--that being better--is possible. We’ve only got so much time to spend here on earth. Holiness, real holiness, demands that when we leave this place, we leave it better than we found it.
But at the same time, this is not, cannot be all that holiness is. Because we will always struggle to grow into something good on the outside if we don’t first plant our inner selves in rich soil. If we try, one of two things will happen. We might spend our lives paralyzed by fear of failure, second guessing ourselves at every turn, hoping and praying that between now and death we don’t make any mistakes. Perhaps even wishing that we could lock ourselves in a closet and just hide from the overwhelming world we live in. John Wesley and his friends found out the hard way that this isn’t sustainable when they started a group that others referred to pejoratively as the ‘holy club.’ The group, which was supposed to be about growing in holiness, became so demanding that one of them killed himself. When the pursuit of holiness becomes this destructive, this poisonous for our lives, you’d better believe that we’ve missed the point of the whole enterprise. Because the God who created us and who redeems us in Jesus didn’t do all that just for us to spend our lives walking around on eggshells looking for traps to avoid falling into.
But if that’s one consequence of a poorly planned pursuit of holiness, the other is also pretty bad. We all know what it looks like when someone comes into a room trying to be a breath of fresh air and ends up leaving a bigger stink than was in the room before. We might say such a person was acting ‘holier than thou.’ And this phrase, more than any other, describes the challenge of walking in holiness in the world we live in. We’ve all known people who put on an air of being perfect. Of always doing the right thing and never making a mistake. Of being holiness incarnate. And sometimes these ‘holy’ people like to remind others of how holy they are. These are the folks who do so much right, who pray constantly, that know scripture back to front, that never miss a chance to do something good. But their hearts are always set on their own glory.
Weirdly enough, both of these sorts of people--whether they are arrogant or paralyzed by self-doubt, they end up proving Paul’s negative view of the human condition right. Paul talked about the church in Philippi residing in the midst of a squalid and polluted society. And while we can discuss just how applicable those words are for our time, I think we can all agree that if the people trying hardest to be holy either burn themselves out or come off as smug and self-centered, it doesn’t leave us with much positive to say about our human condition.
But see, this to me is the crazy thing about holiness: we always assume that being holy, that practicing holiness, is first and foremost about our own actions. Practicing holiness is about providing a glimpse not of our own perfection, but of the life giving God, and of carrying God’s message out into the world. The scriptures tell us that God is holiest of all things. There’s a reason why Moses can’t get too close to God at the burning bush. There’s a reason why angels serenade each other with the message “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God almighty!” Holiness isn’t about us or what we do well. It’s about the terrifyingly amazing grace of God.
And if holiness is really about God first and foremost, then we probably need to throw out all our ideas about what holiness is. Because if true holiness can be observed in God, then true holiness stands out, not in its pride or timidity, but in it’s eagerness to eat meals with tax collectors and sinners. In it’s willingness to stick up for adulterers and lay hands on lepers. This is what Jesus did, and this is what it means to carry Jesus’ life-giving message out into the world. The tomb is open, and Jesus is alive. It’s our job to offer the world a glimpse of the living God.
And friends, as much as the world needs this breath of fresh air, as much is it would benefit so many people for us to show them that the ways of squalid and polluted societies are not their only options, this is something we will never be able to do on our own. How fortunate is it, then, that the amazing power that took Jesus out of the grave is available to us? The upside of worshipping a God whose holiness was not diminished by hanging out with lepers and sinners and tax collectors is the reality that God’s holiness is compatible with our lives too. In this equation, our role is not to teach ourselves how to be holy, but to receive holiness from God.
So how do we do that? Well friends just like our hearts can only circulate blood the blood it needs to stay alive if our arteries are clear, so we can only receive God’s transformative power if our hearts are truly set on God. The journey to holiness, then demands that we ask ourselves more hard question. Not questions like “Am I wearing my Sunday best today?” but “Am I a slave to my appearance?” Not questions like “Am I doing everything right?” but “Am I too proud to admit that I need God’s grace?” Again, these are hard questions. But once we do the hard work of clearing our hearts and minds of anything that can obstruct us, we will find it so much easier to carry God’s life giving message out into the world for others to see. And that’s the point when, as we come out from under the weight of our own expectations, as we dismantle the false stories we tell about ourselves, we can stop twisting in the wind and become the kindling God will use to set the world afire. Amen.
Thought for the Week Ahead:
“Holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things. It consists in accepting, with a smile, what Jesus sends us. It consists in accepting and following the will of God.”