With the election of the first lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church, a few people have asked me, “What are you going to do?” My answer has always been the same: “I am going to continue doing what God has called me to do.”
It’s really as simple as that. I am not a political person (though I find politics fascinating). I do not feel like rehashing the same arguments I’ve read for years to “prove” that “my side” is right. As a church, we have publicly debated the issue of homosexuality for 44 years and heels have been dug in, minds made up. Nothing I say or do will change that.
I certainly am sad to see this grand old denomination hurtling toward an impasse. This is the church that started as a revival spark by the Wesleys, and fanned into flame by lay preachers and intrepid circuit riders. This is the church that welcomed women as spiritual leaders, battled social ills such as slavery and child labor, and preached the Gospel of repentance and salvation in Christ.
On a personal note, this is the church I grew up in. My parents were charter members of a Methodist church in Oklahoma that nurtured me through elementary school and pre-adolescence. One of my earliest memories was sitting on the lap of a white-haired woman named Mrs. Carmichael, who sang nursery rhymes to me while my folks attended worship. I fondly remember confirmation classes, Christmas Eve candlelight services and, of course, potlucks. As the old saying goes, “wherever two or three Methodists are gathered, a chicken will die.” This is also the church that welcomed me after years of wandering in the far country as a prodigal son. I was married in a United Methodist Church and my kids were baptized and raised in the same.
But I will not be embroiled in arguments, political maneuverings or cyber shouting matches. Whether the United Methodist Church splits or dies, God is still in control and the Body of Christ will still stand. The Kingdom is bigger than a sect, no matter how large it gets. A Christian must not be penned in by an ecclesiastical label, political camp or personality cult. We must be defined by our passion for Jesus Christ and His mission. For me, that means I must resist the desire to jump into middle of a controversy that has generated more heat than light, and focus instead on getting out of my comfort zone to associate with the least, the lost, the last (Luke 19:10).
I am not trying to smugly put myself about the fray. I certainly have my opinions but, in the end, my opinion will not change the trajectory of this matter. I feel I have something more pressing to do: that is, every day I must keep my own finish line in sight: “…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
I refuse to wring my hands, point a finger or cluck my tongue. My feet have work to do. I must run a race that has been laid out for me, and no other. You have your own race, too. Run it to win it. Run it for an audience of One.
Here in Texas, we love our barbecue. We’ll get into arguments with folks from the Deep South about the glories of brisket over pulled pig with vinegar sauce. It’s fightin’ words around here if you tell us that slow-smoked beef isn’t true barbecue. According to this website, “the Lone Star State has the sixth highest percentage of barbecue restaurants (in the U.S.), and it’s home to some of the most iconic barbecue joints in the whole country. Styles vary across the state, but beef is king and brisket is the holy grail of Texas barbecue.”
A HOLY BARBECUE
Leviticus 6 describes a barbecue of sorts. It was called the burnt offering, a twice-daily sacrifice made by the Hebrew priests, consisting of a pair of year-old lambs without any imperfections. Three times in this chapter, God instructs the priests to keep the fire burning. Day in and day out, rain or shine, the altar fire was to be stoked with a sacrificial lamb on the grate. It was a visual reminder that the fire of God’s people should never go out.
Much ink has been spilled on the waning fires of mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church, which ordained me. When I was a kid attending Village Methodist Church in Oklahoma City in the 1960s, our denomination was in its heyday with over 12 million members representing 6% of America’s population. Most recent stats put us just under 8 million members in the USA, representing only 2.5% of our total population (by contrast, United Methodism is exploding in Africa and the Philippines). Folks smarter than me have analyzed the problem up and down, from bishops to laity. I won’t solve the problem in one blog. But I thought it would be helpful to go back to the source of Methodism, and consult the one who sparked these fires in England during the 18th century, a fire that leapt across the Atlantic to the colonies and spread across the Western frontier in the 1800s.
I’m talking, of course, about John Wesley. Wesley was an Anglican priest who never intended to start a new sect. But when his church reforms and practices swept like wildfire across the land, he had no choice but to endorse “Methodism” as an alternative to the Church of England.
In 1742, Wesley published an 8-page tract entitled “The Character of a Methodist” that eventually went through 19 reprints. (You could say it went viral). Wesley began by explaining that Methodism was not defined by personal opinions. You could get a hundred Methodists in one room and ask them their views on one topic, and you are likely to get a hundred different opinions — as our recent General Conference proved that with its protracted arguments over parliamentary rules and the “hot potato” issue of human sexuality. There is only one thing we unanimously agree on, and that is “whenever two or more are gathered, there must be potluck.”
“What then is the mark?” Wesley writes. “Who is a Methodist, according to your own account? I answer: Methodists are people who have the love of God in their hearts…God is the joy of Methodists’ hearts; the desire of their souls.”
Several years ago, my denomination came out with a $47 million ad campaign called “Igniting Ministry.” One General Conference delegate who voted for the campaign gushed, “Igniting Ministry could be the catalyst by which we could reverse the decline that we continue to experience.”
I have no problems with church ads, as long as we don’t except them to do evangelism for us. Spending tons of money won’t start a fire. Flames won’t be fanned with another church convocation. Programs don’t have what it takes to spark a spiritual inferno. The fire must come from within.
A PHYSICS FORMULA SO LOVED THE WORLD?
This fire is the love of God-with-us, not a cold, intellectual acknowledgment of a vague Supreme Being. Years ago at one of my churches, a woman dragged in her husband for marital counseling. At one point, I asked him about his relationship with God. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Relationship with God? I don’t even know what that means. I’m not sure there’s even a personal divine force behind creation. What we call ‘God’ is probably some glorified physics formula.”
The Bible doesn’t say that a physics formula so loved the word — it was God who gave us His one and only Son. In their 2010 book, Jesus Manifesto, Authors Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola wrote, “What is Christianity? It is Christ! Nothing more. Nothing less. It is not an ideology or a philosophy, a new type of morality, social ethic, or worldview. Christianity is the ‘good news’ that beauty, truth, and goodness are found in a Person.”
John Wesley would agree. He said that Methodists believe that Christ is the eternal, supreme God, through whose shed blood we have forgiveness of sins and adoption as children of the Father. This is Good News in a Person! Jesus is the match that sets our fire ablaze.
What does this love look like? Our spouses know we love them when we give them a thoughtful anniversary gift. Our kids know we love them when we tuck them in at night and read a bedtime story. How do we show God that we love Him? We know He loves us, how do we return that love? Wesley gives us instruction.
THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
First, Wesley describes Methodists as people of gratitude. When we daily thank God for all the good gifts He gives us, we toss a log on the spiritual fire. “Whether in ease or pain, sickness or health, life or death,” Wesley wrote, “the Methodist gives thanks from the ground of the heart to Him who orders all for the good.” Besides contributing to spiritual fitness, research is proving that gratitude is good for physical fitness, too. Thankful people have stronger immune systems and overall better health than ungrateful people.
Secondly, Wesley says that Methodists are people of prayer. Recall that on the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were praying in an upper room (Acts 2:1-4), the Holy Spirit fell in “tongues of fire.” Wesley took great pains to explain that prayer isn’t beating God’s ears with many words or kneeling in contemplation for hours on end. Prayer is the language of the heart before God. It wraps up praise, thanksgiving, confession and requests, sometimes in fervent words, other times in awed silence. Prayer is essential if we are to keep the spiritual fires burning.
THE COLD WATER OF SIN
Thirdly, Wesley described Methodists as people of purity. Have you noticed that impure living is like cold water on burning coals? Sin douses the fire of God. Wesley wrote that “God has cleansed the Methodist’s heart, washing away all urge for revenge, all envy, all wrath, every lust and evil desire, as well.” Of course, this can’t be done Lone Ranger style, all by ourselves. Wesley was smart. He helped Methodists stay on fire for God by organizing the class meeting. This was the 18th century version of a small group, where a dozen Methodists met weekly under the supervision of a class leader. The group sang, prayed and watched over one another in love. There was accountability and encouragement to stay close to the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, Wesley said that Methodists show their love of God by doing good—not only to friend and neighbor, but to foe and stranger. The Rule of Wesley states, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” The early Methodists ministered to people in prison; opposed slavery; founded schools; promoted temperance and the rights of women, workers and children; published Christian literature; and opened orphanages and medical clinics. But these weren’t just good works; they were “God-works” to cast light on the goodness of Christ. Wesley proclaimed that “Methodists labor to awaken those who have never known God and help them to realize that the atoning blood of Jesus has power to cleanse away their sins.”
Was this an ancient command from God for the Jews only? An old, quaint regulation that has no relevance for us today? No. God’s earnest desire for believers — from Methodists to Moravians; Pentecostals to Presbyterians; high-church liberals to charismatic conservatives–is to keep the Christ-Fire stoked. But unlike the old days with a butchered lamb on the grill, we are now the burnt offering as Paul wrote in Romans 12:1: “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.”
Put yourself on the altar. Catch on fire for God. Watch people come to see you burn!
Brisket picture courtesy of bigjohnstexasbbq via Flickr
Fire picture courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr
Last week, I zipped down the street to attend a United Methodist district clergy meeting. Now normally I would look forward to such a gathering with the enthusiasm of licking a dust mop. No offense to any of my pastoral colleagues, many of whom I’ve developed wonderful friendships over the years, but I have noted numerous times in print that I loathe church meetings. I wish I could have the time that I have spent in such unproductive sessions back. I could take a nice, long overseas vacation with my wife. That is, if I had the money as well as the time.
But I was actually looking forward to this meeting. For one thing, it was held at a church that was only a couple of miles from my house. I knew the proceedings wouldn’t be long, because a laity meeting followed ours. Our bishop, Mike Lowry, was on hand to address the troops and I always enjoy listening to him. He gave us a “pep talk” and held a Q & A session.
During his talk, Bishop Lowry instructed the clergy to sermonize frequently on the dangers of our age:
Bishop Lowry urged us to deliver distinctly Christian messages solidly rooted in orthodox, trinitarian theology. After the meeting, as I returned home, I thought how refreshing it was that we have a bishop who delivers such strong and clear messages.
And then it hit me:
Why would a church leader have to tell a bunch of clergy to preach Christian sermons?
New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Let me ask you a provocative question: do Christians have a love-hate relationship with the miracle stories in the Gospels? Think about it. On one hand, we thrill to the tales of Jesus strolling over stormy waves, morphing a measly sack lunch into a banquet for the multitudes and the ultimate miracle—His Resurrection from the dead, complete with flashing angels, rolling stones and fainting guards. As a kid, I would pore over the full-color pictures of these stories in our family Bible, and they never failed to fill me with awe and wonder.
On the other hand, we find ourselves stammering and stuttering when skeptics scoff at these stories. “Whoever heard of anyone walking on water? Have you ever seen anybody coming out of the grave?” We may even harbor secret doubts ourselves. I would venture to say that we don’t see miracles like the disciples did. We weren’t there with Jesus and we certainly can’t verify them because there were no videocams back then.
And then there’s the miracle of changing water into wine. It happened at a wedding reception, a noisy affair that could stretch out for days. The party was held at the groom’s house, and he and his new bride were treated like royalty. They did no work for a week, received gifts and wore festive clothes. Food was everywhere, wine poured, music played as the wedding guests–dressed in special garments provided by the groom–danced the night away. There was a master of the feast—a party coordinator, if you will—whose sole job was to keep the food and wine stocked so everyone could keep having a good time.
And this is where Jesus was, according to John’s Gospel. A raucous wedding party with feasting and drinking and dancing. We might think, “What was our Lord doing there? Shouldn’t Jesus have been in Sunday school, teaching a Bible lesson in solemn tones with a halo hovering over his head?”
Such questions were apparently fired at Him during His own day. The Pharisees accused John the Baptist of being demon-possessed because he wasn’t sociable. He stayed out in the desert, dressed like a caveman and refused wine. Jesus, on the other hand, was a social butterfly. In His own words, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:34 NET Bible)
So here’s our Lord at a party, turning water into really good wine, and we are left defending (a) a bona fide miracle (b) Jesus making alcohol and (c) the meaning of it all. After all, this was not a miracle to eliminate human suffering or meet a deep need like hunger or thirst; this seems more like a parlor trick.
John called all of Jesus’ miracles “signs.” He reports that the water-into-wine miracle was the first sign; six more were to follow. The Bible word for “sign” comes from a verb meaning “to signify” or “make known.” A sign on a highway does this. When I’m coming back from a 3-day revival, and I see a sign that says “FORT WORTH 20 MILES,” I get excited. Not because of the sign, but because of what lies beyond the sign. I know that soon I’ll be home with my family, eating from my own plate, watching my own TV, sleeping in my own bed. A sign is a mark or token that points to a greater reality.
So what does the water-into-wine miracle point to? I’ve seen many interpretations: some commentators say that it points to Jesus’ generosity. He turns ordinary water into wine: not a jug of Mad Dog 20/20, but a Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’96, a very good year. Others see divine empathy in this story. Running out of wine at a Jewish wedding was a faux pas that would send tongues wagging for weeks. Jesus helped the bridegroom and his family save face by performing this miracle.
Others get metaphorical, pointing to the transformation of H2O into wine as a symbol of God’s ability to turn something bad into something good. This is the track I want to explore for the next few minutes.
There were six stone jars, each holding 20-30 gallons of water. This water was not drinking water, but water used for ceremonial washing. Guests would come into a house and dip their hands into the water. It was a religious ritual, like Catholics making the sign of the cross or United Methodists kissing the Book of Discipline. Jesus orders the servants to fill the jars to the brim. After that, He tells them to draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet. By the time they get to him, the water has turned into wine.
In order to grasp the spiritual meaning of this story, we have to understand the significance of wine in Bible culture. It was a valuable commodity back then. A man who owned lush vineyards was considered to be wealthy, blessed by God. Along with grain and oil and honey, wine was part of the agricultural tithe, brought into storehouses for the support of the priests and their attendants, the Levites. The book of Ecclesiastes, which some believe was penned by King Solomon, says, “Drink your wine with a happy heart” (Ecc. 9:7b). Now I am not making the point that you should take up drinking as a hobby. God’s Word does not endorse booze as the meaning of life and sternly rebukes overconsumption and drunkenness. Let’s remember signage: for the ancient Jew, wine was a symbol of joy, gladness, abundance, prosperity and blessing.
When Jesus turned the ceremonial water into quality wine, He was giving an object lesson. He was pointing out that there was something far better than rote religion. The Old Testament system of sacrifices and washings and tithes was good because God instituted it, but the Law could not save. It could only point to its impotence to save.
The water in the stone jars represented the Old Covenant. The wine represented the New Covenant. Recall that Jesus used a cup of wine at the Last Supper. “And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28 NET). Jesus willingly shed His blood to provide spiritual cleansing that no physical washing could ever match. The water was filled to the brim of those jars, but now it was wine, leaving no room for anything else. When God poured Himself into Jesus Christ, He was telling us that we do not have to add anything else to the salvation mix. Jesus is enough! Jesus is all-sufficient! Jesus replaced the water of traditions and formalities with something far superior—the wine of Himself.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said (John 10:10a NET). True words, because Jesus was Truth; He cannot speak a lie. The world and the flesh and the devil are on a tireless rampage to snatch your joy, rob your peace and take away your assurance. But here is the Good News: “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10b NET). The word that Jesus used for life does not mean biological life, but spiritual life—eternal life in God. The word He used for abundantly means to “exceed a fixed limit.” Christ yearns for us to have His life so it doesn’t just come to the brim of our jars, but spills over. We do not seek what the world seeks as it pursues earthly goodies that will eventually rust and break and perish. We long for Jesus.
So go to the jar this morning. Go in faith and witness a miracle. Believe that it happened—and, more importantly, believe why it happened. And then drink heartily of the spiritual life that Jesus has provided through the shedding of His blood and His victory over death—and be glad!