Seeing the Dawn

By Chuck Griffin

Today is a special day. First and foremost, it is the third Sunday in this wonderful season of Easter.

The lectionary gospel reading for today is actually my favorite Bible story. Found in John 21:1-19, I will be preaching on it this morning, as will many of my colleagues, I am sure.

It is a story of redemption and renewal, and it also is a reminder that as we follow Jesus Christ, we may encounter hard times. Christ meets us where we are, however, and bathed in His power, we build on each other’s works until that day when we stand before our Savior.

If you are reading this before worship and you’re not sure whether you’re going, get up and go. Immerse yourself in what you should be offered today and then offer yourselves back to the Lord.

Oh, and by the way, as of today, the Global Methodist Church is now an official denomination. We do not yet know how many hoops we must jump through to get there, but I know a lot of us are ready to get jumping.

We will figure it out, and as we do so, let’s cling tightly to the peace the resurrected Christ offers us.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

By Chuck Griffin

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in a transformed state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transformative, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In this part of the resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be assuaged by experiencing Christ. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something beyond the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, the same aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

Dear Lord, we believe. Help us with our unbelief. Amen. (See Mark 9:24.)

Resurrection Day!

John 20:1-18 (New Testament for Everyone)

On the first day of the week, very early, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark.

She saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. So she ran off, and went to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved.

‘They’ve taken the master out of the tomb!’ she said. ‘We don’t know where they’ve put him!’

So Peter and the other disciple set off and went to the tomb. Both of them ran together. The other disciple ran faster than Peter, and got to the tomb first. He stooped down and saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter came up, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the napkin that had been around his head, not lying with the other cloths, but folded up in a place by itself.

Then the other disciple, who had arrived first at the tomb, went into the tomb as well. He saw, and he believed. They did not yet know, you see, that the Bible had said he must rise again from the dead.

Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she wept, she stooped down to look into the tomb. There she saw two angels, clothed in white, one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been lying.

‘Woman,’ they said to her, ‘why are you crying?’

‘They’ve taken away my master,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they’ve put him!’

As she said this she turned round, and saw Jesus standing there. She didn’t know it was Jesus.

‘Woman,’ Jesus said to her, ‘why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’

She guessed he must be the gardener.

‘Sir,’ she said, ‘if you’ve carried him off somewhere, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.’

‘Mary!’ said Jesus.

She turned and spoke in Aramaic.

‘Rabbouni!’ she said (which means ‘Teacher’).

‘Don’t cling to me,’ said Jesus. ‘I haven’t yet gone up to the father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I’m going up to my father and your father – to my God and your God.” ’

Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the master!’ and that he had said these things to her.

Those Dirty Feet

By Chuck Griffin

Let’s keep this simple today, as simple as dirty feet.

On this Holy Thursday, called Maundy Thursday in some circles, I mostly want to be sure we take time to read the pertinent story in the Gospel of John. It is available in full for you below.

As you read, focus on the part about Christ washing his disciples’ feet. Try to imagine the full sensory experience of being near these feet, with the grit and grime and smell. Remember, these people walked about in sandals on unpaved streets, where the animals also trod and did what animals do—and where the storm water and sewage sometimes ran.

There was a reason only the lowest slaves were required to wash guests’ feet. And yet, in today’s story, the Savior of All stripped down, toweled up, and went to work washing, not long before he went to work suffering and dying.

If you’re not fully grasping the lesson—well, pay close attention to the last line of the story.

John 13:1-35 (NRSV)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Lord, help us to better understand how low we should go in loving service to others. Amen.

Grace Mail

By Chuck Griffin

Junk mail. I get it, you get it, we all get it. Usually, we just throw it away.

There’s a particularly annoying form of junk mail coming more and more. In recent years, marketers who use junk mail have become more deceptive as they try to get us to read what we didn’t want in our mailbox.

Instead of slick colors, the junk mail now sometimes comes in very official looking black-and-white envelopes, envelopes that practically scream, “I am important!”

I got a real humdinger. The return address was for a Florida office going by the name, “Records of Entitlement.”

The good folks there had printed “DISTRIBUTION OF FUNDS” on the envelope in thumbprint-sized letters. They also stamped “IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS” in another spot.

The sales pitch was fatally flawed in one way—it was addressed to “Resident” at my home address. It has been my experience that official funds aren’t distributed randomly to unnamed residents.

I did open the envelope just to see who could be so obnoxious. It was a local car dealership holding a sale.

But then I had an odd thought. Change “FUNDS” on that envelope to “GRACE,” stick the right information inside, and that envelope could be one of the most honest in the history of marketing.

If God were to use a mass mailing to reach people, that mailing would have to go to every resident of the world. God’s grace—by “grace,” I mean God’s loving offer to restore us and make us whole—is for everyone. The envelopes would make their way even to the people without homes and mailboxes.

Inside the envelope would be some basic information about how God came to earth as Jesus and died on the cross to keep us from suffering for our sins.

The pitch letter most certainly would quote John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

We also would learn about the resurrection, the incredible “raised from the dead” event that happened first to Jesus. It is an event that Jesus promised will happen later to all of us. We would read how the grace channeled to us through Jesus will let us live forever with God.

The end of the pitch, of course, would tell us how to qualify for this fantastic offer.

“Just believe in what Jesus has done, and your name will be placed on file with God’s ‘Records of Entitlement’ office. Your reward—joy —will be available to you both now and eternally into the future!”

Like I said, it was just an odd thought I had while opening my mail. God doesn’t use mass mailings to make such an offer to the world. God uses us.

Dear Lord, accepting Jesus as Savior is such a simple matter. Help us to help people discover this wonderful truth. Amen.

Scripturally Gentle

Hebrews 10:10-18 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

As Christians, we’re always trying to fully absorb the idea that God came among us in flesh to save us from the deadly power of sin.

With the Christmas season drawing near, I also couldn’t help but think of the humble birth of our Savior, cradled and softly placed in a feeding trough as his first bed. There is so much tenderness in that scene, a moment of beauty in the midst of what too often is a horror story, the ongoing story of people disconnected from God.

As traditional Christians, we so want to focus on the beauty of salvation, but we simultaneously want to be vigilant against the damage sin has wrought and continues to cause. The world has trouble understanding the nuanced message we offer; even followers of Christ sometimes struggle with how to offer that message.

At the extreme edges of our faith, some want to ignore the danger of sin, while others legalistically limit the possibilities of grace. Both edges can at times exhibit a surprising amount of anger.

To be successful in our basic mission, traditionalists need to carry with them an attitude rooted in how God is at work in the world. A phrase popped into my head recently: Scripturally gentle. Like Jesus, we need to be scripturally gentle, openly discussing the terrible danger of sin while preaching the power of grace.

It is not judgmental to share with others the warnings God has given us about certain behaviors. Those biblical revelations from God about what counts as sin need to be declared for all to hear. These should be gentle declarations, however, tempered constantly with the Good News that God offers redemption from sin through Jesus Christ.

Jesus gives us great examples of how to live as scripturally gentle people. One of my favorites is in John 8:3-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus. In short, there is sin present in the community, and the legalists want to use the situation as a harsh test. Jesus reminds those present that they all are in need of grace, and the woman’s would-be executioners drift away. Jesus then says to the rescued sinner, “Go your own way, and from now on do not sin again,” pointing her toward a process Methodists call sanctification.

The traditional Methodism I discovered and fell in love with as a young adult has long been filled with scripturally gentle people, setting it apart as a movement within the Kingdom of God. This middle way will continue, even if it has to happen under a new denominational name.

We offer the world an attractive, biblical way to live in faith, and God will bless this approach until the day we see Christ in full.

Lord, thank you for guidance and grace. May the two work hand-in-hand in our lives so we can become holy responses to your great gift of eternal life. Amen.

A Growing List

2 Peter 1:2-11 (NLT)

May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.

The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins.

So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

By Chuck Griffin

At the core of the above passage is a spiritual to-do list, a way to grow as a Christian. Each item is strengthened by something else on the list, with the ultimate goal of experiencing a strong, unshakable faith.

Moral excellence, or goodness, undergirds great faith and has to do with whether we choose what God would choose in the same circumstances. But how do we know how to choose?

Well, knowledge helps to prop up moral excellence. The Lord has revealed much to us in the Holy Bible, even if it does sometimes take a little effort and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to tease the information out. What a gift: thousands of years of holy revelation at our fingertips!

Why do we fail to dig out what we need? We have trouble staying focused. We lack self-control. The painful distractions and immediate pleasures of this world draw us away from the rich rewards available to us in the Bible and through direct contact with God in prayer.

Patient endurance marks the beginning of self-control. We see the fiery darts of the enemy coming at us, but regardless of whether and where they stick, we know we can keep moving forward as Christians because God is with us. And if we find ourselves passing through Vanity Fair, we don’t slow down, for we know our real destination.

If that previous paragraph was confusing, I just went all “Pilgrim’s Progress” on you. If you haven’t read it, you really should try it.

Godliness supports endurance, of course. This is a little different from the “goodness” or “moral excellence” that develops down the road in this spiritual journey. At this stage, there is a simple desire to please God, springing from the warmth that is felt when in fellowship with other Christians.

And the beginning of all of this is love. We understand true love when we first comprehend what God has done for us. “For God so loved the world … .” We didn’t deserve God’s love; maybe those around us should receive love regardless of what they deserve, too.

And don’t miss the promise Peter made: “Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Seems to me like we have a to-do list worth doing.

Lord, thank you for the guidance Peter and other conduits of your holy word offer us. May we grow as we live the lives of disciples. Amen.

Risky Business

This Sunday at Holston View United Methodist Church, the sermon will draw from Mark 12:38-44, where Jesus again causes us to think about our spiritual relationship with money. If you cannot join us in person, join us online at 11 a.m., or watch a recording later.

Today’s Preparatory Text:  1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

When preaching, I occasionally reference the biblical concept of hospitality. As we prepare for this Sunday’s sermon, I want us to further explore this tame-sounding idea that actually is quite radical.

In the letter of 1 John, we hear what real love is, our eyes drawn to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote in the Gospel of John, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

With the idea in mind that we might need to die for each other, it’s no stretch to say that living the Christian life requires us to take risks. We should never be foolish with our lives, but it’s possible our lives could be endangered as we work on behalf of our savior and the world around us. It takes spiritual courage not to pull away when such risks arise.

In my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on this kind of courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you get used to guarding your stuff from others who might want it.

Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution. A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of the social problems around them simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done.

For an example, let’s look at helping the homeless. This kind of hospitality ministry invites us to make sacrifices in our own lives so we can dramatically impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians go so far as to maintain “Elisha rooms,” creating simple spaces for people in need. (The Bible story behind the name is in 2 Kings 4:8-17.)

Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But when we dwell in a Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality, reducing risk and fear.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. The church leaders plopped the blueprints down in front of me one day and asked if I had any input.

“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”

The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.

Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.

Where do we get the spiritual strength to take radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable? Well, we begin with small, communally shared risks, and we grow in strength over time.

It is my prayer that one day the American church, regardless of its denominational lines, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.

Lord, take us down paths requiring courage, filling us with your Holy Spirit as we go. Amen.

Continuing

John 8:31-38 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.  I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”


By John Grimm

As of right this moment, as we are reading this devotion, we are continuing in Jesus’ word.  It takes our time to read the Bible.  It takes our effort to study the words so we can know how free we are in Jesus. 

Over the span of our lifetime, as we continue in Jesus’ word, we can live lives free from sin.

Continuing in Jesus’ word is not only a reference to making time to study the Bible.  Verse 38 points to the fact that our doing what we have heard from the Father is included in the method of continuing in Jesus’ word.  When we know Jesus’ word, we are free from sin and free to obey the Father. This obedience to the Father means we can live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Heavenly Father, thank you for Jesus’ word.  Through Jesus, you have given us freedom from sin.  Show us in Jesus’ word how we can do what we have heard from you.  Guide our steps as Jesus’ disciples so we can know and live the truth that sets us free.  In the name of Jesus, we can be obedient to you.  Amen.

An Exclusive Claim

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “A Straightforward Declaration.” It will be based on Mark 8:27-38. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text: John 14:6-7

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”


By Chuck Griffin

People struggle with the exclusive nature of Jesus’ words quoted above. Even churchgoers sometimes want to soften or reinterpret what he said.

An idea called “universalism” has come up repeatedly among religious people through the centuries. It focuses on the similarities many religions share, ultimately trying to describe them all as different paths to God.

For example, there are similar sayings by the Buddha and Jesus. The Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” 

The Buddha declared all matter in this world to be transitory, unworthy of our attachments. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” 

The Buddha’s last words are said to be, “Work out your own salvation with diligence.”  The Apostle Paul, inspired by Jesus, said, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

But in John 14 and elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus is quoted as saying something very different from the Buddha or other teachers or prophets. Jesus staked claim to divinity, essentially saying he is God among us in flesh. His resurrection from the dead proves there was power behind his claim.

If we are followers who take Scripture seriously, we find ourselves with limited theological options.

C.S. Lewis discussed this topic in his book “Mere Christianity”.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

I hope all of you who are Christians can follow this line of reasoning. It goes directly to our relationship with our savior. When we call ourselves “Christian,” we have made a dramatic, life-altering choice. We have said, “Yes, Jesus Christ is the one. He is Lord, rightfully over all things!”

When we make such a choice, our relationship with Jesus cannot be distant or academic. We approach him as the Holy One, the one who lives now and forever, and his teachings left to us in Scripture become guidance from upon high.

Yes, it is a divisive concept. That’s why so many people try to avoid it. More on the subject of division tomorrow.

Lord, place in us once again a deep sense that through belief in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice we have found the way home to you, despite our sinful disobedience. May that truth color every moment of our lives. Amen.