Dodging the Cross

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC will be “A Piercing Truth,” drawing on Hebrews 4:12-16. If you cannot be with us in person, please join us online live or to watch a recording later.

Today’s Focus Text: Mark 8:27-38


By Chuck Griffin

Like most preachers,  I tend to mention God’s grace a lot. This makes sense; the fact that God loves us despite our sinfulness serves as the basis of salvation.

Grace is a heart-warming joy. We need to remember, however, that while God gives us grace freely, grace is by no means cheap, having been purchased at a terrible price.

Grace comes to us primarily through Jesus Christ, of course. In Mark 8:27-38, Jesus speaks in no uncertain terms about its price.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter has the good sense to declare Jesus to be Messiah.

Jesus then begins to teach his followers exactly what this means. As Messiah, Jesus must suffer, be rejected by religious authorities, be killed, and rise from the dead.

Peter cannot stand it. He goes so far as to rebuke Jesus for saying such things.

“Get behind me, Satan!” is Jesus’ response. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Despite his moment of brilliance, Peter has proven to be wilfully blind to the cross in Jesus’ future. Informed of the cross, he still refuses to see it. To Peter, half the story is better than the whole story; he wants the joy of Christ’s presence and power without the pain required to redeem the world from sin.

Even after hearing Jesus’ teachings on this matter, the disciples still refuse to understand. They never understand until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Modern Christians, myself included, are so often like the pre-resurrection disciples that I want to cringe. We like grace and the warm, secure feeling it provides us. Now, if we could just avoid the idea of the cross.

It’s particularly difficult because Jesus spoke not only about his own cross, but the cross his followers must bear, too. Our cross usually proves to be more metaphorical, but we hardly find it more pleasant to consider.

But can the requirements of a Christian be any more clear? “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

When Jesus says “deny themselves,” he is telling us to set aside our own worldly interests. When he tells us to take up our cross, he is telling us to make God’s will, the establishment of his kingdom on earth, our top priority.

Such thinking turns our lives upside down. Suddenly, even our own well-being does not matter so much as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as if their interests precede our own.

Fortunately, such thinking also turns the world upside down. And the more we think this way, the more visible God’s kingdom becomes.

We may even learn to like our cross, understanding it to be the proper response to the sacrifice Christ made on his cross.

Lord, show us our crosses, and may we bear them in gratitude for the eternal life we have received. Amen.


The editor of Methodist Life’s Lifetalk blog will be on vacation through the end of October, so the blog will be on hiatus, too.

Conquerors

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC will be “A Piercing Truth,” drawing on Hebrews 4:12-16. If you cannot be with us in person, please join us online live or to watch a recording later.

Today’s Focus Text: 1 John 5:1-6


By Chuck Griffin

This scripture meditation may sound a little old-fashioned.

Lately, a lot of clergy are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important for the converted to remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man said he looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said. He just knew. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, and then live into our belief.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone. If Momma ran off when you were a baby and Daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right remains right, and wrong remains wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians at an intersection. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching them, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as traditional Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring both law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—we call sin a sin, and we recognize that defiantly unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We conquer the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its rightful owner. That in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.

Lord, keep us grounded in the faith that has sustained the church and changed the world for centuries. Amen.

A Reason To Be Angry

Job 32:1-5

So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong. Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job, because they were older than he. But when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouths of these three men, he became angry.


By John Grimm

We can get angry for the most inconsequential items.  We get cut-off in traffic–we have road rage.  Our favorite team is done wrong by the referees–we abuse our children and wives.  We are slighted at work for a promotion–we massacre our co-workers.  Obviously, each of these situations can be handled in healthier ways.

Elihu had been silent, waiting to speak about Job’s situation.  He had every right to be angry.  Even though Job was distraught, it would have been possible for Job to justify God.  Having friends declare Job to be in the wrong is also a reason to be angry.  Job’s friends did not know the situation from the reader’s perspective, or from God’s perspective.  Thankfully, Elihu did not rush to judgment against Job or his friends.  The patience of Elihu helped Elihu present his case.

Maybe the Book of Job is about a young man’s patience.  Maybe the Book of Job is about the rush to judgment of older people.  Maybe, Job could have handled his grief if his friends had been patient like Elihu.  It does give us pause to consider our patience when other people are going through grief.  It does help us question how we treat our friends who going through unexplainable situations.

God, when we do not know the situation as you do, may we be like Elihu.  Would you help us keep our tongues in check when we are ready to say what does not need said?  Through your grace, we are looking forward to when we can become angry for those situations in which we need to become angry.  May your Holy Spirit show us the times to become angry and when to remain silent, and may the former be less than the latter!  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.

God in Art: Justice

The painting below, Raphael’s “Death of Ananias,” depicts a moment when God’s justice fell upon a husband who was part of a deceptive couple in the early church. (The wife receives her portion soon after.) The story is found in Acts 4:32-5:11. Does the story and its depiction shock you? Why might we be shocked that God’s justice could be so swift?

Lord, we thank you for the mercy and grace you continually shower upon us. We know that without Jesus Christ, your justice would be swift, righteous and terrible. Amen.

Justice Is a Holy Word

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church, “Justice in the Gate,” will explore Amos 5:6-15. If you cannot be with us in the sanctuary Sunday, you are welcome to join us online at 11 a.m., or view a recording later.

Today’s focus text: Matthew 5:38-42 (NRSV)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”


By Chuck Griffin

“Justice” fits into all sorts of slogans: Justice is blind. Justice will prevail. No justice, no peace.

Here’s what I and a lot of other Bible-focused people might add. Justice is about relationships; perfect justice requires holy relationships. From a Christian perspective, God’s justice is constantly trying to expand its influence in our sin-wracked societies as we better learn to relate to one another as children of God.

Thousands of years ago, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a radical expansion of justice. Before that concept developed, only the rich and powerful had anything resembling justice. The weak and poor just lost a lot of teeth and eyes. What sounds like Old Testament vitriol to us now was in fact an attempt to guarantee everyone would be treated the same.

Sure, there often was a gap between intent and implementation, and we still see unequal applications of justice today. Dear Lord in heaven, did I even need to say that after these last few years? We harden our hearts against one another because of race or economic status, and we fail to offer a holy relationship to someone we think of as “other.”

And by the way, no, I did not just offer a wholesale restatement of the progressive left’s justice message. We are all guilty as we peer at each other from our various vantage points in the public square. When it comes to ensuring justice for all, most of us remain in the stage where we shout across the pavement, “You go first.”

Jesus’ difficult-to-accept description of kingdom justice is largely about deciding to go first, and it is hard to embrace because he asserts that change can happen when a victim begins the process. The great hope is that when people turn the other cheek, give the litigious more than they sought, and freely help beggars and borrowers, they trigger life-changing responses from these recipients of unexpected grace.

I know, I know. It’s so hard to follow Jesus’ teachings consistently. These recipients of grace often take advantage of the giver. They don’t seem to change, and we find ourselves constantly compromising when it comes to reaching out to really difficult people.

Let’s remember that it took centuries for most of humanity to be able to agree that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds primitive—that there might be a better way. It may be a little longer before Christ’s vision of justice fully prevails. I suspect Christ will have to return to make his work complete.

That doesn’t mean we stop striving for justice now, though, establishing new, holy relationships wherever we can.

Lord, where we see injustice, give us the words and actions you would use if standing in our place, and then fill us with your courage. Amen.

Whoredom and Whole Hearts

Jeremiah 3:6-14 (NRSV)

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and played the whore there? And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me”; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom so lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the Lord.


By John Grimm

The Bible does get our attention.  The title for this devotion comes from this passage.  Yet, as we read the title over and over, we are offended.  We have not acted like Israel or Judah.  We say we have not used stone and tree to make idols to worship other gods. 

Judah (the Southern Kingdom, which included Jerusalem) saw the faithless ways of Israel (the Northern Kingdom).  Israel was carried away by the Assyrians in 726 B.C.  Around 586 B.C., Judah was going to be carried away by the Babylonians.  Why was Judah going to be carried away, deported from the land of Judah?  Because it was only in pretense, in name only, that Judah returned to the Lord.

God has been calling repeatedly to America since Sept. 11, 2001.  We can return to the Lord.  Returning to the Lord cannot be done only with words, in name only.  Our faithfulness to God must overwhelm our lives so our actions show we love God with our whole hearts.  Our faithfulness to God can be seen in how we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Judging from all the evidence in America today, we have not returned to the Lord God with our whole hearts.  We may still be in our whoredom.

Holy Spirit, thank you for being patient with America.  Your patience allows us to return with our whole hearts to the Lord.  We hear about Jesus Christ and believe he is a good teacher.  Yet, when we believe Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh, we find the beginning of salvation.  Work in us so that we see and live in the faithfulness of God, the salvation God offers us. We ask that our faithfulness to God be demonstrated by our whole hearts.  May the name of Jesus Christ be found in us before it is too late.  Amen.

A Bunch of Do-Gooders

By Chuck Griffin

As we enter the last quarter of the year and what we typically think of as the “holiday season,” I’m sure many of you feel as frustrated as I do. This pandemic is still with us, despite many of us thinking in the middle of the year that the situation would be more normal by now.

Worship attendance is down, and despite having had what seemed like some very powerful worship experiences recently, I long for the weekly church participation we used to see. At the same time, I understand where most people are. Within my own family, we have a lot of concerns regarding what could be carried to the unvaccinated and vaccinated-but-vulnerable people among us.

Galatians 6:8-10 offers us a straightforward strategy to bear us through these tiresome times: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

How can we continue to do good in the world, focusing in particular on the good of our fellow church members? Or perhaps I should pose the question in the singular: How can I do good … how can you do good? This isn’t a new concept for Christians, of course. Each of us needs to arise in the morning and think, “I want to do something that counts as good today, something that makes a difference.”

Thinking such thoughts raises our level of alertness, which is critical if we are to get our timing right. Some of you know I have practiced karate for years, and we who do so have these pithy little sayings that are translations from what is known as the “Karate Code.” One of my favorites is, “The time to strike is when opportunity presents itself.”

We strike at evil whenever we do good. But we have to keep our eyes open for those limited windows of opportunity. And then we have to be bold enough to move quickly.

We may be more constrained in how we move about the world right now, but as we move about, let’s keep our eyes open for those places where a kind word, a prayer or our resources can go to work right away.

Even a pandemic isn’t powerful enough to keep us from consciously doing good. And never forget that as we do good, we are planting for the future. God promises we will reap mightily for the kingdom.

Lord, we ask that you do more than just bring us through this difficult time. May we make good use of the time we are in now. Amen.

A Need to Relate

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church will explore Genesis 2:18-24. If you cannot be with us in the sanctuary Sunday, you are welcome to join us online at 11 a.m., or view a recording later.

Today’s focus text: Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV)

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


By Chuck Griffin

Sunday, I will explore the specific plan God has for relationships between men and women, a plan rooted in what we now think of as Christian marriages. And beyond marriage, we are made to relate to one another in all sorts of holy ways.

That shouldn’t surprise us. God made us in his image, and even before God began to create our cosmos, he was mysteriously able to relate to himself, never alone. While God is one, we also understand God to be triune, capable of relating within as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know how the song goes: “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” 

Such a state of being would likely render humans insane, but for the holy, perfect God, this internal dynamic is perfectly normal and manageable. God didn’t create because he needed friends; as best we can tell, he created simply because he is creative.

For humans to experience “other,” we need other people. Even if marriage isn’t right or timely for us, we still are made for community, for the love of neighbor.

For many of us, the most painful part of the pandemic has been a reduction in communal interaction. We may not be truly alone, but we may have a sinking feeling we are being pushed in that direction.

I say all of this today to encourage something simple. Be sure you are experiencing all the holy relationships you need right now, even if they have to be maintained through technology rather than in person. And certainly, be sure your neighbors haven’t become isolated, remembering Jesus’ expansive definition of “neighbor.”

It is God’s plan that we be together.

Lord, keep us from loneliness, and give us clear visions of those who may feel isolated. Amen.

To Console and Comfort

Job 2:11-13 (NRSV)

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.


By John Grimm

In the United States of America, when a loved one dies, we typically receive three days of bereavement time from our employers.  When a friend dies, we will make time to pay our respects to the family.  Either way, we will gather at the grieving person’s house.  We will reminiscence about the good times with the deceased loved one.  We somehow make it through those days, being able to console and comfort the grieving family.

Job’s friends came to console and comfort him.  They wept loudly; they threw dust on themselves; they tore their clothes.  Then for seven days and nights, they only sat with him.  This last mode of consoling and comforting a grieving person seems appropriate for today.  Sitting with the grieving family without saying a word is wise.

It is when we begin to accuse and blame that we have lost the practice of consoling and comforting.  The grieving person will express a range of emotions, from deep anger to praise.  They will have regrets and sweet memories.  As for Job, he could express himself, and did express himself, despite his friends’ words of accusation.

How wise would we be if we only sat with the grieving people?  How wise would we become if we refrain from accusations when we see family and friends grieving?

God of wisdom, thank you for your consolation and comfort during our grief.  Thank you for helping us to learn to grieve with those who are grieving.  Forgive us for speaking out of turn when we could be silent when we sit with those who are grieving.  May we have hearts and ears to hear the pain of grief. May we have the patience to see those who are grieving through the time of intense grief.  In the name of Jesus, we ask for wisdom when it comes time to console and comfort.  Amen.