A Vessel of Grace

This Sunday’s sermon will be a reflection on deep brokenness and the power of God’s grace, based on both 2 Samuel 11:1-15 and John 6:1-14. If you want to watch the sermon but cannot attend Holston View United Methodist Church, it will be available online.

Today’s text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)


By Chuck Griffin

Today’s Bible passage is one of those accounts of Jesus feeding the multitudes. These feedings communicate a very important message about God: His grace is abundant beyond human comprehension.

Sometimes that grace is so abundant that it pours through others in surprising ways. Let me tell you about an old friend of mine named Bob Loy, a fellow I really look forward to seeing again one day.

Bob had every reason to feel crushed by the world. He had lived for decades with about 30 percent lung capacity after an accident that nearly killed him. By the time I knew him, he was elderly. His wife became very ill; while staying with her at the hospital, Bob slipped and fell, breaking his leg near the hip.

While Bob was laid up, his wife died. He couldn’t go to the funeral. His sister also died about the same time. Again, he couldn’t go to the funeral. This was a man who had every reason to surrender to despair.

But not Bob. Through a haze of pain, he kept studying the people in what had become a very tiny world for him, a hospital room. He was certain every day somebody near him needed God’s grace, and he was going to be God’s vessel for that grace. I know for a fact that he brought at least one nurse to a belief in Jesus Christ while flat on his back in that hospital bed.

He also showed me a lot of grace. I was a new pastor, and he constantly was encouraging me, even as pneumonia took over those weak lungs and he had to keep pulling at his oxygen mask to speak.

There was a secret that explained his attitude, a secret he had shared with me not long after we became friends. When he was injured in that accident decades earlier, he saw a vision of an entryway to heaven.

His had been the classic case of dying on the table and being brought back. He said his experience was indescribably beautiful, a vision of a stream, a vast plain, and the most glorious mountain he had ever seen. He knew that God was there, and if he crossed the stream, he could not go back. He also knew he had a choice. A young man at the time, he chose to return to his family, he told me.

But he did not forget the vision. He had seen what eternal victory in Christ looks like, if only briefly, and from then on that vision shaped his life, even as he had intermittent struggles.

Again, I knew Bob only late in his life; when it came time to preside at his funeral, I heard story after story of the lives he changed through the decades as he shared his joyous version of Christ’s redeeming power.

I don’t think we are required to have a near-death experience to understand what Bob understood. We have embraced the truth of a Savior who shows us repeatedly that when it comes to the things that matter—love, hope, joy—there is eternal abundance. We simply need to learn to dwell in that abundance, and offer it to everyone around us.

Lord, fill us with your love so we may pour it out on a hurting world. We declare today that we have no fear of running out of the grace you offer us. Amen.

The Love Christ Offers

Ephesians 3:16-19 (NIV)

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.


By Chuck Griffin

I want to continue what we began yesterday, an exploration of the idea that God’s Spirit works within us, changing us. We basically are using the same text as yesterday, although I’ve offered you a different translation.

I run across people from time to time, some clergy, some laity, who struggle with the idea that God changes us. They will agree that God meets us where we are as sinners to save us, but they pooh-pooh the notion that God wants to take us far beyond where we are met, changing us dramatically through the relationship.

Usually we back into this conversation. Old Methodist notions of “holiness” and even “perfection” arise in small groups or in classes about Methodist history, and these skeptics adopt a posture ranging anywhere from amused to exasperated.

I once had a Methodist clergyman tell me it’s not right to preach and teach such things—the audience, he said, would only be disappointed in the long run.

So, we love a God who loves us just so much and no more? We love a God who goes great lengths to give us eternity, but doesn’t pour out enough additional grace to start preparing us for the full presence of the divine?

I’m not buying it. Particularly when I read about the love flowing through Christ being so wide, long and high that we cannot grasp it with mere human knowledge. Most of us know how human love changes us dramatically. Of course God’s love is going to change us.

I understand what drives the skeptics’ confusion. There are sins and other complications in life that seem insurmountable. Paul wrote today’s text, but he also puzzled over his thorn in the flesh that God would not remove. The undefined problem may have been physical, but it clearly was having emotional and spiritual impact.

Even when faced with complications, we should never fall into skepticism regarding what God can do. The key is to never stop engaging, loving God as best we can and trusting that God always works for our betterment, for as long as we allow.

We may not achieve spiritual perfection in this life, but that just means there’s room for improvement in the time we have left.

Lord, when we feel stuck spiritually, mired in sin or infirmity, first give us the strength to keep reaching toward you. Amen.

Critical Growth

Ephesians 3:17-19 (NLT)

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.


By Chuck Griffin

At this point in Ephesians, Paul has been talking about salvation given to us through Jesus Christ and God’s follow-up to salvation, the provision of the Holy Spirit to believers.

This text takes me back to when I first began to explore “holiness,” that old Methodist concept that to some sounds really demanding, and maybe even highfalutin. It took me a while to figure out how simple and down-to-earth holiness really is.

An old Nazarene preacher helped. I never met him in person, but someone gave me a copy of an obscure book he wrote, and in it I read that holiness simply is a matter of growing in our ability to love as Jesus loves.

It didn’t take long to connect that thought to Paul’s “love is” verses in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

“Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!”

Love is very positive, of course, and we also see love is more than a fuzzy feeling. Love colors our response to all kinds of worldly events, and most importantly, love keeps us rooted in truth. We do have to search for truth, but Christians should know truth is found in what God consistently reveals to each generation regarding the divine plan for humanity, laid out for us in the Holy Bible.

Traditional Methodists find themselves living with a kind of spiritual tension, offering God’s love to all people but never shrinking from our duty to declare what God has first said via Scripture, regardless of how people may respond. We of course hope and pray for a very good response.

We know it actually is a very unloving act to ignore our basic mission. We declare salvation has come; we declare a pressing need to conform to God’s will in every aspect of our lives, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.

Let’s keep moving toward completeness.

Lord, may the work of the Spirit be something we allow to happen within us every day, and may our love be evidence of your presence. Amen.

Enduring Love

Psalm 118:1-2 (NLT)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
    His faithful love endures forever.

Let all Israel repeat:
    “His faithful love endures forever.”

By Chuck Griffin

The opening to Psalm 118 asserts a truth that some people find difficult. Perhaps that’s why it is worth repeating.

In the midst of life’s problems, we can feel God has forsaken us. Those dark times can be deeply frustrating, at least until the moment when God does break through to remind us of his grace.

The Easter season is a good time to remember just how powerfully God has broken through and will continue to break through. For no clear reason, other than the fact God is eternally loving, our savior came among us in flesh to die for our sins, making eternal life for us possible.

While dying, Jesus Christ also felt that loneliness we sometimes feel: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His cry from the cross was a quote from Psalm 22, another place in Scripture we can go when we feel forgotten.

Yes, Jesus died, but always remember, the stone was rolled back. Morning light made its way into the tomb, and the resurrected Jesus stepped forth. The resurrection proves Christ defeated the darkness that sometimes seems to surround us, including what can seem like the deep darkness of death.

Remember this, too: Until Christ is seen in full, we are to be voices in the darkness, offering hope to those who think they will never see light again.

Lord, in difficult times, give us unique signs of your presence to carry us through. Amen.

Faith Made Effective

Galatians 5:2-6 (NRSV)

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.  You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.


What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  It is not my vocation as an elder in the United Methodist Church that counts for anything.

What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  It is not that I grew up in the United Methodist Church, baptized as an infant; confirmed in middle school; and a member of the global United Methodist Church that counts for anything.

What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  The only claim I have in Christ Jesus is himself.  It is the hope of righteousness that is in Christ that counts for everything.  The importance of Christ in my life is to be found in faith.  Both the faith that God gives through Christ and the faith that I have toward Christ counts for anything and everything.  By faith Jesus is known in my life as I love as Christ first and continually loves me.

For what Jesus did for me by taking away my sins and giving me the Holy Spirit, I am able to have faith being made effective through love.  Yes, a translation of “working through love” is being “made effective through love.”  This faith in Jesus is what counts for everything.  For by faith in Jesus, I can be a Christian, even a United Methodist.  For by faith in Jesus, I can be an elder in the United Methodist Church.  It is through these expressions of faith that faith made effective through love is lived.

What about you, what counts for anything in your life?  May we be found to have righteous lives, marked by faith that is made effective through love.

Almighty God, thank you for Jesus.  By his work on the cross, we can live.   It is faith in Jesus, enabled by the Spirit, that prepares us for all righteousness in this world and the world to come.  During our days on this world, our faith in Christ Jesus accounts for everything.  Thank you for preparing good works to do that show our faith is working through love.  All praise and glory are given to you, the Righteous One who makes us righteous.  Amen.

Psalm 30 People

This is the last LifeTalk devotional for January, so I thought I would be forward-thinking and mention a couple of opportunities we have to focus on the power of love in February.

The first is obvious. Feb. 14 is, of course, Valentine’s Day. It falls on a Sunday this year, so don’t let it creep up on you. Guys, we never want to be part of that sad sight at the pharmacy on a Feb. 13 evening, desperately picking through the cards and candy no one else wanted.

The second opportunity comes three days later. Feb. 17 may not bring immediate images of love to mind, but this year, it is the date for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which prepares us for the Good News of Easter April 4.

Ash Wednesday is somber, of course, a time for remembering how we have sinned, failing our creator. We traditionally have ashes smeared on our foreheads in the shape of a cross as a sign of our sorrow.

In remembering our brokenness and mortality, however, we also are encouraged to repent, and repentance from sin and restoration to God are possible only because of the most dramatic expression of love the world has ever seen. God loves us first, and through Jesus Christ, God has saved us from the eternal death we deserve.

Christ’s death on the cross makes it possible for us to be Psalm 30 people:

I cried out to you, O Lord.
    I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
“What will you gain if I die,
    if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
    Can it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
    Help me, O Lord.”

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
    You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

We can repent of sin and turn back toward God at any time, accepting the love continually offered. We’re approaching a special time, though, a season when the liturgies and Scripture readings will call us repeatedly to put sin behind us and embrace what lies ahead.

Lord, search us and show us what is not of you. Help us to be aligned with your will, revealed powerfully and clearly in Scripture. In the coming Lent, may we experience an awakening that changes everything. Amen.

Love

The last of the four Advent themes is love. If we were detectives, we might say, “Now we’ve found the motive!”

The motive, that is, for everything God does. The principle is laid out for us in 1 John 4:7-11:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Why would God unilaterally decide to come among us and save us from our sins, suffering as Christ to give us hope, peace and joy? It was an act of undeserved, unreserved love. Love exists because God exists, and love is integral to God’s being, God’s nature.

The circumstances could be different. We’ve imagined gods completely lacking in love, disinterested, dismissive or even hostile toward human beings. But the One True God is driven by love.

Even when God chastises us, it is a loving act, one designed to bring us into alignment with our creator. When we walk with God, we walk toward life. When we walk away from God, we walk toward death.

God loves us so much he wants to dwell among us. God did this in flesh, as Jesus Christ, carrying out the work necessary to save us from our sins. He resides in us and among us now, as the Holy Spirit. And he will dwell among us in full.

I think I’m about ready to celebrate the incarnation—Christmas!

Lord, sometimes we simply need to stop and give thanks for who you are. We are blessed to be the creation of a loving being, one who looks out for us eternally. Thank you for the love shown to us on the cross. Amen.

Hope

For the rest of this week, let’s consider the four themes of the Advent season—hope, peace, joy and love—which are usually captured in readings during the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday.

As odd as it might seem, Romans 5:1-4 ties hope among the believers to suffering:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

I find it helpful to realize that suffering can have a point, so long as we continue in our faith that God’s promises have come true and will continue to come true.

Whatever we are experiencing, we learn to say in stronger and more authoritative ways, “Yes, this situation is bad, but it is temporary. God has promised that evil and all of its effects will be overcome.”

The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train. There’s no trick in store for us. The light of Christ is bearing down on us, coming to our rescue.

Hope also serves as a great evangelism tool. When people look at a Christian and say, “I want what that person has,” odds are the believer is exhibiting hope. People long to know that there is a potential happy ending to every story, and they particularly want to know how to ensure they can take part in that ending.

It is the basic role of every Christian to project hope where people may find themselves in despair. Where will we demonstrate hope today?

Lord, we don’t like to suffer, but thank you for being there in the midst of suffering, helping us to turn it into something good on behalf of your kingdom. Amen.

Scrubbed of Hypocrisy

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

I had been wondering when this text would come up during the pandemic. I figured someone would have something to say about Jesus defending his disciples’ lack of handwashing.

Except this story is not really about handwashing, is it? Instead, it’s about empty rituals, and even worse, rituals used in a mean-spirited way.

The Pharisees and other Jews did have a long tradition of ritual washing before eating, although the act had little to do with modern hygiene. It’s questionable whether they even had soap as we think of soap today.

The ritual, rooted in God-given instructions to priests, was intended to put a holy act between any inadvertent unclean contact and the act of eating. For example, you never know when you might have brushed against a person or object considered unclean under the law.

As Jesus often did when he realized a strategic effort to discredit him was underway, he in a theological sense returned fire, revealing the hearts of those who piously invoked the handwashing tradition.

Specifically, he pointed out the Pharisees’ tendency to use the letter of the law they had defined to overcome the spirit of the law given by God. Jesus picked an ugly example: the ritual neglect of needy parents.

If you know your Ten Commandments, you know that caring for your mother and father is very important. These Jewish leaders, however, had designed a way to shield their assets by dedicating their property to the temple, even though they continued using their possessions for their own benefit. “Sorry Mom, sorry Dad—it’s all set aside for God’s work, can’t help you.”

Maybe Mom and Dad weren’t so great, having been neglectful or abusive. Who knows what could harden a child’s heart in such a way. None of that really goes to the point Jesus was making, however.

God in his greater wisdom ordained a system of relationships that holds godly society together. When a parent and a child are properly bound by unconditional love, or a man and a woman are joined in the marriage covenant, or a neighbor cares for a neighbor, we are seeing God’s system at work. We may not understand it in full, but we honor the fact that love undergirds what God has established.

Love also is why we should not let today’s Bible passage create in us a disdain for rituals. Ritual religion should be a powerful and beautiful part of our lives. Appropriately performed, rituals allow us to receive love from God, return love to God, and share God’s love with each other.

Let’s keep the good rituals, and if we run across one that fails to transmit love in one of these ways, let’s ditch it.

Lord, where we find ourselves working hard to avoid loving as we should, help us to pause and consider what you would have us do. Amen.

Thankful for Each Other

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Philippians 1:3-14 (NLT)

People who have not read Paul closely like to label him as severe, but I get the sense he had a warm, fuzzy feeling when he wrote today’s text.

I get what he’s saying. Short of gaining eternal life, the biggest reward of being a Christian is developing close relationships with sisters and brothers in Christ. Sometimes we want to pause, think for a minute about who has been with us along the journey, and say thanks.

Thanks to the guys my age who created space for me to be the more relaxed version of myself, and not just “Pastor Chuck.” I never want to be unholy, but it’s nice when I don’t have to be on guard.

I’ve had people tell me they think pastors shouldn’t have friends in the church. Bull-oney. Maybe if you want the pastor to die a premature death.

Thanks to those of you who walked into my office with puzzled looks on your faces and said, “I was praying, and felt I was supposed to say something to you.” I can count all of you on one hand.

My particular favorite is the fellow who had a very direct word from God, and when he finished, he loudly declared, “I have no idea what that means.”

I heard with great clarity what God was saying through each of you, even if you did not understand your words. Some of you encouraged me, some of you brought discernment, and Mr. I Have No Idea pulled me back from the precipice of a bad decision about to be made in frustration.

Unwitting prophets are in this world, and I remain astonished.

Thanks to all of you who spent so much time teaching my children about Jesus and walking with them through difficult times, times where they needed to be able to talk frankly with someone other than Mom and Pastor Dad.

Thanks to all of you who are mindful about showing kindness—gifts from the garden, precious notes, and acts of service to make life easier, for example.

To borrow from Paul, you have a special place in my heart, and I pray that the Holy Spirit fills you and sanctifies you more each day. I know that word of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior spreads because of you.

Lord, give us eyes to see what life would be like without you and the community of Christians where we reside. Having seen, let us rejoice in what we have. Amen.


✟ To subscribe to LifeTalk devotionals, enter your email address in the box found on any page of the Methodist Life website. ✟