Monday, January 16, 2006

What Does it Mean to Be a United Methodist--Sermon 1: What sets us apart. Sermon in Preperation for Covenant renewal service

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 15: 1-8

What does it mean to be a United Methodist? I assume many of you would answer a friend who asked you that question with a set of beliefs that you feel are unique to United Methodism, perhaps some of you would answer that question with a description of how we Methodists practice our religion. Still others may answer according to what our church stands for in society. Well—perhaps. More likely, I would venture, might be an answer having to do with your family’s history in this particular church, or in Methodism in general. To you, being a Methodist might just be what it means to be a Millard, or a Goodner, or a Huie. Others of you may have found this church as a good “meeting ground:” A halfway point between Roman Catholicism and the Baptist church for example. Or, a denomination not too terribly far from Lutheranism. Over the next six weeks in this service, we will be looking at some answers to the question, “What does it mean to be a United Methodist?”, but I want to start by affirming some of these definitions first. If your family has been United Methodist since Francis Asbury rode into town, that is very much a part of what it means to be a United Methodist for you. If you’ve found common ground with your spouse in the United Methodist Church, that has a lot to do with “what it means to be a Methodist.” If you’re simply here because you’re drawn to the fellowship of this place or have been in the past—that is indeed what it means to be a Methodist.
What I’m going to share with you are certain themes or ideas that have been birthed in the Methodist movement that have uniquely shaped this denomination of almost 12 million people. We are a large denomination, and a highly democratic denomination—and because of this unique heritage and polity, there are United Methodists who think differently about different issues. The aspects of the church I am going to share with you through this six week series though are foundational aspects of our denominational heritage, and they make us distinct, and we should know them and celebrate them. They are fairly clearly captured in our hymnal’s table of contents, and Reba Nell and I had a great time picking out the hymns for this series.
Next week: What Draws us Together: Connectionalism—Nature of Church, United in Christ
3 or 4 Fold Grace: Power of the Holy Spirit: Prevenient, Justifying, Sanctifying and Perfecting Grace
Sacraments: Whole Section on Sacraments and Rites of Church
Holiness: Sanctifying Grace—Personal and Social Holiness
The World is My Parish: Nature of Church, Called to God’s Mission
.But, even though they make up our church’s DNA, it is possible that you might not know how to articulate them. If that is the case, you’re not alone.
What prompted me to give this sermon series was an article in the Christian Century.
Most Teens learn beliefs from parents! But most parents don’t feel competent in transferring beliefs
Religious traditions understand themselves as presenting a truth reavealed by a holy and almighty God who calls human beings from a self-centered focus to a life of serving God and neighbor….but most teens and probably most parents too think religion is to help them make good life choices and be happy.
Moralistic Theraputic Deism
Why we don’t affirm Moralistic Theraputic Deism
We have a much richer, more theologically deep religion, and the distintinctive elements of it are the unique parts of the revelation—we could come up with “be happy and feel good about oneself” without a revelation from God.
The Jeremiah scripture that we read this morning leads us into the covenant experience, and it also grounds one particular aspect of Wesleyan theology that is fairly unique to the Methodist movment. This idea is called “Imparted Righteousness.” Whereas Imputed Righteousness is the righteousness of Jesus credited to the Christian, enabling the Christian to be justified; imparted righteousness is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit after justification, working in the Christian to enable and empower the process of sanctification. Don’t worry, if you’re not quite sure about all those words, we’re going to talk about them in coming weeks. It is probably easier for now for you to think about it this way. In our expression of Christianity, we believe there is a moment of being “saved,” but we believe the process of salvation involves a continual outpouring of grace propelling us toward a higher plane of living and loving.
A covenant is an expression of living into a higher expression of trust and commitment. This is an expression of imparted righteousness. As I mentioned with the children, at first glance a covenant looks a lot like a contract because it is an agreement. One way of looking at it would be turning over our own will freely to the will of God. Certainly, later in the covenant service, you will all say the words, “I renounce my own will, and take your will as my law.” However, I believe a better way of thinking about it would be making a formal commitment in the presence of God and our community to consistently strive for the Vision and Goals we find expressed by God in the Scriptures.
At the end of the covenant service, we will also all say together, “O mighty God, you have now become my Covenant Friend, and I, through your infinite grace, have become your covenant servant.”
As Jesus proclaims in the Gospel reading we read today, by acknowledging our connection to the life giving vine—which is Christ himself, we will bear much fruit. A covenant is this kind of connection, and fruit bearing is the activity of a Christian who is “plugged in” to the radically life changing grace and love that we find in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ causes us to live outside ourselves. Christ calls us to sacrifice for others, to confess our sins and to turn around on a new course. Christ calls us to live according to a new law—the law of Love. Seperated from this Vine, we shrivel up in the dry depravity of self-centeredness. We whither in the wasteland of want. Covenant making is public declaration—it calls our attention to our own connectedness. We serve God both individually and together as one body. We are fed spiritual food individually and as one body. We bear fruit individually and as one body. We make a covenant both individually and as one body. Making a covenant is an audible, visual, experiential reminder that we are indeed connected to the vine, and therefore SHOULD bear fruit. As Wesley wrote, “I do here willingly put my neck under your yoke, to carry your burden. All your laws are holy, just, and good. I therefore take them as the rule for my words, thoughts, and actions, prominsing that I will strive to order my whole life according to your direction, and not allow myself to neglect anything I know to be my duty.” Keep in mind that Jesus says that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. This is because God propels us forward with the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom of God. We aren’t on our own—through covenant, God vows to be on our side. And unlike us, God never abandons this Holy covenant. Thanks be to God!


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