Easter 2016 Sermon Series - Week Three Preaching Notes
Key Word: Grace
Notes for Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
What is the difference between being a follower of Jesus as a United Methodist and being a follower of Jesus from another denominational perspective? What is distinctive about being United Methodist?
Since this week’s text is about Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, I would like to consider the question of United Methodism from the perspective of conversion -- especially since our baptismal vow for this week is the following:
“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”
What does it mean to convert to the Christian faith? It it a matter of saying certain words? Is it a once-and-for-all moment, or is there more to it than simply confessing Jesus Christ as your Savior?
Below I will share a personal story of how I have understood conversion for United Methodists being different from what some other denominational groups think of as conversion. This is my own experience and may not be representative at all of the experiences of other United Methodists. I share this story to encourage you to think about experiences you have had in your own life that point to some to of these differences, and to tell your own story. The purpose here is not to draw lines of right and wrong understanding, but to expand all of our understandings of what conversion entails for disciples of Jesus Christ. In your sermon preparation, this would be a great topic to discuss with some of the members of your own congregation as well. Note that there may be great differences in understanding. The point is not to judge one understanding as more valid than another, but to make clear how United Methodists understand conversion as it relates to Christian discipleship. Here are a few questions to guide your discussion:
- What does it mean to you to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior”? When did that happen? What happened in your life that brought you to a point of conversion?
- How is your life different now from the way it was before you met Jesus personally?
- How are you putting your trust in the grace shown in Jesus Christ? Give specific examples (Hint: think about the means of grace!)
- What are you doing to serve Jesus? Again, be specific.
When I was a young person growing up in Arkansas, I was always a little envious of the kids in other youth groups, especially when it came to the mission trips they took. For my Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and other non-Methodist Christian friends, it seemed like the purpose of their mission trips was very different from the Methodist mission trips that I knew about. While the Methodists went on mission work trips, where we would paint houses or help with Vacation Bible school in a rural community, my non-Methodist friends would go to places like New Orleans or Chicago or Kansas City or even New York City. When I asked my friends what they did on their mission trips in these exotic (at least in my mind) locales, they would look at me strangely and explain that they did what people do on mission trips: they witnessed on street corners in order to win people to Christ. They would be trained in how to witness, and then they went to places largely inhabited by people who had yet to be saved and tried to save people, using tracts or other techniques to aid complete strangers in the process of making a verbal confession for Christ.
For these Christian friends, conversion was about saying certain words aloud in the presence of a witness. Once those words were properly spoken, a person was saved forever. The goal of evangelism was to elicit these confessions of faith from nonbelievers or backsliders. I imagined that the success or failure of one’s mission trip was determined by the number of souls a person saved for Christ.
When I read the story of Paul’s encounter with the living Lord on the road to Damascus and his sudden and complete conversion to living the rest of his life as a disciple of Christ, or when I read other stories from the Book of Acts where, upon hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, hundreds or even thousands of people suddenly became Christ followers, I imagine that my childhood friends were not wrong in their desire to witness about Jesus and help others to come to know him as their personal savior.
But United Methodists don’t stop there when it comes to understanding what Christian conversion is about. Our stated goal as United Methodists is not simply to make disciples of Jesus Christ; it is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This language suggests that making a confession for Christ is only the first step in a lifelong process of living into full discipleship.
Certainly knowing God’s saving love in Jesus Christ is a critical part of discipleship.
I think the answer for United Methodists is found within this vow. Because our vow does not stop at confessing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
One of the simplest and most helpful summaries of the United Methodist view that I have had the pleasure to read is actually a book written for youth by F. Belton Joyner, Jr., Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt: A Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and Other Confused United Methodists (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
Joyner notes that John Wesley wrote, “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself” (Rupert E. Davies, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, 227).
That is to say, in the words of Joyner,
Salvation is like a house. To get into the house, you have to first get on the porch (repentance) and then you have to go through the door (faith). But the house itself—one’s relationship with God—is holiness, holy living (Joyner, 3).
Noting that while United Methodists do not dismiss the importance of repentance and asking for pardon, the critical component for us is holy living. Furthermore, all three of these components—repentance, faith, and holiness—are not something we can earn by saying certain words or doing certain things. They are, for United Methodists, gifts of God’s grace.
So how do we engage in holy living as United Methodists? By following the General Rules and practicing the means of grace.
The General Rules
The General rules developed early in our history, first appearing in 1739. The rules were set for small groups (called classes, bands, or societies) of Methodists who met regularly for mutual accountability, to work out their own salvation, and to flee from the wrath of God. The rules provided ways of giving evidence of a person’s desire for salvation. The three basic rules were:
- Do no harm
- Do good
- Attend the ordinances of God.
The Ordinances of God (Means of Grace)
The ordinary means of grace are the ways God has provided as a vehicle for grace. Wesley described them as “outward signs, words, or actions ordained by God, and appointed for this end—to be the ordinary channels whereby God might convey to humankind preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace” (Albert Outler, ed., The works of John Wesley, vol.1, 381). Wesley divided these ordinary means into two categories: Works of piety and works of mercy. Works of piety include the public worship of God, the ministry of the Word (either read or expounded), sharing in Holy Communion, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence. Works of mercy are the things that we do as we practice holy living. This is specifically about “spreading scriptural holiness over the land” (Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, eds., The Methodist Experience in America: A Sourcebook, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000, 82). That is to say, we practice holy living by the way we love the world around us and all that is within it. The issues in Wesley’s day were not so different from the issues we face in our own time and place: slavery, poverty, liquor trafficking, prison reform, war, politics, and education for all.
As Joyner puts it,
United Methodists see a Jesus who heals, who teaches, who forgives, who restores, and who is just, and they seek to be advocates of those systems that heal, that teach, that give new beginnings, that bring justice. . . This work is nothing less than the redemption of the whole created order. The theological term for it is “entire sanctification,” which means the full love of God and the full love of neighbor. Persons in the Wesleyan family use “Christian perfection” as another way of speaking of entire sanctification. (Joyner, Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt)
So yes, as United Methodists, we desperately desire for people to be saved for Christ and to have a personal relationship with their Lord and Savior. But United Methodists believe that salvation is something that we do, something that we practice and get better at and live more fully into as we move through our lives. That is what we mean when we say in our vow that we promise to serve him as our Lord.