The Heavens are Opened! — Preaching Notes

Year A (January 8, 2017) | Baptism of the Lord — The Great Invitation, week 1
by Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser

Order of Worship Preaching Hymns Music Notes Planning Prayers/Resources

Over the next eight weeks, as we embark this new series, “The Great Invitation,” we are going to be talking about evangelism. In particular, we will be exploring the role of all baptized believers in the evangelistic mission of the church by encouraging disciples to share their faith and invite someone who is not yet a follower of Jesus Christ to come and see who he is.

When I hear “evangelism,” I am reminded of several specific things that, for me, have created negative associations with the word. (This is my experience, but I encourage you to think about how you can share your own as you read about mine.)

I think, for example, of the tent revivals I attended as a child each summer with my grandparents in Nebraska and the way the preaching rose to a fever pitch and continued relentlessly until a suitable number of converts had come forward to confess their faith in Jesus Christ. I picture the billboards I see along the route from my home in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to our Discipleship Ministries building in Nashville, that warn in grave terms about where drivers will go if they crash and die without having confessed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

And I think about the father-son team I encountered in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, just a couple of months ago when I was in that city to visit my young adult son. This man and his toddler were part of a group of Christian disciples handing out tracts in the busy area around the capitol building during the farmers’ market on a sunny Saturday morning. Their goal was to save souls by stopping people and inviting them to make a decision for Christ right there and then. In a manner similar to the billboards, I watched as this man shared his concern about the eternal destiny of a farmers’ market shopper he’d stopped. I listened as he assured the young woman that her salvation would be secure if she would only say aloud the words printed on the card. Once the prayer was offered, he told her she was now saved for eternal life. He then congratulated her, gave her a brochure about his church, and moved on to find another soul to save.

Because of experiences like these, I think for a lot of years I simply equivocated the word “evangelism” with “converting people.” And, truth be told, evangelism had become something I didn’t feel gifted or called to do, in part, because I wrongly understood the term to refer to a single event that was focused on manipulating, coercing, or even scaring people into making a decision for Christ.

In his book, Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2016), author Mark Teasdale notes that my experience of the word “evangelism” is not unusual. And, based on my experience, my reluctance to invite others to make a decision for Christ is not unusual either. Teasdale argues that when we set evangelism up entirely around making a decision, it naturally implies an either/or conclusion: either you are with me and you convert, or you are not and you suffer the consequences. Teasdale writes, “Evangelism. . . demands a competition between the evangelist and the evangelized in which only one will have their initial beliefs remain. The evangelist wants to expunge the evangelized’s existing beliefs about the purpose and meaning of the world, replacing those beliefs with his or her own” (p 33).

Teasdale suggests that the key to reclaiming our ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others is to move away from presenting our own experience of faith as an either/or proposition:

We should not deny that evangelists seek to augment or replace people’s existing beliefs. Evangelism entails sharing the good news of God with the hope that people will hear it and receive it. If the person believes something that is harmful toward others or inaccurate about God, then we want the person to accept the good news in place of those beliefs. By the same token, an evangelist should never condemn people. As evangelists we invite others to consider and be challenged by the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We do not issue a blanket condemnation of those who disagree with that good news.

The difficulty many of us have in dealing with this nuance is that evangelism has traditionally been understood as dealing in propositions. The evangelist makes propositional truth claims about who God is and how people must respond to him. The evangelized must either accept or reject these truth claims, with no means of engaging in thoughtful dialogue with the evangelist. We can overcome this by understanding that evangelism trades in stories more than in propositions. This is because stories have more capacity to convey nuanced and meaningful goodness to people than propositions do (Teasdale, Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically, pages 33-34).

In recent years I have grown to understand evangelism in a more holistic and Wesleyan way. In the Wesleyan tradition, as in other denominations, we do believe each person must at some point make a personal decision for Christ. But for Wesleyans, converting people to Christ is not an end-goal; nor is it necessarily a one-time event. Rather, conversion for Wesleyans is a lifelong process of growing into deeper discipleship and deeper relationship with God in Christ.

Our journey toward discipleship begins with baptism. When we baptize an infant or child, we are initiating them into the community of God’s people. We mark them with water, symbolically recognizing before the community of faith that even though they do not yet recognize it for themselves, God’s grace is within them. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them on their journey. And we covenant as a community of faith to show them, by our example, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ so that one day they will experience God’s saving grace and make a confession of faith in Christ for themselves.

Invoking the Flood 
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

The “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our current baptismal rite includes a reference to the Great Flood of Noah (Genesis 6-9). There, the authorized presider prays, “In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood, you set in the clouds a rainbow.” Where does this language come from? And why do we include this language in our baptismal rite? [Read more]

As United Methodists, we believe that experiencing assurance of God’s grace is a critical step in the journey toward a deeper relationship with the living Lord. But we also believe that the way it happens varies widely. Unlike in the examples I gave above, for Methodists, there is no single way, and not even necessarily a single moment, in which someone suddenly changes status from “unsaved” to “saved.”

For some, especially those who come to a relationship with Christ as adults and seek Christian baptism as a mark of their conversion as well as God’s prevenient grace, assurance might take place at the moment of baptism. When that happens, it is very exciting and should be celebrated in the life of the congregation!

But I suspect that for the majority of United Methodists, particularly those who were baptized as infants or young children, encountering the living Lord happened at a time other than baptism. Perhaps it happened at confirmation. Perhaps it was at a revival service, or during a camping experience, or at a gathering of young people, or through campus ministry, or when receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion.

The Wesleyan Way of Salvation 
by Dawn Chesser

One of the simplest and most helpful summaries of the United Methodist view of salvation that I have read is from 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).

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).

Joyner unpacks Wesley’s metaphor this way... [Read more]

Or maybe it happened in a more casual and unexpected way. Maybe it was when God spoke to a person’s heart through a beautiful sunset. Or perhaps the heavens opened up and God spoke unspeakable grace and overwhelming love through the birth of a baby, or through the courage of a struggling father. Maybe the voice of God was heard in the memories and murmurs of someone close to death.

For many of us, the heavens have been opened, God has spoken, and conversion has happened more than once. Conversions can occur throughout our lives, in experiences big and small, formal and informal, public and private. As United Methodists, we don’t limit conversion to being a single, definable event. Conversions are steps along the path in our journey to live more fully and perfectly as sanctified disciples of Jesus Christ. Conversions happen whenever we are reminded that God’s grace, which was recognized in our baptism, has not just been planted, but has taken root and is continuing to grow in us. This is why it is so important for us to ritually remember our baptisms and celebrate them as a worshiping community. Because as Methodists, we don’t believe it is something we have done, such as saying the right words, that has saved us. We believed it is God who has saved us. It is God who reached out to us first, in love and prevenient grace. It is God who sent Jesus into this world to show us how to live as God’s people. It is God who has saved us and offered us eternal life!

Experiences of life-altering assurance and conversion are not something we can manufacture, coerce, or manipulate. The assurance of being saved, of trusting in Christ alone, and feeling the relief that our sins have been taken away is simply a profound response to what God has already done for us.

I’ve always loved the story of John Wesley describing his experience of God’s assuring love one night after a society meeting in a Moravian chapel on Aldersgate Street in London. In his journal entry dated May 24, 1738, Wesley wrote these words: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

While this is certainly the most well-known and beautifully articulated description of John Wesley’s personal experience of feeling assurance of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, the truth is, it was not an isolated experience. Indeed, his brother Charles described a similar experience a few days before the experience John describes, and both men report other experiences of assurance—moments when the heavens opened up and they heard the voice of God speaking directly to them—that occurred throughout their lifetimes.

When were the heavens opened up to you? When did you hear the voice of God speaking in unmistakable terms to you, offering words of assurance and acceptance and a deep sense of knowing that God’s grace was not just for others, but for you particularly? When did you feel the intense relief that comes from knowing that Jesus took away your sins, even yours? When did Jesus reach out a hand of invitation to you to join him in the adventure of Christian discipleship?

Every person is different, and God speaks to each of us in the way that we can most easily hear. There is no single way that is right or wrong, better or worse, typical or unusual. But one thing is certain: the seeds of the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ are planted in our hearts long before we recognize them for ourselves. This is what Wesley called prevenient grace. It is grace that goes before us. It is the grace by which we are marked in the sacrament of Christian baptism. It is the grace that lifts us up when we struggle, fills us with joy, and enables us to strive to be more loving all our days. And we believe this grace is available to all. We believe it is the seed that is planted in the heart of every single person who has ever lived. Today, as we join together in the ritual of remembering our own baptisms, let us be reminded that first and foremost we are saved because God first reached out in love to us. Let us remember, and let us be grateful.

Mark Teasdale (Evangelism for Non-Evangelists) notes that because the seeds have been sown in people’s hearts, our jobs as disciples called to share our faith with others is made easier. We don’t have to plant the seeds, because God has already done that. All we have to do as evangelists is to cultivate them. All we have to do is make sure the conditions are right for those seeds to grow. All we have to do is show by our own lives that those seeds have been planted in us too. All we have to do is bear fruit that is so heavy and sweet with God’s love that everyone who meets us is able to see we are disciples of Jesus Christ. All we have to do is share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. All we have to do is share what we have known personally.

Over the coming weeks, as we move through the season after Epiphany, we want to issue two challenges to every pastor and layperson in the United Methodist Church: First, we hope that through this season of worship, study, and personal devotion, each baptized member of Christ’s beloved community will take time to consider deeply why he or she has chosen to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We want you to encourage the members of your congregation to name and claim their own personal faith stories and to practice sharing those stories.

Second, we are asking you as a preachers to challenge your members to invite someone to worship with your community of faith.

That means that you, as pastor, will need to be attentive not only to the “insiders” in your congregation—the members that you are asking to work on their own evangelism skills—but to the visitors they will be bringing to worship. As you plan your worship services and think about your sermons, keep both contexts in front of you. How can you both encourage your congregation to claim and offer their witness, and at the same time speak to people who may be exploring the Christian faith for the first time or in a new way?

As you close your sermon, invite your members to join with you in remembering their own baptism and invite them to be thankful.

Invoking the Flood at Baptism

by Taylor Burton-Edwards

The “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our current baptismal rite includes a reference to the Great Flood of Noah (Genesis 6-9). There, the authorized presider prays, “In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood, you set in the clouds a rainbow.” Where does this language come from? And why do we include this language in our baptismal rite?

The clearest antecedent to including language about the Great Flood in the prayers at baptism is in Martin Luther’s revision of the Western baptismal rite in 1526, where he added what Lutherans often refer to as “The Flood Prayer.” Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury responsible for developing the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (editions in 1549 and 1552) drew inspiration from Luther’s flood prayer in constructing a prayer for the baptismal candidate included near the beginning of the baptismal rite. This prayer was continued in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the Wesleys used in their day, and was thus likewise continued in the 1784 Sunday Service John Wesley gave and the 1784 General Conference authorized for official use in the Methodist Episcopal Church. With minor alterations, it continued even in the face of substantial liturgical revisions made in 1786 and 1792, but disappeared again in the later ritual revisions (North and South) in the nineteenth century, along with any form or reference to any form of thanksgiving or prayer over the water as such.

 Here are the relevant pieces from Wesley’s version (1784):
“Almighty and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water...and by the baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, did sanctify water to the mystical washing away of sin..” (James F. White, ed. John Wesley’s Prayer Book: The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, Akron, Ohio: OSL Publications, 1991, p. 139).

So why is it back? It is back in part because it restores the reference to the flood in the original Sunday Service. But it is back more importantly because of the effort of United Methodists and many others to settle on an ecumenically agreeable form for baptism grounded on what we have come to know in the past century and a half about the practices of early Christianity. There are two elements, in particular, that can be said to be common to the early Christian practice of baptism. It included a blessing of the water (what we call a Thanksgiving over the Water) before baptismal candidates entered or used the water. And while we don’t have many specific examples of what these ancient blessings looked like, we do know across many examples of references to these liturgies in catechetical and mystagogical materials that they drew deeply on references to the baptism of Jesus and particularly on other biblical texts related to it.

Today’s gospel reading is one of these texts, and in particular the phrase “the heavens were opened” (Matthew 3:16). Mark’s verb in 1:10 (schizomenous) is even more dramatic: “the heavens being split.” Both point to the “opening” or “splitting” of the firmament in the Great Flood (Genesis 7:11) allowing the “waters above the earth” to pour forth. It represents an “uncreation” that leads ultimately to a new beginning, a new creation. And so the opening of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus also functions as a foretaste of the renewal of all things to come in and through the Beloved One of God.

Another of these texts is I Peter 3:20-21. Here, the writer directly connects God’s saving work for those on the ark through the Great Flood with baptism. It even names the Great Flood as an “antitype” (foreshadowing) of baptism. The language in our current baptismal liturgy draws explicitly from this language in I Peter.

Our Anglican heritage, the history of using rich biblical imagery with baptism, and the biblical story of Jesus’ own baptism all inform why the Flood Prayer is an integral part of our baptismal ritual once again.

The Wesleyan Way of Salvation

By Dawn Chesser

One of the simplest and most helpful summaries of the United Methodist view of salvation that I have read is from 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).

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).

Joyner unpacks Wesley’s metaphor this way: “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).

He goes on to note 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. And for Wesleyans, the gifts of God’s grace come in many ways, some ordinary and others extraordinary.

The ordinary means of grace are the familiar ways God has provided. 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. And let us be clear: holy living is, in part, specifically for the purpose of “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). We practice holy living by the way we love the world around us and all that is within it. Through our loving words and actions, we offer Christ and invite others into a relationship with the living Lord.

Joyner notes, “United Methodists see a Jesus who heals, who teaches, who forgives, who restores, and who is just, and the 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” (F. Belton Joyner Jr., Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt, 60).

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 also involves something that we do, something that we practice and get better at and live into more fully into as we move through our lives.

Categories: Year A, After Epiphany, Week 1 - January 8, 2017