4th Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013
We know the scene from 1,000 movies, sitcoms and soap operas. We are looking at a courtroom. Judge on the bench, jury to the side and two tables for the lawyers of the defense and the prosecution. One lawyer is standing and says, “I’d like to call Ms. Smith to the stand as the next witness.” A young woman gets up, takes her place, and after placing her hand on the Bible and swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, she sits down. The lawyer begins. “Please state your full name for the record.” “Ms. Rachel P. Smith.” And what is your relationship to the defendant?” After Ms. Smith answers this, the lawyer proceeds to draw a testimony out of this witness in order to convince the jury of some key aspect of the case.
But today we are being asked to think about being a witness to our faith. O this fourth Sunday of Advent we are being asked to be witnesses; to walk as witnesses on the way to Bethlehem. This might make us feel rather uncomfortable. It might remind us of people from those religious traditions who will knock on the doors of houses, give out tracts and try to talk to strangers about their faith. In recent years the United Methodist Church has added witness to the list of promises new members make when joining a local church. When Bart and Heather, Neris and Andrew joined we asked them to support the church by their prayers, presence gifts, service and witness.
How does that word feel to you in the context of faith? If you were in a new member class now preparing to make these promises to a local congregation, how would you feel about vowing to witness for the church? If someone asked you point blank to witness to your faith, what would you say? Where would you begin?
Maybe the first step would be to clarify who you are. Just like witnesses on the stand. State your name for the record. Imagine how you would answer. Who are you?
Or imagine introducing yourself to a new acquaintance. What do you typically say about yourself. “Hi, I’m Sarah, Joe’s wife, Grace and Salem’s mom. I work part time in South Walpole and am also a doctoral student at Boston University.” That kind of introduction is a start, but it doesn’t say much about our faith, about who we are spiritually.
I’ve shared an exercise with a few people in this church (new members, prayer group). Think of as many vehicles as you can. An ocean liner, a rickety rowboat, a blimp, a carousel, a jeep, a horse and wagon, a bicycle. If your life is a spiritual journey, which vehicle would best describe how you are traveling these days?
Now again to the Epistle reading for today and hear how Paul introduces himself to the Romans, a group of Christians and Jews whom he has never met in person.
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” As we might expect he gives his name for the record, and his employment. But even Paul’s name has a back story, because as you might remember from reading the book of Acts, when he was born his parents named him Saul and as a young man he made a name for himself by persecuting Christians. Now, after his conversion he pointedly is no longer Saul the persecutor of Christians, but Paul, a servant – really the Greek word is slave – of Christ.
A slave of Christ. Slaves had no rights, no property and no prospects. The job of a slave was to do what they were told, they were at the disposition of the owner. Servant may be the best word to remind us that Paul volunteered to serve Christ through free will. But having bound himself to Jesus as Master, Paul relates to him as a slave, because he will do whatever his master asks. It is also likely that when he calls himself a slave Paul is remembering that he belongs to Jesus, who paid for Paul with his life.
Called to be an apostle. The word is vocare – vocation. Paul sees the work that he does as something his Master has called him to do. As a slave, Paul expends his energy not for his own benefit, wealth, or fame, but for Jesus. And an apostle is someone who is sent out. Like early Methodist preachers, Paul traveled from community to community on behalf of Jesus.
The last part of the introduction tells us why. Paul is called by Jesus to be his servant, to go out as Jesus’ emissary for the gospel of God. The Greek word for Gospel is evanggelion – the ev means good and the angeilon is related to the word angel – God’s messenger – evanggelion is a message from God. Paul’s mission as an apostle is to travel around with good news from God. It’s a fulfilling of what the angels of Bethlehem said, that Jesus Christ is the source of good news to all the earth. And that good news can’t spread beyond Bethlehem without some apostles to spread it around. Paul is an evangelist – a person who shares the good news of God with others. Paul’s vocation is to witness to the work of his Master, Jesus Christ, for the benefit of others.
So just from his one sentence introduction we learn a great deal about Paul, not just his name and where he works, but his spiritual life – his relationship to God. His life was dramatically changed when he was called, he became a slave to Jesus Christ and seeking to do only his master’s bidding, he has been sent out to share the good news of God.
But the rest of today’s lesson tells us even more about the good news Paul is sharing. Eugene Peterson puts it this way.
The sacred writings contain preliminary reports by the prophets on God’s Son. His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master. Through him we received both the generous gift of his life and the urgent task of passing it on to others who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus. You are who you are through this gift and call of Jesus Christ!
Wow – so what Paul is saying to his readers, the people of the church in Rome – and to us, the people of the church in South Walpole is that we are like him. We are recipients of the life changing, and life sustaining grace of God through Jesus Christ, and we too have a vocation – Jesus is urgently calling us – to the task of passing this good news on to others so that they also will, like us, enter into obedient trust in Jesus. Paul would heartily endorse the addition to our Methodist promises to support the church through our witness. We are all called to be evangelists.
We have been experimenting with witnessing this year by the lighting of the Advent wreath. Ordinary people from our congregation have come up and taken a turn at speaking about who they are in relationship to the church, what a difference the church has made in their lives, how God has been working in their lives and the life of our church together. It has been a stretch because we have not been in the habit of talking this way to one another. We don’t talk about our personal faith outside of church, and rarely even talk about it inside.
It wasn’t so in the early days of Methodism. If this was 1818 and we were part of the Mansfield circuit, and I was your pastor (miraculous since women weren’t allowed back then), my Presiding Elder would surely tell me I was not doing my job because in over three years of serving this little congregation I have not heard the testimony of most of the members. I wouldn’t be able to say which of the people here have a strong prayer life, and which are floundering. I have not examined each of you to assess blockages to spiritual growth, what are your particular temptations, what are your souls’ deepest desires. How can a pastor lead members of a congregation further on their faith life, or even pray for them with such ignorance? Now there are some who have come to me in a time of crisis, or requested an appointment, or we’ve had some prayer time together. And for those times I am thankful. But as a pastor I feel a bit like Little Bo Peep when it comes to knowing where most of you are spiritually. And how can I lead you to Bethlehem – to the salvation found in Jesus Christ, if I don’t know where to find you?
I’ve been looking to the historical record of New England Methodists in the 1800s not to feel badly about what we are lacking today, but to find clues about what we might do to grow as well as they did. And I want to share with you one thing I have learned that I believe will help us learn to be witnesses. It’s a kind of road map of faith, that will give us some common language to begin to describe where each of us is on our spiritual journeys. It is called the Way of Salvation.
I’ve given you a version of it in the bulletin. Take a look at it. Notice the arrow. The Way is supposed to be a one-way street, and everyone on the way is meant to move toward Christian perfection. This might sound crazy, but Jesus told his disciples to “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” And as John Wesley reasoned, Jesus wouldn’t command something that was impossible. Notice the terms above the arrow. These are all types of Grace – a free gift to us from God. This is the power, the energy source for us to move forward along the way.
Early Methodists, like the prayer meeting here in South Walpole in 1818, asked each other every time they met – “How is it with your soul?” And they were able to give specific answers because they had this road map, this way of salvation, in mind. Some people were not even aware of God at work in their lives. As if they were asleep.
Others are aware of God and grace but they are also aware of their own sinful nature. Some Christians can get stuck in this stage for most of their lives. These are the dour folks who are always feeling remorse and regret for their sins. One Methodist author calls these “counterfeits” of repentance. Going through life this way is like the owner of a car who keeps telling everyone the car is dirty, but never washes it.
True repentance, the Methodist claims, comes from becoming aware, awake to the holy reality of God. It can come like it did to Isaiah in a vision of God in the temple who cried “Holy, holy, holy” when looking at God, and “woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips” when he looked at himself. Or it came to Simon Peter while fishing, when Jesus helped him succeed miraculously at work. Peter sensed God’s holiness and said “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” For my friend David, who grew up a secular Jew, his moment of repentance came when he and his wife were in their new house and the water in his furnace system ran dry. He caught it just in time to turn it off before it set the house on fire. This led David to believe that God wanted to save his life, and he turned toward a local church to find out more about this holy God who saves.
In 19th century terms a person in a stage of repentance was called anxious, or mourning because they often fretted, and wrestled with God long and hard for several days or weeks between their first experience of God’s holiness, and an experience of assurance that God’s justifying grace had washed away their sins. This is the experience of being born again, or justified, or assured of pardon. It is a key moment in the life of a Christian. But on the Way of Salvation it is not just one moment. For the very experiences that assure us of God’s love in spite of our sin, usher us forward to a life of freedom from sin. This is Sanctification, the gradual and slow replacement of vices with Christian virtues – road rage for patience, pretentiousness for humility, gluttony for self giving, anger for thanksgiving, fear for peace.
Sometimes in this stage Methodists experienced another profound moment of grace which they called a Second Blessing, or even Perfect Love – when for a time they felt even more like God had worked with them to shine them up to a holiness that could really reflect the image of the creator.
It is also helpful to know that while this way of salvation is meant to be a one way street, Methodists always could give account for people moving in the other direction. The name they gave for those persons was “backslider.” Young Isaac Jennison Jr. was converted as a teen, but then drifted away from the assurance of faith, and the desire to serve Jesus Christ. At a camp meeting in Lincoln, MA in 1832 he spent the days with several other young lads in “youthful folly” avoiding the preaching stand and praying circles, until the last day at the last public prayer meeting when his father, unable to find Isaac Jr. prayed aloud for him from the prayer circle.
His words reached the ears of the secluded boy, and went like a dagger to his heart. Soon he was seen making his way through the crowd, bathed with tears of penitence. Just within the circle he fell upon his knees, and was immediately delivered from his burden, and joy and praise began to spring up in his soul. That it was the Spirit's genuine work, ever succeeding day of his life gave increasing evidence. So did he grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Young Isaac Jennison is an example of what the Methodists called a backslider reclaimed. Many of us find we are backsliders, that we have moved further away from God’s full salvation in a life of holiness. But there is no need to despair. Because God’s forgiveness is offered again, and again and again. And the roll of the church is to carry us, pray for us, pull us into our prayer circles until we once again feel the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
What the Way of Salvation did for the early Methodists, which I fully believe it can do for us, is provide language. It can give us a common way to talk about our faith, and a common goal – Christian perfection – living in the full, pure image of God, which God created us to be from the very beginning. And when people in the church start to talk about it, start to bear witness to what God is doing in their lives, we begin to see the grace of God at work in our own lives. And then we can talk about it too. And the more we share the work of God in our lives with other people, the more they will become awakened to the work of God in their own lives. And this is the exciting work of the church that leads to natural growth.
I am reminded of our good friend Ed Nolan, who was looked to by the Walpole AA group as a Father. Every Monday when he came to set up for the meeting in our hall, he would invite me to stop by sometime. When I finally did, I was struck at how well and often the members spoke about the grace of God at work in their lives. When they were getting read to move to their new location, I spoke to the group to let them know we would miss them, and that we appreciate the great ministry they do in our community. I told them that they speak much more about the grace of God in the hall on Monday nights that the people who gather in the sanctuary do on Sunday mornings. I am certain, that if each of us learned to witness the way that AA witnesses, our parking lot would be full to bursting the way it was when AA met here every week.
Hear a description of a love feast 1835 a circuit rider wrote about a love feast at a camp meeting in the Durham, New Hampshire; which was exceedingly interesting. He wrote
In this, we could see, in a measure, the beneficial effect of the camp meeting upon the church. Encouraging, comforting, animating, strengthening, and purifying their hearts; preparing them to serve God in newness of life, and exert a hallowed and powerful influence in their respective societies. But nothing in connection with the meeting appeared more interesting and important, than the benefit derived by the preachers; who were remarkably blessed. Several of them, through outward trials and inward temptations, had become so discouraged and disheartened in their work, that they had determined to locate at the next conference. But at this meeting, Divine grace raised them above every embarrassment, and they resolved anew, to trust in God, and devote themselves wholly to the great work, whereunto he had called them, be their sacrifices and sufferings what they might. It is impossible to calculate, how extensive will be the consequence, of such a quickening of so many Ministers in Christ. Probably it will be a means of adding hundreds if not thousands, to the number of souls who will be saved through their instrumentality: generations to come may fell the vibrations of the impulse then given.
When parishoners find the words to share their faith journeys with their pastors, it lifts us up, affirms our callings and strengthens the church for generations to come. It is right and vital that we all learn to give testimony to our faith.
We are not all called to be apostles- sent hither and yon to share the good news of Jesus with total strangers. But all disciples of Jesus Christ are called, and we are called to be evangelists – to share the good news of the salvation we have found in the grace of Jesus Christ. Let us begin to be open to that calling by learning the language of our Methodist heritage to talk about the work of God in our lives with one another.
 Gregory Clapper As If the Heart Mattered. 41.