June 26, 2013

Missional United Methodism for the 21st Century – Part 3 of 6: The Cross of Christ

John Lomparis speaking

It is quite ironic that the UM renewal event was held in a room with an adjacent office that highlights the very problem facing the denomination.

The following remarks were delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis on June 15 at the annual lunch of Cal-Pac Renewal, the evangelical renewal caucus within the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Centrality in preaching and teaching of the cross on which Jesus Christ died for our sins. 

In the words of Methodist Article of Religion # II, Jesus Christ is “very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but for actual sins of men.”

Colossians 1:19-23a:

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”

Or as Jesus described His mission more succinctly in Matthew 20:28, he came not to be served but to serve and “to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Sometimes we see United Methodist leaders talking about the key to growth as looking to secular market research about what unchurched Americans want and value, and then eagerly declare that we will offer that. Unspoken assumptions here are that we should let the values of those who do not know Christ determine the church’s values, and that we humans are so capable of devising impressive, clever plans for church growth that we don’t need any help from the Holy Spirit, thank you very much.

But at the heart of the gospel is the sad reality that we live in a fallen world filled with fallen people whose beliefs and behaviors are pathologically out of line with God’s perfect truth.

Yet most everyone in our self-indulgent culture thinks of themselves as fundamentally GOOD people who deserve good lives here and hereafter.  As an unsaved young man, I never heard anything more fundamentally offensive than Romans 3:9-20 saying that not ONE of us is good, let alone that we all deserve eternity in Hell. Any advertising firm could have warned Paul that such messaging does not test well in focus groups.

Of course, we must be careful to always ultimately point to the Savior when we talk about sin. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the fact that we need a Savior is not inherently offensive, especially to Americans today.

There is no way someone as prideful as me would have ever admitted my sinfulness and my need for a Savior if it were not for the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in my heart.

And that is the scariest thing about Christian ministry: we can’t do it on our own! The ministry to which Christian laity and clergy alike are called necessitates living in daily dependence on God, to whom we must regularly, fervently cry out. Because by human standards the whole venture of having a Christian church just doesn’t make sense. It needs God’s supernatural support to survive and thrive.

So we must regularly pray for God to work through our preaching of the Gospel. And we must not put God to the test by expecting people He has sent to us to hear the Gospel elsewhere.

Clergy, as well as any lay people who ever preach, if you remember nothing else from my talk today, please remember this.

Make a deliberate point of working into every single one of your sermons a very clear presentation of the Gospel message that we are all sinners, that there is no hope for our own abilities to crawl out of the God-defying mess we have chosen for ourselves, but that God loved us so much that He came down in Jesus Christ to experience all the sorts of challenges and temptations that you and I face in this fallen world, that He remained without sin, and that while we were still sinners, He chose to suffer a tortuous murder on the cross to pay the penalty we earned for our sins, so that through His blood we might have the offer of new life in Him.

And if working that into your sermon means you need to preach a bit longer, all the better.  Little 15-minute sermonettes do not usually have room for the kind of exegetical depth, the kind of dealing with tough questions and real-life applications, that our people need to be fed on a regular basis. As my friend, the former Good News leader Jim Heidinger, says, “Sermonettes make for Christianettes.” But it has also been observed of churches successfully reaching large numbers of young adults: the longer the sermon, the younger the congregation.

At the end of it all, do you really believe that God is going to be pleased with your ministry if you were simply relatively more faithful than other ministers who were Unitarian Universalists in all but name? Or do you think God may want to know why you failed to offer a clear presentation of the Gospel to that non-Christian visitor He drew into your church that one Sunday, which ended up being the second-to-last day of her life?

In Ezekiel 3, the Lord told that prophet that if he failed to warn a man to repent of his sin, God would hold Ezekiel accountable for that man’s blood.

Preachers, God has charged you with preaching Christ crucified. You have a solemn responsibility to not row past those who are drowning without tossing them a clear lifeline.

Without understanding God’s justice and righteous wrath, we will have very little appreciation of His loving grace and mercy. Without acknowledging the depth of our sin, we can never truly celebrate the glory of the Savior.

And we must not delude ourselves into thinking that we can ever be safe from being misrepresented and demonized in a fallen world as long as some sins remain popularly endorsed.

But we must nonetheless take care to avoid snarky, self-righteous anger at non-Christians acting like non-Christians. We must let people see that we truly are more horrified by our own sin than by anybody else’s. When struck with man-made tragedies like 9/11, let’s seize those opportunities to reflect on how we each share the same potential for evil, and deepen our gratefulness for all that we have been saved from and the new life we have been saved into. We must be known as the people in whom there is no room for haughtiness, condescension, or pride. Our evangelism must look like, in the famous words of Sri Lankan evangelist D.T. Niles, “one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.”

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