THE REPENTANCE OF BELIEVERS
This week we return to John Wesley with his sermon entitled "The Repentance of Believers." But rather than going through his sermon point by point, I want to give an overview of his main idea, because it is one of the things that Methodists emphasize more strongly than some other denominations. What Wesley and later Methodists want to emphasize is that faith is a lifelong journey, and we continue to work at it all of our lives. Especially, he wants to say in this sermon, we continue to struggle with sin, even after becoming a professing Christian.
That is why Wesley titled the sermon "The Repentance of Believers" rather than "The Repentance of Sinners." He wants to say that even believers...even sincere, confessed, trying-my-best Christians mess up and need to repent along the way. I don't know of a church that would deny that, but not all churches make a point of it.
The Methodist focus wants to emphasize that while the conscious decision to follow Jesus is extremely important, that initial decision is not the end of the road. The moment we accept Jesus into our hearts and make a decision to follow Him is not the end of the journey, and the journey that continues after that decision is not without its difficulties.
Signing up for a photography class makes you a photographer of sorts, but I wouldn't advise you to quit your day job just yet. It is the same with Christian life. To make a commitment to Christ is not the same as having fulfilled it. You have signed up for the class, which gives you the benefit of direct instruction and help from the teacher and your other classmates, but there's still a lot of work to do and homework to complete....some of which you may do well and some of which you may do poorly.
The word sin, as it is used in Scripture, means "missing the mark," and Wesley want to be sure we understand that taking the first step of becoming a Christian does not mean that we will never miss the mark again. We have not become immune to sin, we have just decided to do whatever it takes to improve our aim.
To me, that knowledge is both very frightening and very liberating. It's frightening, because once I have taken that first step, I don't WANT to sin anymore. I want to hit that mark. I don't know about you, but sin scares me. I know firsthand how it can separate me from God. Before we ever know what being close to God is like, being separated from God doesn't seem like a problem. But once you've felt the joy of being close, it's terrifying to think of losing it...at least it is for me.
It's like any love relationship. We can go for decades living without a person we've never met. Suddenly we meet, fall in love, and if we become separated, life seems like it can't go on. It had gone on fine before, but once you discover what the closeness is like, the separation becomes unbearable. That's the best illustration I know of for what happens when sincere Christians sin. God doesn't leave us, but we put up a wall that shuts out the love of our lives, and we feel the pain of it. That is what's scary to me about sin as a Christian, not to mention the pain and hurt I may have caused myself and others.
But I also find the knowledge comforting and liberating. It is comforting because in an odd way, knowing that as a Christian I am still capable of sin offers me some protection. I have seen a lot of Christians get themselves into trouble because they think they are immune from sin because of their faith. In thinking that, they march right into dangerous situations and end up falling headlong. The converted alcoholic begins to think it is safe to march back into the bars to share faith with the people there. Soon they are off the wagon again. No matter how far we go in our spiritual walk, our freedom is never taken from us...including our freedom to sin. Remembering that will not only keep us humble, it may also save us from falling where we really ought to know better, and that brings a measure of comfort.
Knowing that I am on the road rather than at my destination also allows me to feel more comfortable in calling myself a Christian. I once thought that if I had made a commitment to Christ and then sinned, that my first commitment must not have been real. I thought I needed to be baptized again, to run down to the altar again, or something. I began to doubt myself, thinking I couldn't really be a Christian or to doubt a God who would make it so impossible to get in the door. I doubted the faith of the "hypocrites" around me who called themselves Christians and still had not eliminated sin from their lives.
It was a great relief and liberation to learn that being a Christian was about growing and learning more than it was about graduating. I'm not usually one for bumper-sticker theology, but there's a lot of truth in the old slogan, "Please be patient with me; God is not finished with me yet." The real hypocrites in churches are not the ones who say they are Christians and fail but the ones who say they are Christians and don't try to succeed. Missing the mark is far less of a problem than never aiming for the mark in the first place. How wonderful it was to learn that what God wanted from me was simply my best effort.
It was even more wonderful to learn that God will take our best effort and make it even better. Wesley emphasizes that we are still on the road, but also that we are not on the road alone. He saw that every minute of our lives was filled with God's grace...with God's presence with us to cheer us on, to tend our wounds, to help us back on our feet when we stumble. Wesley called it "sanctifying grace," which simply means the way we experience God's presence with us and in us after we have made that initial commitment to follow Jesus.
The focus on "sanctifying grace" reminds us that God is not the harsh father we could never please or the critical mother who never thought our efforts were good enough. God is not the taskmaster with the whip or the accuser waiting for the slightest misstep to pounce and send us off to hell. God is the one who loves us...the one who takes our scribbles and treats them like a masterpiece; the one who takes our hand when we cross a busy street, but who allows us to let go so we can learn to stand and walk on our own. God is the one with mercy when we are truly sorry we broke the lamp, and the one who takes us for ice cream because we did our best, even though the teacher only gave it a C. God is the one who said, "I would die for you...and did."
Sanctifying grace is what Communion is all about. It is food for the journey. It begins by reminding us of the scary part of sin. Sin will separate us from God, as Jesus felt separated from God on the cross. If left unchecked, sin will kill you...maybe literally but definitely spiritually. No matter how successful you might be on the outside, you will be empty and broken on the inside as long as you direct your life toward sin. Communion reminds us that sin breaks and kills flesh and blood...even the flesh and blood of the innocent.
But if that were all it meant, we would all run from it like the plague.. Who wants such a grisly reminder of our failings, except perhaps those who enjoy beating themselves up all the time. The amazing grace of Communion is that it also reminds us of God's promise to save us from the death of sin if we will simply point ourselves in God's direction. If we look to the Cross, if we remember that sin is still a real threat for us and try to live better lives, God will forgive us and make up the difference. The scribbles become a masterpiece, death becomes food.
The symbols of Communion are deep and complex. On the one hand they are brutal reminders of sin as the body and blood of Jesus. On the other hand they are very real food that we take into our bodies as nourishment. The bread of life. You wouldn't think those two things would go together, but that is exactly the paradox of what God does for our lives. Looking objectively, you wouldn't think my life would be good for anything at all, and yet in God's hands it gets transformed into something useful to God's kingdom and nourishing for God's people.
What God did in Jesus...taking death and making it life...is exactly what God has done for me and what God will do for you if you allow it. Every week we offer communion now, so that every week we have the opportunity to remember two things: first, that we need to keep searching out the sin in our lives and second, that when we find it, God stands ready to forgive. Eating the bread and drinking the cup is our way of saying "yes" to God's offer of transformation, and saying "yes" to God's offer of help along the road.
We are growing...Wesley called it "moving on to perfection." Every week there are things we could have done better, and every week there are victories to celebrate. God is, thankfully, not finished with any of us yet. We all still have lessons to learn and homework to do. By ourselves, we couldn't do it. But, in Jesus, we have the most patient teacher that there is, and we have each other to help us along the way. And when we need the strength and stamina to go further or to recover when we have fallen in the way, dinner is served.
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson
John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater. Compilation and Preface Copyright 1991 by Abingdon Press.
Sermon texts reprinted from The Works of John Wesley, Volumes 1-4: Sermons I-IV, Copyright 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 by Abingdon Press.
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