How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

Stealing the bishop’s silver

From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.

The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.

This does not sound like an American story to me.

In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.

What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.

But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.

I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.

What does the box score say?

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

How are we doing in the “seeking and saving the lost” department?

As a denomination, how well are we doing?

I read two stories recently about United Methodist congregations. One story is pointed to by theological liberals, who say it shows that we don’t care about fruitful ministry. The other story is pointed to by evangelicals, who say it shows what will happen if the denomination does not get its house in order. Both stories are about churches that have grown in size, but neither story tells me much about how many of the lost were saved at either church. This is what I really want to know.

Without this information, talking about these two stories is a bit like comparing baseball teams by discussing their success in selling tickets. This information is important, but it does not really tell you what matters most.

How are we doing?

How do I get to heaven?

Earlier this week, I asked how we as United Methodists would answer the question: How do I get to heaven?

Here are a few of my thoughts on the answer.

I begin by saying we make a mistake if we confuse the process of salvation with the goal. What do I mean by that? I mean that we often answer these types of questions by laying out some form of the order (or way) of salvation. Repent of your sin. Confess Jesus Christ. Get to a good church. Etc. But these are the steps in a process. They are the outward forms, not the inner grace.

As one who has been greatly influenced by the Wesleyan movement, I would say the answer to the question about getting to heaven is some variation on one of John Wesley’s favorite verses, Hebrews 12:14b. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. I’m not tied to this specific half-verse, of course. The witness to holiness in the Bible certainly spans from Genesis to Revelation. The points is this. God is holy. If we wish to dwell with him in eternity, we are called to be holy as well.

I see the answers — obviously not in this form if talking with a real human being — as going in this order.

How do I get to heaven? That’s easy. Be holy as God is holy.

What does it mean to be holy? Well, let me show you some places where God spells that out for us. Let me talk to you about the law and the prophets. Let’s see what Jesus said about those. Let me show you some people who have exemplified what he taught.

How can I do all that? I’ve tried, and I fail. Well, let me talk to you about Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the power of the Holy Spirit.

That seems pretty hard to do. Well, good news, we have a whole bunch of other people trying to do the same thing. We’re called a church. You should come along with us.

Of course, it is rarely this straight forward in real life. I just think staring off with “put your faith in Jesus” misses the point. It leads people into viewing Christianity as a kind of fire insurance program.

Do you ever see those signs or billboards on the side of the highway? They do it this way. “Avoid Hell. Believe in Jesus.” In church, I think our message is at times a more sophisticated version of these highway signs. But we are jumping the gun. We are offering the process before the solution. The process is not bad. It just isn’t the actual answer. It can confuse people into thinking that because they uttered some words in sincerity or got dunked in a creek that they are glory bound. When the real issue at the end of it all is going to be whether we are, in fact, holy.

Maybe I’m wrong. This is the way I’d answer my own question, though. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.


How would we answer his question?

A man walks into a United Methodist Church. He finds his way to the pastor’s office. By some providence of God, the pastor is there working on next Sunday’s sermon.

The man says he has only one question to ask: “What must I do to get to heaven?”

Based on United Methodist doctrine, what answer should the man expect from United Methodists?

(The question, by the way, is what John Wesley wrote he most wanted to know the answer to.)

What it means to save souls

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Romans 14:12)

John Wesley famously told his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

If we are not listening carefully to him, we might fall into the trap of thinking he is aiming at mere conversion. This might sound like an appeal for a kind of altar-rail salvation that takes a much too narrow view of the meaning of salvation but packages well in American culture.

Conversion is important, crucial even. But it is just a step in the process of salvation. It is salvation begun but not salvation completed. Salvation is not complete until the second coming when the book of life is opened and read.

If that is true, then the work of the pastor is not conversion but fruit. Each one of us will stand one day before the Lord who will judge us. And so the work of the pastor is to help people get ready to have their lives laid bear before the judgement seat of God.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for this work. It is the power to destroy sin and remove guilt and shame, but it is not everything. We can’t be saved without coming to faith in Christ, but coming to faith is the beginning rather than the end of the journey.