A sermon on James 1:19-25; Ephesians 4:29-5:2, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

How many of you looked in a mirror before coming to church this morning?  Men, perhaps you inspected yourself as you shaved, to make sure you got everything just right – even gave a quick check on those pesky nose and ear hairs and made sure everything looked the way you know it’s supposed to look, bringing your image in the mirror in line with the standard for yourself you hold in your mind?  Women, well, don’t get me started about the care with which you bring your image in the mirror in line with the standard you hold for yourselves in your minds, and how you don’t leave that mirror until you are satisfied that what you see in the glass matches the target image in your mind.

James tells us about another mirror – the mirror of God’s Word.  This mirror works in almost the opposite way as your glass mirrors at home.  When we look into the mirror of God’s Word, we see the standard for our attitudes and interactions and practices that God holds in his mind, and we need to look within ourselves and work within ourselves until our inner person and our impact on the world around us are brought in line with God’s standard – until we reflect what we see in the Word.

Receive with humble hearts the implanted word that is able to save your souls.  And become people who put the word into practice, and not merely people who listen, deceiving yourselves – because if anyone merely listens to the word and doesn’t put it into practice, that person is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror: he observed himself, walked away, and immediately forgot what sort of person he was.  But the person who carefully inspects the perfect law that brings freedom not becoming a forgetful listener but a doer of the word, this person will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:21-25, DSV)

I actually am prone to walking away from a mirror and forgetting what I look like.  I’m not particularly troubled by that.  Indeed, our youngest son would probably say that this is just a survival instinct I’ve developed.  James would caution me to be far more concerned about looking into God’s Word and not putting it into practice, so that I am not looking more and more like the reflection that I must come to resemble – the image of the new person, renewed in the image of our Creator, that the Word holds before me from every angle.

What’s most on my heart today is what you all do in this regard when you’re not here in the sanctuary with me. This morning you looked into your mirror at home, and you’ve come here to look into the mirror of God’s Word together.  But today is not the only day you’ll look into your glass mirror at home. I imagine that almost all of us look into our glass mirrors every day, perhaps even a few times in the course of each day.  But how many of us look into the mirror of God’s Word each day, let alone a few times in the course of each day?  How many of us keep before us each day another facet of that image that we are to grow to reflect back more and more?  How many of us work as intently to bring our reflection in line with the image we see in God’s Word each day, as we will work on our faces and hair in our glass mirrors each day?

I don’t ask these questions in order to raise your level of guilt – though I’m not averse to guilt if it advances God’s purposes for each of our lives! I do raise these questions in order to impress upon all of us the importance of holy habits.  We all cultivate habits.  There are things that we are careful to do every day: brushing our teeth to maintain dental health; flossing to attain and maintain gum health (let’s just all pretend that we do this conscientiously); popping vitamins and other supplements to maintain the proper levels of nutrients available to our bodies; taking showers to maintain the willingness of other people to be around us. J There are probably other things in our lives that have the quality of “habits” – checking e-mail every evening, watching a particular show that’s on at the same time every day or every week, undertaking some kind of physical exercise. How many of us have applied ourselves with the same intentionality to form those habits that will allow God’s Holy Spirit to take us far in the direction of reflecting God’s righteousness and holiness?

I suppose that, first, we would have to agree that this is a goal we really desire for ourselves.  We would need that “holy discontent” that shakes us of being satisfied to remain where we are in our journey toward Christ-likeness, where we might have been stuck, truth be told, for decades.  We would need that “holy desire” to discover just how far God’s Spirit could take us toward Christ-likeness, how real God could make the faith we profess in the person we become. I have sought, in several of the sermons I have prepared during this interim, to stimulate that holy discontent and those holy desires by holding up for you what God’s Word claims that God can do and yearns to do in and among us.  Today I hope to contribute to our thinking about the “holy discipline” that will help us arrive there.

Holy discipline stands at the foundational core of Methodism.  The renewal movement that would become known as Methodism began with John Wesley, his brother Charles, and a few other like-minded men dedicating themselves to “intentional discipleship” by means of a daily and weekly discipline that they formulated together.  This involved looking daily into the mirror of Scripture and engaging in prayerful conversation with God to bring to light what in their hearts and lives needed explicit attention and transformation, such that they would come to reflect God’s holiness and righteousness more completely.  It involved focused conversation with one another on a weekly basis, sharing discoveries and struggles, helping one another search each one’s soul most fully, encouraging and praying for one another and holding one another’s gaze and aspirations fixed on the prize of their sanctification.  It involved giving up a greater part of themselves weekly to service on Jesus’ behalf, visiting those in prison (which included not only criminals, but debtors), bringing education and basic health care to the very poor, investing themselves in what would improve their physical, social, and spiritual conditions.  What was astounding about their disciplined practice is that it allowed them to make such measurable and visible progress toward holiness that others quickly, even exponentially, joined them.  This holy discipline opened up our founders, and then dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of our spiritual forebears in this denomination to the amazing, fulfilling, inviting work of God in their midst.

I’d like to suggest a path, based on Wesley’s path, to a holy discipline.  I’ve created an outline for this path, which all of you received along with today’s bulletin. It begins, of course, with daily attention to Scripture.  Some of you may be thinking, “I’ve already read the Bible; I know what’s in there.”  I’m glad that you do.  You also looked in your glass mirror last year, so you know what you look like, but you keep looking at the mirror every day to make sure what you see stays in line with that mental standard.  It’s the same with Scripture.  There are two ways of reading Scripture.  The first is “informational,” and it is indeed possible to get so familiar with the contents of Scripture that you do indeed know what is in there.  I will confess a degree of skepticism that any of you are so fully there yet that you don’t need to keep refreshing your knowledge of Scripture – because I know that I’m not there yet, and I live in the informational reading of these texts.  But even if you are well advanced in the first way of reading Scripture, the informational way, you’re never so far advanced that you won’t benefit from the second way of reading Scripture, the formational way.  This is where you’re not reading Scripture so much as you’re letting Scripture read you, where you look into Scripture like a mirror, and see what it can show you about yourself, where you are in the process of coming to reflect God’s vision for you fully, where Scripture shows you, like your glass mirror, where you need to give some attention to your person to get the reflection right.

I’d like to lead you all through an exercise in formational reading right now, an exercise that you can continue practicing at home for the rest of the week, for the rest of your life.  For this purpose I’ve selected Ephesians 4:29-5:2, which you’ll find printed on that handout. We’re going to practice letting Scripture read us.  To start off, please take a moment and pray that God would use these minutes to reveal something that will illumine a path by which you can move closer to God’s vision for the new person he wants to shape in you.

[Take a few seconds, really]

Keep every toxic word from leaving your mouth – only those good words that are constructive, in line with the need of the situation, in order that it might give grace to those who hear. 

Speech can cause harm; speech can add to the toxins that make a situation more poisonous for those involved.  Speech can also help others stay or get on course with where God would lead them.  Think about your words (and I suppose we need to include texting and e-mails these days!) yesterday, the day before, this morning.  To what extent have you added to the toxins?  To what extent did you contribute to God’s construction?

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Think about interactions you’re going to have today and tomorrow, about conversations you anticipate will take place and even need to take place.  Ask God to help you discern how to frame your words such as will contribute to God’s constructive purposes, and avoid adding to the toxins.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Don’t bring sorrow to the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were all sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness, seething rage, anger, clamor, and back-stabbing – along with all malice – be removed from among you. 

God the Holy Spirit is with us.  Just as the Old Covenant taught us that the Holy Spirit cannot abide the presence of defilement, the New Covenant teaches us that the Holy Spirit cannot abide the presence of bitterness, grudges and anger, the harboring of malice – the things that defile and pollute the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit animates.  Toward whom in the Body of Christ are you harboring bitterness in your heart?  Against whom have you harbored anger?  Toward whom do you bear malice?

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Take another moment and pray to God about those feelings and for the people toward whom they are directed.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Be of service to one another and tenderhearted toward one another, forgiving each other even as God forgave all of you in Christ. 

Do any of your brothers or sisters in Christ here or elsewhere have needs that you can meet?  Do you have a tender, responsive heart toward them, or a heart that has become calloused to their needs?  Thank God to the extent that he has given you a tender, responsive heart – as measured in your actions – and pray that God will break up any hardness.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Whom do you need to forgive?  From whom do you need to seek forgiveness?  Ask God to reveal these places of broken relationship and to make opportunities for reconciliation.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Be imitators of God, then, as well-loved children, and keep conducting yourselves in a loving manner, even as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrifice to God, for a fragrant aroma.  (Eph 4:29-5:2, DSV)

Take a moment and allow yourself to consider afresh Christ’s love for you, for all of us together.  It’s in your awareness of being thus loved that you find the transforming power to love others thus.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Ask God to protect, tend, and bring to fruit the seeds that he has planted in you during this exercise.

[Really]

Did that short exercise bring something to light for you and bring some spiritual direction from God?  Can you begin to extrapolate from this how much closer your walk with God would be, how much more closely aligned with God’s vision your heart and practices would be, after three-hundred-and-sixty-five such exercises with Scripture over the course of a year?

Now add to this the three further layers that I’ve outlined in your handout (SEE BELOW for text of handout): daily intercessory prayer with God, through which the scope of our own concern and care is daily broadened; weekly conversation with a core group of committed spiritual friends, who will help you see more past your own blind spots and encourage you to keep pressing on; and weekly participation in some venue for witness and service, which gives feet to your faith. It’s like any exercise regimen: visible change and maintaining the “new you” requires consistent, daily investment. It’s a simple plan – a set of holy disciplines – that will take from your life less time than you probably currently give to the television or to playing around on the internet, but will give to your life incomparably more and increase your impact for God’s kingdom exponentially.  I would encourage each one of you, then, to recover the method that makes a vital Methodist.

 

A “Method” for “Methodists”: Suggestions for Intentional Discipleship

David A. deSilva, Ph.D.

1.Look in the Mirror: the importance of daily Scripture reading

You reading Scripture – informational engagement

Questions to ask as you read the Scripture:

  1. What does this passage show me in regard to God’s character and heart – particularly God’s heart for human beings?
  2. What does this passage show me in regard to God’s vision for our living in righteousness and holiness as part of a redeemed, covenant community?
  3. What does this passage show me in regard to the forces and impulses that get in the way of living in righteousness and holiness in community?
  4. What does this passage tell me about God’s provisions for our attaining the first and overcoming the second, and about other strategies for the same?
  5. What does this passage tell me about the stakes involved?

Very few passages will actually speak to all of these focal points.

Scripture reading you – formational engagement

Questions to ask as you allow the Scriptures to read you:

  1. Where do I see attitudes I have had, words I have spoken, interactions I have had, and actions I have taken positively reflected in the things commended in this passage?
  2. Where do I see attitudes I have had, words I have spoken, interactions I have had, and actions I have taken reflected in the things this passage warns or advises against?
  3. What steps do I need to take to move closer to the positive ideals commended here, and to leave behind further the negative traits and practices identified here?

Weave prayer – conversation with God – into this daily exercise, and close with prayer concerning whatever the Holy Spirit has shown you.

 

2.A pattern for daily prayer and intercession:

A fairly comprehensive schema for praying might include spending time with God allowing him to raise to awareness particulars under each of the following headings and lifting up those prayer to him.  (Note: you don’t have to tell God what he should do in every situation – it’s alright just to hold it before him and ask him to intervene in the way he knows to be best.)

(1) the church in every place, its witness and mission, its solidarity and courage; pray especially for sisters and brothers in environments hostile to Christian faith;[1]

(2) our nation and the challenges that beset it at every level;

(3) the nations of the world and the cries for peace with justice;

(4) the needs and concerns of our church family, including your own prayer concerns;

(5) the needs of our local community and our witness and service in its midst;

(6) a friend, relative, associate, or neighbor who is not yet connected to Christ and his church.

Close by praying the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully and meditatively.

 

3.A holiness support group (Wesley’s “Band Meetings”):

Who are three or four people sharing your gender whom you might identify as prayer and accountability partners as you seek to make progress growing into the new person that will fulfill God’s vision for our living in righteousness and holiness as part of a redeemed, covenant community?

Consider organizing a “band” that will meet weekly for the purpose of sharing one another’s discoveries and struggles on the road to Christ-likeness, to “Christ living in me,” and keeping one another moving forward through prayer and encouragement.[2]

 

4.Spreading Scriptural holiness: work and witness

 

Identify at least one ministry in which you can be involved on a regular basis, preferably weekly.  This could be something you pursue individually; it could be something that your “band” discerns together.  Show love and share Christ in some context of meeting a need.  Mentoring a young person, sponsoring an addict, visiting a prisoner, assisting a shut-in, helping a single parent – there is no end to the possibilities of what God might bring to your attention and lay upon your heart.  Work and witness.  Methodists have historically not been ashamed to tell other people the difference Christ has made in their own lives and can make in the other person’s life, and to invite them to “come and see.”

 

Appendix: Wesley’s Rules for Band-Societies (drawn up December 25, 1738).

The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.

To this end, we intend:

  1. To meet once a week.
  2. To come punctually and to begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
  3. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.
  4. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.
  5. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.

Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion others; the four following at every meeting.

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting.
  2. What temptations have you met with.
  3. How were you delivered.
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not.

[The agreement among band members was that each should speak the whole truth, in love, concerning what each sees and discerns in the other, always as an aid to “search your heart to the bottom” and find fuller freedom thereby from all that holds each back from pervasive holiness.]

 

[1] Consider using the prayer calendars and other aids for praying for persecuted Christians in an informed and specific way found online at http://www.opendoorsusa.org/take-action/pray/ and barnabasfund.org/us/get-involved/pray.

[2] One promising resource on the purpose for and organization of the “band meeting” can be found here: https://store.seedbed.com/products/the-band-meeting.