“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
(Romans 15:7, NRSV)
I like going to relatively new restaurants. The employees and management seem pumped up. Everyone tries harder to make your experience positively memorable. The food is typically above average and always good. It seems like they make extraordinary service and food normal or customary. I leave wanting to go back.
Invariably, though, over time something happens. Routine service becomes average. Management loses the spark that was there when the restaurant first opened. The food somehow degrades to mundane, or worse, unreliable. What is now customary is no longer extraordinary; customary becomes mundane, or worse, mediocre. I no longer want to go back. What is needed is a radical step to reclaim that excitement, that original enthusiasm, that initial energy. Radical means a significant departure from the usual or customary, and a radical move is needed particularly when usual or customary is no longer motivated by striving for the extraordinary.
“They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, CEB)
Believe it or not, I am but only two months from being here at Marble four full years. And one thing that was obvious right from my starting here, is that the people of Marble Memorial UMC love this church. You make worshiping God a priority in your lives, you give so much of yourselves, and you care about others in this church and in the community.
But this in no way should be surprising. I say that because God created us (humanity) to be social creatures; created to not only want to be with one another, but to be dependent on each other. As well, the Christian faith is itself meant to be pursued and embraced with one another, i.e., in community. Jesus modeled the inseparable importance of being in community as virtually everything he did, he did in the midst of others, with the only exception being personal prayer with God. Further, we learn and grow in grace by experiencing that grace, or God’s love in action, through tangible manifestations of that love by others. As such, we know that Christ intends his church to be a vital component in our local communities and the world, as reflections and manifestations of his presence, healing and love.
“My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit
and in this way prove that you are my disciples.” (John 15:8, CEB)
So, upon reading John 15:8, I decided to “Google” the word fruit to see what may come up. The very first search result read, “In botany, a fruit is the seed-bearing structure in flowering plants” (which then forced me to look up the definition of “botany” … now I know). Anyway, this definition really caused me to think about the gospel writer’s use of that term, fruit. Here, Jesus is being quoted as to his expectations of his disciples, whom we know went on to be his continued living presence in the world, i.e., his Church.
Mapping this definition of the word fruit upon Jesus’ words, could it be that Jesus was saying that discipleship is all about producing “fruit”, that in turn produces and bears the seeds for the continuation of his Church … just like seeds of a flowering plant are the continuation of its beautiful flower into the future. I think so! For, continuing Christ’s Church, means continuing and manifesting the living presence of Christ in our world.
“I give you a new commandment: Love each other.
Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.
This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)
Can you remember your first time here at Marble? Some of us were too young to remember. Others of us stepped through the doors much more recently. As well, the experience that followed is likely as varied as our current ages or the time that has passed since we first came through the church doors. But whichever your particular situation, my guess is that in some way it marked the beginning of a new chapter in your life—a chapter that involves an ever deeper understanding and growing relationship with God through Christ. And in many ways, this new chapter represents a newness of life—i.e., new life.
Actually, when you stop to think about it, that is what being involved and engaged in church is really all about. Church is about pursuing and realizing the new life that is uniquely offered by the One Living Loving God, through the life-giving love, grace and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What’s more, such pursuit and realized experience is absolutely intended for each and every one of us. And so, thank God, that someone did whatever they did, that somehow led us to coming through those church doors the first time, and the many times since. And of course, we can be assured that God played a major part in them doing in whatever they did; for such a gift of new life, and the intended role of the church in manifesting that gift, is worth all of our gratefulness.
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another,
God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
(1 John 4:12, NIV)
I have sometimes wondered if the Hallmark holiday of Valentine’s Day was strategically placed at the almost halfway point of winter as it comes right at a point when we might begin losing a little patience due to snow, slush and the cold. For on that February 14th, we add a little warmth to our day with cards of affection and boxes of chocolates (which experience tells me usually works). But while Hallmark and Hershey may have us believe that this day is all about the actual cards and candy, I think most would agree that it’s really about authentic expressions of love. Those expressions of love are really saying, “you are important to me” … “I really care about you” … “I want for your needs to be met, and if I can be a part of that then all the better” … “I genuinely want you to be within my world and in my life”. Perhaps Valentine’s Day should be renamed, Express Your Love Day (admittedly, Valentine’s Day sounds more poetic).
Actually, when we think about it this way, it’s not much of a stretch to see parallels with our relationship with God and God’s will for our relationships with one another. We, as followers of Jesus Christ take seriously our understanding that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) and know its importance in our lives. The author Stephen Doughty writes, “If love flows among us, even briefly, God is there—in traffic jams, in places of staggering beauty, in the realms of darkest communal pain. If we find ourselves bound together even momentarily, God is present. We taste with our spirits the community God longs to build.”
“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
(The United Methodist Church)
Let me first begin this January Newsline by saying “Happy New Year,” and extending my most sincere wishes that this coming year be a continuation of the Peace, Love, Joy, and Hope of the Advent-Christmas season, for you, and your families and friends. Actually, I think that is what “Happy New Year” is really meant to convey … it is the manifestation of that in which we Hope for the coming year, which necessarily involves Peace, Love, and Joy. And I contend that such Peace, Love, Joy … and Hope … is at its best when it is made manifest thru Jesus Christ, and our discipleship of the Christ. And as such, there is no greater way to share that Peace, Love, Joy and Hope, than to help others in your life know for themselves that same discipleship. I also believe that there is no better way to experience real vitality and life—as individuals and as church congregations—than by doing just that, i.e., living and sharing in such discipleship.
I share this thinking with you because of its relevance to an initiative we here at Marble have begun participating, called Vital Church Initiative or VCI. You may recall me mentioning that acronym from time to time, but in a nutshell, VCI is a process of renewal for growing healthy, vital, fruitful, missional congregations in the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church. VCI prepares and enables congregations to answer God’s call to reach out to new people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. VCI is grounded in being Christ-Centered, Fruitful, Accountable, and Collaborative. Bottom line, VCI is about being a thriving and vital part of people’s lives (including our own) and the community.