Good morning, church.
Last week, we talked about how we should, for the time being stop asking others to come to our church on Sunday mornings. I think some of us were a bit caught off guard by that. It sounds weird, doesn’t it? It has a certain shock value to it, too, right?
Cause if we’re called to be disciples of Jesus, shouldn’t we always be engaging with others, and inviting them to church?
Before you think me a blasphemer, let me explain. While it’s great to be aware of people that God places in our path, and opportunities He gives us to engage with others in the community, before we are able to do any of those things, there’s something that needs to happen first.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once prayed:
“Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, You are mine, and I am Yours. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”
See, for many years, Wesley struggled with his own salvation. He was well educated, well read, steadfast in his prayer, as well as reading of Scripture, and an ordained Anglican priest. But he struggled to accept that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior, and that God’s free gift of grace was for him. He tried to “buy” his way into heaven through his good works.
It wasn’t until his Aldersgate Street experience on May 24th, 1738 that he finally came to trust in the grace of Christ, and experience that grace for himself. As he went on to found the Methodist “movement,” which is what it was called at the time, he established what are called “class” and “band” meetings, which were basically small groups of people coming together every week to reflect and share about what’s going on in their lives, on a spiritual level, collect money for the poor, etc.
The question would be asked: “How is it with your soul?”Or, phrased a different way, “How is your life with God?” In other words- what are you doing to experience the love & communion of God on a daily basis?
And part of those questions have to do with spiritual formation. More specifically, the spiritual disciplines. The reason behind it is simple: You must be filled up with the love and grace of God before you can be poured out as a servant to others.
Can we all feel the weight of that?
It’s worth repeating:
You must first be filled up with the love and grace of God before you can be poured out as a servant to others. In fairness, I must confess that this has been a struggle of mine for many years. There was even a season in my life when I thought “well, I’m being selfish for doing that, because others need to come first.” And maybe, if we’re honest with each other, some of you might have similar stories. Especially with all the responsibilities that life tends to throw at as on any given day.
Turn with me in your bibles to Philippians 2
Verse 1 is the key here: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ.”
United with Christ.
The problem with that is that we must first have union with God, before we can be servants of God.
Like Os Guinness describes in his book, The Call:
“First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia). Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, are in everything should think, speak, live and act entirely for him,” (Guinness, p. 31).
So, we are called to God. But to do what? Build a relationship with Him. How do we do that?
So glad you asked.
Through the spiritual disciplines. And, while there are several that will help to bring us into the presence of Christ every day, we’re going to focus on one key one this morning, more specifically, the discipline of “contemplative prayer.”
Loosely defined (by Thomas Merton), “contemplative prayer” means “praying while we work.”In one sense, it means opening ourselves up the awareness of God in all things:
Colossians 3:23 says: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
Or, to use the words of John Wesley: “Whether we think of, or speak to God, whether we act or suffer for him; all is prayer when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing Him.”
So, on a practical level, then, we can take a short passage of Scripture, even perhaps just a verse, or a few words, and contemplate it, think on it, let it simmer in our minds as we work with our hands. In a lot of ways, I think this is just another way that God is calling us to love Him with all our minds. The Psalms would be especially edifying in those kinds of situations.
Take Psalm 23, for example: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters; he refreshes my soul.”
Think about that for 8 hours, and see how much more present God is to you.
You might be surprised. And filled with the grace & love of God. It doesn’t mean not being attentive to what’s around us. It does mean, though, being more attentive to how God is speaking/ moving in your life throughout the day. It’s also the perfect way to set us up to be poured out to others.
Which brings us to the rest of our Scripture passage this morning: Philippians 2:2-11
See, church, this passage is known as the Kenosis text. Kenosis, is the Greek word for “servant, and closely translated, it means “emptying of self.” And it beautifully describes Christ’s nature of servanthood.
Jesus didn’t fake any of these things, it was simply part of who He was, his nature. Paul is actually recording an ancient Christian hymn that was sung by the early church.
All the while, we see that the nature of a disciple, of a follower of Jesus really means to be a servant of God and others. And it means that we must be willing to be “emptied” of ourselves in that service.
Think about it this way:
Let’s say, I’m at home, and I want to go to the grocery store. So, I walk outside to my black 2010 Chevy Impala, unlock the car, get in, put the key in the ignition, and try to start it up. But it doesn’t start, because there’s no gas in it. The car isn’t going to start, or go anywhere, for that matter, if there’s no fuel to make it go.
C.S. Lewis described it this way in Mere Christianity: “A car is made to run on petrol (British word for gas), and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other,” (Mere Christianity, p. 50).
We need to engage with God on a daily basis. I’d even go so far as to say we need to engage with Him every moment, that contemplative prayer is more of a lifestyle than it is a spiritual discipline. And we need to make sure that we get those things in the proper order. Communion with God comes before we are able to serve, or even engage with others.
Union precedes Kenosis.
It has to.
Otherwise, we’re just spouting off whatever we think is best, trying to be representatives of Christ to others, but we’re doing it on our own.
Finally, there needs to also be a sense of reflection when it comes to the spiritual disciplines. It is helpful to know how we are doing, This is where journaling about what God has shown you, or lead you to can be helpful.
At the same time, there’s a somewhat easy litmus test to answer the question: “How is it with your souls?” Look at how you treat others, or, phrased in the form of a question: “How is it with your relationships?” Do you think that you are treating people fairly in a loving, Christ-like way?
Really? Ask God to show you how you’re doing, and lovingly correct you when you’ve gone wrong.
When it comes to asking “How is it with your souls?” union must always precede kenosis, and as a way to “check yourself,” reflect on “how is it with my relationships with others?”
In closing, I’d like to share a prayer from Thomas Merton with you for you to consider:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost & in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
This sermon was preached at the Alexandria First Free Methodist Church on Sunday, October 25th, 2015 by Rev. Nick Scutari.