Real Freedom (and Pandemic Paul)

We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.” 

But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s become a cliché to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?”  But this week, I’ve been thinking church should be asking itself what Paul would do.  Of course, anyone who has spent any time in church or Vacation Bible School has heard about Paul the Apostle.  Paul was born in Tarsus which was a part of what is now the nation of Turkey.  But despite being born far from Rome, Paul was born to parents who were both Jews and Roman citizens. 

There were privileges that came with being a Roman citizen.  It was as if the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights only applied to citizens, and you carried those rights wherever you went, anywhere in the Roman world.  Non-citizens didn’t have the same rights and slaves certainly did not have them.  Romans could not be beaten or treated harshly, and while they could be arrested, they couldn’t be tried in any court outside of Rome but had to be returned to Rome, or to a Roman court, for trial.  In modern language, citizens were privileged.

But Paul didn’t always use that privilege.  Paul found that sometimes his privilege, his rights, his citizenship, and even his freedom, was a disadvantage when sharing the message of Jesus with the people around him.  In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul said:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Even though Paul was not a slave, he sometimes gave up the rights that he had so that he could be heard by the slaves and share the message of Jesus with them.  Even though Paul knew that following Jesus released him from some of the dietary restrictions and rules of the Jewish faith, he would follow those customs when he was with the Jews so that they would be able to hear his words when he shared the gospel.  But when Paul was living among the Greeks and other people who were not Jewish, he would follow their customs for the same reason. 

Wherever Paul went, he did whatever he could to allow people to hear his message.  And that often meant giving up something important.  Paul found that his rights, his privileges, and even his freedom, got in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  Slaves wouldn’t hear a message that was preached by someone who used their citizenship and their freedom to act better than them.  Jews wouldn’t listen to someone who was an outsider and violated their religious laws.  And people everywhere feel more comfortable around a person who respects their customs.

But what does that mean to us?  What would Paul do if he lived among us today?

As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic crisis in the United States, we are hearing a lot about rights and privileges.  We have a right to move about freely.  We are free to choose whether we will wear a mask.  And those persons who are vaccinated are being granted special rights and additional freedoms. 

But is exercising those freedoms the right thing to do?

I’ve seen churches advertising that they are “Open and Mask-less.”  Vendors are selling signs saying that vaccinated persons are welcome in their church.  And I’ve seen churches that say things like, “All are welcome.  Unvaccinated persons must wear masks.”  I understand that these are the rights that are given to us under the United States Constitution, and the privileges of having access to the Covid-19 vaccine.  But will exercising these rights prevent us from sharing the message of the gospel?

It was once common for churches to ask visitors to stand up and introduce themselves.  That custom made me so uncomfortable that I vowed never to return to any church that made me do it.  And so, I worry that requiring unvaccinated persons to wear masks will make them feel unwelcome.  We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.”  But that’s exactly what these signs are saying.  Anything that draws a line between “us” and “them” is exactly what Paul spent his life trying to avoid.

If Paul were writing today, I wonder if his words wouldn’t be, “Though I am vaccinated, and am free to do as I wish, I have made myself to be unvaccinated, to win as many as possible.  To the unvaccinated, I have become unvaccinated to win the unvaccinated.  With the mask wearers, I have worn masks, to win those that wear masks.”  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

We have rights.  But what if using them turns people away?  In the twenty-first century, like Paul, we must be careful that our rights, privileges, and freedoms do not get in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Blessings,

Pastor John


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Actions Reveal Attitude

Actions Reveal Attitude

May 02, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

John 15:1-8                            Acts 8:26-40                           1 John 4:7-21

“I trust you to make your own decisions” is perhaps one of the most common lies that parents and politicians tell their children and constituents.  We might tell our children that we trust them to make their own decisions, but you know we’re looking over their shoulders so we can intervene if they start making bad ones.  And politicians are worse.  How often have we heard them say that we should let the market decide, and then they pass laws to manipulate the markets.  They say that taxpayers know best how to spend their hard-earned money, but then raise taxes because we aren’t spending in the places that they think we should.  They say that government shouldn’t subsidize corporate interests, but what they really mean is that we should only subsidize the corporate interests that fund their party machine instead of the other party’s political machine.  If you really want to know what a parent, or a politician believes, don’t ask them, watch them.  Don’t listen to what they say, watch them and see what they do.  A politician that really believes in free markets, supports legislation that supports free markets.  A politician that genuinely supports a balanced budget, and I’m not sure that there are any, supports legislation that moves us toward sustainable spending and balanced budgets.  If we watch what politicians support, vote for, and donate toward, with their own time and their own money, we get a clearer picture of where their values lie than if we just listen to their sound bites and press releases.  In the end, this applies to all of us.  Our actions say far more about what we believe that the words that come out of our mouths. 

That hasn’t changed in thousands of years and scripture often describes that same principal.  We find one such instance in John 15:1-8 where Jesus says:

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunesso that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Jesus says that we are the garden and God is the gardener.  God cuts off, or prunes, the branches that aren’t bearing fruit.  My colleague Allan Bevere commented on this passage and points out that the Greek word here for pruning “is kathairo (καθαίρω) and refers more generally to clearing and in certain contexts cleansing. So, while it is true that pruning, cutting back, is a necessary part of the process of allowing a fruit-producing vine to bear more fruit, John appears to have in mind that is more than simply cutting back a healthy branch in order to produce more; the gardener wants to clear away all the dead vegetation and the clutter that can strangle the branches as well.”   We might think of that as God not only pruning off the unnecessary and unfruitful branches, but also the suckers, opening the canopy to allow more sun to penetrate, pulling the weeds around the bottom and raking away the accumulated leaves and clutter.  Jesus says that God is working, actively, in his garden so that it, so that we, will be productive and fruitful.  If we know him, and if we remain in him, he is working in us, and on us, to make us more fruitful and more productive.  If we do not know him, or if we do not remain close to him, them our ability to do anything useful goes to zero.  Without our connection to him, we wither and die. 

Without our connection to God, we become useless.  We have a yard decoration that was made from vines that were woven together.  It is, obviously, not connected to the vine from which it came and, other than being temporarily decorative, it is entirely useless.  When we lose our connection with God, when we stop living in him, and constantly feeding on the nutrition flowing through the vine, although we might get dressed up, and still be temporarily decorative, we become like that woven vine, decorative, but ultimately useless.

Jesus goes on to say that when we bear fruit, our fruit, and our accomplishment in bearing fruit, is the glory God, and to the credit of God, because God is the gardener that made it happen.  But also, our bearing fruit reveals our discipleship to the world.  Our actions reveal our attitudes, our loyalty, and our heart condition.

We see this same principle in action in several ways in the story of Acts 8:26-40, in which and angel of God sends Philp to meet an important international visitor.

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way, he met an Ethiopianeunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So, he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

This man had come to Jerusalem from Ethiopia which must have been a long and arduous journey.  Since he was an important government official, we can assume that he had been conducting official government business while in Jerusalem.  Further, we know that he had some wealth of his own because, while in Israel, he had purchased an Isaiah scroll.  Such a scroll, being handcrafted and painstakingly handwritten by a trained, professional scribe, would likely have taken nearly a year to produce, and would have cost nearly a year’s wages.  From this, and from Philip’s hearing the man reading the scroll, we know that he was not only interested in the faith of the people of Israel, but he was also desperate to learn about it, and actively demonstrated his desire to know God.  Unfortunately, his desire to learn was not enough because he couldn’t understand what he was reading.

But remember that we are the garden and God is the gardener.  God saw his desire to know him as well as how the man had demonstrated that desire through his actions.  And so, God cleared away the clutter, and sent Philip to meet him on the road, at just the right time, explain the meaning to him, and tell him the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that had been foretold by Isaiah.  And again, the man demonstrates his understanding with his actions.  His understanding of Isaiah, and the gospel message proclaimed by Philip, led him insist that he be baptized, and to faith and discipleship in Jesus Christ.

 In his letter to the church and to the followers of Jesus Christ in Asia, John gives examples of how our beliefs, our faith, and our connectedness to God direct our everyday lives and our actions and therefore become visible and obvious to the people around us (1 John 4:7-21).  He says:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Since we are supposed to remain in God, and be connected to God, then God’s nature should flow through us into the people, and into the world, around us.  And, John argues, since God’s nature is love, then that nature should also become our nature as well.  When we are in love with God and when have the love of God in us, then we begin to lose our fear of the future, our fear of current events, and our fear of judgement and punishment.  And that loving nature will be shown, and actively demonstrated, through our actions.  If we are connected to God, and God is love, and if that connectedness flows through us, then it will, logically, flow out of us through our actions.  And when God’s love flows out of us, then hate becomes impossible, and we will love the people around us, all of the people around us, the way that God loves them.

Just like the parents and politicians, it isn’t hard to see where the hearts, minds, values, and attitudes of Christian are if we stop listening to what they say and watch to see what they do and how they live.  Our actions reveal our attitudes.  If we are in love with God, and if we remain connected to Jesus, then his love will flow through us into the world.

Our neighbors will be able to see that we are connected to Jesus by the things that we do, the way that we behave, by our actions, and the way that we live our lives.

And they will know we are Christians…

            …by our love.


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Death by Distraction

Death by Distraction

January 31, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

Deuteronomy 18:15-20          Mark 1:21-28            1 Corinthians 8:1-13

On several long car trips, I have seen signs along the highway that remind drivers to put their phones down and to avoid distracted driving.  Not long ago, that wasn’t something that we even thought about.  We didn’t have phones in the car, or computer screens for navigation, or many of the other things with which today’s driver can be distracted.  We had a handful of radio buttons and maybe a box full of cassette tapes and the highway signs only reminded us to fasten our seat belts.  But while our children, radios, and fast-food lunches always had the potential to draw our attention away from the highway, today’s abundance of electronic devices distract us in similar abundance and our distraction at seventy miles an hour in heavy traffic can become deadly in the blink of an eye.  Our life, and the lives of those around us, depends upon us keeping our focus on the important things and not being distracted by the army of ephemera that nags at the edges of our consciousness.

But scripture tells us that our spiritual lives are much like that, and worse.

In Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Moses warns the people of Israel that they must listen to God and not be distracted.

15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

Moses warns the people that while it is critically important to listen to God’s prophets and to obey God’s commands and instructions, they must be careful not to be distracted by people who only pretend to speak for God.  He says that there will inevitably be people who speak fake and false prophecy for their own benefit, or who attempt to speak for other gods to distract God’s people and shift their focus from where it should be.  Just as it is when we are driving, God’s people are at risk any time that our attention turns away from the main thing.

In Mark 1:21-28, an evil spirit comes into the synagogue and is afraid of Jesus. 

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

The impure spirit knows who Jesus is and is afraid of his power, but it also is trying to begin a discussion with him that is a distraction from Jesus’ main message.  But Jesus knows the importance of keeping his focus on the main thing and does not allow the impure spirit to distract the people in the synagogue from the message that he is teaching.  The spirit tries to steer the discussion in the synagogue to one about Jesus’ intensions toward the spirit world, but while Jesus’ presence and his message will ripple into their world, what happens to demons and impure spirits is not the focus of Jesus’ ministry.  The message of Jesus isn’t about the destruction of evil spirits, but about the rescue of the lost and the salvation of the living.

But what application does that have for us today?

Of course keeping the main thing, the main thing means sharing Jesus’ message about rescuing the lost and the salvation of the living.  That is, after all, the mission of the church and the mission of every follower of Jesus Christ.  But keeping the main thing, the main thing can mean more than that as we see in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  In that place, there were people who had converted from Judaism, people who had been Christians for some time, and people who had only recently converted to Christianity from idol worship. 

In Corinth, most of the meat that was available had been sacrificed to some idol at the pagan temples and then sold later in the meat market.  Similarly, the traditional place to hold many weddings, celebrations, and other gatherings was at those same pagan temples.  So, among the people of the church, there was a dispute.  If Christians stayed away from the idols and pagan temples, they would miss the weddings of their friends, and be excluded from many celebrations and business opportunities.  If they refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, they might rarely eat meat at all.  And so, in the middle of this dispute, Paul writes these words to the church (1 Corinthians 8:1-13):

8:1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

Paul recognizes that the more mature believers understand that the idols aren’t real.  They know that our God is the only god that there is and that gods made of stone and metal had no real power.  Whether they attended an event at the pagan temple or ate meat that had been sacrificed there made no difference.  But many of the newer converts, who had grown up in that system, still believed that setting foot in a pagan temple, or even eating the meat that had been sacrificed there, gave power to those gods, and gave them power over you.

And what Paul says, is that “We possess all knowledge.”  Yes, we know that these are false god.  Yes, we know that attending your nephew’s wedding at the pagan temple makes no difference.  We know that eating meat, or not eating meat, makes no difference.  But, if we read the rest of this passage, Paul encourages them not to do these things anyway.  Why?  Because even though idols and false gods have no power, and even though believers in Jesus Christ had every right to attend social gathering and eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, exercising that right caused harm to fellow believers whose faith was not yet as mature as theirs.  Attending those gatherings, and eating that meat, caused less mature believers to doubt their faith and possibly leave the church.  Paul says that more important thing is not what knowledge we have, or what rights we have, but that we do not cause harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  For Paul, it wasn’t an issue of knowledge or of rights, but of keeping the main thing, the main thing.

Even two millennia later, this idea flows into everything that we do.  One of the foundational principles of the Methodist movement is “Do no harm” and it is often a check for us to keep the main thing, the main thing and to keep our focus where it belongs.  Even though we have every right to hold in-person worship, we must consider what harm we might cause to fellow believers by exercising that right.  Even though we may personally feel that we have every right not to wear a mask in public, do we cause harm to the people in the community, and to fellow believers, and to their faith, if we choose to exercise that right.  Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, and to us, is just because we have the right to do something, doesn’t mean that we should exercise that right, or that exercising that right is a good thing. 

The more important principle is to do no harm.

When we drive our automobiles down the highway, we understand that the full focus of our attention is required for the task at hand, and that our distraction can lead to our death, or to the death of others.

Moses warned that God’s people needed to test the people who claimed to be prophets and only listen to those that proved to be real because being distracted from God’s message could lead to death.

When Jesus preached in the synagogue, he did not allow the impure spirit to change the subject and distract him from the focus of his message.  The main thing, had to remain the main thing and the most important message wasn’t about the future of the spirits, but about rescuing the lost and calling God’s people to repentance and obedience.  Paul knew that throughout our daily lives we run the risk of distraction and death.

We must constantly struggle to keep the main thing the main thing.  To keep our focus on the mission of the church, to rescue the lost, and to preach a message of salvation and the Good News of Jesus Christ.  And in the process of doing that, we may occasionally need to set aside our rights, to surrender to God some of the things that we feel like we have earned for ourselves because the main thing isn’t about exercising our rights, or about doing things just because we can do them. 

The main thing is to do no harm to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the community around us.

Because despite living in a country where we hold our rights to be incredibly important, sometimes our rights are a distraction from our main purpose, focus, and mission.

And distraction is death.

Let us keep our focus on rescuing the lost and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And let us continue our struggle to keep the main thing, the main thing.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/QV5D2PTS5Cw

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.