Stay In Love with God
This morning we are concluding our sermon series on the 3 simple rules. And today we are talking about Rule #3 which is all about how to stay in love with God.
And as I’ve thinking about what it means to stay in love with God I can’t help thinking about my wife and my relationship with, Robin. This coming July we will celebrate a wonderful milestone in our marriage. We will be celebrating our 30 year anniversary on July 7th. And that is such a wonderful thing so I was thinking about that and I was thinking about what it means to stay in love with her and as I’m thinking about her and this milestone I’m also transported all the back to the time not long after we got married.
We met way back in 1977 when we were 14 years old. And then the summer after our freshman year of high school we became a couple. We were together for 6 years before we got married in 1984 after our third year of college.
When we got married she thought she was marrying an engineer. And then I came to her one day and said, “I believe God is calling me to be a pastor.” And if that wasn’t enough I would need to change my major and finish at ODU, taking an extra year, and then go on to seminary.
And so we started down that path. I graduated and then decided that Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky was the place God was leading me. Robin had never been away from home. Both of us were commuter students while at ODU and lived at home. And we found ourselves in a tiny little apartment in Nicholasville, KY. All alone.
One night not too long after we moved in we were kind of feeling the weight of being so far from home realizing the road ahead was four years long to get through seminary. And we were talking and staring at this daunting journey ahead of us and Robin said to me, “You know I didn’t really want to be a Pastor’s wife. I don’t know if I’m cut out for that. I didn’t want to move 600 miles from home to Kentucky to go to seminary. I don’t really like being this far away from home.” And I sat there in disbelief for a moment and I said, “Robin why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why didn’t you tell me?” And then she just looked back at me and she said, “Well Randy because I know this is what God has called you to do and I want to support you in any way I can. I did it because I love you.”
And I was still shocked by this whole thing, but I also realized that in that moment I fell in love with my wife all over again because she realized something that I had yet to realize. She realized and experienced something that I and many of us I think have not yet experienced. And that is that love is not an emotion. Love is something that you do. Love is action. Love and staying in love is committing to do the things that you don’t necessarily like to do, committing to do the things that you don’t necessarily understand, committing to do the things that you don’t necessarily want to do because you love somebody. She understood that love is an action; it’s something that you do. And it’s from these actions that we receive these emotions.
And by the way she was wrong about one thing: She was cut out to be a pastor’s wife, and she is the best wife and partner in ministry that any pastor could hope for.
But love is a decision. It’s something you do. And so that requires things like discipline. That requires perseverance. That requires patience. But most importantly it requires action.
And Peter and the disciples in the 21st chapter of John, this is something that they didn’t get yet. A lot of biblical scholars they look at the 21st chapter of John and they say, “This is an addition. This is an add on. This is an addendum. This is a postscript. This is something extra.”
I like to think of John 21 as an encore. If the gospel of Jesus, if the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was a concert, then by the time we get to John 21 the concert is over, the set is complete. But the disciples don’t want it to be over. So what do they do? They go back to the place where it all started and they’re literally sitting in a boat and they’re fishing. And they’re fishing for this encore. They’re fishing for the hope that Jesus might come back to the stage to play the #1 hit, his greatest hit.
And what does Christ do? He comes back. Jesus comes back to the lakeshore and He calls the disciples in and once He has the disciples on the shoreline He actually takes Peter aside and He starts talking to Peter.
He says to Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter is standing there remembering all the betrayal, all the denial, all the silence, and he’s hurt by the question. But nevertheless he says, “Yes, Lord I love you.” And Jesus offers a short and simple rule in reply. He says, “Then feed my lambs.”
And then Jesus asked him another question. He says, “Peter, Simon son of John, do you love me?” And again, more hurt this time, Peter says, “You know I love you, Lord!” Then Jesus replies with another rule. He says, “Then tend to my sheep.”
And then Jesus asked a third time. He says, “Peter do you love me?” And this time Peter is just stuck, he’s done; he’s hurt to the core. And he says, “Jesus you know everything. You know my thoughts even before I think them. You know that I love you.” And Jesus says to Peter in reply, “Then feed my sheep, and follow me.”
Jesus comes back. He does this encore performance to tell Peter and to tell the disciples that love is something that we do. He comes back to give us three simple rules that we can live by in order to grow closer to God. He says, “I need you to feed my lambs. I need you to tend to them. And then I need you to follow me.” And in so doing He’s giving them the things that they need to do in order to fall in love with God. He’s giving them the tools that they need in order for them to become one with God.
And that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last two weeks. John Wesley the founder of the Methodist Church put together these three simple rules for those who call themselves Methodist to follow to live life as a Christian. These are rules to live by in order to become one with God; in order to fall in love with God.
And two weeks ago we learned the first rule. And the first step that we can take in becoming one with God, toward falling in love with God is actually nothing more than a step back. John Wesley said we are to do no harm by avoiding evil of any kind. And so what that means is that we are to assess all of the areas in our life, whether it is relationships with other people or the relationship we have with God, we are to assess every area where we’re doing harm, where we’re engaging in evil and we are to take a step back.
And similarly the second rule builds upon the first. Whereas the first is a step back, the second rule is to take a step forward. John Wesley said we are to: “Do all the good you can; by all the means you can; in all the ways you can; in all the places you can; at all the times you can; to all the people you can; as long as ever you can.” Wow! We’re called to do good, to take a step forward. And doing good is nothing more than living a proactive life. It’s saying that with everything I do I’m going to do good before anybody has to ask it of me. It’s making that decision that our lives are going to be about healing and wholeness instead of division and injury. It’s choosing and deciding that everything we do is going to be good before people ask it of us.
This leads us to our third rule, which is simply to stay in love with God. John Wesley said that in order to stay in love with God we must attend upon the ordinances of God. So we started this conversation by saying that love is an action. Love is something that we do. It’s a decision that we make. And so in order to stay in love with God we need to decide, we need to be willing to ask ourselves those tough questions. “Am I willing to stay active with God? Am I willing to continue practicing? Am I willing to continue doing? Am I willing to continue running this race that’s before me?”
In Hebrews 12 the author says in order to stay in love with God we shall “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith who for the sake of joy endured the cross.” This author of Hebrews says that we need to continue running with our eyes set on Jesus; on the cross, on the very heart of God.
And that’s been my experience when it comes to falling in love with somebody. When you fall in love with somebody or when you’re growing in love with somebody or when you’re trying to stay in love with somebody what’s required is usually that we run that race that’s set before us, that leads to their heart.
And so I’ve been thinking about this image of running a race that is kind of rooted in this image that we’re moving towards, that image of that heart that we’re trying to capture and when I think about Robin and I think about the race that I had to run to pursue her I think of the vision that I kind of held before my eyes. And as I was pursuing her I kind of got this vision of what it was I was aiming for. You see part of my journey was doing the things that music lovers do. And the reason I had to do that was because that’s where her heart is. That’s where her passion was. That’s the stuff that excited her. That’s where her true emotions were. That’s where her true love was. And so I needed to engage myself, immerse myself in that road; immerse myself in a means by which I could grow closer in love with her. It just so happened that I loved those things too.
And the author of Hebrews says that the same thing is true for us if we’re trying to stay in love with God. As we run with perseverance this race, we need to do these things with our eyes set on the heart of God.
And that means we need to be focusing on one thing and one thing alone. Any guesses? It’s the cross. We need to focus on the cross. We need to focus on the very heart of God. When I look at the cross I see a sign of perfect love. I think about forgiveness and I think about mercy and I think about grace and I think about the resurrection. I think about hope. I think about all of those things. But more than anything I think about the perfect love of God and I think about the perfect love of neighbor. I think about the things that I’m called to do. We are called to love God with our whole heart and our whole mind with our whole strength with our whole spirit; with everything that we have. And we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves. And so when I look at the cross I see my journey. I see my race. I see the things that I need to do to pursue the heart of God.
And John Wesley said these things that we need to do are what will keep us in love with God, and these are the means by which we can fall in love and stay in love. And he called these things the means of grace.
And there were two categories of the means of grace, two broad types of the means of grace. And those are found actually in the cross.
The first type of the means of grace is the vertical component of the cross and these are the things that we do to nurture our relationship with God; to stay in love with God. Wesley called these things works of piety. We are called to engage ourselves in works of piety.
In addition to that, the second means of grace that he lifts up is something similar, but it has to do with our neighbor; it has to do with the way we reach out to other people. It has to do with our horizontal relationship as opposed to our vertical relationship. So the other way that we can lead ourselves and walk or run towards Christ is literally by reaching out to our neighbors. And Wesley called that category of means of grace works of mercy.
These are the two activities, the two roads that we can take, that we can travel by to get toward the heart of God; to find that destination, that perfect love of God.
And so works of mercy are one of those roads and they are literally all of those things that we do to reach out to other people. John Wesley called those things the prudential means of grace; meaning these aren’t things that are commands. These are simply prudent gestures that we do out of discernment, out of wisdom, out of our faith.
And so we read them in scripture. They’re Biblical principles. Micah 6:8 kind of stuff. This is doing justice. This is loving mercy. This is walking humbly with our God.
John Wesley said that works of mercy are literally every work of charity is included here. Everything we give or speak or do that profits our neighbor or grants advantage to another person either in his body or in his soul.
So works of mercy is one way that we grow closer in love with our neighbor and thus God. Yesterday was just one very powerful example of that as so many of you gathered to sort and bag and deliver 40,000 pounds of potatoes. This is feeding the hungry. This is clothing the naked. This is visiting the imprisoned. This is packing backpacks or building habitat homes. This is anything charitable that we do out of love and mercy for our neighbor.
So naturally then you can read these first two rules that John Wesley puts forth to do no harm and to do good. Those first two rules are nothing more than works of mercy.
But if all we did was focus on the works of mercy all we’d have is an incomplete picture of the cross. You see as Christians we are called to do more than works of mercy. We’re called to do more than simply be a good neighbor and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To be Christian means that we are also called to love God with everything we have. And so in order to do that we need to engage ourselves in works of piety. We need to love God with everything we have.
And so John Wesley he called these works of piety, he called them the instituted means of grace. He called them the instituted means of grace because these are commands that Christ Himself institutes that we should do that we could grow together in love for God. And so I want to take a moment to talk about some of those things.
And I’ll begin with prayer. Because when we’re falling in love with somebody or we want to grow closer or draw near to somebody the first thing that I do is I want to talk to them.
I think about how I met Robin and the way we got to know each other was having these long conversations. This was way before cell phones and I can remember laying on the floor of my bedroom and having 2 hour phone conversations with her. I remember my mom and dad being so happy when call waiting was first invented because finally someone could call the house and not get a continuous busy signal. We talked for hours and that’s how I started to get to know her. I started sharing things with her and she with me. We talked about everything going on in our lives. And because we were doing that through our words and conversations and we got to know each other. And we drew closer to each other and we started to fall in love with each other.
And so conversation is essential to this loving relationship. Prayer is nothing more than holy conversation with God. and we’re called to draw nearer to God and one of the ways that we do that is by literally talking to Him; having conversations.
So I want you to think about your prayer life. Do you have conversations with God that mirror your other loving relationships? Do you talk to God the same way you talk to your spouse? Do you talk to God the same way you talk to your friends, your children, to your parents? Do you talk to God with the same frequency with which you talk to them? Do you consider God to be as close as your best friends? Part of drawing close to God, growing in our love for God is continuing to have those kinds of conversations, those confessions, those celebrations, those petitions. And so we’re called to immerse ourselves in the means of grace through prayer.
Similarly Wesley said one of the other things you can do is continue to immerse yourself in Scripture. John Wesley actually said, “All who doth desire the grace of God; all who desire the love of God are to wait for it in the searching of Scripture.”
Now if you’re like me and you hear the word searching of Scripture you probably have done what I’ve done. I sometimes as I was growing comfortable with the Bible I would just kind of open it up and not know where to start and I just started reading and I’d start searching through Scripture trying to look for a meaning. And as I did that I’d often get lost in names; or I’d get lost in genealogies, or I’d get lost in obscure Bible passages or things like that. And I couldn’t figure out how it applied to my life.
And then I realized what Scripture really was. And I realized it in a very powerful way through an assignment in one of my classes in seminary. We were asked to write letters to our children that we would share with them at important times in their lives; like at the start of kindergarten, at the start of high school, and on their 18th birthday.
At the time Robbie was just a toddler. And I wrote those letters, I sealed them up and put them away so that on these important days and milestones in life he had something that he could open, he had something he could read, he would have a way to remember all of the feelings, all of the love, all of the guidance and direction that I had for him.
Scripture is the very same thing. Scripture is nothing more than God’s love letter penned by men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, intended that we would open it and read it and remember this unbelievable love that God has for us His children; this unbelievable love that he has for humanity. And so when you read scripture you should be reading it looking for the love of God; looking for the love of God that extends to you His child; looking for ways that you can share that love with other people and use it in such a way to grow in that grace and to transform communities and to change the world by bringing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. So we read Scripture to remember the love of God and to apply it into our lives.
Which leads us to communion, which if you remember from last week is another thing that Wesley considers to be an instituted means of grace. Communion is an opportunity for us to remember and to give thanks for that gift of love that Christ gives us on the night in which He gave Himself up for us.
When we participate in communion we remember everything that Christ did; where Christ broke open His body and poured out His blood; poured out all of His love over all of us that we might receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
And so Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to participate in communion as often as possible. That’s why when we changed the format and the name of our 8:15 service to the Wesley Service we felt it important to offer communion in that service every week. And then we offer it once a month in our other 2 services. It’s that important because when we receive that gift of grace, when we receive that meal of mercy, what we’re saying is, “I want my identity to be in the cross. I want my identity to be in Jesus Christ who poured Himself out for us, who laid down His life for us. That is my identity not anything else. Not my political affiliation. Not my theological affiliation. Not my vocation, not anything else.” When we receive communion we are placing our identity first and foremost in the love of God.
And now by the glazed over look I know that you’re kind of doing what I do when I think about all these rules; when I think about all these things that we have laid out before us and I think about John Wesley’s 3 simple rules and I think, “Simple Rues?” These rules may be simple but they’re not easy. Do no harm, that’s tough. I’m going to pull out of this place and get in my truck and drive down the road to get some lunch and I guarantee I’m going to have some harmful thoughts as I’m maneuvering through traffic. I can’t even do that. I can’t even leave from here without having those things happening. So how can I do the rest of it?
And then I think Do good? Are you kidding me? Do good? I can’t even conquer the first one, how can I do the second one? As an individual I get consumed, I get depressed a little bit when I think about all the things I need to do and how I fall short of them all.
And then on top of it all I need to add one more. Works of mercy and works of piety? This becomes very difficult to wrap your head around. These are simple rules, but these are hard to live out and practice.
They’re difficult until we think about – a place like this. As individuals this becomes daunting, but when you think about the gathered community; when you think about the power of collections of individuals; when I think about this church and the hundreds of people that are spread out across Sterling and Ashburn and Herndon and Leesburg, I think when we come together as individuals seeking to run this race that is set on the heart of God; that is set on the perfect love of God and the perfect love of neighbor I think unbelievable things can happen when we gather together.
And so the last instituted means of grace is simply gathering together in worship. Christ commands it. He says, “whenever you’re doubting, whenever you’re having conflict; whenever you’re concerned about the things that you can’t quite accomplish, your shortcomings, I want you to gather together,” because He says, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name I will stand with you and you will find me there.”
And so when we gather together we realize that the power of Christ stands in our midst encouraging us, inspiring us, lifting us, empowering us to go out and to change the world. When we come together as Christians unbelievable things happen. And I’ve got to tell you that I have experienced that so many times here over these past ten years. Unbelievable things happen when we come together in the name of Christ.
Here’s the bottom line: When you are in love with Jesus you cannot help but live a cross centered life, and because you live a cross centered life people cannot help but see that you are in love with Jesus. And when you are in love with Jesus you cannot contain or control it. And that’s why when you stay in love with God you cannot help but to do good and to do no harm.
When we live out the three simple rules, when we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God, then our lives are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our churches, then our churches are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our communities, then our communities are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our nation, then our nation is transformed. And when we live out the three simple rules in our world, then our world is transformed. We are called to love the lord our God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, the vertical, and we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, the horizontal. We are called, in other words, to live cross centered lives, and we do that by doing no harm, doing good and by staying in love with God. May it be so. Amen.