Thursday, June 30, 2011

I Believe in the Resurrection

The Apostles’ Creed comes to a resounding conclusion with the last phrase: I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. With this, everything is resolved. Everything comes to its full fruition.

Everybody seems to believe in eternal life. Even the most pagan among us tends to profess some vague feeling that life has an eternal quality. Most believe that they are going to heaven say the statistics.

Some of that comes from those who look at the church and those of us in it. They see how human and sinful we are and say: “If they’re going to heaven, so am I.” As if somehow we are in church to show how good we are, instead of being in church to meet the resources that God gives us.

First, we believe in life. Christians believe in life. Every life born into this world is important. All life is a gift of God. When God made the world and all that’s in it, he made human beings and then he said: “It is very good.”

Jesus says that he has come to give us life in all of its abundance. As Christians with faith, we don’t just survive, we thrive. Every minute of every hour, every hour of every day, every day of every year is a good and gracious gift of God.

In an old Charlie Brown cartoon, Linus says to Charlie Brown: “Do you ever feel that life has passed you by?” Charlie says: “Sometimes I feel that life and I are going in different directions.” Life is beautiful and wonderful and a free gift of God.

We also believe in the resurrection of the body. In John’s Gospel when Jesus appears to his disciples he goes through locked doors to get to them. But, he is not a ghost, he is recognizable in his body. In this body, they can see and touch his wounds.

Paul says in 1 Thessalonians that when Jesus comes back to earth the dead in Christ will rise first, then all others. Some asked what about those who are still alive when Jesus comes. Paul says: “We will all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…”

You see we are not disembodied spirits, unlike what we hear about in our culture. Our bodies are our souls. We are our bodies and souls. So, when we die and rise, we will have spiritual bodies but bodies nonetheless. We will be recognizable as the persons we are. Our personhood will remain intact and we will know each other in heave. We will know our mothers and fathers…and…

In Jesus Christ, God came in flesh to save us. And, all who believe in him and accept the way of Jesus to God will be saved. Heaven means to be in God’s presence. Hell means to be separated from God and others forever- eternal separation.

God loves us too much to force us to accept him or his love. God loves us so much that he wants to leave it to us to decide to believe or not.

Karl Barth says that you can’t believe in the resurrection without going around with a smile of your face.

Do you believe? Then, smile.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Forgiveness of Sins

Nothing is more precious than forgiveness. In a recent survey, one of those that asks for the top three answers for something, surveyors asked people what are the three top things that you most like to hear someone say. People who answered the survey said: I love you; I forgive you; and, come to supper.

Last Sunday we were at that point in our sermon series when we were working on “I believe in the forgiveness of sins…” What a precious phrase that is. It’s almost like the creed is saying that if you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, if you believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered, died and was buried and on the third day rose from the dead, if you believe in the Holy Spirit, then you will believe in the forgiveness of sins.

The one part of the sermon that most people seem to have found most helpful was my point that said: “Forgive yourself…”

We, most of us, believe that God can and will forgive anything if you ask. We, most of us, believe that God forgives other people their sins and failures. But, most of us have trouble believing actually believing that god forgives me. I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s because we have such high expectations of ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with high expectations of ourselves, but, let’s be honest. We all sin; we all fail. We make wrong decisions; we set the wrong priorities. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “I do the things I don’t want to do and I don’t do the things I know I should do…”

We have high expectations of ourselves. Also, maybe we get defensive and try to justify ourselves and our actions. If I did that, I had a good reason. I know people who sit at home on Sunday morning and say, “What has the church done for me?” As a good book says, “I have sinned, but I have several great excuses.” The rich young ruler came up to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to find eternal life. The scripture says that he was trying to justify himself. He was trying to justify himself rather than accept the justification and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

Do you know how arrogant it is to think that God has forgiven every sin in the universe but yours?

The text for last Sunday was Matthew 18: 21-35. Peter asks Jesus: “How many times should we forgive someone? Seven times?” Seven times seems like a good number of times to forgive someone, doesn’t it? Jewish law said you should forgive someone three times. Peter doubled it knowing that he was dealing with Jesus who was always generous and always talked about going the second mile. Forgive someone seven times?

Jesus says: “No, seventy-seven times.” Some translations say: “Seventy times seven.” The Greek here is difficult to translate. But, either way the meaning is clear. There is no end to the need to forgive others.
Do you know how many divorces could be stopped if forgiveness were present? Do you know how many family squabbles could be settled with forgiveness? Do you know how many people in this world could be happier and healthier if they could receive forgiveness?

If you’re reading this, I know you need to be forgiven. Just ask. “O God, hear me now. You know me better than I know myself. You know everything about me. Yet, your Word tells me that you love me still. Forgive me of all me sins (name some). I believe that you have forgiven me and I receive it fully and wholeheartedly. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

You are forgiven and loved. Stop going around unforgiven. Go out into the world and act forgiven for a change. Act forgiving.

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Communion of Saints

The Communion of Saints is an almost mystical belief. I mean that it is mysterious to talk about the dead and the living in the same breath. A friend of mine served a church in Columbia a few years ago and he offered to take my underneath the church where it gets so small that you have to crawl. I declined the invitation. I’m not much on small spaces or closed-in spaces.

Underneath that great church there are people buried; the tombs are under the church.

Many of you know that I graduated from Duke University Divinity School; so, I went to church often at Duke Chapel right next door to the Divinity School. Often people take tours of the chapel; sometimes classes of children are brought on a field trip. One of the docents says that the most asked question that children ask is: “Can we see the dead bodies?”

The Dukes are there in cement. Children’s eyes open wide as they are paraded by the bodies.

Protestants are sometimes squeamish about Saints. We’re suspicious of anybody who is elevated to that status, though in the modern world many Protestants worship their leaders who are bigger than life on TV. And, sometimes Christians do divide up into who is the greatest Christian.

Even within a local congregation, people so easily set themselves up as “better” than the rest of us. So, we are suspicious of anyone who is called Saint. Certainly, if someone showed up and started saying they were a Saint, we would laugh at them.

And yet, we all know people who live such lives of faith that we call them Saints. They are exemplary like Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi. Usually the people that we call Saints are dead and gone. So, their reputation grows in our nostalgic remembrances.

One church I served sat right in the middle of a cemetery. I had to walk through the dead to get to work every morning. You might think that’s a pretty depressing way to start the day.

Buried in church, under the church, or around the church, the dead are all around us in memories and in history. But, the dead and the living are one in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God destroys all boundaries of space and time and age. The Kingdom of God in Jesus even blurs the line between life and death. As Paul says: “Living or dead we still belong to God.”

There’s a beautiful image of heaven in the Book of Revelation. It’s like a church. There’s much singing and praise. God is present. There’s an altar and underneath the altar the Saints are singing and crying out to God.

When I preached this sermon we were celebrating Holy Communion. What better setting in which to share in the meaning of Communion of Saints. We are one with God and one with all the Saints who have gone before. We are one with each other (present day Saints). And, we are one with all the Saints who will come in the future.

In the meantime, the New Testament image in Hebrews 11 is that of an Arena. We are on the playing field and the Saints who have gone before us are in the stands cheering us on. Can’t you hear them saying: “Keep the faith?”

Dave Nichols

Monday, June 13, 2011

Final Comments on SC Annual Conference

Everyone who is a United Methodist should experience a trip to the Annual Conference at least once. For clergy, the Annual Conference is their church, in a sense. Clergy church membership is held in the Annual Conference. Pastors are likely to know each other across the years; so, Annual Conference is for them a time of fellowship and catching up with friends that they haven't seen since last year. The Annual Conference receives those who are called to full-time ministry and examines them. Through the Annual Conference pastors as they start out are tested and tried. If they pass the tests, they are admitted to membership in the conference and ordained to service. Clergy/pastors are ordained to serve now in two ways as Deacon or Elder. Deacons are ordained to service in the local church and may serve as ministers in areas of music, youth, or education. Some serve as Associate pastors in churches but may not be the Senior/lead pastor of a church. They may assist Elders in serving Holy Communion.

Elders are the pastors of churches or chaplains in the military or other settings. Elders are ordained to preach the word, administer the sacraments, order the life of the congregation and serve in the world.

For the clergy, the Conference is their church. For lay people the Annual Conference is an extension of the work and ministry of the local church. Through the Annual Conference we share in common ministry in a larger way than we could possibly do alone. Each church is given a certain number of delegates based on membership. And, Annual Conference membership is adjusted to make sure there are an equal number of lay and clergy members.

Annual Conference also affords us the opportunity to worship in a large setting, and experience the diversity of worship styles throughout the conference.

This year we approved a budget for the Annual Conference that is lower than this year's budget based on the still-sluggish economy. We elected our officers from nominations. And, we established a Task Force to study the number of disticts (currently 12) to determine where the SC population has shifted and how many districts we might now need.

Our Bishop will have been in the SC Annual Conference for eight years next year. The term is eight years in one place, but can be extended for four more years is needed. So, we might have a new bishop appointed next year depending on the needs of the whole Jurisdiction (southeastern).

We elected 36 lay and clergy delegates to attend General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2012. And, those delegates unananimously approve Dr. Tim McClendon as the episcopal candidate (to run for bishop) next year at Jurisdictional Conference at Lake Junaluska.

It was an exhausting and exilerating week as we worked and prayed and worshiped together. Your pastors are back for another year, appointed by the bishop. I am happy to be at Bethtel Church. What a great church.

Dave Nichols

Sunday, June 12, 2011

SC Annual Conference- Days 3 and 4

It's early Sunday morning and we're at the last day of Annual Conference. This year I got a Lay Speaker to preach the traditional services and the Youth Pastor to preach at the contemporary service. And, I am here today for the duration.

I have failed to write at the end of days 3 and 4 because they were long days and when I got back to my room I was too tired to do anything. So, let me summarize the days here and now.

Over the last two days we heard various reports from our seminaries and from our colleges. We listened to a moving report about Epworth Children's Home. We spent a lot of time debating about a resolution on immigration. The resolution which called for us Methodist Christians to be hospitable to immigrants passed but only by a slim margin. It reflected the conflicted feelings that exist in our culture as a whole.

We approved the closing of two churches and we approved some charge line changes- that means some pastors serve more than one church.

We celebrated some new church starts- at least four that are thriving. WE were challenged to consider every church as a parent church for another church. Congregational Development told us that they would give grants to churches that are creating new ministries.

Over and over we were reminded that we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We joined in worship in the African American tradition and a contemporary service with praise band.

Yesterday was an emotional day for me. We had in the morning the service of retirement for pastors who are retiring. As others start their ministries these pastors are coming to retirement. Now, we know that God's call knows no retirement but these are coming to that point in their lives when they will step out of being under appointment by the bishop and do ministry in different ways. We have several retired pastors as a part of Bethel Church: Thurman Anderson, Charlie Graves, Bob Strother, and Ken Bobo. They have continued their ministries among us.

Each gets to says something to the rest of us.

Then, after lunch we came back for the memorial service. We celebrated the lives of those pastors, spouses and others who died since last Annual Conference. Several died who have meant much to me over the years. I did the funeral of one of them. It was an intense and moving experience.

Balloting is done and we have elected all of the clergy and lay delegates for General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

Today we will have our Ordination Service. In the United Methodist Church, the Bishop ordains pastors. It is always a great service as we set aside those whom God has called to serve the church.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 9, 2011

SC Annual Conference - Day 2

Today, started with Holy Communion. At one time, communion was held each morning in a chapel apart from the meeting area. Now, we start the day in the same place where we do other business with a service of worship and Holy Communion. A pastor is assigned the task and leads us. This is a wholy appropriate and wonderful way to begin our work. It is, of course, where we meet Christ at table, in bread and juice. It reminds us that all our work, be it business and discussions about money, or mission, is the Father's business, a holy task.

In addition to celebrating Africa University, our United Methodist University built by and with the whole church, specifically South Carolina Methodists, we talked about a lot of things. Did you know that most of the growth in the United Methodist Church is in Africa? On that troubled continent, in the midst of all kinds of horrors, is our great university. Every church contributes to its support.

We also celebrated our Spartanburg Methodist College, a place rich in history and alive with its modern ministry to students.

We worked on pension and insurance issues for Conference employees and pastors. The church, like all institutions is facing the challenge of rising health costs. With some minor tweaking, we were able to keep premiums the same for 2012.

We also worked on some structural changes. We Methodists like to tinker with structure. But, the trend is toward moving more and more toward the ministry of the local church, where ministry action takes place. We are trying to better connect our churches to resources to enhance their ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

We had another lecture on leadership, and more ballots to elect delegates for General Conference.

Tonight we had a rousing worship experience with an African American Choir and preacher. It was a good experience and a celebration of some of the diversity in our Annual Conference. An offering was taken for the mission to rid Africa of malaria.

We had another full and blessed day of doing God's work together.
Dave Nichols

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Report from Annual Conference - Day 1

I promised to blog each day about Annual Conference to keep you informed about the things going on here.

We left Spartanburg this morning at around 7am and started on our journey to Florence for the SC Annual Conference. We had to be there by 10:30 to register. Then, I went to the clergy session where we approved new pastors for ordination or provisional membership in the conference. Lay delegates had their orientation session at the same time.

After a lunch break the session started at 2pm with organizational stuff. Any group gathering must agree on the rules by which to govern themselves. We establish those rules and then live by them the rest of the week.

At 2:30 or so we had a worship service and sang as every Annual Conference has since the beginning: “And Are We Yet Alive…” The Bishop, Mary Virginia Taylor, preached calling us to remember why were are here- to do God’s work.

Then, we had the first ballot to elect lay and clergy delegates to General Conference. Each Annual Conference gets an equal number of clergy and lay delegates to represent them at General Conference, the national/international body of the church that meets every four years. We get nine lay and nine clergy representatives.

After we have elected the delegates for General Conference, we elect nine lay and nine clergy delegates to go to Jurisdictional Conference at Lake Junaluska. The Jurisdictional Conference elects bishops.

After the ballot we had the report of the Nominating Committee which nominates people for leadership in the conference. Then, we had the first reading of the budget for 2012. Both of these things- the nominations and the budget- will be acted on the last day of Annual Conference.

At around 4:30 we had an hour-long presentation on leadership.

We came back after dinner for a worship service. Then, we had another ballot, and were dismissed for the evening

Bethel Church has five lay delegates plus your two pastors to represent. The number of lay delegates is based on membership. Since we have over 1300 members, we have five lay delegates.

This is a week of doing business, of debating priorities, of sharing worship and fellowship so that we can return to our local churches renewed and inspired to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Apostles' Creed- Holy Catholic Church

In the sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we now come to that phrase that causes some among us to stumble when we say it. I believe in the Holy catholic Church…

Sometimes on Sunday morning it’s interesting to watch those people who get to this phrase and pause. Sometimes visitors don’t know what to do with it. Even our own people who have said this for a lifetime will not feel the most comfortable about saying it.

A friend of mind asked what I was preaching on Sunday last and when I told him “The Holy catholic Church” said, “That’s my least favorite part of the creed.”

Well it’s one of my favorite parts of the creed mainly because I do believe in the church of Jesus Christ spread across the boundaries of age and race and nation. Everyone in every church who follows Jesus Christ is part of the Holy catholic Church.

We are not affirming faith in the Roman Catholic Church, not claiming that we agree with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church or the Baptist Church, for that matter. We are divided in the Christian church by denomination, by non-denomination, and by independent churches. We are divided by belief and race and practice. We are divided in just about every way you can imagine.

I still find among us Protestants a bit of anti-Catholicism. Not understanding the practices of our brothers and sisters in that church, we put them in a category apart from us. I hesitate to say this but we Christians need someone to look down on- to hate. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?

Jesus never intended that we would be so divided, on the one hand. Read John 17. Jesus prayed for his followers to be one. And, we are one in intention and in devotion to Jesus Christ. One the other hand, God has created us as diverse people. I always say that God sure must love diversity; he sure made a lot of it. It would be nearly impossible for all of us human being Christians to fit into one box or two or three. One of my dear professors used to say that it was good that if a person has to leave one church he/she has some place to go.

I think that we need to work as Christians to love our fellow Christians. Now, I know that there are churches that think that the United Methodist Church is no church. We know better. And, we know that we must work hard to love and forgive each other.

Some of my most memorable experiences as a Christian are those times when I was able to join with Christians of other churches in some practice. We didn’t agree on everything but we did agree on Jesus.

Way back in one of my churches we initiated a week of services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That week is January 18-25 every year. We would worship in all our churches that week. I preached one year in the Catholic Church. One year I preached at the Church of God. We may never be the same, but we can be friends in Christ to each other.

What a different world this might be were we to learn to love our fellow Christians. I believe in the Holy catholic Church, the “Universal” church, that whole church of every tribe and nation and age, united in God’s great kingdom of love and grace.

Dave Nichols

Comments on Lectionary - Sept. 1

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