Sunday, June 26, 2011

Grace Full Living

“Grace Full Living”

Pastor Tom Millner

John 13:34-35; Romans 15:5-7; Ephesians 2:4-10


There are scientific advances being made every day. Just this week I glanced at an article about a vaccine for cancer. Recently there was an account in Germany of a fellow being cured of HIV through stem cell therapy. Fifty years ago the thought of space travel was just a fantasy; today we worry about all the space debris crashing to earth or striking stellar space craft and dooming all on board. We’ve sequenced human DNA, we’re unraveling the human genome, and we’ve learned to tweet and post to the masses of our peeps. The one thing we haven’t been able to do is live our lives in the perfect reflection of the One who created us. Just when we think we’ve made it, we’ve failed miserably! What’s a peep to do? It just seems like we’re danged if we don’t and dinged if we do. Is that really the end of the story though?

God’s love for us is demonstrated by His grace and mercy. We could pray fifteen times a day, abstain from lustful thoughts during a proscribed period of time, give 30% of our income to the church, be slain in the Spirit six times a day, give meals to the homeless four times a week, serve faithfully in the ministry to which we’ve been called, abstain from gossip, abstain from drugs, alcohol or other substances, be nice to people’s face and behind their backs, get recognition for how great we art and never be worthy of God’s blessings! If any of us are doing any of the above so that we are worthy of His love, we’re wasting our time and energy. God doesn’t love us because we deserve to be loved; He loves us because that’s who He is. If we truly got what we deserved, not a single living human being would be given an opportunity to share in the blessings of God’s love. Not even those who would like to think they are so religiously, devotionally, spiritually, emotionally or otherly pious that their fecal matter holds no fragrance, are exempt from the not worthy club. Not even a PhD, M.D., Th.D., or D.D., can render one more worthy! God’s mercy saves us from our own foolish destruction, and that’s God’s mercy only! His grace gives us the right to be called justified and righteous before Him because of the act of Jesus on the cross.  The unselfish, loving, redeeming act of surrender to the burden of mankind’s sin upon His back, taking our hit in our stead, is the act of mercy and grace that God shows as love. Don’t get me wrong; all those pious and good things I described have their place, but it’s not in place of grace! Ephesians 2:4-5 reminds us “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” What then shall we do with grace? How do we live it to the fullest? Love him back!

Our love for Him is demonstrated by extending grace to others. When asked what was the greatest of the commands, Matthew 22:37-39 records: “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” We love God and others out of gratitude for the great love He has extended to us. Many people use their “acts of love” as tools of manipulation that they believe will somehow render God indebted to them. In the words of the great theologian, Larry the cable guy, “that dog don’t hunt.” God cannot be indebted to us. There is nothing we can do to merit His favor. We have already gotten it through the act of Jesus Christ on the cross. There is a great difference between “acts of love” borne out of gratitude and “acts of love” intended to impress or enslave. The latter are no acts of love at all! When Christ commanded us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, He knew it wouldn’t be a snap. How do we love God? How do we learn how to keep our hearts, our souls, or minds about loving Him? We practice on each other. We practice knowing that we will never be perfect this side of eternity, but that’s perfectly fine! We’re so tied up in feelings and what seems to be happening that we miss the reality of what goes on in lives daily – namely that all fall short and are covered by the grace of God! Grace has nothing to do with money, status, possessions, feeling up, feeling down. Grace is God’s love wiping our sin slates clean so we can live in a different attitude about money, status, possessions, feelings, and outcomes around us! God’s grace does not wipe out consequences of our bad choices, prevent natural disasters, ensure wealth and prosperity or grant a dispensation of healthy relationships. God’s grace does give us a different heart and mind with which to view consequences of bad choices, natural disasters, wealth or poverty, and all forms of relationship. 

Lack of grace to others is a signal of our own condemnation. Matthew 6:12 reads “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” There have been volumes written about this one verse and I don’t presume to boil them down to a few lines here, but I do want to speak to the heart and mind that is unforgiving. I believe that we hold forgiveness or unforgiveness only toward those whom we judged worthy of forgiveness or unforgiveness. Matthew 7:1 reads “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” This translates to something like this; “the measure you use to judge another is the measure you use to judge yourself.” Often those who judge others the harshest are the harshest judges of themselves. Imagine the pain of someone who harbors so much anger and resentment towards another. That anger and resentment eats away at the heart, mind, and soul of the one harboring. Not all anger and resentment come from self-judgment, but you can be pretty sure there’s a hefty dose at the center. The angry and resentful person is one who has not allowed self to be fully bathed in God’s grace and mercy. All the things that coulda, woulda, shoulda been in order to measure up to the expectation that was arbitrarily set by self and manipulated for self-gain, has been made obsolete in the face of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. What freedom there is that awaits the heavy burdened self-righteous achiever who thinks he can become worthy of having it all his way! When we accept God’s grace through the acknowledgement and surrender to the act of Christ on the cross, we are freed from the bondage that set’s us up for self-condemnation and failure. He has already measured us up through the cross; no further measure is needed. Now we can live in the light of His love, recognizing that His grace is sufficient for me and for you. 

Living in Grace means that we are living in His love, sharing His love. After accepting His grace, freely given to us at a great cost to Him, we can practice grace full living each day by reminding ourselves of the gift that has been given us. Each day, as we spend time in His Word, we seek to understand the many depths of His grace. As we live out our lives we have the opportunity to live out our grace! Grace filled living embraces the richness of who we are because of who He is in us. Grace full living is not focused solely on we, but on He who freed us from the everlasting consequences of our short sightedness. Grace filled living means dropping the burden of our self-condemnation for what we’re not and living in the full knowledge of what we are: loved, forgiven, redeemed, justified before God, born anew, God’s child, one for whom God would die! What a difference a day in a life with Christ at the center over a day with self as the center! When we’ve truly gotten the gift that grace is in our lives, we’re in the best position to pass it on. His love is too great to be stuffed into one human alone; it has to be shared. Have you ever learned something so life changing that you just had to share with someone else? Well now you have – Jesus Christ has done for you everything you thought your whole life should accomplish to be considered worthy of the graduate certificate. You are proclaimed winner because of what He has done. Now you’re free to act like the winner you are – not because of you, but because of Him. 



Sunday, June 12, 2011

Who's on First?

“Who’s On First?”

Pastor Tom Millner

John 12:44-50; Romans 14:1-9


It seems to have become a national pastime to air people’s faults and failings. We see the occasional broadcast of a local hero but squeezed in between the hero is this or that person’s failure to do something or that they have done something that would expose him or her as guilty of wrong doing. The process is almost as old as mankind. Remember the story of Cain and Abel? Cain felt Abel was taking all the glory, so he decided to get rid of the competition. Seems we just like diminishing another’s efforts. We’re told to exercise good judgment yet we are told not to judge! Exercising good judgment always has its foundation in relationship with God. Judging others, however, takes God’s place and sets self in the precarious place of being first before God. What is it that we are looking for when we engage in gossip about others, exposing the faults of others, or touting our superior standing on a particular topic or subject? Are we looking for significance? Who are we trying to convince? More often than not, we’re trying to convince ourselves. Rarely are we successful, even when we proclaim ourselves the winner! Let’s look at the consequences of setting ourselves up as final judge, being number one.

Relationship with a partner. Relationships are not made in heaven though some may seem heavenly at times. The person to whom we feel attracted strikes some chord in our imprinted past of experiences. Early weeks and months of relationship are filled with hormonal cravings that tell us how great we feel just being near that special person. We in essence know nothing about the other, but just know that the other could never do anything wrong because everything just seems so right. Unfortunately, the time soon comes when it may appear that what has always been done just doesn’t seem right enough to make me “feel” the way I use to feel. That’s when the true joy of relationship can blossom, but it’s often the point where judging and competition come into play to destroy the relationship. Since it is all about me, I need to feel, to sense, to know, that you are all about me. We often think of the other as being the other half of that which can be counted as whole. When that’s not working, disappointment sets in and hearts, minds and eyes start roving for the next candidate of my dream. The process repeats itself, this time with even more baggage than before and we wonder if we’ll ever find what we’re looking for. The answer is “yes you can,” but not where you’re looking! The answer to your prayers is not in the cutie of your dreams. Remember, the other person was looking for you to be their answer as well. Who was the miserable failure? Who was the proclaimed winner? Those questions set the trap that is certain to snare us away from the presence of grace and mercy in the most important relationship we can ever have. The one for which we were created! Relationship is not about power or hierarchy or winning over losing. We’ll address that later on.

Relationship with other people. We experience difficulties not only with intimate one-on-one relationships, but with so called peer or casual relationships as well. We sometimes band together in groups for the purpose of creating what we can’t seem to create alone. Competition builds as one member vies with another for position, for agreement from others. Smaller splinter groups begin to form as individuals begin to compete with others for the top spot of support from others. Churches are not immune from the ravages of competition from within or from without. Denominations and or sects form. There are the reformed, the Pentecostal, the progressives, the liberals, the fundamentalists – all proclaiming the justness of the theological positions they hold. There used to be the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Samaritans, and many others who held to the rightness of their positions to the exclusion of any others. In our modern society we see divisions that separate us often more frequently than we see what unites us. Feminine versus masculine; gay versus straight; gay versus Christian; left versus right – all seeking to gain acceptance by gaining the upper hand or at least the right to be left alone! It even becomes television and social media worthy to expose the faults or achievements of individuals or groups, just to gain more followers on the road to see who’s on first! As long as we seek to find the person who’s on first (or to be the person on first in at least one other person’s life) we’ll be worshipping at the god of our place and not God in the first place! John 3:17 records Jesus saying “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” Believing or not believing is what brings judgment, not by God, but by one’s self. A just God brought about our justification by giving the life of the only just human – Jesus, so that we could relate to God just as if I’d never sinned. God did all the redeeming, what we’re called to is the believing that we’re perfectly measured up by the act of God through Jesus Christ on the cross. We’ll never fully find what we were created for in relationship (or competition) with others only, but we will find that in relationship with Christ!     

Relationship with God. God created us to be in relationship with Him. That relationship is broken by our desire to always be in first place or equal to that place. We’ll do just about anything to gain it. The Old Testament is full of the stories of how God reaches out and humans reach back for a while, but succumb to self-desires over God’s greater desire (commands) for us. Christ died once for all. He appeared to His disciples and others calling them to unity of purpose after His resurrection. Today is Pentecost Sunday! In the account of Pentecost in the book of Acts, Jesus left with the believers the One who calls us to unity with Himself and each other -the One who levels the playing field. Not one of us is worthy, but each of us is now justified before God because of the unselfish act of Christ on our behalf. On the day of Pentecost, the believers were in one accord (not a Honda) – according to God’s design for relationship – enabled by the presence of His Holy Spirit. Chaos did not reign, but rather a unity of presence and purpose. The purpose was not for the edification of each individual present so that he or she could tout how special they were to have experienced the outpouring of His Spirit, but rather the purpose was to glorify God and the power of His presence to bring others into the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. God calls us to relationship with Himself and He gives us Himself to nurture the relationship. He doesn’t force Himself and He doesn’t play the power game with us.  Revelation 3:20 quotes Jesus stating: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” This does not mean that Jesus is asking to join us in a power struggle or an ego wrestling match. His invitation is to open the door and invite Him in for the feast of our lives – the sharing of the bread of life and the everlasting waters that never run dry. Placing Him at the center of our attention puts all else in perspective. He died to make it happen. What are you willing to do to follow through?

Instead of asking who’s on first, let’s change the question – with whom can I relate to gain all for which I was created? We were created to commune with Him, to reflect Him in our lives, and to live eternally. Opening the door to relationship with Him means opening ourselves up to the fulfillment of our created purpose. He is the way, the truth, and the life that we have sought all our lives. There is no other way. There’s none needed!



Sunday, June 5, 2011

Life Wihout Excuses

“Life Without Excuses”

Pastor Tom Millner

John 10:10-11; Galatians 3:28-29


I’ve heard just about every excuse that can be contrived. I’m always amazed when I see people trying to convince themselves of the justifications for doing or not doing a particular thing or acting in a particular way. The classic one is “the Devil made me do it.” We’re always looking for an excuse for what we do.  Excuse making is about as old as creation. Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent. Every time we engage the blame game, we attempt to excuse ourselves from accountability. There is no running from accountability, however. Even the most egregious misconduct comes home to roost, whether publicly seen or not. Not a single one of us is immune to excuse making. Romans 3:23 states; “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Accepting that truth and laying down our guilt and need for excuses before His throne and accepting the “justification” made for us by the life of Jesus Christ is the foundation for living without excuses. 


Debunking common excuses:


“It’s my childhood experience.” I’ll bet that if we took a survey here we’d find that at least eighty percent of us had some kind of negative experience as a child that we would deem near traumatic. Scars from childhood can be hard to overcome. Whether they are scars from parents, from siblings, or from classmates/friends, they can have lasting effects on our sense of self and how we experience the world. Even though wounds heal, scars often do not disappear so easily.  Each time we see that place, hear those words, recall that experience, we are emotionally moved and experience what we call the emotional scar of that experience. Fortunately, we don’t have to stay at that place. The scar may not totally disappear, but we can significantly reduce its presence and size. Jesus tells us in our scripture reading today that “The thief comes only to steal and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” There are resources all around to help us move out of that place of perpetual agony over the past. God does not want us to stay there. Jesus, who was rejected, who was lied about, who was betrayed, beaten, nailed to a cross and killed, was the same Jesus who rose from the dead. He died so that we might have life and have it more abundantly than we otherwise would have had He not died for us! He came to heal, He came to save, He came to give new life, He came that we might have life eternal with Him. When we insist on staying at a place of victimhood, we choose to use our past hurts as an excuse for our current behaviors.  In the light of John 3:16, and John 10:10, we are called not to use all these old events as the justification (excuse) for our lives, but rather recognize that Jesus is the JUSTIFICATION (just as if I’d never sinned) bringing us new life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” To excuse today’s bad, angry, begrudging, hurtful, or other negative behaviors on scars from childhood, is like blaming being caught in a rain storm as a reason for not bathing! We need to know that after the rain comes the sun; after the winter comes the spring; and after the cross comes the resurrection. We are not bound to what was, but what is! If there’s something that happened in your past that you use or are tempted to use as an excuse for your current bad behavior, give it up, Dorothy, you’re no longer in that storm! You have been given all you need to live life fully in the knowledge of His grace and mercy. Exercise your choice; live the life He died to give you! 1 Corinthians 13:11 states: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became (an adult), I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

“It’s because I’m _____.” Other excuses that may be used for poor behavior is orientation, or gender, or cultural background, or socio-economic status. It’s amazing to me the amount of alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse that abounds in our community. Many in this Body of Christ do now or have struggled with addictions that manifest as substance or sexual abuse. When I speak of sexual abuse in this context, I don’t mean intentional infliction of pain and suffering upon others (although that can exist in the same arena), but rather the behavior that uses others as objects of sexual gratification to the extent that one’s own ability to love and be loved in a healthy one on one context is severely compromised. Idolatry comes in many forms and it keeps us from worshipping God who created us for relationship with Himself and Godly relationships with others. Too many people buy into the lie that orientation is about sex, drugs, and alcohol. It’s time this community grows up and recognizes that orientation is not an excuse for behaving like irresponsible, irrational, and irritating adolescents. When we use our orientation as an excuse for bad behavior it’s because we buy the lie that is perpetuated by the legalist fundamentalists who can’t bring themselves to a grace filled place of common sense about the diversity within God’s creation – all of which bear His divine reflection!  Being straight is not a justification for multiple marriages, strip clubs, brothels or speed dating. Why is it that so many gay folks tend to blame their bad behavior on their orientation? Jesus leveled the playing field. There is none greater or lesser in His Kingdom. That is not intended as a license to behave badly – quite the opposite. It is “get out of hell” card so you can know and love Him with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and then approach other of His creation with the same care and interest as you would desire for yourself.  Galatians 3:28-29 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The promise is not for better lives through living badly, but for the grace and mercy to live a life reflecting His passion for each of His creation. It’s the promise of new life experienced to the fullest – without excuses weighing us down. Often we have bought so deeply into the lie of what it means to be created uniquely from the majority that we find it difficult to believe that God could really love me!

“God can’t love me.” This is one of the most tragic statements I’ve ever heard from another human being. Yet, there is an element in many of us that holds to this notion. Let’s break this apart for a bit. What the person is saying is that he or she doesn’t believe that John 3:16 applies to him or her – that he or she is not a “whosoever.” It’s pretty clear that John is stating the facts about the Gospel – that God (creator of the universe who is Love Himself) loves His creation so much that He has given His only Son (Himself), so that if you believe that Jesus is who God says He is and did what scripture says He did, all sin barriers between God and us are wiped away and relationship with God is restored to how it was in the beginning of creation! So the question I pose to you is this; why don’t you believe this act of grace and mercy applies to you? I submit to you that whatever your response, it translates to the same – you have set yourself up as the god who judges and always has the last word! If you can’t forgive yourself; if you can’t get past your own judgment, you can’t receive grace and mercy from a second hand God! When you’re ready to put God first in your life, you’re ready to accept that God the CREATOR loves you to squeeze out the death of your past and breathe life into your today and tomorrow. Paul in His letter to the believers in Rome wrote; “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:28-29) Nothing can separate us from His love, but setting ourselves up as the final arbiter of all that is acceptable to be loved is to deny ourselves the joy of our own lives, saved by the grace of God. There is no valid excuse for living life as a less than when God has already done the more than for us! He’s already done more than we can do, more than we deserve, more than we can earn…He has bestowed grace and mercy on each of us! Let go the ego! It’s too weak to box with God! Paul sums it up for us nicely in Romans 12:1-2 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” What is God’s will for our lives?  Mark 12:30-31 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” What’s your excuse?













cohss logo

Pastor Tom Millner, Sr. Pastor  (Sister church in NJ)