“Potential”: A sermon preached on May 17, 2020, for the First United Methodist Church of Orlando

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus. You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.  This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. (Ephesians 2:4-10, CEB)

I wonder if…

  • When you were in Middle School, if you ever get one of those love notes saying, “Will you be my girlfriend or boyfriend?”, with a checkbox for “yes” and a checkbox for “no”? I have to admit, I likely gave out a lot more of those notes than I ever got!
  • Did someone ask to go to the Prom?
  • Did someone ever pursued a friendship with you?
  • Have you ever been offered a promotion you weren‘t expecting, or been recruited by another company, for a job you weren’t pursuing?
  • Or, maybe you played sports, and the coach called you off the bench to get into the game, before you knew you were ready?
  • Or, maybe, sometime here at church, you’ve been asked to serve or lead, in some way you didn’t know you had the ability to do.

In one way or another, has anyone ever seen possibility, potential in you, that you didn’t necessarily see in yourself – possibility for relationship, for leadership, for making a difference?  Has someone pursued you for a possibility, even when you didn’t know you were worth pursuing?

When I was in 9th grade, I signed up for the Winter Park Junior High School Yearbook Staff.  About a month into it, the sponsor made me the editor.  I didn’t know anything about being an editor.  But, he saw something in me.  He believed in me.

I still remember a Sunday afternoon in early 1990, when the Reverend Bob Bushong asked me to stop by his office, and then asked me to be this church’s youth director.  I reminded him I had ZERO youth ministry experience.  But, he believed in me.

As the Youth Director, I was invited to participate in the weekly worship services; by doing the announcements, or reading Scripture, or praying.  I’ll never forget the first time I climbed into the pulpit, standing before our congregation, and the incredible honor it was.  It still is!

I remember a call, a little more than a year ago, telling me I was becoming the Lead Pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Orlando – a dream come true!  Though there were many pastors they could have chosen, they chose me.  I was honored, and humbled.

Those experiences are just a dim reflection of what I read in this passage.  Because of what Christ did for us, and God’s amazing gift of grace, God sees tremendous potential in all of us.

Though we usually think of Easter as a single day, we’re still in the “season” of Easter.  Easter, of course, is the celebration of Christ’s victory of over death.  But, not just HIS death!  Ours too.  And, not just our LITERAL DEATH.  When the Bible talks about death, it also means the living dead; those who are separated from God by sin; those who are living less than the abundance Christ came to give; those who are dead in sin.

As it says in verse 5, “He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us.”

Notice:  Paul is speaking in the past tense.  He isn’t speaking about what happens to us when we die a physical death.  He is talking about what Christ has already done for us.  “He brought us to life with Christ.”  It’s already happened.  It’s done.  Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been raised from a state of spiritual death to new life in Christ.

As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, If anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!”

You see, it’s already done.  It’s already happened.  We have new life in Christ.

Thomas Merton writes, “The reason for the crucial importance of the Easter mystery is that by his resurrection Christ lives in us.”

In Galatians 2:20, Paul says, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The phrase in today’s passage that especially stands out to me is verse 6, “God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.”  Notice again, Paul is speaking in the past tense about a present reality, “God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.”  NOT: God WILL raise us, and seat us in the heavens.  GOD ALREADY HAS!  You and I are currently “raised up and seated” in heaven!  It’s already done!  It’s already happened!

Now, obviously, that might sound a little strange.  I’m not literally in heaven.  I’m in our beautiful sanctuary, that looks heavenly, but isn’t heaven.  You aren’t in heaven.  You’re probably sitting on your couch drinking coffee, or on your back porch eating breakfast.  And, then, there’s this whole pandemic thing – with so much fear, and unemployment, and even death – which certainly doesn’t seem like heaven.

Yet, Paul undoubtedly chose his words and verb tense carefully and intentionally. We ARE raised up.  We ARE seated in the heavens with Christ.  Present truth!  Present reality!  What could that possibly mean?

I think it means that, with the help of God’s grace, whatever and whoever I will be in heaven, in some way I already am and have the potential of becoming.  My future heavenly reality, is already possible in my present.  Whatever growth, or perfecting, or cleansing, or healing, or forgiveness I expect will happen in heaven, is already possible, in this life.  We don’t have to wait to be who God made us to be!

Again, Thomas Merton writes, “Jesus not only teaches us the Christian life, he creates it in our souls by the action of the Holy Spirit.  Our life in him is not a matter of mere ethical goodwill.  It is not a mere moral perfection.  It is an entirely new spiritual reality, an inner transformation.”

In the Methodist tradition, we call this sanctification.  Sanctification is God work of grace, through the Holy Spirit, to make us more and more like Christ, in this life.  This is the genius of Methodist Christianity.  Salvation is more than just what happens to us after we die, or eternal destiny.  Salvation is for the present AND the future.  Eternal life begins here and now, and extends forward indefinitely.  With God’s help, in this life, we can grow in godly virtues: like kindness, patience, joy, generosity, hope, and love.  We discover our purpose and our calling.  We become more selfless, and more serving.

I think that’s what Paul means when he says, “God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.”  Here, and now, we can be more and more the people we image we will be in heaven.  That’s our potential.

Ephesians 4:13, “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.”

Sometimes, I hear evangelical Christians use the expression, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”  Frankly, that’s unbiblical!  The Bible teaches we’re all sinners saved by grace, currently in the process of becoming God‘s saints!

Then, verse 10 says, “We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.”  That’s the CEB version.  Other versions say we are God’s handiwork, or masterpiece.  I like that.

I’m a big fan of the Japanese-American, Christian artist, Makoto Fujimura, who writes, “We are all chosen, broken creatures and Jesus has made us all into artists, whether we use a brush or simply ride on a garbage truck. Our stories are living stories of the Kingdom that we write every day. Infused with the mystery of the Great Artist’s spirit, our stories can become a wide-open adventure—part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.”

We may not all be literal artists, like Fujimaru, using paint brushes and canvases, displaying our artwork in fancy studio exhibits.  But, each of us are extensions of God’s artistry in the world.  That’s the point of being raised and seated with Christ, in this life!  That is the point of being God’s handiwork; to do “good things” in God’s name, for God’s people.  Ephesians 2:10 says, “God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

Simply put, God is in the transformation business.  God created us in his image, Christ redeemed us through his death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit is working within us to transform every nook and corner of our lives – our character, our relationships, how we love, our generosity, our priorities, our allegiances.  That transformation is then evident in our words and deeds; in the good we do with our lives.

Brennan Manning writes, “For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps another way of saying this is learning how to say yes to the potential and possibility God sees in you.

In August of 1990, I was ending my time as Youth Director here at First Church, and leaving for seminary at Duke Divinity School.  I preached my first sermon that Sunday.  It wasn’t very good. But, everyone was very kind and encouraging.

After the service, a member of our church, Bob Smith, waited until most people were gone.  He then escorted me to the narthex, to show me the portraits of three bishops who previously served First Church as Senior Pastors – Bishops Branscomb, Pendergrass, and Blackburn.  Each of these Bishops were great pastors, each making a huge impact on this church, and on our denomination.  Bob said something like, “Vance, you know who these men are, don’t you?  We will be expecting your portrait to hang here, with theirs, one day.”

Well, that hasn’t happened, nor will it.  Becoming a bishop isn’t in the cards for me.  This is where I intend to live and serve the remaining years of my ministry, which I hope is many.  But, Bob’s words made a huge impression of me.  In essence, he was saying, I see potential in you.  I see possibilities.  That was an incredible encouragement – it still is.

Friends, whether or not you have a Bob Smith in your life, or not, God sees incredible potential and possibility in you, too.  You have been raised and seated with Christ!

2 thoughts on ““Potential”: A sermon preached on May 17, 2020, for the First United Methodist Church of Orlando

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