A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon (October 9) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Unchained"

     When I was reading over the today’s appointed Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy, I was struck by his phrase, “But the word of God is not chained.”  When Timothy read this, he most likely would have pictured Paul wearing chains while in prison.
     Paul had been in prison because he had been proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. While he was in prison, he wrote four letters that we now have in our New Testament: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.  We refer to these four letters as Paul’s prison letters.
     In his letter to Timothy, he wants him to know that even though he had been confined by chains for sharing his faith, the good news of Jesus Christ can never be chained. This is why Charles Wesley, the great early Methodist hymn writer includes this verse from our opening hymn this morning:
     “He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.”
     A little later in our worship service, we will be singing another of Charles Wesley hymns that he wrote to commemorate his experience when he was assured of his salvation in Jesus Christ. The hymn is, “And Can It Be that I Should Gain.”
     It’s a hymn that we Methodists should sing more often than we do because each verse builds on the other in a very powerful way in describing the liberating power of the good news of Jesus Christ. I get goose bumps every time I sing this hymn.
     Just listen to the fourth verse of this great hymn:
     “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
     Like his brother John, Charles Wesley experienced an assurance that Christ had freed him from his bondage to sin and death. God’s Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ is a liberating force that cannot be chained down. The Apostle Paul might have been in prison for his faith, but he wants Timothy to know that the gospel we proclaim can never be chained.
     When I think of Paul’s phrase in our scripture, “The Word of God is not chained,” I think back to my trip to Charleston, South Carolina this past summer. Penny and I went on a historical tour of a plantation while we were visiting there.
     It was sobering for us to see the very tiny and primitive slave quarters that would have housed several slaves. As we were there, I was trying to imagine working all day out in the fields in the hot sun and then having to come back to these tiny overcrowded shacks day after day.
     The tour guide told us that the slaves of that period had a 90% mortality rate by the age of 16 compared to the 50% mortality rate of the plantation owner families. It was so depressing to be reminded of the evil institution of slavery in our country.
     As we were listening to this sad part of our country’s history in front of one of the nine small slave buildings on that very hot and humid day in Charleston, South Carolina, the historical presentation concluded in a very surprising way.
     The tour guide ended her talk by sharing the story of John Newton who was from England. She shared how he had been a captain of a slave sheep that transported slaves to America.  He was known to be very ruthless and vile.
      After a near death experience at sea, he experienced the liberating and freeing grace of Jesus Christ in his life.  He even wrote about this new found grace during one of his trips into Charleston, South Carolina. We know it today as the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
     And our tour guide, whose family had been slaves at that very plantation, concluded her time with the 40 to 50 of us who were there by singing the most spirited rendition of “Amazing Grace” I had ever heard. It was like church was breaking out during that historical tour of the plantation.
     I remember thinking to myself how awesome it was that the gospel of Jesus Christ was being shared to this diverse group of tourists in a way that was so rooted in the history of the slaves who had lived in those tiny dwellings so long ago. Right there, in the hot and dusty ground of that plantation, where so many had been enslaved including some of her descendants, this elderly African American woman reminded us that God’s grace continues to set us free.
     Paul tells Timothy in our scripture reading today, “But the Word of God is not chained.”
     God’s Word continues to be unchained as we share the good news of our faith in our community and world. One of those places is Vietnam where the United Methodist church is helping to train pastors and establish churches. In a country where people have been put into prison for sharing the gospel, God’s Word continues to be unchained.
     Our District Superintendent, Rev. Dennis Miller has led teams to Vietnam over the past several years. Here is a video from a couple of years ago in which Dennis shares how the liberating message of the gospel is transforming lives for Jesus Christ in Vietnam.

     The gospel is changing lives throughout the world!
     When Paul wrote to Timothy that the Word of God is not chained, he was encouraging him to not give up in sharing the good news of Christ. Even from a prison cell, God’s word will find a way.
     The gospel is changing lives throughout the world!
     When Paul wrote to Timothy that the Word of God is not chained, he was encouraging him to not give up in sharing the good news of Christ. Even from a prison cell, God’s word will find a way.
     This weekend, some members of our church are part of a Kairos Christian prison ministry at the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville.
     During this weekend, God’s freeing love is being poured into the hearts of the inmates through talks on the Christian faith, testimonies, special worship services, and through the prayers of many churches and individuals close to home and even throughout the world.
     Here is what one of the team members who served on a Kairos weekend said about his experience with this incredible ministry:
     He writes, “Kairos is the most effective way I know to bring the good news to the least thought of – God loves prisoners too! Through Kairos, God continues to show me how much he loves the least of us Christians. Twelve years ago, I was a table assistant. Next to me was a silent young man. God asked me to be the best friend I could be to this man. I have grown to love this person. I have been humbled by these successful journeys to Christian maturity even in prison. I can not wait to se how God uses these men on the other side of the wire.”
     If God is nudging you to learn more about how to get involved in the Kairos prison ministry, let us know here at the church, and we will connect you with people in our church who are connected with this ministry.
     Kairos is a great example that the Word of God can not be chained, even in a prison cell.

     I mentioned that we went to Charleston, South Carolina for vacation this past summer. We were there during the one-year anniversary of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church mass shooting.  This church is the oldest black congregation in the South.
     The shooting happened when members of that historic AME church were gathered on a Wednesday night for a prayer meeting. Dylann Roof ended up killing nine people that night, including the Senior Pastor of that church. The shooter was trying to ignite a race war.
     Instead of inciting a race war, the people of the church shared the good news of their faith by becoming even more intentional in welcoming all people to their church. Their new motto is the scripture verse that says, “Let all that you do be done in love.”  
     During the week of the anniversary while we were there, the church decided to finish the Wednesday prayer meeting that they weren’t able to finish one year earlier because of the shooting.  The bible study was led by Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife, Myra Thompson died in the shooting.
     In honor of the nine people who died, the church has asked that people perform an act of kindness on June 21st which they are calling, “Acts of Amazing Grace Day” and share that deed on their Facebook page.  The church offers this post about the anniversary of the shooting,
     “With thousands of acts of grace being performed around the world, we will surely make the world a better place.”
     The shooting in Charleston was meant to start a race war. Instead, it has led to this church showing even moe love, more hospitality, and more compassion to all people.
     They know that the Word of God cannot be chained. Tragedies may happen in this world, but God’s Word will continue to overcome hate with love.
     I guess that Emmanuel AME church is taking Paul’s words to Timothy to heart. “But the Word of God is not chained.”
     God’s Word is what led a ruthless slave captain to turn his life toward God. God’s Word is what is helping the United Methodist Church in Vietnam to grow and flourish. God’s Word is what has led Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to respond to a horrific shooting tragedy with forgiveness, love, and acts of kindness. God’s Word is what is helping prisoners experience the freeing and liberating love of God in their lives.
     Paul wants Timothy to know that no matter how difficult life can get, God’s Word can overcome evil with good. God’s Word is more than able to free us from any bondage or challenging situation we may be facing in life.
     When we don’t know which way to turn, when we are in need of God’s liberating love, when we long to be freed from the things that continue to keep us from being the people we have been createded to be, Paul offers us this powerful, powerful word of hope.
     And may we never forget it. May our Kindergarteners and fourth graders never forget it.
     The Apostle Paul offers to us this incredible, incredible good news:

     The Word of God is NOT chained. Thanks be to God!

Small Group Questions
II Timothy 2:8-15
October 9, 2016

The Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters while he was chained in prison. In our scripture reading from II Timothy this past Sunday, Paul writes that the Word of God is unchained.

Share a time in your life when you felt that God helped you to be unchained and set free in your life? Was it from a particular troubling situation you were facing, a sin, becoming a Christian, or in some other way?

Pastor Robert shared in his sermon how the Word of God has been unchained in the life of John Newton, a slave ship captain who would later write the hymn, "Amazing Grace," through the Kairos Christian prison ministry, through Emmanuel African Methodist Church in their response to the tragic shooting in their church, and Vietnam where our own Foothills District is helping the Methodists in Vietnam to grow and flourish.

In what other places or events do you see the Word of God being unchained and bringing transformation and new life?

Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer from the 1700s wrote the hymn, "And Can It Be that I Should Gain," which summarizes his assurance of faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Take time to read each verse of this magnificent hymn and share what each verse means to you.

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