Sunday morning sermon at General Conference, May 22, 2011 by Bishop Keith Elford

Doctrine, Discipline and (self) Denial        [download Word.doc] [download pdf]

Derek Redmond was one of the world’s outstanding runners.  To be honest, I didn’t know anything about him – even his name before the research began for this message. But we can’t understand our theme “we’d better get on with it, strip down, start running and never quit – eyes fixed on Jesus” without spending some time thinking about how these athletes can run with endurance and perseverance. 

I have chosen this British runner who at 19 broke the record for 400 metres and earned gold medals at the World, European and Commonwealth levels because of something that happened at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that makes him memorable – and it wasn’t the medal that he won.  He didn’t win a medal.

On the day of the Olympic race, he and his father Jim who was constantly with him in his running career arrived and Redmond later recalled that they agreed that if anything bad happened, no matter what it was, Derek would finish the race, period.  The stadium was packed with 65,000 fans, and when the starting gun went off for his heat, Redmond quickly broke from the pack and seized the lead.  In the stands, Jim was muttering: “Keep it up, keep it up”.

Down the backstretch, only 175 meters away from the finish line, it was clear that Redmond was a shoo-in to win this heat and make the finals.  Suddenly, he heard a pop. He pulled up as if he had been shot, his face went pale, he began hopping on one leg, and then fell to the track clutching his right hamstring.

At the same time, Jim Redmond, seeing his son in trouble, was racing down from the top row of the stands, sidestepping people, and pushing others. All he thought about was getting to his son. “I wasn’t going to be stopped by anyone,” he later told the media.

On the track, Derek realized his dream of an Olympic medal was gone and he started to sob.  When the medical crew arrived with a stretcher, he waved them away, “No, there’s no way I’m getting on that stretcher. I’m going to finish my race.”

Then, in a moment that will live forever in the minds of millions, Derek lifted himself to his feet, and ever so slowly he started hobbling down the track. The other runners, of course, had finished the race.   But Derek wasn’t dropping out of the race. No, he continued on one leg, determined to finish the race even if he had to hobble all the way to the finish line. All by himself.

The crowd began to catch on to what was happening and they rose and the  roar of their cheering began to build louder and louder. “I wasn’t doing it for the crowd,” Derek would later say. “I was doing it for me. Whether people thought I was an idiot or a hero, I wanted to finish the race. I’m the one who has to live with it.”

Meanwhile, Jim Redmond finally got to the bottom of the stands, leapt over the railing, dodged the security guards chasing him, and ran to his son. “That’s my son out there,” he yelled back to them, “and I’m going to help him.”

When Jim got to him, Derek put his arms around his father’s shoulders and sobbed.

Together, arm in arm, father and son, with 65,000 people cheering, clapping and crying, they finished the race, just as they vowed they would. A couple steps from the finish line, with the crowd in an absolute frenzy, Jim released the grip he had on his son, so Derek could cross the finish line by himself.

“I’m the proudest father alive,” Jim told the press afterwards. “I’m prouder of him than I would have been if he had won the gold medal. It took a lot of guts for him to do what he did.”  And it did.

But it was more than guts.  He didn’t just get his guts that day.  No one inserted extra computer ram to give him depth in his character and sinew in his physique.  He was a runner!!  His mind and will were focused on the finish line.  He was drawing upon strength built up during years of disciplined training and he would deny himself any relief rather than let comfort deny him the finish line.

We, too, are surrounded by a crowd of witnesses, the write to the Hebrews tells us and there is a finish line out in front of all of us. You know what I’m talking about or do you?  I’m talking about the finish line at the end of every day, at the end of every week, at the end of every year, at the end of every decade.  And my question this morning is: At each of these finish lines –the doctrine that we embraced, the discipline we followed, and the self-denial that we exercised, … what did they actually produce in us and what difference did it make in the world that God loves?

We are not in a seeker sensitive service this morning.  We are the ministerial and lay spiritual leaders of our congregations gathered to talk about our participation in the mission of God.  I want to talk openly and seriously about our responsibility to raise up joyful disciples that run with endurance and perseverance.

The runners…let’s look at them.  They have legs like pistons, lean and strong physiques.  Their low pulse rates tell us that they have strong hearts and enlarged lung capacity.  But this superb physical condition didn’t just happen.  If we follow them around for a while we’d see that in their heads, they think like runners even when they eat or drink.  They have a “runners worldview”.    We’d also see a pattern in when they go to bed and when they get up.  They have discipline.  Watch them choose how long they will socialize before getting to training and we’d see self-denial – that ability to say “enough” to good things so as to be able to embrace the passion of their lives – running.  And, it’s in the running that we see what they are becoming and what they are capable of – they have power – enduring, persevering power because of the way they think, the discipline they embrace and their ability to deny even good stuff in favour of the finish line.

God has so much more that He wants to accomplish in this nation through the Free Methodist Church in Canada and we do praise Him for the positive things that are happening.  Yet, as I look around, I see a lot of unrealized capacity in our movement for seeing transformation in our communities, schools, and families.  I’m almost crazy to see it unleashed, matured and aligned.  I’m asking God to make this General Conference a pivotal moment in our history where a profound change begins in the heart of every spiritual leader – lay and ministerial – and we catch a vision of the good that could come for our neighborhoods, and the glory that would ultimately flow past everyone of us to the Lord Jesus.  This morning I want to talk about what it’s going to take to see God’s power released in and then through our movement in a greater way to meet the challenge of first becoming joyful and enduring disciples ourselves and then being committed to being used by the spirit of God to raise up all kinds of people to be like us (and I mean that – to be like us) – sold out to the mission of God and understanding what it means to “get on with it, strip down, start running and never quit – eyes fixed on Jesus”.  Leaders from all the congregations – pastors, delegates, NLT, Bishop, it begins with us.

Now, when I talk about power I’m not thinking only of the flash of power released on the day of Pentecost – that would be welcome – but I’m thinking about the enduring “Book of Acts” power where we live in the ongoing story like those earnest disciples who rejoiced in times of favour and persevered in times of storms and persecution, and through their disciplined endurance, the Gospel went from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire and down into Africa.

I’m not thinking of “conquering and subduing” our neighbourhoods for Jesus because when I pay attention to what He said about the enduring power of the Kingdom, Jesus talked about being salt, light, branches of the vine, yeast in the dough.  He said that we are to be “salt of the earth” where our influence alongside others would bring cleansing (and sometimes even cause stinging) but healing would come and would what is good would be preserved from going rotten.

He talked about us being “lights” that keep shining into the darkness with hope, and help and wholeness.  He talked about us being “branches of a vine” that keeps drawing resources and extending out, producing beautiful grapes crop after crop, pruning after pruning.  He talked about dough that would lose its flatness and rise because “yeast” was stirred into it and one particle of yeast alongside a dough cell changed it and then another, and then another.  This is the kind of unstoppable, enduring power that I’m talking about – we’ll take the extraordinary powerful moves of God explosions and we’ll thank him for those individuals that he uses in exceptional ways – you bet we will … but the rest of the time, for the rest of us, I’m calling for what I call “the whole book of Acts” kind of power, where many disciples whose names we will never know, did not quit doing whatever it took to see more disciples who learned to do whatever it took to see more disciples and on it went until the gospel came to you and to me.  They saw many people attracted to Christ but their goal was to make joyful, enduring disciples.

I’ve been doing some reading about John Wesley and it encouraged me to understand that Mr. Wesley was discouraged from time to time with how things were going – especially as time passed and the new converts experienced what missiologists call “redemption and lift” and their children lived comfortably and their grandchildren didn’t know anything about the days of the revival.

Later in his life, he wrote a sermon: “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” and believe me this is not “nursing milk” to read.  Methodist scholar, Randy Maddox summarizes what Wesley preached in that sermon and wrote an article entitled “Wesley’s Prescription for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ – Insights for the 21st Century Church”.  I got a lot of help from it.

Wesley’s sermon opens with an extended lament – why so little global impact by Christianity?  Why so little impact on the continent?   Why so little impact on England their nation?   Why even so little fruit among the Methodists when they started so well?  His answer … a laxity in doctrine (their embrace of Jesus’ worldview), a laxity in discipline, (their embrace of practices that develop maturity) and a laxity in self-denial (their ability to say no to impulses – especially sacrificially).  Some of you just crossed your arms in your heart. Don’t check out on me.  I know what this sounds like: Doctrine, Discipline, Self Denial … Buckley’s!  It probably works, but it tastes terrible. But is there going to be any substance to our involvement in the mission of God in the world or not?  Does Doctrine, Discipline, Self Denial have to be like Buckley’s?  It tastes terrible, but it works.

Just for a minute let’s talk about hugging.   Now, what’s in a good embrace?  First off,  hugging is not a wrestling move.  In a real embrace, this is how it works.  We begin with opening our arms in a defenseless posture.  Then the arms go around, there is a mutuality of response as we move towards each other and in the amount of pressure you give, (a good hug is not a power move bear hug) it’s reciprocal, and there’s this exchange of emotion that begins to happen.  There’s appropriate intimacy.  Then there’s a mutual unspoken signal to “break”, to release each other. If it was a wholesome hug, something goes away with you that says “What?…I just received something from that person and I just freely gave something of myself to that person.”  Quite different from being hugged by some one that you don’t want to hug.  Or having to hug Uncle Herman because your parents said: “you kids need to get in here and hug Uncle Herman because he is leaving now.”

How about embracing doctrine, discipline, and self denial and being embraced by them? What just came up inside you? Uncle Herman? Buckley’s? If so, we’ve missed something here in our discipleship?  Now what if the Holy Spirit began to help us see that if we let doctrine, discipline and self-denial embrace us regularly and we began to embrace them back, regularly?  I believe that we would see what all enduring maturing disciples have seen down through the ages – expanded capacities to make ongoing, never stopping “salt, light, vine, yeast” differences in our neighbourhoods – especially when we link up with one another to do these practices in communities of accountability.

Let’s give doctrine a new face and call it “embracing Jesus’ worldview”.  How’s that for a definition of doctrine?  It’s embracing Jesus’ worldview so that it’s lodged with clarity in our heads, works with firm conviction in our hearts and gives perseverance to our hands and feet.  That’s what I’m talking about.  That’s what a full mutual embrace with doctrine does.  Living Doctrine is not sterile, abstraction. Doctrine that is alive is about clarity in our heads, firm conviction in our hearts and perseverance to our hands and feet.

Let’s do a little exercise on embracing doctrine — Jesus’ worldview concerning salvation using the book of Romans.  Have you ever been embraced by the Book of Romans?  Romans 1-7 we see the awfulness of alienation from God, that all have sinned, that the wages of sin is death, but in the middle of it in chapter five, there’s some good news … God commends His love towards us in that while we were alienated from Him, Christ died for us.  But the section ends in chapter seven with a familiar description of the war that goes on inside us – we don’t do what we know we should do, and we keep doing what we know really doesn’t work and the final words are desperate  “Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – there’s hope through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Now beginning with chapter eight, hope begins to seep into our hearts – there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.  We are not slaves, but the Spirit testifies that we are sons and daughters and nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the deep, passionate sanctifying love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Chapter 12 takes the message from our head and our heart to our hands and our feet.  “Therefore in view of God’s great mercy, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices” and if we, as living sacrifices, don’t crawl off the altar, maturity has a chance.  Joyful endurance becomes a reality rather than a remote possibility.

Listen to this passage (12:9ff) and let this worldview embrace you.  See it with clarity in your head and feel it with conviction in your heart and let it be there to flow out through your hands and feet.  Embracing what’s written here will solve every church fight.  Listen.

12: 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[a] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

What did you take away from that embrace?

So, how do we learn to wholesomely embrace Doctrine, Discipline and self Denial? Let’s talk about the means of grace.  Wesley taught that there are two groups of habits and, if they are practiced in the Christian life, maturity and joyful endurance will be the result.  One he called the works of piety –Bible reading, thinking about what I am reading (meditation), listening to God’s word being taught in community with others, discussing with others what its message means while all the time being open in all of these, to the Spirit’s conviction, and then…yes there’s more… resolving to obey what God is saying, and then…yes there’s more, being accountable to others to follow through on your resolve.

During his ministry Wesley met many people, wrote many letters to those who were seeking to know God.  Among them was Miss J. C. March (with the initials J.C. she was set-up to be a great Christian) and that’s what she wanted to be.  She was a woman of wealth and education and very serious about experiencing the fullness of God’s salvation.  It’s interesting to follow the dialogue back and forth in their exchange of letters.  She wanted so much to be more and more like the Lord Jesus and she told Wesley that she believed that she needed to have extended times in seclusion where she could seek God in solitude.  Sounds about right?

But Wesley’s response was to try to lead her to the that part of the means of grace that he called the “works of mercy”.  I’m not sure that he ever fully convinced her of this.  The works of mercy have to do with responding to the list of people found in Matthew 25 – the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers. In fact, in his sermon entitled “On Zeal”, he essentially says that if you want to grow into full maturity as a believer and, if on a rare occasion, you have to choose between works of piety and works of mercy, (this won’t happen very often, but if it does), go with works of mercy first.

We might say from where we sit: “Just a minute, Mr. Wesley, we’re protestant evangelicals and we are saved by grace. We’re going to heaven because of grace not works – Ephesians 2:8,9.”

Wesley might reply “I agree that we are saved by grace, not works, but our salvation needs to be worked out in good works for us to actually attain to the full stature of Jesus.  Read Jesus himself on this in Matthew 25 and Jesus says that the goats, those that never saw Jesus among the hungry, thirsty, the strangers, those needing clothes etc. are going to hell.”  Jesus was saying that his followers need to practice mercy.  Why?

Robust Christians embrace both sides of the Means of Grace.  They embrace the works of piety because through praying, reading, meditating, worshiping they meet God, get to know him better and are transformed.  In the works of mercy, they go out and serve God.  Now slow there sparky!!  That’s what it looks like on the surface.  But they actually meet Jesus in the works of mercy and they are transformed.  That’s what Matthew 25 says.

Joerg Rieger, a Wesleyan scholar, writes about this: “Works of mercy are more than just correct actions.  As a real means of grace, they are channels that convey grace to the one who acts mercifully.  A work of mercy is, therefore, no longer a one-way street leading from the well-meaning Christian to the other in need.  Something comes back in return, which transforms the doer of mercy as well.  In doing works of mercy – and this is absolutely crucial – a real encounter with God takes place that cannot be separated from the encounter with the other.”

Every one of us who have gone on a mission trip know that this is true.  What happened to you and what are you like when you come back? If you had a wholesome embrace in that experience, something came back with you that said “What?”  I just received something from that and I just freely gave something of myself to that.”

And every one of us knows this is true if there is a pregnant teen in our family or in the family of close friends.  We become less judgmental and our attitudes toward teen pregnancy changes when it’s our niece or our daughter or our friend’s son.  When we are right there, personally involved in a human situation that demands mercy it changes us.

And this is why Wesley taught his followers to intentionally and regularly put themselves in real- life-works-of-mercy-situations that demand a response.  Why?  Because when we are “there”, these experiences will drive us to God, deepen our need for praying and for seeking support and wisdom from others.  In the works of mercy, when the heart of God really embraces you, you take away this deepening conviction that what is needed is a gracious response and you grow in grace… or you get out of there!!

If you stay, you grow up: if you run you stay shallow, immature, self-centred, whining, worried about stuff that doesn’t matter, fighting just because you’re irritated, holding out for your point of view and preference….and you take that into the life of the congregation and you know what? Your odor, the smell you give off doesn’t change when you go out into the life of your community.  The prophet Micah says.  God wants us to go (with Jesus’ worldview), “acting justly, in our hearts loving mercy, and our feet walking humbly with Him toward people who need His mercy.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  What about instead of once in a lifetime mission trip experiences, we embrace the discipline of being on a mission trip in our community once a month or maybe every two weeks or even more often – maybe even daily.  Relax Sparky.  Let God lead you into this.  We are not talking about sensational stuff here.  It’s ordinary stuff that we can do and then watch to see what happens – inside us…and around us.

For several years now, when I go on my morning walks, I pick up garbage and drop it in garbage barrels along the way.  And here is what it has done for me.  I’m more and more convinced that the earth is the Lord’s and my convictions about Christ centred ecology are getting stronger and deeper.  From picking up garbage.  And you know what?  There’s less garbage to pick up because like leaven, I’m guessing, that other walkers have seen me doing this.  Somebody else is on my turf picking up garbage.  This is a work of mercy that has to do with first stewarding God’s creation, but it’s also making our community a nicer place to live.

Just this week, I was walking and I met a couple of teenagers, and as is my custom, I always say Hi even if they ignore me or just grunt way back there inside their hoodies.  Jesus has a worldview about the worth of all people and this has taken me on a journey that eventually led me into prisons that keeps transforming me.  One of the kids on our street that I always took time to talk to and tease grew up to be a drug dealer.  And if you listened to my Easter video greeting, you heard about my visit with him at Collins Bay penitentiary – not an expose on life inside a prison, but about a conversation with this young man who is my friend, about working out what it means to follow Jesus.

I don’t tell you these ongoing experiences from my life to impress you or to say that this is what you should do. I’m saying, “Just let the Spirit of God have “works of mercy” on your radar as a means of grace and if your radar is working, you’ll pick things up.”

What do you suppose would happen if you asked God to show you where you could meet Him in ongoing works of mercy?  “I was a slow learner at school and you came and helped me”.  “I just landed in Canada and didn’t have a clue how things worked and you came alongside me”. “I was all alone in the nursing home or the hospital and you came.  You had the smell of Jesus and when I knew that I trusted you, you told me about Him.”  You see, I’m not talking about Free Methodist churches becoming religious service clubs that leave behind the sharing of the whole gospel and become “do-gooders”.  I’m talking about discipleship practices that put us in places where we ourselves, meet Christ in new ways …. and others around us also meet Him because when the time is right, we talk about the place that He has in our lives.

Here’s a mystery.  When we embrace the discipline of the works of mercy, our hearts begin to change and we find time, energy, and money to follow what draws our heart.  Do you realize what I just said?  We find time, energy, and money to follow what draws our heart which means that some other things have to go.  We have to say no or at least not yet to them.  And look, almost without realizing it, we’re embracing self-denial but it’s from a totally different motivation.

Can you imagine how much salt and light and vine and yeast power would be released if every person in our movement were regularly embracing doctrine, discipline and self-denial on these terms?  Without realizing it, our people would be the talk of the town, but for Christ honoring reasons.  Without realizing it, some things that people fuss about in our churches wouldn’t even get a second comment because the preoccupying heartbeat of the congregation is: “we’ve got to get on with it, strip down, start running, never quit, eyes fixed on Jesus.

Please stand with me.  Every one of us are here in this conference as a spiritual leader representing a group of people back home. Let’s ask ourselves some sober questions.

A powerful movement of joyful, enduring disciples on these terms.  Do I honestly want to be one myself? Do I want to put out to see it formed in others?  Will they learn what it means to be a joyful, enduring disciple from watching me?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, “let’s get on with it, strip down, start running (for the joy of the race) and never quit – eyes fixed on Jesus”.

The Lord’s Table is one of the Means of Grace.  It’s a place of joy and of sacrifice.  Christ is really present to commune with us today and it should surprise none of us if in these sacred moments at His Table, he approaches us for a fuller embrace of doctrine, discipline and self denial.            #