This is the message I presented on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 13 February 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45.
It is not very often that I can use examples from chemistry in my sermons, but today is one day where that is possible. When I was working on my doctorate, I was faced with the synthesis of a particular platinum based compound. This synthesis involved a procedure that I had learned in organic chemistry. The only problem was that the procedure that I was to follow was actually backwards from what I had been taught in organic chemistry.
The reason for this switch was that the reaction was extremely exothermic, i.e., heat producing, and would have resulted in the destruction of what I had prepared up to that point, rather than creating the desired next step in the synthesis.
The problem with following directions exactly is that they don’t give you the flexibility to adjust to the situation that you are faced with. In another experiment, I saw the students through away the very material they were trying to produce because, in previous experiments, that was what the directions said to do. Each experiment is slightly different and requires that we prepare in advance.
The reading from the Epistle for today deals with the very issue of preparing. Paul drew a direct comparison between the Christian life and athletic competition. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian games, an athletic festival very similar to the Olympic games. Contestants in these games underwent ten months of very rigorous and mandatory training. If you failed to complete the training, you were not allowed to compete in the games.
The race that Paul prepared himself for, the race that all Christians are preparing for, was the calling of God. Paul taught that Christians are rewarded for the calling that God gives them. Paul had an apostolic ministry for which he sacrificed just about everything. He knew that if he was faithful to his calling he would received a reward from the Lord for his service. Paul also knew that if he ignored or treated lightly his mission he would not receive from God the victor’s crown of service.
Paul’s spiritual training was the very best available. Yet he never assumed that he would automatically persevere to the end of the race. He continued to discipline himself, to fight and to follow his calling from God.
One might see the same thing in the days when John and Charles Wesley were beginning the Methodist movement, it was this concept of discipline that Paul was referring to that lead them to the daily routine of prayer and bible study. This was done in spite of the taunts and jeers from the fellow college students. As has been pointed out many times before, the name “Methodists” was used to insult Wesley and the other members of the bible study group.
I think it must have been confusing for the Wesley’s, to endure this suffering as Paul would have done, yet to miss the joy that was to be theirs for following in Christ. For, just as it is well known that they were taunted, it is also well known that both John and Charles Wesley felt dissatisfaction with their lives.
This dissatisfaction went with them after they graduated from college and came to America as missionaries. Here was the chance to put into practice all the things that they had been working for while undergraduate students. Yet, when it was all said and done, they both returned home to England with a feeling of failure and disillusionment. For Charles Wesley, the feelings of depression were so severe that he became very ill and almost died.
Why is it that, despite their preparation, despite their adherence to a specific set of guidelines, they would have this feeling of loss and despair? After all, to have spent your whole life preparing for a ministry and to return home feeling that all that had been done was futile, must surely be the most hopeless feeling that we can have. Perhaps it was the same feeling that the Naaman, the king we read about in today’s reading for the Old Testament.
Understandably, his first reaction must have been one of anger and disbelief. Here was this great commander being told that all he had to do was something as simple as standing in the river Jordan, a minor river when compared to the great rivers of his own country. In verse 11, Naaman suggests that all God has to do is wave his hand and the leprosy would disappear.
Now, as we know for the Gospel reading for today, that is all God had to do, for Jesus merely commanded that the leper be healed and it was accomplished. But, by having Naaman go and stand in the river Jordan, Elisha was showing him the need to put his trust in God and to obey God. It is to Naaman’s great credit that he listed to his advisors and servants and did as he was told and was cured.
For Wesley, the great moment came when he realized that he had failed because he had not put his trust in God. When he knew that Christ had died for him as He died for each one of us. It is that moment at Aldersgate when John Wesley came to know the Holy Spirit that his preparation was complete. It is interesting to note that Charles also had a similar experience separate from that of John’s.
So, today, are we to simply wait for that moment in our own lives when the Holy Spirit comes to us. Jesus asked the man whom he had healed not to tell anyone who had healed him because it was not time for Jesus’ ministry to become well known. Obviously, that is not what the man did, nor do I think that such a healing could have been kept under wraps. Even Wesley’s friends could not help but notice the difference in Wesley’s life and demeanor after Aldersgate, such is the powerful affect of the Holy Spirit.
No, what is important for each of us to recognize today is that how we come to Christ is an individual thing. What works for one may not work for another.
In the Gospels themselves those closest to Jesus still retained their own individuality, even as they chose to follow him. Throughout history, those men and women who have been most successful in imitating Christ, those whom we called the saints have been one-of-a-kind individualists. Jesus ensured that there would be no mold to produce Christians. As Methodists, we fell that the central point of religion is one’s own personal relationship with God.
Jesus said that if we loved him, we would keep His word. Those directions are ones to follow, this day and always.