“The Means of Grace”, Sermon – 11/18/2018

THE MEANS OF GRACE    (Christian conferencing) #4

“Ps. 90:13-17 Matt. 18:19-20

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is with them. To be “gathered in his name” is to become a group assembled for the express purpose of loving, listening to, following, and participating in the way of Jesus. Being gathered in Jesus’ name has inward and outward, individual and communal dimensions. This brief description Jesus provides in Matthew 18 is a distillation of what it means to be the church. We are gathered around Jesus and he is with us. This kind of gathering can and does happen in all sorts of places, including church buildings. At the same time, simply gathering in a church building doesn’t guarantee what Jesus means by ekklesia. John Wesley makes very clear in his sermon “The Almost Christian” that one can be very religious and spend a lot of time in the church building participating in religious activities without actually being a Christian.

According to Wesley, the chief difference between “almost Christian” and “real Christian” is that real Christians love God and neighbor wholeheartedly. Their faith is lively and transformative in an ongoing way with a steady growth in holiness of heart and life, and their faith is deeply grounded in a living, dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ. They are loving, honest, practical, relational commitments to God, neighbor, and self. John Wesley’s entire theological and ministerial life focused on helping people enter into a dynamic experience of ekklesia – Christian community gathered around Jesus for the sake of others. His precedent for this kind of ekklesia is the early church, especially as described in the New Testament.

The Scripture said, “They joined with the other believers in regular attendance at the apostles’ teaching sessions and at the Communion services and prayer meetings. A deep sense of awe was on them all, and the apostles did many miracles. And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything with each other, selling their possessions and dividing with those in need. They worshiped together regularly at the Temple each day, met in small groups in homes for communion, and shared their meals with great joy and thankfulness, praising God. The whole city was favorable to them, and each day God added to them all who were being saved” (Acts. 2:42-47).

About 3,000 people became new believers when Peter preached the Good News about Christ. These new Christians were joined with the other believers, “taught by the apostles and included in the prayer meetings and fellowship”. New believers in Christ need to be in a group where they can learn God’s Word, pray and mature in the faith. We must keep a relationship with Christ, seek out other believers for fellowship, prayer and teaching. This is the way to grow.

A healthy Christian community attracts people to Christ. The Jerusalem church’s zeal for worship and brotherly love was contagious. A healthy, loving church will grow.

What are we doing to make our church the kind of place that will attract others to Christ?

Methodism began with people gathering in exactly the way Jesus described in Matthew 18:20.   As a young man, John Wesley started a group called the Holy Club because he and his college friends felt they needed to take much more seriously the claims of Jesus on their lives. They wanted to have a system of accountability for how they were living. In addition to reading the Bible and praying together, they talked about their struggles with temptation and sin, and they helped each other remain active in ministries to people who were in prison and suffering in many other ways.

After the Methodist movement was underway, John Wesley started small groups called “class meeting” that became the backbone of Methodism. These were small groups facilitated by a class leader, where members followed common spiritual practices and held themselves accountable for how they were attending to all the means of grace.

These smaller groups designed to foster discipleship practices are what John Wesley has in mind when he speaks of “Christian conferencing” as a means of grace.

There are three essential elements of small groups that foster genuine discipleship or, in Wesley’s language, that practice Christian conferencing. These are the following:

  1. The group is gathered in the name of Jesus, as described above with regard to Matthew 18:20.
  2. The practices of the group foster deep spiritual friendships that lead to growth in personal and corporate holiness and genuine community.
  3. The group is engaged in missional ministry beyond itself, thus it is kenotic (a Greek word that means “self-giving”).

May staying in love with God increasingly compel us through all the means of grace, so that we become a means of grace to our neighbors.

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