Of First Importance

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received.

Jesus died for our sins.

He was buried in the tomb.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once.

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me – the least of all the apostles.

And he called me (me!), the one totally and completely unfit for the church because I persecuted the church. 

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace for me has not been in vain. And all that I have done, it’s not me, but the grace of God that is with me.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not a list of required behavioral attributes of the people called church.

Not a top ten list of the most important beliefs to affirm if you want to join the club.

Not a dress code of what you can, or can’t, wear to church.

Not a political party’s ideologies you must identify with.

Not even a vision of how to make the world a better place.

For Paul, a story was of first importance – the story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again and then he appeared to the disciples.

Chances are that you’re here because you have heard this story. More often that not we discover our faith not because someone gave us a list of things to believe in, but because in receiving the story we discover ourselves within it. 

And let me tell you, it is one crazy story.

I mean, what was Jesus thinking?

Jesus does the most remarkable thing to ever happen in the history of the cosmos, resurrection from the dead, and what does he do first? He goes off to find Peter, you know, the one who denied him no less than three times prior to the crucifixion!

Jesus surely would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective. If Jesus really wanted to spread the Good News, he should’ve gone straight to the movers and shakers – the ones who get things done.

If Jesus came to turn the world upside down, then why in the world did he start with the people at the bottom?

Our Lord, the one we love and adore, the solid rock upon which we stand, didn’t knock on the doors of the emperor’s palace with holes in his hands, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple and wait for the crowds to bow in humble reverence.

The resurrected Jesus appeared first and foremost to the very people to abandoned him.

Let us rest in that bewildering proclamation for a moment – Jesus breaks forth from the chains of death and shows up for the ragtag group of would-be followers who failed him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his betrayers.

Jesus returns to us.

This is why the Good News is something that has captivated the hearts and minds of many for centuries. Jesus sees us more in us than we see in ourselves… Jesus does his work, his very best work, through people like us!

People who don’t deserve it one bit.

Think about Peter and Paul – Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer – a denier of the faith and a killer of the faith.

And even before all that, Peter was nothing but a dirty rotten fisherman, and he wasn’t even very good at it. Out all night and not a single fish to show for his efforts. And Paul? Paul was a tentmaker! How could that possibly help in spreading the Gospel?

It would’ve been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but it’s Good News because he rose for them.

The church can be a lot of things. Depending on which one you enter, it can be a safe space for spiritual reflection with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and incense. It can be a transformative assault on the senses with a Technicolor light show and a bumping praise band. And yet, regardless of the trimmings and the trappings, the outward appearance and the theological architecture, the church usually falls into one of two categories:

A group of good people who weekly pat themselves on the back for being gooder than everyone else.

Or a group of people who come together to cope with their failure to be good.

The first group sounds nice, and it can even be nice, but only for a short time. Because, eventually, all the shiny proclamations about all of our goodness fades away when we come to grips with the condition of our condition. One day all of the things that used to bring us comfort no longer ring true because we know ourselves and we know the world.

Basically, we discover that our goodness isn’t good enough.

We need something (read: someone) to do for us what we can’t do on our own.

The second group however, it doesn’t sell. 

What do you think would happen if we put this on our church sign: “Raleigh Court UMC, we’re bad and we know it.”?

That doesn’t compel people to wake up early on a Sunday morning, and it certainly doesn’t drive people to knock on the neighbor’s doors with invitations to worship. 

And yet the story of Jesus Christ, the one Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is that God comes to us not because we are good, but because we aren’t. And when we start to see that, not just in the strange new world of the Bible, but in our very lives, it is the difference that makes all the difference.

For a long time in the church there was an aspect of testimony, of witness. After all, that’s what Paul is doing in the letter. He shared with them how God had worked in his life. Therefore Christians, for centuries, have carved out time and space to proclaim the wonderful works of the Lord by pointing to the ways in which they had experienced the remarkable love and work of the God who refuses to abandon us.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.

I know this might be a tad uncomfortable – We’re Methodists. We like to talk about the Spirit moving, but it’s another things entirely to give ourselves over to see what the Spirit can stir up from within us. 

Nevertheless, of first importance is the story that is our story. So, if you feel comfortable sharing how you have experienced the story of Christ in your life, how Christ has been the difference that has made all the difference, if you have something to share, I encourage you to come up to the microphone and proclaim that Good News…

Devotional – Genesis 12.1-4

Genesis 12.1-4

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those you bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Weekly Devotional Image

“When you get appointed to a church the worst thing you can do is go visit the shut-ins,” said a professor of mine in seminary (who will remain nameless). “I am sick and tired of hearing about new clergy full of vibrant passion and energy wasting it on visiting the people who have already had their faith developed. Pastors form the past were responsible for them. The best thing you can do when you get appointed to a new church is not to visit the older shut-in members, but go visit all the members under the age of thirty. Now there won’t be many younger than thirty so it shouldn’t take you very long. That’s mission.”

I was flabbergasted. Here I was sitting in the hallowed halls of Duke Divinity listening to a professor telling us to do exactly the opposite of what I imagined my first few weeks at a new appointment would look like.

I believe he was wrong. The best thing that a pastor can do when he/she enters a new appointment is to visit the shut-ins and all the members under 30. In fact the best thing a pastor can do is visit with all the people that make up the local church community. The idea that the older congregants have already had their ministry does a disservice the goodness of God’s creation and the understanding that all of us make up the body of Christ regardless of age and experience.

I love the call of Abram as described in Genesis 12. Abram is called to abandon the security of his homeland, the comfort that comes with social and family support. Abram would need to rely on the Lord for guidance because this call upon his life tested, as John Wesley said, “whether [Abram] could trust God farther than he could see him.” And notice how short his obedience is described in the passage: “So Abram went.” No indecision, no debating the outcome, no weighing the pros and cons, just go. But even more than this I love the fact the the story ends with the simple affirmation that Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.


If God chose to establish the covenant with a 75 year old man who dropped everything to follow in obedience, just imagine what God can do with you, whether you’re 5 or 85 years old. Christian discipleship is not dependent on our age, but instead on our willingness to hear God’s call and go.

No matter where you are on your faith journey, whether you deeply committed and active in a local church, or if you feel like you’re on the fringes of a church community, whether you’re young in the faith, or you’ve been attending church for as long as you can remember, God has a place and a call for you. It takes all of us to make up the body of Christ.

So, what is God calling you to? What might you have to drop in order to go where God needs you?


The Lord Is With You – Sermon on Luke 1.26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.


Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

In the sixth month, that is to say in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (from the scripture last week), the angel Gabriel was sent to another Israelite. Just as he had come to bring good news to Zechariah, Gabriel was now on a mission to find a young woman. And so it came to pass that Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

This is a new episode in the gospel of Christ according to Luke, yet it is very clear how closely this story parallels the story of Zechariah in the Temple. Both interactions with the divine messenger are stories of God’s grace and power. Grace in that what is soon to take place will illumine God’s favor toward the world, and power in that God can work through the unable — an old childless couple, and an unmarried virgin. Both Elizabeth and Mary will become mothers because God is able, and they will have sons for our sake because God is righteous and gracious.

Gabriel said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Do you remember the story from last week? Do you remember how Zechariah was struck with fear when confronted by the angel in the most obvious of places, the innermost holy place of the Temple? Do you remember how his unbelief regarding the good news from Gabriel resulted in his becoming mute until the birth of John the baptist?


Instead of a priest, one who should have been most familiar with the ways of God in the world and the stories from the past, Gabriel appears to a young unmarried virgin named Mary who does not respond in the same way.

Zechariah was overwhelmed with doubt and fear whereas Mary responded with awe and perplexity. Zechariah wanted to see a sign, wanted proof of the tidings brought by the angel, wanted to have his unbelief changed. Mary responds with curiosity. The messages from God speak into one’s insufficiencies, and brings good news of heavenly grace that must be trusted before its ways are known. There is great power in this story between the way Zechariah reacted, and the way Mary responded.

“And now Mary, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

This is good news. This is the kind of message that everyone had been waiting for. A new gift from God was going to come into the world through a young woman to be called the Son of the Most High. A new gracious leader is coming to take back the throne of David. The kingdom that God had always wanted for us is coming! And nothing will be able to stop God in all his majesty because this new kingdom will have no end!

“How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” Mary wondered. There is a difference here between doubt and curiosity. She believes the words from Gabriel, she understands that she will be bringing a child into the world. She is already preparing herself for God’s will in her life, but her curiosity regarding the fundamentals of God’s purposes come forth.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power from the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And even now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God!


After explaining the elements of her coming conception, Gabriel ends his description with a final word of assurance. Gabriel recalls for Mary, and all of us, the creed behind all creeds, the very words spoken to Abraham and Sarah when they doubted the word that they were going to have a child in their old age: For with God nothing will be impossible.

And with perfect clarity, with willing submissiveness to God’s plans in the world, and with hope and joy, Mary responds to the calling of God: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. And then Gabriel departed from her.

How many times have you heard this story? Even for the so-called “unchurched” most people have heard, even just a sampling, of this story. The amount of art, Christmas decorations, and portrayals of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel are far and wide. This story is the source of great hope, frightening church schisms, and definitive reality shifts. Just as the prophet Isaiah told the Israelites, “Behold a virgin shall conceive a son and he will be called Immanuel,” the virgin Mary was met in the middle of the night by an angel to discover that she was to be the vessel of the Lord.

However, like the story of Zechariah in the temple, Mary’s midnight meeting has been told so many times that it is often difficult to discover something new and fresh when we approach the story. This week as I made my way through the first chapters of Luke, engaged in numerous conversations, and pondered over the heart of Advent, I began to wonder: Why Mary?

Why Mary? If God wanted to come into the world in a big way, with pomp and circumstance; If God wanted to come in the form of flesh to dwell among us as a king with power, he certainly could’ve picked a better mother. Why on earth did he choose her?

I’ve always had a hard time understanding what it is about Mary that made her highly favored in the eyes of the Lord. Remember Gabriel’s first words: “Greetings, favored one!” Really? How could she possibly be favored? Immediately following this episode she would presently go on a long and difficult journey to small town, not because she wanted to, but because the foreign rulers of her homeland forced her to go. She would be ridiculed, and judged, and even threatened for carrying a child conceived outside of normal circumstances, particularly before being married. She would give birth to this “son of the Most High” in one of the lowliest places, a stable. And after Bethlehem? Long years of obscurity and poverty with the world continually churning with its disapproval of the Jews, with the power from on high weighing down the life of the people. Her baby from Bethlehem would go on to become one of the most hated men in all of Israel and his life would increase in danger until the very end. The humble, marginalized, poor, and weak loved him, while the powerful and wealthy regarded him with hatred. Mary’s baby boy would be murdered on a cross, betrayed by the very people he came to serve. She would come to cradle her lifeless son’s body in her arms just as she did that first night in the manger. That was the favor of God?

Why Mary? Why an unwed, impoverished, and teenage girl?

Throughout the gospels Mary is portrayed as thoughtful, obedient, believing, worshipful and devoted to Jewish law. To us, and to all who knew her, she is the ideal Christian. However, none of these qualities are offered as reasons for God choosing her, God’s reasoning is tucked away from our view. We can guess, and we can come to our own conclusions, but the truth of God’s choice is known only to God in his eternal plan.

If Mary had wanted a perfect life on unbroken happiness, ease and pleasure in all things, then she certainly didn’t get it. If she had tried to measure up the favor of the Lord by the expectations of the world, then it would seem that the promise and salutation of the angel was only an illusion.

But the truth, and I mean real truth, is always deeper than it appears on the surface. 

The world would tell us, that God’s favor is to be found in ease, pleasure, and prosperity. God’s favor can be seen in a Christmas tree covered in perfect ornamentation with a plethora or present piled underneath. How many televangelists and “christian” writers make their millions and claim that God’s favor is with them, that God wanted them to be wealthy and powerful? Their messages always contain some sort of theologically problematic promise: If only you pray more, if you only read your bible more, if you only put more money in the offering plate, then God will make you healthy, happy, holy, and wealthy.

That is not the gospel.

It is a terrifying paradox, but, it is the lives which have been given something great to do and to bear, even though they may have been bruised and battered in the process, which have truly known the favor of God.

If God had wanted our discipleship to be easy then he would not have come into the world through the difficult situation of an unwed virgin. If God had wanted our faith to be easy then we would have no need for church, repentance, and forgiveness.

With Mary, and frankly with every single one of us, it comes down to obedience. Purely and humbly Mary put herself into the hands of God. She sacrificed so that God’s will could be done in the world. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

As the story continues, Mary meets with her relative Elizabeth, and when John leapt in his mother’s womb while in the presence of Jesus in Mary’s, she responds by praising God. She praises God even though the child in her womb will certainly make her life more difficult. And when we read the Magnificat it seems like Mary is continuing to praise God for the wrong reasons. Rather than celebrating God’s gifts to the proud, the powerful, and the rich, she offers joy that God has turned such values upside down.

I believe that we, myself included, are so often caught up with what the world defines as greatness, what the world defines as favor, that we lose sight of God’s kingdom right in front of us. We would all do well to join in with Mary’s song and magnify the Lord who lifts up the lowly and vulnerable in love. We would do well to open our eyes and ears to what God is doing in the world, what God wants to do through us, and respond with a resonating, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.

So, how is it with your soul? Where have you felt God tugging you in your life? Is there a pull or a nudge that has happened, perhaps you don’t know why, but you know that something is there? Have you seen a place in your life that you want to change but you’re unsure of whether or not you really can? Is God calling you to do something in your life and you, like Mary, are perplexed at how it would even be possible?

My guess is, we all have something. Whether large or small, grand or simple, God is always calling us to something new. To fix a broken relationship, to reach out to those marginalized in our own community, to shine a great light when it feels like the darkness is taking over.

As we prepare to make our way to Christ’s table let us all remember that with God nothing is impossible. An old childless couple can be given new life, a virgin can bear a child who came to save us, we can all be forgiven for the wrongs we have committed, death can be defeated, life after life after death is available through the grace of God, lives can be transformed, love can be discovered, and faith can be rekindled. Nothing will be impossible with God.