Prioritizing Our Faith
Romans 8:12-17 & John 3:1-17

by | May 27, 2024

PRAYER: O God, our heavenly parent, teach us today how to prioritize your love above all else. Jesus, our Savior, remind us of your teachings in how you demonstrated God’s love as an example for us all to follow. Holy Spirit, come be among us today and inspire us to move forward in our faith, placing you the Triune God above all else in our lives. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

In my family growing up, there was always a running joke about who was Mom’s favorite. There were 7 of us, so you might think that there would have been 7 different opinions on the subject. Mom always insisted that she had no favorites, but we all knew better. The truth is that we were all united in believing that Mom’s favorite was – and always shall be – my brother Paul. There was never really any doubt about it.
Turns out that this is not all that unusual – for a group of kids to be united about who the favorite is. My three girls would all tell you that Jackie was our favorite. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong, but Anna actually has the definitive explanation of who the favorite is. We didn’t waste our breath claiming that we didn’t have a favorite; we most certainly did! The favorite is the one who is annoying us the least at that particular moment.
Think about the things in your life that you rank: favorite, maybe a second favorite… and so on. Maybe you have a favorite book or movie. Maybe a favorite food or chair in your house. As United Methodists, I KNOW that everyone has a favorite pew! When it comes to baseball, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee fan. I will root for the Yankees every single time. My second favorite team is the Phillies. I’ll root for the Phillies against every single team – except the Yankees. And there are a handful of teams that are in dead-last place in my list – I’ll never root for them under any circumstance, and the rest are scattered in the middle.
In the grand scheme of things, the order I rank my favorite baseball teams is pretty inconsequential. A lot of those things that we call our favorite or least favorite whatever… these can be relatively unimportant things in our lives. Most of the important things, we don’t typically classify in that way. Instead, we often demonstrate how we prioritize things by our words and actions – in how we treat others, in how we live our lives.
In our reading from Romans 8, Paul writes “So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness.” I’m using the Common English Bible translation here. Very often, when we read this passage, or passages like this from Paul, most of the translations will use the word “flesh”. Over time, this has become equal to sexual sin. And while that isn’t wrong, it IS somewhat narrow in the scope of what Paul was talking about. I believe the Common English use of the word “selfishness” is far more in line with what Paul was saying. We often prioritize ourselves and our desires over the needs of others. Sexual sin is certainly part of that, but not the only part, so we do well to take a wider view of what Paul was saying.
It just makes a lot more sense when we continue reading, “If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children.”
Paul is reminding us that when we embrace God’s call, when we grasp onto God’s power to be changed, we become more like Christ, and we find ourselves bringing Christ’s love and grace into the world around us, which can only have an impact for the good. For when we bring that love and grace into our world, that is what we then put out into the world.
The great Salvadoran priest Oscar Romero said that “we must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs.”
When we put our own selfishness behind us, and really focus on the needs of others first and foremost, when we focus on lifting up others, we are becoming more Christ-like in our lives and becoming as a true child of God. And in so doing, as a true child of God, we practically guarantee that we are – and ever shall be God’s favorite child!
This was the struggle that Nicodemus was having when he came to Jesus in the darkness of night. John 3 tells this narrative of Jesus having this conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” The Pharisees were all about the rules… the policy and procedures that needed to be followed in order to find favor with God. Nicodemus wasn’t asking about anything other than what steps Jesus had taken in order to become as powerful as he apparently had. And because Nicodemus was viewing God strictly from this transactional sense, he was not prepared for Jesus’ response.
Imagine going to the store and buying a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. That’s quite a challenge, isn’t it? So you come home from the store, and you take off the cellophane wrapping from around the box, and then open up the box to reveal the puzzle inside – already completed. Imagine opening the box and the puzzle inside is fully assembled. All 1,000 pieces are connected perfectly; the puzzle image is clear as a bell. That’s what Nicodemus wanted. He wanted Jesus to give him the completed puzzle – all the pieces together, with no effort whatsoever required of him. All he wanted to do was buy the puzzle; he didn’t want to do the hard work of actually assembling it.
The joy, the happiness that we get from something like a jigsaw puzzle is not just in the completed image. The joy is found in the task, the sense of accomplishment that we derive from assembling the puzzle piece by piece until we have the completed image in front of us. Our faith lives is not about having everything perfectly ordered in the church, that we can come, sing a few hymns, read a few passages, and then put it all back in the box until next week.
Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus was that in order to see the puzzle completed, in order to find the answers he seeks, he must be born from above. Nicodemus’ confusion was natural as he believed that Jesus was talking about a physical birth. So Jesus explained that people must be “born of the Spirit”, but Nicodemus still doesn’t understand.
Nicodemus was looking for Jesus to explain a transactional relationship with God. Jesus was describing a transformative relationship with God. He was challenging Nicodemus to come out of the darkness and look deeper into what relationship with God is all about. It isn’t about following policy; it wasn’t about the step-by-step order of religion. It was about the change that happens, the transformation that happens in the birth. When we are born of the Spirit, we become new creations, and we become recipients of God’s transcendent love.
Jesus gives Nicodemus the example of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness, that all who looked upon the snake was saved. And then he uses that example to compare how God loved the world in the same way, and Jesus is likewise lifted up for everyone in the world to look upon and be saved. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that in order for him to be saved, he must (a) believe, and (b) that belief must then lead to a transformed life.
Marcus Borg, the revered theologian and scholar wrote this: “The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
If the only thing required of us in our faith was to agree to a few doctrinal statements – to memorize the 108 words of the Apostle’s Creed and John 3:16, our faith would be so very easy.
John’s gospel teaches us that belief in God should be an indication of our priorities. The Apostles’ Creed is not about the doctrine that we follow, it is about the God that changes our hearts, our minds, our very lives. Our faith is about the God who loves us, and indeed, loves the whole world. The gospel of John is an invitation to join in with God in the very difficult work of healing the brokenness around us… and perhaps that means starting by recognizing the brokenness around us. It definitely means making a shift in how we prioritize, by putting God at the top of our list always in every situation.
It’s time for us all to put God first in our lives! It’s time to make God our top priority, for that is truly how we change the world! Ask yourself what does it mean to put God first, in even the most mundane things? If you’re going to the grocery store, do so putting God first in your life. If you’re turning on the TV – whether you’re watching the news, Star Trek, or a baseball game, do so putting God first in your life. If you’re writing a letter or an email to a friend, or if you’re going to Wal-Mart, do so putting God first in your life. When someone gets under your skin, put God first in your life. When that other driver cuts in front you and you have to slam on your brakes, put God first in your life.
If we want to claim the title of believer, then we must also seek to be changed into new creations, more loving, more gracious people who bring life and love, and healing into our families, our church, our community, indeed our world. That may mean learning to forgive; or going outside of our comfort zone and serving in a new ministry; or starting a new ministry. It could mean helping to pay someone’s bill if they’re struggling financially. Whatever the details, the more we open ourselves to the Triune God, the better we are able to reflect God’s presence in our own lives.
You are already God’s favorite. You are already God’s favorite. You are already God’s favorite! Turn to your neighbor right now and tell them that they are God’s favorite.
So, take that good news out into your lives this week and begin the transformative work that shares the love of the Triune God with all of God’s favorite children.
To God be the glory.