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Preaching of the resurrection

[ 0 ] April 16, 2014

Easter:  The first Easter began in a then familiar way — Mary and the other Mary going to the tomb where Jesus’ body was. They had been twice before because up until the fourth day mourners went each day to anoint the body with expensive ointments and spices (to hold off the smell and allow grieving to continue at the grave as long as possible). Typically by the fourth day the smell had begun, and one could no longer go to a tomb to mourn. When they arrived, the stone had been rolled away, and an angel told them, “He is not here, he is risen just as he said. Come see where he had been laid.” Jesus appeared to at least 500, including the 11 surviving apostles after this event, telling them to “go and make disciples of all the world.” Then, as Acts records, he ascended into heaven.

The first holiday known as Easter, when the church celebrated the resurrection as a singular event, was probably in the 2nd century, more than a hundred years after Christ’s resurrection. But the message of the early Church, as recorded in the book of Acts, had the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as central in this amazing good news; this preaching of the resurrection began almost immediately after the ascension of Jesus Christ. In fact, all early preaching about the Christ began first with the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The teaching of Jesus followed the miracle of Jesus’ victory over death. The former means very little without the latter.

This means that the “preaching of the resurrection” predates the celebration of Easter as a holiday by well over 100 years.

I want to ask you to do something for me. First Methodist is preparing for a tremendous Easter weekend, three services at the MISD Center for the Performing Arts and two on our campus. Pray with me that it is not just a religious holiday we celebrate but that it is what it is supposed to be, “a weekend we preach the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This gospel, or good news, is the hope of the world, the hope of the hopeless and the hope of the lost, grieving, hurting, empty people of our world. It is this gospel that changed the Roman and Greek world of the first century. May it change the world we live in today.  Holidays don’t change very much, but the power of God working through the good news he orchestrated when he emptied the tomb, now that changes the world.

Pray:  that God is honored.
Pray:  that our members are encouraged, blessed, empowered and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Pray:  that we have 1,000 visitors and thousands in attendance to hear the good news.
Pray:  that many come to the Christ most of us are blessed by daily.
Pray:  that the outcome of Easter is the outcome that God desires.

God, we pray that this Easter weekend you are honored, we are encouraged, thousands hear the good news, thousands more come to celebrate, that many will come to know Christ and that it is your kingdom that comes and your will that is done. In the name of the resurrected Christ, Amen. 

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

The Consumer Church

[ 0 ] April 10, 2014

The last two years I have been a leader in the Healthy Church Initiative, serving as a church coach, on a consultation team and most recently as a lead consultant. Here is one of the key ideas of HCI and something I presented at Staff Chapel on Tuesday morning.

The goal of First Methodist Mansfield is clearly designed:  Making disciples of Jesus Christ who will love God, love others and serve the world. The intent . . . go make disciples, love God and love your neighbor.

Just what is a disciple?

Someone who believes in Jesus? Someone who follows Jesus? Someone who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior? Someone who then serves, gives and becomes involved in outreach, mission, witness and is accepting and dedicated to the mission of Christ and his church?

I think all the preceding includes the picture of a disciple who loves God and loves others. But this is not where someone begins.

We have disciples in our church. Our Reveal Survey a few years ago said a percentage of our church family has reached the level of fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

But we have people in every part of the journey to discipleship — from those who are checking the God thing out to see if it might be true to those fully on board with following Jesus Christ. This is a healthy church and what a church is supposed to look like, with people in all categories of faith.

So, if that is the full outcome that a church is looking for — an outcome built upon the command of Jesus to go make disciples — where does it begin?

It begins with consumers.

The entry into the church is our intent to reach a consumer who we can make into a disciple. In fact, we all begin as consumers. This is our target — the unchurched, the unchristian, the undiscipled, the people Jesus gave his life for, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son . . .” I don’t need coffee to come to church or comfortable seats or easy parking, but a consumer does, just as I and most of us once were.

Jesus targeted the consumer. He often found the one that seemed the farthest away, bypassing the religious Pharisee and offering the water of life to the woman at the well, bypassing the religious leaders and calling down the publican, Zaccheus, from the Sycamore tree, bypassing the local rabbis and calling fishermen to be his disciples.

When the crowds came and they were hungry, he fed them, multiplying a handful of fish and bread to feed 5,000. When they came back a few days later, he fed them again and then offered them the kingdom of God. They came for the food and found the Savior.

Jesus looked for the consumer and offered them the kingdom. He looked for the fishermen and offered them discipleship. He looked for the sinner and offered his life.

So, a church that is intent on the task of making disciples must target consumers, just like Jesus did, consumers who will become disciples of Jesus Christ in God’s perfect timing, just like most of us. Think www.easterinmansfield.org.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Thoughts on the future of the Christian faith

[ 0 ] April 3, 2014

Think with me about how the ministry of Jesus began, especially as recorded in the book of Matthew. The first thing he did was go down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. This was his first public moment. John said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” We now know what he came to do. Then the Holy Spirit fills him in the form of a dove. We now know where his power and authority come from. Then the voice of God speaks from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” We now know who he is.

Then Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days. There he prays and fasts. At the end of the 40 days, the devil comes to tempt him (something I have long called the con in the wilderness, the evil one trying to get Jesus to believe that something is nothing and that nothing is something, that Jesus’ relationship with God is not a big deal and what the devil offers is). Jesus resists the temptation and heads into the heart of his life and mission.

He then calls his disciples — his followers, those he will teach, those he tells, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men . . .”

After this, his first work is healing the sick, casting out demons and blessing the poor, hurting and broken of his world.

Then he teaches the Sermon on the Mount. This included the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, commands not to worry, doubt or fear and words that have defined the Christian faith now for 2,000 years.

What’s next? He continues these themes that carry him to a cross and then the resurrection.

When I look at the life of Jesus told in these terms, I am drawn to him. I follow Christ because I believe he is God and the savior of the world. But even without that part of the gospel, the life of Jesus is the most attractive life ever lived, his teaching the most attractive teaching ever offered, his sacrifice the most beautiful sacrifice ever given, his story the most beautiful story every told.

Someone asked me a few years ago about the future of the Christian faith. They were concerned that, in the chaos of this world, the church would eventually disappear, especially in the light of America’s declining church attendance. My response was simple. Don’t worry; the church will always be because the church has Jesus Christ. People will always be drawn to the beauty and power of this Son of God.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Sometimes the simplest ways are the best

[ 0 ] March 27, 2014

We live in a very complex, confused world. There are few concrete guidelines for living, no central, universally accepted values and overwhelming political, moral and religious chaos. This makes it an easy world to become a Christian in but a very difficult world in which to live out that faith. There is no solid framework that the culture offers for us to live in. It’s like living in a hurricane with no shelter. We may be used to it, but the wind is still blowing.

I had a pastor friend who shared with me many years ago that his financial plan since he was a young man was give 10%, save 10%, don’t get into credit card debt and live on the rest. A few years ago, he passed away very suddenly, leaving a wife and two kids (he was 52 at the time). He left his family financially stable even dying at that young age. Sometime the simplest ways are the best ways.

Billy Graham spent a lifetime travelling, often away from his loving wife and family. Surely there were many temptations during that season, but he had a rule for himself. He was never alone with a woman other than his wife, under any circumstances. They were married more than 60 years when she passed away. Sometimes the simplest ways are the best ways.

When I was a young Christian, I already knew the rules I should live by, things I learned from my Mom — go to church, don’t curse, drink, smoke and mess around. Those rules still guide me after all these years. I have added other disciplines, but my life has flourished in that framework. I recently received a text from my 13-year-old granddaughter. Here are a few words she wrote:

You honestly don’t know how much you inspire me. I want to be you when I grow up, I always have. I love you. You are an amazing man and granddaddy, the best preacher in the world, my hero!”

That note came with a picture of all the ribbons she had won in track at her school, a tears-in-my-eyes kind of note. I don’t think this stage of my life would have been possible without that framework.

Sometimes the simplest ways are the best.

Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost.” This is exactly what he did and is still doing. Sometimes the simplest ways are the best ways. This truth guided Jesus from the Jordan River through Galilee, into Samaria, along the road to Jericho and eventually to Jerusalem, the cross and the amazing resurrection. Jesus always knew why God sent him, and this was the framework for all he was and all he did.

Life grows best (a very biblical teaching) in a framework: the teaching of Jesus Christ, rules we have for our lives, lines we do not cross, disciplines we do not compromise, priorities that guide us. In a world where people do not like to be limited, this is the place that actually sets us free — free to become all that God has designed us to be.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Building our life around the community

[ 0 ] March 20, 2014

Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River. I was there just a few weeks ago at a very inspirational time when we remembered the baptisms of dozens of people in this amazing place. God said, “This is my Son.” John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus like a dove, and it all began.

What did Jesus do next? He faced sin and the devil at the Mount of Temptation. He called his first disciples. He began to heal and cast out demons. He taught the Sermon on the Mount. This Jesus who was proclaimed as God would make his way to cities, roads, intersections, communities, all over Israel, places like Bethpage, Bethany, Jericho, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Samaria and many other places.

Jesus could have stayed on a mountain top, become a recluse and pray continually. He could have stayed in Nazareth, taught in the local synagogue and enjoyed an easy but respected life. He could have moved into the simple trade of his father, a stone mason or carpenter, and walked through life in a very traditional way. He did none of these.

Instead, he chose to build his life around why God sent him — he built his life around the community — the lost, hurting, broken, sick, needy people of his world, whoever and wherever he found them. He taught them. He healed them. He walked with them. He called them, from Bethany to Jericho, the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, to Nicodemus a Pharisee and to a Samaritan woman as a well.

Churches can easily find themselves taking the easy route, staying in Nazareth, teaching at the synagogue, waiting for people to come to them, maintaining a comfort level we can control. It’s hard to go into the world, to build a church’s life around the community as Jesus did and Jesus teaches.

First Methodist tries; our goal is to be “in the city for the city” (yes, like Jesus), to change lives, grow the church and build the community and communities God has placed us in.

Easter in Mansfield, where we will have Easter services at the Mansfield ISD Center for the Performing Arts, is part of this effort, this vision. Our Vacation Bible Camp that we open up for free to the community each year (around 1,200-1,400 people show up) is part of this vision. Leading a Community Prayer Network that draws almost every major leader in our area is a part of it. Fifty volunteers at the Mansfield Picklepalooza, United Mission Week where some 200 of our kids and adults do mission work in our own community, our transition with the amazing Wesley Mission Center, Kairos Prison Ministry, Feed by Grace Homeless Ministry, Feed the Kids for Summer, Big Hope mentoring program at Alice Ponder, Jubilate Community Children’s Choir, our Christmas Spectacular — this is just a sampling of our attempt to be faithful as a church serious about the commands of Christ.

Just think — Easter was not a gift to the church; it was a gift to the world. Think of the ramifications with me of a church building Easter around the community and not around itself, pretty much how Jesus lived his life. We think like that here. This is why I believe God has blessed First Methodist Church.

Start inviting your friends and neighbors to connect with Easter in Mansfield. We have a website you can share, www.easterinmansfield.org. We even have a facebook event you can share with your facebook friends. In the city for the city, changing lives, growing the church, building the community.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Life can make the most sense at a funeral

[ 0 ] March 13, 2014

One of the things I often do is funerals, walking with a family through the loss of a loved one. It is one of the things I have always believed God called me specifically to do. For me, it has always been and still is a great balancer in my life. In a culture that often seeks to isolate, sanitize and even marginalize death as much as possible, pastors find themselves in the thick of it on an almost daily basis. Many have asked me how I do it. Again, sharing in these times brings a balance into my life.

It teaches me that life is about relationships, not stuff or achievements. At these points, family and friends are pretty much all that matters.

It teaches me about our universal limitations and mortality, my own limitations and mortality and how much we each need God. We might forget this without the reminders that death brings. We meet God at the point of our limitations, and death is this absolute point. It is good to know that God loves us.

It teaches me about faith. At these points, faith in God, trust in Christ, belief in heaven become everything. No matter what life has been, it now becomes about eternal life. Heaven is a big deal. I believe in heaven and everlasting life.

It teaches me that most things in life are small stuff, and we worry about way too many things that aren’t really that big a deal. We work for a lot of things that really don’t satisfy. We waste too much of life on things that really don’t matter.

It teaches me that it is not about my kingdom — whatever kingdom that might be — it is about the kingdom of God, for this is the only kingdom that transcends life and death. Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, Jesus said.

It teaches me that the security we spend so much of life trying to guarantee can only be guaranteed by trusting Christ who defeated death in the resurrection, promised that he will never leave us nor forsake us, and promised that one day he will come back for each of us.

It teaches me that the giggle of a baby, the warmth of a sunrise, the softness of a prayer, the gentleness of a tear, the love of family, the building of friendships, the service of others, the deepening of faith are what matter the most in life.

It is an odd thing that life can make the most sense at a funeral.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Thoughts on being a “finisher”

[ 0 ] March 6, 2014

First Methodist just completed a series entitled Finisher with a central theme, “It’s not those who begin, but those who finish.” In fact, everyone else in and out of the church builds their lives on those who are finishers. In our lives, we depend on those kinds of people.

My father was a finisher. His life was difficult, with many ups and downs — health, financial, career, etc. I remember letting my Mom and Dad know, when Rhonda and I were living in Missouri with our first two babies, that we were preparing to move back to Texas to pastor our first church. I did not ask for help, but he borrowed his company van, put a trailer behind it and drove up to help us move. The last few years of his life he took care of my very ill mother and after that my sister.  His commitment to his church was unquestioned. His life was not easy and he was not perfect, but you could count on him. He was a finisher many others built their lives on. I have learned through the years to appreciate that more than any other quality. Likability is nice and talent is good, but people who can be counted on are where the rubber meets the road.

I probably can speak for every pastor almost anywhere when I say that people we can count on are our greatest treasure — not perfect people, not people who never make mistakes, not people with amazing talent or tremendous gifts, not just people with personality plus (and First Methodist has all those) but people whose heart, faith and presence we can count on.

As we enter a new season in the life of First Methodist, begin our journey through Lent, prepare for Easter, continue our In the City for the City theme and work to fulfill our mission statement —  “Making disciples of Jesus Christ who will love God, love others and serve the world” —  can I count on you, can all our pastors count on you, can your church count on you? I don’t ask for perfection, sinlessness, talent or people who are just like Jesus (no one is), just people who can be counted on. That’s all any pastor really wants, and the longer we lead the church, the more we appreciate this attribute.

Finisher:  We build our lives on finishers. I may not be able to be perfect or sinless, and neither can you, but we can be finishers, the kind of people our families, communities, and church builds its life on.

Paul said it well, “I have fought the fight, run my race, finished my course, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, and not me only, but all those who loved his appearing.” And 2,000 years later, we still build our lives on this apostolic finisher.

I want to thank all the finishers out there, all the people I have been able to count on through the years. You are a treasure to me, and I am grateful to God for you.

Lent has begun, this weekend we begin a new series, Discovering the Holy Land, and don’t forget the time change, “spring forward.” We lose an hour, but don’t worry, we will get it back in the fall.

Thoughts on the Holy Land

[ 0 ] February 27, 2014

As you read this, we have just returned from Israel with more than 60 from our church family and another 20 or so from other churches around the country that have also joined our group. It is an amazing thing to share in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, something we will be sharing with all our church family during the season of Lent and through Easter.

Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, the Jordan River and, of course, sites where many think Jesus might have been crucified and raised from the dead. Some of the video and photos we have taken will be used to guide the Lenten message series that begins March 8/9, with Ash Wednesday on March 5. It is a special time as we experienceDiscovering the Holy Land, the title of the Lenten emphasis. This weekend we will share the last in the Finisher series as Pastor David and I share the message together in each service. This is an important season to be a part of First Methodist Mansfield.

For me, the most holy place when I visit the Holy Land is the quarters of the Praetorian Guard. This is where we are almost certain Jesus spent part of the night before he was crucified and where the Roman soldiers beat him, placed the crown of thorns on his head and put a purple robe on his bleeding shoulders to mock him as the King of the Jews. The floors are marble at this space deep below the present day streets of Jerusalem. On the floor, designs are carved in the marble, games that were part of casting lots, which we know the solders did to decide who got Jesus’ one-piece robe. Just to realize we are standing where we know Jesus stood, gazing at the spot where you know his blood dripped is as inspiring as it gets. I will never forget the first time I was there, and on each consecutive trip, I look forward to being there again. It is very personal.

It is inspiring to know that the Christian faith is not just something we believe, it is something that happened and is still happening. Jesus really walked the shores of Galilee, really taught the Sermon on the Mount, really healed the sick, really died on a cross and really was raised from the dead. When we affirm this in faith and follow, then the history of hope, salvation and life continues to be written. Christ followers don’t live just by a philosophy, we live by a truth that God is, that he came into our world, that he is still with us, and our task is to live out his story.

Looking forward to telling this story from the very place it started.

Think on these things.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Preparing for Lent

[ 0 ] February 20, 2014

The thought for the week is from our bishop, Mike Lowry. As we prepare for Lent and 63 members of our church family are in Israel at this posting, First Methodist Mansfield prepares for this weekend of worship with our bishop preaching in all our services. What better way to prepare than to receive a few of his thoughts on Lent and, even more, on our clear faith in Christ? Think worship this weekend — make sure you attend church to hear this important message form our bishop. Think Lent —  and begin preparing for the Discovering the Holy Land series. Think Finisher —  as we share the third message of the series. And think Christ — the good news of a crucified Savior, the core of the church. Bishop Lowry is inspiring and an important preacher you will want to hear. It is not often we have this opportunity.

Mike Ramsdell
Senior Pastor

Preparing for Lent
by Bishop Mike Lowry

In the late 1970s, I read a story that came from Punch (a magazine dedicated to humor and satire). As the story went, a woman went into a jewelry story in Sydney, Australia, and asked to look at cross necklaces. The clerk dutifully brought a number of them out and laid them on a black velvet tray. He looked up and asked her, “Are you interested in one that is plain or one with a little man on it?”

I remember gasping that anyone could be that oblivious of the central symbol of the Christian faith. Time-wise, this incident took place at the beginning of the so-called post-Christian era (or post-Christendom). At the time (i.e. the end of Christendom), a person could reasonably assume knowledge of Christian symbols and their meaning. Almost 40 years later, such an assumption is dangerous, if not foolish. At our recent “Clergy Day Apart,” we heard a series of marvelous presentations by Dr. Stephen Seamands on his book Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return. Overheard in the conversations during a break after Seamands had presented a lecture on preaching the cross and crucifixion was a comment by a pastor that went something like this. “I’ve always thought we were a church of the incarnation and resurrection. Why can’t we just skip over that stuff about the cross?” (I promise you I am not making this up. I am also hopeful that there is far more to the conversation that I missed!)

Here is a clue. We have crosses on our altars for a reason! The apostle Paul put it bluntly. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:1-2)

Central to the Christian faith is a conviction that we cannot get to Easter except through the cross! Last week I taught a class on preaching for the West District clergy. As a part of that class, I shared a model set of sermon outlines presenting a series on the meaning and importance of the cross for the Christian faith. I entitled it Give Them Christ: Preaching Lent Through Easter and based it on a rough outline of one chapter of Stephen Seamands’ book and the Revised Common Lectionary (for Holy Week). I offer the outline for reflection and use for those so inclined.

Give Them Christ:  Preaching Lent Through Easter

Ash Wednesday — The Reality of Sin, Psalm 51:1-17
1st Sunday — The Bizarre Symbol of Our Faith, I Corinthians 2:1-5
2nd Sunday — The Scandal of the Cross, I Corinthians 1:18-25
3rd Sunday — The At-One-Ment of the Cross, Matthew 16:13-23
4th Sunday — The Suffering of the Cross, Matthew 27:33-54
5th Sunday — The Love of the Cross, John 19:16-30
Palm Sunday — The March of the Cross, Matthew 21:1-11
Maundy Thursday — The Shadow of the Cross, John 13:1-17
Good Friday — At the Cross, John 18:1-19:42
Easter — The Triumphant Sign, Matthew 28:1-10

I find myself coming back time and time again to a famous quote by George MacLeod (a great Scottish preacher and theologian of the mid-twentieth century and founder of the Iona Community):

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

Likewise, the great old hymn Lift High the Cross rings in my ears offering us advice. “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all adore His sacred name.” The opening verse both invites and challenges us to enter fully into a theology of the cross suitable for Lent. “Come, Christians, follow this triumphant sign.” (Lift High the Cross, The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 159, chorus and verse 1)

Why I go to church

[ 0 ] February 13, 2014

I was reading an article this week about a well-known Christian writer who is very popular. I won’t write his name, but he wrote about the fact that he seldom attended church anymore even though he was a resource for many pastors and Christians nationwide; he himself had “graduated from the church” (his words).

I don’t think he intended to come across the way he did, but the conversation he started has yet to be finished. Why do we go to church? Can someone graduate from the church? Do we always need the church? Does the church always need us? What place does the church have in the Christian life? These are important questions to ask and to answer.

Why do I go to church?  

To me, the writer’s attitude is self-serving in the sense of saying, “I don’t need the church,” ignoring the fundamental truth of one who is a serious Christian and follower of Christ that we graduate but not out of the church — we graduate to where the church needs us.

The process of maturing as a part of the church family begins with our need of almost every aspect of the church and grows to the place where the church needs almost every aspect of us. We do mature, but we do not graduate.

If Jesus had graduated from the disciples, he would have left them in the boat. They were mostly a pain in the neck, but he loved, taught, lived for and died for them anyway. He never went so far ahead that he left them behind, even though this meant he had to backtrack many a time. If the writer I am referring to feels that he is so far ahead of the church that he does not need it anymore, then he might just be too far ahead of Jesus as well.

Sure, the church is not perfect — whatever perfection means — but it is God’s creation, and he promised he would never leave it, the gates of hell would not prevail against it and that one day he would return for it.

Does it make sense to get out of the lifeboat — or not get into it in the first place — just because the people in it are flawed?

There are times I go the church because I need it. Other times I go because it needs me. And, there are occasions I go because I think God expects me to. This constant in my life is the greatest stabilizer of my faith and one I will not abandon.

To the before unnamed writer, go to church!

Mike Ramsdell

Senior Pastor