Archives For John Wesley

lightstock_82592_small_user_2741517Today is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon, based on Psalm 145, I wrote with David in mind.

Actually, it was David’s question:

‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me:

‘Will they be able to talk to me?

Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

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It’s a good question.

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

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ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:

“things indifferent.”

How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.

Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’

Who determines what is essential?

And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?

Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.

Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.

As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.

As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.

And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.

That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.

It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.

Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.

Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.

And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.

Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:

“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. 

The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. 

Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. 

But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”

 

aldersgate-whitebgI’m fortunate to be working with an inspiring team of about 45 people working to begin a satellite congregation south of us in the Kingstowne area of Northern Virginia.

We look to begin with a few events in Advent for the community followed by a Christmas Eve service. Our official launch is penciled for the first weekend of March.

Only God knows what the future has in store but already this process has shown us that it’s healthy to have goals so large they require God’s help.

Part of our work has been to create a website and online presence by which we can communicate our vision and engage people on the web. The logo is meant to recall John Wesley’s original ‘Aldersgate experience’ in which a fresh hearing of the gospel set his heart on fire.

Here’s the new website for Aldersgate: Kingstowne. It’s still in process and kinks still need to get worked out before we can merge our existing site with the new one, but we’re excited for what we’ll be able to do with it.

 

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nThis past weekend a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood. I’ve changed in many ways since my commissioning and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

     Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual. 995687_4988940372277_749089862_n

     Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper

In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner, a former Jew, distinguishes Judaism and Christianity by saying Judaism is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with individual belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.

Probably, when you hear Christianity defined that way, you’re tempted to agree. To the extent that’s true, however, it’s true because that’s what we’ve done with the faith Jesus gave us.

It’s not that that’s the faith as Jesus gave it to us.

     Perhaps nowhere is Winner’s distinction between Judaism and Christianity more starkly apparent than in the Jewish meal Jesus bequeathed to us.

     A meal which today, in almost all Christian congregations, bears zero resemblance to the one at which Jesus was host and presumably intended for us to mimic.

     Beginning in the Middle Ages, religious bureaucrats like me got a hold of this meal and, in my lofty estimation, messed it all up. They tried to turn over and open it up and explain how it works.

Trucking in Aristotelian philosophic concepts like ‘form’ and ‘substance’ that were foreign to the Hebrew world of scripture, theologians like Thomas Aquinas concocted pained explanations for how the bread and wine of the Eucharist can become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Such a literal transformation- transubstantiation- of the elements was necessary within a Medieval theological system wherein human sin required the ongoing, repeated sacrifice of Christ in the Mass.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and Jean Calvin departed from the atonement theology that lay behind transubstantiation, stressing that Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross was a once-for-all, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice for sin which we access through and by faith.

While Luther left behind the Medieval understanding of the mass as sacrifice, he retained the scholastic inclination to explain how the bread and wine of the meal become the actual body and blood of Jesus.

Luther’s reforms were only crust deep, giving the Protestant tradition ‘consubstantiation’ instead of trans. Christ’s presence, as every Lutheran knows, is ‘in, with and under’ the elements of the Eucharist rather than the elements themselves changing.

Proceeding reformers like Zwingli went further in demystifying the Medieval notion of the sacrament, stressing that the meal is merely a memorial of Christ’s Last Supper- the de facto, implicit position of almost Protestant in America. Meanwhile, my own tradition’s founder, John Wesley, espoused the historic Anglican conviction that Christ is really present in the eucharistic gathering but how that’s so is a mystery.

While I was jumping through the hoops of the United Methodist ordination process, I was prepped to plot the bread and cup along the map of John Wesley’s theology of grace. As John Wesley said- I was expected to say- the Lord’s Supper is one of God’s ‘ordinary’ (meaning primary and scripturally obvious) means of grace. It’s by receiving the elements that we grow in holiness, that we’re sanctified and ultimately perfected in Christ-like love of God and neighbor.

That’s all well and good as a second order explication of the meal Jesus gave us. Jesus might even agree with it, but I wonder if Jesus, as a Jew, would even recognize such an explanation as referring to the Jewish meal he gave us.

     No matter how much they differ in theological approach and outcome, Aquinas et al all take as their starting point Jesus’ words ‘This is my body…this is my blood…’ and they all share the premise that Jesus’ words must either be literally true or spiritually true, that is, figurative.

But none of them take note that these words don’t originate with Jesus at all. None of them take note that Jesus wasn’t the only one who spoke those words that night he was betrayed.

In a sense.

None of the historic explanations (and very few of the understandings in the pew or among pastors) take note that Jesus’ words were part of the Passover script.

As the host of the Passover meal, Jesus was expected to speak of the body and the blood.

In the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been the four ceremonial cups of wine, the brick-shaped concoction of fruits, nuts and vinegar (granola bars) representing the bricks the Hebrews made in Egypt, the bitter herbs (parsley and radishes) representing slavery in Egypt, the unleavened bread, representing their hasty departure, and the roasted lamb itself, whose blood sprinkled on the doorposts delivered the Hebrews from the angel of death.

Traditionally, the host blesses the first cup and all drink. Then come the bitter herbs, which are blessed and eaten. Then the bread, the granola and the lamb are brought in. The second cup is poured, and the story of the Israel’s exodus from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea is told.

The second cup is drunk and the bread is broken.

The host blesses the bread mixed with herbs and fruit and eats it along with some of the lamb, saying, ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ And all feast. Then they drink the third up and say some psalms before drinking the fourth and last cup which symbolizes the coming Messiah.

At least, this is what is supposed to happen. But on Holy Thursday, the host is Jesus.

     After the second cup Jesus takes the bread, offers the thanksgiving, breaks it and distributes it. And instead of saying ‘This is the body of the Passover’ he says ‘This is my body broken for you.’

And then when the time comes to take the third cup Jesus says ‘This is my blood poured out for you.’

     Jesus takes the traditional Passover script and he changes it. He inserts himself into it. Jesus is saying: ‘I’m the Passover now.’

The more time I spend in ministry, the more I become convinced that Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley…they’re all examples of Lauren Winner’s demarcation: Judaism is a physical, material, embodied religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.

     What’s more I’ve become convinced that the distinction Winner hits upon is the result of the Church losing touch with its Jewish roots so early on its development. The nuanced, cerebral, non-Hebraic explanations for the eucharist put forth by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and even Wesley are but evidence that none of them had any Jewish friends.

     What’s worse, most Christians today persist in rationalizations of the eucharist as though none of us had any Jewish friends either.

As a result, the eucharist in many congregations is a either joyless, masochistic memorial of someone who died to God’s wrath over your sin, or it’s a private transaction of grace dispensed by a special caste of people who pray the magic words to effect an Aristotelian transformation.

But the meal Jesus gave us was Passover.

The words he spoke were the words of the Passover.

And if you know you’re Old Testament, then you know that the Passover wasn’t about sacrifice for sin. It was about deliverance from captivity. It was about appeasing God’s anger; it was about God hearing the cries of his people in bondage. It wasn’t a somber ritual of atonement; it was a joyous meal of rescue and redemption.

When Jesus casts himself in the middle of the Passover script, he declares:

‘I’m the one who sets you free from bondage and delivers you to a new place in life.’

     After a dozen years in ministry, I’m convinced that Christians need to rediscover that  Christianity, like Judaism, is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion.

     Hell, in a mainline culture in which very few Christians can even speak about Jesus to another human being, I think it would be a positive development just to have Christian parents celebrating the eucharist at dinner tables with their families, accompanied by an actual meal, teaching their children the redemptive story that makes this meal on this day different from all others.

     Just like Passover.

 

 

 

 

 

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.

First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.

When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.

Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.

To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.

Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.

Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.

It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.

Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:

The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)

The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)

The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)

The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)

The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)

The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)

While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.

What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.

     Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.

While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.

     Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:

     I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nRather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.

     But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.

     Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.

And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary  baptismal message:

Christians are made not born.

To become a Christian you need to be initiated.

No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.

The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.

I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.

We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.

Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.

For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.

Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.

Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.

This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.

Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.

At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? 

I renounce them.

     Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.

     Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.

It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.

In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.

Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.

Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.

After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.

I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.

 

 

country-ham-sl-258077-lAt my first church I was introduced for the first time to Virginia Country Ham where it was both ubiquitous as a main course and utilitarian as an ingredient in other courses.

Not having had country ham before, the Italian in me located it somewhere near proscuitto, pancetta and guanciale only not as good.

Crackling, to which I was also introduced at this church, is another delicious story.

I left that church with nothing but love in my heart for the people there. Well, actually I left that church with a good bit of cholesterol in my heart too. And sodium in my veins.

My congregants’ words testified to their love for me; their culinary actions however betrayed nothing short of murderous intent. Like a porcine adaptation of Kathy Bates from MiseryMisery05

My country ham experience may be but one instance of a larger, pastorcidal trend, for, according to a new study of United Methodist Clergy Health, pastors are significantly less healthy than the general population.

This isn’t really a surprise. At Annual Conference, my denomination’s yearly gathering of clergy, one instantly notices not just the sea of white hair but the girth of God’s apostles.

According to the same study of Clergy Health, over 1/4 of Methodist pastors exhibit depressive-like tendencies.

john-wesley-1 Again, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to any one who knows Christian history.

John Wesley was OCD anal to put it lightly.

Martin Luther was plagued by a guilty conscience heavier than his substantial punching weight.

Jean Calvin was haunted by the death of his mother and his wife.

St Augustine had mommy issues that would make Freud blush.

Here’s a sampling of some of the stats:

2013 Key Findings:

  • 40% of respondents are obese and 39% are overweight—much higher percentages than a demographically-matched sample of U.S. adults
  • Nearly 51% have high cholesterol, also much higher than comparable benchmarks
  • 5% suffer from depression
  • 26% of all clergy have at least some functional difficulty from depressive symptoms
  • UMC clergy have high rates of borderline hypertension, borderline diabetes and asthma
  • Hostility of the church environment was cited by 47% who experienced at least one intrusive demand(not consulted about ministry decision; devotion to ministry questioned; doubts about pastor’s faith).

*It gets even worse-

I remember from a counseling class at Princeton that male mainline pastors tend to have significantly low (like barely not women) levels of testosterone.

As in all things, I am an exception.

I wonder if something more nefarious lurks behind the stats than country ham and covered dish congregations. I wonder if there’s something more depressing behind the mental health stats than the personalities church work has historically attracted.

I wonder if the main culprit- or an accessory to the crime- is the completely ridiculous and unfocused job description the United Methodist Church hands down to pastors. I wonder if obscuring the Reformation mandate for the priesthood of all believers leads to priestly obesity?

Take a look at this job description from the Book of Discipline and then tell me if you’re not tempted to scratch your head and reach for the Cheetos. But before you do…snark aside, this is a serious issue for pastors and churches. Obesity and the entire processed food industry threaten this country in real ways and we’re called, as Christians, to live as an alternative. A critique.

¶ 340. The responsibilities of elders and licensed pastors are derived from the authority given in ordination. Elders have a four-fold ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order and Service within the connection and thus serve in the church and the world. Local pastors share with the elders the responsibilities and duties of a pastor for this four-fold ministry.

1. Word and ecclesial acts:

a) To preach the Word of God, lead in worship, read and teach the Scriptures, and engage the people in study and witness.24

(1) To ensure faithful transmission of the Christian faith.
(2) To lead people in discipleship and evangelistic outreach that others might come to know Christ and to follow him.

b) To counsel persons with personal, ethical, or spiritual struggles.

c) To perform the ecclesial acts of marriage and burial.

(1) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of The United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.
(2) To conduct funeral and memorial services and provide care and grief counseling.

d) To visit in the homes of the church and the community, especially among the sick, aged, imprisoned, and others in need.

e) To maintain all confidences inviolate, including confessional confidences except in the cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, or in cases where mandatory reporting is required by civil law.

2. Sacrament:
a) To administer the sacraments of baptism and the Supper of the Lord according to Christ’s ordinance.

(1) To prepare the parents and sponsors before baptizing infants or children, and instruct them concerning the significance of baptism and their responsibilities for the Christian training of the baptized child.
(2) To encourage reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and renewal of baptismal vows at different stages of life.
(3) To encourage people baptized in infancy or early childhood to make their profession of faith, after instruction, so that they might become professing members of the church.
(4) To explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and to encourage regular participation as a means of grace to grow in faith and holiness.
(5) To select and train deacons and lay members to serve the consecrated communion elements.
b) To encourage the private and congregational use of the other means of grace.

3. Order:
a) To be the administrative officer of the local church and to assure that the organizational concerns of the congregation are adequately provided for.

(1) To give pastoral support, guidance, and training to the lay leadership, equipping them to fulfill the ministry to which they are called.
(2) To give oversight to the educational program of the church and encourage the use of United Methodist literature and media.
(3) To be responsible for organizational faithfulness, goal setting, planning and evaluation.
(4) To search out and counsel men and women for the ministry of deacons, elders, local pastors and other church related ministries.

b) To administer the temporal affairs of the church in their appointment, the annual conference, and the general church.

(1) To administer the provisions of the Discipline.
(2) To give an account of their pastoral ministries to the charge and annual conference according to the prescribed forms.
(3) To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation.
(4) To promote faithful, financial stewardship and to encourage giving as a spiritual discipline.
(5) To lead the congregation in the fulfillment of its mission through full and faithful payment of all apportioned ministerial support, administrative, and benevolent funds.
(6) To care for all church records and local church financial obligations, and certify the accuracy of all financial, membership, and any other reports submitted by the local church to the annual conference for use in apportioning costs back to the church.

c) To participate in denominational and conference programs and training opportunities.

(1) To seek out opportunities for cooperative ministries with other United Methodist pastors and churches.
(2) To be willing to assume supervisory responsibilities within the connection.

d) To lead the congregation in racial and ethnic inclusiveness.

4. Service:

a) To embody the teachings of Jesus in servant ministries and servant leadership.
b) To give diligent pastoral leadership in ordering the life of the congregation for discipleship in the world.
c) To build the body of Christ as a caring and giving community, extending the ministry of Christ to the world.
d) To participate in community, ecumenical and inter-religious concerns and to encourage the people to become so involved and to pray and labor for the unity of the Christian community.

 

One of John Wesley’s mandates to his pastors was that they be ‘punctual’ in all things. In fact, this is one of the vows the bishop asked me to make at my ordination- along with another Wesley mandate to avoid unseemly debt, which we all sniggered at, weighed down as we all were/are by student loans.

I’ve been thinking about that mandate to be punctual, to never tarry too long, to never be late. Specifically, I’ve been wondering if maybe Wesley’s point should be applied to more than just church meetings and worship services?

Perhaps JW’s mandate forbids us Wesleyans from being behind the times too?

Just as my vow to be punctual in all things meant I shouldn’t show up late to a Trustees meeting, I wonder if maybe it also means my Church should stop- routinely- showing up late to the marketplace of ideas, should stop tarrying so long in the past that it misses present cultural trends, only to belatedly make an appeal for ‘relevance’ that inevitably smacks desperately of just the opposite?

Alright so I’m a Tamed Cynic, but I’m still a cynic. How can I not be?

For example,  the United Methodist Church has recently jumped on the Bill O’Reilly ‘Take Back Christmas’/Mike Slaughter ‘Christmas Is Not Your Birthday’/Emergent Church ‘Advent Conspiracy’ bandwagon….several years behind the curve.

Before you know it we’ll be putting ‘Lord I Lift Your Name on High’ in our hymnals…oh wait…never mind.

If the UMC truly wanted to get ahead of the curve, we’d ditch the Heifer Project model and praise regular ole materialistic gift-giving as a way both to boost the economy and model the inner life of the Trinity in which Father, Son and Spirit are constantly exchanging gift and grace to one another (maybe that’s a bit heady for Xmas).

Macro-picture rant: the very suggestion we should Reclaim/Take Back Christmas implies that everyone who celebrates ‘Christmas’ (ie, the culture) is Christian. That lie, and it always was a lie, died sometime during the Ike Administration if not at Plymouth Rock. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God revealed in the flesh of a peasant baby to a shamed teenage mother in a small pocket of the globe to the very least of society and was ignored, written-off or outright rejected by…people like you and me.

Not to mention the whole Reclaim/Take Back language suggests none of us participate or encourage the very capitalist system from which we need to rescue Christmas (as if Jesus needed our rescuing…).

So let everyone do what they will at Xmas time. Maybe we Christians should just worry about how we- not others- celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.

Anyways, here’s a post I could’ve written myself by a Jesus Lover/Cynic after my own heart:

Am I the only one who is shaking my head at what our friends at Rethink Church are doing this season? The marketing arm of the United Methodist Church is now joining in the battle to “Reclaim Christmas.” It was bad enough that the whole Rethink Church thing happened at almost exactly at the same time that famous chicken join (not the homophobic one) launched their “Unthink” campaign in the same font and colors.

It is quite possible that the words “rethink” and “Christmas” put together are almost as tired and loaded as “Christmas” is by itself. No comment yet from evangelical publishing house Zondervan who started using this marketing gimmick on Facebook in 2009. Or from Benjamin Husted and family who wrote a book about it in 2006. Or from Keep Christmas Alive who started it in 2005. Or the RETAILERS (you get that?) who tried to do the same in 1999.

One ally may be a woman that I helped by loading her groceries in her car in 1993. She had this bumper sticker on her 1977 Plymouth. I’d imagine she is delighted. But she’s also likely dead, and the bumper sticker had little chance of surviving the Cash for Clunkers purge.

It is fitting for my church to be 20 years behind on this, because it is on everything else, too.

Seriously friends, what do we really need to “reclaim” about Christmas? For years, I’ve been one of those jerks who has been saying that if we need to reclaim anything it is Advent. It is impossible to understand what a “Christ” celebration means without also understanding why Christ came and will come again. It is impossible to get what the incarnation means without examining that for which your spirit and all creation longs.

Let the kids have Christmas. Let it be a cultural thing. Let Macy’s decorate their store windows on Halloween. Let the city put up a giant tree on public property. Sing trite songs about other dead and gone things like sleigh bells and Yul Brynner Yule logs. And have fun with it.

But, if we are going to claim to be followers of Jesus, we also must know our Christ. And a marketing campaign isn’t going to make that happen any more than “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” made the UMC open and affirming of all people. So let’s save the clever stuff for people selling cars and bunless chicken sandwiches, and let’s get back to the business at hand: promoting personal piety and spreading scriptural holiness. Like Advent, that is something worth reclaiming.

Here’s the full post.

There’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” Despite how often people quote this, it’s stupid.

It’s attributed to St Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, points out that ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

But that’s not the Gospel. 

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do.

The Gospel’s a message about what we could /can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident. 

The Gospel requires preaching or, rather, proclamation. As scripture says, salvation comes by ‘hearing.’ Good works are the fruit of hearing the Gospel; they are not the Gospel.

Part of me fears Francis’ quote is so popular in the Methodist world because we’ve lost the ability and the boldness to proclaim, in pulpits and in every day speech, the Gospel. The cliche has become, for us, an excuse. (And part of me wonders if our denominational inability to communicate the Gospel is what has led to us being behind the curve in communicating via social media.)

But with all due respect to Francis, the message about the Word become flesh very definitely and even primarily requires words.

According to the WSJ, researchers at Michigan State: perfectionism “appears to be greatly due to genetic risk factors as well as the unique experiences people have outside the home.”

 

So the reason I cannot- absolutely cannot, under no circumstances, no matter how long it takes me to rewrite everything- have any scratched out words or misspellings or edits-to-be on my sermon manuscripts, to do lists or planning calendars isn’t just by quirk of personality it’s because my mom is/was a perfectionist the nth degree. I’m hard-wired that way.

 

But perhaps I’m hard-wired that way not just by virtue of genetics. Or rather maybe my genetic code alone doesn’t get all the way to the bottom of the matter.

Perhaps I’m hard-wired by the Almighty to desire almighty-like things.

 

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, took many of his theological cues from Eastern Orthodox Christianity rather than Western (Catholic and Calvinist) models.  Whereas Western Christians, at times believing more in sin than grace, have traditionally taken a dim view of human nature and the goodness of which we’re capable, Eastern Christians have typically argued that ‘grace works.’ Namely, the operation of the Spirt upon us cleanses us of our sin nature and fashions us more and more into the image of God which God originally desired.

 

Wesley termed this process, which is really the work of the Christian life, ‘sanctification,’ our growing in holiness that has as its destination or outcome ‘perfection.’ The Orthodox call this ‘divinization.’ Methodists are people who believe that we’re not simply sinners and that’s how we stay. Methodists believe we can with God’s help become perfect in love as Jesus was perfect in love.

 

So then, maybe we’re hard-wired towards perfectionism because we’re made in the image of God who is perfect and the Spirit, by hook or by crook, is nudging us along towards that God who is perfect.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

We Are What We Love?

Jason Micheli —  September 10, 2012 — 1 Comment

Think about it this: If I say I love my wife, Ali, but you witness no actions, passions or behavior that affirms this then you would conclude I don’t really love her. Right?

Yet how often do we accept the exact opposite when it comes to someone who says they love God or Jesus?

How often do we accept as legitimate the faith of those who say they believe in God but give no evidence of love in their lives- love for God or for others?

We’re in the midst of our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that  Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.

But why ideas? It’s common to reduce Christianity to a system of beliefs, but it hasn’t always and wasn’t originally so.

St Augustine of Hippo was a 5th century theologian and bishop of North Africa. In response to the fall of Rome, which many Romans blamed on Christianity and which was an almost inconceivable event at the time, Augustine wrote a long work of theology entitled The City of God.

 

In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city. Interestingly, according to Augustine, what distinguishes citizens of the two cities is not beliefs but love.

 

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God. For Augustine, and I would argue for the scriptures, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs. As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me from the ground up; it’s what I love.

Look at the creation story in Genesis.

Jews and Christians have always taught that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. In other words, God didn’t need to create. Father, Son and Spirit didn’t need us because God was incomplete without us or because God was lonely.

No, creation is grace all the way down. God makes us for no other reason but to share God’s love and life. Creation is the joy and love God has within God spilled over.

In Genesis we are made for no other reason but to love God.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

Look at the Sermon on the Mount, the crux of Jesus’ earthly teaching.

Standing on top of the mountain, preaching to the crowds but speaking to his disciples, Jesus uses not the language of belief or ideas. Jesus speaks in the language of desire: ‘Blessed are those who mourn for you will rejoice. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake…’

It’s the language of want Jesus uses to form his people.

It’s possible to persuade me rationally. You may logically convince me. But until you’ve gotten me to want differently, until you’ve redirected my love and desire, you’ve not changed me.

And I am still far from being a disciple.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England, called such Christians ‘almost Christians.’ For Wesley, believing in Jesus was a pale imitation of what we were made for: having the love of God ‘shed abroad in our hearts.’

For Wesley, like St Augustine, since we are made to love God and be directed towards God, to be a disciple is not about having right ideas. Being a disciple is about becoming the kind of person who loves rightly- who desires God and loves neighbor and is directed beyond oneself towards the world in love.

 

Maybe it’s always been the case and I’ve simply not noticed it, but lately I’ve taken a lot of crap (fairly?) for criticizing my alma ecclesia, the United Methodist Church. Honestly, it’s not hard. Critiquing the several-decades- too-late- and-many-dollars-short UMC is like Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes to a besotted night club audience. If the crap I’ve taken is fair so is, I believe, the crap I’ve given. After all, we Methodists are predictable, sentimental and pop-cliche. In typical modernist fashion, we’re enamored with bureaucracy, meaningless legislative gestures and the latest fads which might appeal to seekers- which is impressive since we’re also impervious to change and innovation, allergic to accountability and unaware of genuine cultural trends.

I often point out how our terminology for church governance betrays how we traded in the Gospel for Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead of a diocese (a nice churchy word) we have a district, as though we worked for Dunder Mifflin. Instead of an archdiocese we have a conference, like the ACC. Instead of a proud episcopacy, we have a superintendents, just like the public school system, which ironically is also an unwieldy outdated bureaucracy.

But maybe that’s harsh :)

Given my usual prickly posture of critique, I thought I’d offer up an unusual praise. As you may know, I’m reading NT Wright’s, How God Became King. Here’s a previous entry.

Wright’s thesis is that Christians in the West have historically and categorically misread the Gospels. We’ve read them through the cipher of the creeds and our prejudicial understanding of Paul. We’ve read them as modern liberals and conservatives. As a consequence, we’ve missed how the Gospels all attempt to tell a WHOLE story not isolated teachings or vignettes. They attempt to tell the story of how the God of Israel became, in Jesus Christ, King on Earth as he is in Heaven. Wright’s thesis is one that puts ascension not crucifixion or resurrection as the climax to the tale. It’s one that marries worship and social witness in a way I think the usual liberal and conservative options miss.

And that’s where Methodism- actually John and Charles Wesley- come in. Wright cites Wesley as a rare example in the history of the Western Church who ‘got’ both the experience of loving God in one’s heart (worship) and practicing that love in a life of loving neighbor by serving the poor and advocating for justice.

I think Wright’s reading of the tradition is correct as is his identification of this Wesleyan synthesis as we Methodists’ true treasure.

 

 

 

 

 

The Jawbone of an A%$

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2012 — 2 Comments

We’re doing a sermon series this August on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ As part of the series, I’m posting some old sermons on random, bizarre stories of the bible. Here’s one from Judges 15. Turns out, Samson’s not the savory character we make him out to be when teaching his story to children. 

Judges 15

“With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps (of bodies), with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.”

     This is the Word of the Lord?

 

Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will not stop until I have taken revenge on you.”

This is God’s Word?

 

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a closet Calvinist. So I know the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

 

That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.

 

In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.

 

And most of the time I believe that.

But today I wonder.

I wonder about scripture like:

Samson said: when I do evil to the Philistines, I will be without blame…

So he struck them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”

I wonder how this is (or ever was) God’s Word?

The Book of Judges could be the book of the bible people have in mind when they say dismissive things like: ‘The Old Testament- it’s so bloody and violent.” 

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that the tribe of Judah- the People of God- kill ten thousand Canaanites and then celebrate their victory by cutting off the thumbs and toes of the Canaanite leader.

 

The Judge Gideon is well-known for the 300 trumpets that give God’s People a surprising victory over the Midianites. Not as well known is that Gideon later slaughters a whole city of his own people out of rage.

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that Abimelech, Gideon’s son, executes all seventy of his brothers on the same altar stone.

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that Jephthah burns his daughter, his only child, alive to honor a victory God gave him over the Ammonites.

 

That’s all in the Book of Judges, God’s Word.

 

And it’s in the Book of Judges that Samson, the hero of children’s stories, first kills 30 after losing a wedding feast bet; then kills even more for the death of his wife and father-in-law; then kills 1,000 of the Philistines who try to capture him; and finally kills over 3,000 in a dying act of revenge.

 

I don’t know what they told you in Sunday School, but Samson is like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener and Tony Soprano rolled into one.

 

Samson’s story is blood-soaked and sordid, it’s seedy and salacious. Samson’s sinful and selfish and, ultimately, a failure.

 

But that’s not how his story was supposed to go.

 

His birth announcement came by way of angelic annunciation. When the angel gives his mother the good news, the angels tells her that her son is to be set apart- just as God wants his People to be set apart from the idolatrous peoples around them.

 

So, her son is to drink no wine, to touch nothing unclean and to cut not a hair from his head. Her son is to deliver Israel from the Philistines who rule over them. That’s what it meant to be a judge.

 

After Samson grows, the Spirit of the Lord stirs in him; the Spirit of the Lord blesses him; the Spirt of the Lord gifts him with great strength.

 

But being blessed by God and fulfilling God’s will for your life are not the same thing.

 

Rather than being set apart, Samson sets his sights after a Philistine woman that catches his eye.

And when she’s given to another man, it sets off a spiral of vengeance that consumes him.

Samson sets fire to the city’s grain and crops and vineyards and olive groves. He ruins their whole economy, and they determine to ruin him. The Philistines retaliate by setting fire to the woman and her father.

 

For the two lives they take, Samson takes a great many more lives until, finally, blinded and shorn of his hair and bound in chains, Samson kills himself and takes 3,000 others with him.

 

‘So those Samson killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.’

     That’s how Samson’s story ends.

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

How?

What are we supposed to do with this scripture? What are we meant to learn from this scripture? How are we to believe God can speak through this scripture?

 

     Perhaps, notes one biblical scholar, Samson’s story is meant to be a cautionary one. According to this biblical scholar, Samson illustrates “the challenges of God’s People remaining faithful in a hostile culture.”

Thus Samson is consecrated to not drink a drop of wine and instead he drinks himself into a violent rage.

Thus Samson is consecrated to never touch anything that is ritually unclean and instead he cannot keep his hands off of Philistine women.

Thus Samson is consecrated to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, but the Israelites prefer the Philistines and they betray Samson into the enemy’s hands.

So perhaps the Word God wants us to hear in this story is a word of caution about living in a culture that doesn’t share our values. Perhaps.

But then what lesson are we to draw from the fact that Samson all but annihilates that culture with his final act of revenge?

Or maybe, argues another biblical commentator, God gives us Samson’s story to function like an allegory.

According to this biblical commentator, Samson signifies all of Israel. And so Samson’s promiscuity with the Philistine woman from Timnah, and after her with a Philistine prostitute, and after her with Delia- Samson’s promiscuity symbolizes Israel’s religious infidelity.

And the way God’s Spirit comes to Samson again and again and again when he least deserves it is a metaphor for how God can’t help but be faithful to God’s People.

So it’s kind of like Amazing Grace but with a much higher body count.

In his commentary on the Book of Judges, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said we should see Samson as a Christ-figure.

There’s the fact that his birth is announced by an angel to an unlikely mother-to-be- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that from the day of his birth he’s set apart to bring deliverance to his people- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and anoints him for God’s purpose- just like Jesus.

And he’s betrayed by his own people- just like Jesus.

He’s bound and handed over to his enemies- just like Jesus.

He’s tortured- just like Jesus.

He dies with his arms outstretched- just like Jesus.

And with the jawbone of a donkey he slays a thousand men- just like…no, wait.

Far be it from me to critique John Wesley, but he doesn’t answer the question any better than the biblical scholars do.

How is this God’s Word for us?

 

     On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten children, killing five and then killing himself. The Amish community’s display of forgiveness, in the aftermath, became an international story.

Not as well-known is that eight days before the school shooting, in a neighboring Amish community in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, twelve-year-old Emmanuel King left his home around 5:30, as he did most mornings, to help a neighboring Amish family milk their cows.

He rode his scooter out his family’s mile-long farm lane and turned right onto Georgetown Road. As he rounded a slight turn, an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line, struck little Emmanuel and threw him to the far side of the road.

The truck hit a fence post and sped away.

The next day, a reporter covering the hit-and-run accident went to Emmanuel’s home, but what the reporter found was not what he had expected- a gracious spirit toward the woman whom police considered and later confirmed to be the hit-and-run suspect.

Emmanuel’s mother was grief-stricken but nevertheless wanted to convey a message to the woman: “She should come here. We would like to see her,” she told the reporter. “We hold nothing against her. We would like to tell her we forgive her.”

When the driver read the newspaper headline, ‘A Boy’s Death, a Family’s Forgiveness,’ she did a surprising thing: she went to the King family home to receive their words of forgiveness. She returned again for Emmanuel’s viewing and again for his funeral. Over the next several weeks she came back three more times and, later, she bought a new scooter for the children on what would have been Emmanuel’s thirteenth birthday.

When a reporter asked a family member why they would forgive the woman who killed their son and left him dead in the ditch, the reporter was told: “Because when you forgive, you’re the one set free.”

 

When you forgive, you are the one who is set free.

That’s it.

Even though Samson can break any bonds they bind him with; even though he can pull down the pillars of a palace; even though he can shake off any shackles they snap on him- Samson’s never really free.

He’s never really free because he never stops being a prisoner to the wrong that was done to him. He never stops being captive to thinking he’s without blame. He never escapes the urge to ‘do to them as they did to me.’

He’s never really free because Samson was a Judge for twenty years, yet when he dies, even after his eye-for-an-eye ways have left him blind, he dies praying vengeance for a wrong that by then is twenty years old.

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve solicited your religious questions to help shape our fall sermon series. And many of your questions have been just what I would expect.

There have been questions about heaven and hell, salvation and people of other religions, faith and science, and homosexuality.

But what’s surprised me is that more so than any other question, you all have asked me questions about forgiveness:

What exactly is forgiveness?

How do I forgive?

How do I know if I’ve really forgiven my ex-husband?

If I tell my mom I forgive her for her drinking do the words mean forgiveness has happened or is something else required?

Do I have to forgive the person who abused me?

My brother hasn’t apologized for what he’s done to our family. Is it possible to forgive someone who doesn’t apologize?

How can I forgive God for my child’s cancer?

Are there conditions for forgiveness?

Is it ever too late to forgive?

 

Maybe God gives us this scripture because Samson hits closer to home than we think.

Sure, Samson torches the tails of foxes, but plenty of you know what its like to set off land mines in your marriages.

Sure, Samson sets fire to vineyards and olive groves, but plenty of you know what its like to burn and smolder with anger.

Samson slays with a jawbone, but plenty of you know what its like to grab after any word you can find to hurt someone who hurt you.

You know what its like to be convinced you’re the one without blame.

You know what its like to say they did it to me first, they have it coming, they deserve what they get.

Sure, Samson pulls down the pillars of a palace, but he’s not the only one who’s nursed a resentment for twenty years.

He’s not the only one whose life got derailed, whose gifts from God got wasted, whose purpose in life went unfulfilled because of a wrong that went unforgiven.

Samson hits close to home.

So I want you to know-

Even though he can tear a lion in half with his bare hands; even though he can slay one thousand men with a jawbone, even though he can shrug off chains like they were melted wax- Samson’s actually incredibly weak.

Even though he had the strength to bring down the walls of a castle- Samson never had the strength to forgive.

Because with his dying breath, Samson prays for revenge.

But with his dying breath before he gives up his Spirit, Jesus Christ prays ‘Father, forgive them for they know not  what they do.’ 

     If you think Samson is stronger then you haven’t lived.

Because:

To bear the cost yourself of a wrong done to you takes strength.

To refuse to make someone pay for what they did to you takes strength.

To refrain from lashing out at someone when that’s all you want to do takes strength.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness hurts.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness can feel like agony.

It takes incredible strength because that sort of forgiveness will only add to your suffering.

To give up all the anger, to sacrifice every justification you’re entitled to, to absorb the pain done to you rather than pass it on, that is suffering.

But with Jesus Christ as my witness, it’s the only suffering that leads to Resurrection.

Because when you forgive, you’re the one who’s set free.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Amen.