Resurrection Essentials: Room for Doubt?

A couple of weeks ago I along with many others witnessed an incredible car crash.  A county police car barreled directly into the passenger side door of a black four door sedan, where a boy on a coach pitch baseball team was sitting. The driver, blinded by the sun, made a left turn to go into the park directly into the path of the police cruiser that was traveling at least 45 miles an hour.  The police officer probably didn’t even have time to hit the brakes until after impact if at all. There were no skid marks on the road, at least that I remember.

I actually only saw the immediate aftermath when my attention was drawn that way by what sounded like a cannon going off. It was all quite surreal as the baseball park with kids and coaches practicing on several different fields went completely silent before screams of horror consumed the silence.  Amazingly, both the boy and the driver only suffered minor injuries.   The boy a bump on the head and a cut from a small piece of glass on the forehead, the driver a couple of broken bones, which is bad enough, but it all could have been so much worse.

Already since then I’ve noticed that people recollecting the story of what happened don’t all tell it in exactly the same way.  The details of what people remember are different, and it seems mostly due to the fact that different people focused on different aspects of the event. Some of the differences undoubtedly may be due to faulty memories or different ways of interpreting the events based on previous experiences.  What I described as something that sounded like a cannon going off, someone else may have described as sonic boom.  Immediate interpretations of why this crash had happened may have differed as well. Some, probably very few if any, may have actually seen the collision as it happened, but most people, including me, only saw the immediate aftermath after we heard the sound.  I initially wondered whether the police car had intentionally ran the black sedan off the road in a high speed chase.  Too much “Smoky and the Bandit” I guess! It didn’t take long for me to dismiss that wild theory though.  The testimony of those actually involved cleared that up pretty quickly.

Even with all the differing descriptions and the fact that nobody probably saw the actual crash itself, I have met no one who insists that there was really no car crash after all, and that the couple of hundred people there just had a psychological, “spiritual” experience.

As William Lane Craig so aptly demonstrates (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NAOc6ctw1s) and N.T. Wright (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqc7–CaCpM) so thoroughly reveals (see also his book “The Resurrection of the Son of God”), the earliest followers of Jesus insisted on the following facts: 1. Jesus was crucified and buried. 2. His Tomb was found empty early on the first day of the week. 3. They saw and conversed with him alive again in bodily form. 4. Because of these things they believed that he was in fact raised from the dead.  As Craig and Wright show that they believed these things is a fact of history and the best explanation for why they believed so deeply, to the risk, and in many cases the actual loss of their, own lives, is because it was true.  Despite the fact that no one actually saw what happened in the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, from the facts surrounding the event they concluded that something actually did happen in the tomb, namely that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Yes, the stories that were told afterwards differed in some details, but the four versions that we have in the gospels all agree one major point as the explanation for why the tomb was empty and why his earliest followers, first the women such as Mary Magdalene, then all but one of the twelve apostles whom he had chosen, and a few hundred others (1 Cor. 15:6) all saw him alive in flesh and bone (Luke 24:39).  They insisted that he was actually bodily raised from the dead.

Then as now, especially in the Greco-Roman world, this was difficult to believe.  Not that someone might continue on in some sort of “spiritual” existence, if you will, but that the dead could actually be raised to live again forever in flesh and bone.  Many Jews, but not all, held out a hope of resurrection, but not pagans.

That’s why some of the Gentile converts in Corinth began to doubt and flat-out deny the possibility of resurrection.  In response, the apostle Paul wrote what we now know as 1 Corinthians 15.  Paul was a devout Pharisee and at one time a mortal enemy of Christianity before he encountered the risen Jesus while on his way to carry out persecution against Christians in Damascus (see Acts 9; also Galatians 1).  He would become the most prolific proponent of the Christian faith throughout the Mediterranean world.  He was called by Jesus himself to be an apostle to the Gentiles within 5 to 7 years of the crucifixion.  He spent time conferring with and learning from Jesus first followers such as Peter, and Jesus’ half-brother, James, who apparently only became a follower after Jesus’ resurrection. Paul reminded the Corinthians, who were denying the physical resurrection of Jesus probably in exchange for a more “acceptable” spiritualized version, of the content of the faith that he received from Jesus’ first followers and his brother, James: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to a few hundred people (see 1 Cor 15:3-8).

He insists that the resurrection, which has to do with bodies, is the linchpin of the Christian faith, without which it makes no sense, and actually makes liars of the first apostles (1 Cor 15:12-34).   In other words, a faith without the bodily resurrection is an empty faith.   The resurrection as a physical event is essential to the Christian faith.

In spite of Paul’s clear assertions in 1 Corinthians, a Yale student at a William Lane Craig lecture said that one of his professors marked him down and chastised him on a paper in which he interpreted 1 Corinthians 15:4’s phrase “raised on the third day” as meaning raised from the dead. How silly of him! According to the student, the professor remarked that “raised” could be interpreted to mean something other than bodily resurrection from the dead, such as the inspiration of Jesus’ teaching and example in the disciples’ hearts.  The student said the professor even went so far as to say that Paul never says “raised from the dead.”  Rudolph Bultmann and John Shelby Spong might be proud, but not the apostle Paul, John or Luke.

All one need do is continue reading the rest of 1 Corinthians 15 to see that raised is obviously shorthand for raised from the dead and the later part of it shows that it definitely has to do with bodies, no doubt transformed bodies, but still bodies nonetheless.  Other New Testament accounts make it clear as well that Jesus was raised from the dead so that his body was no longer in the tomb, and that his first disciples touched and felt his flesh and bones and saw him consume physical food in a very physical way (see Luke 24:39; John 20:27; see also Matthew 28 where “raised” is a couple of verses later defined to mean “raised from the dead”).  How important is it that we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead leaving an empty tomb behind after his body was revivified and transformed into an immortal and incorruptible, yet still physical body?

Romans 10:9 indicates that it makes an eternal life and death difference.  “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (ESV).

Sound like it’s really important, doesn’t it?  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3, it’s one of those things that is of first importance.  One’s very salvation depends on it.

As the student’s professor above (if the student was conveying what was said accurately, as I’m aware that sometimes a student might misunderstand a professor) insisted that Paul never says ”raised from the dead”, I had a professor who, apparently to promote universalism, insisted that for Paul there was no “if/then propositions when it comes to salvation.  I immediately thought of a couple verses right off the top of my head, and Romans 10:9 was the very first one. Ironically, it also shows that the “if/then” proposition has one’s very salvation in mind and the implied “then” side of the proposition also includes the belief in the resurrection from the dead in addition to confession that Jesus is Lord.

So not only is the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead an essential for the Christian faith, it is also necessarily an essential belief for one to be saved.  We see this move in “doubting Thomas” who after finally believing, even though in his case it was after seeing with his eyes, he confesses with his mouth regarding Jesus, “My Lord and My God!”.  Why is this belief so essential?

Quite simply because without it one will still cling to the very life that Jesus insists one must lose in order to save (see Mark 8; Matthew 6 & 16; Luke 9 & 17 etc.). Remain in doubt about the resurrection of Jesus, which is the guarantee of the disciple’s own future resurrection, and we will still be in bondage to the fear of death, the fear of losing one’s life or livelihood (see Heb 2:14-15).  The threat of death, the greatest weapon of the evil one and the worldly tyrants that he inspires, keeps the fearful conformed to this evil age that is passing away rather than living as citizens of the age to come as fully as possible in the here and now.  It is this that keeps people on the futile treadmill of the courses of this world, still dead in sin and trespasses (See Eph 2).  It is the resurrection, the actual event, and the resurrection only that has the power to deliver us from this fear that keeps us clinging to our sinful nature that is perfectly suited for this world but completely incompatible with the world to come, the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21).

Does this mean there is no room for doubt?  No there isn’t, but there is a porch.  Doubt is inevitably the prelude to faith, but it shouldn’t be the main theme of one’s “faith” and life in Christ.  Doubt may be the porch, and maybe it even makes its way into the foyer, but it doesn’t get comfortable in the living room and take up permanent residence in the bedroom.  In some progressive circles it seems that it’s the other way around. They seem to want to keep people comfortable with doubt so they provide sleeping bags for the porch and don’t mention some of the more compelling reasons for coming on in to the house to join the rest of the family of God.

Barbara Brown Taylor is only bringing some sweet tea to the front porch when she says, “What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was.  That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening, not in the empty tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.”  If there was no miracle in the tomb then there would be no encounter with the living Lord, because he would not be living but still dead.  What happened in the tomb is no mystery for those who will simply believe what the New Testament says over and over and over again.  God raised Jesus from the dead, which N.T. Wright spent about 800 pages trying to explain, must mean that God reanimated and transformed the dead mortal and corruptible body of Jesus of Nazareth into the immortal and incorruptible body of Jesus, the risen Lord of all (see N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”).

empty tomb

Eventually, as Jesus told Thomas, we must move from doubting to believing (John 20:27), from believing that the resurrection is a remote but unlikely possibility in the back of the mind, to believing that God raised Jesus from the dead from the bottom of the heart.  Then and only then, like Thomas (John 20:28), we will be moved to confess that Jesus is Lord and so be saved, set free from this evil age that is passing away and transformed into a new humanity, a new creation in Christ Jesus fit for God’s new creation that began with the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead on that first day of the week long ago.  What do you say? Want to get off the porch and come on into the house?  The door is unlocked and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the key.

A Prayer for Our Church

I have been praying this prayer in some form or fashion for nearly 2 years.   I invite you to join me, should you be so led.

Image

 

God, grant us a spirit of repentance.   Help us to see our sin as you see it, and to turn away from that which displeases you.

God, help us to fear you.  Forgive us for running our lives and our churches as though you are not the Judge standing at the door.   Instill in us a holy fear of you, O God, that we would tremble once more at your word and know you as holy and righteous.

God, humble us.  Bring us down, Lord.  Forgive us for our prideful hearts and polished tongues.  Forgive us for not putting the needs of others before our own.  Forgive us for being more suspicious of your word than we are our own desires, thoughts, feelings and theologies.

God, bring revival to our churches!  Cleanse us from all impurity and unrighteousness and bring a holy fire upon us, one that will transform each and every person from the inside out.   Let our churches be places filled with the Holy Spirit, that all who enter these doors may know they are in the presence of a holy and loving God, one who has the power and desire to make us not better, but new.   Create in us clean hearts, and renew a right spirit within us.

God, may our churches be overflowing with people hungry and thirsty.  May they have hearts soft and ready to hear the good news of the gospel, and may our pulpits be filled with preachers on fire for Jesus, eager to see souls saved.  Let our altars be lined with new converts falling over one another to get closer to the cross, and may we all grow up together, maturing in Christ, that you may present us all holy and blameless before Your Father in heaven.   Restore in us all a spirit of dependence, that we would want no other food than that which your hand provides.

And God, let all this begin in me.   Today. This hour, and forevermore.

In the precious, wonderful name of Jesus I ask this.  Amen.

 

Why Did Jesus Die? Human Sin and Divine Love in Romans by Cliff Wall

It’s Good Friday, and tonight many Christians are reflecting on the death of Jesus. Why did Jesus die? Did he have to die? What does it all mean? Here’s a thought based on some profound truths from the book of Romans.

Romans 10:4 says that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (NRSV). “End” here shouldn’t be understood as abolishment but as fulfillment, aim, or goal. Jesus the Messiah, in other words, completed the purpose of the law. Romans 7:13 makes it clear that the good law of God was given to expose sin in all its hideousness.

Romans 7:13 “Did what is good (here referring to the law), then bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (NRSV)

Here Paul tells us that one of the purposes of the law was to expose sin, to lure it from the blind spots in the human heart that keep us in the dark as to our true nature, desperately wicked and rebellious against our Creator. Indeed then, the purpose of much of scripture would not be to reveal the heart and character of God so much as to reveal the heart and character of humanity, including you and me. Christ being the aim or fulfillment of the law then would be to expose sin in the clearest terms possible.

Jesus death on the cross was where the forces of sin and death working in the hearts of Jews and Gentiles together, representing all of sinful humanity, conspired together to snuff out the light of love and truth that had come into the world (John 3:19). The cross of Christ reveals the wickedness of a world that loves darkness more than light, lies rather than truth, and would rather murderously push God out of this world on a cross than submit to God’s law.

The cross reveals most clearly the hostility that we have for God and our refusal to submit to God’s law in our own nature (see Rom 8:7). The law, especially “the end of the law” nailed to the cross, shows us who we truly are when left to our own devices, and it ain’t pretty.

Cana Nazareth Btahny Jerusalem etc 087

However the cross also reveals something even more astonishing than that. It also reveals the amazing love of God in Christ who would die for the forgiveness of the very ones who snuffed him out. Christ life wasn’t really taken from him. Instead he freely offered it as an atoning sacrifice to satisfy the very righteous wrath of God that a wicked and rebellious humanity had provoked. The cross reveals the desperate wickedness of a world that would rather murder God than live with Him, but it also reveals the love of a God Who would rather die than live without us.

Romans 5:6-11 (NRSV)
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:20 tells us that the giving of the law resulted in the increase of sin. Nevertheless because of the amazing love and grace of God “where sin increased (and it increased to its strongest point on the cross), grace abounded all the more (right there in the very same spot, the cross of Calvary). It is on the cross that we see the full extent of human wickedness, and it’s on the very same cross that we see the fullest expression of God’s love. In one and the same place, there on the cross, we have the greatest opportunity to repent of our sin and by faith receive the forgiveness and salvation of God.

The Blood of Jesus Saved a Wretch Like Me

Originally posted on Desire Mercy:

You won’t be free until you see the cross of Jesus Christ for what it truly is.   This is why St. Paul said that he desired to know and preach nothing else besides Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).  The words of that wonderful hymn are true:

Would you be free from your burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood
Would you o’er evil the victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood

The writer of Hebrews says this about Jesus, our sacrifice:  “He entered once for all in the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscious from dead works to serve the…

View original 792 more words

The Choice

This Holy Week we reflect on the final days of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his resurrection from the dead.  We began with the triumphal entry of our Lord, a humble servant King, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a crowd shouted, “Hosanna!”  We recall his zeal for God’s house as he overturned the tables of money-changers in the temple, chastising them for turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves.  We remember how he spent his time teaching and healing, challenging the religious authorities and being challenged by them, how he shared his last Passover meal intimately with his disciples, washed their feet as an example of the way they were to love one another, and transformed that final meal into a holy commemoration of his self-sacrificial love.  We travel with him and the disciples to the Mount of Olives and down through the Kidron valley and into a garden where he was arrested by guards who were led to him by one of his closest disciples, Judas.  We stand outside of Caiaphas’ house with Peter as he denies his Lord at the same time that he is being condemned by the chief priests.  Soon, and only after Jesus’ has endured much mockery and abuse, we find ourselves in another crowd that is presented with an incredible decision between two men, both named Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas.  Which Jesus would they choose?

Jesus_or_barabbas2-1.57174557_std

In some older translations the fact that Barabbas, which means the son of Abbas in Hebrew and Aramaic, wasn’t this man’s full name is lost. Apparently some early Christian scribes didn’t care for the name Jesus, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, “Joshua”, which means the Lord saves, being shared by the convicted, murderous revolutionary who was known as Barabbas.  Nevertheless, many textual critics including the translators of the NRSV and NIV feel confident that Barabbas’ full name included, “Jesus” as well.

So, as Jesus of Nazareth stood there beside Jesus Barabbas, Pilate gave the crowd a stark choice.  One would be condemned to die a shameful death on a Roman cross; the other would be set free. One would be rejected, the other accepted.  As we know the crowd chose to set Jesus Barabbas free They chose a man of war over the prince of peace, a violent revolutionary who would take matters into his own hands over the one who would commend his very life into the hands of God but not before placing the very enemies who had condemned him in the awesome but merciful hands of his Father in heaven.

Barabbas was a warrior who would call down curses on the heads of his hated enemies.  Jesus was a humble servant who would call upon his followers to bless those who cursed them and pray for those who persecuted them and to love all, even those who hated and reviled them. The crowd chose a man of action over a man of prayer, a man of the people over the man of God.  The choice was stark indeed, and the consequences fatal, but more so for Temple and the city of Jerusalem that surrounded it and those in the mold of Barabbas, who would die violently just a few short decades to come, than for Jesus of Nazareth.  Of course it was fatal for Jesus as well, fatal, but not final because God raised him from the dead, vindicating him and all those who would thereafter put their faith in him, as the true Savior and Lord.  The crowd, led by the Jewish religious leaders thought they had pronounced the condemnation on the Nazarene, but in actuality they had pronounced their own, a judgment that would be carried out by the war machine that was the Roman Empire in 70 A.D and completed several decades later.

They made the wrong decision!  They chose the wrong Jesus!  What if we have as well?

In this I’m reminded that the apostle Paul warns about those who preach “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11:4).  This is a Jesus who is different from the one proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles, the earliest followers of Jesus.  It’s a Jesus preached by “super-apostles” as Paul quite sarcastically refers to them. In keeping with the Corinthians’ penchant for worldly wisdom and disdain for “God’s foolishness” (1 Cor 1:18-31), this other Jesus would most certainly be one who would be quite a bit more acceptable and respectable in the eyes of the Greco-Roman world.

Barabbas, in film at least, is quite often depicted as a rather unkempt ruffian, who was more like a rabid mad dog of sorts than someone who might be appointed as secretary of defense.  What if it was really more like the later?

images

It’s quite interesting to me that Barabbas is presented to the crowd by a key representative of what Paul calls, “principalities and powers” in Ephesians 6:12, and the crowd inspired by the religious authorities for reasons of political expediency selected him, a more acceptable and respectable Jesus for “the real world,” I suppose.

This temptation, the temptation to choose a more worldly and acceptable Jesus, never goes away.  Still today Jesus of Nazareth quite often is sold out for one who is appealing to the flesh and the wisdom of this world.  So we’re presented with one who looks more like a Marxist radical (Che-sus anyone?) or one who would definitely vote for the next Ronald Reagan of course, or maybe even one whose apostles are more in tune with the Pauls of Texas and Kentucky than Paul of Tarsus.  Are we more concerned that people follow us as we follow Christ or that they just follow us to the polls and vote like we would? If so we may have sold out Jesus of Nazareth for 30 pieces of silver a long time ago and voted to betray innocent blood with shouts of “crucify him! Crucify him!”

Conformity to this world (Rom 12:2) is strengthened by a Jesus in its own image and after its own heart.  Then when we are presented with a choice, a choice between a Jesus who is patterned after the wisdom and ways of this world verses the Jesus who came from and returned to the very heart of God, who will we choose?  Who have we chosen?  The Jesus who is savior but not Lord?  The Jesus who saves us in our sins? The Jesus who wants to watch us change the world, but can’t change the human heart?  The Jesus who came so that I could get everything I want even if it kills me and sends me to hell, or the one who died so that I can follow in his footsteps and give everything that I have for him?

I know that I made the wrong choice.  How about you?  I’ve been in that crowd and I was conformed to it.  The good news is that even after that crowd rejected him, even after his closest followers betrayed, abandoned, and denied him, while he hung on the cross to which they had him nailed, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).  God the Father, answered His Son’s prayer in the affirmative, “Yes, for thy sake I will.” He made the choice to forgive.  May we choose to repent and receive God’s forgiveness by accepting his one and only Son for Who He really is.

Father Forgive Them

Schism and the Judgment of God

We Methodists don’t do the judgment of God very well at times.   We often forget that God is intimately involved in our lives, down to the smallest detail and the grayest hair.   We forget that what we have is all from Him and that this Church we serve is His alone while we are mere stewards.   This is not unique to Methodists, of course, but this myopia seems especially apparent, at least to me,  in light of our current debates around schism.

Time and space won’t allow a rehash of all the debate.  But before arguments that our current unity is “untenable,” or wondering what is the biblical argument  for schism, or suggestions that breaking the covenant of our church is bad news, or various prayers for our church,  I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a word before these words which we are missing, one that directs our attention back to the judgment of God.  That word might sound something like this:

Schism is not something which invites God’s judgment.  It is God’s judgment.

My simple observation from reading God’s inspired story about Himself is that schism is God’s judgment, not an invitation for it.   Or to put a finer point on it, the visible, physical schism which happens in our world is a direct result, or judgment upon, our invisible, spiritual schism with God and each other.

Those on the right side of God’s commands have long been reticent of exercising church discipline and those on the wrong side have long been in rebellion, and you and I may insert ourselves on whichever side suits us.   And all of us have the audacity in the midst of  this to call ourselves “United,” the Body and Bride of Christ.   God will not be mocked nor will His Spirit strive with our disobedience forever.

From the beginning this has been a major theme of the story of God with us.  The unity our first parents enjoyed was ruptured when they disobeyed God’s directives, despite their reasoned attempts to circumvent them.   Physical schism was the result of spiritual schism, and they were cast out of the Garden.    We quickly move to Noah and the physical schism of the righteous from the wicked, a result of God’s judgment on the thoughts and intents of man’s hearts (Gen. 6:5).   Babel is next, where God judges the proud hearts of men by scattering them throughout the earth, fracturing their common tongue (Gen. 11).

Three times in Genesis 1-11 alone we find this principle to be true:   Schism is not something which invites God’s judgment, but is God’s judgment!   Later, God will divide up the unfaithful Hebrew people in the wilderness,, allowing most to die – even Moses –  rather than enter the Promised Land.   And again, later, the scattering of Israel because of their idolatry, sending them into exile.  God, in His sovereignty, used even pagan nations like Babylon or Assyria to bring about schism upon His people as a means of judgment.    Listen again to what God has to say to the House of Israel, those with whom He has made covenant:

“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’   (Jeremiah 18).

The point here is not to say the Church and Israel are one and the same.   It is to say that we fooling ourselves if we think that the current fracturing of our church is somehow taking God by surprise or is something we can stop if we would just pray for unity without an equal if not greater call for repentance.  God was clear to Jeremiah, as but one example, that those who are praying for peace have missed the point completely, and are the false prophets in the land.   He warns against those “who trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” (Jer. 7:4).   If God would not spare His holy Temple who are we to think God would spare the United Methodist Church?    Those who would say we must not allow schism for this will hurt God’s witness in the world I have to ask: Have you seen what God allowed to happen to His witness with Israel?  With the Temple?    God seems to care less about what the pagan world thinks of our institutional church unity than we do, particularly when that unity comes at the expense of our fidelity to Him.  

schism

We have not even considered here the words of Jesus, who said he came not to bring peace on earth but division (Luke 12:51).   Of course, these words come in the context of judgment and an exhortation for his hearers to interpret the times.     Are we interpreting the times?   Or have we so watered-down the sovereignty and judgment of God that we think that this talk of schism has come to Him as a surprise and He is somewhere distant, wringing His hands in hopes that we get this thing figured out so as to protect His witness?

The work of God in the universe rests upon our ability to maintain our cross and flame logo and pension funds?  God, make us humble!

“For it is time for judgment to begin in the household of God,” Saint Peter writes (1 Peter 4:17).   What might this judgment look like if it is not what we are already seeing? Our current talk of schism is not something which might invite God’s judgment of us, but is God’s judgment upon us.    Our only response to judgment  is to admit we have lost our way and repent.  The only course of action for a people who are witnessing fracture in God’s House is to acknowledge that this is judgment, not politics, and our only course of action is to allow our hearts to grow even harder or to repent and cry out to God for mercy.    Perhaps if we do this He will relent.  Perhaps not.   But whether we find ourselves united or in exile, above all else,  may we be found once again faithful.      

 

 

Progressive Christianity and the loss of a moral center

At this time three years ago I was somewhat famous.   After writing a blog piece about how I no longer believed in hell I was released by the United Methodist church I was serving as a student pastor.  My incessant blogging on matters which sought to build my public platform blinded me to the fact that I had a church full of flesh-and-blood people, real people versus pixel amens, who were losing faith in their shepherd with every word I typed.

My exit from the church gave me everything I thought I had wanted.  I was invited to do all sorts of radio and TV interviews, was part of a documentary called Hellbound? (don’t ask me if it’s any good, as I haven’t seen it), and got to rub shoulders with all the Christian celebrities I had grown to admire.

Being asked to speak at various Progressive, edgy, Christian conferences and camps introduced me to a community where I felt welcomed and at home.  I felt I had been abandoned by my evangelical or conservative family but had found a new one. A new “tribe.”

I thought it was so cool and refreshing to be part of a new “church” family who didn’t judge me for my beliefs or for what I did.  Having grown up in the holiness tradition with what I perceived to be nothing but rules and regulations it was quite liberating to now drink it up with various Christian authors and bloggers while at a Christian conference.  And no one seemed to mind.   It was cool to be part of an emerging Jesus movement which celebrated one of it’s prominent leaders choosing to live with his girlfriend and not marry until all gay persons had the same right.   We would laugh when I drew the dreaded first slot of the day to speak (9AM) at one conference because, we joked, most of the attendees would be hung-over and still in bed.   The crude language and joking which happened around the camp-fire outside the Patheos RV (famous for making “Patheos Punch”) late into the night reminded me of my Navy days where nothing was edited, nor sacred.

Morality

I had grown up believing that a large part of being a Christian was practicing self-control, being mindful of the words I spoke, taking care of the thoughts I had and that what I did with my body mattered.    But within progressive Christianity I found a tribe of people who followed Jesus yet didn’t expect anything of me nor question anything I said, thought, or did.

These festivals were like high-school parties I attended as a youth but with the addition of booths to visit during the day where we learned about how to build water wells in Africa or how conservatives are harming gay people.   We had a religion where Jesus cared deeply about the social sins of our day but not about the moral vapidness of our own hearts.  The former we judged ruthlessly, to judge the latter was sinful.

Even as I type this I marvel that this was so.   I have often wondered, looking back, what an alien visiting our planet would make of the Christian faith had it landed at one of these “Christian” conferences, or some other party, I mean, convention.   I’ve concluded that they would walk away thinking we looked like every other person on earth absorbed with themselves and their desires with the only difference being we’d been well trained at numbing our conscience by blogging that love wins or by telling ourselves we are defending the real Jesus.

Paul would have called us “carnal” Christians.   Had he done so at any of of these conferences,  (or perhaps at some of our Annual Conferences?), we would have called him an old stick-in-the-mud, a relic from a church world which we, with our enlightenment, have been liberated.  If Paul, or Jesus for that matter, walked into our party and used words like “repent,” or “sin,” or “holiness,” without attaching them to social evils (those things out there) but to our own hearts and minds, he would be called a Pharisee and blamed for the millenial evacuation of the church (which isn’t true, by the way).

I am convinced of this one truth:  That anyone who is in Christ is a NEW creation (2 Cor. 5:17)!   True Christians are not and never have been decent people gathering together around a common mission to transform the world but dead sinners made alive by the mercy of God.  They gather to learn how to walk in the paths of righteousness and holiness, putting off their old self and putting on a new one, thus bringing glory to God.    While this certainly will include digging water wells in Africa it also includes being made new and clean by the living water of Christ, transforming our hearts and minds in holiness.

And yet, this moral apathy, or rather, outright disdain towards personal morality, is rampant in Christian circles today.    So much so that the “new life” which the gospel promises to produce in those who truly know Jesus is hardly recognizable nor different from the lives of pagans.   In our rush to divorce ourselves from any vestiges of fundamentalism we have stampeded over the cliff of moral relativism.  Where is our moral center?

While I was deep in my own addiction to pornography and sex I found solace in this “tribe” because they did not judge me.  But solace is not salvation, and I needed to be saved, not assuaged.   My reason for distrusting the progressive movement both within our own denomination and the greater Church is not only because I find it mushy in matters of biblical authority but also, and perhaps especially, because I find it lacking an authoritative word calling me and the world out of our moral malaise.   I long for a church that once more remembers, as Karen Booth reminds us, to blush.   But what I want matters far less than what I believe the Holy Spirit wants.   Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.   Spin the word holiness however you like, but it must never be divorced from personal morality, and always must consist of a clear contrast between those who have put on the “new man” and those who are still deluded by the old.

Therefore, be imitators of God…sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Eph. 5:1-5).

Dear God, forgive us for thinking that what we say, what we think, and what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter to You.  Help restore our moral compass. Prick our hearts and reawaken our minds so that we would be sensitive again to the wickedness within us so that we would be once more driven to pursue holiness, without which we will not see You.  Amen.