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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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Learning to Speak Christian in Our First Family, the Church

Does it matter how Christians speak?

I recently had the opportunity to write for my own Western NC Conference blog, and this time I wrote a reflection on language and identity in the church.  My premise is that the church is our first family, and this identity is both established and maintained through language.  Just as a company, culture, or hobby has a particular language, so too does the church have its own distinct habits of speech and modes of thought.  If we give away the language, we give away everything.  To be a Christian is no less than to speak the language of the church.

Along the way, I draw on the work of Wabash theologian William Placher and his dialogue on postliberal theology with James Gustafson in this piece. You can find the full article here.  Thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Rich in the WNCC Communications Office for the chance to join a great group of bloggers, and thanks to you for reading!

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The 1st Business of the Church After the Inauguration

Oliver O’Donovan

How should the church respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump?

Most of us in the US, assuming you aren’t completely isolated, know people who are:

  • elated
  • terrified
  • indifferent
  • angry

It’s probable that a mix of these reactions will be seen and heard from pulpits, in liturgy, and in music on Sundays across America and the world.  The inauguration looms large on social media and around water coolers across the US. Which approach is right for the church?

A good place to start is this guidance from eminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan (we’ve looked at his work before), which I’ve borrowed, with an assist from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, from the good folks over at Mere Orthodoxy thanks to a tweet from Matthew Lee Anderson. From a 2010 interview:

Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

If O’Donovan is right that the forces of evil want most a kind of “feverish excitement” from God’s people, than evil must be winning.  The devil is an extremist, as Uncle Screwtape noted, and seems to be doing well in this extreme age.  This is why, O’Donovan notes, our “first business” as the church is to deny that adulterated worship.  This leads to his conclusion that, counterintuitively, “the most pointed political criticism” is to focus elsewhere.

For my own take, I don’t think this means completely ignoring momentous events like elections and inaugurations, but it does mean keeping the focus on where it should be – on the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what Stephen Covey calls “keeping the main thing the main thing.”

To let something else – out of elation, or anxiety, or anger – take our eyes off of God is to succumb to the spirit of Antichrist.  It is to give Satan the “feverish excitement” that draws our energies and attention away from the One who alone gives life.

I once heard a quote attributed to Merton that gets at this nicely: “What the devil wants most is attention.”  I’ve wrestled with that for a while, and it came back to me when I read O’Donovan’s reflection above.  A laser is powerful because it is focused. If that focus dissipates even slightly, it is useless. So it is with our worship; in giving the forces of corruption and anxiety our energy, we capitulate our very identity in a fruitless endeavor to fight “feverish excitement” with more of the same.  We condescend to the same level as that which we contend against.

In a similar vein, author Andrew Vachss has left us the following poem:

Warrior, heed this
When you battle with demons
Aim not at their hearts

Don’t aim at their hearts, for it will only be wasted effort.  Don’t fight fire with fire.  As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  The fact is that the greatest truth the Body of Christ has to proclaim is not a word about any thing, issue, cause, or controversy.  The truth we proclaim is a person named Jesus, who reveals the Good News of who God is, what God is doing, and what God will do.  In short, telling the truth about Jesus will always be more radically subversive than the angriest tweet, the most pointed Facebook post, or the signaliest of virtue signaling blog posts.  Likewise, a sermon “about” the election or a liturgy focused on the office of the President – aiming right at the heart of the demons – can only fall flat compared to the one truly subversive claim: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)

The first business of the church after the inauguration is no different than it was before the inauguration: to proclaim, in word and deed, hymn and sacrament, voice and silence, liturgy and service that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is the truth on which our hope is based.  Whether we find ourselves angry, joyful, sad, or indifferent at this moment in our national life, our worship and proclamation should first reflect the gospel, not our own emotional state.  If every knee will bow and every tongue confess at the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11), then our proclamation ought never stray from this, for no matter what the news of the day might be, the good news is greater.   This is the confession on which our very lives are staked.  This – and only this – is the first business of the church, no matter who sits on Caesar’s throne.

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Sabbath & Eucharist in Brueggemann

Sabbath as Resistance is one of those brief theological reflections that packs a punch.  It does more real work – exegesis, ethics, prophetic exhortation – in less than 100 pages than most theological works do in 300+.   For Brueggemann, the esteemed Old Testament don from Columbia Seminary, Sabbath is not merely Blue Laws and avoiding lawn work, it is both an act of resistance and alternative to the dominant culture.  To enter into Sabbath rest is to enact a counter-liturgy (here I am influenced by James K.A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies) to the slavish existence that Pharoah brings.

In a remarkable passage from the Preface, Brueggemann links his vision of Sabbath with the Eucharist in a vivid image:

I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed. (xvi-xvii)

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath is a gift of God that grows us in grace.  It is an alternative to the “earn and take” society we know too well, in that we can only receive this good gift and be glad in it.

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath invites us to a different world, a different narrative.  The “give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer might well hearken back to the manna that sustained God’s people in the wilderness, bread they were given each day – except the day before the Sabbath, in which they were given a double portion so they could experience rest.

Similarly, the bread of the Eucharist is a Sabbath bread, an invitation to receive from God’s own hand, and to rest (however briefly) in a world where abundance is not deserved or grabbed, but received and shared by all who desire it.  To participate in the Lord’s Supper is to gain a glimpse of the Kingdom feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, where all are fed and none go hungry.

As the author of Hebrews said, “there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” a rest that we envision every time we sit at table with Jesus and his friends.  We are not Superman, we are allowed a respite, and there is none more nourishing than this great feast of the church.

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Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

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Jesus Didn’t Fight No Bums

How might Rocky illuminate Jesus’ atonement? In Rocky III, the beloved pugilist’s aging trainer, Mick, is terrified at the prospect of Balboa fighting Clubber Lang, played famously by Mr. T in his breakout role.  Rocky doesn’t understand Mick’s fear, as he’s on a long win streak and feels quite confident.  They have the following exchange, culminating in one of Mick’s most famous lines:

Rocky: He’s just another fighter.
Mickey: No, he ain’t just another fighter! This guy is a wrecking machine! And he’s hungry! Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt.
Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

Rocky discovers, to his horror, that the win streak he’s so proud of is manufactured.  To protect him, his trainer has been picking fights that amounted to the path of least resistance.

In his classic treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes quite a similar point about Jesus, in a discussion about the nature of his death:

A wonderful translation, with an introduction by CS Lewis.

And as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be completely annihilated. So something wonderful and marvelous happened: that ignominious death which they thought to inflict, this was the trophy of his victory over death. (On the Incarnation, [Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011], 75.)

In other words, because Jesus didn’t choose a cleaner, quicker, or less “ignominious” death, none of his opponents (or the disciples’ future opponents) could accuse him of seeking an easy way out.  Because he submitted to such a vile death as torture and crucifixion, the very barbarity of this death became “the trophy of his victory.”

Jesus didn’t fight no bums.  He didn’t hand pick his opponents.  He faced the worst killers the world had yet invented – the Roman Empire – and the horrible, common death the endured became the means through which the power of sin was shattered.  Our Lord didn’t pick an easy fight, and for that, we can all – with St. Athanasius – be thankful.

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Roman Calvinism: A Review of The End of Protestantism by Leithart

Is there hope for Protestant churches – of a certain kind – to reunite in a visible, meaningful way? Presbyterian pastor, author, and Cambridge Ph.D. Peter Leithart believes this is a possibility, and has written an entire tome – The End of Protestantism – to articulate both the need for unity and a way towards it.  Along the journey, Leithart makes meaningful contributions to ecclesiology and theological exegesis of Scripture, and is quite convincing in his overall project, even if there are some lingering questions that remain.

Leithart offers what he calls an “interim ecclesiology.”  We are in-between the Magisterial Reformers and the united church that Christ intends for the Kingdom, so how might we get from this moment of denominational “defiance of Jesus” (p. 3) to the united church for which Christ died and the Spirit continues to work? His answer is, in short, this project, a defense of what he calls “Reformational Catholicism.”  To his credit, Leithart is very clear up front that he’s no sunny optimist about what it will take to achieve this vision: this is a resurrection that will require, first, a death to our old forms of church.

The author is strongest when building a biblical ecclesiology from Genesis to Revelation, one to which Christians of all stripes would do well to aspire: “Unity in faith includes holding to a unified set of beliefs, a unified confession of truth, but includes a common purpose and intention.” (p. 17) He is emphatic in rejecting any vision of the church which accepts a “spiritual” or invisible unity as a substitute  for the full-orbed unity that is God’s will.

It’s worth noting that the Protestantism in focus for Leithart is a particular brand.  From the title and most of the promotions, you’d be tempted to think his project involved Protestantism as a whole, but that would be a mistake.  His real investment is made clear during occasional lapses of clarity such as noting “the defection of the National and World Council of Churches from faithfulness into trendy leftism.” (p. 22)  In chapter three, he eventually makes explicit that he is proposing “an agenda for conservative Protestant churches.” (p. 26).  It would be more clear to say that his agenda is for conservative Protestant churches with organic ties to Luther and especially Calvin, as other flavors of Protestant faith such as Wesleyan, Quaker, or Mennonite (to name a few) are almost wholly absent from his vision.  Thus, even as a Wesleyan who is quite traditional in doctrine and more moderate in terms of social ethics, I have difficulty seeing a way in which I can contribute to Leithart’s vision.

Even while anticipating that “everyone will accept the whole of the tradition, East and West” (p. 27) Leithart continually narrows his focus, taking potshots at old Reformation arguments (against icons and saints) and making clear that the future of Protestantism is Calvinist (even going so far as to suggest that everyone will accept predestination on p. 29).  That aside, his vision of the future church – sacramental and liturgical, biblical, catholic, disciplined – is quite compelling.  It is compelling enough that even if you aren’t in the (conservative, Calvinist) prime audience, this is worth a read.  The author is certainly correct that denominationalism is an institutionalization of division with which Christians of good will should not make peace, though it is admirable that he takes the time to discuss the (former) benefits of denominationalism.  (It reminds me of the infamous, “What have the Romans ever done for us?!” scene in Life of Brian.)  Just because something has run its course does not mean its erstwhile contributions should be ignored.

My favorite section of Leithart’s new book is chapter 8, an extended ecclessiological look at the Biblical narrative as the story of a God who longs to unite humanity under God in a single family.  This is why “division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church.”  As critical as Leithart is of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the ecclesial lens through which he writes is decidedly un-Protestant.  Both my fundamentalist upbringing and my time in the Mainline have taught me that most Protestants simply don’t care about Christian unity.  It is far more important for the (local) church to be correct in fundamentalist circles, or to influence Caesar in the mainline church, than to care about unity.  Thus, Leithart’s powerful conclusion that “unity is evangelical because it is the evangel” deserves more consideration and development. (p. 115)

If you care about the future of the church – as a pastor, an involved layperson, a theologian – there is much here with which to wrestle, and much that you will no doubt find edifying.  In his insistence on ecclesiology, on liturgy and sacraments, on the debt which Protestants owe the pre-Reformation church, I heartily agree with Leithart.  (This sentence from the last page might be the favorite I’ve read all year: “I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth.”) Perhaps where he fails most notably is in describing a post-reunification Protestantism that is “mere”ly protestant; the church of Leithart’s future looks suspiciously like a Calvinist Church with regular eucharist – a church which no doubt appeals to Leithart, but is far from a vision of the church that will draw Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Methodists into a new Protestant ekklesia of the future.

Why not, for instance, a future Protestantism of an Anglo-Methodist/Pentecostal variety?  The Anglican heritage brings in the church of the apostles, the fund of liturgical and creedal riches which Leithart values, and the Methodist DNA broadens the soteriological possibilities from just the Reformation’s justification myopia to include (via Wesley) the sanctificationist note of the East.  Wesleyanism’s ties to the Pentecostal movement make such a church an organic fit (indeed, charistmatic American and African Methodists are already living this out), and would help link this future church to the global renewal movements which Leithart notes.  I humbly offer that the Anglo-Methodist & Pentecostal church of my dreams has the potential to unite more Protestants than Leithart’s Roman Calvinism.  (Call that description unfair if you like, but it’s not far off from his “Reformational Catholicism,” a name which equally offends my Arminian sensibilities.)

In the end, I agree with Leithart’s (unexpected?) ecclesial synergism: Protestant reunion is both “a gift of God” and “a work of the Spirit,” and yet still “we must act.” (p. 165)  Christians who take Jesus seriously in John 17 cannot turn a blind eye to division, for as long as we are divided, our witness is damaged, and we are not the church fit to be the bride of Christ.  I daresay than any follower of Jesus will, having read The End of Protestantism, find themselves recommitted to the Biblical vision of the church as a single family, and work locally and at all other levels toward that end.

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The ABC’s of Christmas: A Worship Service for Christmas & Christmastide

by Drew 7 Comments

In searching for an alternative worship service for Christmas day, someone pointed me to this resource over at the Young Clergy Women Project.  This met my needs, since I wanted a service that was a little fun, a bit different, and most of all, substantially different from the Christmas Eve services the night before.  (In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday.)  I adapted the content of the YCW service to make it appropriate for a day service rather than an evening, and added communion and some other elements to make it a bit more substantive.  I share it now in case anyone else is looking for a Christmas service for either Christmas eve, day, or Christmastide.  I used this in conjunction with images for each letter, but it would not require those visuals.  This could also be adapted for a fun family devotional or a program would children.  I used a bulletin that gave a streamlined outline of this so folks could follow along, except where there was a congregational response or a reading I wanted to highlight.  This is what I an the other worship leaders will read, in full  Here goes!

The ABCs of Christmas

Welcome

Opening Prayer 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

A is for an angel, Gabriel, who began the story with a greeting to Jesus’ mother, Mary:

“Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28)

Sing “Angels from the Realms of Glory”

is for Bethlehem, where our story takes place. People traveled from everywhere to arrive in the city; it was a very busy place.

C is for a census (that’s a counting of all the people) the reason so many people filled the city of Bethlehem. Luke 2:1-3 says, “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.  This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.  Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.” 

D is for David, Jesus’ ancestor, the greatest King of Israel. Bethlehem was called “the city of David.” Gabriel promised Mary that her son Jesus would inherit King David’s throne: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (Luke 1:31-33)

E is for exhausted, that’s how everyone felt when they arrived – tired from all the traveling!

F is for family: Mary and Joseph and their new baby Jesus, who was born that night in Bethlehem. Let’s say a prayer for families:

O God, look with compassion on families everywhere. Where they are divided, bring them together. Where they are united, strengthen their bonds. Where they are wounded, lead them towards forgiveness and healing. We pray for families of all sizes and types, and for loved ones who bless our lives, whether they have come to us by blood or by choice. Inspire us through the faithfulness and wisdom of the Holy Family, and make every home a place where Jesus is adored. Amen.

Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem

G is for the Good News about to be shared with all the earth. This is what was said in Luke 2:8-16,
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

H is for herds, all those animals that were present in the stable, and the flocks of sheep in the field with the shepherds when they heard the good news.

I is for Immanuel, the name that the prophet Isaiah gave to Jesus in 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel means, “God with us.”

Carol: Emmanuel, Emmanuel

J is for joy – the excitement and happiness that Jesus brings to us, the joy that we relive today.

K is for kindness, shown by the innkeeper that night, allowing a tired family to stay in the stable when there was no room in the inn.

L is for the love we share with one another all through the year and especially at Christmas.

M is for the manger, it is usually used to hold food for animals, but this time it held the baby because he had no crib.

Carol: Away in a Manger

N is for Noel, another word for Christmas. It also another word for a Christmas carol. One of the most popular carols this time of year reminds us of the angels’ song when Jesus was born, the very first Noel.

Let’s sing the first verse of The First Noel together.

O is for offering, when we give back to God some of what God has given us, out of love. The Wise Men brought valuable gifts for the baby Jesus, and just like them, we are going to share our gifts with Jesus.

Sharing Our Gifts (Offertory song)

P is for prayer and praise and pondering, all different ways people reacted the amazing thing that happened. We pray and praise and ponder together:

Prayers of the People

Q is for quiet, the deep peace that Christmas brings – knowing that God is with us.

is for rejoicing! (Sermon follows.)

S is for one special star that shone bright in the night showing the Magi the way to Jesus. And when they found Jesus, they were filled with joy and worshipped him.

Carol: Joy to the World

T is for thanksgiving, which is what Eucharist means. This is another word for The Lord’s Supper, when we give thanks for all that God has done and enjoy a meal prepared by Christ. Turn to page 15 and let us celebrate Christ together once more.

is for unity, all different people brought together today to celebrate God’s love! Let’s pray:

God, thank you for meeting us once together as gather around your table on this holy day. Thank you that Christmas is a celebration that unites Christians around the world. Take away our divisions, that we can show the world Christ’s love as one church, united by the Holy Spirit. Thank you for this opportunity to remember that Christmas is about more than parties and presents. Thank you for Jesus. Amen.

V is for vulnerable; Jesus came to us as an infant, and like other children he had to be cared for, protected–that’s our job. Just like the Holy Family that searched for shelter, there are beloved people and families in our community that God wants us to welcome and to love and serve. All throughout the Bible we see God’s love for the vulnerable, but we especially see it at Christmas, when God became a vulnerable infant out of His great love for us.

W is for wonder– our amazement at the beauty of how much God loves us, and how much God loves the whole world. Just like the Magi, we are lost in wonder at this great miracle.

Carol: We Three Kings (vv. 1, 2, 5)

X is for Xmas! We don’t shy away from this abbreviation because the x is actually the symbol for Christ – it is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. So when we sign something “Merry Xmas,” we are actually saying Christmas!

Y is for “yule tide carols” – let’s sing Deck the Halls together!

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

is for Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who sang this beautiful song when he met the infant Jesus, in Luke 1:68-79 (CEB):

“Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, 
just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
 He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted  that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”

Zechariah’s song reminds why Christmas is good news for the whole world. Let’s leave this place and live this good news and tell others! Let’s close our worship together by singing Go, “Tell it on the Mountain.”
Closing Carol: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Benediction

 

I’d welcome your thoughts on how to improve this, or, if you use it, what worked and what didn’t work. Feel free to edit and adapt this for your own use.  Merry Christmas!

-Drew

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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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Rest in Peace Thomas Oden

thomas-odenOn December 8, 2016, Thomas Oden joined the Church Triumphant.

A longtime pillar of Drew University’s seminary, Oden wrote many influential volumes spanning the breadth of Christian thought and practice.  He famously had a theological conversion mid-career, and was an active leader at the national level of the United Methodist Church for much of his life.  His teaching and writing influenced thousands of United Methodist and other pastors.  Oden is perhaps best known as the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary series from IVP, a unique resource seeking to help bring the treasures of early Christian writers and preachers to today’s exegetes.  I was introduced to Oden by reading his Pastoral Theology while preparing to write ordination papers. His classical, holistic vision of ordained ministry has remained foundational for my own self-understanding as a pastor.  I also refer frequently to his encyclopedic three-part systematic theology Classic Christianity.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Oden’s work, here are a few quotes culled from his many volumes to give you a sense of his intellect and wit.

On the Historical Jesus:

The biblical historical criticism that has pretended to be an objective investigation of the history of Jesus has often turned out to be a highly biased account that imposed the values of nineteenth-and twentieth-century naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts. Jesus Christ has been reduced to human hopes, aspirations, myths, class interests, and social influences.

Modernity demanded that the history of Jesus be submitted to all the canons of interpretation prevailing in alienated modern consciousness. Jesus was refabricated, remade into a political or social or psychological advocate. his words were squeezed, massaged, and reshaped into correspondence with the interpreter’s current viewpoint. (After Modernity, What?, 101)

On Ministry:

How odd that it is apparently not God’s purpose to minister day by day to the world by direct revelation. Rather, the surprising fact is that God has chosen to minister to humanity through a scandalously visibly community, the church, and to minister to the church through human agency, by calling ordinary, vulnerable, pride-prone person into the ministry of word and sacrament. However vulnerable ministry may be to wretched distortions and abuses, curiously enough it seems God’s own idea. (Pastoral Theology, 13)

On Preaching:oden-classic-christianity

Preaching at the end of the first millennium focused primarily on the text of Scripture as understood by the earlier esteemed tradition of comment, largely converging on those writers that best reflected classic Christian consensual thinking. Preaching at the end of the second millennium has reversed that pattern. It has so forgotten most of these classic comments that they are vexing to find anywhere, and even when located that are often available only in archaic editions and inadequate translations. The preached word in our time has remained largely bereft of previously influential patristic inspiration. Recent scholarship has so focused attention upon post-Enlightenment historical and literary methods that it has left this longing largely unattended and unserviced. (“General Introduction,” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

On His Legacy (Describing the dream he once had where his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.”):

In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.” (From this Christianity Today article)

Oden’s influence will live on in the church and in countless Christians whose lives and ministries have benefitted from his work.  Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to conversing with you and other Doctors of the Church in that Kingdom not made with hands, illumined only by the light emanating solely from the Lamb’s throne.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of your servant Thomas, and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
ever. Amen. 

(Book of Common Prayer)

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