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Mainline Resurrection Can’t Do Without…the Resurrection

In a much commented-upon article by Ed Stetzer, he warns that, absent some kind of resurrection, statistical trends indicate that Mainline Protestantism’s days are – literally – numbered.  His analysis suggests that the Mainline has about 23 years left.  Stetzer goes on to argue that Mainline survival, at minimum, will need some serious changes in ethos to mount a comeback:

My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.

The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.

These kinds of reflections often induce histrionics in some (mostly Mainline) pastors and blogging types. They smell a boogeyman here, who is also their scapegoat for all things bad in the church: the evangelical Christian. [Cue ominous tones.] In fact, in some circles, all you have to do is associate phenomenon x with evangelicals and x automatically becomes an evil second only to Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin.  It’s a hackish formula, but a ubiquitous one nonetheless.

The argument, rather predictably, usually goes something like a) “Evangelicals who insist on orthodoxy are really just bigots and use doctrine as a cover for their racist/sexist/homophobic policies,” or b) “Insisting on doctrine is a kind of legalism like that of the Pharisees, when what really matters is ethical behavior toward others.”  The first is pure conspiracy, the second is a false dichotomy.

What these apoplectic reactions miss is something that even the most evangel-y of evangelicals will admit: orthodox doctrine (at a minimum, say, the witness of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds) is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient of church vitality.  Of course there are churches with solid doctrine that are spiritually dead (that’s how the Methodist movement got it’s start, for John’s sake).  But to take this as a reason to downplay or jettison basic doctrine is a total non-sequiter.

Nowhere is this more clear, biblically and historically, than the resurrection of Christ.  Modern and postmodern theologies  too enamored of their own wisdom to believe in ancient dogmas like the physical resurrection of Christ are hopeless from the ground floor.  Are there congregations with vital ministries and kind hearts where the pastor and many, if not most, of the congregants reject the supernatural in the biblical narrative? Certainly.  Are there growing religious congregations that reject Easter in favor of some kind of spiritual or psycho-social “resurrection?” I’m sure.  But the success of these only makes their error that much more tragic, because what they are succeeding in is not what the apostles, saints, and martyrs could recognize as the Bride of Christ.

St. Paul is crystal clear about this with his flock in Corinth:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, NRSV)

As the Apostle makes so clear, the point of the resurrection is not to grow churches, but to give real hope that the oldest enemy of humanity, the grave, does not win in the end.  A cold piece of paper with the doctrine of the resurrection scribbled upon it does not create vitality, of course.  However, a church committed to resurrection as God’s victory in Christ not as a dead letter, but as a way of life and ministry, can transform hearts, families, and communities.  Without the basic truth of the resurrection, though – if Christ’s bones are in a Jerusalem hillside – than even the most active, loving, and inclusive of churches are little more than quaint country clubs or social service agencies.

In short, there is no resurrection of the Mainline that is worth a tinker’s damn unless the resurrection of Jesus is front and center in our life and proclamation.  With it, a world of possibilities – nothing less than the New Creation itself – is open to us. Without it, “we are of all people to be pitied.”

I’ll give Ed Stetzer the last word:

If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.

I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.

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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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Lent: A Journey Towards Reality

by Drew 0 Comments
Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Doman courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Domain courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Let’s begin with two generals and a monk. 

The legend goes that when Julius Caesar was a young man, serving a minor government post in Spain, he happened upon a statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who laid waste to just about the whole world. When he saw the statue he burst into tears, grieving that he had accomplished so little in his time. When Alexander was his age, after all, he had already conquered the known world. Caesar immediately resigned and returned to Rome, seeking higher position and glory – which he found, of course – but in doing so he destroyed the Republic and was betrayed and murdered by his friends.

Next, the monk. If you go to some monasteries and churches in Greece, you might see an icon of an old man in a beard bowing down before a pile of bones. The old man is a saint, Saint Sisoes the Great, called a “desert father” because of his years spent living in great discipline and solitude in the Egyptian desert. The icon depicts Sisoes on his knees before the bones of Alexander the Great, the unparalleled conqueror, and weeping, saying: “O death, who can evade you?”

For Caesar, the memory of Alexander elicited envy and determination to achieve.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

For Sisoes, the simple monk that history barely remembers, it stirred up humility and a sense of spiritual zeal.

Ash Wednesday is a day that Christians, like Abba Sisoes, dare to remember our deaths. At the beginning of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation modeled on Jesus’ own time of temptation in the desert – the church puts ashes on our foreheads, calls us to repent, and reminds us that we came from dust and will return to it.

This is a very countercultural act.

We live in a world terrified of death, which is to say a world that is uncomfortable with reality. Products and politicians, commercials and a thousand different hucksters promise us we can evade death if we buy this or vote for them or read that. Cosmetic companies and surgeons say they can liberate us from wrinkles and sags; the commercial on TV promises us that if we take this or that pill we can perform like our 18-year-old selves.

We see this in our language, too.  Pay attention to this, if haven’t already noticed it.  We use a wide variety of euphemisms to avoid saying the “d-word” – we say so-and-so “passed away” or “left us” or “went to be with Jesus” instead of saying ‘died’ or ‘dead’ or some other iteration of death.

For all her flaws, which are legion, at least the church is honest about this. Like that desert saint, we are bold to say, “O death, who can evade you?” as we put on ashes and journey toward the cross.

There is a remarkable freedom in this. What the world misses is what the gospel proclaims: that to really live you must die to yourself; to discover our purpose we must become servants of God.  The call and challenge of Jesus tells us truest joy is found – not in fast cars and money or golf or large houses or incredible sex or decadent dessert or Super Bowl tickets – but in taking up a cross and following Jesus. Jesus did not die so we could “believe in him” and go about our lives as we see fit. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and come to share His very life.

Ash-Wednesday-crossWe cannot outrun death. In giving our lives, though, to the one whom death could not hold, death loses its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).  So we recieve ashes and remember our mortality, not because God wants us morbid and morose, but because we know we have spent too many hours trying to deny reality: we are not God.  We are not immortal.  We do not hold life and death in our hands.

Thankfully, we know the One who does.

The waters of baptism wash away the ashes of death.  We are raised with Christ! Death’s power is fleeting, make no mistake, but we also know all too well that on this side of the Kingdom death behaves with the vengeance of a jilted lover.

And so Lent begins, and we again take a 40 day journey back to reality.

Lent reminds us that the only greatness that counts is sainthood.  Every great conqueror is now topsoil, but holiness does not decompose.  Those great exemplars of faith, like Abba Sisoes the Great and his desert brethren, repose incandescent in the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us.

Ash Wednesday thus offers us a stark choice:

We can continue chase immortality, celebrity, and grandeur with Caesar and Alexander

or

we can take the journey back to reality, embrace our finitude, admit our need for God’s embrace, and discover the only path to life.

This Lent, may Sisoes the Great and all the company of saints who have conquered temptation, fought the good fight, and finished the race inspire us to walk closer to Christ, more transparent to his gracious reign.

Let’s close with a prayer:

God, you know better than we
the temptations that will bring us down.
Grant that our love for you may protect us
from all foolish and corrupting desire.

-Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, from the New Zealand Prayer Book)

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The Center of the Christian Faith

by Drew 6 Comments
Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from the before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is the center of the Christian message?

That’s the question that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the leading Orthodox voices in the West, was asked a few years ago by Christianity Today.  His response?

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.

NT Wright, professor at St. Andrews and former Bishop of Durham, relates a story of a cabbie in London whose simple statement of faith made it into his Easter homily: “If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the rest is just rock n’ roll.”

The resurrection is the center, the hub of the wheel, so to speak.  Everything else follows from this point; it is the vindication of Christ’s incarnation, faithful life, and horrific death.  If Christ is still in the tomb, there is no Trinity, and the church has nothing to proclaim.  St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds us that if Christ is not risen, we are of all people to be pitied.

What do you think the center of the Christian faith is?

If you had asked me a few years ago what all Christians agree on, I would have said the two basic Christian doctrines: Trinity and Incarnation.  God is three persons and one essence; the second person of the trinity took on flesh and was born of Mary.  This is, I believed, a simple foundation for a faith with a variety of expressions.

But that was before I talked to a lot of different Methodists and other mainliners.  For the love of the Holy Trinity (which is who I mean when I speak or write of God), we have Presbyterian pastors who are openly atheist! (And before you ask, I’m linking here to Charisma because I’d rather they get your clicks than Patheos.)

The worst.

The worst.

I can’t speak to heresy in other tribes, but I can tell you a bit of what it looks like in my own.  The myth persists that Methodists are non-doctrinal, that we have no particular beliefs or creeds to which we assent.  How anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John Wesley’s corpus can believe or teach this, I will never understand.  He was vehement that the “Catholic Spirit” which he encouraged was not an indifference to all Christian teaching:

“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

If we agree on the center, there is a lot of room various ways of living out the faith.  But we don’t know if we actually agree on the center, because most UM (and most Protestant) arguments these days are adventures in missing the point.  The martyrs did not die defending a particular view of sexuality or a particular political ideology. They died confessing the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we can agree on that center, a world of possibilities is open to us.

But if we cannot agree on something so basic as the resurrection, which is constitutive of Christian faith and practice, all of our efforts to hold together may well be a sin.

The center is Jesus, crucified and risen.  Full stop.

Everything else is rock n’ roll.

Anything less is not only un-Wesleyan, it is sub-Christian.

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Strangers Before Schism

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“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

 -Hebrews 10:25, CEB

Before the breakup comes the distancing; before the divorce comes the separation.  In the following selection, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware gives a broad overview of the tensions leading to the Great Schism between East and West in his classic text The Orthodox Church:

“In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that east and west quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between east and west, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with the fact of increasing estrangement.” (44)

It is often noted that the bitter fruit of schism was nurtured in a soil of linguistic and cultural differences exacerbated by political infighting (crusades and iconoclasm didn’t help, either).  But Metropolitan Ware points out a deeper, broader reality: before a formal split over matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, came something diabolically simplistic: strained relationship.

It’s no accident Paul spends much of his letters simply exhorting the Corinthians or the Ephesians to act like Christians towards others in the assembly.  The quality of our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ is a significant barometer of our relationship with Jesus.  When our relationships suffer, the Church hurts.  Estrangement eventually broke the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

orthodox church wareWe could likely note similar trajectories in other splits: between Protestants and Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and, more recently, liberals and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But differences over non-essential matters in theology, ethics, and polity do not have to divide.  In the context of estrangement, however, it’s all to easy for differences to turn into division, for distance to become divorce.

I raised an off-handed hypothetical in a previous post elsewhere, wondering whether or not various groups in the UMC at present worship different deities.  The same might be wondered aloud for loyal PCUSA folks versus their PCA neighbors, or LCMS and ELCA folks. I meant, and mean, no offense; I am genuinely attempting to find an explanation for the current fractures, which are so vitriolic and raw that they surely go deeper than mere disagreement.  Whether raising this hypothetical is an unfair cause or unfortunate symptom of such strained relationship, I leave for wiser minds to decide.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of something I heard Metropolitan Kallistos share with an evangelical audience.  He quoted a Catholic Cardinal who suggested that, to work towards unity (for which Christ himself prayed), we must love each other.  To love each other, we must first know each other.  We might add: to get to know each other, we must meet each other.  I know too many Protestants who’ve never asked a Catholic about their beliefs; I’ve met too many Episcopalians who’ve never had a conversation with a fundamentalist.  Such widespread ignorance of our neighbors shows that we take Jesus’ prayer far too lightly.

This is why I appreciate and invest in projects like Conciliar Post and Via Media Methodists, places where sincere attempts are made toward healthy dialogue about the disputes that threaten to, and in some cases have succeeded in, bending and then rending the Body of Christ.

It’s entirely possible that we might be the generation that rebuilds Christian unity over cups of coffee, lunch meetings, and late-night porters.  At the very least, when we stop meeting together in such ways, when we give up on the hard work of relating to each other, we remove vital tendons and sinew from the Body of Christ.

This is a good reminder of why a ritual meal is at the heart of our faith.  The people we sup with most often are likely the people to whom we are closest.  That’s why the Eucharist, rightly celebrated, is at the heart of any effort towards establishing and sanctifying our full, visible unity in Christ.  As Brian Wren reminds us in his marvelous hymn,

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

P.S. Here’s a great lecture on the state of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue today, for those who might be interested in prospects for healing the Great Schism that’s lasted nearly a millennia.

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Kicking Left Behind…in the Behind

by Drew 8 Comments
I miss the Con Air and Face/Off Nic Cage.  Courtesy wikipedia and fundamentalism.

I miss the Con Air and Face/Off Nic Cage. Courtesy wikipedia and fundamentalism.

Rapture fever is back, as a new iteration of the Left Behind film franchise prepares to slither onto screens, this time sans Kirk Cameron. (How desperate is Nic Cage getting, anyway?)  Now is as good a time as any to kick Left Behind in the behind and reiterate that the rapture, quite simply, is a lie.

Leave aside the fact that the word “rapture” never once occurs in Scripture. Forget that the concept is part of a system not invented until the 19th century.  Don’t even mention the observation that the rapture would mean a kind of two-stage return of Christ, which the Biblical text does not support.  Focus, instead, on this: the one text that rapture preachers can (kind of) point to has nothing to do with a rapture.  As Mickey Efird writes,

“Since Jesus has conquered death, so those who are united to God share in this great victory. Therefore, those who have already died, rather than being in a secondary position with regard to the final victory of God, are in a primary position.  The reason for this is that they are already with the Lord. They are in a real sense already experiencing the joys of the final consummation.  This seems to be what Paul means by the expression ‘The dead in Christ will rise first.'” (Mickey Efird, Left Behind? [Macon: Smith & Helwys 2005], 40.)

If that doesn’t suit you, NT Wright has another reading of this infamous passage, stressing Roman imperial imagery in Paul’s language.  The point is simple enough: the Darbyist rendering of this pericope is only one of many which are plausible, and is far from the dominant reading throughout the history of the church and among top contemporary scholars of the Bible.  At minimum, the dispensational rendering is hardly enough of a home-run around which to build an entire eschatology.

Of course, dispensationalists will point to other passages to prove the rapture, including Jesus’ fuzzy parables (“one will be left in the field!”) and arguments from silence (after chapter 3 in Revelation, the word church is not found again until the end!).  All of these are specious, though, and nothing carries the weight of the aforementioned Thessalonians passage.

I have referred to rapture theology in the pulpit as, “escape hatch religion.”  This is why it matters that Christians do not buy into this popular but horrific doctrine: it turns the ministry of the church into gnostic bunker-huddling.  The rapture reverses the logic of the incarnation, actually.  On the Darbyist scheme, Christ was incarnate of the Spirit and the Virgin Mary so that he could one day rescue the church out of a world going to hell.  So much for, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Abraham’s mission, fulfilled and intensified by the faithfulness of the Messiah, has been mutated from blessing the world through the elect into saving the elect and letting the world go to pot.

So give the rapture a good swift kick in behind.  It’s not just un-biblical, it’s not just bad theology, it is a pernicious lie.  The good news is that God loves His creation and His creatures.  Jesus came to renew both, not save one at the expense of the other.  Thanks be to God.

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St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians

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Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

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Book Review: The Jew Named Jesus

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     I rarely read hot-off-the-presses books (you might say ‘cheap’, but I prefer good old-fashioned stewardship), so getting to read Rebekah Simon-Peter‘s new book The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message was a real treat.*  Equal parts memoir, salvation history, and a challenging call to the church today, Simon-Peter’s highly personal new book addresses some crucial questions in the life of the church.

Simon-Peter’s story is a fascinating one.  Raised a Jew, and spending time in both Orthodox and Reform circles, she experienced a dramatic encounter with Jesus that led her to search.  That quest eventually brought her not just to to the church, but to seminary and ordained ministry as a United Methodist Elder.  In this respect, she has much in common with Lauren Winner, who has also narrated her journey from Judaism to Christianity.  Most interesting here is Simon-Peter’s search for identity: her entrance into the church made her an outlier in many Jewish circles, while the Jewish identity and faith she wished to still claim caused her challenges in reading the New Testament and understanding her identity as a Jesus-follower (marrying a Catholic do doubt made things interesting as well).  On p. 21, she describes herself as a “Reform-Odox-Metho-Juda-Lic.” (!) Most fascinating are the tidbits about her work, as a Jewish-Christian clergywoman, with an African-American UM congregation.  There are serious implications here for Jewish-Christian relations and for how the church relates to Jews who have come to follow Christ.

Furthermore, Simon-Peter does an admirable job dealing with some very heady problems in post-Holocaust New Testament studies.  The horrors of the Shoa loom large across any contemporary discussion of Jewish-Christian relations, and Biblical interpretation is front and center in these debates.  Her chapters address weighty biblical and theological questions: “Was Jesus A Christian?”; “Did the Jews Reject Jesus?”; “Did the Jews Kill Jesus?”; “Has God Rejected the Jews?”  Sadly, these answers are not obvious to many today in both academic and ecclesial circles.  The identity of Jesus as a Jew is still a source of embarrassment both for the Anglo church and for scholars who have preferred to see Jesus as a radical or revolutionary rather than a faithful Jew of the 1st century AD. Likewise, the critical place of Israel in God’s plan (“salvation is from the Jews”), which has not been undone but fulfilled in Christ, is often missing in much Christian thought and speech.  Simon-Peter provides a helpful corrective on these and other points.

While not an in-depth scholarly treatment, she does address these vital topics in ways that would be accessible to anyone.  For clergy and those who have studied either comparative religion or Biblical studies to a significant degree, I would hope that much of this is not new.  For those who have not explored these matters, however, this is an excellent and worthwhile introduction.

A couple of concerns are worth mentioning.  It’s a fairly skinny book, at around 100 pages of text.  I imagine this has to do with the targeted audience; I found myself wanting deeper exploration in several areas, but a shorter work probably prevents many who should read this from being scared off.  About 3/4 of the way through, I was worried Simon-Peter was not going to mention some of the central themes of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which has been largely shaped by the concerns she raises.  Near the end she gets there, writing:

“The point is that we are so accustomed to seeing Paul refracted by Luther’s fights with the church, that it’s difficult to see and hear Paul on his own terms.” (80)

That said, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with this literature reflected in her endnotes (folks like Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, and Doug Campbell come to mind).  Instead, she relies a bit heavily on Amy-Jill Levine (an excellent source, to be sure), particularly her Jewish Annotated New Testament.  A couple of times Simon-Peter references less than impressive sources such as the notes or introductions from the NIV Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Her argument would be bolstered by reckoning with what Lesslie Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity,” which helps explain why 21st century people find the concept of chosenness so deeply offensive.  Likewise, some engagement with Barth’s concept of election (in which election becomes about Jesus rather than double predestination of the “true church” in today’s aggressive neo-Calvinism) could be fruitful in her attempts to connect Israel’s vocation to the Church’s mission.

Simon-Peter does some of her best reflection when making use of interlocutors such as NT Wright and Diana Butler Bass. Her writing style is easy to read and informal, and she uses enough humor to keep you interested.  Occasionally her language is a bit imprecise or unexplained (for instance, on p. 86 she uses the phrase “universal salvation” in passing with no elaboration). By and large, though, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-done book that serves an important role in the current conversations between Christians and Jews.

The Jew Named Jesus addresses questions that are too often ignored and mishandled.  Centuries of getting these things wrong laid the groundwork not only for vicious anti-Semitism in Europe and America, but for the near-extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians.  Much is at stake here.  As a pastor, I still get asked some of these questions regularly.  After a recent trip to Israel, more than one parishioner asked me, “How could someone live over there, see all those places, and still not believe in Jesus?” Early in my ministry, I watched in horror as a pastor performed a clunky Messianic seder** at a youth group meeting complete with an altar call and everything (I later discovered that the UM Book of Worship instructs, rightly so, that such celebrations are disrespectful unless led by a Jew).  Worse still are the blatantly racist comments one still hears on the mouths of too many churchgoers, at least here in the Bible Belt.

But such misunderstanding and ongoing division will not endure into the eschaton.  Simon-Peter’s closing chapter, “A New Heaven and A New Earth,” may be her best.  “Something more powerful than ‘us versus them’ awaits us,” she says hopefully in the concluding pages. (102)  Amen, and come, Lord Jesus. We your people – both the branch and the “wild olive shoots” –  await your Kingdom. (See Rom. 9-11, which Simon-Peter uses several times.)  Help us to anticipate it, celebrate it, and lean into it now.

*A copy of this book was provided to the author for the purposes of review.

**My favorite line from the book confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine about Messianic Judaism: “They seemed to me to be no more than Evangelical Christianity covered with a patina of Hebrew.” (101) She goes on to say that Messianic Judaism has matured greatly in recent years, which I long to see confirmed myself.  Nonetheless, that line caused me to laugh our loud.

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Respect the Gift: The UFC Light Heavyweight Champ on the Stewardship of Talent

UFC LHW Champion Jon Jones just dropped some truth at the UFC 165 Tickets On-Sale Presser yesterday to promote his upcoming title bout with contender Alexander Gustafson.  Following the stunning knockout of Anderson Silva at UFC 162 last weekend, Jones indicated this was a bit of a wake-up call:

“I think that Anderson Silva is a magnificent fighter,” he said. “I think he has extraordinary gifts. I think he’s gotten to the point where he really believes in his gifts, and he’s comfortable with the gift and he abused his gift. He disrespected the gift by disrespecting his opponent. Martial arts are traditionally a sport that’s based around honor and integrity and treating people with respect, and he somehow lost sight of that, and he paid the ultimate price for it.”

For the UFC uninitiated, Silva was KO’d because – depending on who you believe – either his showboating or his unorthodox strategy finally caught up with him.  As he has done many times before, he dropped his hands during the fight, goading Chris Weidman to come forward and engage him, even going so far as to feign being hurt.  As one headline put it, the former Middleweight champ was “slain by his own arrogance.

It strikes me that this is a danger for all of us.  Whatever your gifts, whether they are physical or intellectual, whether you are a leader or an artist, a professional or a student, we must beware of the temptation to “get comfortable” and thus “disrespect” our gift.  I am reminded of St. Paul’s words to his protege, Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

We call these talents and natural abilities “gifts,” because they come to us from outside of ourselves. Christians believe that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)  I found Jones’ words a humbling reminder of what it means to be the bearer of God’s good gifts. Let us not abuse our gifts, but rekindle them to the glory of God and the service of his kingdom.

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Eugene Peterson on Growth, Change, and Fads

Sunday I preached on Christian maturity and holiness, playing off of Colossians 1:28:

“It is him whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

In my preparation I came across an excellent quote from Eugene Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall, a collection of reflections on spirituality from the life of David.  He talks wisely about the difference between growth and change, and consequently the value of both the old and the new:

“When we grow, in contrast to merely change, we venture into new territory and include more people in our in our lives – serve more and love more.  Our culture is filled with change; it’s poor in growth.  New things, models, developments, opportunities are announced, breathlessly, every hour.  But instead of becoming ingredients in a long and wise growth, they simply replace.  The previous is discarded and the immediate stuck in – until, bored by the novelty, we run after the next fad.  Men and women drawn always to the new never grow up.  God’s way is growth, not change…David at thirty-seven was more than he was at seventeen – more praise, saner counsel, deeper love.  More himself. More his God-given and God-glorifying humanity.  A longer stride, a larger embrace.” (136)

Peterson incisively names one of the besetting tragedies of our day: the idolatry of novelty.  This is true in fashion and entertainment, but also in the world of business and the church.  We hop from one thing to the next – like a frog jumping from one lily pad to the other – staying “interested,” but never growing.  Getting stimulation, but never going deep.

But God’s way is growth.  Our goal as the church is the same as was Paul’s – to present people, not just who have been “saved” or who “got Jesus” one day in the 70’s – but who are “mature” in Christ, who have spent their days following Jesus going deeper and growing more in discipleship.  These are not Sunday Christians easily imbibing just enough of the gospel so that they can remain apathetic, but engaged Jesus people who have made their lives a continual and growing sacrifice of worship to their Lord.

As John C. Maxwell has said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”

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