In or Out? – Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Election

Election is a dirty word in the United Methodist Church. In this particularly problematic political season we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and elections. We want people to think for themselves and pray for the Spirit to guide them in such matters. Otherwise we leave the topic at arms length. However, even more divisive than American Politics has been the church’s response to the Doctrine of Election.

The topic of God’s divine election is one that we often get hung up on in our weekly Bible studies at church. We can be talking about any number of things from scripture when all of the sudden the conversation moves to whether or not God ordained a specific tragedy to occur, or why would a loving God elect some for salvation and some for damnation. Then we tend to travel down the deep rabbit hole in arguments about free will and God’s sovereignty.

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions, we like things to be neat and orderly, and God often gives us the opposite. Only God, in God’s infinite knowledge and power, could elect certain individuals and only humanity, in our sinfulness and selfishness, could spend centuries arguing about what it means to be part of the elect.

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Even on the UMC’s denominational website there is a long essay about whether or not United Methodists believe “once saved, always saved” or can we “lose our salvation.” And in the essay, a good amount of space is spent address Calvin’s so called “TULIP” theological principles (Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints). For Calvin, God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before anyone was born. Moreover, Jesus’ act of “atonement” from the cross is efficacious only for those whom God has elected for salvation.

John Wesley however, influenced by Jacobus Arminius, believed that only God can save and God does so unconditionally for all. There is no pre-selected list in the mind of God about who will be rewarded with salvation and who will be punished with damnation. Instead God’s grace is offered preveniently to all, and humanity has the capacity to respond to this grace. We have the ability (through free will) to reject God’s grace and in so doing we remove ourselves from the equation of salvation.

These types of distinctions about divine election or rejection have been debated throughout the history of the church and have played a primary role in the propagation of the seemingly endless amount of Christian denominations. We disagree about what we believe God is up to with election and therefore we create schisms in the church that result in the mosaic of churches rather than dwelling together in unity.

Karl Barth saw the Doctrine of Election differently.

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In Church Dogmatics II.2 Barth sets out to confront what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer that those who are elect are elect without reference to their person or in recognition of any special attributes or achievements. There is nothing that one can do to earn their elect status. To be elect is to enter into a way of being that corresponds with election; those who are elect are what they are.

Barth then, in a profound and wonderful excursus, compares the elect and the rejected throughout the Old Testament as a means by which to point at what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ. He begins with the dualism of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision of God’s concerning them. However, even though one is clearly favored and the other is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain in the way we so commonly assume. It is true that God does not accept Cain and his family for the murder of his brother, but he is not abandoned by God because of this. Instead he receives the promise that God will protect his life.

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Thus begins a great trajectory throughout the Old Testament of mutually intersecting differences between people. Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the younger brother) who receives the birthright and the true blessing. Yet, God does not abandon him. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. And yet Rachel does not remain barren and eventually gives birth to Joseph. And Joseph, though rejected by his older brothers and sold into slavery is intimately connected with the future of God’s people and the brothers (though treacherous) are not abandoned to the famine but are instead forgiven and brought into the land of Egypt.

The same holds true for the dynamic between Saul and David (Saul is actually blessed far more than David even through the Lord moves the blessing from the former to the latter), and other figures from the Old Testament scriptures. Barth demonstrates again and again that though they appear rejected by the Lord, they are in fact blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus Christ.

And it is here where Barth shines a light on the darkness of our understanding of election. For it is precisely in the person of Jesus Christ that we discover not only the elect but also the reject. “According to His divine nature, Jesus Christ is the (elect) eternal Son who reposed in the bosom of the eternal Father, and who coming thence took our flesh upon Him to be and to offer this sacrifice, for the glory of God and for our salvation, and by taking our place to accomplish our reconciliation to God. But as such and in the accomplishment of this reconciliation He is, necessarily, the Rejected. Like the (scapegoat) He must suffer the sin of many to be laid upon Him, in order that He may bear it away… out into the darkness, the nothingness from which it came to which it alone belongs.”[1] In the humiliation of the cross, Christ was also exalted. In the rejection of the Son on the cross (who cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Christ was also the elect who shares the beauty of reconciliation.

In Christ we discover one who is reject and elect. In the incarnation of God in the flesh we encounter the mystery of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to respond to that call.

In the one man on the one cross (as reject and elect) we see all of the dualisms of the Old Testament, all of the people who were either elected or rejected. But through the resurrection, all who are either elect or rejected remain in Him, and in Him the Word of God conquered death which shall be proclaimed through eternity.

For Barth, it is not so much that God began the mysterious work of creation with a list of all who will be elected for salvation and all who will be rejected for damnation. Instead, God remains steadfast even with those who move away (by their choice or the Lords – only God knows), God offers the grace forever even if it is rejected over and over again, and God provides the means by which all can be saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II.2 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 365.

Devotional – Hebrews 13.8

Devotional:

Hebrews 13.8

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Weekly Devotional Image

I try hard to read some theology every week that has nothing to do with the sermon for Sunday. I do this in order to learn more about what it means to follow Jesus without it being intimately connected with whatever will be proclaimed from the pulpit; discipleship is something I need to work on outside of the work required for the vocation.

Last week I opened up Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? and started to read. (I discovered the book through a podcast that mentioned the title and I decided to check it out.) The premise is straightforward in that Fuller wants the reader to confront the totality of Jesus’ identity, but I had a hard time getting through the first few pages. Fuller writes, “The full humanity of Jesus is something every Christian affirms, but when it comes to discussing his journey through adolescence, we like to keep it vague – “He grew in wisdom and stature” is the only mention in the Bible of his teen years. Of course, we don’t spend much time thinking about Jesus having lice in his hair or pooping, even if he did such things in the holiest of ways.”[1]

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I understand that Fuller wants the reader to encounter the depth of Jesus humanity, but today we seem to emphasize his humanity over and against his divinity. In church and in theology we hear so much about how Jesus is just like us that we sometimes forget he is also completely unlike us. We want to know that Jesus knows our struggles and is there alongside us when we are going through the valleys of life. But in so doing, we’ve made Jesus out to be a good teacher or an ethical leader, and not God in the flesh.

In Hebrews we read about how “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus remains steadfast to love and forgiveness and Jesus remains committed to grace and mercy. We, on the other hand, neglect to love and forgive others. We forget what it means to give and receive grace and mercy. We change each and every day like the blowing of the wind. But Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Jesus is like us and totally unlike us. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Jesus went through his own angst-filled teenage years and shows us the light of the Lord in the midst of the darkness.

For as much as we want to identify with the humanity of Christ, we also do well to remember that Jesus, like God, never changes.

 

 

[1] Fuller, Tripp. Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? (Fortress Press: Minneapolis. 2015), 2.

Too Busy For Sabbath – Isaiah 58.9b-14

Isaiah 58.9b-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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Whenever you get a group of pastors together, competition breaks out whether we want it to or not. So much of what we do take place on Sundays and therefore we never get to see our peers at work. So when we gather for a meeting or a conference, we tend to show off in order to make ourselves feel better.

At Annual Conference this year, the time when all of the United Methodists from Virginia get together to talk about the state of the denomination, I had lunch with a few clergy colleagues and the sizing up started almost immediately. We asked questions like, “What’s the best sermon you preached in the last year?” and “How is God blessing your ministry?” which is code for “How many people do you have in worship?” We listened as each person tried to demonstrate how their work was bearing more fruit than the other people at the table. And as the meal came to its conclusion someone asked, “If you could change one thing about your church without any consequences, what would it be?”

What a great question! The table was strangely silent for a few moments while each of us prepared our answers. I immediately pictured all of you sitting in worship and I started whittling down my list to the number one change.

My first thought was practical: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone to tithe. It would demonstrate our trust that the Lord will provide, it would help us bless others in this community through financial support, and it would help remove a lot of stress from my life. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very pastoral in front of my peers.

My second thought was simple: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone who sits in the back of the sanctuary to move up to the front of the sanctuary! It would make our church closer, it would create a fuller sense of connection, and it would save me from having to yell all the way to the back of the church. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very Christian in front of my peers.

So I settled for something like: I would help the church to see that we are all in this together. That we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the community around us and believe that its more about serving them, and less about the church serving us.

The group nodded in silent affirmation. And then we listened to the next answer and the next answer. With each successive response we heard more and more ideas that could reshape the entire identity of the local church. Someone said that she would force her congregation to spend time each week serving the poor. Another said that he would require every person to go on at least one mission trip a year. And so on.

But my friend Drew remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table he listened intently as each pastor put forth his or her opinion, and I could tell that he was really thinking through his response. And when all of us had finally finished, when we had all laid out our best to impress, we all turned our heads to Drew to hear his answer.

He sighed and said, “I would make everyone rest.”

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The Lord speaks to Isaiah and is perfectly clear: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

Today, we are a far cry away from the type of Sabbath observance that took place in the time of the Old Testament. We barely even have a conception of what it means to be sabbatical on a regular basis. For Jews, to this day, the Sabbath happens every week, beginning on Friday night. For 24 hours everything changes. They gather together as families and friends. They remember who they are and whose they are. They experience God in time set apart.

For the Jews, Sabbaths are their greatest cathedrals and the holiest of holies is something that no one can take away. Instead of placing their hope and faith in things like buildings and ministry programs, they believe in the power of time that is different. They remember that the Lord created the world in six days and called each day “good.” But when the Lord came to the seventh day, the day of rest, God called it “holy.” In the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath they discover that time, not a place, but a time of difference makes all the difference.

We, on the other hand, don’t know what the Sabbath is any more. For those of us of the more mature-in-faith persuasion can remember a time with blue laws, when Sundays were different than the other days during the week. There was no going to the super market after church. There was no matinee showing of a movie on Sunday afternoon. No little league sports had games scheduled on the Lord’s Day.

But that time is long gone.

Now Sunday is likely the busiest day of the week. We frantically wake up on Sunday morning and get breakfast going, we wrestle with the kids to get out of bed and get dressed. We plead with them to find some article of clothing not covered in wrinkles. We jam into the car and arrive in the parking lot as the first hymn is being offered. We try to pay attention during worship, but whenever the pastor is foolish enough to call for times of contemplative silence, we can’t help ourselves from listing all of the things we need to get done this afternoon in our head. When worship ends we pile up in our cars and head out for lunch or back to the house to finish all the chores we neglected during the week. And before we know it we have to start working on dinner, we have to berate the children to finish their homework, we have to pack the lunches for Monday morning, and (if we’re lucky) we have time to all sit down in front of the television until our eyes dry up and we head to bed.

How hard is it to do anything these days, and in particular on Sunday? With our frantic and overly programmed schedules we find it harder and harder to find the time to do anything. By way of example, it took us months to figure out a time for our revamped youth group to meet. We debated meeting on Sunday evenings but that interfered with homework and family time. Fridays were out because of football games and other sport activities. Mondays were out because of band performances. Tuesdays we out because Scouts. And so on. It took a frightening amount of time to find the right time for our Youth, and even though we identified 7pm on Wednesday nights as the best time, it still prevents some of our Youth from attending on a regular basis.

And this isn’t just about youth. We adults are just as guilty about over-stuffing our daily lives with activities to the point that when the Sabbath arrives, we need to use it to make up for all the time we lost from Monday through Saturday.

We fill our lives with activities and programs because we are so desperate to find meaning in our lives. We assume that we must have something to do in order to make good on the time we’ve got. We use our busyness to feel confident that we are not wasting time. We go and go and go, and without Sabbath we fail to be who God is calling us to be.

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For six days every week we live under the tyranny of to-dos and the empire of expectations, for six days every week we try to dominate our duties and lasso our lives. Can you imagine what your life would feel like if, on the Sabbath, you gave up the temptation to control every moment? Can you picture how it would look to treat our time as the gift that it really is?

John Wesley was fond of telling a story about a young Christian who was extremely committed to observing the Sabbath. On one Saturday evening, as the sun was preparing to set, the young man sat down at his kitchen table and began shining his shoes for worship the next morning. He shined and shined, but ran out of polish and had to start looking through the house until he found another container. And as he prepared to start polishing the second shoe he looked out the window and discovered that the sun had set and evening had started. So he put his shoes away, one perfectly shined and the other scratched and dirty. And the next morning at church he wore those two seemingly different shoes for everyone to see, because he would not “work” on the Sabbath.

Is that the kind of Sabbath that God calls us to observe? Is it strict obedience to a principle, no matter what, that will make us ride upon the heights of the earth?

Observing the Sabbath is less about avoiding certain behaviors and more about being intentional about what we do with the time God gives us. It is far too easy to fill our Sundays with menial work that was neglected during the week. There is too great a temptation to use the Lord’s Day to serve our own interests. Many of us would consider ourselves too busy for Sabbath.

The Sabbath is supposed to be about joy! It’s not about sitting in a stuffy room listening to a preacher telling you that you’re a sinner and you need to repent. It’s not about neglecting to serve others in need. It’s not a legalistic absolute.

The Sabbath is a time apart, a time of thankfulness and joy. It is the one day a week we are called to break free from the oppression of our stifling work. It is a time to gather with the family of God to give thanks for all that we have. We are called to fill our Sabbaths with the kind of behaviors and activities that give us the strength to face the other days of the week. It is a time of rest. It is a time of holiness. It is a time where we can use recreation for our re-creation.

Creation is not an act that happened once, long ago, in the past. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. We rest once a week, because every week is a repeat of God’s creative and imaginative work. We rest because God rested. Every Sabbath is an opportunity to be recreated by the Spirit to be who God is calling us to be.

If we refrain from abusing the Sabbath, from using it as another day to get everything done; if we call the Sabbath a joy and if we honor it, not to serve our own interests; then we shall take delight in the Lord. We shall be able to faithfully sing, “it is well with my soul.” We shall be fed with the heritage of all who have come before us, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.

Karl Barth and The Strange New World Within The Bible

When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.

Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”

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Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.

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In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.

 

But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…

 

The Strange New World Within The Bible

We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.

We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.

We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.

We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?

We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.

We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.

We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.

We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.

Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.

Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.

We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.

And then it ends and The Bible is finished.

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What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?

These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.

It is not merely a history or a genealogy.

It is neither a myth nor a fable.

What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.

We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.

But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.

Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.

The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?

The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.

The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.

The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!

 

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Devotional – Jeremiah 1.9-10

Devotional:

Jeremiah 1.9-10

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and the plant.”

Weekly Devotional Image

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” His quote is remarkably indicative of what our contemporary experience is like with new projects constantly fading away into obscurity. For instance, while the world tunes in for the Olympic games in Rio, the former Olympic site in Athens, Greece is falling apart and is being used as a living area for Syrian refugees. Millions are spent on building the stadiums for the Olympics, and within a decade most of them start crumbling.

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In our churches this same type of behavior is common. Whenever a new opportunity for ministry pops up it garners support from the majority of congregations. Money will come in, people will volunteer their time, and the project usually bears fruit. However, after a program loses its luster it (like Olympic sites) begins to fade away from focus and fails to bear the fruit that it once did.

Moreover, the same principle holds true for our own discipleship. Whenever we encounter a new spiritual discipline, or a new bible study, it captures our initial interest and we start to grow more in our faith. We might commit to praying every morning as soon as we wake up, and for the first few weeks it is incredibly life giving. But as time passes, and the new behavior feels more like an old routine, we stop giving it our full attention and effort.

We like building, but we don’t like maintenance.

When the Lord first called Jeremiah to be a prophet, he gave him a difficult task: “I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah’s mission would not be limited to starting new programs and building new buildings alone. Instead, he was tasked with the even harder work of maintaining the people by plucking up and pulling down practices and behaviors that were no longer bearing fruit. He had the unenviable responsibility of maintaining what the Lord had created by destroying and overthrowing whatever stood in the way of God’s will.

What kind of maintenance work are we avoiding? What do we need to pluck up and pull down in our churches for them to truly become the body of Christ for the world? What do we need to destroy and overthrow in our lives to become the disciples that God is calling us to be?

Do Not Listen To Preachers (Including Me)

Jeremiah 23.23-29

Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? Says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

Pastor Holding Bible ca. 2000

 

A young preacher stands in the pulpit after a long week of parish ministry. The visits have all been made. A new budget for the coming year is finished and ready for approval. Plans for the Community Cook-Out came to fruition as people from all over the community gathered together.

The young preacher stands in the pulpit and looks out at the congregation. He sees couples that he has counseled; children that he has baptized; families that are struggling; individuals whose husbands or wives he has buried; and he even sees people he has never seen before. He looks over the bulletin one last time just to make sure that everything is listed the way it is supposed to be, and then he begins by saying, “This morning the sermon will be short and sweet”

“Hallelujah!” Someone shouts out from a pew.

“Is that for the short, or for the sweet?” says the preacher.

The congregation laughs.

The preacher sighs.

The art of preaching is a strange thing, but an even stranger thing when we consider that what we want from a sermon is something short and sweet. Some of you have been quick to say that you want a sermon that leaves you feeling good on your way out from the sanctuary. Others have said that you want a sermon that gives you something to think about during the week, or one that helps to remind you that God is love, or that Jesus wants the world to be a better place, etc.

I would classify myself as a short and sweet preacher. I fundamentally believe that if you cannot say what you’re trying to say in 15 minutes then you’re never going to say it. Additionally, I love pleasing all of you. I live for those moments in the receiving line following worship when some of you offer praise for what you heard through the sermon. I know I’m supposed to be humble, but it feels pretty good to be congratulated and praised for preaching.

In the last few years we’ve had an abundance of sweet sermons; times when I wanted all of you to leave with just one thought: “God loves you.” I’ve done my best to make you laugh and smile when thinking about the abundant glory of God’s grace. I’ve tried to cheer you up during times of domestic and international strife. I’ve worked to make this place as appealing as possible for as many people as possible.

And that is why you should not listen to preachers, including me.

“Am I close to you?” says the Lord. “Or am I far away? Who thinks they can hide in secret places so I cannot see them? I am the Lord! Do I not fill up heaven and earth? I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy in my name saying ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed! How long will they continue like this?”

The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time filled with false prophets, people who would ascend to places like this in front of a gathered people and make claims on behalf of the Lord. They would spout off about their visions of what the Lord was doing, and the more they said, the further they moved away from God.

God warns us against listening to false prophets, about succumbing to their visions, and about what happens when we trust them more than the Word.

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It would be easy today to make this whole sermon about the false prophets of our contemporary experience. We’ve got plenty of false prophets who use their skill to sell us on what they believe the future should hold. In fact this whole sermon could just be a warning against listening to the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

What kind of dreams are they selling?

“I have dreamed of a future where everyone can, and should go to college for free. Where healthcare will be free for everyone. We need to remember what made us great and start taking from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. It’s not about progress; it’s about fairness. We need to make America fair again.”

“I have dreamed of a wall unlike any other wall. This wall will fix all of our problems. It will bring wealth back to our country. We need to bomb the Middle East into oblivion to assert ourselves as the top of the world. We need to make America great again.”

Politicians have always been false prophets making promises that cannot be kept; selling a vision of the future that rarely comes to fruition. And we know this is true. That’s why we’ve grown so jaded by our political seasons and apathetic about whatever will happen.

But there are more false prophets out there than just politicians, and one of them is talking to you right now.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God warns us against listening to people like me, people who march up to the front of the gathered church and strive to proclaim God’s faithful word. For whenever we hear a preacher go on and on about the beauty and majesty of God’s Word, whenever the Lord is watered down to a spirit of love, whenever we hear more about the preacher’s dreams than God’s will, we need to be reminded that the Word of the Lord is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.

Since we’ve been together in this strange thing called church, I’ve preached over 150 sermons. I’ve preached from Genesis to Revelation. I’ve mentioned the patriarchs and the prophets. I’ve proclaimed the possibilities of the psalms. I’ve proudly preached on the power of parables. I’ve done different series on “Why We Do What We Do” and “The Basics” and “New Beginnings” and “Strange Stories from Scripture.” I’ve even dressed up and preached not one, but TWO sermons from the perspective of a donkey.

And for what?

Has the preaching in this place challenged you to be a better disciple? And maybe not just from me, but have you ever left this church really feeling convicted by what you heard and wanted to live differently? Or has your experience been like most, and you leave feeling pretty good on Sunday afternoon?

We preachers are tempted by the practices of false prophecy. We like to be liked. We want to fill pews with people to boost our egos. We need to hear praise from lay people on their way out the door. We yearn for success. We, after years of sermon preparation and proclamation, fall prey to hearing our own voice so deeply that we no longer hear others, nor do we hear the Lord.

For the last three years I’ve had a dream about the future of this church. I have dreamed of Sunday mornings where so many people fill the pews of this sanctuary that I cannot know everyone’s names. I have imagined crowds gathered around the baptismal font in anticipation of bringing a new person into the life of our church. I have pictured people having to park on the front lawn because there are not enough spaces left in our parking lot.

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And because I had this dream, I preached and worked toward things like our Community Cook-Out. I implored our Church Council to use enough money to give away the food and the games and the fellowship all for free. I sent out hundreds and hundreds of post-cards to all of our neighbors so that they might join us on the front lawn.

I have dreamed, and I want the dream to become real. So I work week after week on ideas and programs and sermons that will draw people into this sanctuary on Sunday mornings until that dream becomes reality.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in our narthex right before our opening hymn. Most of you were sitting in the pews; our liturgist had gone through the pertinent announcements and necessary welcome. Rick was playing something melodic on the organ as we prepared our hearts and minds for worship when I stepped onto the carpet with our acolyte.

Without thinking much about it, I started to count the back of all your heads. I started with the front left and made my way toward the back, then my eyes moved to the front right and all the way toward the back. My lips must have been moving because our acolyte looked at me and said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m counting…” I said while trying to not lose track of the number.

And then he asked, “Why?”

Why?

In his question, in the simple raise of an eyebrow at my action, my heart caught on fire, it burned like a blaze, and I felt it crumble into ashes.

For how long have I deceived my own heart? For how long have I been so consumed by the number of people in our pews that I have forgotten the call to share the Good News? For how long have I proclaimed a God of love who is so loving that he does not expect us to live changed and transformed lives? For how long have all of us listened to false prophets who preached their own dream instead of speaking the Word of the Lord faithfully?

In his question I heard the Lord convict my heart because I have been caught up in church growth not for the sake of the kingdom, but for my own affirmation. I have wanted the front lawn to be packed with people from the community not for the sake of the kingdom, but for the pews to be filled in worship. I have preached sermons to make us feel better not for the sake of the kingdom, but for all of you to come back the next Sunday.

Sermons are a good and strange thing. After all they are the means by which the Word of the Lord is interpreted for our lives on a weekly basis. But they cannot be blindly accepted without challenge. For to only ever hear about God’s grace does a disservice to the Lord who is always calling us to live more like Christ. And, on the other hand, to only ever hear about how sinful we are neglects to reveal the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.

God cares more about spreading the Good News than about filling up the pews.

And sometimes that Good News is that we need to be better than we were when we arrived, that we are called to a life of discipleship that pins us against the world, that the Lord expects great things from us. The Good News is that God has not abandoned us to our sinful desires and devices, that God believes we can be better even if we don’t, and that we can transform the world but we first must transform ourselves.

We need good preachers, men and women who are willing to lay down their egos at the altar and faithfully proclaim God’s Word. And we need good lay people who are willing to crucify their fears and speak the truth in love toward the preachers who have fallen into the trap of false prophecy.

So, may the Word of the Lord be like a hammer that breaks our lives into pieces! Let it shatter our false identities and insecurities, let it break down all our preconceived notions and assumptions, and let it burn and blaze forever and ever. Amen.

On Evangelism or: Why The Church Needs Crucifixion

Matthew 28.19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelism

We sent out hundreds of post-cards over a month ago inviting the entire neighborhood to join us on the front lawn of the church for a free Community Cook-Out. The post-cards were well designed and inviting with all of the necessary information. For a modest price we were able to reach a whole group of people who we would otherwise miss.

This will be our third annual gathering and it has been largely successful. Half of the people in attendance are usually not from the church and we want them to know that we care about the neighborhood we are in. However, on some level, we also want them to know that we love them enough that we would love to have them join us in worship on Sunday mornings.

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Yet, evangelism is not the goal of our gathering. We have not specifically identified key lay people to go around asking people if Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Savior. We have not prepared pamphlets to hand out describing the eternal fires of hell if someone does not get saved. We have not invited the neighborhood to our front lawn to get them into heaven.

Instead, we hope that by showing them our love, it will somehow draw them into church to discover where that love comes from: God.

Next week we are going to send out even more post-cards to the local community about our upcoming sermon series titled “Confronting Controversy.” After speaking with a few nominal Christians from the neighborhood about what they want to hear about in church, we synthesized this series to be approachable and life-giving to people who are not currently in the church. The post-card has been well designed with a catchy image and all of the necessary information on the back. We hope that by sending them out, people from the community will join us in worship and discover that what the world thinks about the church may not be the same thing as what God thinks about the world.

controversy

Both of these ventures, a Community Cook-Out and a Controversial Sermon Series, are about trying to grow the church in some way, shape, or form. Many of us call this “evangelism.” But that’s not what evangelism means.

In David Fitch’s recent work Prodigal Christianity, he highlights a moment from his ministry where the church tried to grow and failed:

“When our church, Life on the Vine, was new, we sent out ten thousand postcards to people in our neighborhoods. We artfully displayed a collage of various depictions of Jesus (classical paintings, icons, and European, African, and Asian portrayals) with the question in bold print running across it: “Who is Jesus?” On the back, we invited the neighborhood to have a discussion with us about the question. We were playing off the cultural curiosity around Easter and hope that we could welcome a constructive conversation around the question. The card was not well received. Local “Bible-believing” Christians accused us of straying into relativism with so many different depictions of Jesus. They worried we were losing the truth of Jesus. Meanwhile many others accused us of being intolerant. Were not other religious leaders just as worthy of discussion? We got nasty phone calls asking, “Why are you focusing only on Jesus?” No one, and I mean NO ONE, came to any of our gatherings from this postcard.”[1]

Out of ten thousand postcards, no one came to any of the gatherings. I think a lot of this has to do with our false assumption that just by offering something people will show up. We believe that if we give them an interesting sermon series or bible study people are bound to show up in droves. And if we let them know about it through a postcard we can reach even more people!

These types of evangelism largely fail because we’ve confused evangelism with filling the pews instead of sharing the Good News.

I cringe whenever I encounter an “evangelist” in the midst of life who abruptly asks, “Have you confessed Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Because with their question is the assumption that we have the power to save ourselves, and that they are playing a fundamental role in our salvation. However, Jesus does not command the disciples to go out convincing people to confess him as Lord. Instead he tells them to go and make disciples.

Discipleship formation is primarily about relationships and less about post-cards and Main Street confessions. We become evangelists not when we beg or convince someone to confess Jesus as Lord, but when we intentionally create relationships with individuals through the love that Jesus taught us to live by. We can use sermon series and community events to first bring people into the church, but those types of things will never be enough (by themselves) to evangelize. It takes a willing and loving disciple who sees others not as pew fillers but fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God.

As a gathering church we are called to be confident in God’s love for us, and for us to share that same love with others; “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19). We will grow and bear fruit in the kingdom when love becomes our first priority instead of growth. We have failed to grow not because we have been doing things unworthily, but because we’ve grown bored and unhappy. With churches all across the American landscape floundering under the pressure to grow and remain sustainable, the church falls back to the common tropes of Vacation Bible Schools and Sermon Series assuming they will grow the church.

Can you imagine what the church might look like if Christians were actually happy and excited about being the church? That’s where and when evangelism happens – not in the boredom of another series or bible study, but in the community transformed by joy and sharing that joy.

Evangelism (1)

Evangelism is our call as Christians. We are commanded by the Lord to share the Good News in order to make disciples and transform the world. If we want this kind of dynamic and life-giving evangelism to take place, then we have to be willing to crucify some of our current practices and programs; you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion.

We need to crucify our boring and lifeless activities that we assume will grow the church. Is the annual Cook-Out really sharing the good news with others, or are we doing it to feel good about seeing a lot of people on our property?

We need to ask difficult questions about our programs and whether or not they are designed to evangelize. Are our monthly meetings really about branching out to the community and transforming our cultural landscape, or are we meeting to keep the people already in the church happy?

We need to confront our budgets and demand that they reflect Jesus’ mission. Are we spending our resources according to the great commission, or are we neglecting to be good stewards by wasting our resources of lifeless avenues of ministry?

We need to take a look at our own families and reflect on how we evangelize those closest to us. Are we so consumed by raising our children to choose whether to be Christian or not for their own good, or are we afraid of telling them what we really feel and believe?

What can we crucify in our hearts and in our churches to be resurrected into the kind of evangelists that God is calling us to be?

 

 

[1] Fitch, David and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2013), 32.