Questions: In the End… – Sermon on John 14.5-6, 1 Timothy 2.1-4, and John 13.34

(Instead of a typical ~15 minute sermon from the pulpit, I broke the following sermon up into 3 homilies. I preached the first from the pulpit, the second from the lectern, and the third from the middle)

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

1 Timothy 2.1-4

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.

 

Today we conclude our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, faith, and the church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Over the last two weeks we have looked at what it means to be “saved” and how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another. Today we are talking about other faiths and how they relate to Christianity. So, here we go…

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John 14.5-6: Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

For nearly an entire semester I sat in the front row for my class on “Hindu Traditions” at JMU. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, and habits. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject and as we came to the conclusion of the class, I was thankful for his ability to open my eyes to the wonders of a great religion.

It was during our last class session that Dr. Mittal asked if there were anything remaining questions before the Final Exam. A few hands raised, mostly questions about the actual exam; Would it be multiple choice? Would it contain essays? But, one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade for Christ” sweater, asked a question that I’ll never forget: “If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent. 

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and flare his nostrils. “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class!”

The disciple Thomas, ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying, questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were going. And Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, truth, and life; rather, he is all of these. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth. 

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From the beginning of the church, this statement has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace in your life, you can only find it through Jesus Christ; hence the strong push for evangelism over the last 2 millennia. Not only did Jesus command the disciples to go to all the nations baptizing everyone in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we have been steeped in our tradition that affirms salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

In the first few centuries the church agreed that outside of the church, there is no salvation. In order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you had to be taught the ways of the church, engage in acts of kindness and mercy, and be baptized in order to find your identity within the body of Christ. Even with the rise of other religions, and the interaction between them and Christianity, we affirm that the only way to God is through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class because of what my fellow student had said to Dr. Mittal. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or illicit some sort of reaction from him. However, perhaps she was being remarkably genuine, concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would continue on a path that would separate him from God.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

1 Timothy 2.1-4: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.”

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century (who I have mentioned a number of times from the pulpit) was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and publications there are examples where he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. He dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Once, after a series of lectures, a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you a universalist? Do you believe that everyone will go to heaven?” Barth probably crossed his arms and thought deeply about his response. After contemplating the implications of what he was about to say, Barth answered the young theologian: “That is a great question. Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. Our world is becoming more and more diverse, with differing understandings of Christianity springing up all over the world. Was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross only for those who believe in him, or was it for all of creation?

We might think of the often quoted John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or the number of instances in scripture where individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, and the unnamed centurion who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son” at the moment Christ died on the cross) who played remarkable roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God. Every individual has been molded from God’s image and given life through the Spirit regardless of their religious affiliation.

We might think of examples from Christ’s ministry where he did not come for the religious elite, but for the last, the least, and the lost. Jesus shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the outcasts. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to comes, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, then God’s mercy truly knows no bounds. God’s love is so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to all creation. God’s love has been poured out through Christ’s death and resurrection onto the church, and to everyone outside of the church. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and everyone in between have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory over death.

In Barth’s response to the young theologian, he deliberately avoided answering the specific question, yet he embodied the kind of hope that all Christians should have; that God’s love is so powerful that he came to die for us, while we were yet sinners; that God’s mercy is so strong that nothing will ever separate us from God; and that God’s grace is so abundant that heaven will be crowded.

After all, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.” Amen.

 

John 13.34: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

During my final year of seminary I served as an on-call chaplain at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay on the hospital property for 24 hours attending the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that occurred throughout our shift. One night, after sitting with numerous families who had just learned that someone had died, after talking with patients just diagnosed with inoperable cancer, after pacing up and down the sterile halls for hours, I found myself in the chapel. A tiny room, no bigger than our narthex, it contained numerous religious materials, a piano, an altar, and a notebook for prayers. Whenever I had a moment I would stop in and pray the prayers out loud, and most of the time it was empty. It became a place of solace for me, a space where I could remove myself from the chaos of the hospital.

Burning Bush in Duke Hospital's Chapel

Burning Bush in Duke Hospital’s Chapel

Every once and awhile I would encounter a Muslim praying on his knees in the corner. We would always politely nod toward one another and continue on with our religious responsibilities. But that night, the night that felt like it would never end, everything changed.

I was standing at the altar, while my companion prayed in the corner, we both spoke in a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all of the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. “Let us pray together” he said. And without discussing the details, without organizing our thoughts, without debating the theological differences and implications, we both began to pray, shoulder to shoulder, for the people we were serving. When our prayers naturally came to their conclusion, we met eye to eye, nodded, and went on our separate ways.

In compiling all of the questions for this sermon series, “What happens to people of other faiths?” appeared more than any other. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, the most significant challenge to, and opportunity for, the Christian church today. Moreover, the rise of atheism further complicates the picture into a varied mosaic whereby the church is challenged to address both those who do not believe and those who do believe, but who believe differently from us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths? I don’t know. We can take Jesus words from John, or other affirmations from scripture and receive very different answers. One of the struggles with being a Christian is that we have to paradoxically affirm both responses, that salvation can only come through the church, and that through Christ all have been saved. “What happens to people of other faiths?” is an interesting question, but in the end, God is the only one who holds the answer. However, a question that strikes at our hearts today is: “How do we relate to people of other faiths?”

Jesus commands all of us to love one another, this is the new commandment. If there is any command from Jesus to obey in our lives regarding other faiths it is this: love one another. In my own life God has used a number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to be a discipleship of Jesus Christ: questions from my secular friends about why I believe, the love expressed by indigenous Mayan women in the highlands of Guatemala, one of the Muslim doctors at Duke Hospital who met me in the depth of suffering for prayer.

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desire us to be in relationship with others. This means that we have to be willing to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, and people with no beliefs at all. We are called to love one another just as God has loved us. We are not here just to minister to other Christians, but to the whole world. We are called to seek justice and mercy in the world for ALL who are oppressed regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, and religious affiliation.

And so, in the great adapted words of John Wesley: Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, though we may not have the same opinion about the role that Jesus plays in the cosmic victory over death, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt, we may. Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 1/27/14

Devotional:

Psalm 15.1-4

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt.

 

“Being a Christian must be so easy,” a friend of mine once said, “You can do whatever you want, just so long as you confess right before you die, you’ll still go to heaven.”

Responding to those kind of comments has always been difficult for me. Yes, we do believe that God’s forgiveness will always come because nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Yes,  you could live your whole life in ignorance of God’s love and mercy, only to discover it in your last days and God would still be there waiting to receive you. However, upon later reflection, I wish I could have responded to that particular comment in the way that Augustine did in the fourth century:

703“Some delude themselves because of God’s mercy. They say: “I still have a little time left to live how I like. Why shouldn’t I live how I like as much as I like and then turn to God later? After all, God has promised to pardon me.” I respond, “True, but he has not promised that you are going to be alive tomorrow.” – St. Augustine, Sermon 339

When Christianity is compartmentalized into “what happens to me after I die?” then all respect and concern for the present is lost. In Psalm 15 we learn about what it means to be welcomed to God’s holy hill, to abide in God’s tent; our faithfulness is far less concerned with our ability to accept God in our last days, than it is about living a life of service and holiness.

A professor of mine once said, “The question should not be, ‘If I die tonight, what will happen to me?’ but instead, ‘If I live for another day, what will I do with it? How will I love God and my neighbor?’”

So, let us all seek to live holy lives in the present. Let us not put off for tomorrow what we can, and should, do today. Let us look at our own lives and ask “am I walking blamelessly, doing what is right, and speaking the truth?”

 

Questions: The Old and the New – Sermon on Genesis 11.1-9 & Acts 2.1-4

Genesis 11.1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

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Today we continue with our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithful respond to those questions. Last week we looked at what it means to be saved and how we can come to understand it in our own lives. Today we are talking about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, how can we reconcile the vengefully destructive God of the Old Testament with the loving merciful God of the New.

So, here we go…

I saw the two representatives walking up and down the street, knocking on the doors of all my neighbors. Sitting at my kitchen counter, I was at home on break from JMU working on a paper for my class called “Jesus and the Moral Life.” As I sat there, Bible and computer spread before me, I eagerly awaited any distraction.

I wondered what organization or church the two men represented. It was clear that whatever they were trying to sell was not working out for them because they were moving quickly between the houses on the other side of the street. I remember trying to focus on my assignment, but my mind wandered regarding the the possibilities of the speech the pair were giving to my neighbors.

When the doorbell finally rang, I sprinted to the front door with my bible in tow.

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“Good afternoon sir,” they chimed simultaneously with seemingly forced smiles that almost hurt to witness. “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” I mumbled something in response about being a Christian, but they continued as if I wasn’t really standing there.

“Are you aware of God’s impending destruction of the earth? We have failed to be obedient, and God is surely going to rain down his wrath upon all of us. There will be earthquakes, floods, and famines. Nothing can stop God’s judgement, but we can save you.”

“Tell me more,” I replied.

“Well, Satan and his demons were cast down to earth in 1914 which initiated the End Times. Over the years he has begun to take over human governments in order to create evil on earth. God will come to destroy Satan, and this entire earth with him, but if you join us, God will protect you from his armageddon.”

Now, before I continue, I urge you to remember that I was a young and foolish biblical studies student, convinced that I knew everything there was to know about God, faith, and scripture.

And so, it came to pass that after listening to these two men describe for me the fall of Satan having occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, and their ability to save me from God’s impending destruction, I could no longer contain myself…

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“Well, if you look at our pamphlet, it clearly outlines…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“These charts will show how natural disasters are connected to Satan…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible? I’ve got one right here, and I would love for you to show me where your facts come from.”

At that point they slowly started to step away from the door, thanked me for my time, and continued their evangelistic work to the rest of the neighborhood.

Thinking back upon that interaction, I regret the poor Christian hospitality I showed those two men. I had a predetermined commitment to scripture that blinded me from hearing them out and kindly responding to their interpretive theology. However, I believe the interaction does point to a faulty mode of reading God’s Word that has plagued the church from the beginning.

Marcion was a Christian bishop during the first century. Like many Christians, he saw discrepancies between the actions of God in the Old Testament and during the time of the New Testament. And after wrestling with the differences, Marcion proposed completely rejecting the existence of the God described in the Jewish scriptures, and also argued for omitting the sections of the New Testament that were connected with the Old. Central for Marcion’s edited bible was the idea that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of God as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

After numerous debates, fights, and even scandals Marcion was declared a heretic by the early church fathers and was removed from the church.

Like the two men who came knocking on my door, Marcion (and many others) had a very tunnel-visioned understanding of scripture. If it did not agree with their beliefs, they omitted it, they ignored it, and they taught in spite of it.

Without a doubt, if you read through the stories of the Old and New Testaments you will discover a number of difficulties regarding the actions of God throughout time. Wrestling with these changes has been a part of the church’s history from the very beginning and still takes place today. To fully address these differences it would take numerous sermons series and bible studies, and certainly cannot be fully proclaimed in one sermon. If this is something that you really wrestle with we can talk about doing something in greater detail down the road, but for today’s purposes we can only accomplish so much.

One of the major problems with the inconsistency of scripture is that we tend to view chapters and narratives in isolation. We take one verse from the Old Testament and compare it to one verse in the New. I am thankful for the numbering of chapters and verses for organization, but I believe they have also stratified our understanding of scripture into tiny bits that can be reorganized for our understanding. The Bible is one thing, it is the single story of God with God’s people; it may be divided into two testaments, with numerous chapters and verses regarding a plethora of people and places, but it is nevertheless one unified collection of the living Word for God’s people.

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Rather than reading in isolation, we are called to understand and experience God’s word canonically, which is to say we have to understand each individual narrative in light of the entire saga of scripture. Reading, preaching, and teaching canonically opens our eyes to the many ways that God runs through both testaments like a river; the water may change with the seasons, but the water always moves.

In Genesis 10 we find the story of the tower of Babel. Humanity had one language and had gathered in the plains of Shinar to settle down. There they decided to build a giant tower into the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God witnessed the construction of this tower, recognized that this was but one domino leading inevitably to a belief that humanity did not need God, so God confused their language and scattered the people over the face of the earth.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the disciples gathered together 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. While they were all together a great wind came from heaven filling the entire house. All of the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

Babel and Pentecost, two stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the New. These stories are often used in church to make separate points about the identity of God and what it means to be a disciple; Babel demonstrates God’s punishment of humanity for sin and Pentecost shows God’s desire for the gospel to spread amongst all nations and languages. However, they cannot be fully understood without the other. They are not two separate stories describing two different Gods, but are instead part of the greater canonical narrative of how God is God.

Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride. Like the garden, Babel exhibits that same sense of sin whereby humanity believed it no longer needed God. Though the story clearly contains examples of God’s wrath, it also contains an abundance of grace.

In striving to build a city and a tower for themselves, humanity had lost sight of the unity under which they already enjoyed from God. The true sin evident in the story is the arrogance of thinking that humanity must take itself as one takes brick and mortar, and make themselves the lord of history. In violation of the original unity of creation, in humanity’s desire to control its own destiny, the people of Genesis 11 were no longer naturally organized under the great Shepherd, but instead were brought together by the selfish desire to live in ignorance of God’s created order.

God punishes the people gathered together by confusing their language and scattering them over the earth. His wrath is evident, but his grace also lies under the surface. God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine example of control to achieve the punishment. He could have destroyed the tower and everyone in it. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done with Noah and the flood, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining down death and destruction, God limits the punishment to linguistics.

We discover God’s unyielding grace in the fact that God will continue to be our shepherd regardless of our self-righteousness. God will not abandon us to our own devices but will remain faithful even when we are not.

And remember, the story of Babel does not end in Genesis 10, it continues on throughout the Old Testament and finds reflection in the New. As Christians we are aware that God has more in store for his creation than one isolated story from the past would have us believe. In the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided world finally comes back together. It is in the story of Pentecost that we are reminded again of God’s desire for humanity to rest in unity, not division.

Pentecost tells us about the miracle of the Holy Spirit coming down to help reunite the world in order to fruitfully live into God’s kingdom. God did not abandon the people of Babel, just as God has not abandoned us while we continually act as if we can make through life on our own.

The same year I met the two men who knocked on my door, I took a group of college-age Christians to Taize, an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. We camped for a week on the property, gathering together with 5,000 young Christians three times a day for prayer and reflective hymns. The Christians gathered together that week came from all over the globe, representing nearly every continent. In between the worship services, we met in small groups talking about faith, scripture, and discipleship. When the last day arrived, my group sat together and I asked us to end our week by standing in a circle to pray with each other. I asked everyone to pray the Lord’s prayer together in their native tongue, and then individually pray it so that we could hear what it sounded like. For perhaps the first time in my life, Pentecost became really for me while we prayed together in that field. Though all of us had been divided across the planet we were all brought together by Jesus Christ. Though we had been previously separated we were gathered in unity by the great “I AM.”

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Babel and Pentecost are intimately connected but I want to be clear that the relationship between the two testaments is not that God fixes the problems of the Old Testament with the revelations of the New. God did not change himself from wrathful to graceful. The New Testament is not the band-aid for the Old.

Yet, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ changed everything. The Old Testament tells of God’s interaction with creation and the New Testament inaugurates the event where God came to dwell among us. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we are called to read scripture, both the Old and the New Testament. God’s love of creation is woven into the fabric of scripture, consistently revealed through people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Paul and places like Egypt, Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem.

This is one great cosmic story, a story that begins with God’s creation of all things declaring them good, a story that has no end because it still taking form right now.

So, how do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament? We read scripture knowing that it does not happen in isolation, but can only be understood within the canon of both testaments. 

We read knowing that, like all great things, God is mystery unrevealed until its proper season. We read with faith knowing that God has not abandoned us, though we struggle to find meaning in the shadow of suffering, fear, and doubt, God’s plan for us is greater than we can possibly imagine. We read knowing that God does not choose us because we are good, but because he wants us to be good.

We read scripture in the light of Jesus Christ recognizing that where we find wrath, there is also grace; when we suffer we discover our hope; and when there is death there is also resurrection. Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 1/20/14

Devotional:

Psalm 27.1-2

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh — my adversaries and foes — they shall stumble and fall. 

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For the last few years I have made a point to watch one of my favorite sermons/speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. on this particular holiday. On April 3rd 1968 Dr. King delivered an address at the Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis Tennessee. As he makes his way eloquently through the problems facing Memphis, and addressing them as only a great preacher could do, you can feel as if you were sitting in the audience that night. He concludes with these words:

 

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to have a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

 

The next day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on his motel’s second floor balcony.

To be devoted to Christian faith is never easy. Maintaining faith is spite of such horrible atrocities in the world is remarkably difficult. When faith is limited to talk, its easy. Dr. King showed the world the cost of discipleship when you talk and walk the faith of Jesus Christ.

Our faith is constantly tempted by outside elements and we are called to resist those temptations by living out our faith in whatever ways we can. The psalmist writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” If we take seriously the faith we affirm in Jesus Christ, if we proclaim Christ as Lord, then we really don’t have anything to fear.

So, as we all continue in our own faith journeys, let us remember the great disciples of the past, particularly Martin Luther King Jr. Let us strive to not only speak our faith, but walk it as well. Let us strive to work against injustice whenever we see it. Let us love unconditionally. Let us be the body of Christ for the world. Let us work hard to keep the faith as God has kept his faith in us.

 

Ordination – A Reflection on Interviewing for the UMC

In the next few weeks, a number of United Methodist seminarians will sit before their respective Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether or not they are prepared for, or effective in, ministry. The interviews can be a terrifying process; for years these students have studied diligently and now they are being asked to demonstrate their ability to articulate their theology. After going before the Virginia Conference’s Board last year, I have been asked by a number of friends/peers to reflect on the journey and offer advice. Below I have copied my response to one such friend. Though the the reflections are largely geared toward those interested in ministry, I believe they also function to help encourage theological reflection in all forms of Christian discipleship.

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1) Prepare yourself to be surprised. For as much as our fellow peers have gone through the ringer of these interviews, you can never prepare yourself for EVERY question. There will come a moment that you are asked to respond and you will be completely lost for a moment because you never though they would have asked that question. So, (heres the advice part) do NOT try to just memorize particular answers to particular questions. Most of these people have read through more papers than they can count and they’ve heard all the same answers over and over. Calm yourself and let your answers be more organic than regimented. Instead of answering everything in three points (or through every avenue of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”) try instead to relate it to YOUR experience of God in the world. The committee will then know that you are answering from Truth rather than truth. Be God’s Yes and No to the world at the same time. (which is to say: be dialectical, without confusing the committee members)

 

2) Scripture scripture scripture. If there is any technique or trick to help with the interviews, its to read the bible before you go. It will rest in the fabric of your being as a well from which you can draw the living water of theological and liturgical reflection. When possible, use examples from scripture to answer any of the questions you are asked. Not only will it demonstrate your commitment to the Word, but it will also show how you have a scripturally shaped imagination. For example: you might not be familiar with terrible suffering in your own life, but the lives remembered from the biblical corpus certainly have and they can be your examples to answer the questions.

 

3) Be Methodist (but not too Methodist). Use Wesley’s life and teaching to inform your answers, but don’t isolate yourself to ONLY thinking in a Wesleyan way. We have all been trained by a wide variety of theologians, we’ve read from the greats in church history, and we’ve experienced churches beyond the UMC. Ecumenism is not just some idealistic practice, but should instead be one of the great aims of the church. Use sources outside of your church family to answer questions, yet make sure they match up with the Theological and Doctrinal Standards of our faith.

 

4) Baptism, Eucharist, Sacraments (Oh MY!) – Sacramental theology is at the heart of what it means to be Christian (particularly United Methodist). Though some sacramental functions have been downplayed in the contemporary church they were CENTRAL to Wesley’s approach. Also, sacraments are what separates the laity from the clergy; they are our responsibility to maintain and provide for the people.

 

5) Remember: you are intimidating. (I mean this as a compliment) Most of the people in your interviews (in fact, probably all of them) will be older than you, and have a lesser theological education. You will do well to remember this. As a young and confident person, you will be viewed with suspicion by some members of the committee (I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is). Show a command of the material, but don’t overdo it. One of the things I’ve heard from a lot of our peers in different conferences was that the committees were bothered with their lack of translation between seminary and the normalcy of church life. They want to hear what you have to say IN A WAY THAT THEY CAN UNDERSTAND. For example: for as much as I love Barth, be very careful with his language and conceptions of God. They will mean little to the members on the committees.

 

6) Pray. Seriously. Pray before you interview. Pray between each committee room. Remember why you’re doing this and for whom (The answer is God)

 

7) Materials can be important. Bring your papers with you, but don’t anchor yourself to them. You might be asked to clarify a specific response that you wrote. If this is the case, don’t worry about what you wrote, but carefully respond to their question in the moment. They want to give you as many chances as they can to clarify what you mean.

 

8) Take your time. Before jumping to answer their questions, make sure you know what they’re asking. If they’re unclear, ask them to rephrase. Better for you to get the question right before you give a wrong answer.

 

9) Be humble. I know you will have an answer to every question, but showing that you still have room for growth will go a long way in reaching the hearts of the committee members. I remember being asked about death and instead of just throwing out a response I said something to the effect of “You know, thats a really difficult question. Death is one of those many things that we do not have a black and white answer to, death is something caught up in the mystery of God. Its hard for me to respond to hypothetical responses regarding death, but I can tell you that scripture says…” Owning up to the fact that you don’t have all the answers reinforces the reasons that Jesus had to come in the first place. If we had it all figured out, we never would’ve needed God to come in flesh to die, and live, for us.

 

10) Be yourself. Be authentic to who you are. If you’re pushed out of your comfort zone by a question, make them know they have done so. If you feel like your integrity might be compromised by giving them the answer they want to hear, rather than the one you believe, I say be true to yourself more than them. (this is debatable regarding the question) However, in my experience, they would rather see YOU answer the question as YOU perceive and understand rather than handing them over the perfectly crafted three sentence response they have been hearing all day. Theology is alive. New ideas and concepts and faith-struggles occur everyday. If we only reuse the same theologies over and over than we will never grow as a church, and the kingdom of God will remain tacit, fruitless, and stale. The Church needs imagination now, perhaps more than ever before.

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Questions: I Believe; Help My Unbelief! – Sermon on Mark 9.14-24 & Ephesians 2.8-9

Mark 9.14-24

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Ephesians 2.8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

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Today we begin the first part of our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have come to the time where I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Today we are talking about faith, being saved, and doubt. So, here we go…

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime rejecting their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writing and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his expectation.

So during the early 1960’s Barth found himself in his later years, touring around the American landscape lecturing to young, and old, Christians about the importance of God being God.

Karl Barth is my theological hero – his books line my shelves and I believe he put forth a remarkable understanding of scripture.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

However, Barth is remarkably difficult to understand and was very longwinded in his writing. He was once approached by a young theologian declaring, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” To which Barth replied, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I’ve written.”

Karl Barth, intellectual and as difficult to understand as any theologian I’ve ever read, lectured at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. After one such lecture, no doubt filled with theologisms beyond the capacity of comprehension, a young man bravely decided to ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the United States. Churches pushed for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And everyone wanted to know when you got saved.

The young man, with his hand shaking in the air, waited to ask his question. I imagine that Barth was getting tired of answering the foolish questions from the audience but decided to offer one final answer. “Son, what is your question?”

“Well professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

The young man, obviously caught up with the personal stories of individuals who accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, moments where folk learned that they were saved, wanted to know when Barth had discovered this momentous occasion in his own life.

After responding to questions about the ineffability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the Trinity, and the self unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition, Barth was finally asked a question with a simple answer.

“Hmm, when was I saved? Oh yes, thats easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

“How will I know when I’m saved?” A question I have heard time and time again. When will I know, with assurance, that heaven is my everlasting reward? How will I be able to tell that I have been saved and what happens if I ever have doubts later on, will I still go to heaven?

In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to go to heaven. A time when they let their old self die, in order to be clothed in Christ forevermore. This often takes form in an altar call, that moment after the sermon when a preacher stands right where I am, calling out to the congregation, calling out for those who feel the call of God on their lives to come forward during the final hymn to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and save them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and wine of communion, nourishing someone’s faith in a way previously unexperienced.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a rebirth, a reawakening of the soul, a definitive shift in the life of a Christian. Some of my friends celebrate their “saved” birthday every year with a cake and presents. And even though some of those people are dear to me, and even though I can trace back to a moment in my life where I committed my life to Christ, I still wonder about what it really means to be saved.

This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something which is not within our power, but only of God. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. Everyone can be saved — by virtue of what God can do.

After coming down from the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus met back up with the disciples only to be surprised to see them arguing with scribes. Upon arrival the crowd surrounded him overcome with awe. Someone from the group stepped forward, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, it makes him seize up and crash to the ground. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were unable.” Jesus then responded to everyone present, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So the crowd brought the boy forward but he immediately began to convulse when in the presence of the Lord and he rolled on the floor foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “Its been happening since childhood,” the father responded, “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus then responded, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

unbelief

I believe; help my unbelief! The father’s reply demonstrates for us the nature of faith. It seems so paradoxical and contradictory, yet, how often has that father’s cry been the prayer on our lips? The father has shown a bit of faith by approaching Jesus in the first place, yet the move stemmed from desperation rather than confidence; “if you can do anything” shows his doubt and his faith at the same moment. The father holds his disbelief and faith in tandem with one another.

Haven’t we all had moments where, like the father, we can hold both our faith and disbelief at the same time? Periods in our life where we know that God loves us, yet our doubts begin to percolate at the same time. Perhaps confronted with a disappointment we call out to God  begging to know his ways, wondering if he’s even listening at all, yet we still call out to God. Like the father we take our burdens to God, we have enough faith to go that far, faith the size of a mustard seed, but then we struggle and limp along unsure of what God can do.

Prayer does not work like magic. Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get what we want. God does not simply grant all of our requests when we kneel and bow before him. That puts far too much power on our side of the equation. Like “knowing” we are saved because “we” have accepted Christ, it puts the burden on us to accomplish something that we cannot do on our own. If salvation can be decided on our acceptance of Christ as Lord, then God would never have had to come in the form of flesh, die on the cross, and then be raised from the dead. Prayer is more like wrestling alone in the middle of the night with a God who refuses to let go.

God is the one who saves us through Jesus Christ, God is the one who healed that father’s son through Jesus Christ. Prayer and accepting Christ is not magic, yet we are always called to pray, like that father, for more faith. We pray for more faith as trust in God’s love, grace, and power so that God in Christ can work his healing power and presence through Christ in our lives.

The story of the man bringing his son to Christ is powerful for all of us gathered here, because like that father we are fallen people incapable to saving ourselves and our loved ones. This story offers us a great glimpse of God’s glory: All things are possible to those who believe. But even greater than that is the fact that beyond our faith or prayers, God is the source of healing and salvation in our lives. Jesus is the one who calls us to brings our burdens to him, we are not left alone to try and save ourselves.

So, how do we know when we are saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are we allowed to doubt?

I like Barth’s answer to that young man, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on the cross.” I like his answer because its true and it puts the power of salvation back on God’s side of the equation. We cannot save ourselves by virtue of our own devices, but it is only God who can save us. Yet, there is something remarkably powerful about accepting Christ at the same time. Barth’s response is appropriate, but it still misses a fundamental element of what it means to follow Christ.

If being “saved” can be compartmentalized to that moment on a cross 2,000 years ago, then there is little need for us to follow Jesus in the present. Without a commitment to change our lives in accordance with the kingdom, discipleship falls to pieces. When we come to know Jesus Christ in our hearts, when we have that moment, whether its at the altar during one of our favorite hymns, or in the water of baptism, perhaps in the wine and bread of communion, its not so much they we are accepting God, but more the fact that for the first time we are realizing that God has had us the whole time. 

Faith, at its purest and deepest form, is not about “letting God into your heart” but discovering that God has been there the whole time. Being saved is not about making a choice to become a Christian, but a willingness to let God be the Lord of our lives, and not the other way around. Doubts are not something to be feared and dismissed, but to be embraced and wrestled with. Even after John Wesley felt the assurance of God’s love in his life when his heart was strangely warmed, his doubts crept back in within days.

Faith is that great dance between us and God, faith is knowing and unknowing, faith is being able to cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Thats exactly why we need elements of worship such as baptism and communion. We need patterns and practices that remind us of that great event where Christ died and was risen, that incredible moment where we were saved, but we also need food and habits for our faith journeys. We need to know that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, but by the gift of God. Yet at the same time we have to hold the mystery of salvation like the father did, we have to recognize that we continually need Christ to be the one from whom all blessings flow, we need Christ to hear our prayers and grow our faith, we need Christ to be our Lord, not just in the past but in every moment of our lives. You have been saved, and are continuing to be saved everyday.

I believe; help my unbelief!” is our confession of faith in the God who continues to breathe new life and new faith into all of us.

In a few moments we will celebrate the two great sacraments of our church. Hattie Myles Markham will be brought forth to the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be incorporated into God’s kingdom through the redemptive power of the trinity. And likewise all of us will then be invited to feast at Christ’s table letting the bread and the wine nourish our souls.

Here we find the gospel, in baptism and communion we find the good news of God in the world. No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, and no matter what you do God will never love you any less. God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ mounted the hard wood of the cross to save you and me from having to try and save ourselves. Salvation is here. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 1/13/14

Devotional:

John 11.27-28:

She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

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We sat around the room, uncomfortably crossing our legs occasionally while sitting in stiff chairs. The fellowship room at Asbury UMC in Harrisonburg, VA was welcoming but something was wrong with the thermostat; the heat was on full blast and the windows were open to help offset the sauna-like atmosphere. As is common in most Methodist gatherings, conversation percolated about the weather, parking in the immediate area, and church identities.

We were all there to talk about prayer. Lay and clergy alike, someone had invited each one of us to participate in this “Kindred Project” to focus on the importance of spiritual disciplines in the lives of our churches. We exchanged the typical pleasantries, identified our positions in local churches, and then entered a time of contemplative prayer.

Our leaders began to read from the 11th chapter of the gospel according to John, repeating the line: “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” While sitting in the circle, we each looked to the person on our right and repeated the line to them, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” When the statement had finally made its way around the whole group, we entered a period of silence for 20 minutes.

Silence is difficult. Its hard to maintain focus without a myriad of thoughts beginning to sprout in the gray matter. I tried to keep focusing on that one sentence, but others ideas began to creep in: What am I going to preach about on Sunday? Who do I need to call this afternoon? etc. So, after a few moments of silence, unsuccessful in focusing on prayer, I removed myself from the circle, walked around the room for a minute and sat down on a rug in the corner. The silence weighed heavily on my heart as a tried to seek focus and contemplation. As I pushed my extra thoughts out of my mind the word teacher began to move through my head in a rhythmic fashion. Teacher, teacher, teacher.

When our twenty minutes were up, we shared our experiences and prayers with the rest of the group. This is what I said:

“I’ve been serving St. John’s for 6 months. I have embraced the role of teacher and preacher in a number of different ways and have thoroughly enjoyed my time so far. It often feels that I am supposed to be a master of the text (scripture) for the laity and provide for them concise and coherent reflections about how scripture continues to speak to us. However, during the last twenty minutes of silence, I realized that I’ve been looking at scripture and my calling to pastoral ministry a little backwards. I am not supposed to be a master of the text, but instead a servant of the Word. I am not called to be The Teacher, but must remember that I am still a student of God’s Word for me and my life.”

It never ceases to amaze me how God can use some of the most mundane moments to remind me what faith and discipleship is all about. For as much time as I spend in scripture to prepare sermons and bible studies, I must also remember my commitment to study the Word of the Lord in order to transform and shape my life as a Christian.

So, I encourage you to remember that “the Teacher is here and is calling for you.” It does not matter whether you have a degree in biblical theology, or you’ve never even opened a bible. Discipleship is about recognizing that we are forever students on the journey of faith. God’s Word is alive for you and me because whenever we approach it, it can speak a new word into our lives. So, if you have time this week, open your bibles to a passage of familiarity, read it aloud, read it silently, and dwell upon those words. How is God using them to speak into your life? What lesson is the great Teacher offering you right now?