Hearing Jesus in the prophetic key

It sometimes feels to me as if we have spiritual amnesia. We have forgotten what we had once hoped, longed, and prayed for.

I was thinking this as I was reading the first chapter of Mark tonight. In that beautifully tight opening scene of Jesus’ ministry, we are cued in to the great hope of Israel that is fulfilled in Jesus. Mark points us to Isaiah and Malachi. These are the voices that prepare us for the coming of John and Jesus.

These are voices preparing us for the day of the Lord.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 4:1-3)

The prophets promised a day of God’s justice for all the earth, a day when the wicked would be thrown down and the righteous raised up.

That is the hope that the disciples held in their hearts in Acts 1. Some of them had heard Jesus preaching of the coming kingdom from the first days. Now? Is now the time?

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

The words of Malachi and Isaiah and the other great prophets must have been ringing in their ears as they pressed the Lord with this question. They had such hope that evil would not prosper.

I wonder if we dare to hope as much.

We have no shortage of evil around us. The prophets name names for us:

“So I will come  to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)

Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands.(Isaiah 5:11-12)

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, (Isaiah 5:18)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21)

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (Isaiah 5:22-23)

I could go on and on.

The promise of the day of the Lord’s coming is the promise of the day when all these wicked ones are punished. It is the promise of a day when accounts are settled and the justice of God repays the wicked for their evil ways.

I have to be completely honest here.

I don’t know how many middle class and upper middle class American Christians have that same hope. It does not seem like many do. What we seem to want more than anything is for God to help us through our family problems and to give us a sense of meaning in a world that often seems empty of meaning. We want something that will keep us from going hysterical when the cancer diagnosis comes in or the stock market turns south. We want God to tell us its okay to enjoy sex and drive sports cars.

But I’m not at all convinced that is what Isaiah and Malachi had in mind.

A few days ago, I argued that the church’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. If we would do that, we must do so in light of the prophets, who also bore witness to Jesus.

If we would speak of Jesus rightly, we have to learn how to speak the same language of those prophets.

Wesley on division

From John Wesley’s “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”:

Suffer not one thought of separating from your brethern, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Do not dream that any man sins in not believing you, in not taking your word; or that this or that opinion is essential to the work, and both must stand or fall together. Beware of impatience of contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see as you see, or judge it their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small. I fear some of us have thought hardly of others, merely because they contradicted what we affirmed. All this tends to division; and, by everything of this kind, we are teaching them an evil lesson against ourselves.

The purpose and power of the church

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

The purpose of the church is to be a witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until the Lord comes again.

The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

These may not seem like remarkable statements, but they are helping me form my own understanding of the nature of the church and the relationship between the Methodist movement and the institutional church.

The primary purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It exists as a form of testimony and to testify to what we have seen and heard. It also bears the testimony the stretches back to Israel and through the history of the church. Our new testimony is contiguous with and of a kind with that previous testimony.

When I began to think about the church as witness, it changed my reading of scripture. For instance, I had not really ever paid much attention to these words from Peter before:

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:15)

And this is why the gospel as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 includes great detail about who witnessed the resurrected Christ. These acts of witness are important because the church exists to bear this witness to the ends of the earth — across space and time.

This conception of the church as witness stirs up for me recollections of things written by Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas, two contemporary writers and scholars who have had a significant impact on me. Brueggemann writes quite a bit of scripture itself as a form of testimony. Hauerwas grounds ecclesiology on the way the language the church uses shapes both how we see the world and how we understand ourselves. His narrative and cultural-linguistic theology strikes me as very much in keeping with the claim that the purpose of the church is to bear a testimony, to make witness, about the true nature of our existence.

And — just to be clear — I do not believe that witness is merely about what we say, although it is certainly about that. It is about what we do and how we live together. We catch a glimpse of that in Romans 1 when Paul is celebrating the existence of the Roman church.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (Romans 1:8)

The one piece that I’ve always felt was sorely lacking in Hauerwas was the Holy Spirit. Hauerwas’ descriptions of the church always feel — at least to me — rather naturalistic, as if sociology and psychology could account for the church by themselves. But in Acts 1, we get the corrective to that.

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)

If the purpose of the church is to bear witness to Christ, the Holy Spirit is the source of the church’s power to do so. It is the life energy of the church.

Since that is the case, the church is called to “wait” for the promised Spirit in prayer and worship and works of mercy. The church is called to make itself fit to receive and bear the Holy Spirit through confession, forgiveness, and repentance. We must wait on the gift of the Holy Spirit and receive that gift if we are to be the witnessing church.

And this insight has helped me in thinking about John Wesley and Methodism.

The purpose of Methodism was to reform the church by spreading scriptural holiness. It was, in the language I’m using here, a movement trying to reconnect the church to its source of power, so that the church might have the strength to achieve its purpose, bearing witness to Christ in all things. The reason Wesley was correct to resist breaking away from the Church of England was because the mission of Methodism was to revitalize the church not to be the church.

If you read Wesley, you discover pretty quickly that he did not see the church achieving its purpose. He often said you cannot judge true Christianity by the conduct of those who call themselves Christians. In other words, a lot of church people in his day were bad witnesses. They had neither seen nor heard the gospel, and yet were passing themselves off as representatives of it. Wesley movement had the intention of helping the church achieve its true purposes by connecting it back to the source of its power, the Holy Spirit.

In our day, no less than in Wesley’s, the church is in dire need of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us left Jerusalem before Pentecost. We try to bear witness when we have not received the power to do so. The Methodist mission is still necessary today. We still need a vigorous ministry connecting us and our churches to the Holy Spirit, the source of life, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But we also need to understand that the power serves a purpose. We are to bear witness to the ends of the earth. We are to declare and to embody the living witness to the truth that Jesus was killed, but on the third day he was raised.

These thoughts of mine are not as coherent as I would like them to be. Blogging for me always is a kind of work of process and a first-draft kind of writing. But I think there is much fruit in those first two statements:

  • The purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until our Lord comes again.
  • The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

This is at least the beginning of my ecclesiology.

Torah and the church?

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:1-5, NIV)

I’ve had my two semesters of required Old Testament study, and still I struggle with the proper way to understand the application of Torah to the church.

What are the best books you have read on this topic?

What other resources have helped you?

A house upon the sand?

In the course of his sermons expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley comes to consider the significance of Matthew 7:21-27. In that discourse, he begins by sketching out what it means to build our house upon the sand.

Near the beginning of the sermon, he singles out the preacher as one at risk.

After I have thus successfully preached to others, still I myself may be a castaway. I may, in the hand of God, snatch many souls from hell, and yet drop into it when I have done. I may bring many others to the kingdom of heaven, and yet myself never enter there. Reader, if God hath ever blessed my word to thy soul, pray that he may be merciful to me a sinner!

This is a warning that cuts to the heart and highlights the temptations preachers face. To so many people, we are the face of piety and faith. This is often not deserved and certainly not sought, but it remains. Wesley here shakes us from such delusions.

Wesley goes on — in his typical fashion — to warn against relying on good works or being innocent of any outward harm. These are also sand if relied upon to take the place of real Christianity. To those who can preach and teach all orthodoxy, who do no harm, and who are diligent in doing good, Wesley warns we may hear a harsh word from Christ in the last day.

Even then I did not know you as my own; for your heart was not right toward God. Ye were not yourselves meek and lowly; ye were not lovers of God, and of all mankind; ye were not renewed in the image of God; ye were not holy as I am holy.

Once again, we come face-to-face with the essential element of Christianity as understood from a Wesleyan perspective: holiness of heart and life.

I am reminded when reading Wesley how he distinguishes between things that I often hear others conflate. The goal of Christianity is new creation, holiness of heart and life, to be remade in the likeness of Christ. The means to this goal are conviction, justification, assurance, good works, piety, and so on.

I am often tempted to confuse the means with the end. I confuse the outward and inward activity for the actual change and transformation that these things are meant to foster. And I confuse myself about the basis on which Jesus will judge all humanity at the end of the age. He will not judge whether we practiced the means. He will judge whether we achieved the end.

Wesley closes the sermon — and therefore his series of 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount — with an exhortation to the practice of a religion of the heart.

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be thou little, and base, and mean, and vile (beyond what words can express) in thy own eyes; amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Be serious. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

In his day, such an exhortation drew thousands to Methodism and repelled thousands more. It was met with the charge that Methodists held out too high a standard for Christianity. People could not attain this and remain in the world. It would cause men and women to despair of salvation. It was fanaticism not fit for a reasonable religion.

We have — more or less — sided with Wesley’s critics. Few of us could read the paragraph quoted above and relish it as a portrait of the faith to which we aspire and to which we call our brothers and sisters.

I am left, though, with the question suggested by Jesus’ warning. In ignoring Wesley’s teaching here are we building our house upon the sand? Is that why we are so badly buffeted by the floods and storms of our age?

Of the church

 

In a post on First Things, Stephen Webb writes about the nature of theologizing today. He asks where we locate authority in an age in which belief in the self-interpretation of Scripture and the brilliance of bishops no longer holds. He asks what are “the necessary conditions for the Church’s ability to embody Christianity in the midst of the erosions of a spiritual marketplace”?

In his post, Webb nods toward Rome but also holds out hope for a diffuse church with many points of authority.

In our current United Methodist debates, we are dealing with some of the same questions.

  • What is the church?
  • What is the basis of its authority?
  • What is necessary for it to “embody Christianity” in today’s world?
  • How can it maintain its integrity or defend its boundaries?
  • How can it also creatively engage changing conditions in the world?

Our conversations and announcements do not usually explicitly engage these questions, of course. What we often talk about instead are the rules in our Book of Discipline, the dysfunction of various bodies, the bad faith of rival groups, and the lines our own consciences will not allow us to cross.

I’ve read before that part of our mushy ecclesiology in United Methodism comes from a combination of John Wesley’s desire never to see his movement exist as an independent church and our own aping of the institutions and values of the new American republic when we put together our own constitution.

That may all be so. Nonetheless, I wanted to see what John Wesley’s sermon “Of the Church” might tell me about our own answers to some of these questions.

Wesley starts by distinguishing between the building and the people.

How much do we almost continually hear about the Church! With many it is matter of daily conversation. And yet how few understand what they talk of! How few know what the term means! A more ambiguous word than this, the Church, is scarce to be found in the English language. It is sometimes taken for a building, set apart for public worship: sometimes for a congregation, or body of people, united together in the service of God. It is only in the latter sense that it is taken in the ensuing discourse.

Wesley works through his understanding of the church from the top down. Leaning on Ephesians, he first defines the church universal by the marks laid out by Paul.

The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world … as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”

Those members of that universal church gathered in a single country, form a national church. Those in a single city the church of that city. In addition, following Scripture, Wesley writes that we may think of a church within a single household or even as a church constituted by the gathering of two or three in the name of our Lord.

In other words, Wesley’s conception of “the church” does not fit very well into our denominational boxes.

Wesley goes on to consider the definition of the church laid out in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. He expresses disagreement with the Article’s requirement — that I believe derives from Reformed theology — that the “pure word of God” be preached and the sacraments be “duly administered.” In his text, Wesley displays both his anti-Roman Catholic sentiments and his catholic spirit.

I will not undertake to defend the accuracy of this definition. I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be “the pure word of God,” are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not “duly administered.” Certainly if these things are so, the Church of Rome is not so much as a part of the catholic Church; seeing therein neither is “the pure word of God” preached, nor the sacraments “duly administered.” Whoever they are that have “one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all,” I can easily bear with their holding wrong opinions, yea, and superstitious modes of worship: Nor would I, on these accounts, scruple still to include them within the pale of the catholic Church; neither would I have any objection to receive them, if they desired it, as members of the Church of England.

And so, to see what the church truly is — according to Wesley — we must look to a closer definition of those marks, which he lays out for us.

The church catholic are those who have

One spiritSome understand hereby the Holy Spirit himself, the Fountain of all spiritual life; and it is certain, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Others understand it of those spiritual gifts and holy dispositions which are afterwards mentioned.

One hope a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.

One Lordwho has now dominion over them, who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy. And while they are doing this with a willing mind they, as it were, “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”

One faithThis is not barely the faith of a Heathen; Namely, a belief that “there is a God,” and that he is gracious and just, and, consequently, “a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Neither is it barely the faith of a devil; though this goes much farther than the former. For the devil believes, and cannot but believe, all that is written both in the Old and New Testament to be true. But it is the faith of St. Thomas, teaching him to say with holy boldness, “My Lord, and my God!” It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

One baptismwhich is the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.

One God and Father of allthat have the Spirit of adoption, which “crieth in their hearts, Abba, Father;” which “witnesseth” continually “with their spirits,” that they are the children of God: “Who is above all,” — the Most High, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Governor of the whole universe: “And through all,” — pervading all space; filling heaven and earth

Here Wesley offers not only a definition of the church that breaks the boundaries of denominational lines — giving preference to geographical ones — but also evicts from the church catholic huge numbers of people now at worship in most congregations. This point he brings home with particular force near the end of the sermon.

The Church is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as He that called them is holy. How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church.

Wesley’s purpose in this sermon was not merely to offer a definition of the church, of course. It was a polemical sermon aimed at critics of his movement who objected to him harming the Church of England. And yet, his definition does give us the opportunity and the responsibility to reflect as United Methodists on the nature of the church.

I have a few thoughts. I am not sure I can or would defend these are final thoughts, but they are provisional ones suggested to me by reading Wesley’s sermon, and that alone.

First, the church is both universal and local, but it is not denominational. Denominations exist — to repurpose language from our Book of Discipline — for the maintenance of worship and edification of believers. Denominations are human superstructures that support the universal church gathered in particular places. Our devotion and zeal, however, is owed more to the church universal in our city or neighborhood — whatever denominations might provide its material support — rather than merely to those who depend upon the same superstructure.

Second, we have a lot of people who claim to be part of the church but simply are not. They have their name on the books at the denomination, but not in the book kept by our Lord. I cannot tell you that I know who is who. Wesley believed that was fairly simple to work out with simple questions, ones we do not ask very much these days. What standing such people should have in the denomination is difficult to discern.

Third, I find in Wesley’s formulations a challenge to the via media proposals and the recent statement of our Council of Bishops that want to ground “the church” in merely the sharing of creedal orthodoxy (the devil believes as much and is a devil still) or a unity based on a denominational mission statement. These may be strategies for holding together a denominational superstructure, but they do not strike me as representing a robust view of the identity of the church catholic.

I don’t imagine these thoughts of mine will solve any of the problems facing the United Methodist Church today. I do find them stimulating me to think in some different ways about the UMC and my local congregations, though.