Welcome the apostles

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (Matthew 10:40, NRSV)

Here is a thought I had last week while working with this text.

It comes from reading it side-by-side with these verses earlier in the chapter.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15, NRSV)

Here is what I hear: To reject the apostles’ teaching is to reject Jesus.

The authority of Jesus

Then Jesus came to them and said,“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28:18, NIV)

All authority belongs to Jesus. That word “all” is huge. It means all, as in there in no other authority other than that which derives from Jesus. None anywhere. Not in heaven, nor on earth.

The votes of democratic majorities do not give authority. Office and position and skill do not give authority. Wealth does not give authority. Fame does not give authority. Traditions do not give authority. The only authority resides with, is found in, Jesus.

If the president of the United States is aligned with Jesus, then his authority is genuine. If he (or she) is not, then the president may have power, but no authority. Lots of people in our world have power and exert power. But they do not have authority. Their power is used in godless ways.

Jesus has all authority. If we would have authority, it must come from him.

This is an amazingly, breath-takingly, radical statement by Jesus.

Words of the redeemed

From the epistle for this Sunday:

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. (1 Peter 1:17-19, NRSV)

The futile ways that we have been ransomed or redeemed from are the “desires you formerly had in ignorance” (1:14) that are set against the command to be holy in all our conduct.

Jesus saved us, so we might be holy, free from the desires that drive us and distract us but never satisfy us. We are saved so we might have “genuine mutual love” not the false kindness or the exploitative exchanges of the marketplace — it is not what you know it is who you know — not the dehumanizing transactions that reduce other human beings to means to achieve our ends.

Against all this human way of striving is set the word of the Lord. The word of the Lord endures forever. It is the word of new birth and holiness and hope in the grace of Jesus Christ.

And so, Peter calls us to put away all malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander (2:1). As an application, today, I am reflecting on the ways that these non-godly kinds of speech and — as I am a blogger — writing attract me. Do I speak or write in these ways rather than out of love? Do I cherish the sense of power and the applause of other people that can be won by engaging in these kinds of talk? Or do I speak and write as one redeemed by the blood of Jesus?

Wesleyan Lectionary: Two sermons on new birth

John Wesley wrote two sermons on new birth that were based on verses from this week’s gospel reading: John 3:1-17.

The Marks of the New Birth

The New Birth

The second sermon ends with what I consider to be John Wesley’s version of the Sinner’s Prayer.

“Lord, add this to all thy blessings, — let me be born again! Deny whatever thou pleasest, but deny not this; let me be ‘born from above!’ Take away whatsoever seemeth thee good, — reputation, fortune, friends, health, — only give me this, to be born of the Spirit, to be received among the children of God! Let me be born, ‘not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever;’ and then let be daily ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!'”

Lectionary blogging: Battle begins

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3, NIV)

I’ve been reading Gustaf Aulén’s classic book Christus Victor this week. I was not reading it to guide my study of this week’s gospel lectionary text, but it sure has set off some interesting resonances.

Aulén argued in his book that there are three broad types of atonement theories. The objective model, represented by Anselm and subsequent satisfaction and substitution theories, describes the primary focus of the atonement upward toward the Father. The cross is the place where the debt created by humanity’s sin is paid off.

The subjective model, first articulated by Abelard and widely influential in the West since the 19th century, describes the primary focus of the atonement downward to those of us at the feet of Jesus. The cross creates a change in us.

Against both of these models, Aulén argues for what he calls the “classic” theory, which he says goes back to the apostles. This theory views the atonement as an act in an unfolding dramatic conflict between God and the devil. We might think of it as a horizontal focus of atonement. The atonement defeats the devil.

I thought of the book while reading the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

By Aulén’s thinking, the temptation is really just the opening skirmish in a contest that will be carried forward all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. The testing in the desert is not merely about teaching us some responses to difficult life challenges. It is not merely validation of Jesus’ status as the unblemished one who can reset the scales of divine justice by his death. It is the start of a battle that will be fought, not with guns and bombs, but with weapons of the Spirit.

This is a reading of the text that passes through the cross, which therefore means it is shaped by our understanding of atonement. Whether that is a useful way to read and preach the text this week, I’m not certain. I’ll let the Spirit guide on that one.

Can we ‘be perfect’?

John Stott in his book Evangelical Truth repeats a common critique of the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection.

[M]ost evangelicals, interpreting “perfectionist” texts in their context, are convinced that neither the eradication of evil nor the possibility of sinless perfection promised in the New Testament is for this life. Rather, we are on a journey, pilgrims heading for the celestial city.

Those of who preach following the Revised Common Lectionary will come squarely into this discussion next week when we read in worship the words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Wesley’s attempts to meet the objections to perfection are numerous. His sermon “On Perfection” is not one of the doctrinal standards of United Methodism, but it is a good overview of Wesley’s engagement with the critiques of the doctrine. Rather than go through those replies, though, I want to quote Wesley’s summary of the positive content of the doctrine:

What is then the perfection of which man is capable while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command, “My son, give me thy heart.” It is the “loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.” This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” These contain the whole of Christian perfection.*

One crucial difference between Wesley and Stott is that Wesley taught that this perfection is possible in this life. Indeed, he said we should expect it and seek it. Wesley interpreted Jesus’ commands to be perfect and Paul’s exhortation to put on the mind that was in Christ as applying to this life and made possible by the grace of God.

No discussion of this topic is complete without noting that Wesley had a terribly hard time persuading even Methodists to embrace this doctrine. We recoil at the thought that we might actually attain this perfection. I suspect this is for many reasons. First, it feels like a breach of humility. Second, it feels beyond our reach. Of course, it is beyond our reach. That is the whole point. But our pride is stubborn. We cannot imagine that God would desire more for us than we are capable of doing by our own power and virtue.

The best-selling book by Stephen Covey told millions of readers to begin with the end in mind. By putting our focus on the final thing, everything prior to that is recast in light of the end. The doctrine of perfection is not just a cherry on the top of the sundae. It is the point by which all the rest of our doctrine is tested. As a United Methodist preacher, I am challenged by the lectionary — and men such as John Stott who I admire — to come to terms with this distinctive doctrine of United Methodism. What does it mean? Will I preach it? How will I do so?


*This is one reason why I do not like the Common English Bible’s translation of Matthew 5:48. “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” In the CEB, the first of the two great commandments drops from sight.