The gospel is Christ #LukeActs2014

Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:20-21, NIV)

I was reading in a theology book recently that the first key question in working out a Christian theology is an answer to the question: What is the gospel?

It is interesting to me that the church often has a hard time articulating an answer to that question. Or rather, it gives lots of different answers, not all of which are compatible with each other. Indeed, a fair number of the words written these days about the church are about the way that this or that group has gotten the gospel wrong.

As I’ve been reading Luke-Acts this year at the invitation of Bishop Ken Carter, I will turn to Acts for my answer. The first articulation of the gospel in Acts comes on Pentecost. In that great passage from Acts 2, Peter says the following things. God testified that Jesus of Nazareth was his own by miracles, wonders, and signs. God raised him from the dead, exalted him in heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit. By these signs we should all understand that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ.

The good news is that Jesus is Christ, the anointed one of God, the prophet, priest, and king.

The Word has taken on flesh and walked among us. By his blood we have been cleansed and made pure. The king has come in his kingdom.

To those who receive this good news, we are called to repent, be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 2 and Acts 10 & 11, receiving the Holy Spirit involves speaking in tongues, which is why some of our Pentecostal friends insist on this as a mark of being in Christ. The speaking of tongues, however, is not a mark of every conversion in Acts, and Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit in quite different ways in Romans and Corinthians.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies to our spirit that we are God’s children.

The good news comes before the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, however. The good news is so simple that we say it all the time and do not even notice. Jesus is Christ. Jesus is king of all creation and Lord of your life. Jesus is the high priest whose sacrifice of blood has once and for all made atonement for my sins and yours. Jesus is true prophet, the Word incarnate, who speaks to us of the will and character of God.

When this word was preached at Jerusalem, thousands were converted.

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them. “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those accepted his messaged were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

When this word was preached in Antioch, people began for the first time to call us Christians.

The Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Today, we are called to preach this good news. Jesus is the Christ.

Cicero and the fall of the UMC

“Every subject which contains in itself any controversy existing either in language or in disputation, contains a question either about a fact, or about a name, or about a class, or about an action.”

– Cicero, On Invention

Adam Hamilton wrote recently about a meeting he had with other leaders across the United Methodist Church to discuss face-to-face the crisis over sexual morality. His post about the meetings and his reflection are interesting, but I was struck by the comments as well. In them, Hamilton was taken to task by a couple of people for reducing “people” to “issues” because he wrote about the way disagreement over sexual morality has become an issue in the church.

The comments highlight the basic incoherence of all our “conversations” regarding the morality of same-sex sex.We cannot even agree what it is that we are talking about.

Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote that every controversy could be thought of as centering around one of four questions. (His analysis may be flawed, but for the moment I am using it as a tool to help me think through our recurrent failures to communicate.)

The first is a question of fact. What, in fact, has happened or is happening or will happen. I do not see this much in dispute among us. To take the ordination debate as the point of conversation, no one disagrees with the fact that the United Methodist Church has written law that says certain actions disqualify a person for ordained ministry or appointment. In particular cases, establishing the facts of those actions has become difficult and contentious, as the Amy DeLong trial demonstrated.

Where we agree on the facts, we might instead have a question of proper naming. Cicero uses the example of someone who steals sacred objects from a temple. Is that person merely a thief or should we call them sacrilegious?

In our disputes, this question of naming appears to come up quite a bit. Is what we are discussing a matter of discipline or a case of bigotry? Is it about love or about holiness? If about love, what do we mean by that word? And on and on. The problem here, of course, is that we never actually engage in actual conversation to settle this question or at least try to test it. Instead, we use whatever name each side finds most useful or apt. The name we use becomes a flag to rally support rather than a point of honest inquiry and debate among us.

If our dispute is over naming, then responsible rhetoric would require us to make the case for the name we wish to use. Bishop Talbert says it is bigotry for the church to say those who engage in anal sex are not fit for ordination. Okay, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the meaning of bigotry. Let’s talk about the meaning of ordination and the standards that the church should use in determining who is and who is not fit to be ordained or appointed. Let’s talk about what God desires that we do with our bodies and how those desires shape our understanding of ordination. Let us seek to determine if “bigotry” really is the proper name for what the church has decided. As history has shown, the church has done unholy things and called them holy before. Let’s examine this and see what it should be properly called. Let’s do this at General Conference.

Or, if we want to construct the question from the other side, let those of us who argue that ordination and anal sex are incompatible put forth this argument in a careful and rational way. To do so, we would have to articulate a theology of ordination that I am not certain we can claim to possess at the moment. As a licensed local pastor myself, I am aware that our practice makes our theologizing about ordination a risky proposition. But if we would be both devout and reasonable, perhaps we should be prepared to face these difficulties.

However we set the question, not everyone will be persuaded at first, but right now we are leap-frogging the conversation and resorting to sloganism rather than rational and deliberative and — I would argue — loving inquiry. We do not trust that men and women can be rational, so we resort to the tools of unreason, passion, and naked power. And, of course, in doing so accuse each other of being interested in nothing but unreason, passion, and naked power.

Cicero’s third distinction are disputes about a class or kind. The question here is not over what happened or what to name it but over the importance of the thing itself. In our current debates, some argue on this ground. Their characteristic argument goes like this: “We have more important things to be giving our attention to.”

Most who argue this are not actually following Cicero (not that any of them claim to), because they have not actually stopped to settle the question of naming. They go to the issue of importance to try to side step the raging controversy over the naming of what it is that unsettles us.

Cicero’s fourth distinction — action — has to do with legal standing and whether an issue or debate if properly under consideration. I do not see clear application here to our discussions.

Again, I do not mean to argue that Cicero is binding on us in any way or that his own thoughts — which evolved over time — are the only way to describe the challenge of practical rationality. I merely wish to use his thought to help me reflect on the pathetic state of our own discourse.

Of course, Cicero’s analysis does not get past the fact that some folks find little use for this kind of reasoned discourse. Some are suspicious of the entire enterprise of reasoned debate. It is just power masking itself behind privilege, they say. Others find the time for reasoned discussion past. We have talked about these things for 40 years, they say. Further debate — no matter how reasonable — will change nothing.

It is worth noting that Cicero’s life was lived in the midst of the Roman Republic’s death throes as men intent on seizing power resorted to demagoguery and violence to take what they wanted. Cicero was eventually  branded an enemy of the state and killed. Cicero’s reflections on proper practical reasoning had little influence when armies were on the march.

The United Methodist Church — for better or worse — is a small “r” republican form of polity. It is quite correct to note that our polity owes a huge debt to the republicanism at the heart of the American revolution and the best ideals of the American form of government. The founders of the American experiment in governance were admirers of Cicero, too, and suspicious of both anarchy and tyrants. Some of us — in our times of chaos — are calling for a Caesar to set right what has gone so wrong. We read and hear open admiration of a polity with a Pope who can rule and judge alone. Or conversely, we read and hear open admiration for a disintegration of the denomination into individual congregations, in which every church is its own polity. By and large, we have lost faith in the very form of our polity and the notion of rationality that informs it.

Our republic is dysfunctional. There is no doubt about that. Perhaps it is too late to hope that a commitment to rational and practical discourse among us would restore the legitimacy of our polity. Perhaps the Rubicon has been passed and the die has been cast.

The size of the church

Taking his lead from the official doctrine of the Church of England, John Wesley wrote that the visible Church includes three essentials:

Living faith – “without which, indeed, there can be no Church at all, neither visible nor invisible.”

Preaching and hearing the pure word of God — “else that faith would languish and die.”

Due administration of the sacraments — “the ordinary means whereby God increasetth faith.”

Of course, these ideas are nothing new to United Methodists. Our Articles of Religion say the same thing, which is no coincidence as they are adapted from the Church of England.

But what is this faith that is essential to the presence of the church?

Quoting the Homilies of the Church of England, Wesley reminded his readers that the living faith is “a sure trust and confidence in God, that through the merits of Christ my sins are forgiven, and I reconciled to the favour of God.”

We like to count warm bodies and buildings. Even now, there are men and women gearing up for a possible fight over those buildings and trying to hold on to as many of those warm bodies as possible. We round our numbers up and say that in the United States we have 8 million members.

But how many do we really have?

What is the actual size of the United Methodist CHURCH if we use these standards?

What is the size of the congregations that I serve?

Is my preaching the kind of preaching that preserves and fosters living faith?

Does my administration of the sacraments — and I’m fully aware here that as a licensed local preacher Wesley would not have permitted me to serve at the table — does my administration of the sacraments and my teaching about them ensure that people approach them and experience them as true means of grace?

That Wesley guy wasn’t kidding around

Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners? What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”

– John Wesley, The Marks of the New Birth

It was one of the first things that hit me between the eyes when reading John Wesley’s works the first time: The man was not playing around. His faith was not a nice little thing he kept off to the side. It was all consuming and it was serious. He also was not out to win friends.

Paul in India

Tim Tennent writes about a modern-day apostle he met recently in India.

One of them (whose name cannot be shared for security reasons) is a former road-worker who was one of the earliest to respond to the gospel in the region. He shared with us his love for Christ and the amazing ministry God has given to him. He is constantly traveling, bringing the gospel to new villages all over this mountainous region. When many people of his age are thinking about retirement, he is thinking about which villages have not yet had the opportunity to hear the gospel. He has personally led over 500 Hindus to Jesus Christ. When we left the meeting, one of our Trustees turned to me and said, “I feel like I have just met the Apostle Paul.”

Whitefield: Feeling the Spirit

George Whitefield defending the doctrine that all Christians can experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his sermon “The Common Privilege of All Believers.”

Indeed, I will not say our letter-learned preachers deny this doctrine in express words. But, however, they do it in effect. For they talk professedly against inward feelings and say we may have God’s Spirit without feeling it, which is in reality to deny the thing itself. And had I a mind to hinder the progress of the gospel and establish the kingdom of darkness, I would go about telling people they might have the Spirit of God and yet not feel it.