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.

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.

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.

The measure of a great team

From Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage:

Some people find this extreme emphasis on results to be a little cold and uninspiring. But there is no getting around the fact that the only measure of a great team — or a great organization — is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. … See, no matter how good a leadership team feels about itself, and how noble its mission might be, if the organization it leads rarely achieves its goals, then, by definition, it’s simply not a good team.

When I read this, I detect a couple problems for the United Methodist Church.

First, I’m not sure most local churches or our denomination as a whole can state what it is that we are setting out to accomplish. We have things we say, but I’m not convinced we say it with the kind of clarity we need to actually judge our own accomplishments.

John Wesley said some vague things, too. You could argue “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” is not terribly specific. But he did flesh this out with quite a bit of detail in theory and in practice. Among his more specific statements was the word to his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

What are we trying to accomplish?

The second thing that emerges for me as I read this is discomfort. I want to wriggle away from what Lencioni is saying. I want to come up with a reason to deny what he claims. I don’t want to agree when he says a team that fails to achieve its goals is not a good organization or lead by a good team.

I want to avoid this because agreeing with him calls for action.

Do you want to be healthy?

You have no reason to take the recommendation I am about to make. I have no place dispensing advice on leadership or fostering organizational health. I’m a Myers-Briggs INFP who has spent most of my life in more-or-less solitary work.

All that said, I think every church leader should read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

While the book is geared toward business, the insights clearly apply to churches.

Lencioni describes healthy organizations this way:

  • Minimal politics
  • Minimal confusion
  • High morale
  • High productivity
  • Low turnover

Wouldn’t you like to be part of a church that fits that description? Do you know a church that falls short on one or more of those dimensions?

Lencioni’s book is organized around describing four disciplines that are necessary for organizational health.

  • Building a cohesive leadership team
  • Creating clarity
  • Overcommunicating clarity
  • Reinforcing clarity

In addition to description and examples, the author also offers steps that an organization could take to build strength in these areas. I found nearly every section of the book challenging and inspiring.

For instance, under the discipline of creating clarity, Lencioni offers six questions every organization needs to be able to answer and every member of the leadership team needs to agree about.

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. How do we behave?
  3. What do we do?
  4. How will we succeed?
  5. What is most important, right now?
  6. Who must do what?

Lencioni describes each of these questions in depth and outlines methods for arriving at answers to them. Wouldn’t it be exciting to be part of a church that could work through those questions and arrive at answers that all the key leaders embraced? I know my answer is “yes.”

I offer these examples from the book to give you a taste of the topics in the book. Of course, there is much more depth than a few bullet points can convey.

The ministry of order is an area in which I need to grow quite a bit before I am fit for ordination in the UMC. I think this book will be an important tutor for me. A line from the last chapter will stay with me for a long time.

There is just no escaping the fact that the single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier — or not — is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the person in charge. … For a church, it’s the pastor.

I have to say, I believe he is right. Lord, help me act on that belief.

If we want war, we have it

My favorite blogging DS, Sky McCracken, has added to what is a growing genre of blog posts appealing for more Christian discourse in the midst of our differences. Several other Methodist bloggers have weighed in on this topic recently.

McCracken writes, in part:

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus – we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for “code” words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things.

In my seminary classes, we use a book by Marshall Rosenberg called Nonviolent Communication. In it, he argues for a form of communication that is oriented toward observing facts, naming our own feelings, taking responsibility for them, and making requests of one another. (A one page summary of the model is here.) The goal is not to persuade but to understand. Rosenberg argues that we should put down the tools of persuasion and rhetoric and the seductive power they provide.*

Needless to say, this is not the kind of discourse we often see on the Internet. It may not be a form of communication possible in a disembodied medium like this. But reading the book again this week for class does bring home the contrast between Rosenberg’s ethic and the strategic rationality (to use a term from Jurgen Habermas) that dominates our discourse.

It has me pondering what I might do to change things. Please note, I am intentionally turning my gaze inward here. It is easy to say what everyone else should do. But — as I learned in family systems theory — the only part of the dysfunctional system I can change is myself. And so, I am thinking about that today.


*For what it is worth, I am not giving a blanket endorsement of Rosenberg’s book. His theological base assumes all humans are by nature good and compassionate, and he finds talk of sin and moral guilt life destroying. With some revisions to account for fallen humanity and redemption in Christ, much of what he says is both helpful and instructive, but I do not embrace his theology (largely unstated) or anthropology (explicit from the first sentence).