Will we bend our knees?

I have been away from regular blogging for some time, and I am finding it difficult to get into the regular pattern once again. Such is the way with all things in life, yes?

As I try to pick up this habit and discipline again, I am going to return to something that has long sustained me in both my writing and my spiritual life: Reading and responding to the works of John Wesley.

In the past, I have written some on his 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. For a time, I am going to read through them again and write about some of the things I encounter in them. I hope it is useful for you.

And so, let us begin with his first sermon in this series, where I come across these words.

Let us observe, who it is that is here speaking, that we may take heed how we hear. It is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator of all; who, as such, has a right to dispose of all his creatures; the Lord our Governor, whose kingdom is from everlasting, and ruleth over all; the great Lawgiver, who can well enforce all his laws, being “able to save and to destroy,” yea, to punish with “everlasting destruction from his presence and from the glory of his power.”

In my notes in the margin of my book, I wrote in response to this: “our democratic instincts rebel against this.” And they do, do they not?

We Christians who have been born and raised in America have within us a deep passion and prejudice in favor of democracy. We consider it by reflex the only just way for a country to be organized and resist by instinct any suggestion otherwise. We expect our rulers to be responsive to the “will of the people” and for the laws of our land to be constantly adjusted to the changing — we always flatter ourselves by saying advancing — norms and values of our society.

All of this prepares us poorly to be people who understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” We use the words, but we do not really grasp what we say or we say it without really believing it. In some part of our soul, we do not bend the knee.

Of course, this problem did not start with us. Genesis 3 is the same story. Exodus 32 is the same story. And on and on.

We can recite the creeds as many times as we like, but we still must wrestle with the temptation to say in our heart: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, but …”

The simple truth is this. Jesus is Lord, the Creator of all, and he can therefore do whatever he wishes. We have no “rights” to invoke against him. If Jesus were to require our life right now, we have no room to protest. If Jesus lifts us up, we have no reason to boast at our achievements and if Jesus brings us low, we have no reason to complain at our treatment.

If we cannot say “amen” to this, then there is very little chance we will hear the rest of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount with proper ears.

And so, I am called to examine my heart. Do I say the words “Jesus is Lord” and truly mean what I say? Or do I reserve some of my democratic demands to press on God? Do I bend the knee? Do I say it is better to die on my feet? Am I ready to be taught or do I have things I want the teacher to agree to first?

I pray that Jesus gives me supple knees and a ready heart.

The UMC at the Valley of Elah

During the later stages of the controversy over Donatism in Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo took a major role. It is a long and complicated story and not without controversy still today, but I wanted to share some of Augustine’s words that remain relevant to the church today. While writing in response to an opponent in the controversy, he had these words for his allies in the church.

These things, brethren, I would have you retain as the basis of your action and preaching with untiring gentleness: love men, while you destroy errors; take of the truth without pride; strive for the truth without cruelty. Pray for those whom you refute and convince of error. — Answer to Petilian the Donatist

In my branch of the universal church, United Methodism, we need these words.

We have within our denomination two groups who are convinced of the truth. We stand arrayed like the Israelites and Philistines on the hills surrounding the Valley of Elah. In our struggle, each side believes itself to be the bearer of the banner of truth. Each side has come to this conviction with earnest, thoughtful, and prayerful effort. Neither side holds its convictions loosely, and for most on both sides those convictions are closely tied to a whole network of beliefs and convictions that are central to their entire faith. Neither could easily set aside their convictions on the issue of human sexuality without unraveling many other beliefs. The roots of their convictions are deep and tangled up with much else that defines their faith.

Both sides are tempted to see and portray the other side not just as wrong but as evil, led astray by devil and in the legions of the anti-Christ. Both are tempted to see the other as not just in error but as the enemy of God. Both are tempted to attribute to the other all manner of vices and dark motives.

Standing separate from these two groups, a third group calls for an end to the struggle. They do not appear to see how deeply rooted the convictions that drive the two contending sides are and appear to assume that they can be laid aside as easily as a person takes off a baseball cap and puts on another. They imagine a unity in the church that could only come if the contending sides both admit that what they hold as truth is not truth but mere opinion and not essential to what it means to be a Christian.

Maybe the image I have drawn here is not right, but it is how the situation appears to me. It is not a new moment in the life of the church, which has sadly always been rent asunder by disagreements, heresy, and sin. And this morning I turn to the wisdom of Augustine to help me in this moment.

I do not think either side can or will lay down their banners and return to their homes. And so I pray that we might hear and heed the words of Augustine until the Lord brings our church through this crisis. Act and preach and speak with gentleness. Love those with whom we contend. Set aside both pride and cruelty. Pray for those we believe are in error.

I am not wise enough to see how God will lead us through this. If I am in error, I pray the Lord will break me gently. If I am in the right, I pray my words and speech honor Christ.

Behind enemy lines

The very first time I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I remember being deeply taken with the following observation:

Christianity thinks that a Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied terrority — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Lewis was an Englishman writing during World War II. As I read these lines, I am reminded both of that war and of the legends of the English hero Robin Hood, who fought against an evil king until the rightful king returned to claim his throne.

Our metaphors might be different and our frames of reference are not those that Lewis used. I’ve worked a bit on mapping this image onto the Star Wars movies, which also feature a rebel movement within a vast evil empire. Whatever metaphors we use, though, I find the basic idea compelling.

To me, this basic idea — that the universe is in rebellion against its Creator — creates a lot of tension with the way we often think about the state of the world and our place within it. It is a rich and creative tension that calls us into forms of life and ways of being Christian that do not sit easy with cultural Christianity, but it also has risks. This “fighting religion” view of Christianity can lead us into grimness and its own kind of darkness. We must be careful of that even as we recall that the world is not as God intends it to be. It is bound by a dark power, and as servants of the light we are unavoidably at odds with it.