Sign of spittle and grace

I had someone ask me recently how they should talk to an atheist who insists on saying things meant to provoke or insult.

My initial response was something like this: You are asking me what to say when that person says something insulting to faith or about your belief. How about, “I love you”?

I knew that was easier to offer as advice than to do, but I went on to say that I have always found it interesting how strongly some people feel compelled to react to the presence of faith around them. Based on my own pre-Christian experiences, I believe that in many cases the person is reacting defensively against the grace of God. Acting out in anger might just be the sign that God is getting a foothold and they are lashing out to try to drive grace away.

Paul writes in Romans 8 about the groaning of creation as it awaits the liberation from death and decay. Commenting on this passage, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament observe the following:

Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men; who (although in the hurry of life they mistake vanity for liberty, and partly stifle, partly dissemble, their groans, yet) in their sober, quiet, sleepless, afflicted hours, pour forth many sighs in the ear of God.

Some of our sighs to God can look a lot spitting in God’s face.

It is not easy to be on the receiving end of these things, but I do think Christians should view vocal atheism as a sign of God’s grace at work stirring up souls.

Many atheists, of course, would reject what I just wrote. I understand that. I was once among their tribe. Part of being a Christian, though, is learning to tell the story of the world around us in terms of grace and God’s activity.

So maybe in addition to suggesting that my friend say “I love you” in the face of atheist insults, I should have added “God loves you, too.”

Listening to Peter

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39-43)

Peter’s testimony to the household of Cornelius echoes the apostolic witness recorded elsewhere in Acts. I think in particular of Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 13. Here is what I hear in these proclamations.

The resurrection of Jesus is a promise and a sign. It is a promise of a future resurrection of all humanity — the wicked and the righteous. It is also a sign that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God, the messiah, Christ. He is the one who will judge the living and the dead at the end of the present age. He is also the one through whom we receive forgiveness for our sins.

In the witness of the Book of Acts, those who receive this teaching receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a present gift offering us peace, joy, and power to trample down sin. The Holy Spirit gathers us into a body and teaches, nurtures, and disciplines us.

As Christians, we are called to live by the Spirit and in accord with the will of God, so that at the resurrection we will be found to have worthily run the race set before us. In our ears, the Lord will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

This is, I hope, a fair summary of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts. If it is, I wonder how it is heard today. I wonder how well it accords with what we preach and teach.

Did Charles not know his Wesleyan theology?

Would we argue that Charles Wesley had bad atonement theology?

I take it that many contemporary Christians and theologians resist the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied or turned back the wrath of God. It is not uncommon for this to be represented as something that neo-Calvinists or Baptists might say, but not we grace-oriented Methodists.

If so, have we written Charles Wesley out of our camp? I guess in one sense we have. Here are a couple verses from two of his hymns that are not in our hymnal.

A verse from “And Can It Be” that we don’t sing:

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

A verse from “Depth of Mercy” not in our Hymnal:

Jesus speaks, and pleads His blood!
He disarms the wrath of God;
Now my Father’s mercies move,
Justice lingers into love.

I’ve not done a systematic study of Charles Wesley hymns. These were the first two I looked at when doing something else, and I was struck by the selection, which in both cases, dropped this kind of language. Could it be that Methodists think we reject a satisfaction model of atonement because we have purposely edited out such views from our own sung theology? I understand that there are various ways of comprehending the atonement. When, though, did we decide that Charles Wesley did not understand Wesleyan theology?

Waiting for Tatooine

“Are you going on to perfection?” A Wesleyan question.

It is a question, though, that makes an assumption, namely that we are not there yet. While we desire, long for, and strive to be made perfect in love, we must admit that if we are still going on, we have not arrived.

This makes pastoral work a messy thing because we so rarely meet anyone — including that clergy person in the mirror — who has leaned fully on the power Christ gives us to conquer sin. We are constantly greeted with the question of how best to nurture further growth. Do we place our eye on the weeds or the wheat in the life of the person before us? Again, I ask this question about myself as well as others.

In John Wesley’s sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” he describes the state of the soul of those who have been justified but are still going on to perfection.

[A] deep conviction that we are not yet whole; that our hearts are not fully purified; that there is yet in us a “carnal mind,” which is still in its nature “enmity against God;” that a whole body of sin remains in our heart, weakened indeed, but not destroyed; shows, beyond all possibility of doubt, the absolute necessity of a farther change. We allow, that at the very moment of justification, we are born again: In that instant we experience that inward change from “darkness into marvellous light;” from the image of the brute and the devil, into the image of God; from the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. But are we then entirely changed? Are we wholly transformed into the image of him that created us? Far from it: we still retain a depth of sin; and it is the consciousness of this which constrains us to groan, for a full deliverance, to him that is mighty to save.

Wesley urged Methodists to attend closely to the “inbred monster’s face” within. He warns that we not forget that nothing in our worthiness led Christ to shed his blood for us, and nothing in our power can overcome the darkness that still lingers within. It is only obedience to and trust in Christ that will move us along the way.

And so, as a United Methodist pastor, I find myself wondering how to live this doctrine out in the midst of the messy not-yet-there church in which I serve.

I wonder — and am convicted by the thought — whether I have failed as a pastor to describe what “there” looks like. Have the outlines of holiness been drawn by me with enough clarity that people can see and feel for themselves the gap between where we are and where God promises to lead us? (Is that why Hell is so much easier to describe? We have lots of at-hand reference points to help us imagine Hell. We have so few to help us anticipate heaven.)

I was talking the other day with someone who — like me — is excited about the upcoming release of the new Star Wars movie. We had both seen a video about the movie that was released at a comic convention. What we shared was how excited and eager we were for the release date to arrive. It makes you ache to have to wait for it arrive. Take our money, now, we joked.

Do we ever, ever, ever get close to describing the future God has in store for us with enough clarity to make us ache that way at the gap between the world to come and the one that is?

Unlike waiting for a movie release date, of course, the gap we live in is not just about time. We do wait. But we also know we are not ready for the day to arrive. It is like we are movie fans who have not yet grown ears or whose eyes cannot see the images on the screen. And even more than that. There is a gap within our hearts. Wesley’s inbred monster whispers to us that we should not even long for such a day to arrive. It is an illusion or the mirage conjured up by people who want to oppress or stifle us. The movie studio is just in it for the merchandising and the money, after all. The church is just about power.

How do you reach people in such a world? How do you sort through the messiness of pilgrims who still have far to go? What do you do with those who would rather stay in Egypt than imagine Israel? And yes, you are sometimes, like Aaron, among the ringleaders.

Jesus as a metaphor?

I found the following advice offered to a parent in an inter-religious marriage (Jewish & Christian) who wanted guidance about how to respond to a son who is beginning to feel a tug toward Christianity, but still wants to have his Bar Mitzvah. The web site is one devoted to addressing spiritual concerns of the Jewish community.

Here is part of the answer given to this parent by one of three writers:

I would explain to your son that if he declares Jesus as his personal savior and affiliates with an evangelical Christian denomination, then that would be a choice of Christianity and a move away from Judaism. But if he wants to learn more about Jesus as an inspiring Jewish historical figure, or about Jesus as a metaphor in some of the more progressive Christian denominations, this exploration could be compatible with a Jewish (or interfaith) identity.

In my sermon this morning from John 6:42, I spoke to the kind of contrast that the Jewish writer above draws. I confess to preaching an incompatibility between a Jewish or Muslim view of Jesus and a Christian one. So I want to ask my brothers and sisters* who call themselves progressive whether they feel any tension or conflict in the description above. Is the Jesus of progressive United Methodism “an inspiring Jewish historical figure” or “a metaphor”? Or is progressive United Methodism not among the tribe of “more progressive Christian denominations” that this writer looks to with approval?

These are serious questions for me as I seek to understand my place and my role within our diverse denomination. I hope the answer is that progressive United Methodists do not embrace the kind of Jesus who can be understood merely as a Jewish historical figure or simply as a metaphor. We leave that to others, right?


*I read recently that the new progressive preference is “siblings” rather than “brothers and sisters.” I’m afraid you will have to tolerate my backwardness on this front.

At odds with Aquinas at the table

Please pardon me while I do some thinking out loud about United Methodist sacramental theology. My brain started turning while reading the following from Thomas Aquinas’ lectures on John 6:

Therefore, since baptism is a necessary sacrament, it seems that the Eucharist is also. In fact, the Greeks think it is; and so they give the Eucharist to newly baptized infants. For this opinion they have in their favor the rite of Denis, who says that the reception of each sacrament should culminate in the sharing of the Eucharist, which is the culmination of all the sacraments. This is true in the case of adults, but it is not so for infants, because receiving the Eucharist should be done with reverence and devotion, and those who do not have the use of reason, as infants and the insane, cannot have this. Consequently, it should not be given to them at all.

Is it still Greek Orthodox practice to give the Eucharist to infants and children? Aquinas’ argument that only those who can receive the sacrament with devotion should receive it — and it is not held only by him of course — has often raised questions for me about the sharing of the Lord’s Supper with those who do not understand it or cannot muster a sense of reverence and devotion. My son’s autism certainly is a part of my questioning on this issue, but not all of it.

The statement on Holy Communion approved by the United Methodist General Conference, This Holy Mystery, argues — perhaps with some awareness of the “Greek” practice that Aquinas’ makes reference to — that the logic that applies to infant baptism should apply as well to participation by children in Holy Communion.

The theological basis for baptism of infants and people of varying abilities applies as well to their participation in Holy Communion:

“Through the church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of disabilities or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism” (By Water and the Spirit, in BOR; page 868).

So it is proper to conclude, I believe, that United Methodists do not share Aquinas’ view that reason is required for proper participation in the Lord’s Supper. It is not news that we differ from Aquinas, but I believe we still find aspects of his theology helpful. For instance, the following passage from the same commentary on John 6 is helpful to me in trying to grasp what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, which Aquinas says we do in a spiritual way:

Thus, in reference to Christ as contained and signified, one eats his flesh and drinks his blood in a spiritual way if he is united to him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into him and becomes his member: for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but it turns the one who takes it into itself, as we see in Augustine, when he says: “I am the food of the robust. Grow and you will eat me. Yet you will not change me into yourself, but you will be transformed into me.” And so this is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity.

I like that final phrase in this English translation: inebriating him with divinity. Since so much of Aquinas hangs on his reverence for reason, I’m not sure if passages like the one above clash with our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion. I’m still working that out, but I like this language about the Lord’s Supper by grace making us like the Christ, who gave us his flesh and blood, when we come to him in faith and love.