Here comes the judge

How a sinner may be justified before God, the Lord and Judge of all, is a question of no common importance to every child of man. It contains the foundation of all our hope, inasmuch as while we are at enmity with God, there can be no true peace, no solid joy, either in time or in eternity.

— John Wesley, “Justification by Faith

I was preaching this morning from Mark 8:38, where Jesus warns that if we are ashamed of him during our time on Earth, he will be ashamed of us when he comes in glory. During my preparation during the week and in the sermon itself, I was deeply aware of the stark moment that lies before us all.

It is something we gloss over in the Apostles’ Creed when we say “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

We breeze right past it.

He will come to judge.

It is what Paul writes about in Romans 14. It is preached over and over again in Acts. It is a core truth of Christianity that Jesus Christ will judge each and every one of us. We will stand before him, and there will be one of two verdicts offered — the Bible suggests no third or middle way here. It will either be “well done my faithful servant” or “I never knew you.”

In much of the church, if this is acknowledged at all, it is received with the assurance that we are innocent until proven guilty. The benefit of the doubt is on our side, and if we are not a gross and extravagant sinner — which is to say if we are good at covering up and putting up a good front — we expect to get a gold star when the Book of Life is read.

But this is not Christianity.

Our faith begins with the understanding that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are guilty before God. Yes, God created us and loves us, but that truth only deepens our guilt. We have been given every blessing and the greatest gift imaginable — life itself — and we have squandered that gift like the prodigal son.

The day of judgment comes. The judge approaches.

To write such things or to preach such things is to be held up as a “fire and brimstone” preacher — a term that is never ever used as a term of praise. But how can we recite our creeds or read our bibles and not have our attention fixed on this truth?

What sorrow awaits you who say, “If only the day of the Lord were here!” You have no idea what you are wishing for. That day will bring darkness, not light. In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion — only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house — and he’s bitten by a snake. Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope. (Amos 5:18-20)

Here comes the judge

No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.

No need of redemption?

Bad way to get good news?

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

What was the gospel that Jesus preached?

As far back as Irenaeus, Christians have suggested that the best way to interpret scripture is by finding other passages or verses that fill in the blanks or clarify the confusing bits.

By such a method, we might wonder what the “good news” is that Jesus preached and go looking through the New Testament for more elaborate explanations of the gospel. Doing so would likely bring us to 1 Corinthians 15, which Paul helpfully labels as the good news.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor 15:3-8)

By the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, we might conclude that what Jesus meant by “the gospel” in Mark 1 was some version of what Paul described as the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. It is a story, but it is a story most centrally about Jesus dying for our sins and being raised to life.

Such a definition of the good news seems to inform what John Wesley does in a sermon such as “The Way to the Kingdom.” When he comes to describe the gospel, he casts in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Believe this and the kingdom is yours, Wesley preached. In preaching this, Wesley understood the gospel through the lens of Pietism. In the same sermon, he tells us that the “kingdom” is an inner experience of peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Here again he uses scripture to explain scripture. He finds the definition of the word “kingdom” — as Jesus used it — in the words of Paul, in this case from Romans 14.

In our day, this kind of preaching would get low marks in a New Testament class. The professor would point out, no doubt, that Jesus’ audience in Mark 1 could not have possibly understood the call to believe the good news as a call to believe that Jesus — who was very much not yet crucified — was going to die for their sins.

These kinds of observations lead people ask whether Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel. Those who say they did not preach the same gospel — or at least that the word “gospel” in Mark 1:15 does not mean that Jesus died for our sins — tend to argue that the good news means to Jesus the declaration that kingdom is now present in Jesus himself. (See N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight for more on this.)

And so, I wonder if that means we should discard Wesley’s sermon on Mark 1:15 as a case of bad exegesis. Or is there some way that the “gospel” of Mark 1:15 is both what it meant to Jesus and the first readers of Mark and what it means to us as we read in light of what Paul and Peter and others have taught us.

Can we do bad historical-critical exegesis and yet still do good biblical theology?

Bad way to get good news?

Lies about happiness

God says, “Rebuild the road! Clear away the rocks and stones so my people can return from captivity.” (Isaiah 57:14, NLT)

When I look around me, I don’t see a world that looks very much like the one that God desires. I see people scared and harried, angry and untrusting. I see broken promises treated as just a part of living life, and I see people whose self-worth is based on how many people they can step on to get where they want to go.

The weak are ignored or neglected or abused. The poor are squeezed by the greedy. Young and old are driven mad by their animal instincts, but declare themselves free. We are a world of slaves trying to fool ourselves into believing we are the masters.

The bit in the Sermon on the Mount that I never, never, never could read with peace was in the sixth chapter when Jesus talked about not being anxious. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I never bought what Jesus was selling.

But — and I may not have to talk you into this one — I’ve come to believe the man knew what he was talking about.

I’ve come to realize that happiness, joy, peace, and contentment are not found in anything the world offers us. For the world offers only things that perish and fade away.

Being a pastor and spending time with people as they cross from life to death helps you see this. In the end, nothing we clutch so tightly to here on Earth will cling to us. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.

This is the road to happiness.

This is what the Bible often calls holiness.

And the problem is that, like me, 99% of the world does not believe that this really is happiness. They have swallowed the lies that the ruler of this world tells them. Be rich. Be famous. Be popular. Be young, forever young. Be smart. Be athletic. Be sexy. Be this and do that, and then you will finally be happy. Buy this or indulge those nerve endings, and you will finally know joy. You will finally be able to lay down your head in peace and sleep.

Lies. They are all lies. Lies told by the king of liars. Look down and see your chains.

There was a time when Methodist preachers were in the business rattling such chains, of holding them up where people could see them and offering the key to unlock them.

But — by and large — we are too cowardly for that any more.

Lies about happiness

Not as my will

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

I want to say a word in favor of obedience.

I’ve heard people say that there is freedom in obedience. It never really made sense to me.

I think it makes more sense today.

Being obedient to what you understand to be the will of God — after prayer, discernment, and struggle — does free your soul.

It does not make your life simple. It does not solve all your problems. It does not protect you from pain. But to hold the cup in your hands and say, “I will drink it,” well, it can leave you standing in the bathroom, where you hope none of your co-workers can hear you, crying tears of relief.

Not as my will

Are you devoted to God?

William Law as a young man refused to take an oath to support the crown of England. He believed that such an oath would be the same as saying the church is subservient to the monarch. His scruples cost him his chance to be ordained in the Church of England.

Law is important for many reasons, but for United Methodists he is important because he had a powerful influence on a young John Wesley. It was reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life that convinced Wesley he should live his entire life as a devotion to God and seek holiness in all things. Wesley would later criticize Law for giving him a vision of holiness but not providing the means to attain it — justification by faith alone.

If we hold on to that concern of Wesley’s, I do find Law’s vision of a devout life compelling. Here is how the book starts:

Devotion is neither private nor public prayer; but prayers, whether private or public are particular parts or instances of devotion.

Because of this all-encompassing definition of devotion, Law has a heavy critique of people living their lives as if devotion is only what happens in church prayers.

It is for want of knowing, or at least considering this, that we see such a mixture of ridicule in the lives of many people. You see them strict as to some times and places of devotion, but when the service of the Church is over, they are but like those that seldom or never come there. In their way of life, their manner of spending their time and money, in their cares and fears, in their pleasures and indulgences, in their labour and diversions, they are like the rest of the world. This makes the loose part of the world generally make a jest of those that are devout, because they see their devotion goes no farther than their prayers, and that when they are over, they live no more unto God, till the time of prayers returns again; but live by the same humour and fancy, and in as full an enjoyment of all the follies of life as other people.

This emphasis on a total life of devotion directly influences early Methodism. Many of John Wesley’s sermons are direct expressions of Law’s point-of-view. Methodism itself, in many ways, is the fruit of this attitude that our life should be devoted entirely to God.

Are you devoted to God?