Is someone building an ark?

They say every preacher has one sermon. Dan Dick has one blog post, but it is a good and needful one. Here’s the latest iteration.

In this he laments the low expectations culture of the United Methodist Church as a whole.

We want a definition of discipleship that costs absolutely nothing.  People often comment that they think I make discipleship too hard, that I expect too much of people, that I am unrealistic in my expectations.  I always wonder where people got the idea that discipleship was supposed to be easy and convenient.  Can people be Christian “believers” and not read the Bible and not pray, and not attend church regularly, and not give or serve as an expression of their faith, and not fast, and not share their faith?  Obviously, a lot of people think so.  But be a disciple?  Discipleship has some built-in defining characteristics that are much more demanding than occasionally showing up.  People who haven’t shared in public worship for two years should not be called disciples.  Those too busy to pray, who have no time to meet with other Christians for accountability and spiritual practice, who neglect a sacrificial commitment of time or money should not be called disciples.  Those who do meet to debate carpet colors, criticize the pastoral leadership, snipe over music styles, and decide who isn’t welcome are not disciples.  Those who only pay attention to the parts they like and that make them feel comfortable and lovable are not disciples.  Come on!  Why would anyone want to be a disciple if the key qualification is breathing?

On his blog, I asked — and will repeat here — whether we are institutionally capable of surviving the fall out that would happen if United Methodists got serious about discipleship. Here is what I predict would happen: First, there would be a tremendous amount of conflict and shedding of “members.” Then, the remnant would go forth and be much more like the church as the New Testament describes it. But make not mistake, it would be a much smaller church. It would probably be more active and vital, but it would be smaller.

There would be fewer buildings, fewer full-time jobs for clergy, and even less cultural relevance than we have now — at least for a time.

If we want a church of disciples — I think it says this somewhere in our mission statement — then shouldn’t we being doing the kind of institutional prep work that getting that kind of church is going to require? The image that comes into my head is Noah. If we know a flood is coming, shouldn’t we be building an ark?

Maybe someone is. I can’t hear the hammering from where I stand, though.

More on sin

Here is how John Wesley consistently defined sin:

By sin, I here understand outward sin, according to the plain, common acceptation of the word; an actual, voluntary transgression of the law; of the revealed, written law of God; of any commandment of God, acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed. (“The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God“)

The criticism I’ve heard of this definition is that it does not take account of unintentional or accidental sins. Wesley’s response to such questions was that those things might be consider wrongs we commit, but not properly sin. They do not damage our relationship with God.

The complication here is that the Old Testament clearly describes sacrifices for unknown sins. In the first covenant, there is such a thing as a sin committed in ignorance of the law. If such at thing is possible, then why would those no longer be considered sins under the covenant of Christ?

My thinking — and I do not pretend to be a brilliant thinker here — has to do with the once-for-all sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ. In other words, on the cross Jesus covered by his blood all sins of ignorance and accident. Such things are still sins in the sense that they are actions that void the law of God, but they are not sins in that they have already been atoned for and without our conscious participation in them do not represent a deliberate turning away from God, for which we would need to repent. Under the new covenant, such sins of ignorance have been paid for in advance and therefore do not damage our relationship with God. Of course, all our actual sins have been paid for as well, but since these involve a deliberate act of will, we must engage in an act of will to redeem the promise already made. We must repent and seek forgiveness to mend the rupture in our relationship with God.

That is not as elegant as I would like, but it is my attempt to be faithful to the biblical witness.

What do you think? What have your read or heard that helps you work through such questions?


What is sin?

Is the problem within United Methodism at its root theological rather than ethical?

I was reading Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual but Not Religious for my evangelism class, when I was struck by how well it describes the tensions within our denomination. The book is a study of the ways throughout American history that large groups of people have adopted spiritual beliefs and practices outside the domain of church-based Christianity. Fuller argues that such spiritualities tend to reject notions of original sin and the fallen nature of humanity in favor of a belief in the goodness of human beings and the innate divinity within us.

Here is one version of that contrast:

A doctrine of divine immanence affirms that divine spirit is equally present in all creation … This new understanding of God’s relationship to the universe also helps to correct outmoded ideas of “sin.” The biblical view of sin is the act of breaking the commands of a male authority figure. A theology that stresses divine immanence recasts sin as our failure to recognize the presence of God within us and our fellow creatures.

This one quote does not capture everything to be said, but it gives the gist of the contrast. And it is reading about this contrast that has me wondering about United Methodism.

Is our internal conflict these days fundamentally about differing understandings of who God is and what it means to sin?

‘Rise again’ we Methodists say

Here is the best post I’ve ever read on Article XII of the United Methodist Articles of Religion.

Okay, it is the first one I’ve ever read, but it is excellent, especially for those of us trying to get a handle on Wesleyan distinctives. Here’s the article in question.

Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and, by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

Now, go read the post.

Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.

The Wesleys were better at this

This is not news. John and Charles Wesley were better at this Methodist thing than I am. Here are a few specific things that I appreciate about their ministry.

Purpose drove everything

Early in his ministry — even before his own conversion experience at Aldersgate — John Wesley became convinced that to be a Christian was not a half-way affair. You either were going on to complete holiness of heart and life or your were falling away. And so, his purpose became to find the means to nurture that spiritual growth, first in himself and then in all who would hear his message. Everything Wesley did was animated by this purpose.

How he and his brother organized their movement, how they preached, and even what points of theology they emphasized were all organized around a single, clear-eyed vision of their purpose as ministers of the gospel.

We see this most clearly in the creation of the class meetings and bands. These were not novelties in England. Such small groups had met before and did meet outside of the Methodist movement, but Wesley made them a signature of the movement because he found they were uniquely fitted to the task of fostering holiness. If they had not been so fitted, he would have discarded them. And so it was with every other aspect of the movement. If it did not serve the purpose, it was not necessary. If it did serve the purpose, he would hold on to it come what may.

Multi-media mattered

The Wesleys were multi-media before multi-media was cool. They used every method they could to get their message out. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to teach and gird up the theological foundation of the movement. People liked to sing, so he gave them songs. John Wesley took on the practice of field preaching — which he did not relish — because it was the only way to get the gospel to the people. If they will not come to us, the minutes of the Methodist Conference remind us , we must go to them. In addition, Wesley produced a huge array of written materials to support the movement. The Wesleys used every mode of communication they could get their hands on to support the work they were about.

Dodging rocks was part of the job

One of my favorite John Wesley stories comes from an account in one of his journals. He writes about getting ready to preach in an open field one day when he was expecting a mob to show up and try to disrupt things. As he peered around the field, he noticed a large quantity of rocks and dirt clods that would be ideal for throwing, so he move over to a different field where his assailants would have a less amply supply of ammunition. He expected opposition.

For all the success of the Methodist movement, it did not during the life of John and Charles ever grow to be more than a tiny fraction of the population of England or Ireland and barely gained any foothold at all in Scotland. Not everyone would hear it and not everyone would receive it. The Wesleys and other leaders of the movement did not obsess over the ones who rejected their message. They set about, instead, doing everything they could to make connection with those who would receive it. They believed it was a message for all people, but they did not despair that many would oppose it.

These are just some of the ways John and Charles challenge and inspire me when I think of the state of our denomination. What about you?