A Methodist Easter message?

What is this thing that we are instructed to go tell the world about?

Jesus, who was dead, is alive.

Why is that such a big deal? Why does that matter? Why do so many Christians run around insisting that it is the most important thing that ever happened or ever will happen?

A dead guy came back to life.

It happens all the time on TV and in the movies.

What’s the big deal?

I’m sure different churches answer this question in different ways. Here’s my best short response based on my understanding of what it means to be a Methodist — United or otherwise.

My answer starts by observing that not everyone hears this news with the same ears. There are at least three different stances that a person adopts as they come to hear the news of Easter.

The first, I’ll call the careless. I don’t mean here careless as in not paying attention to what they are doing — although in certain cases that might apply. I mean careless as in “I could not care less” about Jesus and what all we church people have to say about him.

This may be a defiant rejection of Christ. It may be the voice of someone who just can’t be bothered. It may be the voice of one who, although they would never be quite so blunt as I put it above, thinks they have Christianity all sorted out quite nicely and don’t need any Jesus talk mucking things up. God is in his heaven, and I’ve got it all under control down here.

To the careless, Easter’s word is “Wake up!” Or perhaps, look again. That bothersome itinerant preacher, who you thought had been shut up, is on the loose. More than that, his resurrection testifies that he is who he said he is: the Son of God.

Much of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts has this message. The resurrection proves that Jesus is the one who will judge the world. If he is the judge, perhaps it is time to look again at what he said when he was here with us.

The second group, we might call the convicted. These are the people who have paid attention to the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and the Torah. They are aware that there is something out of alignment in their own souls when it comes to God. Whether this is experienced as the guilt and shame of the more colorful sins or as the bondage and fear of our more subtle alienations from God, the convicted come to the tomb of Easter bearing the grief of Golgotha in their hearts. Their outward modes of grieving might be quite different, but the pain is still real. They know something is wrong in them and with them.

To the convicted, the word of Easter is “Come home!” The father is waiting on the hill watching the road for your return. Come home, and rejoice. Life is stronger than death. Love is more powerful than hate. You who were dead, be alive once more. Receive the grace and mercy poured out for you on the cross and sealed forever by an empty tomb.

The final group, at the risk of offending, we might call the Christians. These are the ones who have known the love of God poured out into their hearts. They can say with gladness that Jesus Christ has forgiven them, even them. But they come to Easter still looking for a sign to sustain them in the journey. The road is long and the trials are many.

To the Christian, the word of Easter is “Hold on to your hope!” The work Christ first worked in you, he will complete. He has gone ahead, but he will meet us again. So, hold tight to the hope of Christ. The women came that morning, perhaps, all out of hope, convinced by hard reality and stone cold power that the promises of God are too fragile to survive this bitter world. They came clinging to or perhaps even devoid of hope, but that morning hope found them. It will find and sustain you as well, if we do not let go.

I don’t think these messages conflict with each other, and we probably all need to hear all three at every point in our lives. But they do hit different accents.

Methodism has always been a way of being Christian that is keenly aware of the journey of faith. We believe that Christ calls us into ever deeper communion with him. We believe that there is no such thing as standing still with God. We either go forward or we fall back. And so, from the days of Wesley, Methodism has always been careful to fit its words and practices to the different needs of the people who receive them.

I’m not saying this is unique to Methodism. We Methodists have always insisted that our only goal was to be faithful to the faith once delivered to the church. We have never aimed at being new. All I am trying to do is figure out how to be the best Methodist I can be. God called me to this odd body of believers and has called me to ministry within it. I hope to honor that call as best I can.

This Easter, I pray I am serving Christ’s purpose in raising up a people called Methodist by seeking to preach in such ways.

Skipping level 1

John Wesley had three categories he used to organize his thinking about how to best preach the gospel. We see these three nicely in his sermon “Scriptural Christianity.” Here he is describing his vision for how the first converts to Christianity engaged their neighbors and relations with the gospel.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

Did you notice the three groups?

  1. Those who don’t care about the wrath of God or imagine they are in need of a savior.
  2. Those who long earnestly for a word of grace in the midst of their sense of condemnation.
  3. Those who need to be encouraged and admonished to continue on toward full holiness.

Do you know why they threw rocks at Wesley and closed so many church doors to him? In large part it was because he preached that the vast majority of good Church of England members were in the first group. He told them that just because they showed up to church and sacrament every Sunday, it did not mean they were right with God. Indeed, he preached that so-called Christians who do not have any real experience of Christ were the hardest people to convert to real Christianity.

It feels as if we in the church today are overrun with people at whom Wesley would advise us to thunder “Awake!” But there is tremendous social and theological pressure to act as if all is well. There is pressure to treat everyone as if all they need is a gentle and inspiring version of the message designed for groups 2 and 3.

I feel that pressure.

I can hear the questions that it raises.

Why be so judgmental? Who are you to warn others? Aren’t you just a hypocrite?

Do you hear those questions? I suspect Wesley did. I wonder if it ever caused him to shrink back before climbing in the pulpit or mounting the market cross.

What we do that no one else does

On Sunday, I preached at a Sunday night Lenten service about the need for spiritual accountability. The point was that, left to ourselves, we talk ourselves into – or let the devil talk us into – all kinds of bad ideas. The pastor at the host church reached out to me afterward and said he wants to talk about ways we might build on that message. I had a couple of lay members also express some interest in the kind of Wesleyan spiritual accountability groups that I mentioned in the preaching. So, that was a good evening, but one that I need to build upon if it is to bear any fruit. I’m great at beginnings; I’m not so strong on follow through.

The sermon idea arose out of a conviction I’ve been feeling recently that my ministry has provided a fair amount of care to others but not much in the way of growth. I think part of this conviction arises after three funerals in the last month at the two churches I serve. When you put a person in the ground, it gives you pause to reflect on whether you’ve done what you should have done as their pastor, which, of course, gets to issues of pastoral identity.

I’ve been on such a long journey when it comes to pastoral identity, not long in time, perhaps — I’ve been preaching close to 8 years now – but long in theological distance. If you had told me in 2007 that the role of the pastor is to get people ready to meet their maker, I would have wondered where the tent meeting revival was that you’d wandered away from. I am a spiritual child of American university towns and mainline Protestantism. In my world, churches existed to comfort and soothe and perhaps provide an organizing point for good works. The primary message was that God loves you because you are loveable and God loves everyone else even if they are not loveable. I’d never heard in a church I attended any preacher suggest that his or her job was – as John Wesley would put it – to save souls.

And yet, I am persuaded more and more that saving souls is precisely the only thing that the church does – or facilitates – that no other institution can do or cares to do. We have lots of community building groups and political action groups and counseling groups. Many of them do what the church tries to do in these areas much more effectively than the church does. What we do that we alone do is teach, lead, and encourage people on to salvation.

So, on Sunday, I tried to preach a message that would both convict and encourage the Christians who are serious enough about their faith to come out on Sunday night for a second worship service. It was a small fraction of the membership of the six congregations that are hosting these Lenten services. But like the handful of those who expressed interest in accountability groups, I find myself drawn to the thought that these are the ones who most need my attention because they are the ones most earnestly seeking something deeper and more than what passes for Christianity in our culture today.

When I get back from Spring Break, I’m going to follow up with that pastor and with the few individuals who responded to the sermon. Or, at least, that is my goal.

The devil’s scorecard

Have you cast out any devils recently?

This is a very Wesleyan question.

John Wesley, in his oft-cited sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” suggests our standard for judging the ministry of another be that question. Does the preaching of the person destroy the work of the devil?

In his sermon, Wesley points out that all the sins and evils of this world are the sign of the devil’s dominion.

Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience?

To this list, Wesley adds liars, slanderers, oppressors, extortioners, perjurers, and traitors. He even mentions the genocidal actions of his own colonizing countrymen. But the important point here is that all these manifestations of sin are signs of people under the power of Satan. A sinner is a captive. To bring a sinner to repentance is to drive the devil out. Conversion itself is a miracle of God. As Wesley writes elsewhere, it is no less a miracle to bring back to life a soul dead in sin than it is to bring back to a life a body dead in the ground.

We are locked in a spiritual war, Wesley writes in the sermon. We need all the allies we can get.

He that gathereth not men into the kingdom of God, assuredly scatters them from it. For there can be no neuter in this war. Every one is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side? Then you will not only not forbid any man that casts out devils, but you will labour, to the uttermost of you power, to forward him in the work.

Wesley suggests a three-part test to see if a person has driven out devils.

  1. Find a person who once was an open sinner.
  2. Notice that this person is no longer such and instead is living a Christian life.
  3. Fix the impetus for this change in attending the preaching of this or that person.

If you can do all three, than you can assume that God has driven out the devil through the work of that preacher.

This is more important than any disagreements over doctrine or practice. Wesley — in the part of the sermon that tends to get quoted most often — goes on to say that even if the person doing the preaching is an Arian or a Muslim or a Jew or Deist, if the fruit of the preaching is the driving out of Satan, then we should applaud and support that preacher’s work.

Wesley does not explain exactly how a Muslim imam might lead someone to live “a Christian life,” but his point remains. Perhaps in our internal denominational conversations and our interfaith dialogue we would be served well if we asked Wesley’s question rather than got bogged down on other matters.

Have you driven out devils? Yes? Then let us praise God together for that.

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)

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.