Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is He a King? (John 18-33-37)

Sorry, no update this week (Dec. 6). The format from Dec. 3 didn't lend itself to a blog post.

“Christ the King” Sunday doesn’t make everyone’s top ten lists of favorite images of Jesus. After all, most kings in the ancient world and many in some parts of today’s world are nothing like Jesus.

Many of them use their power for their own good, rather than the people’s welfare. They might remake laws according to their own desires or abuse their power against those who can’t fight back. Jesus, of course, is nothing like that. Jesus cares about people and uses his power to help them.

But Christ as the King of Kings, as the ruler and sovereign of all, is a real part of Christian teaching. The first Christian creed, or statement of belief, was probably, “Jesus is Lord.” So we have to come to terms with the idea, even if it doesn’t seem to fit as well as we might like.

Like I said, kingship in the ancient world was something that depended heavily on power and force. A king might inherit the throne from his father, uncle or brother, but he might also have taken it by overthrowing the old king. Even if he didn’t have to fight for it, he often had to hold power by force.

Some nations had legal systems that supported their kings, but many didn’t. In order to be king, a man had to claim to be the king. In order for his claim to stick, he had to have the force to back it up.

“I’m the king,” he might say.

“Who says?” other people might answer.

“Me and all my friends holding the sharp, pointy things.”

“At your service, Your Majesty.”

One reason Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king was to hear if Jesus would make the claim in his own words. He didn’t really care what Jesus answered, because he intended to use the answer for his own purposes. Pilate was trying to play some political games with the religious leaders who’d brought Jesus to him. They wanted something from him? Fine. Maybe he wanted something from them, too.

I’m sure he expected Jesus to deny what he said, because then Pilate could start his quid pro quo-ing with Jesus as well. After all, that’s the way it worked in his world.

But Jesus won’t play Pilate’s game. His answer: “You say that I am.” We often read that with the “you” emphasized. What about this, though: Read it and emphasize the “say.”

Remember, Jesus doesn’t force people to acknowledge him or his authority. He won’t make them accept him as savior and even today, he won’t bully or dominate us. He is our Lord, but he will only be our Lord at our request.

The first step of that request is the acknowledgement Pilate almost makes. “You say that I am a king,” Jesus says. In Pilate’s world, that’s enough. If I acknowledge someone as king, I admit he has the power and I don’t. I describe a state of affairs that already exists, that I can’t do anything about.

But when I say Christ is King, I make a claim and a promise. I claim he’s my ruler, and then I promise to act like it. Because love fuels Christ’s kingship, my claim is worthless without my promise, and my promise only turns out to be worth how well I live up to it.

Christ the King came to serve and to save – and even then, he wouldn’t even force Peter to let him wash his dirty fisherman’s feet. We accept his service to us and in turn are accepted into his service, his work to bring the gospel to the world.

Is he the king? He turns the question back to us. “Am I?” he asks. The true answer has to come from us, again and again.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Catholic Spirit (2 Kings 10:15)

As I’ve mentioned to you before, John Wesley’s Methodist revival paid a lot of attention to the practical, day-to-day matters of everyday life. For one, Methodist attracted a lot of people who had to spend most of their waking hours making a living. They didn’t have a lot of time for doctrinal discussions, so they wanted to know what they were supposed to do and when and how.

For another, Wesley himself was a practical man. He published a medical treatment guide, using information he gathered from several sources. He suggested reading lists for his people, including books for people who were just now learning to read.

Many of his sermons dealt with how people ought to conduct their lives if they claimed to be Christians. Wesley himself had little patience for people who claimed all the right doctrines and yet practiced few of them.

Among the most important doctrines for him was that Christians showed love to other people, especially other Christians. He knew Methodism faced the danger of its people starting to think they had a better grasp on the truth than other groups and getting a mite big for their britches.

In his day, Christian denominations were just starting to branch out, and they didn’t always work and play well with one another. Sometimes brawls and riots ended the debate, and in some countries, denominational divisions started wars.

Wesley felt this was completely wrong – Christians might definitely disagree about things, but there was no way that these disagreements should divide them that much. Doubly so in light of the fact that Jesus had said that people will know us by our love of one another.

He picked the story of Jehu and Jehonadab meeting in Second Kings. They met peacefully and agreed they were to be friends. No big deal to us, because we don’t know Jehu and Jehonadab from Jehoiakim. But let’s meet these guys and learn why this was an example Wesley wanted his people to follow.

Jehonadab was a back-to-basics guy, whose followers maintained the wandering lifestyle of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They vowed to live in tents, never build houses and never plant crops, following God the way the patriarchs had.

Jehu was the king of Israel who had been busy consolidating his kingship in the traditional manner – killing every family member of his predecessor that he could find. He also killed family members of Judah’s King Ahaziah, and after meeting with Jehu, he tricked all the priests of Ba’al into meeting in one place so he could kill them too.

But aside from that, as the king he was the representative of the established temple religion version of Judaism. He was the official face of everything Jehonadab opposed, and he had no problem figuring out what to do with enemies.

So when these guys meet, we should expect at least a little bit of spark, if not some downright full-out hacking and slashing. But no – Jehu asks Jehonadab, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?” Jehonadab says, “It is.” Then Jehu says, “Then give me your hand.” Jehonadab climbs into Jehu’s chariot and rides with him to Jehu’s next stop, Samaria, where Jehu slaughters some more of old King Ahab’s family. Ah, male bonding.

Wesley drew an important lesson from what the two men agreed on, as well as what they didn’t agree on. They agreed their hearts were in accord with each other. They agreed that a sincere desire to worship God formed the core of the other man’s particular beliefs. They agreed that meant they could get along, and because of that, there were things they could accomplish together.

Now, they didn’t agree on those particular beliefs. Jehonadab didn’t give up his back-to-basics ways. Jehu didn’t decide to abandon worshipping God at the temple to go live in a tent.

Wesley wanted his followers to do the same with other Christians. What does it matter, he says, if he preferred to pray from a liturgy and another person preferred to pray spontaneously? Why should that divide one Christian from another in other matters they held in common, like a desire to serve God and save souls?

Put it in our time. What should it matter that one Christian group decides baptism means immersion and another says it may also mean pouring or sprinkling? Should they never work together to feed the hungry, to help those who are homeless, to give the good news to people who haven’t heard it?

Of course not! If their hearts are right with each other, then they should join hands and get to work! It doesn’t mean they agree on everything, but it does mean they agree on the need to love and serve God, on the grace of God given through Christ and on the need of God’s people to spread that word. They can go different places when they need to do different things, but join in the shared task of sharing the gospel.

If we spend enough time at that, then we’ll have enough to do we won’t care about all the other stuff when we get to Heaven anyway.

Heck, I bet all those other people won’t even be disappointed to learn we’re right.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prevenient Grace (Psalm 139:7-12)

Although John Wesley used “prevenient grace” as one of his most basic doctrines, it never got a sermon of its own.

It is an important part of several sermons, though, and we do need to understand it to understand many of his ideas about Christianity. So we might gather up the pieces from a few different places and see what exactly he says prevenient grace is and what exactly prevenient grace does.

First, the words themselves. “Grace,” in this case, means things God does. They may lead or guide us, they may persuade us, they may convince us, teach us, whatever. They all fall under the idea of “grace,” the way Welsey uses that word.

“Prevenient” comes from “prevene,” which is a mashup of some Latin words. Vene means go, or sometimes come. Pre means “before.” If something “prevenes,” that means it goes before something else.

Wesley believed that God’s grace worked in people’s lives before they were ever aware of it, even before they could be aware of it. People may accept Christ as their savior, but God’s grace brought them to the place where they knew they needed to do that, and it even made it possible for them to make the decision. Grace, in fact, worked in a person’s life from the very beginning.

Which is one reason, if you’re curious, we Methodists baptize infants. Of course infants can’t decide on their own that they want to follow Christ. They can’t even decide to roll over at first. But we believe that God’s grace precedes awareness of it. When that baby becomes a grown man or woman and decides to accept Christ, that decision is rooted in God’s grace working from way back in the diaper ages and beyond.

Although this sounds simple enough, we’re about to run into a real problem, which is this: “Before” is in the eye of the beholder.

See, we live inside time – we experience each second as it happens. We group things according to time. This was “before,” this is “during,” and this will be “after.”

God is outside of time, so words like “before” don’t make any sense when we talk about how he sees things. And since grace is God’s activity, then it can’t happen “before” something. Grace can’t happen before salvation, and it can’t happen before something. Yes, we experience it that way, but that’s our experience, not God’s. Plus, does really have to just hover around, waiting for us to do something so his grace can be there before we do it?

We have trouble with this idea – we don’t even have words that can describe it, really. The phrase I like to use isn’t perfect, because it’s got some of the same time-related problems, but it gives me a better picture. Rather than saying God’s grace “goes before” us, I like to say that God’s grace is “already there.”

Our psalmist tells us that no matter where he might want to go, he would find God already there. God’s grace is already there, too. God is already acting in whatever situation we find ourselves, even the horrible ones.

We may not see it, especially in those horrible kinds of situations. But it’s there, though it may be years or even a lifetime before we understand how God worked.

Paul tells us that Jesus showed us love by dying for us while we were still sinners. We weren’t the adopted sons and daughters he allows us to claim to be; we were the prodigals who said we were better off with Dad’s riches to use and waste like we wanted. Even so, Christ chose to sacrifice himself for us, believing that God’s grace would work in us to make us the heirs God had always intended us to be. God’s grace was already there in and around us.

The psalmist goes on after our verses and says, “I am come to the end – I am still with you.” For us, following Christ will bring us someday to that place, where we know we are at the end. Maybe literally, as in living out our last days, or maybe figuratively, as in at the end of our rope.

And when it does, we will find that God’s grace is already there. Already there, and able of redeeming even the end of life itself, changing it – and us – into something new.

“Amazing” is a good word for that kind of grace.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Lord Our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6)

As we might imagine, someone who preached for as many years as John Wesley did managed to stir up controversy on the religious scene. His own church didn’t think much of his message that wealth and privilege weren’t necessary to church participation. Especially when he went around saying that to the wealthy and privileged, whose contributions to churches tended to waver when preachers told them they were sinners just like all the rabble they disliked.

But he was also caught up in the theological arguments of his day. One of them wrapped around the idea of something folks called “rigid double predestination.” It went like this: From the very beginning of time, God had picked who he would save. That’s the predestination part. He’d also picked who he wouldn’t save, which is the double predestination part. And no one could do anything about it and he’d never change his mind, which is the rigid part.

The most common way of saying this was: “The elect will be saved, do what they will; the non-elect will be damned, do what they can.”

Predestination came from one of the earlier Protestant reformers, a man named John Calvin. His ideas were best known in Wesley’s day through the Presbyterian church, an ancestor of the Presbyterian church we know today. Calvin hadn’t been quite as enthusiastic about the damnation part as the predestinarians of Wesley’s day, but apparently there are always people who enjoy the idea of other people going to hell.

Calvin originally taught this doctrine because he believed God had absolute power and because people couldn’t do anything to make themselves worthy of salvation. If they could accept or reject salvation, Calvin said, that meant that they had power to defeat God’s purposes or to make themselves acceptable to God.

Wesley sympathized with Calvin’s concerns, but he drew the line at predestination. He had many concerns, such as the idea that predestination meant that God made some people for the purpose of damnation. It’d be like, say, cloning people only so they could be killed later, for parts or something. He also wondered why Christ would come and die for people’s sins if God had already foreordained some people to save and some to get it in the neck.

But as usual, the pastoral concern was Wesley’s strongest objection. People had no way of knowing whether or not they would be saved. The worst person in the world might have an “up” ticket, and the baby who fell victim to fever might spend eternity in torment. Predestination was a doctrine of uncertainty and fear.

Scripture, though, taught that Jesus said he left his peace with his followers. And it taught that perfect love cast out fear. So, Wesley said, people could have assurance of their salvation – they could have some experience that let them know God had indeed accepted them and that Christ’s death meant their sins were forgiven. He saw his “strangely warmed heart” at Aldersgate as such an experience.

People could also accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. God would not require them to be something they did not want to be, and if they didn’t want to be saved, God wouldn’t force salvation on them.

Wesley still had to reconcile his ideas with the fact that people couldn’t earn their own salvation, though. Although he rejected predestination, he didn’t reject humanity’s sinful nature. The name Jeremiah gave to the coming Messiah – “The Lord our righteousness” – was the key.

Yes, we could accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, Wesley said. But God’s grace gives us that ability, and without that grace, we couldn’t even make the choice. Our very choice to accept or reject God depends on God’s power.

Think about it in these terms: We’ve all had relationships that have been broken or damaged somehow. And maybe after a time, we’ve wanted to heal that break. Or maybe the other person does. One of us brings the olive branch – symbolically speaking, of course, unless it seems wise to use a real one. But that won’t make any difference if the other person doesn’t accept the peace offering.

God can offer his forgiveness to us, and does constantly. Unless we accept it, though, the relationship between us stays broken. Wesley, as I noted, said God’s grace alone allows us to accept the offer, meaning that everything about our salvation still depends on God, rather than us. Which is probably for the best, if you think about it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Marks of the New Birth (John 3:8)

John Wesley called himself a “man of one book,” meaning that he based what he taught and preached and how he lived on one book – the Bible.

But when the need arose, Wesley would talk about things that Scripture didn’t talk about. In the sermon “Marks of the New Birth,” he mentions at the outset that the new birth doesn’t really require a definition, since scripture doesn’t give one. People, on the other hand, need one pretty badly, because the definition can help them see if they’ve moved onto God’s path or not. So he’ll give one.

He sees three of these marks: Faith, hope and love. Now, these three tend to hang out with each other, especially in the New Testament, and that connection plays a role in how Wesley considers them as marks of the new birth.

Wesley preached a whole sermon on salvation by faith, so we just need to remind ourselves that faith is more than intellectual consent that Jesus is God’s son. We remember that true faith involves making changes in our lives based on the reality Jesus represents.

When we were of the world, we looked out for number one, for example. As Christians, we still look out for number one, but we’ve moved ourselves out of that spot so God can occupy it. The choice may produce unsettling or even unpleasant results, but we show our faith by continuing to live that way even so.

Also, even though we know sin remains in our lives, we believe it can’t rule us anymore and we show our faith when we repent, seek forgiveness and try to live differently – again.

Our life of faith helps strengthen our hope, Wesley says. We could hope in our own abilities, but we know that’s a false hope. Instead, we hope in the promise God gives.

The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are children of God, adopted as heirs with Christ. The Spirit testifies against spirits of fear, bondage and hopelessness that label us as lost and worthless. Hopelessness could be like acid, eating away at our faith, but hope works against that erosion as we continue to live lives of faith.

We might look at our world and think giving up hope is a sensible idea. Things are, after all, pretty messed up and it doesn’t look like anyone has a solution for these problems. But hope disagrees and insists God will prevail, whether now or in a life to come.

In a way, we could say with faith, we submit our minds and our actions to God. With hope, we submit our emotions to him. Hope is much more subjective than faith – just listen to how we talk about it: “I feel hopeful.” “This feels hopeless.”

So, when we submit our thoughts, our words and actions, and our emotions to God, Wesley says those are two of the marks of the new birth in Christ. If we find places in our lives where we haven’t submitted to God, we know those are areas where we need to bury our old selves so they can rise with Christ.

The third mark of the new birth is love, and things get a little complicated here. Most of us have a hard time defining love, although we can give some basic characteristics. It includes emotions, but it’s a lot more than just a feeling. It demands actions, but they have to come from a loving motivation.

Wesley reminds us Jesus puts love at the core of the two greatest commandments – love of God and love of neighbor. And even if we can’t pin it down exactly, we know that it means we give of ourselves. Not just what we feel and not just what we do, but a mixture of them, combined with that whatever-it-is that makes us who we are.

This final mark of the new birth shows when our love is given to God and our neighbor. It’s not given to success, or the good opinion of other people, or material goods, or pleasurable experiences.

As we dedicate our thoughts and actions and our feelings and ourselves to God and to our neighbor, Wesley says, we show that we are new creations in Christ, and that our old selves are passing away. Even if we slip up or turn aside here and there, we’re no longer who we made ourselves to be. We have become – and we’re still becoming – who God has always designed and desired us to be.

Born anew, through the good news.