Renewal 2017

I have been in thought on renewal for 2017. I’m not a fan of resolutions. But I am a champion of renewal through the Holy Spirit. Since I believe prayer is the means by which God changes us, and not so much the world, I have chosen to add to my daily prayers in 2017 the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. I invite you to join me.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Blessings on your journey with Christ in 2017.

”The Day the Revolution Began” by NT Wright Introduction -2

In Chapter 2, Wright immediately points to how though the cross was foolish to the Romans, and a scandal to the Jews, the leaders of the early Christian movement did not back away from it, but embraced it with vigor and enthusiasm:

But over against this downplaying or mocking we also see, from the earliest documents of the New Testament right on through the first five or six centuries of church history, the resolute affirmation of the cross not as an embarrassing episode best left on the margins, but as the mysterious key to the meaning of life, God, the world, and human destiny.[1]

Then Wright warns us not to get stuck on defining the cross. The early Church did not, and it was only later that some attempted to assume to do so. No Wright encourages us to focus on the “flesh and power” of what God is doing, that the same “wisdom and power” might work in us.

But Jesus died for our sins not so that we could sort out abstract ideas, but so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right. That is how the revolution works.[2]

On the other hand, Wright warns that we should be like adults rather than children and attempt to understand the foundations of the truth in the wisdom and power of God revealed in the cross. We should be asking “why” in order that the cross does not become a one-line slogan lacking the same wisdom and power that God desires us to enter into. As Wright frequently writes, it is the task of every generation to explore the central question of “why”.

The aim, as in all theological and biblical exploration, is not to replace love with knowledge. Rather, it is to keep love focused upon its true object.[3]

Here again, Wright gives the why we need to attempt to explain the cross. It is about love, more so than knowledge. Ultimately, love is to seek understanding so that it may deepen, and grow, and flower in to its fullest expression.

The next step for Wright is to look at the models and doctrines that developed through the ages since the scandalous and foolish act was committed upon the Messiah of the Jews. Wright argues that the early centuries of the church leadership held loosely several concepts of the “why” together. Jesus died for our sins; Christ won a great victory; Jesus died in our place; and used sacrificial imagery. The creeds of the early church were trinitarian, focused on God, Jesus and Spirit. They lacked any formulation of atonement, only restating 1 Corinthian 15.

Wright proposes that it was at the split  between the Eastern and Western Christianity, that more detailed formulations of the atonement began to appear. Because, the Eastern Orthodox church did not have an Anselm, the argument goes, it points to that many of the great controversies that follow came from “fresh interpretive schemes” rather than the Bible itself.[4] Anselm proposed that God’s honor was damaged by human sin, and needed to be satisfied. Wright, correctly, points to how this makes sense within the codes of chivalry of the High Middle Ages. An alternative, known as the “moral example” theory was developed by Abelard. It primarily argued that the cross was a generous act of love by God for humankind, thus leading humankind to love God in return. The Orthodox church did not feel it necessary to ask similar questions of the cross.

Next Wright explores what followed with the Reformation.

These two polemical targets— purgatory and the Mass— thus ensured that when the Reformers were developing their own ways of explaining what the death of Jesus achieved, they were understandably eager to ward off what they saw as ecclesial abuse. I am not a specialist in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it does seem to me that in general terms the Reformers and their successors were thus trying to give biblical answers to medieval questions. They were wrestling with the question of how the angry God of the late medieval period might be pacified, both here (through the Mass?) and hereafter (in purgatory?). To both questions, they replied: no, God’s wrath was already pacified through the death of Jesus. Not only does this not need to be done again; if we were to try to do it again, we would be implying that the death of Jesus was somehow after all inadequate. (Echoes of this controversy can still be seen when exegetes tiptoe around Col. 1: 24, in which Paul seems to be saying that his own sufferings are somehow completing something that was “lacking” in the Messiah’s own sufferings.) They did not challenge the underlying idea that the gospel was all about pacifying divine wrath. It was simply assumed that this was the problem Paul was addressing in Romans 1: 18– 32 or indeed 1 Thessalonians 1: 10 or 5: 9. [5]

Quite fairly, Wright also states that Luther and other Reformers were strong biblical exegetists, and that they had strong affinity for the love and grace of God unfolding in the biblical story. Wright’s point of view is that Luther and the other Reformers had the right biblical answer for the wrong questions raised in the Middle Ages.

Ultimately the question should have been bigger, less about purgatory and heaven, but should have been a robust challenge of the “heaven and hell” framework. (This is one of the qualities I most appreciate about Wright’s work) For the answer that they discerned, lacked a proper biblical eschatology.

Atonement (how humans are rescued from their plight and restored to their intended place within the loving and creative purposes of God) must dovetail with eschatology (what God ultimately intends for the world and for humans). And if we rethink our eschatology, as I have been trying to do over the last decade or two, we must rethink our view of atonement as well. In fact, the two go together very closely in the New Testament: the cross was the moment when something happened as a result of which the world became a different place, inaugurating God’s future plan. The revolution began then and there; Jesus’s resurrection was the first sign that it was indeed under way. That is what the present book is about. [6]

In the opinion of Wright, among many others, the 18th century dawn of the Enlightenment, weakened a biblical understanding by the adoption of Epicureanism by the periods leading thinkers. Thus, earth and heaven became separated, and eschatology was getting to heaven, and more focus on the penal substitution that focused the church on “my sin, my heavenly (that is non worldly) salvation, and of course my Savior.”[7]

Here Wright takes the opportunity to address what he sees a major flaw in 20th century theology, the separation of personal sin from the evil of the world. Atonement became to be only about personal sin. Rightfully, Wright argues that the cross is about a cosmic redemption, thus the cross deals with evil both in personal sin and evil at work throughout the world.

In the 20th century (and 21st), confusion remains about the cross. The symbol of the cross has become to many a symbol of fear, loathing, and a hateful God who desires to murder sinners. Others have read earlier Christian writers and taken to pointing to God’s love in Christ that would die for others, or a sign of victory over death and evil. Wright, however, says all of these various concepts of atonement ultimately hide the most important New Testament statement on the cross “something happened as a result of which the world is a different place.” [8] The first Christian thinkers appearing in the New Testament were convinced something new was happening, a revolution was beginning with the crucifixion.

Wright’s direction is in sharp contrast to how many read and interpret Scripture today. Many who are teachers and preachers in the church focus on the personal story of salvation, and the satisfaction of an angry if not blood-thirsty God, while Wright argues it is about a much bigger issue, God’s kingdom being initiated by the death of Jesus on the cross. It is from this big picture stance, that Wright will move to the difficulties of the late 20th and early 21st century with the violence of the cross and the violence of the world now revealed 24/7 through industrialized weaponry and instant social media images of that violence. These are the questions that are heard in the pews and on the sidewalks of the community.

Wright is led to ask questions about what if we do go to look at the bigger context of Jesus’ death on the cross:

What might happen if, instead of an ultimate vision of saved souls going to heaven, we were to start with the eschatology of Ephesians 1: 10, with God’s plan to sum up all things in heaven and earth in the Messiah? What if, instead of a disembodied “heaven,” we were to focus on the biblical vision of “new heavens and new earth,” with that renewal and that fusion of the two created spheres taking place in and through Jesus himself? What if, instead of the bare “going to heaven,” we were to embrace (along with theologians like John Calvin) the biblical vocation of being the “royal priesthood”? What would happen if we thought through the ongoing cross-shaped implications, writ large as they are in the New Testament, of the once-for-all event of Jesus’s death? What difference might that make to our view of salvation— including once more its philosophical and political dimensions? How, in other words, does the cross fit into the larger biblical narrative of new creation? What would happen if, instead of seeing the resurrection (both of Jesus and of ourselves) as a kind of happy addition to an otherwise complete view of salvation, we saw it as part of its very heart? [9]

[1] Wright, N. T. (2016-10-11). The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 530-533). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 549-550)

[3] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 579-580)

[4] Ibid, (Kindle Location 604]

[5] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 530-533)

[6] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 735-740)

[7] Ibid, (Kindle Location 743)

[8] Ibid, (Kindle Location 810)

[9] Ibid, Kindle Location 965 – 973)

Generous Hospitality

We talk about hospitality frequently in the church. But I question whether we understand abundant generous hospitality. This morning as part of my daily reading program, I read Genesis 18. It is the story of Abraham, lodging by the oaks of Mamre, who is visited by three men. Abraham ran from his tent upon seeing them standing near by. How incredible is it that he “ran”? For that time very incredible , and maybe even some for today. How many of us run to greet guests these days?

He bows to the ground upon meeting them. I think we can understand that Abraham recognizes the LORD, YHWH, in this group of three men. Abraham invites all three of them to join him in some food and water and rest. After the invitation, Abraham “hastens” to have the best ingredients of the house made into fresh food for these strangers. Then he served them, standing “by them under the tree while they ate.”

This time of year around Christmas, we have many family members come and go. Some of us have some visitors that are non-family who join us. So I’m left wondering how generous are we? Do we recognize the LORD in the visitation? Do we “run” and “hasten” to attend to their needs, serving them, standing by as they eat, drink and rest, providing the best that the house has? I’m afraid such hospitality is not the norm these days. Homes have become castles of defense and exclusion, rather than places of invitation and of generous hospitality. I am sadden that I have not been more invitational and of generous hospitality this pass year. Could it be a new beginning I should seek in my prayers to the Lord? I think so.

Book Review:”The Day the Revolution Began” by NT Wright Introduction

Chapter 1.

The primary focus of NT Wright’s new book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, is the importance of the crucifixion.

Whether we believe in Jesus, whether we approve of his teaching, let alone whether we like the look of the movement that still claims to follow him, we are bound to see his crucifixion as one of the pivotal moments in human history.(1)

For us Christians, as Wright also points out this is as the turning point in human history. Probably for the people of the pew, we get this as a bit of ideology, but do we get this as a part of our life story. That is, do I and those whom I serve at Greenwood and Montague Ave, see that an event more than 2000 years ago plays a significant role in our lives. And if it does, how do we recognize in the day to day business of living.

What Wright wants the reader to recognize is that on that day a revolution began. The resurrection three days later was the first sign that a revolution had begun.

In the introduction, Wright also claims most of us Christians, and even many of non-Christians, do not see it this way. Most of those who see things from the pew had been taught long ago that Jesus’ death was about saving them from sin, and giving them a ticket to a trip to heaven when they die. Wright claims not to banish this personal claim of salvation, but by expanding the meaning of the crucifixion, so that personal salvation is even more wonderful.(2)

How is it more wonderful, or greater, than just personal salvation?

In this book I want to show what that means and how a fuller vision of what happened when Jesus died, rooted in the New Testament itself, can enable us to be part of that revolution. According to the book of Revelation, Jesus died in order to make us not rescued nonentities, but restored human beings with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world. (3)

I believe Wrights argument fits with the argument made by John Wesley in the 17th century. These are foundational beliefs of the United Methodist Church, inheritors of Wesley’s theological understanding. We as Methodists, believe that the complete story of salvation includes not only Justification, but also Sanctification. First we become part of the family, then we are given a vocation for which we are prepared through the process of sanctification and which will be used as part of God’s purposes for the world.

As we work through The Day the Revolution our purposes are to first seek to possibly understand the power of the cross which has taken hold of our lives, and secondly come to accept and understand the vocation that we receive from being made part of a family that serves the Father by following the Son, who empowers us to participate in the mission of God through the Spirit.

  1. Wright, N. T. (2016-10-11). The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 251-253). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid, (Kindle Location, 264).
  3. ibid, (Kindle Locations 278-280).

Conversation and Prayers

Michael is here. He is a part-time counselor in the public school system. I was glad to see him today, as I had not seen him for some time. He has lyme’s disease, so sometimes it is difficult for him to get out. But we picked up our banter quickly with ease. Just the way that God and I do so often in prayer. It is almost as if there has not been a break.

A 9/11 Response

Over this past week, I have had sleepless nights in contemplating a response to the 15th Anniversary of 9/11. I remember the event well in nearly every detail of that day. It was before my call, but even then I was torn in my response. Now that I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and even more importantly having given my life to a Lord that absorbed such violence in his own body on the cross for redemption rather than retaliation, I am even more at odds with the “American response”. I found the this article by Derek Vreeland frames it well for me: http://www.missioalliance.org/christian-memory-911/. I would only add one additional thought. Over these past years in our “war on terrorism” I have wondered how many memorable moments like 9/11 we have created for the people of the Middle East. This thought became especially sharp in the recent trip of President Obama to Hiroshima, Japan.

Creation Care

This month of September part of the theme is Creation and Uncreation and Redemption of Creation. I think that this article http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/09/12/let-nothing-be-lost-leslie-leyland-fields/, by Leslie Leyland Fields is an excellent thought provoking article on this theme.

Lost

Lost my wallet a few days ago. I went crazy trying to find it. Checked all the usual places where I might have put it. Tried here and there, with an increasing sense of lost. I was nearly in complete despair of finding it when my wife discovered it beside my “prayer” chair. It had slipped out of my running pants. Together we celebrated, for a little bit, before I had to run out the door late to an appointment. Luke 15:1-10 makes sense. Glad I preached on it this week.

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Embodied Engagement

What would “embodied engagement” look like in my locale by the churches I serve? The locale is Winchester, Va. The churches are Greenwood and Montague Ave. The current practices of this spiritual discipline are:

  • Prayer walks. A few of us gather weekly to walk some of the neighborhoods that surround Greenwood. About 5,000 homes are within 5 miles of the driveway of the church. We could walk every day of the week in a different neighborhood. A thought. Currently, a small group walks once a month in the neighborhood of Montague Avenue. Montague Ave is a true neighborhood church, sitting in a residential area of about a 150 homes, and several apartment complexes. Again we could walk more often.
  • One area where I and others could make a better effort is knowing the names of those with whom we associate every day. We should no the names of those who cut our hair, who is behind the counter at the bank, or the meat dept. of the supermarket, who serves us our meal, who delivers are paper. And so many more.
  • I have progressed, thankfully, in being a faithful presence in the community. I gave up office hours at the church. Now, I spend more time at coffee shops around town. Wi-fi has made this easy for the computer savvy pastor. But even the less savvy could benefit from time in local establishments. For others it is a matter of being intentional as a presence in the community.
  • We all can too improve in engaging with those who are different than us. I have an advantage over many having traveled extensively to other continents, even living for a time in some places. Also in having had the experience of living on both coasts and in between in the states. It must be harder for those who have lived all their lives in the comfort of one place. And now that place is changing. Immigrants are challenging them with their cultural biases. This may be the most difficult area of change for many in our congregations.