SIGNS OF EASTER

In life’s all too common journeys, we encounter small signs of a great victory.  Those signs were there on that first Easter.  The Bible says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (John 20:1).  She does not understand its meatombning.  She runs to get others.  She jumps immediately to the common supposition that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Whatever else is to be said at this point it is clear that the grave is not the end.  I remember a colleague telling of pausing in a cemetery after he had finished a funeral.  He looked at a massive stone crypt set near where he had just concluded the funeral service.  Clear specific instructions had been left.  “Not to be opened upon any circumstance” was chiseled on the stone door facing of the crypt.  And yet, there it was.  The tiny shoot of a plant, possibly a tree in the making, had slowly but inexorably forced the stone door of the crypt open.  A shaft of light was streaming in.

So it is for us this day.  A shaft of light breaks through the darkness.  Mary struggles to believe; so do Peter and the other disciple as they peer in to examine what is left behind.  They examine the grave like befuddled detectives, one starting to believe; the other, Peter, clearly not knowing what to make of the empty tomb.

We are so like them that at times it is painful.  We believe and yet we are overwhelmed in grief and loss.  We believe and yet we shake our heads at how awful the world is.  We believe and yet … we are not sure.  We believe and see small signs of a great victory.

Notice what the disciples and Mary did.  They relegated the extraordinary – the stone rolled, the tomb empty – to the ordinary.  They sought to explain it all with a sensible supposition – the body has been taken.  All the while they confront massive evidence of the truth.  Christ has been raised from the dead.  Death and sin are conquered.  Belief dawns slowly with the light.  The Bible says, “For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).

This too is our struggle.  Small signs of this colossal victory are all around us.   Mary and the two disciples of that first Easter morning would teach us to look for signs of the extraordinary in the ordinary.  In love shared, in care given, with hope amid despair, and laughter in the place of grief, comes the dawning of belief.  One of the followers gets it.  “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). Let that be you.  Begin to see the extraordinary – God in resurrection action – amid the ordinary.

Pause here.  Catch with me precisely where Jesus is first encountered.  It is near the tomb!  Angels are messengers of God.  They point to the triumph.  They are inside the tomb, at the very epicenter of defeat, directing our attention to the triumph.  Still Mary struggles to believe.

Did you make the critical connection?  We encounter Jesus first, often best, at the very place of our defeat, despair, and deep grief.  Where we struggle to believe, God is most present.  Where we have come to the end of our resources, there God can break through in triumph.

Focused on her grief Mary teeters on the edge of faith. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’” (John 20:14-15).  Then the full impact of the resurrection, the gospel, hits.  “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (John 20:16).  In the naming she is claimed by the Lord.  His triumph becomes her destiny!  The “Jesus Way” leads not to defeat but to victory.  Our morning begins in a graveyard.  It erupts in a shout.  “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

Our path of faith is the same.  Near the tombs of our life – be they physical, spiritual or symbolic – we are named and claimed by the risen Lord.  Lift your head when defeat, despair, and deep grief settle in.  Look for the triumphant Christ.  He is at hand.  You are named and claimed.

A friend of mine, Joe Harding, years ago sat on a plane next to the great actor Richard Burton.  Conversing with him, Harding asked him about playing the role of Marcellus in the epic movie The Robe.  Marcellus was the commanding officer of the soldiers who crucified Christ and gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross.

Richard Burton relayed how terrifying it was to play that scene at the foot of the cross.  He told Joe how the figure of Jesus was made out of plastic and one of the stage hands stood beneath the cross, out of view, and pumped blood through this plastic figure.  Burton said that the scene was so terrifying, so fake and unreal, that one of his fellow actors had a nervous breakdown.

As Burton finished relating the story, the plane pulled up to the gate, and they got ready to leave.  Joe didn’t know what to say but words just sort of popped into his mouth.  He said, “Mr. Burton, I know a Jesus that is real and alive.”

What about you?  Do you know a Jesus who is real and alive?  He calls us by name – Mary! or Jim! or Juanita! or Mark!.  This Easter we are named and claimed by the risen Lord.  His triumph is our destiny!

The Glory Road

What leads to human glory?  Put differently what defines the path of great success? Or, what delineates the triumph of a life well lived?

It is reported that Alexander the Great was not satisfied, even when he had completely subdued the nations.  “He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, and he died at an early age in a state of debauchery.  Hannibal, who filled three bushels with the gold rings taken from the knights he had slaughtered, committed suicide by swallowing poison.  Few noted his passing, and he left this earth completely unmourned.  Julius Caesar, ‘dyeing his garments in the blood of one million of his foes’, conquered 800 cities, only to be stabbed by his best friends at the scene of his greatest triumph.  Napoleon, the feared conqueror, after being the scourge of Europe, spent his last years in banishment.” (Pulpit Resource, G.S. Bowles)  For all their supposed glory, the true road to glory eluded these great ones of history.

More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, walked the Athenian marketplace at high noon with a lantern replying to inquirers that he was “searching for an honest man” – whom he never found.  Characteristically the Greek was a searcher after the truth, a seeker of the road to glory.  “It was no unusual thing to find a Greek who had passed through philosophy after philosophy, and religion after religion, and gone from teacher to teacher in the search of truth.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, p. 120)

Today’s quest for truth and glory may be different in outward form, but its inward content has changed little.  The proliferation of philosophies, religions and self-help books which mark our age give testimony to a search for success.  Contrast our search with the road to glory that leads to the cross of Good Friday.

Speaking of the road to glory, “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” (John 12:22-23)  Then he unpacked what this road looks like.  He marked out three signs for us to look for.

1.      Only in spending our lives for others, do we gain our life.  Verse 24, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)  William Barclay put it this way: “If we look after ourselves as a hypochondriac looks after his health, no doubt we will exist longer – but we will never live.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, p. 124)  The road to glory runs through spending your life from great and worthy causes – family and friends, peace and justice, the gospel and goodness, faith and mercy.

2.      Through death comes life.  Verse 25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)  When we die to personal desire and ambition we become to the glory of life lived for God.  It is when we finally surrender our own aspirations that God gives us even greater triumphs.  Death really does lead to life.

3.      Greatness comes through service.  Verse 26, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  (John 12:26) Take a quick heart check.  When have you been most alive?  Isn’t the answer when we have been serving others?  The glory of a day well lived finds its expression in the joy of serving with spouse, child or friend; reaching to others in need whether it’s through work or church or school or whatever.  We instinctively know this truth and yet so easily forget it.

For Christ, the road to glory lead to the cross in sacrifice and then beyond!  He sees this clearly and thus states:  “’Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–’ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” (John 12:27-28)

May your experience of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday lead to the cross.  May it be a journey on the glory road.  It is only on this road that Easter morning dawns.

 

An Inquiry on the Way to Taize

Saturday evening April 5th found Jolynn and me driving over to White’s Chapel UMC to participate in a special Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” here in the northern part of Texas. Readers may well remember that the Central Texas Conference sponsored a leadership development pilgrimage to Taize, France about a year ago. By way of background:

“The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic community in France that annually welcomes tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. … At Taize, young people are invited to united inner life and human solidarity. … The Brothers, from various Christian denominations and twenty-five countries, regularly organize huge gatherings for young adults in major European cities and on other continents [in this case 3 in the State of Texas]. These gatherings are part of a “Pilgrimage of Trust”: those who take part are invited to deepen their trust in God and in their ability to become bearers of reconciliation where they live.”

As we drove, I babbled on about how spiritually nurturing and enriching I found my time at Taize. I shared again my oft repeated mantra that we, in the American society of the 21st century, live at a pace of life that is not sustainable. I waxed eloquent as we drove (or at least I babbled semi-coherently) about how we had to make time for quiet and contemplation.

After listening patiently for a while, Jolynn interrupted me. “Would you have said or done this when you were a young man?” Ouch! I paused for a long time and thought. Then I responded, “Well, remember that I came to Methodism out of the Quakers.” We talked about how I did do some quiet and reflection time but not near enough. The painful truth is that I resisted the notion of Sabbath-rest and contemplation. My nature is passionate activism.

And yet, I find myself judging my own actions in reflection. I can recall a close friend and co-worker pushing me hard on taking more time for my family. Recently spending time with our 1 year old granddaughter reawakened the hectic pressures placed on young parents. I can also remember being on the edge of burnout and thinking about leaving the ministry in my late 30s.

In some deep ways – ways driven I think by the Holy Spirit – the Christian movement in America has gone through a change. Now, in ways many of us (yours truly) did not appreciate through much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we have reconnected the importance of deep spiritual connectedness with ministry activism. This is a good trend and, as I’ve asserted, a work of the Holy Spirit.

I offer a prayer I wrote for Taize:

Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being we pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts
To see you moving in our world.
Open the ears of our minds
To discern your greater purpose in our lives.
Take hold of us Lord Jesus, we pray,
Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit;
That we may be moved to loving and caring
For those most distant and different from us;
That we might serve those most in need;
That we might witness in offering your grace
To those most bent by rage and deprivation.
Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being
In this season of prayer and reflection.
And claim us Lord once again for You!
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bishop Mike Lowry

P.S. As you prepare for Holy Week, the Cross and Easter, I commend an article by Frederick W. Schmidt at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/blog/entry/4906/before-you-celebrate-easter-get-real  entitled Before You Celebrate Easter, Get Real.

PRAYER AND ADAPT TO THRIVE

I had planned to write today’s blog on a new book written by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy entitled Adapt to Thrive.  Life and death however have a way of intruding.  The most recent tragedy at Fort Hood affects us deeply in the Central Texas Conference (as well as our nation) and even more so in the South District (which includes Fort Hood) which begs for our continuing prayers for all affected.  Gary Lindley, New Church Start District Superintendent for the Central Texas Conference, and I have both been in conversation with Rev. Mark Hart, the new church start pastor for Genesis Fellowship UMC in Killeen.  Mark is a retired veteran and his wife Rose is currently serving in the Army.  She is the commander of Alpha Company. The shooting involved the Unit that she commanded.  Rev. Lindley reports, “One of soldiers killed was in her unit.  Rose had just finished talking to this young man who was killed. He left to go into the building. Rose was to follow to do a review, but she was delayed. As she made her way toward the building she heard the shots.  The young man who was killed had just told Rose that he had 9 months to complete his tour.  He leaves a wife and young children. When I spoke to Rose, she was returning to the base to care for her unit and to assist in providing support for her troops.”  Please be in prayer for Mark and Rose Hart and all the soldiers at Fort Hood. Rose will be the one who will have to work with soldiers with PTSD and discharging them from the military.

Even as we lift up our prayers for those facing deep tragedy, we are ever reminded of our common need for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for vital congregations that share and live out the gospel under Christ’s Lordship.  Our adaptive challenge remains fixed in front of us.  “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  There are a significant number of new resources being produced to help us embrace the adaptive challenge of building vital congregations.  April 20th will mark the publication of one such excellent addition to our resource library — Adapt to Thrive.

“Most local churches will either go extinct or adapt and thrive” (p. 127).  This deep conviction undergirds the powerful challenge John Flowers and Karen Vannoy offer in their most recent book.  (They have previously written 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What To Do About It and Not Just a One-Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless.)  In Adapt to Thrive the authors take us beyond best practices into the world of adaptive transformation.  Putting a sound theological and organizational foundation in place, they empower local churches (and their leaders) in practical ways to enter the desperately needed world of deep change.  The sub-title catches the essence: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfuntional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.

There is much to like in this book and even more to learn. Without flinching they name the loss of focus and “mission drift” which currently cripples many churches.  “It is not only the sin that lives in us that prevents us from fulfilling our purpose.  It is also that we have forgotten who we belong to; we are as lost and confused as the people we would try to reach. Clergy and laity alike share the blame” (p. 16). The authors tie a larger church culture of mission drift with a unique understanding of each congregation’s own distinctive mission.  The two are welded to a greater understanding of a commitment to be followers of Jesus and not just admirers of Jesus.  From this platform they argue for ten central adaptations the church must make:
1. From scarcity to abundance
2. From entitlement to egalitarianism
3. Form somberness to playfulness
4. From limited access to trust
5. From ignoring the neighbors to embracing the neighbors
6. From predictability to freedom
7. From marginal members to deep disciples
8. From baby steps to giant leaps
9. From suspicion to grace
10. From a generic culture to a self-defined culture

We can argue about the various adaptations – are they the right ones? Is something left out?, etc. – in fact the authors invite our thoughtful debate.  What the book does superbly well is engage us in practical applications that impact the mission field around us.  I love their quote of Doug Anderson, “we need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church” (p. 60). In adaptation #4 they challenge the notion that the building belongs to the members.  Reading, I could not help but recall a fight in the first church I pastored over who got a key to the building.  (I gave everyone a key who wanted one!)  We needed this adaption to move from limited access to trust.  Flowers and Vannoy write, “Limited-access churches lock gates, update alarm systems, put bars on windows, and even fences around the property.  The fences don’t really keep anyone out, but they do communicate a message to the area.  Limited-access churches maintain an old culture of mistrust” (p. 73). Ouch!  There is a truth here that needs hearing!  Take this simple insight from adaptation #5.  “Embracing your neighbors is an attitude before it’s an action” (p. 79).

Perhaps the most intriguing and challenging adaptation is #7: “from marginal members to deep disciples.”  There can be little doubt that such conviction is at the core of the Wesleyan movement in its unique expression of the Christian faith.  The early “Methodists” were “methodical” (hence the name) in moving people from marginal adherence to deep discipleship.  This is still at the very center core of today’s United Methodist Church.  Our mission we say is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This section alone is worth the price of the book.  Consider some of the insights:

  •  “We have trained them [church members] to a dysfunctional culture of very low expectations.” (p.88)
  •  “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.” (p.89)
  • “Elevate local church membership.” (p. 89)
  •  “Accountability is not achieved by shaming and blaming.  It is achieved by telling the truth about high expectations.”  (p. 90)
  • “This path of adaptation means that we transcend our fears and anxieties in order to develop relationships outside our comfort zone.” (p. 92)

The welding of deep insight with practical application is the hallmark of this insightful book.  Adapt to Thrive speaks deeply to churches trying to recover their missional identity.  The writers present ten specific, concrete steps which move a congregation through the adaption process.  Step-by-step, they offer guidance on engaging the mission field around us with the life-giving love of Christ.  It is a joy to commend this book to congregations and congregational leaders who are hungering for new life in Christ!

In advocating this book, I make no plea that it has all the answers.  I do plea that both lay and clergy leaders avail themselves of the excellent resources developed to enable us to meet the adaptive challenge.  Amid our squabbles, this is really the way forward.  Again the risen Christ stands at boundaries of modern living and commands, challenges, invites us to follow Him.

ENFORCED SABBATH

Last Wednesday I went to the hospital for arthroscopic surgery on my left knee.  Dutifully I reported at 5:30 a.m. (Yes, despite my protestations that God is not awake at that hour, I still had to report at 5:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. surgery.)  Suffice to say the surgery went fine.  The only real hiccup was the discovery of an “insufficient” fracture of my left knee in addition to the cartilage work the doctor was expecting.  (If I understand it right, an “insufficient fracture” is a fracture inside the knee that does not reach the outer edge of the knee.)  Instead of 2 weeks on crutches, I am now sentenced to 4 weeks on crutches plus some physical therapy.

I had blocked off Wednesday for the surgery and Thursday through Sunday for healing.  I learned again the truth of a line I have learned many times in my life:  “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

I thought recuperation would be a pleasant 4 day sabbatical from the routine of work.  The combination of pain, pain medication, and exercise involved anything but gentle, easy rest.  I tried reading some professional books (Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley and Apologetics by Alister McGrath, both good and recommended with enthusiasm) but found I could not concentrate.  I switched to a long awaited science fiction novel by David Weber (Like a Mighty Army; the 7th in the Safehold Series).  It is a great yarn, full of action.  I could only hang on for about 2 & 1/2 pages before drugs and drowsiness would cause me to lose focus.

Recovering from surgery or battling illness in any form is not Sabbath rest!  Duh!  This obvious truth I know well and yet easily forgot.  As I recovered it set me to thinking about the importance of rest amid the rhythm of work.  This is not a new thought with me.  I have long held that we live at a pace that is not sustainable.  Our bodies sometimes make us slow down.  Mine did so for me.

Yet Sabbath is something different.  It is an intentional dedicated pause for a purpose.  The purpose is to both honor and refocus on God as Lord and Ruler of our lives. The Scriptures teach us a far greater truth than simply enforced time off.  The commandment to honor the Sabbath springs from the earlier commandment, “You must have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  We are instructed/commanded by the Lord God:  “Remember the Sabbath Day and treat it as holy.  Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to The Lord your God. …” (Exodus 20:8-10a).

Even in recovery The Lord is teaching me.  Even in recovery my own sinful nature is ever before me.  I have tried to act as if this commandment to honor the Sabbath has been repealed and am found out.  I’ve tried to “double dip” my time by having recovery serve as an enforced Sabbath and it has not worked.  The purpose of Sabbath rest directs me back to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It leads me in prayer and obedience, reflection and renewal.

My Spiritual Director is always reminding me not to find the time for devotions and quiet but rather to MAKE the time for devotion and quiet.  To honor the Sabbath is to make the Sabbath holy, not to squeeze something else in it (not even something as necessary as recovery from surgery).  Sabbath can never be enforced but is a freely chosen act of obedience, love and devotion.  In our pauses, in my pauses, God speaks once again and listening (however foggily amid the pain and pills) I find myself blessed and loved.

How is it with your soul?

Heading Towards the Cross: The Offense of Substitutionary Atonement

I readily confess that one of my favorite more contemporary Christian hymns/songs is “In Christ Alone” (written in 2001).  Its emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the trust the Lord rarely fails to move me to a deeper conviction and engage me in a stronger commitment.  It is one of those songs that feeds my soul.  Even typing the words, the great, first verse anchors my being and brings me before the Lord in peace.

“In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.”

The second verse moves into an affirmation of the incarnation. “Christ alone, Who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe!” Yet, from there it plunges into claims of atonement that are often an offense.

“This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid –“

The third verse embraces the resurrection in full-throated glory and the fourth verse moves the listener to the heights of discipleship in sanctified commitment.  Yet the last half of the second verse remains as an in-your-face declaration of substitutionary atonement.

In my last blog, “Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement” I noted the variety of metaphors which speak to the issue of how the cross “works” or how we are atoned – if you will, “at-oned” with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I made no claims that my list was exhaustive (the list was largely, though not exclusively, taken from the writing of Scot McKnight in his book A Community Called Atonement). I emphasized how the earliest Christians refused to settle for a single metaphor or image understanding of atonement and salvation.  Through a refusal to settle for a single metaphor and an equal refusal to jettison any one biblical image under the inspired guidance of the Holy Spirit, those earliest Christians led us to a great and uncomfortable truth.  We wish to pick the image we like and slide quickly by the rest. Such is a mistake of biblical proportions.

In particular this conflict can be noted around issues relating to substitutionary atonement.  Substitutionary atonement is the notion (metaphor or image) that Jesus did something we could not do for ourselves.  He paid the price for our sin.  In short form it goes something like this.  A righteous, just, and holy God cannot simply ignore the disasters and evil consequence of sin.  The price of sin must be paid.  Christ, the one sinless human being (fully human and fully divine!), on the cross paid the price that just and righteous God required. God’s wrath is not against humans but against sin.  It is the logical consequence of love’s full embrace.  To demand that God’s wrath towards sin be ignored is effectively to live in a delusion of sin’s effect on human life and living.  By way of illustration of sin’s power we simply need to point to the civil war waging in Syria this very day.  Or, should we chose something closer to home, we can easily note the rising homelessness in the world’s most prosperous nation (including right here in Fort Worth!).  These are the real world consequences of sin and they can be ignored or papered over.

Yet notions of a wrathful God make us, especially those of the old mainline (now sideline) – shrink back in unfeigned disgust.  We recoil at the very idea of God’s wrath needing to be satisfied.  It makes God look vengeful and needless cruel. (Years ago I heard someone refer to it as “divine child abuse.”  In a recent article Dr. Bill Bouknight recalled that “back in 1993 at the infamous Re-Imagining Conference, a Union Seminary professor said, ‘We don’t need to hear about somebody hanging on a cross, and blood dripping, and all that stuff.’  And when those words were spoken, the interdenominational audience exploded into applause.  Obviously, the message of the cross is still as offensive as St. Paul found it to be—‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (I Cor. 1:23).”  He went on to note that “The official position of the UMC is clearly stated in Article XX of the Articles of Religion: ‘The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction but that alone’ (Bill Bouknight, The Atonement Controversy).”  Furthermore, scriptural references are too numerous to be ignored.  “God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3, CEB).  “…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2, NRSV).  “People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).  “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, CEB). The list could go on but the reader can get the drift.

Whether we like it or not, substitutionary atonement cannot be ignore.  H. Richard Niebuhr’s great quote will preach at lent!  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr from The Kingdom of God in America).  At the same time it is important, vitally important, that we do not boil our whole understanding of salvation down to substitutionary atonement.  What the first Christians refused to do, so should we refuse to do also.  There is room and application needed for all of the various understandings (theories/metaphors/images) of atonement.  We need to embrace the whole of the gospel not just part of it.

The offense of substitutionary atonement comes for much of our age because it, substitutionary atonement, takes sin so seriously.  This is a truth we need to recover not only in our peaching and teaching but in our lives and confession.  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).  We suffer from a surfeit of cheap grace.  A grace that costs little and means less.  Paul had it right, “we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:23-24).

The song, In Christ Alone, has it right, “Here in the death of Christ I live” (verse 2, last line).

Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement

There is an old story passed on to me years ago by an Army veteran in a congregation I served.  If I recall it correctly, a company of soldiers was dug-in on a hill and receiving a great deal of lethal shelling from the enemy.  Through the explosions, a soldier dived into a foxhole.  Hugging the ground his fingers touched metal.  He pried up a little pocket cross.  As the shelling lessoned, he look across the foxhole and notice that the person he shared it with was a chaplain.  “Say Chaplain,” he said, “how do you make this thing work anyhow?”  Atonement is about how this thing – the cross, crucifixion and resurrection – works.  It is about how we become at one with God.

Make no mistake about it.  The cross looms over the landscape leading to Easter.  How the cross works in the equation that leads us from the incarnation of Christmas to the joy of Easter morning and beyond is what this journey called Lent is about.

The cross is the epitome of Roman power and might.  It is the essence of human sin and suffering.  It is an unescapable reality of the Christ faith.  “Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them’” (Luke 9:23-24).

I like the way the famous Anglican Church pastor John R. W. Stott put it: “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” Or take the great quote of the German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who so valiantly resisted the evils of Nazi Germany: “The cross is laid on every Christian…. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 89).

That phrase of Bonhoeffer’s – “he bids him come and die” – is justly famous for this is exactly what Bonhoeffer did.  Furthermore it is justly famous because it pushes us back on the meaning of the cross and the basic teaching of Jesus – “take up [your] cross.”

All of this is a way of getting at how salvation becomes effective, how it all “works.”  It is significant, I think, that the early church insisted on doctrine of incarnation with Jesus confessed as fully human and fully divine as embedded in the great creeds. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; … he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed). They battled over the precise meaning of the Holy Trinity giving us the great threefold rendition of the Apostle Creed. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; … I believe in the Holy Spirit” (The Apostles Creed).

But, when it came to understanding salvation, what we properly call atonement or at-one-ment.  They reached for a series of metaphors and refused to adopt just one definition or understanding.  Each metaphor points back to the crucial transaction that takes place in the crucifixion and in the resurrection.  Consider the listing that Scot McKnight lifts up in his marvelous book A Community Called Atonement.

  • Recapitulation – “he [Jesus] became like us that we might be like him” (Attributed to a number of early church theologians including Irenaeus and Athnasius)
  • Ransom/Christus Victor – Jesus’ identification with us in death breaks our captivity to sin
  • Satisfaction – Jesus identifies with our sinful nature (this metaphor is closely akin to Substitution)
  • Substitution – Jesus did something for us that we could not do for ourselves, “He died instead of us and for our sins so that we could be raised with him to new life” (McKnight, p. 111).
  • Representation – “We both die and rise with Christ (inclusive representation) and he dies and is raised instead of us but for our benefit by incorporation (exclusive representation)” (McKnight, p. 112).
  • Penal Substitution – Christ died instead of us and died for us by paying the “price” for our sins.
  • Demonstration – Jesus’ death was the supreme demonstration of God’s love making it possible for us to take up our cross and live a life of love & service to others.

The list is hardly exhaustive and is fraught with complexity.  I would argue that the early church got it right in insisting on not just one metaphor but a series of metaphors.  Put differently, it is a serious mistake to take one of the above (or some version) and lift it alone as the sum total of what we understand atonement – at-one-ment – to be.  The “way it works” to go back to my opening image is more complex and more varied than any single metaphor.  In its great wisdom the early Church understood this truth.  My plea is that Lent finds us wrestling with these great themes.  They are still vitally the stuff of life today … especially in this bruised and battered world of ours.

On a very different subject, I want to pass on some good news.  The Central Texas Conference has received a grant from the General Board of Global Ministries.  The RELCC (Racial Ethnic Local Concerns Committee) grant is for a part of the covenant relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference in which Eastern Mexico sends a team of worship leaders to lead a weekend worship retreat at El Buen Samaritano.  The retreat is designed for worship leaders seeking training/resources for leading Hispanic worship.  Rev. Sam Macias and Rev. Lilliana Padilla were instrumental in the development of this idea and have worked with the Conference centers of both Mission Support and Evangelism & Church Growth to set up this ministry project.  We give thanks for the generosity of GBGM and all here who have worked on setting this up!

Heading Towards the Cross: The Seriousness of Our Separation

As we continue heading towards the cross in our Lenten journey, those who claim to be Christ-followers traverse a landscaped called atonement.  We cannot help but do so.  We may argue at length with each other on just how a new relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world has come about. But the unshakable reality is, that in some way, Jesus Christ dying on the cross atoned for our sins.

I like to think of atonement by simply breaking the word apart: at-one-ment.  Through the cross we become at one with God.  In the one person who was both fully human and fully divine we are reconnected with our maker. As John Richard Neuhaus put it, “what was separated is now at one” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 15).

Today we often stumble in our failure to take seriously our separation; namely sin.  We tend to slide by theories of atonement and settle into a facile understanding of Jesus the great teacher because we are uncomfortable facing the reality of our lives.  We are sinners.  I am a sinner.  I have within me a propensity to place myself ahead of the Lord God. So do we all.

Think of the standard images for atonement.  The term salvation comes from the battlefield.  We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy.  Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life.  We are saved!  Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market.  It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction.  We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins  – our willful separation from God.  Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom.  Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans – Justification.  We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins.  Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside.  The evidence is clear.  We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God.  As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.

While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God.  They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction.  They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape.  This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself.  “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin; our propensity to be our own gods.  It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.  Consider just one list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).

The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match.  Sin is still real.  It is still present.  It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken.  Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation.  Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.

I will continue on the theme of atonement in my next blog as we together head toward the cross … and beyond!  I close with a pungent quote from Stephen Seamands:  “For at the cross we see Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, being mocked, tortured, and finally murdered by the sons and daughters of men. We see humanity defiantly turned against God, the creature, in all of its prideful arrogance, seeking to annihilate the Creator. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “think of all the hostility he endured form sinful people” (Heb 12:3) as he endured the cross. Here our deep-seated, burning hostility toward God is fully exposed: Our hatred is so intense we would kill God if we could. In our determination to be autonomous and independent, to be our own gods, we would go so far as to get rid of God so we could take his place. Here we see not “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous eighteenth-century sermon, but “God in the hands of angry sinners.” The cross reveals how hell-bent we are and how heinous and horrible sin is” (Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ, pg. 62).

 

 

TAIZE IS AN INCREDIBLE BLESSING

This blog is a special plea and invitation for young adults ages 18 to 35 to sign up for the Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” that will be held at Whites Chapel UMC, April 4-6!  You may do so by going to the Central Texas Conference Website www.ctcumc.org.

A truly great blessing in my time as bishop of the Central Texas Conference was a leadership trip that I took with a group of young people from the Conference to Taize, France.  Through the leadership of Rev. Larry Duggins and the Missional Wisdom Foundation, we have developed a relationship with this inspiring ministry.

By way of background: “The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic community located in the small village of Taizé, France. The Brothers are from twenty-five countries and from various Christian denominations. Together they seek to live a parable of community and reconciliation. For more than forty years, Taizé has become a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. At Taizé, they take part in weekly meetings that are organized by the community.”

Last June in reflecting on my Taize experience I wrote a series of four blogs (entitled “COME HOLY SPIRIT).  In the first I shared, “As I soaked in the experience of Taize, I discovered myself going through a spiritual detoxification.  The challenges, struggles, and problems of life and of my work as bishop did not disappear.  Rather they are put in perspective as I take time to open myself to the Holy Spirit.  In one sense, this is not new at all.  I hardly needed to travel to France to experience the importance of music, silence, and scripture in my Christian walk.  In another, greater sense, I feel like a desperately thirsty man staggering in from the desert and being offered a cold glass of refreshing water.  Steve Bryant’s (the former editor of the Upper Room) maxim that most of us do not go to the high places enough once again rings true in my life.  I (we!!!!) need time for spiritual detoxification from the world’s constant bombardment.”

Those who attend will bless themselves and others richly in the grace of God and the love of neighbor through this great spiritual happening.  It is not taking place in France but right here in our Conference.  (God bless you Whites Chapel and the Missional Wisdom Foundation for hosting!) It is not just for Methodist but for all young adults (18 to 35) who see a relationship with living Lord.

Next Tuesday I will continue a series of Lenten blogs on the cross.

The Cross Before Us

Last Sunday I preached from the opening chapter of I Corinthians.  In my preparation I could not help but be struck again for the … hum…. maybe 300th time …by Paul’s insistence in pointing us to the crucifixion of Christ.  Insistently he argues for the centrality of Christ. Four times in the first 3 verses, the Apostle Paul mentions Jesus Christ or the Lord Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. “Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—he’s their Lord and ours!” (I Corinthians 1:2b)

Just as quickly as this great sainted leader of the early Christian movement lifts up Christ, Paul links the confession of Jesus Christ with the cross of Christ.  He bores right into the heart of what constitutes a faithful church.  “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:23-24) Indeed, John Wesley’s instruction to the first Methodist preachers was a repeat of St. Paul’s plea.  “Preach Christ, and Him crucified.”

It is fashionable in some Christian circles to de-emphasize the cross in favor of the incarnation (God with us in the person of Christ) and the resurrection (God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit conquering death).  Both incarnation and resurrection are vital core Christian doctrines.  Neither can be slighted.  But without the cross they do not hang together.

For the incarnation to be real, a resurrection must take place.  For a resurrection to take place.   The crucifixion must happen.  Far too many try to skip over this uncomfortable truth by seeking to leap from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter morning.  But such a leap does precisely what the Apostle Paul warns against.  It empties the cross and resurrection of their power.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians Paul pauses to be thankful that he has baptized just a few people lest Christians be misled.  I find that truly amazing!  For me, baptism is a high moment and a privilege, a crowning joy.  It is the activity I miss most as a bishop.  For Paul baptism must have likewise held great joy.  To say in verse fourteen, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius” (I Corinthians 1:14) dramatically highlights the importance of the cross before us on our Lenten journey.  Embrace with me again the power of the Apostle’s words:  “Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.” (I Corinthians 1:17)  Now step forward into the text of I Corinthians.  “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (I Corinthians 1:18)

We tend to be squeamish about the reality of the cross; we fumble, slightly offended by concepts like substitutionary atonement (more on that in a later blog); yet the reality of the cross is ever before us.  I close with a piece of writing from John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus:

“As a simple historical reality, it was sin – human darkness in every other person involved – that put Jesus on the cross. But he believed that through love the cross could somehow become not just a symbol of sin and death but also a symbol of even more powerful redemptive love. And whatever else one believes or does not believe about Jesus, that is exactly what happened.

Out of his remarkable brilliance, breathtaking courage, and inexplicable love, Jesus sized up a situation that defeated every human attempt at correction. He identified exactly what would be needed to bring redemption. It would cost him his life.

Two thousand years later, his death is the most important, most remembered death in the history of the world.

Pilate, who wanted above all to be a friend of Caesar, ended up writing in Hebrew, the language of the people of God; in Greek, the language of the cultured world; and in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, so that the whole world could read:

Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.

Jesus outlasted, outmaneuvered, and out-thought every group, every power. But not just that. Mostly he just out-loved everybody. For Jesus in the garden had one agenda that superseded the agendas of all the others: love.

‘I’ll die on Friday.’”  (John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, p. 172-173)

This Lent preach, teach, and talk about Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  The cross is before us.

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