Archive for March, 2012

The Gospel of Mark’s Hitchcock moment? (Plus yesterday’s video)

March 19, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo in one of my favorite movies, "Notorious."

At the end of yesterday’s scripture about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, in Mark 14:51-2, we read these intriguing words:

One young man, a disciple, was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They grabbed him, but he left the linen cloth behind and ran away naked.

Who was this mysterious young man, and why does Mark choose to include this intriguing detail? (His is the only gospel that mentions the incident.)

We’ll never know for sure (at least until resurrection), but many scholars believe that this is the author himself making a cameo appearance. Is this Mark’s Alfred Hitchcock moment? If you recall, Hitchcock famously made a cameo appearance in nearly all of his films. It’s such a curious and specific detail that it does seem like someone that the author knew personally.

In his For Everyone commentary, Tom Wright speculates about this but also uses the incident to make a connection between Jesus’ disciples and another naked man (and woman) in another biblical garden:

Finally, we have the young man who, like Joseph in Genesis 39.12, escapes by leaving his garment behind. It’s often been suggested that this was Mark himself (the other gospels don’t mention the incident); though it’s impossible to prove it, it is a quite reasonable guess. Whether or not that is so, the imagery is striking, going back as far as Genesis 3. Like Adam and Eve, the disciples are metaphorically, and in this case literally, hiding their naked shame in the garden. Their disgrace is complete.[1]

Finally, I prepared the following video on the Garden of Gethsemane, which we showed in Vinebranch yesterday.

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 200.

Scenes from the Garden of Gethsemane

March 17, 2012

In tomorrow’s Vinebranch sermon, we’ll talk about Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, in Mark 14:32-52, paying particular attention to his prayer, “Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.”

To give you a sense of the place, here are some photos from the Garden of Gethsemane that I took when I was in the Holy Land last year. The garden is a short distance east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley. We’ll show these photos as part of a short slide-show movie in tomorrow’s service.

Here is the gate known as the "Beautiful Gate" or the "Golden Gate" (sealed in 1541 by Sultan Suleiman I). Jesus and his disciples walked through this gate, then a short distance across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives.

Here are olive trees in the garden. They are very old. Some may have even been there when Jesus was there. We can easily imagine that this was an ideal place for prayer. Jesus likely came here often. Do you have a place that you like to retreat to when you pray?

The Church of All Nations sits in the garden to commemorate the place of Jesus' agonizing prayer and arrest.

Sorry this picture isn't better lighted. This rock sits in the chancel of the Church of All Nations. According to tradition, this is where Jesus prayed.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each contain some version of Jesus prayer, "Not my will but thine be done."

Here we go again… penal substitution

March 16, 2012

Before I criticize Brian McLaren’s short blog post misrepresenting the classic Christian doctrine of penal substitution, I should express gratitude that he has so succinctly misrepresented it. Here are the problems with the modern rejection of the doctrine, all in a few paragraphs. Thank you, Brian.

He writes:

One major problem with the theory as popularly propounded is this: it posits that God is planning eternal conscious torment for all human beings, except those who gain an exemption through some facet of the Christian religion (including, for some, believing in this theory). God cannot forgive, the theory (in at least some of its versions) posits, without inflicting pain on someone. When you believe that the greatest existential threat to a human being is God venting God’s wrath on that human being – whether that wrath is deemed just or not – you put human beings in two categories: the saved and the damned, the beloved and the hated.

Where to begin? I like how he sneaks in the words “as popularly propounded.” Is that his way of saying, “I don’t really disagree with some version of penal substitution, but only the ‘popular’ version, which so often gets it wrong.” In which case, I could say a hearty Amen. By all means, penal substitution as popularly propounded often gets it wrong. What’s your point? Christian theology is tough stuff. People often get a lot of stuff wrong—the Trinity, for instance.

And make no mistake, misunderstanding the Trinity is at the heart of getting penal substitution wrong. If we misunderstand the Trinity, then we imagine God the Father desiring the death of an innocent victim—and any old victim will do—and, look, here’s my son Jesus… He’ll do. I’ll drag him—reluctant though he may be—to the cross. Now I feel much better.

If that’s the popular understanding, as McLaren seems to think, then, by all means, I reject that, too.

But here’s what I strongly believe: God the Father and God the Son (no simple innocent human victim, please) are of one accord. What they desire, from the beginning of Creation, is to save humanity from sin, and in accordance with scripture (the sacrificial system in the Torah not to mention the clear substitutionary language of Isaiah 53), God offers himself (because Jesus is God) as the solution.

It’s not God simply sending, much less dragging his Son (kicking and screaming?), to the cross; it’s God in Christ accepting that the consequence of his obedience to the Father is the cross (which, as the gospels show, he could have easily avoided), and then using this terrible instrument of torture and death for the benefit of humanity, which is our reconciliation to God.

God didn’t improvise the cross as a last-ditch effort to bring us in line. Rather, one consequence of God’s creating the universe to begin with was that God would suffer and die for our sin. God lovingly accepted that consequence before he set the universe in motion (if it’s possible to imagine such a thing).

Some Christians get hung up on the idea of God’s wrath. I feel like I’ve dealt with that enough on this blog and in sermons recently. God’s justifiable anger toward sin is not in opposition to his love; it’s subsumed under his love. If God didn’t love us, God wouldn’t have wrath. Because God wouldn’t care about the evil that is done in this world—by us and to us.

Even Christians who scoff at the idea that God has wrath or God wants sin to be punished don’t really believe that—at least not in all cases. We want other people’s sins to be punished (we can all think of notorious examples of really evil people, right?). We want justice done in some cases. It’s shocking to imagine that justice won’t fully and finally be done. We often don’t want justice done to us, because we know that we’d be in trouble!

Isn’t it reassuring to know that the cross takes care of that? It’s reassuring to me. God has done something in history, once and for all, to take care of my problem with sin.

I don’t deny other theories of atonement as one part of the cross’s meaning. By all means, the cross is the most amazing example of love; it inspires us; it helps us see clearly the meaning and extent of God’s love. But if what happens on the cross is merely something subjective, wholly dependent on my response to it, then I know that I’m still in trouble because of my sins.

I worry that people who reject penal substitution are really saying that, contrary to nearly every word in scripture, sin isn’t really such a big deal after all. It seemed to be a big deal early on, for example, when God told Adam and Eve that eating the apple would lead to their eventual death, but after Jesus came, God became a sleepy and indulgent grandfather type of God. (See, I can play with unfair stereotypes, too.)

Some Christians—I’m guessing McLaren, although he doesn’t come right out and say it—struggle with the idea of the cross as propitiation, which literally means doing something to appease the wrath of an angry god. I suppose that sounds harsh and primitive if we were talking about throwing virgins into a volcano for the sake of some wooden idol. But because we believe in God as Trinity, we understand propitiation as this: God offering God’s own self, out of love, in order to reconcile us to God.

McLaren calls the cross an injustice. And it is… Who denies that? But consider this: God doesn’t need to force Caiaphas and Pilate to use the cross. Human sin created the cross, and human sin put Jesus on the cross. The cross was going to happen, with or without God’s atoning work. But God, who is always at work to bring good out of evil, used the cross to reconcile us to God.

Christians who reject the cross as propitiation often say that it’s instead an act of expiation. As if that solves the problem. Expiation means that God wipes out our sins. It doesn’t answer the question “how.” Propitiation, Christianly understood, answers that question.

Scripture is filled with people who encounter God in some way, and what happens? They say something like, “I’m going to die now!” Why? Because each of them comes frighteningly close to experiencing the unmediated presence of a holy God. Without God’s doing something about our sin problem, none of us can live. Yet in Christ, we look forward some day to living in God’s unmediated presence.

Reject penal substitution if you want, but give me some other plausible explanation (in accordance with scripture) for how that can happen?

Sermon for 03-11-12: “The E-Word, Part 2”

March 15, 2012

"The Baptism of the Eunuch" (1626) by Rembrandt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Where's the water, by the way?

Many of us are very reluctant to share our faith with others. It might feel intrusive or pushy. It might make us feel like we’re selling something. We worry that our efforts will feel phony. As I share in this sermon, however, if we Christians are not witnessing to our faith as a regular part of our routine, we’re already being phony: if we believe what we say we believe about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we should naturally want to share that news with others.

What are some practical ways in which we can witness? I explore this question in the following sermon.

Sermon Text: Acts 8:26-39

The following is my original manuscript.

In case you haven’t heard, we are in the midst of a heated political season. There’s a satirical negative political ad on YouTube you might have seen. The idea behind the video is that all these negative attack ads, regardless who’s running them, follow the same script. All you have to do is change the names and some of the words. It’s like “Mad Libs.” Anyway, it goes something like this:

“Can we risk an America run by [insert opponent’s name]? He clearly doesn’t understand that America is built on hard work, not [insert opponent’s previous occupation]. Sure, now he says he opposes [insert hot button issue; show news clip], but he used to support [hot button issue; show grainy footage with dead politician]… Around here, that [insert downhome metaphor] just don’t [insert verb]. Better ask yourself: Can America risk [insert opponent’s name].”

You get the idea. There’s something generic, impersonal, and inauthentic about these ads. I’m sure that when I talk about doing the work of evangelism, the E-word… otherwise known as “witnessing”… you’re worried that I’m talking about doing something generic, impersonal, and inauthentic—that I’m talking about following some script. Read the rest of this entry »

Sympathy for Mark Driscoll

March 14, 2012

As I’m no admirer of John Piper, I’m even less so inclined to appreciate his louder, more boorish little brother Mark Driscoll. Having said that, I don’t even disagree with what Driscoll said about marriage in a recent appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan show.

I don’t watch any TV news, cable or otherwise, but surely even octogenarian Larry King at his worst wasn’t as deaf to his guests as Morgan appears to be. Get a load of this exchange, in which Morgan tries to get Driscoll to agree with him that lack of “tolerance” is really the biggest problem facing our country. (Morgan has homosexuality in view, naturally. One wonders if Morgan, a Catholic, would be as antagonistic toward Pope Benedict on the issue, were he to appear on his show.)

Driscoll, by contrast, argues passionately that broken marriages and children growing up without fathers is a much larger problem. (Even in my limited exposure to Driscoll, I know that this issue is close to his heart—and more power to him, I say.)

MORGAN: I don’t hear many pastors, at least Catholic ones or Christian ones, ranting about those guys. All they want to rant about are gay marriage in loving, monogamous relationships with a — with one other person who just want to have the same right to get married as I do as a straight guy.

DRISCOLL: Yes, for me, I hammer those guys like a pinata on Cinco de Mayo. That’s really –

MORGAN: Oh, come on.

DRISCOLL: — like a pinata on Cinco de Mayo. That’s my sweet spot, young guys who don’t get married, they take advantage of women, they sexually assault, they’re addicted to porn, they’re irresponsible. I mean, for the first time in the nation’s history, a woman is more likely to be in church, college and the workforce than a young single man.

And there’s sexual assault, sexual abuse, abortion, children born out of wedlock. Forty percent of kids go to bed without a father. I mean to me, if we’re going to talk about, you know, what’s really harming the country –

MORGAN: You see –

DRISCOLL: — that’s a big issue.

MORGAN: Well, I agree with all that. But I also think what is harming America right now, like many countries around the world, is just a fundamental lack of tolerance and respect for people who may not share your personal values. You know, I just think that pastors like you, funny enough, are in a great position to trail blaze a bit, you know, to take this great book and bring it slightly kicking and screaming into the modern era a bit.

Ask me what I think of Morgan’s assertion that the Bible ought to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era…

Testimony by Marjan Holbrook

March 13, 2012

On Sunday in Vinebranch, we showed following testimony from Marjan Holbrook, AFUMC’s new director of our Children’s Special Needs Ministry. Her journey of Christian faith began with a prayer she prayed as her family was waiting to get a visa to emigrate from Iran to the U.S. She also describes her father’s experience of coming to faith after a lifetime of scoffing at religion.

Would you like to share your testimony in Vinebranch? Let me know!

What is the gospel, exactly?

March 12, 2012

Yesterday, I finished my two-part sermon series on evangelism. I hope yesterday’s sermon gave some practical advice on how to do it. One gaping hole in my presentation was that I didn’t spend time talking about what exactly the gospel is. At some point, we need to be able put the gospel into words.

An early draft of the sermon included the following paragraphs, which I cut due to time constraints. In it, I summarize the gospel. How did I do? What would you add? What would you subtract?

I hope that last week I got across the point that we who have given our lives to Jesus Christ have an urgent mission: to share with others, through our actions and our words, the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s urgent because people in our community and all over the world are living and dying without being in a saving relationship with God through Christ. And why does that matter? Well, if what we say we believe about Jesus is true, it isn’t simply the case that it doesn’t matter what we believe about God, so long as we’re sincere; or that Christianity is one of many possible paths to God; or that God is going to forgive everyone in the end, regardless of what they believe about God’s Son Jesus.

I understand the emotional appeal of believing these things—in part because I’ve had non-Christian friends who put me to shame when it comes to loving other people and performing acts of kindness, and I’m tempted to say that on that basis they should be saved—that they’ve “earned” salvation every bit as much as I have. The problem is we don’t earn salvation. In fact, we’re all sinners—even the most virtuous among us. One ironic side-effect of growing closer to God—what the church calls “sanctification”—is that we simultaneously become more aware of how far short we fall of God’s glory. We become increasingly aware of our sinfulness and how much we need God’s saving grace.

Left to our own devices, we’re all in trouble because of our sin. Fortunately, God didn’t leave us to our own devices. God has rescued us through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Out of love, God took care of our problem with sin on the cross, which enables us to be in right relationship with God—not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done for us through Christ. We no longer have to fear standing before God in final judgment, because in Christ, God has already read our verdict: and that verdict is “not guilty.”

Now because Christ defeated death in resurrection, we can face death with confidence, knowing that it no longer has the last word: we, too, will be resurrected into God’s coming kingdom. And not only that: we have power through the Holy Spirit to live differently now—to live now as if God’s kingdom were already here. And that means loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, and working for justice and peace in the world. Through faith in Christ we become everything God created us to be.


The problem with “It’s all good”

March 10, 2012

Whenever I’m tempted to simply ignore John Piper, the spiritual leader of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement of new Calvinists, fellow Arminian Roger Olson, a Wesley-loving Baptist, reminds me of why I shouldn’t. As always, Olson puts the problem with Piper’s theology in sharp relief:

Now, again, let’s step back and take a bird’s eye view of Piper’s and other Calvinists’ divine determinism. If everything without exception is from God, planned, designed and governed by God for a reason such that God is not merely permitting it but actively willing it and rendering it certain (and I demonstrate in Against Calvinism this is the traditional Calvinist view and I am confident it is Piper’s as well), then the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of an innocent two year old child are also “from God” in that sense.

IF that’s true, then, I ask, why ever be upset about such things? Why react emotionally or with righteous indignation as if something happened that shouldn’t have happened? After all, God’s ultimate purpose in everything is his glory. (I demonstrate that that also is the traditional Calvinist view and I have asked many Calvinists if it’s their view and the answer has always been yes.) So, one who believes that has to say that the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of a two year old child glorify God. Then why object to them? Why oppose them? Why blame the perpetrators? Why try to prevent them?

For my Methodist readers who don’t know, we are “Arminian” Christians. John Wesley even published a magazine entitled, The Arminian. Among other things, Wesley strongly disagreed with Calvin’s (and now Piper’s) strict determinism—that everything that happens, good or bad, is determined in advance by God, including the salvation or damnation of individuals. Wesley was a big believer in God’s sovereignty, and he even believed at times that God sent natural disasters as punishment against people. But he didn’t believe that this ever precluded human freedom.

If what Piper says is true, then we Christians ought to resign ourselves to what, in non-Christian terms, we would call fate: whatever happens is from God, so it must be good. While this determinism fits nicely within the logic of Calvin’s theological framework, it makes no sense biblically.

Does this describe your feelings about the E-word?

March 9, 2012

From Rick Richardson’s Reimagining Evangelism:

People often say to me some version of the following: “I don’t like to push things on people if they don’t want them. I’m kind of introverted, I’m not good at arguing with people, I avoid conflict, and I hate awkwardness in relationships. So evangelism is not for me. I feel guilty that I don’t share my faith. But I feel inadequate, shut down and even inauthentic about becoming an extroverted crusader for God.”1

1. Rick Richardson, Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 18.

Learning to love others

March 9, 2012

I was a Baptist for the first 27 years or so of my life, and even now I can’t claim to be the biggest Lent observer. Already, my three kids, lifelong Methodists so far, are much more into the American and/or Methodist tradition of “giving something up” than I am.

But I have started one new practice, which accidentally corresponds to Lent. So I’m going to say it’s part of my Lenten observation this year—although I hope it lasts the rest of my life. For the first time, I’m actually reading the daily “Prayer Concerns and Celebrations” email that I get from the North Georgia Conference, which describes deaths, major illnesses, childbirths, etc., affecting the lives of my fellow Methodist clergy, the vast majority of whom I haven’t met.

I’m not proud of the fact that I haven’t paid attention to these emails. But when my mother died recently, one of the best, most loving gestures of support for me were cards that I received from fellow clergy who read about Mom’s death in this email. I didn’t even know some of these clergy! But they wanted me to know that they stood beside me in my grief and were praying for me.

This gesture—taking the trouble to handwrite a card, stamp it, and mail it—is small, I know. But it’s not nothing. So now I’m taking time to do that each week, too.

In my line of work I’m inundated with prayer requests, often for people I don’t know. Sometimes they’re like, “My aunt’s next-door-neighbor’s cousin has gout.” I often don’t know how to pray for strangers, and I wonder what difference my prayer in that situation would make. It can’t be that God is going to do one thing concerning this person’s aunt’s next-door-neighbor’s cousin, and then when he receives my prayer, God does something else. I have a hard enough time praying for people I know!

But I do know how to pray for people facing the death of a loved one. And for at least the length of time it takes me to look up a person’s address, write the note, meter the envelope, and drop it in the mail, I pray for that person. And maybe in the process of doing so, God is transforming me into a more loving and caring person. I hope so.

As I said a while back, I don’t want to care about appearing to love people (a constant temptation for us pastors who are in the business of caring); I want to actually love people. This small gesture, I hope, is a step in that direction.