Archive for July, 2016

Relax! Don’t be like Jesus. Be in love with Jesus

July 29, 2016

I shared the following devotional in this week’s church email blast.

Last Sunday, while on vacation, I did something that we pastors like to do every once in a while: I visited a church in complete anonymity—where I knew no one and had no responsibilities other than to worship. It was nice for a change, although I’ll enjoy being back in the pulpit this Sunday.

While I was there, I heard a sermon whose lesson boiled down to the following: “Be like Jesus… or else be a self-righteous hypocrite!”

By the time the sermon was over, I felt slightly discouraged. See, I know my own heart pretty well: I am a self-righteous hypocrite! And I’m most assuredly not like Jesus. While listening to this sermon, I thought, “Tell me something I don’t know!”

Don’t get me wrong: I want to be like Jesus. I try to be like Jesus. But I fall far short. The truth is, I always will.

As theologian N.T. Wright said many years ago, holding Jesus up as a moral example for us to follow is a little like telling an amateur golfer, “Just hit the ball like Tiger Woods.” Maybe today Wright would substitute Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth. At the time he wrote this, however, even pros who practiced golf eight hours a day every day were finding it impossible to hit the ball like Tiger Woods!

How much more difficult is it to be like Jesus!

No, as strange as it seems, our main task as Christians isn’t so much to be like Jesus as it is to be in love with Jesus.

How do we do that?

There’s a familiar gospel story that gets at the heart of this message. It’s found in Luke 7. Jesus is at a dinner party with Simon the Pharisee. The party is interrupted by a prostitute who falls at Jesus’ feet and anoints them with tears and perfume. Simon thinks to himself: “This man must not be a prophet, otherwise he would surely know what a terrible sinner this woman is!”

Jesus knows what Simon is thinking. So he tells him a parable about the connection between forgiveness and love. He concludes: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”[†]

The foundation for Christlike love, therefore, is the good news that even though we are helpless sinners—apart from grace—we find forgiveness and eternal life through Christ. It’s about gratitude for receiving a gift that’s infinitely better than we deserve.

This is the message through which God will melt our hearts and transform us into Christlike people.

So let’s start there: Relax! Don’t try to be like Jesus. Instead, be like this woman in Luke 7:36-50. As fellow sinners, we will find her example much easier to follow!

Let’s be clear: the woman’s actions themselves are a sign of her repentance. Given everything else we know from the Bible and Luke’s gospel (cf. Luke 19:1-10), we have no reason to think that she returned to her trade. Jesus knew her heart. Repentance is at least an awareness of sin and the desire to change. Inasmuch as our repentance is incomplete, we claim the promise of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Sermon 07-03-16: “Moses and Christ’s Atonement”

July 26, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Today’s scripture takes place just after the golden calf episode. When God promises Moses that Israel will enter the Promised Land after all, only without God’s special presence among them, Moses makes a startling statement: in so many words, he tells God, “I’d rather die than live without you and your glory.” How different would our lives be if we, like Moses, lived for God’s glory—if we lived to glorify God? It’s the only way we can be truly happy. Yet how can we—sinners that we are—bear to live in God’s glory in the first place? 

(Sadly, due to technical difficulties, there is no sermon audio or video this week. 🙁 )

Sermon Text: Exodus 32:30-34; 33:1-6, 12-23; 34:6-9


Neko in the cone of shame

My dog Neko is currently wearing the dreaded “cone of shame” or a lamp shade—technically known as an Elizabethan collar. She’ll have to wear it until she has surgery on Wednesday and probably a while after that. She does not like the cone of shame, as you can imagine. If we, her owners, weren’t big enough to force it on her, she certainly wouldn’t wear it voluntarily!

But she’s wearing it for her own good, whether she knows it or not.

This reminded me of the Israelites in today’s scripture. Three times, either God or Moses refers to them as a “stiff-necked people.” This is a reference to putting a yoke on oxen. A yoke is a crosspiece you put over the necks of a pair of oxen, which enables them to carry a plow—to do work. If the an ox resists having the yoke put around its neck—the way Neko resisted having the cone of shame put around her neck, then the ox was said to be “stiff-necked.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Which of these things is not like the other?

July 25, 2016

Our poor Council of Bishops… Having only had 44 years’ notice, how could they have possibly foreseen widespread ecclesial disobedience after they kicked the can labeled “LGBT controversy” down the road last May at General Conference? Back then, they said they would convene a specially appointed commission to recommend splitting up our denomination a way forward on the issue at a called General Conference some time before 2020.

They’re still working on it, as they say in this statement, even as the Western Jurisdiction and several annual conferences are breaking church law.

Still, you have to admire the diplomacy of the following sentence, which goes out of its way to blame both sides for this present crisis. Let’s see… Which of these three is not like the other?

“The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences, the intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association and the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council president, in a detailed statement outlining the actions taken.

Please note: The convening of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new organization of like-minded evangelical United Methodists, which was formed in response to the ecclesial disobedience of the Western Jurisdiction, does not break church law.

The current state of United Methodist preaching

July 25, 2016

I’m back from vacation. While I was gone, I had the opportunity to worship at a large, well-attended United Methodist “First” church. The service was what I call “Methodist traditional,” much like my own church’s 11:00 service but on a larger scale. I didn’t know the pastor or anything about the church.

I like going to church on vacation. Every once in a while, it’s nice to worship in a place where I know no one, I have no responsibilities, and no one knows I’m a pastor. I thought I had given myself away, however, when some elderly women in front of me complimented me for how boisterously I sang the hymns! “Tone it down, Brent,” I told myself.

Anyway, the pastor preached the epistle reading from yesterday’s Revised Common Lectionary—Colossians 2. His sermon had one point, repeated frequently throughout: Knowing Jesus is more important than anything else. To his credit, the sermon was very clear in this regard. While he was a generation ahead of me in mainline Protestant seminary, he probably learned, as I did, that a “good” sermon is supposed to have one main point. (I don’t follow this rule.)

Nevertheless, he over-illustrated this point with three relatively long, mostly personal anecdotes. While I understand the temptation to tell entertaining stories for their own sake (after all, I frequently worry that I won’t have enough to say about a particular sermon topic and a good story takes time), it wasn’t clear why one illustration wouldn’t have sufficed.

After a brief discussion of the context in which Paul wrote these words, he shared another personal story, something that happened to a former parishioner, or the parishioner of a preacher friend—I can’t remember.

The moral of the story? Faith is more about what we do than what we believe. This made me suspect that he’s progressive on the main issue that’s tearing our denomination apart, but I could be wrong.

But here’s my main concern: I was never clear, from his sermon, on what value “knowing Jesus” has, except that it helps us “do loving things” better. Does knowing Jesus make any kind of difference for eternity? He didn’t say. Does knowing Jesus make any more difference in our lives, for example, than knowing the teachings of MLK or Gandhi or the Dalai Lama? He didn’t say. How does one get to know Jesus in the first place? He didn’t say.

There was no gospel in his message. Just a little bit of Law—actually a couple of dollops of Law: “Love like Jesus, or else be a judgmental hypocrite.” As if “loving like Jesus” were something that any of us could accomplish!

Many years ago, N.T. Wright cautioned against this kind of moralism. If our message is, “Just follow Jesus’ example,” isn’t that like saying, “Just play golf like Tiger Woods”? It’s discouraging.

Actually, if I were preaching this text, I might go for that kind of discouragement, at least at first. I would amplify our utter inability to live up to Jesus’ high standard of love. I’d quote Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I’d quote Paul from Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I would let the Law do its main work: to utterly condemn us.

And then… I would pivot to the gospel: “Jesus did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Here’s how.” Then I would go to the cross, where (I believe) all good sermons must go.

So I believe this was a missed opportunity: Notice how low the stakes were: Even if everything the pastor said were true, what difference would it make? Why does it matter? How does this message connect with our experience of life in this world? He didn’t say.

Yet I suspect this passes for a fairly typical “good” UMC sermon, preached in churches across the land.

If you’re Methodist, is this true in your experience?

That satisfaction “which none but God can make and none but man ought to make”

July 15, 2016

rutledgeIn her most recent book, The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge devotes a chapter to rescuing St. Anselm, the turn-of-the-second-millennium archbishop of Canterbury, from his modern critics. Anselm, she points out, “has been blamed for everything from the Crusades to the Iraq War. His ‘theory’ of ‘satisfaction’ has been reviled as juridical, feudal, rigid, absolutist, vengeful, sadistic, immoral, and violent.”[1]

His theory, in case you’re wondering, is a relatively early—and certainly the most famous—formulation of what is known as the penal substitution theory of atonement (PSA). I strongly disagree that Anselm “invented” the theory—as if it weren’t writ large across the Bible. In fact, as Fleming writes in a footnote:

Sometimes Anselm is depicted as having single-handedly introduced an illegitimate perspective into Christianity (at the portentous and suspiciously precise date of the turn of the second millennium). This is inaccurate. Anselm’s insights are anticipated by Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, and Victorinus, among others… (not to mention Isa. 53:4-6; Rom. 5:12-21; 8:3-4; II Cor 5:21; Gal. 3:10-14; I Pet. 2:24; 3:18; etc.).[2]

Indeed… Let’s not mention all these scripture passages! I love that she includes an “etc.” after seven references.

(For more on PSA and the Bible, New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote an excellent essay defending penal substitution, arguing that it is the primary way that scripture understands the atonement, and that the Church Fathers themselves embraced it. I blogged about it here.)

I find the following excerpt from Rutledge (and Anselm) helpful (“Boso” is the name of Anselm’s imaginary dialogue partner.):

We can identify the center of Anselm’s logic in 2.6. Here, he urges that the weight of sin is so great… that there is no possibility of atonement or satisfaction unless the price paid is “greater than all the universe besides God.”

Boso. So it appears…

Anselm. Therefore none but God is able to make this satisfaction.

Boso. I cannot deny it.

Anselm. But none but a man ought to do this [he has already established that it is the guilty party, and no one else, who ought to make the restitution].

Boso. Nothing could be more just.

Anselm. If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.

Boso. Now blessed be God! We have made a great discovery.[3]

Rutledge has already argued in the chapter that when Anselm uses the word “satisfaction” he means “atonement” or “rectification”—God’s way of putting things right.

Finally, this eloquence:

And here is Anselm himself, speaking through Boso, giving a summary of the achievement of Christ that could hardly be bettered: “He freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it, and he purchased fro us the kingdom of heaven; and by doing all the things, he manifested the greatness of his love toward us” (1.5).”[4]

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 146.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 157-8.

4. Ibid., 164.

The most important “spiritual discipline”

July 14, 2016

The July 13 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (and Every Day) is a helpful corrective for many of us Christians. We tend to overemphasize the work of “spiritual disciplines” or “spiritual formation” at the expense of the finished work of Christ—the sole basis on which we’re accepted by God. In which case, as it so often does, the Law rears its ugly head.

Please don’t misunderstand: While it’s hard to imagine how our souls can remain healthy if we long neglect the disciplines of daily prayer, Bible reading and study, and worship, among other Christian practices, they are not the center of gravity when it comes to the “work and rhythm of the Christian life.”

On the contrary, citing Jesus’ gospel proclamation in Mark 1:14-15 (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”), a pastor named Curt Benham writes the following:

Christianity for many of us has come down to: “Just tell me what I have to do… Tell me the habits I must form in order to maintain my relationship with God.” We can run on spiritual disciplines for a while, but there’s eventually a breakdown between what it was meant for and what it has become.

That’s why Jesus’ words are so comforting… Jesus simply tells us this: repent and believe the gospel. This is the work and the rhythm of the Christian life.

Repentance really just means being honest about who you are. It means admitting there is a giant bedrock of self-centeredness that you can do nothing about. It means being aware of the fact that you’re really pretty into yourself, and you need help if anything’s going to change.

To believe the Gospel means to believe that help has arrived, that Jesus really is who he says he is and really did what he said he did… that, because of Jesus, you are loved and accepted by God, right now, as you are, and not as you should be. Rather than a repeated work through your week, we instead repeatedly return to a work that’s already been done on our behalf. Now there’s a Christians routine we can stick with![†]

The most important spiritual discipline is repeatedly “returning to work that’s already been done on our behalf.” I like that!

The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (and Every Day) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries, 2013), 243.

If God is “open and relational,” God knows nearly everything except probability

July 14, 2016

In this blog post on Scot McKnight’s blog, McKnight continues a review of Thomas Jay Oord’s new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. It sounds like the book is another well-intentioned effort, as I’ve discussed recently, to “get God off the hook” for evil.

From Oord’s perspective, God doesn’t have foreknowledge because

God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting Kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.

Oord sees a conflict between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom. Since God’s nature is love, which “logically precedes” his sovereign will, God doesn’t merely decide not to know the future (as some proponents of “open theism” maintain), he can’t know the future. If God did know the future, this knowledge would violate his loving nature, since love requires freedom.

This is confusing to me. If it’s impossible for God to know the future, then why does Oord talk about God’s “always giving” freedom and agency to his creatures? Freedom in this case isn’t a gift from God: We creatures can’t help but be free. It’s the default state of Creation. God couldn’t have created us otherwise.

If, like me, you worry that “open and relational” theology compromises God’s omniscience, contemporary philosophy, Oord believes, comes to the rescue:

Hasker and other open and relational thinkers believe God is omniscient. They believe God knows everything that can be known. God knows now what might occur in the future, but God cannot know now all events that will actually occur. To put it philosophically, God knows all possibilities and all actualities, but God cannot know which possibilities will become actual until they are actualized (123).

For free will to be genuine, the future must be open, not settled (124).

God knows all possibilities and all actualities, but God cannot know which possibilities will become actual until they are actualized.

In other words, God can know everything that’s possible, but he has no idea, apparently, what is probable. This is incomprehensible. Even we human parents, knowing as little as we do about the world, can often predict, with some degree of certainty, what our young children will do in a given set of circumstances.

But what if it were possible for us parents to have perfect information about every aspect of our child’s mind, motives, and behavior, along with perfect information about everything else happening in the world at a given moment? Then the power to predict our child’s behavior would approach perfect foreknowledge.

Nevertheless, God, who knows perfectly well all “actualities”—we are an open book to God in every respect at every moment—can’t do what human parents routinely do with a relatively infinitesimal amount of information.

Even if it weren’t incompatible with what the Bible reveals about God’s providence, it would be nonsense.

A prayer for our nation in the wake of Dallas

July 12, 2016

Our church held a prayer service last Sunday at 10:00, in between worship services, for our nation in the wake of Dallas, and the shootings last week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We invited members of law enforcement to join us.

During the service, I offered the following prayer:

Almighty God, avenger of innocent lives cut down in senseless acts of violence; our righteous judge who condemns evil; the lover of our world who sent his Son into it to defeat evil, suffering, and death—and to save us from the wages of our own sin: We pray for the families and loved ones of Alton Sterling… and Philando Castile… We pray for the families and loved ones of Dallas police officers Brent Thompson… Lorne Ahrens… Patrick Zamarripa… Michael J. Smith… and Michael Krol… We pray for the protection of men and women in uniform throughout our country whom we ask to do the most difficult job of all: to lay down their very lives, if necessary, in order to protect and defend innocent lives. We are immensely grateful to you for the gift of their service. We grieve that five of them were asked to give the last full measure of their devotion to us last Thursday night in Dallas.

In their sacrifice we see, as through a dim mirror, the sacrifice of your Son Jesus for us, on the cross. In their sacrifice, we see Christ-like love lived out. Their example inspires us. Their deaths horrify us.

We pray that if there are others right now in our country who are contemplating murder—whose souls are so warped that they imagine that taking innocent life somehow avenges innocent life—that you would please stop them from inflicting harm!

In spite of the constant dangers that public safety personnel face as they go about their good work, we pray that you would continue to call people to this work. Give them courage. Give them strength. Give them wisdom. Protect them. Enable them to perform their duties with sound judgment.

Enable all of us Americans to work as peacemakers in this world—to work for a more just and peaceful world—so that the work of police, law enforcement, and public safety personal will become safer.

Melt our hearts with your love and the love of your Son Jesus. Root out within our own hearts everything that stands in opposition to the way of Christ our Lord. Empower us to follow our Lord’s courageous example of love at all times and in all places.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.

Does spiritual warfare let God off the hook for evil?

July 9, 2016

We’ll see what kind of response my comment gets on this blog post from John Frye on Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog. (It’s a Patheos blog with unmoderated comments, however, so I don’t have high hopes.) In a nutshell, Frye argues that we need to emphasize spiritual warfare when we consider evil and suffering in the world. Give some of my own recent blog posts, who am I to disagree?

But does Frye’s post, which summarizes the theme of a book by Greg Boyd, solve the problem that he wants to solve? Does an emphasis on spiritual warfare “get God off the hook” for evil? Would we want to live in a universe in which God is off the hook—especially when it comes at the expense of his omnipotence, foreknowledge, or sovereignty? Never mind what it does to our understanding of the Bible as a fully truthful revelation of God.

So I’ll pass.

Anyway, nothing new here, but here’s my comment:

Like the author of this post, I believe that we don’t emphasize spiritual warfare enough. But for me, this post doesn’t solve any problems.

Did the man in the prayer circle who was having the terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day pray that God would deliver him from it? If so, did God grant his petition? It sounds like God didn’t. In which case we have three options: 1) God didn’t grant the man’s petition because he’s incapable of doing so. 2) God didn’t grant the petition because whether or not God does so is completely arbitrary. 3) God didn’t grant the petition because, after considering it alongside all other petitions and everything else happening in the world, including God’s desire to direct history to a certain goal, God had a good reason for not doing so.

It seems to me like the third option is the best one for us Christians. If so, there is a reason God allows some bad thing to happen, even if he doesn’t cause it directly. Indeed, Satan may have caused it. But God created Satan and allows him some measure of freedom to operate. Right? Does God have a good reason to do so? Or are God’s hands tied?

My point is, the difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing isn’t nearly so great as many think.

Besides, what about, as one example, Paul’s discussion of the “thorn in his flesh” from 1 Corinthians 12? Paul describes the thorn as both a “messenger from Satan” and something that “was given” him (divine passive) by God—in order to benefit Paul in some way. Paul sees that when it comes to evil and suffering, it’s not either/or, but both/and. God is someone who constantly redeems evil. If he could do it with the cross of his Son, he can do it with all lesser forms of evil in our world.

Sermon 06-26-16: “Jesus Is the Rock”

July 7, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

We Christians are in danger of believing in a “spiritual prosperity” gospel. We think that if we’re doing everything right, spiritually speaking, then life is going to be smooth sailing. This isn’t at all what scripture teaches. Instead, as the apostle Paul makes clear when he cites this passage in Exodus, we Christians are all on a wilderness journey. In order to survive, we all need the spiritual water that Christ our rock provides us.

Sermon Text: Exodus 17:1-7

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

We Americans will get to vote this November. Given America’s power, and its role in the world, that’s always a big deal. But it’s unlikely that our vote in November will have as large an impact on the world as the vote last week in Britain. I’m referring, of course, to the British voting to leave the European Union—a vote otherwise known as “Brexit.” Proponents of leaving the EU argued that Britain had sacrificed too much of its sovereignty to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels—and, unlike in a democracy, the British people couldn’t vote them out of office.

So Britain voted to leave. Who knows whether it will be a good thing or a bad thing. But the bottom line is, the British thought EU leadership was leading them off a cliff, and they believed they could do better on their own.

Interestingly, a similar thing is happening in today’s scripture. Just a few months earlier, Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt—which was a great thing. Only now they were having second thoughts. They were in the wilderness; they were facing a more difficult journey than they had bargained for; and now, in today’s scripture, in this hot, arid climate, they are thirsty—and they fear that Moses is leading them off a proverbial cliff. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Read the rest of this entry »