Psalm 103: The Character of God in the Old Testament

Those who follow me on Facebook may have noticed I have been sharing a lot of excerpts from Psalms lately. As part of my spiritual discipline I read through the Bible regularly – sometimes over the course of a year, sometimes in less than a year. Sometimes it takes me more than a year as I also occasionally read the commentary in different study Bibles. Currently I’m on the slower track and thoroughly enjoying it.

Today as I read through a few Psalms, Psalm 103 was among them. Psalm 103 has been a favorite of mine for well over 20 years. It has been a favorite for my wife basically all her life. She had it memorized at a very early age. Psalm 103

While there are many different types of psalms such as hymns of praise and thanksgiving, prayerful laments, celebrations of salvation history, praise for Torah (God’s instruction and law in written form) and psalms of wisdom that resemble books such as Proverbs and Job, there are a few themes that come up repeatedly throughout as well. Those themes include the importance and blessing of covenant faithfulness, the promise and warning of God’s judgment of the wicked (see Psalm 1 for both themes), the hope of God’s salvation reaching all nations throughout the earth through the witness of Israel, and the loving, faithful, gracious, and merciful character of God, the Creator of all and the rightful Lord of all the earth and its peoples.

We certainly need to be reminded in these sad days of increasing racial tensions that God’s purpose in choosing the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, was to eventually bring all the descendants of Adam, people of all ethnicities and races, back into covenant relationship with the Creator who revealed himself as Yahweh to Israel. Intriguingly, in a world where it’s all to easy to value one’s own ethnic identity over others, the heart of the chosen people’s own Scriptures reveal that God didn’t choose them because of anything inherently special about them over all other peoples. Rather God specifically says he chose them because of his own integrity and gracious character not theirs. Deuteronomy 7 and 9 make it clear that God chose Israel in spite of their stubbornness and rebelliousness because of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That promise and the election of Israel as his treasured possession was not just for their benefit, but also for the benefit of the rest of the wayward nations. The promise to Abraham was that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). This is why prophets such as Isaiah hold out the hope and vision of the day when people from all nations will stream in to worship Yahweh.

Isaiah 2:1-3 (ESV)
“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

This is also a recurrent theme and hope held out in the psalms.

Psalm 102:12-22 (ESV)
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. Nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.”

We would do well to remember these things whenever anyone insists that some races are inherently superior to others or that some are inherently more evil than others simply by virtue of their skin color or ethnicity. Racism and racists of any variety have no place in the kingdom of the God. Anyone who can’t stand the thought of being in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial family can’t be a true member of the family of God that Christ has opened up to people of every nation, tribe, and tongue (see Rev. 7). The Bibles reveals God as the Creator of all peoples, who seeks to be reconciled with them. And the love of God for the world and all the peoples of the world flow from God’s very own character.

Psalm 103 is one of the many psalms that refer to the character of God, which makes him worthy of the highest and most exclusive praise among the nations of the world. Psalm 103:8 says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This is a clear reference to Exodus 34:6-7 where God reveals himself to Moses.

Exodus 34:6-7(ESV)
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Psalm 103 and the plethora of other psalms that refer to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness all harken back to Exodus 34:6-7. This is the central and most important description of the nature of God in the Old Testament, which may come as a surprise to those outside the church like atheist Richard Dawkins and some inside the church, who think of the God of the Old Testament as a capriciously wrathful deity, a cosmic killjoy and malevolent bully. Listen to Richard Dawkins’ description of the god of the Old Testament.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Some Christian theologians unwittingly – perhaps some wittingly – echo these sentiments whenever they set up Jesus as a “corrective” in some sense to the way God is depicted in the Old Testament. But Exodus 34:6-7, which resounds throughout Psalms is the revelation of God in the Old Testament that was embodied most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness has always outweighed his wrath, but has never negated it altogether for the unrepentant wicked. But the gracious, merciful, and generous God of the Old Testament is the one who has always provided for the forgiveness of sins and who refuses to give up on his people and his promises. God love is revealed in his faithfulness to his word, which is why God’s love and faithfulness are mentioned together so frequently. As Dr. David Watson wrote about so beautifully, the nature and character of God is the basis of any genuine “generous orthodoxy.” There is nothing capricious about the God of the Bible, who is most fully revealed in Christ. And there is nothing revealed about Jesus in the New Testament that should give anyone the idea that God’s mercy negates God’s just wrath against the wicked altogether.

It is the character of God revealed in Exodus 34:6-7 that inspires the praise and thanksgiving found in the Psalms. Psalms 103 is a further exposition of the character of God revealed to Moses. This same God is the one who can be trusted to bless his faithful people and to punish the wicked as he has always promised. He is a patient and forgiving God, and will never turn any repentant sinner away. As Psalm 103:17-18 says: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.”  

The later, by the way, in no way diminishes the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. After all it was Jesus who taught that those who will be welcomed into the kingdom of God at the final judgment will only be those who do the will of God. Those who claim the name of the God while rejecting God’s claim on their lives will be turned away as “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:21-27). The good news is God not only provides the forgiveness we need for breaking his commandments by the blood of Christ, he also provides the power we need to live a faithful life by his very own Spirit. God’s grace provides forgiveness and empowerment for holiness. In this the promise of the new covenant is fulfilled. God’s steadfast love endures forever! What an awesome and wonderful God we serve!

Psalm 103 (ESV)
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

 

The Brevity Before Eternity

Psalm 39:4-6 (ESV)
4 “O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

Time flies! Life is short! Where did the time go?!

Recently my wife and I watched the 1981 drama, “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry Fonda and his daughter, Jane. One scene shows the family celebrating retired professor, Norman Thayer’s (played by Henry), 80th birthday at their summer get-away home. Much of the movie centers around Norman dealing with the issues of aging and knowing that his remaining days are few. At his birthday party when he’s asked what he thinks about turning 80, one thing he said was he never thought it would come so fast.

Indeed, time flies! The few verses from the psalm above is a reminder about the importance of pondering that fact and ordering our life accordingly. When we are young we’re more prone to feelings of invincibility. This psalm intends to break us from that delusion.Sunset over the sound

The truth is we live our lives in this world always on the precipice of eternity, no matter how secure we may feel. Just a couple of days ago, I barely avoided a major accident on the interstate that could’ve easily robbed me and/or my 14 year old son of our lives. There have been other times as well.

Over a decade ago, as I was driving home from work, a tractor-trailer veered all the way into my lane on a narrow country road. I was at a spot where there was a steep embankment to my right. I really didn’t have anywhere to go. The thought crossed my mind that this could be it. At the last second the driver swerved enough to barely miss me. The awareness that all that separated me from greeting my wife and family and meeting my maker was a split second and a few inches hit me even though the truck didn’t.

Life is short; and it is fragile. Nonetheless, we humans are prone to denial and self-deception when it comes to this fact. Throughout the ages we have come up with ways to convince ourselves otherwise.

One such way is to see life as cyclical. This involves the idea that each human is a small part of a broader cycle of life, and the life we now live is only one of dozens, hundreds, or a countless number of lives that we will inevitably live before we finally reach the highest level of ultimate reality. There are many ways people think of their inner selves, as separate from bodily existence. We seem to readily believe that we are inherently and independently immortal and self-existent. Other versions of this belief in our own inherent immortality are much more linear than cyclical. That is people convince themselves that their own inherent immortality guarantees them a continued or eventual peaceful and joyous eternal existence regardless of how we live our lives in the here and now. In some versions of this way of thinking all that is required for a peaceful eternal existence is to just die having lived with good intentions. In other words, as long as you meant well, it matters not whether you really lived well.

Interestingly, another way we are deceived is by convincing ourselves that our present life is all there really is. This is the personal philosophy that says life is short and this short life is all there is so make the most of it by experiencing as much pleasure and comfort as possible now.

But this is not why the Bible reminds us that life is short. The Bible reminds us that life is short, fragile, and fleeting so that the brevity of it can help us to live in light of the eternity of it, as paradoxical as that may sound. The psalmist and the rest of God’s word does not intend to give us the impression that the way we live our short lives really don’t matter in the long run, or that because life is short we should “just live it up” in a hedonistic sense.

The Bible tells us our lives are fragile and short to remind us that we are ultimately not self-sufficient, dependent only on ourselves. Indeed, we are completely dependent upon our Maker. Our lives are ultimately in his hands, and whether we live a faithful life of trust and dependence upon him matters for both the temporal present in this life, and for our eternal future in the next.

The way we live now, whether a life of trust and faith in God and his ways, or trust in ourselves and our material possessions, really does matter for eternity. In other words, the brevity of life in this world, is meant to prepare us for an eternity of life in the world to come. The better we live now, the better we will live forever, unless by “better” we mean rich in things of the world, but poor in the things of God. The Biblical hope of eternal life was never meant to lead us to believe that our short lives in this world don’t matter. The hope of eternal life should inspire and empower us to live a better life not only in this world, but also for the sake of this world, which God intends to redeem and renew.

I imagine that those few verses from the Psalm above played a role in a parable of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:13-21.

Luke 12:15-21 (ESV)
15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Life is short; eternity is forever. The brevity is meant to prepare us for eternity. Are you ready?

 

The Stranger I Know

Last week I helped lead a youth mission trip to an impoverished community in eastern, NC. We spent the week working on several home repair projects in and around Plymouth, NC. Our home base was at historic Plymouth UMC, where we slept on the floor on cots and air mattresses. We got a lot of work done, helped quite a few people, and had a wonderful time of fellowship, Bible study, and fun, even in the sweltering heat and smothering humidity. In addition to the folks whose homes we were repairing, we also got to meet many people from the neighborhood where we stayed in downtown Plymouth.

Everyone we encountered on the streets was welcoming and friendly. A couple of evenings, I and another adult leader took the kids to play basketball on an outdoor court a couple of blocks from the church. There were about 15 guys from the community playing full-court when we arrived. They gladly shared the court with us. They played half-court while our kids played on the other side. I thanked the guys on the other side for sharing the court with us. I used to play a lot of outdoor pick-up games myself in different places, including Winston-Salem, NC and Greenville, NC. I know what a sacrifice they were making by playing 5-on-5 half-court. When I thanked them they were all very gracious; one in particular, specifically said, “No problem, man. We’re all family.” He and another guy extended their hands to me and introduced themselves and I did as well. Again, everyone we encountered on the streets and in the neighborhood was very friendly. Well … almost everyone.

The next morning, after that first evening on the basketball court, I and a few of the other adults were outside getting the vehicles loaded up with the tools and refreshments we would need to work on our assigned projects and make it through the heat of the day without threat of heat exhaustion and dehydration. A young man, probably in his 20’s, was walking in our direction on the sidewalk on the other side of the road. I glanced over and noticed he was making a beeline toward us as he crossed the street and he didn’t look happy at all.

As he got a little closer I and the man standing next to me said, “Good morning!” For that we were barraged with a hostile array of insults and cuss words. “What the &^$# are you talking to me for? You don’t know me! F#$^ you! Mother-^$%&%s.

To that I said calmly, “What’s wrong with saying good morning?” To that he replied, “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to talk strangers, mother-^%$%er?!” After which he challenged me to a fight. I politely declined and wished him a good day and didn’t say anything else. He kept walking and then challenged another of our adult leaders who was crossing the road to get some tools from storage. He just threw his hands up and walked away. Finally the guy departed and made his way on down the road.

It was quite disconcerting and disappointing, but that one guy was in no way representative of that neighborhood. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder and was obviously looking to make some kind of trouble. Why? I don’t really know. He showed no signs of mental illness, just a deep-seated anger. But was he right to say I didn’t really know him?

It’s true. I don’t know his name. Nor do I know what he had for breakfast that morning, or if he had had breakfast at all. As my fellow laborer, a lay leader from another church said, he looked robustly healthy and very well kempt. I certainly don’t know what his favorite food is or his favorite song or movie. I also don’t know who his parents are, or his grandparents, or where he went or goes to school. Neither do I  know what has happened to him in his life, how he may have been treated as a child by other adults, teachers, authority figures, or his peers. There really is very little I do know about him specifically. But why is it that he still seems to remind me of someone I really do know?

In that very angry and hostile young man, I was reminded of quite a few young men I knew who seemed to have a chip on their shoulders. I was reminded of the guys I knew who were angry and frustrated for a variety of reasons: past slights or ridicule, troubles at home, difficulties at school or with girlfriends, or because of injustices in society such as racism. I was reminded of guys who used to go looking for trouble, who used to pick fights with strangers just for “fun.”

I was reminded of our beach trip after high school graduation when a friend of mine, the friend I rode with to the beach in his little red Suzuki Samurai, getting into a fight with a stranger in the parking lot just after we arrived. He hit the fella so hard he had to be flown back home to New Jersey with a broken jaw and concussion. I was reminded of another friend, who while walking by a room with about five guys in it, complete strangers, started calling them names and before I knew it was flailing away at them in their hotel room.

Yeah, that one guy we encountered on the streets of Plymouth, although he was a stranger to me, as I was to him, still seemed to remind me of someone I know. In fact he even reminded me of me.

I remember having a bit of a chip on my shoulder as well, feeling like I had something to prove that could only be proven with bravado and clinched fists. I remember having a heart full of rage and how alcohol was sometimes the lever that opened the floodgates.

That guy really was a stranger, but he was a stranger that I somehow seemed to know.

The truth is because of our shared humanity, we really do know each other. I said, “Good morning!” in a friendly way because I believe that young man is created in the image of God just like I am. We are more connected than either of us could ever imagine I suspect, and we have a shared set of experiences simply by virtue of our humanity. He is a fellow human being, created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and for that and that alone, I know him enough to know that he deserves respect and to be treated as someone important. That was part of the impetus that had us there to help strangers in need in the first place.

I also know that, like me, that fella is a sinner, in desperate need of God’s grace. Because of that I can identify with and relate to his inner hostility. Indeed the mind of the flesh is characterized by hostility to God, which often translates to hostility to those created in the image of God, whether they be strangers or one from the same womb (Romans 8:7; Gen 4). I can also relate to the fact that he is not only a sinner like me, but one who has been sinned against. And like me and the rest of humanity, he is tempted to respond with personal vengeance, even against those he doesn’t know, rather than forgiveness.

In short, although I didn’t know that fellow from Adam, I did recognize him as one in Adam.

While as individuals we are all modern creatures, as Professor Jordan Peterson says, we are also simultaneously very, very ancient creatures as well. Even from a biological view point we all inherit traits and characteristics – some good, some bad, some neutral – from our ancestors, some very recent others anciently remote. We inherit culture and traditions too, some good, some not so much.

In Romans 5:12-14, the Apostle Paul reminds us that in Adam we all inherit sin and its ultimate consequence, death. In Adam we have not only a shared humanity in the image of God, but also a shared depravity in which the image of God in us is marred and distorted beyond our own ability to heal it. Romans 5:15-21, however, also reminds us that in Christ all can be healed by the grace of God to be justified and restored to a new life of peace with God and neighbor in him.

I really didn’t know that guy from Adam, but I did recognize him in Adam. And in Christ I also recognize him as one for whom Christ died and one, no matter how hostile, for whom I should pray and love.

 Matthew 6:43-48 ESV “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Our brief encounter there on the streets didn’t go too well. It could have been worse. I really don’t think there is anything we could have done in the moment to have won the fa19961217_1804491256232861_5459729361105122183_nvor of that particular young man. It didn’t take long to realize that conversation was going to be futile. Nevertheless, as word about the incident got around, I paused later that morning with the group I was helping lead in a roofing project to teach them about the importance of praying for those who may be hostile toward us and blessing those who might curse us. I asked rhetorically how Jesus told us to respond, then I shared his teaching as cited above. I led our group to pray through indignation for compassion, and that God would somehow bless that young man, touch his heart and transform his soul that he might experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, and be able to share that peace with others.

Sometimes it is said of people that they have never meet a stranger. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know; sometimes we don’t know what we really do know. I think there are a lot more strangers that we really do know than we realize.

 

 

Ordination and the Next Methodism

Last week I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church along with many other Elder candidates and a few candidates for the office of Deacon. The process to becoming an Elder in full connection is a long one. I began this journey 10 years ago. The earliest I could have been ordained was two years ago, but I self-delayed the intense written and oral examinations required to be approved due to some challenging life circumstances and a few qualms about the dubious state of the denomination. At any rate, I wanted to share a few thoughts about some of the vows I took during the process of being accepted into full connection during the clergy session and in the ordination service during our Annual Conference in Western NC. And piggy-backing on what others have shared about what the “next Methodism” should be like, I also want to share some thoughts on how these vows should be and can be taken more seriously in the future. (See others’ thoughts about the next Methodism here: Kevin Watson, David Watson, David Watson again, Scott Fritzsche, & Stephen Fife.)

During the clergy session at the beginning of our Annual Conference the Bishop invites the candidates for ordination on stage to answer historical questions of examination for Methodist preachers that go back to John Wesley himself. Some of the questions also seem to be a bit hysterical too as they often evoke chuckles from candidates, colleagues, and family and friends, such as the one that asks: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” With the exorbitant cost of higher education, including seminary, nowadays the debt question always evokes some chuckles.19576256_1788153057866681_480327071_n

I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans. Ministry is hard enough without the added strain of a mountain of debt. Thankfully, I was blessed that I didn’t have to borrow very much for seminary. What I did borrow to help with the transition from full-time gainful employment to a part-time local pastor salary while I was a full-time seminary student I, I was able to pay off entirely last fall. Nonetheless, as we find ourselves in an evermore missionary type environment, I think we need to seriously consider finding ways of educating and training ministers more efficiently, economically, and effectively. How is it in a day when we have the most educated clergy since Pentecost, we also seem to have some of the most Biblically illiterate congregations in history? With the technology we have today, surely we can train and equip clergy more efficiently and effectively.

More importantly, however, one of the other questions, actually the very first question asked of candidates in the clergy session is: “Have you faith in Christ?” That may sound like an odd one considering it’s being asked of candidates for ministry. But we must remember this comes from the Rev. John Wesley who wasn’t sure if he had genuine and complete faith in Christ even years after being ordained in the Anglican church.

In March of 1738 – about 13 years after he was ordained a deacon! – he wrote in his journal “I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley went on to contemplate quitting preaching. He asked himself, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” His friend and mentor Peter Bohler insisted that he continue to “Preach faith til you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Wesley took his advice, but for many weeks continued to struggle with heaviness of heart over his lack of saving faith. He consulted the Scriptures and the description of faith and the experience of salvation described therein and compared them to his own experience. He remained in a state of feeling weighed in the balances of the word of God and found wanting. Wesley understood faith in theory, but he knew he did not have it in his own experience. Rather than redefining faith to match his experience, he continued to seek faith as defined and described in Scripture. He sought a change in his own heart rather than denying the truth and changing the word.

On May 24th that year, still with heaviness of heart, he hesitantly attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening upon hearing Martin Luther’s description of “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,” Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Interestingly, the very next thing he describes is how he then began to pray with all his might for those who had especially despitefully used him and persecuted him.

From that moment on, although he was tempted to doubt, Wesley never again doubted that he had real faith, even as he recognized the need to continue to grow stronger in that faith. And that was the moment that really ignited the fires of Methodism as a movement and the Wesleyan revival across England that spread to America and around the world.

If Methodism is to really become a movement again, and if we are really going to see revival again, genuine faith and a call to real faith will be at the forefront. Wesley realized that knowing about faith doesn’t guarantee an experience of it in the heart as the real work of God. As he listened to the message of Luther on Aldersgate street, he finally received that precious gift of faith. Interestingly, it is Martin Luther who can also help us to ensure that our candidates for ordained ministry today have genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation and how to discern what specific shape it should take.

In his “Treatise on Good Works,” to correct misunderstandings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which are still common today, Luther explained that genuine faith will be evidenced by the fruit of good works. He said faith in Christ is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In the context of the storyline of the Bible this is because there is only one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and all other gods are really just pretenders. The gods worshipped by the nations are not really worthy of worship. Only, Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who rescued Jews and Gentiles, all of humanity, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to sin and death, is worthy of worship. Hence, we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5). From here Luther said obedience to the rest of God’s commandments would flow. He used the Ten Commandments to explain what are the good works for which  we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10). It’s also important to note that John 14:6, where Christ claims to be the only way to the Father, is a direct corollary of the first commandment, as Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the one true God in human flesh (see also Acts 4:12; Acts 17:30-31).

A person of genuine Christian faith should display a serious commitment to the first commandment and the first of the two greatest laws according to Jesus (Matt 22:36-40). Moreover, John 14:6, shouldn’t be considered controversial or embarrassing or in need of reinterpretation among those of genuine faith. So if there is a candidate for ordination who agrees with the modern day Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, and that other gods and goddesses are legitimate manifestations of the divine, can we really say they have faith in Christ? As I shared before, I was taken to a conference to listen to Bolz-Weber speak with many other young pastors who were also provisional members (i.e. commissioned but not yet ordained). Virtually, all of them thought she was a wonderful role model for United Methodist ministers. I do not!

We need to take the original intent and spirit of that historical question that Wesley asked more seriously. “Have you faith in Christ?” doesn’t mean do you believe in Christ as you define and imagine him. It means do you believe in Christ as he is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Do you trust in him and him alone for salvation?

We have pastors in some of our churches telling their congregations that they don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved because everyone is saved already. We have some who are telling their churches that Jesus really didn’t rise bodily from the dead. We have others who are telling their churches that Jesus really wasn’t divine. A Facebook friend of mine, stopped attending his United Methodist church in California when the pastor said the Sunday after Easter that Jesus was not really divine, and planned to preach a sermon series from the Gospel of Thomas (a heterodox non-canonical text). In 2003, in spite of denying Christ’s virgin birth and his bodily resurrection, Bishop Joseph Sprague was cleared of heresy charges by Bishop Ough, the current president of the Council of Bishops, who obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal. Have they faith in Christ? Well not in the historical sense in which that question was originally asked. Not even close!Which brings me to some other questions I was asked about doctrine and Scripture.

We were also asked: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?”; Do yo believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?; Will you preach them and maintain them? In that same spirit we were reminded by the Bishop in the liturgy during the ordination service that we are called “to proclaim the faith of the church and no other” (p. 675 UM Book of Worship). Additionally, we were asked if we believe the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, “to contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life” and if we would be loyal to the church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.”

In all of the above there is an echo of the call found in the book of Jude to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). The reason for Jude’s call to defend the faith is because of people who had crept into the church and perverted the grace of God into an excuse for sensuality, which the context clearly indicates involved sexual immorality. As the story of Balaam in Numbers shows, the promotion of sexual licentiousness is sometimes the lure into the trap of idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; see also Jude 1:11 & Rev. 2:14).

In our current climate in the United States, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a candidate who would answer that historic question in the spirit of its original meaning might be penalized or viewed as in need of correction for not being “diverse and inclusive” enough in their thinking. Through the commissioning process I was deemed by at least one person to be too rigid in my thinking because I expressed my conservative views on sexuality in particular. That person also began to talk to me about how all religions are really just manifestations of the same divine ultimate reality. He used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate his point. Gods of other religions are just as valid as the god of Christianity he said. He recommended two books to “help” me. One was “Six Ways of Being Religious”, which really doesn’t argue what he was arguing, although it obviously leans in that direction. The other was “The Future of Faith” by the liberal Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In that book, Cox argues against orthodoxy and the creedalism that has attended it. He argues for a more “diverse, open, and pluralistic” faith rooted more in a mystical experience of an apparently more impersonal ultimate reality. He actually includes John Wesley in his criticism of orthodoxy and its historical proponents, which he views as corrupting what he believes to be the original, “more open and diverse” version of Christianity. He also argues for a faith based less on specific content than experience; in reality Cox just presents an experiential faith with a different specific content. The diversity and inclusiveness so often promoted in Mainline circles is often just another version of the syncretism that both the Old and New Testaments warn God’s people against.

This one persons recommendations to me, which he included in his official report, were meet with approval by those on the discipleship committee and were put on their report of my interview as official recommendations for me. “Have you faith in Christ?” answered according to its original intent actually might put a candidate going before a board of ordained ministry in the U.S. and some other places in the category of “needing help and correction.” These things out not be!

The next Methodism, whatever that ends up being, if it is to become a Holy Spirit fired movement again, will have to take those historical questions more seriously according to their original meaning and intent. The faith required will require more than – albeit not less than – orthodox content. The faith required will be the kind that John Wesley, himself, received as the free gift of God on Aldersgate street a little over 279 years ago!

Click on the link below to listen to a powerful song by the Mark Swayze Band and let’s pray for that holy fire to fall upon the people called Methodists once again. Come, Holy Spirit! Bring us the faith to ignite the fire of revival once again!

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=mark+swayzee+band+come+like+a+fire&view=detail&mid=96D4663D00D2EDBBD2E996D4663D00D2EDBBD2E9&FORM=VIRE

 

 

Is The Old Testament Christian Scripture?

A while back a fellow Methodist pastor said he thought it inappropriate for Christians to claim the Hebrew Bible as our own Scriptures. He learned this in seminary, and I had heard the argument before too. The term he used to refer to what Christians have traditionally and generally called the Old Testament, “the Hebrew Bible,” is one way that some Christians have tried to avoid making such a claim, or at least to show respect for the Jewish people. A couple of weeks ago I saw a video of another Methodist pastor talking about the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31 while trying to say that it was a promise only for the Jews on the one hand, but also somehow trying to claim that the principle was applicable to modern Christians, and even then making an argument that the law that God would write on our hearts today would be a law of love not really in continuity with the law revealed in the “Hebrew Bible.” While trying to respect the Jewish faith he ended up belittling it by arguing that his notion of the law of love written on the heart is so much better than the law recorded in the “Hebrew Bible.” It was confused and, therefore, very confusing on a number of levels. The idea that claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is inappropriate actually comes with more problems than the ones it attempts to solve.

Sometimes our solutions to perceived problems are more problematic than the perceived problems themselves. The problem in this case is if it’s true that claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is wrong then we also have to dismiss the New Testament, including the claims of Jesus. The New Testament and Jesus as recorded therein repeatedly claim that Jesus came to and is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus himself clarified that this did not mean that he came to abolish the law and set up a completely different religion. He insisted that the law, the psalms, and the prophets were pointing to him all along. He claimed to be and his apostles proclaimed him to be the one who fulfilled the promises of God found therein. Jesus insisted that the Scripture (i.e. the OT/Hebrew Bible) must be fulfilled and in instituting the Lord’s supper he claimed that the New Covenant promise found in the Old Testament was to become a reality through his sacrificial death on the cross and through the power of his resurrection. Just read the Gospels for Christ’s sake. I mean that literally.jesus_reading_isaiah

You can’t get past the second chapter of Matthew before the importance of how Jesus fulfills Old Testament Scripture becomes evident (see the work of Richard Hays “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” to understand the subtle and nuanced ways the Gospel writers reference OT passages). Jesus himself said with regards to his own actions that the Scriptures must be fulfilled (Matt 26:54; Mark 14:49; Luke 22:35-38). In 1 Corinthians 15, Saint Paul, emphasizes “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with  the Scriptures” (v. 4). And this, along with Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection, Paul insists was of first importance. Jesus taught the Scriptures and recovered and revealed their true meaning in contrast to the distortions of the varied traditions and false interpretations that were prevalent during his earthy ministry. The New Testament authors quote the Old Testament commandments as an authority for Jewish and Gentile Christians over and over again throughout. They also use the negative example of the failure of God’s people in the Old Testament stories to be faithful to God’s commandments as warnings for the New Covenant people of God (i.e. 1 Cor 10; Rev 2-3).

And when they talk about love it is never to pit love against faithfulness to God’s commandments. Jesus clearly commended the commandments summed up in the Ten Commandments for obedience on specific occasions (Mark 10:17-23). When he said the two most important laws were to love God fully and love ones neighbor as oneself, he wasn’t setting aside the other commandments, rather he was summarizing what they were all about. Jesus is the one who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 1 John 5:). He didn’t say that in a vacuum so we in our postmodern times could fill it with whatever meaning we want. The apostle Paul rightly understood what Jesus would have meant when he says:

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Romans 13:8-10 ESV  (emphasis obviously mine)

Yet in spite of this clear connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the continuity between the two declared in the latter, some still want to rend asunder what the Holy Spirit has joined together. A United Methodist seminary professor wrote an article arguing last summer that the Church had faith before the Church had Scripture (Can’t find the link now, unfortunately). Wrong! Faith in Christ as the fulfillment of Scripture was there from the very beginning of the Church.

On the very day of his resurrection, what does Luke say Jesus said to his disciples?

“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  Luke 24:25-27 ESV

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’” Luke 24:44-49

When Paul in 2 Timothy says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (3:16-17),” he is referring to the Old Testament!! The Church has always had Scripture, even before and as the New Testament was being written.

So if it is wrong for Christians to claim the “Hebrew Bible” as their own Scriptures, then the New Testament and Jesus were wrong! I don’t believe that to be the case, but that is the logical implication.

I think so much of this just comes from the fact that we fail to understand the Old Covenant found in the law (Hebrew “Torah”) promised a new covenant all along. There are hints of this throughout the Old Testament. The logic of it is contained in the promise God made to Abraham that in and through the covenant God would establish with him and his descendants through Isaac, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12, 15, 17, etc.). God established a covenant with Abraham and his descendant through his son Isaac, whom had been promised by God and delivered by the miraculous power of God. From Isaac God would choose Jacob who would become Israel and the founding father of the nation of Israel. All along God intended to set Israel apart to be a light to the rest of the nations by way of their righteous and just living. Holiness by way of righteous living according to the moral law of God was at the heart of why God had chosen Abraham from the very beginning of their covenant together. In fact holy and righteous living in obedience to God’s word would be the means through which God would fulfill his promises to Abraham.

“For I [God] have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” Genesis 18:19

Of course Israel as a nation would fail to live in such a way that God’s promise to Abraham could be fulfilled. But where Israel failed, their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth succeeded in living a life of perfect obedience to God’s will revealed in Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets. Through faith in Jesus, people of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, are part of the family of Abraham and receive the promise of the new covenant, forgiveness of sins, a new heart with God’s law written thereupon, and the infilling of God’s very own Spirit. The promise of what Jeremiah would eventually call the new covenant was already alluded to in Deuteronomy 30. Jeremiah reiterated and expanded upon it as recorded in Jeremiah 31:31 ff, and Ezekiel (36-37) did as well. In fact Ezekiel 36:25-27 is probably also the background to Jesus’ teaching about the new birth in John 3. In every case the promise of the new covenant is that God’s people would be equipped and empowered for obedience to God’s law, Torah.

Although there is already a clear implication that there would be some differences between the two covenants, the Old and the New, as is self-evident in the term “new” itself, there is also a definite and substantial continuity. Eventually the church would discern through the Spirit and careful study of the Scriptures (i.e. the OT), a difference between the laws specifically for the ethnic, Old Covenant nation of Israel and the burgeoning international New Covenant community made up of Jews and Gentiles (See Acts 15; Galatians). This distinction, although there is some potential for misunderstanding, is captured in Articles 6 of the United Methodist Articles of Religion, which declares a harmony between the Old and New Testaments and that

“although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites, doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (p. 67 UMBOD 2016).

One potential misunderstanding is the idea that the ceremonial laws were wrong. That’s not the case; they fulfilled their purpose, but are not applicable to or necessary for all people everywhere for all time. Moreover, we still fulfill their symbolic purpose of being markers or badges of holy identity through faith and can learn from them more of what Christ’s sacrificial death means for us, for example. Another major potential misunderstanding could be that we are justified and saved BY obedience to the moral law. That is not what this means. We are saved not saved BY obedience to God’s law, but we are saved FOR obedience to God’s law, as Israel also was. We are saved by grace through faith for obedience to God’s law (see Eph 2:8-10; Romans 8).

Instead we seem to find more and more ingenious and/or disingenuous ways to make the law void through grace and faith (see Rom 3:31 in KJV; also Rom 6). John Wesley identified and offered reproof for this tendency toward antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness) in his two part sermon series entitled, “The Law Established through Faith” (Sermons 35 & 36). Wesley understood, along with Saint Paul, that Christian faith does not “overthrow the law.” Rather through faith, “on the contrary, we uphold the law” (see Rom 3:31 ESV). In his first sermon on that topic, Wesley goes through the ways we can make the law void through misunderstanding justification by faith, which he insisted is the cornerstone of Christian doctrine. One of the primary ways Wesley said we can make the law void instead of upholding it is to not preach the law and warn about the judgment to come so as to lead people to faith in Christ. Another is to so emphasize what God has done FOR us in Christ so as to utterly ignore what God’s grace does IN us in terms of transformation for holy living from a purified heart.

Again, Wesley is quick to point out:

“‘But are we not justified by faith, without the works of the law?’ Undoubtedly we are; without the works either of the ceremonial or the moral law. And would to God all men were convicted of this! It would prevent innumerable evils; Antinomianism in particular: For generally speaking, they are the Pharisees who make the Antinomians. Running into an extreme so palpably contrary to Scripture, they occasion others to run into the opposite one. These, seeking to be justified by works, affright those from allowing any place for them.

But the truth lies between both. We are, doubtless, justified by faith. This is the corner-stone of the whole Christian building. We are justified without the works of the law, as any previous condition of justification; but they are an immediate fruit of that faith whereby we are justified. So that if good works do not follow our faith, even all inward and outward holiness, it is plain our faith is nothing worth; we are yet in our sins. Therefore, that we are justified by faith, even by our faith without works, is no ground for making void the law through faith; or for imagining that faith is a dispensation from any kind or degree of holiness.” Sermon 35 Section II:5-6

Holiness, righteous living according to the moral law is a result of justification by faith, not the cause of it. Martin Luther also taught this truth. In his “Treatise on Good Works” he said Christian faith fulfills obedience to the first commandment from which obedience to the rest of the commandments flows. This he said is the content of the good works which are the fruit of genuine Christian faith. Salvation by grace through faith doesn’t give us a license to ignore the law; it gives us the power to fulfill it!

Yes, there is a difference between ceremonial, ritual, and civil law meant for the nation state of Israel and the moral law of God, which is universal and timeless, and by which he judges all people. This is not to say that it wasn’t immoral for an Israelite to flout ceremonial law, and that point of potential confusion is not an excuse to declare that “moral law was a category completely unknown to the ‘Hebrew Bible'” as another of our United Methodist ministers recently did. While the distinction is not as clear-cut as our sometimes shorthand language may imply, it is quite evident in the New Testament itself. For example, in Ephesians, while Paul can say “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” that separated Jews from Gentiles has been abolished in chapter 2 (v. 11-22), he also says in chapter 5, echoing the Ten Commandments:

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”  Ephesians 5:3-11 ESV

So of course the Old Testament has plenty of ongoing significance for Christians and should be considered Christian Scripture without any qualms, even as we respect the fact that Jews still rightfully claim it as their own and were the ones originally entrusted with it (see Rom 3:1-2) as well. That being said, another way that Wesley said we can make the law void, is by failing to teach the whole counsel of God, which would certainly include all of the Old Testament, which contains plenty of law but also plenty of the gospel. The same can be said of the New Testament as well. To call the Old Testament old should not be construed to mean that it is obsolete or has been corrected. Rather it is to emphasize that its most powerful promise, the promise of the New Covenant, is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the Messiah and the Savior of the world, and about whom the New Testament bears witness.

If we could break our addiction to prooftexting and be delivered from our penchant for pulling Biblical texts from their contexts and plugging them into the faddish religious and political narratives of the day, we could find our own place in the story of God’s love for His covenant people revealed in His word. And we could see how Jesus fulfills the promises of God to Abraham and his family, of which we can be a member through faith. Then we would see that all of God’s story is our story too.

“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—  so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit[e] through faith.” Galatians 3:7-14 ESV

The Inheritance of the Saints in Glory

In a little less than 10 years as a pastor, I’ve officiated and/or participated in a few dozen funeral services. This can be one of the most daunting duties of pastoral ministry, but also one of the greatest honors and privileges. Just this past Thursday I led the funeral service for an 88 year old saint of the church. A few days before that I sat by his hospital bed and helped him follow the Good Shepherd’s lead as he exited this realm to enter into the realm of glory in the presence of God. I also helped prepare his family as best I could by the grace of God for his transition from this world into the inheritance that awaits all of God’s people.

All of us who die before Jesus comes again will have to cross that threshold. It can be a scary proposition, something we’d rather not think about, but it is one of life’s most certain certainties. For those who trust in Jesus and love him, it is not something to dread even though we will still be in awe of the mystery of it all. For believers it’s a moment when we’ll see face to face the one whom we’ve loved and committed our lives to even though, with the exception the earliest followers of Jesus, we have never seen him face to face. It will be one glorious occasion for sure!

It will also be a moment when we’ll receive a fuller glimpse and experience of the inheritance that Saint Peter tells us is being kept for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4).

Followers of Jesus have much to look forward to. This is our hope, the inheritance of an earth once corrupted by sin fully healed by its grand reunion with heaven. Our ultimate inheritance is a new heaven and earth that we’ll enjoy after the resurrection of the body. But in the mean time, in the in-between time, at death we consciously enter into what is being kept for us in heaven awaiting to be revealed on earth in the last time when Jesus comes again. light from heaven

Jesus taught that his followers should lay up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matt 6:19-21), but make no mistake, these are treasures for God’s people to ultimately enjoy after the resurrection of the body on earth. After all, Jesus did say, echoing Psalm 37:11, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (ESV). As believers our hope is an inheritance to be enjoyed in a renewed world, a new heaven and earth, where there is no more sorrow, because there will be no more sin. It is a place where the presence and glory of God will dwell fully among God’s people forever (Rev. 7:15-17; Rev. 21:1-8). The Lord’s prayer will have been answered in its totality as God’s will alone is done on earth as it is in heaven. Glory!!

Saint Peter tells us this inheritance that awaits us is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4).

Several years ago my wife made a special dinner and said she had a wonderful surprise to share with me afterwards. Once we finished eating she handed me an envelope. From it I pulled out what was the title of our 2002 Toyota Camry. The last payment had been made. We were now the proud outright owners of a used car, with about a 140,000 miles on the odometer! As good of a car as it was, it definitely had an expiration date. After an accident a few years ago (in which no one was hurt thankfully) it was deemed a total loss. Today it is probably rusting away in a junkyard somewhere.

The inheritance that Peter spoke of, the same inheritance that Jesus spoke of, has no expiration date. It is completely secure in a place where, Jesus said, neither moth nor rust can corrupt it. It is the only treasure, when it comes right down to it, that really matters at all (Matt 6:19-24). And it’s not something that we earn or pay for ourselves; it has been bought and paid for, not with gold, silver, or precious jewels, but with the precious blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. It is a gift only to be received by faith.

But, contrary to popular belief and a lot of wishful thinking, it is not for everyone. It is only for those who truly believe and trust Jesus enough to entrust him with their entire lives. By God’s grace and mercy, through faith we receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the new birth whereby God gives us a new heart and a renewed spirt and fills us with his very own Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, Ephesians 1:13-14 tells us, is our “guarantee” or “down-payment” “of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” In Romans 8:16-17, Saint Paul there, also tells us that it is the Spirit that gives us the assurance that we are children of God and also “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” Forgiveness and the new birth are both gifts of God’s grace, and they come together. You can’t receive one without the other, although some seem to want the forgiveness without the transformation of life entailed by the new birth.

Nevertheless, it is the new birth, Peter tells us, that brings us into “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, …” (1 Peter 1:3-4). And it is faith tested by the fire of trials in this fallen world that secures our share in that incorruptible, eternal inheritance (1 Peter 1:6-7; see also the last part of Romans 8:17). Our life in this world is the testing ground for the ultimate holy ground in the New Heaven and Earth.

So we all need to be prepared to die. When we are, then we’ll be truly prepared to live. In his grace God allows us to enjoy a portion and a foretaste of our greater inheritance to come now. “O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood” (from “Blessed Assurance” by Fanny Crosby, 1873). Glory! Glory! Glory! Glory to God! Glory to the Lamb!

How awesome it must be when our work on earth is done to enter into God’s presence in heaven where our full inheritance is kept like the unfathomable precious treasure it is! How even more awesome it will be when we all get to enjoy it together on earth with all the saints in glory! When we all together get to see the one in whom we believe face to face! Come, Lord Jesus!

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

1 Peter 1:3-9 ESV

Pastors, It’s Time to Have ‘the Talk’ with Your Church

As the father of five, I’ve already had to have “the talk” with two of our kids. I’ll do the same again for our next rising middle-schooler this summer. It is uncomfortable and awkward for both parties, no doubt. But it’s necessary if they’re to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of our hyper-sexualized, permissive society. Pastors, it’s time to have the talk with our churches too.

Every Mainline church has been brought to the point of schism over sex. It has proven to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg -and the tipping point – of much larger differences between those on opposing sides of the debate. This is not to say that the debate about Christian sexual morality and the definition of marriage is insignificant. The tip of the iceberg is still part of the iceberg, and is significant enough it has proven able to sink the ship of even the largest Mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church.

I don’t think we got to this point because the church has talked about it too much. We got here through one little compromise at a time over the course of many decades. Silence to avoid controversy has contributed to the build up of danger that has been lurking in the dark waters underneath all along.

We’re not in danger of hitting the iceberg that will lead to schism; we already hit it. We have been at least two churches pretending to be one for a while now. The ship hasn’t sunk, but it is taking on water. God will provide a rescue boat, but we have to be prepared to board it when it arrives. Pastors, it is time to prepare your churches. We have to have the talk.

I’m not happy about any of this. The division is heartbreaking. I weep, quite literally, for the church in which I was baptized, confirmed, and will soon be ordained, the Lord willing. After wandering away from the Lord, and the church, sinning egregiously, developing an alcohol problem that was dangerous to me and others, dabbling into drugs, being sexually promiscuous, and getting involved in a cult in college, by the grace of God, I came home to the Lord, and returned to the church and denomination of my upbringing. I renewed my baptismal vows and, among other things, I once again committed to “do all in [my] power to strengthen its ministries.”

There have been times when I seriously doubted – very seriously – whether I could remain in the denomination in good conscience. Nevertheless, I decided if I was to remain, I would do my best to fulfill that vow by speaking the truth in love to the best of my ability. My ability may not be much, but, by the grace and mercy of God, I have tried. I have committed myself to being as open with my congregations as I can be about what is going on in the denomination and why. It has not been easy. But I believe it is necessary. The time for beating around the bush has passed – not that there really ever was one. Having the talk is uncomfortable and awkward for the preacher and the congregation. But it has to be done, and we’ve got to get started somewhere. So where do we begin?

(Re)Introduce People to the Triune God of the Bible

Recent research led by the Barna Group indicates very few professing Christians actually have a Bibical worldview. We must help our congregations get reacquainted with the God of the Bible, who revealed himself most fully in Jesus of Nazareth. This can be hard. A couple of years ago one young woman, who grew up in a UM church, after participating in a Bible study which was designed to get people reading through the entire Bible, admitted that she wasn’t too sure whether she really liked the God of the Bible, which she was reading through for the first time in her life. The portrait of God in the pages of Scripture challenged her conception of a god that is the essence of non-judgmental niceness.

As is typical, she first thought it was just the way God is depicted in the Old Testament, but soon realized that the seemingly overly harsh judgment of God doesn’t really go away in the New Testament, even with the preaching of Jesus. She discovered that in many ways the preaching of Jesus about coming judgment only intensified the matter. She found no quarter in Acts, which early on tells the story of a married couple being struck dead for attempting to deceive (Acts 5), or in the writings of Paul, the other epistles, and certainly not in Revelation. Of course, God graciously and mercifully offers a way to escape judgment, but not by promising there will be none.

A few years ago I caught a news report of some type of a nudist group parading around New York City. A reporter asked one of the marchers, who was blurred out on screen by the way, why she was marching. When he asked about whether she thought what they were doing might be questionable morally, she revealed that she considered herself a Christian, but she said, “God doesn’t judge, so neither should we.”

So many churches, even in the evangelical world, have been so steeped in a conception of God as the ultimate “nice” guy, who just wants us to be comfortable with who we are, however we are, at least in terms of culturally fashionable sins, that they are shocked and even appalled by God as actually depicted in Scripture. So we have to begin addressing the idol in the room. This idol represents what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified in 2005 as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It is an unofficial religion that has inundated many modern churches in recent times, although it has roots and variants that go back a long way in the American church. At its core, however, it is hostile and inimical to Biblical Christianity. (Look here for a little more about MTD)

Once while delivering a sermon on the Trinity, I contrasted orthodox views with those of Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other groups. After the service, a gentleman in his eighties approached me and said that it was “un-Christian” of me to disparage the views of other people because who are we to say we are right and others are wrong. The irony was not lost on me that I was being told I was wrong for saying I believed Jehovah’s Witnesses were wrong about Jesus, although it was lost on him. Nonetheless, we must persist and preach and teach about the Triune God who is revealed in Scripture, Old and New Testaments, as,

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but will by no means clear the guilty …” (Exodus 34:7 ESV)

We have to address the idols in the room. And remember, Paul shows in Romans 1 that idolatry is the ground from which the poison berries of sexual immorality grows.

Now, Let’s Talk about Sex

We have to talk about the MTD idol in the room; we also have to talk about the elephant in the room that has brought us to the point of schism. In the past I was squeamish at evening uttering the three letter word that begins with s and ends with x from the pulpit. Semi-jokingly – very semi at first – I would actually say it that way rather than fully enunciate the word. But to avoid the topic altogether is ministerial malpractice. What people don’t know can hurt them.

The church should have been fully engaged in the conversation, but for the most part we took a back seat to the culture that has driven us off the cliff. Some will say that the church has talked about this too much, but even some of the most conservative evangelical pastors will tell you that they have not addressed it from the pulpit in a very thorough way, if at all. Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, a leading United Methodist evangelical, said he has only preached on the topic of homosexuality from the pulpit one time in 28 years of ministry, and only then because people were asking. I’ve heard many others say the same. I asked a close friend and a member of another UM church a couple years ago if they were having any conversations about the controversy over sexuality in the church. She quickly responded, “Oh no, we don’t talk about it, because we would never want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

One lifelong and very gifted lay member in another area, who decided to leave the UMC not that long ago said, “In 40 years in the UMC I can not recall any serious mention of sexual ethics, other than in the youth Sunday school class I taught for a time when I taught it. There were a few vague references to traditonal marriage or the like, but that’s it.” He said he was saddened, but also incredibly frustrated by the silence. There are many other gifted laity who have left their churches or who refused to support the churches financially because UMC leadership never seemed to take a clear stand one way or another.

One former member of one of the churches I served said he drove all the way to UM offices in D.C. to try to get some straight answers, but was not given the time of day. Frustrated he left for another denomination, and wrote an op-ed in the local paper explaining why. I know for a fact we have lost church members on the progressive side of the debate as well because of the dithering. Time for dithering is running short. Sooner or later everyone is going to have to make a decision one way another. The liberal Baptist scholar, David Gushee, recognizes this reality.

“I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable.”  http://religionnews.com/2017/05/09/changing-our-mind-still-christian/

The time to stop dithering is now. I just saw where another very frustrated lay person asked: “Why are our pastors not talking about these things?!” It’s time to address the controversy head-on and clearly. But how?

Although some who know me would find it hard to believe, I have never delivered a sermon where the sole focus was on homosexuality. But I have not shied away from talking about Christian sexual morality and what constitutes sexual immorality in general. But I endeavor not to single anyone out. I approach it from the positive prescription and beauty of God’s design for human sexuality according to Jesus, which is celibacy in singleness and fidelity in the lifelong covenant union of a man and a woman called marriage (Mark 10/Matt 19). I state that this is God’s will for humanity and that any sexual expression outside of those God-given parameters is sin and harmful to self, neighbor, church, and community.

You have to start somewhere, and that seems to me a good place to start. Virtually everyone within earshot will recognize that they are falling short or have fallen short of God’s standard in some way. We should never single out one particular expression of sexual sin, or in any way hold up any particular set of temptations to condemnation while ignoring others. We should also call everyone to repentance and proclaim the good news of forgiveness in Christ and empowerment for a holy life of self-denial through the Spirit. I think we should only talk about homosexuality in the context of sexual sin in general, even if we do deliver a message focused mainly on that topic. (See a good example of how Rev. Chris Ritter addressed the topic in a sermon here)

We should also be clear that all are welcome in the church regardless of their past, or how they may currently be struggling with temptation to sin sexually in any way, except in extreme cases of abuse. I once had someone express concerns about a person teaching in the church who supposedly had in the past engaged in same-sex relationships. I refused to treat that person differently than I would expect myself to be treated for the past sexual sin I engaged in with the opposite sex. I also refused to treat people any differently because of the particular way they may be tempted sexually than I would expect to be treated because of the ways I am tempted sexually. As long as people love the Lord and seek to live according to God’s will without insisting on creating special exemptions for themselves or rejecting certain moral commandments they should be welcome to fully participate in the worship and ministries of the church.

There should be no special sanctions, but also no special exemptions. Nonetheless, we must address the issue of homosexuality specifically from time to time. As it is the presenting issue that has caused so much controversy for so long that has led to actual schism we must address it head-on, if ever, now.

Many in our congregations will wonder if people don’t choose their sexual-orientation, in other words, if they are “born that way”, then how can we say that homosexuality is wrong. Young people who got their theology from Lady Gaga, and older people, who watch the nightly news or Oprah or Dr. Phil, may actually believe that people are born with a homosexual orientation like people are born with a certain eye color, sex, race, or ethnicity. Indeed, these are the most prevalent comparisons, but they are false. We must point out that even the American Psychological Association, although they are in full support of the LGBTQI+ movement, admits that there is no consensus among scientists as to the cause of homosexual or bisexual orientations and no particular factor or factors, including a genetic one, has been discovered to explain it. 

The truth is any particular set of sexual desires is best explained in comparison to other sexual desires. Comparisons to sex/gender (although how convoluted has this become now!), race, and any other obviously immutable biological trait, like eye color, is misleading at best. Of course no one chooses their desires, but we do have a choice about whether or not to act on them. Who is prepared to say all one’s desires must of necessity be acted upon?

In the UMC, the debate has centered around the topic of homosexuality, primarily because of the specific language in the Book of Discipline regarding “the practice of homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and the other restrictions regarding marriage and ordination. But the truth is it involves so much more. During recent demonstrations during the judicial council hearing, one group there to protest the church’s official positioLGBTQ+n and to show support for Karen Oliveto, the woman married to another woman, who was elected Bishop by the Western Jurisdiction despite church law, held up a sign saying they support “LGBTQ+ Ordination.” Rev. Tom Berlin, who considers himself a moderate UM, recently clarified his support for full LGBTQ+ inclusion, specifically acknowledging the addition of the Q and the PLUS to the conversation.

We haven’t really had an open and honest debate about the L and the G, much less the implications of the B, T, & Q. And what about that + ?!! What all is included in that?

You can imagine that the folks who have discovered dozens and dozens of different gender expressions within that T, will find an exponential number of sexual orientations to pour into that plus! If it is wrong to expect those attracted to the same sex to not act on their desires, how can we expect it of those with other unchosen sexual desires? It’s naïve to believe there will be contentment with monogamy as some would have us believe. I personally know ministers who think it is unfair that only married clergy can have sex. I doubt they are few.

Before I became a pastor, one UM pastor in my area said he believed what the Bible says about sexual morality is antiquated. The truth is the ancient teaching of the Bible about sex is no more ancient than the updated versions of ancient pagan sexual practices the Bible condemns in the Old and New Testaments. If you take the ideas of the famed sexologist of Indiana University, Alfred Kinsey, and compare them to the unbridled sexuality that God prohibits in Leviticus 18 and what was practiced among the ancient Greeks and Romans, you won’t find much difference (see “Sexual Sabatoge” 2010 by Judith Reisman).

I’m not arguing a slippery slope, I’m saying we are already at the bottom of the slide with the LGBTQ+(PLUS!) movement, and it was all in the seed planted by Kinsey like a time-bomb to begin with. So we should talk about this broader context as well. What all are we really being pushed to accept? If you think the gender controversy, for example, is just about bathrooms for transgenders, you don’t understand the larger agenda. Even at the last General Conference of the UMC, the instructions given to all delegates included “do not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past” and to ask everyone what pronouns they prefer: he, she, or something else (p. 39). Try that at your church this Sunday!

Don’t fall for the misleading way these things are often framed narrowly. Put the conversation back within the framework of the bigger picture. We are not really just talking about homosexuality.

Is it Really that Serious?

There are a couple reason why some won’t see why this should be taken so seriously. One is some see Christianity as their preferred self-help program (MTD), but not something that really has eternal implications. Sadly some choose their wardrobe with more care than they choose the church they attend. Others will continue to argue that what we think about sexual morality is a secondary issue at best and that we can and should just agree to disagree, which will ultimately lead to a tacit acceptance of behavior that the Bible repeatedly warns if practiced in a willful and unrepentant fashion will exclude one from the kingdom of God (i.e. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-11; Rev 21:8). It just doesn’t make sense to treat behavior that could potentially land someone in hell as an indifferent matter. A lot of our pastors and theologians are really universalists though.

Others will continue to argue that the issue is not all that clear. If that is really the case then all the more reason to stick with the traditional teaching of the church until there is clarity. But I have never heard anyone who insists that the Bible is unclear say that. They always seem to argue in favor of changing the teaching of the church. They misuse “mystery” and “uncertainty” as a license to condone what the church has always called sin until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

As I have shown before, others will argue that the Bible is clear, but say we just know better today and deem the Bible wrong. You have to admire their honesty if not their hubris. There are some pretty prominent names in this category such as Luke Timothy Johnson, and Walter Brueggemann. William Loader, who has written thousands of pages on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs about sex also acknowledges that in all cases homosexual practices of any kind were considered “abhorrent” (p. 146 “Making Sense of Sex” 2013). Loader just believes the modern understanding of sexual orientation renders the Bible’s restrictions obsolete, or “antiquated” as the UM pastor mentioned above said. I think he underestimates the understanding of the ancients and overestimates the understanding of modern western progressives.

At any rate, this is essentially what UM pastor, Adam Hamilton argues. He says, contra 2 Timothy 3:16-17, there are some passages of the Bible that never were inspired by God, among them the passages prohibiting homosexuality. Similar to Brueggemann, he argues that some of the Bible does not reflect the heart and character of God revealed in Jesus, and should therefore be ignored. Listen to the way Brueggemann puts it:

“It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible — it’s about obeying the gospel. The gospel is about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion. To reach back to an ancient text that has now been corrected by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is simply a bad maneuver and poor methodology and theologically irresponsible. Those texts are not the determinative texts.” (emphasis mine)

Too bad the apostles and authors of the New Testament missed that “corrective” revelation in Christ! What he and those like Hamilton and Johnson, have done is to create a cannon within the cannon to nullify the commandments they don’t like. They have created a tradition with a truncated notion of the gospel and a partial and, therefore, distorted, image of Jesus they use, in the words of Luke Timothy Johnson, to “reject the straightforward commands of Scripture.” In response I can imagine the actual Jesus of the Gospels saying something like, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God to establish your tradition” (Mark 7:9 ESV). The people in the pews deserve to know what they are really being asked to do.

We are really back to where we started: idolatry. Ultimately in order to justify behavior Scripture clearly condemns, people must create their own traditions that nullify the commandments of God (see Mark 7:13), and thereby carve out their own idol of a Jesus without judgment, who is acceptable to the world. You can’t really fiddle with the commandments against sexual immorality without fudging on the commandment against idolatry.

Pastors, it really is time to have the talk. And sex really is just the tip of the iceberg.  Be gracious. But be truthful. Get informed and inform, and pray for you and your congregation to be transformed by the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). Your efforts will be greatly appreciated by some, not so much by others. You will face resistance. And you will be tempted to remain silent. But if we are going to prepare people for the rescue boat that God sends we must resist that temptation and speak the truth in love.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV