November 17, 2016

Apocalyptic Liturgy: Preaching Eschatology All Year Long (#UMC)

Advent is nearly upon us, which means the beginning of a new liturgical year. What's striking about the Church year is that it doesn't start with a celebration of the birth of Christ but with a period of time focused on the second coming of Christ. That's what "Advent" is all about. It comes from the Latin adventus, which is a noun that means "arrival" or "visit." It can even mean "invasion," which puts an interesting spin on things. The verbal form means "to come." The thing about Advent is that it isn't as much about the first coming of Christ as it is the second coming of Christ. It's less about the past and more about the future. To put it another way, liturgical purists would much rather sing "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" during Advent than any of the traditional Christmas carols.

I've been reminded a few times of late that much preaching spends little time attending to what scripture says about the future, and a helpful online conversation with Taylor Burton-Edwards (@TWBE) earlier this week prompted me to spend some time thinking about how the Church year gives our worship an eschatological orientation. I want to suggest that our preaching about God's plans for God's world should not be limited to the four Sundays just before Christmas. The whole of the calendar invites us to think about the present in light of what God has in store for us and for the world. Let's think about it in terms of the two major cycles that structure our calendar: (1) Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and (2) Lent-Easter-Pentecost.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

That Christmas is preceded by four weeks of preparation focused on the second coming of Christ means we arrive at the nativity with our thinking thoroughly immersed in worship oriented toward the future. That is, Christmas takes its meaning in the context of a world looking forward to the Advent of Christ. We should not think of Christmas solely as an event that happened a couple thousand years ago. Rather, Christmas marks the beginning of an invasion by God into the world in which we dwell. That divine incursion inaugurates the overthrow of the powers that have gone to war against God's good creation and the creatures made in his image who live here. The days of sin and death are numbered, and when Christ returns, their number will be up. He is currently putting all of his enemies underfoot; death is the last enemy that will be defeated. That will happen when he comes again and raises the dead. It is especially clear when considered in relation to Advent that Christmas is nothing if not apocalyptic.

But what of Epiphany? How does our apocalyptic approach to the calendar illumine the visit of the Magi? Well, what if I told you it sheds light on the multi-ethnic nature of the Church and her global mission now in anticipation of Christ's return? In Matthew's gospel, the Magi come from beyond the borders of Judah. They are foreigners come to worship the one born King of the Jews. Why? Because his birth has inaugurated the new age in which the nations shall gather to worship God on his holy mountain. Epiphany finds its proper home in the eschatological Messianic age that has been inaugurated, though not yet consummated, by the Incarnation. In the overall structure of Matthew's gospel, the arrival of the Magi as representatives of the nations at the beginning anticipates the Great Commission to disciple all nations that comes at the end. Epiphany tells us that the new age has dawned and the time has come for the nations to be incorporated into the family of Abraham. On top of that, it means we must embody the passion of God for bringing the nations to adore the Christ.

One other point is worth making. I mentioned above that the Church year starts with Advent. That means that every subsequent season is observed in the context of a year that begins by looking to the future return of Christ. And each season in the year derives its meaning from its relationship to the first season of the year. The point is that the calendar doesn't simply tell the Christian story chronologically; it tells the story eschatologically. The first coming is celebrated after our hope for the second coming is declared. The story-as-a-whole is dramatized relative to the hope for Christ's Advent. The Church calendar is apocalyptic in its entirety because Advent comes first. 

Lent, Easter, and Pentecost

The eschatological orientation of the second major cycle comes clearly into focus with the climax of Lent on Good Friday which then finds its resolution in Easter Sunday. The cross and resurrection constitute the central apocalyptic event in which God overturns the power of death with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This marks the beginning of the new creation that is now advancing and will come to its fulfillment when Christ comes again. We need to be clear on this. Easter is fundamentally an eschatological event. The resurrection of Jesus is the first work of God's new creation, and it guarantees the resurrection of believers at Christ's second coming, which is instrumental to the consummation of the new creation. Given this framework, Lent should be understood as a period of waiting in which we actively anticipate the eschatological redemption begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This leaves us to talk about Pentecost, which is thoroughly and altogether eschatological in nature. Throughout scripture the last days are characterized by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We find this language explicit in the prophet Joel and in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. This is why, by the way, when the suggestion is made that the "signs of the times" reveal we are "living in the last days," I am often inclined to point out that the Bible says we've been living in the last days for about 2,000 years now. You know, since Pentecost. Even more important, like Epiphany, the season of Pentecost informs the global scope of our shared mission. Pentecost marks the initial incorporation of the nations into the people of God. The Spirit empowers believers to cross ethnic barriers in order to build a diverse Church. Once again, the future-focus of the Church calendar informs the way we live and engage in mission in the present.

Preaching our Apocalyptic Calendar

I'll finish up by saying that the eschatological orientation of the Church calendar ought to find its way into every corner of our preaching. If observing and celebrating these days and seasons governs the annual shape of our worship, then we must allow them to point us forward to what God intends to do in the future. The Church calendar tells the story of God's invasion into this world to overthrow death and bring about a new creation in Christ and the Spirit. The calendar gives our preaching essential resources to tell that story, too. If we don't, then we probably haven't allowed the calendar to lend it's full weight to ordering our worship. We need to invite our people to consider what it means for God to be at work in history and how he intends to bring that work to its fulfillment. How do the many seasons of the year relate to the first season? How should we live if Easter marks the beginning of the new creation? What do we do given that Pentecost inaugurated the last days? These sorts of questions must be raised if we are to learn from the rhythms of worship that come in the Christian year. If the calendar is apocalyptic, then our preaching should be, too.

November 15, 2016

Chronological Snobbery and the Question of Christ

Ever tempted to think we have little to learn from people who lived long ago? If so, C.S. Lewis would warn you against what he called "chronological snobbery." For Lewis, that term referred to the widespread tendency among us modern folk to think we have reached a level of enlightenment and that the ancients have nothing to teach us. I bring this up because I came across a quote today that helpfully pushes back against that sort of arrogance. The quote comes in a little book I'm reading as part of my Christmas preaching preparation. It's called For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church by Stephen J. Nichols. The introduction takes on the problem of chronological snobbery head on:
In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church's struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church's existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14). 
Despite our radically different contemporary contexts, the early Church has much to teach us. And when it comes to the question of Christ, their wisdom has stood the test of time. 

November 7, 2016

Why John Wesley was not Pelagian (@SoWhat_Podcast, #UMC)

The new episode of the So What? Podcast went live this morning. In this edition we continue the discussion of Pelagius and Pelagianism. It was particularly fun to get clear on the Wesleyan critique of Pelagianism and how it differs from the Reformed (or Calvinistic) critique. There's also some great Wesley quotes on original sin. Check it out below or subscribe in iTunes. And don't forget to give us review.

October 4, 2016

A Wesleyan Approach to Pastoral Authority (@9Marks, #UMC)

I am grateful for the invitation to contribute to the most recent volume of the 9 Marks Journal. My essay is on pastoral authority from a Wesleyan/Methodist perspective. It's part of a round-table discussion with Kevin DeYoung offering a Presbyterian approach and Benjamin Merkle giving a Baptist perspective. Here's an excerpt:
Methodist founder John Wesley considered himself “a man of one book,” and that book was the Bible. Wesley believed that essential doctrines must be grounded in scripture. His attitude toward pastoral ministry was no different. This is clear in Wesley’s sermon, “On Obedience to Pastors,” in which he exposits Hebrews 13:17. He introduces the sermon insisting that the nature of pastoral authority can be understood if we “simply attend to the oracles of God” and “carefully examine the words of the Apostle.” Later in the sermon he rejects views on pastoral authority that cannot be proved from Scripture, and he refuses to “appeal to human institutions,” insisting again on what “we find in the oracles of God.” Wesley also believed Scripture puts limits on the pastor’s authority. He didn’t expect members of a congregation to obey the pastor if that pastor instructed them to disobey Scripture. And when pastors shepherd the flock in a way that accords with scripture, Wesley says, “we do not properly obey them, but our common Father” (italics original). The point should be clear: faithful Methodists locate the source of a pastor’s authority in scripture.

Click through to read the rest. 

June 22, 2016

Reading Romans in Context: A Review (@Zondervan, @bencblackwell)

Context is everything. That's the first rule for interpreting scripture (or any other text, for that matter). The rule refers first to the immediate context of a biblical passage, and it serves to remind us that responsible readers are not at liberty to extract a verse and do with it as they please. A good case in point is the common use of Philippians 4:13 by professional athletes, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." The verse is appropriated as something of a divine pep-talk to motivate the competitor to excellence and ultimate victory over his foes. The problem is that the original intent of the verse has nothing to do with any of that. It was composed with thanksgiving for the power of God to sustain a suffering missionary awaiting the possibility of martyrdom. It is about the strength of Christ that enables that apostle (and the readers) to persevere with faithful contentedness in the face of persecution. So, if you need encouragement as you suffer for Christ, by all means turn to Philippians 4:13. If you are competing in a televised sporting event for tens of thousands of fawning fans, perhaps you should look elsewhere.

Beyond the immediate setting of a particular passage are other important levels of context that bear on interpretation. Among other things, I teach my students to interpret a passage with a view to its place within the context of the book-as-a-whole and, if available, the larger body of work by the author in question. We also talk about historical context, which brings me to Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism, edited by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston (check out their blog).* This book puts Paul in conversation with other Jewish writers of roughly the same period to shed light on the argument of Paul's most important letter. The non-scriptural material has been well-known by biblical scholars for a long time. This book, however, makes key portions of that material available in a non-technical and introductory format. That means you don't need a theology degree to read and benefit from this volume.

The book has 172 pages of text (not including glossary and indices) divided into 20 brief chapters. The chapters progress through the text of Romans usually taking a chapter or less of text and setting it alongside another Jewish text that deals with similar themes. For example, Sarah Whittle looks at "circumcision of the heart" in Romans 2 alongside the book of Jubilees (chapter 3). Chapter 5 by Jonathan A. Linebaugh compares the all-important Romans 3:21-31 to the Epistle of Enoch to consider the highly debated topic of the revelation of God's righteousness. Chapter 6 by Mariam J. Kamell considers the similarities and differences between Paul's understanding of Abraham in Romans 4 and the interpretation of Abraham in Sirach. Chapter 12 takes up the topic of glorification in Romans 8 by reading it in light of Adam's loss of glory as portrayed in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve. The relationship between hospitality and meals is the focus of chapter 18 by Nijay Gupta, who compares Romans 14 and 15 to 1 Maccabees. The thing to understand is that the argument of Romans is not historically isolated. The letter was not written in a vacuum. It takes its place among a variety of ancient Jewish thinkers intent on dealing with similar issues. Sometimes Paul agrees with them; sometimes he does not. The better we understand those dynamics, the better we will understand the Bible. This value of this book is the way it makes those matters available to a broader range of readers.

I'll add that the essays are well-written, clear, and unburdened by lengthy footnotes. The chapters tend to proceed by introducing the theme to be considered in the passage from Romans (e.g. circumcision, salvation, the Law). This is followed by a short introduction of a relevant non-scriptural text. The remainder of each chapter is then given to putting Romans in dialogue with that text. The aim is to shed light on scripture by considering areas of agreement and disagreement between Romans and the additional text. For readers who find their appetites whet, the end of each chapter gives recommendations for further reading in relevant ancient texts and important secondary studies by scholars in the field.

There are many books out there that aim to shed light on the historical context of the New Testament, and many of them are written on a level accessible by non-specialists. These books often proceed with a survey of major themes, groups, and historical events (e.g. Jewish eschatology, Messianic expectations). Let me be clear: this is essential and important work. I'm glad those resources are available. Reading Romans in Context is distinct in that it introduces elements of context by focusing on particular texts. We might say that books on biblical backgrounds often take a wide-angle approach; Reading Romans in Context is a zoom lens that takes the reader up close to the particularities of the ideas in question. I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the large amounts of information that come with a lecture or reading assignment on New Testament backgrounds. There is a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of work. The precision focus of the chapters in this book strikes me as offering a complimentary approach that has potential to mitigate that problem. Students should be able to handle this book, and I am happy to recommend its use in a course introducing the New Testament, Paul and his letters, or on the exegesis of Romans. As a pastor, I would also feel comfortable recommending this book to an interested layperson in a local church setting.

All in all, I'm very glad the editors and contributors have published this book. I only hope they plan to produce further volumes that do the same thing with the rest of Paul's letters.
_____
*Many thanks to the good people at Zondervan for providing a complimentary review copy. 

March 30, 2016

No Celibacy in Singleness? Taking Responsibility in the #UMC

The United Methodist corner of the social media world is in a kerfuffle. "Why?" you ask. Good question. It's because of a blog post published last week by the Methodist Federation for Social Action in which the author, an anonymous clergy woman, announced that she had chosen not to remain celibate even though she is single. Not only does she think this is okay, she also thinks it is "ridiculous in 2016 that this [anonymity] is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules." I have resisted till now the the temptation to jump headlong into the fray, even though I find it to be the height of duplicity to publicly affirm "the rules" in one's ordination vows while anonymously ridiculing them on the internet. But none of us should be surprised. After all, the General Board of Church and Society published an essay suggesting we do away with the celibacy-in-singleness-requirement nearly six years ago. So, I'm not so much interested to talk about what our nameless author has written. We are where we are, and we've been coming here for quite some time. And no abundance of tweets will change that. Instead, I'd like to consider how we got here, and take some responsibility. 

The path to the place where celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage is not only questioned but ridiculed has been complex. The sexual free-for-all that has become acceptable in some corners of the UMC and other denominations is the result of many factors that cannot be dealt with in a single blog post. I can, however, point to one of those factors, which is the reality that those of us who hold to the traditional Christian ethic of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage have been largely silent when it comes to articulating a robust theology of human sexuality. With a few exceptions, our theologians have not written on it, and our preachers have not preached on it. We tend to skip over those chapters of scripture when they come along. After all, we wouldn't want to offend anyone. And there's always the danger that a prudish church member will make life difficult for us if we preach on one of "those passages." The result is that we have multiple generations of Christians with very little grounding in historic Christian sexual ethics and no ability to articulate and defend those ethics from scripture. 

At the risk of being anecdotal, I had the chance to sit down with some college students last summer and ask their perspective on the issue: what's it like for you being a Christian on a college campus characterized by a variety of attitudes toward sex? They responded by saying that they generally held traditional Christian views. The problem was that the topic didn't come up very often in church as they were coming along. So, there wasn't much to draw on when it came time to explain their conviction. As I listened it became increasingly clear to me that we conservative types bear some fault here. We have not given our children - or their parents, for that matter - any sort of Christian sexual ethic. The result is that they are easily swayed by the spirit of the age. Thankfully, there are some exceptions to the rule. There are some pastors who have the courage to preach and teach on holy sexuality. But they are exceptions indeed, and that's part of the problem.

Another facet of the problem is that when we do deal with the topic of human sexuality, we often only say what we are against, and we sometimes come across like angry children writing letters to the editor with crayons in our fists. We sound like we don't know what we're talking about, and it isn't pretty. To be sure, we need people to deconstruct damaging and aberrant attitudes toward sex. But we also need to do the constructive task of setting forth a theologically and aesthetically robust account of Christian sexual ethics, which is essential for giving our people a solid foundation on which to stand. Our people need to know what we are for and why it matters. Unfortunately, those accounts are few and far between, and they are seldom accessible on a popular level. We can point fingers at the other side all we want, but to some degree we are complicit. It's time to take responsibility. 

I'll conclude by recommending two resources. The first is a very helpful book published last year by Beth Felker Jones, a United Methodist theologian at Wheaton College. It's called Faithful: A Theology of Sex, and it's the sort of book you could give to a layperson or use at a college Bible study. Second, some readers will know that I am part of the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and will be interested to know that the upcoming CPT Conference is on "Beauty, Order, And Mystery: The Christian Vision Of Sexuality." Beth is one of the plenary speakers, and I'll be speaking at one of the breakout sessions. It is my hope that this conference will contribute to a recovery of a holy and positive theology of sexuality in the North American Church. Perhaps you'll want to join us. 

March 24, 2016

Christ's Body in Heaven: New @SoWhat_Podcast on the Ascension


I want to point readers to a new episode of the So What? Podcast. This one is on the all-important doctrine of Christ's ascension, which is overlooked or muted among many. The ascension of Jesus matters not least because it is the basis for his ongoing intercession and the expression of his cosmic rule. Even more, and to the surprise of many, the ascension has a lot to say about what it means to be a human being. Think about it: there is right now in heaven a human body, and his name is Jesus. Dr. Travis Buchanan is our guest; his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews is on the relationship between theology and literature in the work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Take a listen to part 1 below or subscribe in iTunes. I'll also point to the book, Jesus Ascended, by Gerrit Dawson, which is a very helpful introduction to the doctrine of the ascension.


February 15, 2016

Preaching Holiness #UMC

I recently posted a few reflections on John Wesley's instruction that Methodist preachers ought to preach the doctrine of holiness (or Christian perfection) "constantly, strongly, and explicitly." Following Wesley's advice, my January sermons were focused on the topic of Becoming Holy. Take a listen, if interested, and let me know what you think. If you are a preacher, how do you work the call to holiness into your sermons? How much homiletic time do you give to the topic? What strategies have you found helpful in introducing the concept to your congregation? What do you think are the challenges to preaching holiness? If you are a member of the laity, how often do you hear sermons on holiness? How do you respond to holiness preaching when you hear it? If you are not a preacher or part of a congregation, what do you think of the call to holiness? What are your impressions? Do you normally associate holiness with Christianity? I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment with your thoughts.

February 12, 2016

The Resurrection and Christian Identity (@sowhat_podcast)

The newest episode of the SoWhat? Podcast aired earlier this week. This one is part 2 of a discussion about the resurrection of Jesus in the Apostles' Creed. We trace out a number of questions about and implications of Christ's resurrection. Is belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus essential for Christian faith? What role does resurrection play in the formation of Christian social identity? How does a resurrection-oriented identity enable us to overcome the sin of racism? You'll even get to hear a little debate over some good old inaugurated eschatology and discover which of the other contributors thinks I sound a little too much like N.T. Wright. All in good fun, of course, all in good fun. Be sure to check out the website, subscribe on iTunes, and listen below. 

February 2, 2016

John Wesley On What Every Methodist Preacher Should Preach #UMC

What did John Wesley expect his preachers to preach about? What should be the heart of their message? Near the end of his short book, A Plain Account of  Christian Perfection, the father of the Methodist movement said this:
Therefore, all our preachers should make a point of preaching perfection to believers constantly, strongly, and explicitly; and all believers should mind this one thing, and continually agonize for it (Seedbed, 2014, p. 109).
Wesley's desire was to be "a man of one book" - the Bible - and he neither apologized for nor shied away from the language in the Bible, including the language of "perfection" and "entire sanctification." If you are wondering how that language is used in scripture, take a look at Matthew 5:48, where Jesus issues the command: "Be perfect." Then flip over to Philippians 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23, and 1 Peter 1:15-16. You'll also want to reflect on Romans 6:1-2 where Paul asks: "Shall we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?" He quickly answers his own question with an emphatic: "No!" That's right; Paul said believers should not continue in sin. Wesley read these and many other passages and realized that the call to holiness pervades scripture. It's everywhere.

God's Purpose for Methodists

Wesley also believed with his whole being that God had called him and the Methodists to be a reviving and revitalizing presence in the Church of England in the 18th century. At the heart of that call was the proclamation of the biblical doctrine of holiness (or entire sanctification or Christian perfection). And he insisted that every Methodist preacher preach this doctrine. That's what it meant to be Methodist. Wesley identity was so shaped by this call that he persevered through suffering and persecution. His preaching of holiness was strongly opposed, and sometimes he was in physical danger only because he insisted on a commitment to the language of scripture. Nevertheless, Wesley was called by God to this vocation. No opposition would make him waver.

What is Christian Perfection

Given the importance of the doctrine of Christian perfection to Methodist identity, it is exceedingly important to understand Wesley's definition of Christian perfection. All too often people hear the word "perfection" and reject the doctrine outright never taking the time to get clear on what it means. If you asked Mr. Wesley what he meant by entire sanctification or Christian perfection, he would tell you that he simply means a heart filled to overflowing with love of God and love of neighbor. Holiness is what happens when you love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is being happy in God and having the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the joy of one's heart. When you are filled with God's perfect love, Wesley would suggest, you cannot at the same time be sinning against God. We have to resist the love of God to start sinning against God. If we are loving Christ with all our energy, then we won't be stealing, lying coveting, deceiving, etc. We have to stop loving Jesus to start sinning against him.

Wesley was also insistent on what Christian perfection is not. In his sermon on "Christian Perfection" he said that it is not freedom from (1) mistake, (2) infirmity, (3) ignorance, or (4) temptation. Scripture is not calling for the absolute and unqualified perfection that belongs to God alone. Instead, the call to holiness is the call to keep the two greatest commandments: love God and neighbor with everything you've got. You may make a mistake, call someone by the wrong name, for example But that's not outright rebellion, and that's not the sort of thing we're talking about when it comes to Christian perfection. You may have some handicap that's not moral in nature; that's what Wesley meant by infirmity. You can love God and not have perfect knowledge of all things. You can even be tempted and not sin (see Hebrews 4:15). So, when Wesley talks about Christian perfection, he is not offering an unqualified expectation for absolute perfection in every possible way. Don't think that he is. He is calling for passionate giving of the self to Jesus with nothing held back. Wesley was convinced from scripture that when we release ourselves to Christ in that way the Holy Spirit is able to set us free from inward and outward sin. 

The Heart of a New Revival

The heart of the Wesleyan revival was the preaching of Christian perfection. Sadly, however, this doctrine no longer appears to characterize the landscape of Methodist preaching. I am encouraged, however, that there is renewed interest and attention in some corners of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement to preaching the gospel with a Wesleyan accent; that is, preaching the cross and resurrection of Christ as the means of grace not only to forgive sin but to bear the fruit of holiness in the people of God. More and more of our clergy and laity are rediscovering Wesley and following his example with regard to taking the words of Jesus seriously, the language of perfection and holiness not least. More and more are catching Wesley's vision and following his instruction to preach entire sanctification "constantly, strongly, and explicitly." Perhaps God is not yet finished with the people called Methodist.

What do you think of Wesley's instructions? Have you ever preached or heard a sermon on Christian perfection? When was the last time you heard a sermon on holiness?