May 28, 2013

Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?

You don't have to read many books on preaching to find the common notion that Jesus' parables were basically like sermon illustrations. It usually goes something like this: Jesus lived and ministered among first-century rural and agrarian people. Thus, he told parables about sowers sowing, seeds growing, and enemies planting weeds among the wheat. He did this, it is said, in order to illustrate the nature of the kingdom in stories that people could understand. And the moral of the story in the handbooks on homiletics is that preachers should go and do likewise; fill the sermon with stories and illustrations to contextualize the gospel and help people understand the message. Well, every preacher wants his or her sermons to be communicated effectively and understood. The problem with the above line of reasoning comes with the suggestion that Jesus' parables are functioning like sermon illustrations. A quick look at the text would seem to suggest otherwise. 

Consider Mark 4, where Jesus tells the well-known parable of the sower. Mark says that later when Jesus was alone with the twelve, they asked him about the parables. Apparently, they didn't understand the stories.  And if you are expecting the parables to be good little sermon illustrations, then Jesus' answer will surprise you. He quotes portions of Isaiah 6:9-10 to explain that parables are used with a very specific purpose, namely so that "they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12). Wait a minute! Jesus speaks in parables so that people will not perceive and not understand and not repent. What kind of sermon illustration is that? Oh, wait, maybe it's not a sermon illustration at all. Maybe Jesus is doing something completely different. Mark tells us later that Jesus used parables with the crowds but explained everything privately to his disciples (4:34). Apparently, the parables were not intended by Jesus to make everything plain, clear, and accessible. 

I'm preaching on this passage next Sunday. I've got a few thoughts on what is going on, but I'd be very interested to hear what others think. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts. 

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why did he speak to the crowds in ways that were designed to disguise what he was up to? Why did he want to keep people from understanding? Why explain things privately and only to the disciples? 

May 24, 2013

Aldersgate and Wesley's Strangely Warmed Heart #UMC

If United Methodists observed feast days, today would be the Feast of the Warm Heart. It's May 24, which is the anniversary of John Wesley's evangelical conversion and his initial experience of Christian assurance. Here's that most famous of his journal entries from this day in his 1738:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, 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.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will.
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror
Much could be said about this (and indeed much has!), but I'll only here point to two aspects of Wesley's entry that I find particularly striking. First, Wesley's experience is altogether focused on Christ. His faith is in Christ alone. It is Christ who takes away his sins and Christ who saved him from the law of sin and death. Salvation, for Wesley, is nothing less than an experience of the living Christ. Second, The first thing Wesley did after his heart was strangely warmed was to pray for his enemies, which is an entirely unnatural thing to do and is, in most cases, evidence of the presence and work of the Spirit of God.

Happy Aldersgate Day!

May 23, 2013

@ScotMcKnight on Why Paul Matters

Scot McKnight has a post up calling on us to "Bring Back Paul!" He begins with a plug for the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, which is still  fairly new but is, nevertheless, an important academic publication. He then goes on to address the matter of why we must read Paul. I'll say that my reaction to this post went in two rather different directions. My initial thought was simply that I didn't know Paul needed to be brought back. I'm presently writing a Ph.D. on the apostle and, as a result, have him constantly in mind. I've spent the last couple of years sorting through volume after volume on Paul. Tons of stuff has been written, some better than others, but in terms of New Testament scholarship, Paul is ever with us.

But that's the knee-jerk reaction of doctoral student neck deep in monographs written primarily for scholars, and it's not really what McKnight is getting at. He is calling on the wider church to listen more attentively to Paul's letters. He is right that the Reformed tradition has a focuses more on Paul than others and that Paul's theology has often been reduced to soteriology and then often to justification. McKnight is calling on the wider tradition to read Paul and to delve into his theology more broadly. 

One massively important point that McKnight raises is that of Paul's passionate work to bring Jews and Gentiles together into a unified church that is the one body of Christ. I cannot agree more. The more I study the New Testament period, the more I am amazed at Paul's work in pulling Jews and non-Jews together to sit at one table and worship the one God who raised Jesus from the dead. Paul was trailblazer in matters of ethnic inclusion. If you think racial reconciliation and justice matter, then you cannot do without the apostle Paul. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians are largely about getting diverse ethnic groups together in a single community. That's a very big deal. Paul was exceedingly passionate about pulling together a single people of God from every tribe, tongue, and nation. If that's not relevant, I don't know what is. So, I'll echo McKnight: Let's bring back Paul!

May 21, 2013

From Methodist to Mainline: The Untold Story by @GeorgeGHunter

How did Methodists become mainline? In his book, The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement, George Hunter argues that it was no accident. He writes:
At one point in history, following the 1968 merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church that became The United Methodist Church, Methodism was substantially, and quietly, steered toward a generic mainline destination. What I am about to report was never prominent in the public discussions before, or after, the merger (emphasis added). In those years, I was on the staff at the Board of Evangelism, and then on the Perkins faculty, and then on the staff of the Board of Discipleship. In those years, some senior denominational executives were informing staff people that what the merger was really about was becoming a "New Church." These leaders were good people who meant well; like leader-groups in most generations, they convinced themselves that they knew best. So becoming a New Church would involve one major shift: our church would become much less Methodist and much more mainline - like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and so on. 
We had already drifted in that direction; now we were being navigated in that direction. Ironically, much of Methodism's theological academy was becoming more Methodist; scholars like Albert Outler, William R. Cannon, and Frank Baker produced the greatest generation of Wesleyan scholarship. But a constellation of denominational executives agreed that they knew better than the early Methodists and their own scholars. The accelerated shift from a Methodist to a mainline identity did not just happen. We were pushed.
Indeed, in those years, the 1970s and 1980s, we managed to become more mainline than our partners. Today, Lutherans are more consciously and recognizably Lutheran, Presbyterians-Presbyterian, and Episcopalians-Anglican, than United Methodists are consciously and recognizably Methodist. We gave up much more than our partners did in the hope that they would welcome us into the mainline club of denominations (9-10). 
So, the move from Methodist to mainline was not simply a natural shift, though it may have been initially; we were strategically directed and brought down this path. But what are the repercussions of this move for the people called Methodist? Hunter identifies three. 

  1. While most mainline churches moved from Europe to North America as institutionalized national churches, Methodism did not. We were a renewal movement within the Church of England. In institutionalizing as a mainline church, we left our identity as a vibrant movement behind.
  2. Drawing on the work of Scott Kisker, Hunter suggests that the shift to mainline "sucked much of the identity, vitality, and reproductive power out of our once-great movement" (10). Hunter provides two quotes from Kisker that are worth repeating here. First, "When we became mainline, we stopped actually being Methodists  in all but name." Second, "For us in so-called mainline Methodism, our 'mainline' identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health" (Hunter, 10).
  3. Another consequence identified by Hunter might be called our Methodist identity crisis. He suggests that most Methodists have no idea what it means to actually be Methodist. What do we believe that sets us apart and gives us a reason to exist? It has long been cliché that one can be a Methodist and believe whatever she wants. But this poses a variety of problems, not least with regard to evangelism and church preservation (not to mention growth), because "we cannot observe, anywhere, a long line of people eager to join a church that does not know what it believes, or who it is, or so easily changes its mind" (10). 
What do you think about Hunter's assessment of the shift from Methodist to mainline? Have you observed consequences of this shift other than those observed above? What are the best resources for getting a better handle on this shift? Is renewal possible? Is there a way of regaining our movemental Methodist identity and vitality? 

May 16, 2013

Who are you in the heavenly realm? (@ministrymatters)

I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the most recent edition of the Converge Podcast at Ministry Matters with Shane Raynor, Grace Biskie, and David Dorn. The podcast is a companion resource to Shane's four week Bible study on Who You Are in Christ, which is part of the Converge Bible Studies series. Here's the video in which we discuss a variety of topics including grace, access to God, and the blood of Christ.

May 15, 2013

@GBCSUMC on Gosnell: What's abortion got to do with it? #UMC

The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has released a statement on the guilty verdict handed down earlier this week in the trial of Kermit Gosnell, who killed numerous newborns and at least one woman. I'm glad the statement from GBCS condemned the horrible crimes committed by the former abortion practitioner as reprehensible. They certainly were. I'm also very glad that the statement does not contradict our United Methodist Social Principles. There are, nevertheless, a variety of features that make the statement inadequate.

Unclear?
The most glaring problem with the GBCS statement is the way it plays dumb on the relevance of the Gosnell trial to the ongoing debate over abortion. GBCS says, "the case has become the latest battlefield in the abortion debate, but it is unclear why." Really? Really?To suggest Gosnell's crimes are unrelated to abortion is so remarkably unbelievable that it boggles the mind. The connection between Gosnell and abortion is clear not only to abortion opponents but to a number of abortion advocates also. Each side draws on that connection to support their own aims, of course; the point is that both see the connection . Taking up the substance of those arguments would have indicated a serious wrestling with the significance of the Gosnell proceedings. Unfortunately, the refusal of GBCS to acknowledge why Gosnell matters with regard to abortion only further undermines the Board's credibility.

Not Quite Accurate
The statement goes on to say that both supporters and opponents of abortion find Gosnell's crimes reprehensible. This only is accurate to a degree. It would have been more accurate to say that some abortion supporters find Gosnell's crimes reprehensible. A growing number of abortion advocates are also calling for the legalization of infanticide. Ethicist Peter Singer has been saying this for years, and others are beginning to join him. The key example is the most recent edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics, which is devoted to debating infanticide and contains articles arguing both for and against the killing of newborns. I point to other examples of this trend in a recent piece for The United Methodist Reporter, and you can follow Michael Bird who is chronicling the "Infanticide Blitz". This is a debate we are now having. Certainly not all supporters of abortion reject infanticide, but GBCS should not lead us to think that supporters of abortion are of one mind with regard to infanticide. Many abortion advocates find Gosnell's crimes horrific, but the arguments that gave us constitutionally protected abortion are being applied to newborns in a growing number of diverse arenas. The folks at GBCS need to read the relevant journals and websites and do their homework rather more carefully in order to stay on top of this highly important issue.

Does Location Matter?
The GBCS rightfully expresses sorrow over those who died at Gosnell's hands: "We mourn the tragic loss of life, as well as the pain and loss Dr. Gosnell has caused countless other women and families." Absolutely.  I do, too. What I find puzzling, though, is that this sentiment seems inconsistent with other work in which GBCS engages. For example, GBCS is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), an organization that fights for unregulated and unrestricted access to abortion. They have praised abortion as holy and sacred work. So, when I read that GBCS mourns the loss of these little lives, I can't help but wonder why given their partnership with RCRC in advancing the abortion agenda? Had these babies been located inside their mother's womb just a few inches in the other direction, GBCS would not have mourned their loss. To the contrary, by affiliating with RCRC, GBCS has insisted on and celebrated the so-called liberty to end the lives of the preborn, even going so far as to suggest that such is the work of the kingdom of God. For the GBCS to argue that children in the womb have no right to life and, at the same time, express their sorrow over the deaths of the newly born is regrettably incoherent. 

So, while there are praiseworthy elements in the GBCS statement on Gosnell's verdict, it is with great sadness I write that it remains woefully inadequate. I love the United Methodist Church, but today I am deeply grieved by it. United Methodists should be able to expect far more from our Boards. The underlying political agenda of GBCS is covered by a veil all too thin and one that is seen through far too easily. Near the end of the statement, GBCS says, "Each of us must give an account to God for what we do (or do not do) for our fellow brothers and sisters." Indeed, we must, on both accounts. 

May 7, 2013

How will the #UMC respond to the #Gosnell horror? (@umreporter)

I am grateful to the editors of The United Methodist Reporter for the opportunity to write a piece on the trial of Kermit Gosnell and how the United Methodist Church should respond. I argue that the system that enabled Gosnell was built on the foundation of Roe v. Wade, and, on that basis, I call for United Methodist agencies to break ties with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), an inter-religious abortion advocacy organization. Here's an excerpt:
We must begin by recognizing that this tragic situation follows from the widespread efforts to normalize abortion in the United States. Not all will agree with that conclusion, but a variety of factors suggest its accuracy. Since abortion was declared a constitutional right in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, the pro-choice movement has worked hard to undermine the full personhood of the preborn. We have been told again and again that the child in the womb is a fetus, not a baby. We are told that abortion is not the ending of a life; it is the termination of a pregnancy. This cold and detached terminology is intended to downplay any emotional reaction to abortion.
The problem is that if a preborn child in the eighth or ninth month of gestation does not have the moral status of a person, why should we think a change of geography from inside the womb to outside the womb suddenly establishes personhood? There is no substantive difference between the preborn and the newly born. If we are desensitized to the death of the former, it will lead us to be decreasingly sensitive to the latter. The road from Roe to Gosnell is a downhill slope.
This connection can clearly be seen in a variety of recent arguments made by abortion advocates. In 2012, bioethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics for what they called “post-birth abortion.” They claimed that newborns, like fetuses, do not have the moral status of a person and, therefore, the killing of a newborn should be permissible even when the newborn has no disability or defect. Upon the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece for Salon.com titled, “So what if abortion ends life?” in which she argued that the child inside the womb is as much a life as the one outside. She did not go as far as Dr. Giubilini and Dr. Minerva by arguing for infanticide, but when you agree that the preborn and the newly born are alive in the same sense, it is a short and logical step from pre-birth abortion to infanticide. More recently, a representative of Planned Parenthood argued to Florida lawmakers that the decision to offer life-saving care to a child born alive after a botched abortion should be left to the mother and her physicians rather than guaranteed by law.

The Reporter also published a response by Rev. Steve Copley on behalf of RCRC. The General Board of Church and Society and the United Methodist Women are both members of RCRC, and both declined the invitation of the editors to respond.

The continued membership of United Methodist agencies in RCRC should disturb us all. Despite the official position of the UMC to support the legal option of abortion, our Social Principles declare: "Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion" (Book of Discipline para. 161.J). In contrast, rather than affirm the sanctity of unborn human life, RCRC insists on the sanctity of destroying unborn human life. In a collection of worship resources published and endorsed by RCRC and entitled Prayerfully Pro-Choice, abortion is described as a "God-given right" (8) and "a sacred choice" (88). The positions of the UMC and RCRC are mutually exclusive. United Methodists should hold our agencies accountable and call upon them to exit the abortion advocacy business. 

May 1, 2013

Are denominations worth it? (@9MarksOnline)


I'm grateful for the opportunity to take part in a roundtable discussion for the 9 Marks Journal on the question: are denominations worth it? The other participants are pastors from a variety of contexts and denominational backgrounds and include Tim Keller, Carl Trueman, Tom Ascol, Tim Cantrell, and Rick Phillips. You can preview the roundtable discussion here, and the full journal should be available soon.

Most of us answered the question with a generally positive view of denominations, though as you read each response you may get the sense that some find denominations to be more "worth it" than others. Several responses focused on the value of connection to foster cooperation between churches in a single denomination. Ascol suggested that denominations are useful in bringing autonomous local churches in the same denomination together as partners in mission. Cantrell praised the cooperation of the Sola5 association of churches in South Africa for their strategic partnership to plant new churches and engage in mission. Keller and Truman, both Presbyterian, find worth in the role of denominations in keeping local church leaders accountable to the larger connection, and Phillips sees value in denominations as long as they don't begin to think that their boundaries are the same as the boundaries of Christ's kingdom.

Taking a somewhat different approach, my own contribution focused on the value of denominations in relationship to each other. I've learned a lot from reading and studying those with backgrounds in other denominations. I hope that exposure to the strengths and distinctives of other traditions has and will continue to improve my own understanding and practice of ministry. I also hope that people in other denominations will learn from the strengths and emphases of our Methodist heritage. 

What do you think? Are denominations worth it? Why? Why not? Share your thoughts in a comment below.