May 24, 2017

Happy Aldersgate Day! (#umc)

May 24 is something of a holy day for the Wesleyan-Methodist family. On this day in 1738, John Wesley experienced his evangelical conversion, and the world hasn't been the same since. Here's the experience in his own words from his journal:
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.
Don't miss the last line in that first paragraph. This was the first time Wesley trusted Christ alone to do something for him that he could not do for himself. In that crucial moment, Wesley was no longer attempting to add to the work of Christ. On this day, he experienced afresh the perfect and sufficient grace of Christ to atone for his sin and give him assurance of salvation. Thanks be to God.  

Dr. Matt O'Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

May 22, 2017

New Book Notice: "Listen, Understand, Obey: Essays on Hebrews in Honor of Gareth Lee Cockerill" (@wipfandstock, @wesleybiblical)

I'm excited to announce the publication of a new collection of essays written in honor of Prof. Gary Cockerill on the occasion of his retirement. The book is called Listen, Understand, Obey: Essays on Hebrews in Honor of Gareth Lee Cockerill (edited by Caleb T. Friedeman). Dr. Cockerill has been a mentor to me for several years now, and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to this volume as an expression of gratitude for his kindness. Dr. Cockerill is a scholar with the heart of a pastor, and he's impacted countless students during his 35 years of teaching at Wesley Biblical Seminary (WBS) in Jackson, Mississippi. He's served the last four years as Academic Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology, a role which has been instrumental in the growth and increasing strength of WBS. 

All of the essays in this book deal with Hebrews, which has been a central focus of Dr. Cockerill's scholarship throughout his career. In 2012, his commentary on Hebrews replaced F.F. Bruce's volume in the NICNT. Grant Osborne called that commentary one of  "the top three ever written" on that book of the New Testament. Dr. Cockerill has also written on Christian Faith in the Old Testament (2014). You can read about that book in the author interview on this blog (part 1 and part 2). The title of this new collection of essays comes from Dr. Cockerill himself, who would often exhort his students while lecturing on Hebrews to "listen, understand, obey." Here's the publisher's description:
"This volume brings together a diverse group of scholars, including biblical, systematic, and historical theologians, to honor Gareth Lee Cockerill, longtime professor of New Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary (Jackson, MS) and distinguished scholar of the book of Hebrews. The essays focus on various aspects of Hebrews' theology, ranging from the nature of -rest- in Hebrews to the interpretation of Hebrews in early Methodism. Readers will find resources to hear and comprehend Hebrews afresh and will be challenged to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence (Heb 4:16)."
Here are the endorsements:
"This fine collection of essays by both senior scholars and our junior colleagues makes a worthy contribution to the scholarship of Hebrews and a fitting tribute to its honoree."
--Karen H. Jobes, PhD, Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor Emerita of New Testament Greek and Exegesis, Wheaton College
Dr. Cockerill is one of the truly fine exegetes of our day, and his commentary on Hebrews is among the top three ever written. This Festschrift is a goldmine of fine material that will aid the cause of Christ for years to come. I look forward to using this work in my own writing and ministry.
--Grant R. Osborne, PhD, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
A big word of thanks goes to Caleb Friedeman, a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Wheaton College, who did the hard work of editing the volume. He did an excellent job keeping the project on pace and bringing it through to completion. Get your copy from the publisher or Amazon.

Dr. Matt O'Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

May 17, 2017

Unlikely People, Surprising Results

When you serve as pastor of a local church, you pick up on things. You don’t pick up on everything. But you do pick up on some things. One of those things is a perception held by many people in more than a few churches. A lot of people have it in their heads that God cannot work through them. Now this could be for any number of reasons. Maybe they think God is hindered by their lack of training or education. Maybe they are convinced that they don’t have the right gifts or talents. Maybe they are so immobilized by the shame of their past that they are sure God wants nothing to do with them, let alone use them to make the world a better place. If you are one of those people, then I’ve got some good news for you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. In fact, the more unlikely you are, the more God is pleased to work through you.

An unlikely apostle

This reality emerges from the life story of the apostle Paul. If that name is unfamiliar to you, he’s responsible for writing a healthy chunk of the Bible. He’s was also one of the first and most important people to spread the good news of hope in Jesus Christ. What’s interesting about Paul is that started out hating Jesus. Not only did he hate Jesus, he hated the followers of Jesus. So, if you were one of the first followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem in the first century, Paul was somebody you would have wanted to avoid. Paul tells part of his story in his New Testament letter to the Galatians. He writes about an earlier period of his life when he was, “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13 NRSV). Now we have people today whose religious convictions motivate them to act violently. Sometimes we call those people terrorists. And it may surprise you to learn that analogy is not altogether out of place when considering Paul’s life before Jesus got hold of him. Remember what I told you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. 

Later in life Paul could look back and see that God was at work in his life, even though he didn’t know it. A little further on in that same letter to the Galatians he wrote that God “called me through his grace” and “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (1:15 NRSV). Did you catch that? God’s grace was big enough to cover the sins of a man who behaved violently toward God’s church. If that’s true, I’m thinking God can pretty much handle whatever messes we’ve made. And what was the result for Paul? God ended up using a man who hated the followers of Jesus to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the nations. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that an unlikely person with some surprising results.

Get ready for change

Now if you want God to use your unlikely life to accomplish something surprising, you need to be prepared for change. Radical change. Just think about Paul. He went from persecuting Christian believers to proclaiming the faith he had tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23). That’s what I call 180 degree turn-around. That’s some serious change. And here’s the thing. No one ever surprised anyone by continuing to do the same things they’ve always done. That’s what we call predictability, not surprising. So God may be calling you to do something unexpected, but it will require you to do some things differently. It will require new habits, new disciplines, new attitudes, new passion, and probably some new courage. God does surprising things through unlikely people, but not while they are doing the same old things.

It takes preparation

Developing new habits and new disciplines and new passion does not usually happen overnight. It typically takes some preparation. When God called Paul to be a church-planting missionary, Paul didn’t get started right away. He reminded the Galatians that he went away for a while. A long while. This new and surprising vocation would require some essential preparation. Paul had to learn how to read his Bible again; he had to develop an eye for how God’s promises are kept in Jesus. Most of us don’t have the kind of dramatic conversion experience that Paul had. And even with that experience he still needed substantial time being trained and equipped for the mission God had planned. How much more for all of us?

It may seem crazy

Chances are that if God uses you to do something surprising, somebody is going to think you are crazy. God may call you to sell your house in the suburbs and move to the most dangerous part of town to bring the light of Jesus to that dark place. God may call you to move to Costa Rica and join the effort to rescue women and girls from the sex trade. God may call you to go plant a church in a part of the world where terrorists cut off the heads of Christians. Or God may call you to do something else. The point is this: God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. Often times, other people think those surprising things are also crazy things. But hey. If it seemed normal, it probably wouldn’t be surprising.

It's God’s pleasure

What may be most surprising is that God does not begrudgingly work through unlikely people. He is not sitting around lamenting the fact that he has generally inadequate folks to work with. It turns out that God actually enjoys working through unlikely people. He gets a kick out of it. Remember a few minutes ago when we were talking about when God called Paul. Paul said God was pleased to reveal Jesus to him. God was pleased. Not only does God do surprising things through unlikely people, he is pleased to do it. The way I see it, being unlikely just keeps getting better and better. 

This post was originally published in The Call News on March 29, 2017.

Dr. Matt O'Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

May 3, 2017

Community is messy, but lines are essential (#umc, @spiritchatter, @huffpost)

Official statements abound in the wake of last week's Judicial Council ruling on the consecration as bishop of Karen Oliveto by the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church (#UMC). One that came across my desk this morning is from the Dean of Perkins School of Theology, Craig C. Hill. It came via the Huffington Post in a blog by Professor Jack Levison of Perkins. The post was intended to point readers to the Dean's letter and contained a few brief affirmative comments regarding the letter's substance and aim. One line from Levison's post struck me, however, and prompted some further reflection. He writes, "Truth be told, authentic community doesn’t allow for sharp lines and clear distinctions." I want to be careful because Levison didn't offer much in the way of explanation in terms of what he meant. I don't want to attribute views to him that he doesn't express. Nevertheless, the comment prompts a number of questions and was offered in a public forum. So, public reflection on possible implications is fair play. Let's have the conversation.

What sort of lines?
That's the first question that comes to mind. I can only imagine that "sharp lines" here refers to community boundaries. The above quote follows on the heels of Levison's stated commitment to holding the community together in the midst of discord, and Hill's letter deals with questions of community boundary in relation to human sexuality. The context would suggest then that the "sharp lines" in question would be those that mark the boundaries of the United Methodist community and make a distinction between those practices that are acceptable and those that are not. 

A group with no boundaries?
But this raises the question of what it would look like to have a community without "sharp lines" at the boundaries. What sort of group would that be? How would we know who is in that group? How would we know who is outside of it? How would we distinguish a group with no lines at the boundary from other groups? 

If you were to ask someone who studies the formation and maintenance of social identities, they would tell you that distinction is the key category for defining a group. If you want to talk about a group in any meaningful sense, then you need to identify what it is that makes members of that group perceive themselves to be distinct from other groups. What values and commitments do they hold in common that distinguish them from members of groups that hold different values and commitments? Social identity theory recognizes that sharp lines at the boundaries is precisely the stuff of which groups are made. And if there are no lines at the boundaries, then there is no community to speak of. In reality, authentic community depends on sharp lines. Distinctions are the sine qua non of every group. 

Where do we draw the line?
If you want authentic community, the question isn't whether there will be lines and distinctions. The question is where those lines will be drawn. The line is currently drawn in one place; Levison and Hill would like it drawn elsewhere. No matter where it's drawn, there's still a line. And that's what makes community messy or, as Levison puts it, "sloppy" and "unkempt." If we didn't have any lines, we wouldn't have to worry with being unkempt, because there wouldn't be a we in which to disagree. We only run into differences that have to be sorted out because we want to draw the lines in different places. The question of boundaries are precisely what makes community challenging. We have to come to some agreement on how we will conduct ourselves. We have to have some shared values and commitments that we will not betray. Sorting those out is tough. But sorting those out is also how the lines get drawn. Sorting those out is how the community gets formed. Clarifying and maintaining those lines is how the community is perpetuated. When a subgroup of the larger group crosses the line and refuses to abide by the shared values, the group is endangered. And if the lines get moved, the community will change. You are likely to lose some of the people in the community. New communities may form. However that plays out, things get messy. The point is that things are only messy because there are sharp lines. Take away the lines and distinctions, and the mess goes away also. But then so does the authentic community. 

I noted above that a number of statements have been released. I decided to write about this one instead of the others because the commentary that accompanied it seems to me internally inconsistent. In the end, the argument for authentic community without sharp lines and distinctions regarding shared values and practices is self-defeating. There is no such thing as a community with no boundaries. Every group has lines drawn around it. That is unavoidable. The question for United Methodists going forward is where those lines will be drawn.

Dr. Matt O'Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.