A New Beginning


Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation Sunday.  I am preaching at Dover UMC, Dover Plains, NY this Sunday.

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I recently completed reading Brian McLaren’s new book, “Everything must change.” It is an interesting book and I would encourage everyone to read it. What he writes speaks volumes about the future of Christianity and the church in its various denominational forms.

McLaren is associated with the post-modern or emergent church movement of today. This is the “new” label that is applied to churches today in an effort to show the public that church is “hip” or connected with the times. I have not quite figured out what exactly post-modern or emergent churches are, except that it is somehow a new form of worship. I sometimes get the impression that if you have a coffee shop associated with the church or if the church is associated with a coffee shop, then it qualifies as an emergent church. I think that the church and Christianity is much more than that.

The problem is that we often do not know what Christianity is or what the relationship of the church to Christianity really is. When I read and reviewed (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/06/11/it-is-no-secret/) McLaren’s previous book, “The Secret Message of Jesus”, I was initially confused. What was the secret that McLaren was trying to tell us about? After all, everything that he wrote in that book was perfectly clear to me and I could not see how the message that Jesus brought to us two thousand years ago could be considered a secret. But, and this is a big but, when you hear the message of so many preachers and ministers today, you begin to understand why the message is a secret.

The primary message of many churches today is not the message that was presented some two thousand years ago. It has been subverted, distorted and hidden. The message of the church today has no relationship to the words Christ spoke in the hills of Galilee. The message brought forth today is no longer a message of hope and promise but condemnation and exclusion.

The message of the Bible is timeless; it is neither frozen in time nor does it bend with the thoughts and processes of society. Fundamentalists see God’s word as frozen in time and its message can only be interpreted in one way. Today, when someone says that they speak for God or they know what God wants us to hear, the chances are that they are only speaking for themselves and using the message of Christ for their own self-interest and selfish goals.

The image of the public church is described in today’s Gospel message. (Luke 18: 9 – 14) You have the Pharisee who comes to the temple and prays what I call the “self prayer.” He is not asking forgiveness for what he has done but rather justification. He has no concern for anyone other than himself. On the other hand, the tax collector recognizes that he is not worthy and he seeks forgiveness. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him; the tax collector stands in the shadows, embarrassed to be there.

I came to the conclusion many years ago that the primary threats to the church were really not the people in the shadows but, rather, those modern day Pharisees who hold their lives up as exemplary and beyond reproach. I saw and continue to see those who see the church as their own personal showcase, places where they can laud their status and power over others.

I am not alone in this view of the public church. As I noted in my blog (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/10/13/the-lost-generation/) two weeks ago, there is a report noting the decrease in young people coming to church. They see the hypocrisy of today’s church and saying that they do not want to be a part of it. People are leaving the church because they see the hypocrisy of the church and they do not know where to find the true message.

Today is Reformation Sunday. This is not a day that gets much attention in the United Methodist Church. From an historical standpoint, United Methodists tend to focus Heritage Sunday, that Sunday in April when we honor our heritage as members of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches and the merger of the two denominations, and Aldersgate Day (May 24th) when we celebrate John Wesley?s “heart warming experience” at the Aldersgate Chapel in London. This experience was crucial to Wesley’s own life and it is the touchstone of the Wesleyan movement.

But I think that we need to also consider today as more than simply a date on the liturgical calendar. Reformation Sunday commemorates October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther’s posted his 95 theses or propositions on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Even though he was a Roman Catholic priest, Luther was prompted to do this by the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in those days to sell what were known as indulgences. People bought these indulgences from church authorities in the belief that such purchases would enable them to enter heaven more easily. The money raised was used by the authorities in ways that had little to do with the work of the church.

Luther had become alarmed by this practice because, through his study of the Bible, he had come to understand that God was a God of grace and love, One who reached out to His children, One who understood their fallen humanity and forgave them. Further, God promised eternity to all who had faith in Him.

Luther came to see righteousness as a relationship with God and one that could not be accomplished by anything that we do. Yes, God does demand moral purity from us; yes, our sin does earn us everlasting condemnation. But God Himself took on the flesh and bone of humanity through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we with faith would not be condemned. God gives all who have faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life.

In his study of the Bible, Luther came to have what he called his “tower experience”; an experience similar to Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. It was the same love that we understand the taxpayer received that day in the synagogue that was the central part of today’s Gospel reading.

Luther came to know that God’s righteousness was a gift from God for all who turned away from sin and entrusted their lives to Christ. God’s love for us was the gift that we have come to call grace. It was this understanding that would lead Luther to proclaim that God’s grace cannot be bought.

The sale of indulgences could be done because many people labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status that God demanded from us but that we, individually, were unable to obtain. If we are unable to obtain the perfection that God demands of us, then there is no hope in our lives. And those without hope will eagerly grab at anything that offers hope, no matter how slim or foolish the chance may be.

Luther was labeled a heretic for this act of defiance against the church of his time. When his preaching and opposition to the sale of indulgences began to affect the bottom line, the Church went after him. He received what was known as an “imperial ban”, an agreement between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of principalities and nations that preceded modern day Germany that stated that Martin Luther was to be killed on sight. (From http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-is-this-called-reformation-sunday.html)

I have been told many times in my life that we are to make disciples for Christ. I have to agree that we should do so but we cannot do so by force nor can we do it as a means of subversion. You cannot say to a starving man that the bread you offer is theirs only if they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Oh, they will say what you want to hear, but how true will that confession be? It is noted that missionaries in China would give rice to the Chinese if they would become Christians. When the rice ran out, the converts left and became known as “Rice Christians.”

The second thing that I find interesting is that the sale of indulgences has not really stopped. If you were to travel through the various religious channels that reside on cable TV today, you would find preachers selling little scraps of prayer clothes or vials of holy water that will cure your ills and enable you to solve the problems of your life. Would people be willing to do this if the church’s message was the true message of Christ?

One of the reasons for the Methodist church is that we saw early on that hunger and poverty must be overcome before one’s heart is truly open to the Holy Spirit. And that is one of the things that McLaren is writing about in his new book. If we do not focus on the things that cause poverty, hunger, sickness, and terrorism, then the message that Jesus Christ brought to us is meaningless and lost.

While there are those who see the words of the Bible frozen in time, there are others who say that the Bible is flexible in what it says. They are not willing to make the choices required of them when answering the call to be Christ’s disciples. Though the crowds that followed Him were initially large, they tended to get smaller when they heard what was asked of them. The message of Christ is demanding but the rewards are plentiful.

There are many people today who are not going to like this message. They prefer that we blame poverty, sickness, illness and terrorism on sin and say that we must impose God’s kingdom on the people of the earth. Where Jesus called for us to make disciples of the people of the earth, I think that many ministers and preachers would have us make servants of the people of the earth. Christ did not come to establish God’s kingdom here on earth; rather, He came so that those who seek God will find Him through Christ and that the gates of the heavenly kingdom will be open.

It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. It would not be difficult. The one reason that I considered McLaren’s book so important to the future of the church is that it gives people the opportunity to see how changes can be made. It does not offer magic formulas that will change the church. But it gives the people the opportunity to seek the changes that they can make.

The words that Paul wrote to Timothy that we read this morning are not sad words. Yes, it is clear from the words that Paul knows that he is at the end of his missionary journey and life. But Paul is not sad that his own journey is ending. Rather, he sees the good in what he has done and he sees that, through Timothy, the work will continue.

There are probably two ways to read today’s Old Testament reading. (Joel 2: 23 -32) There will be those who see a correlation between what Joel is writing and his prophecies and the end times of Revelation. If we read it that way, then there is no hope.

But it can also be read as an announcement that there is a message of hope from God for those who repent and change their ways. But we must listen to the true message, not the self-serving message of charlatans and false prophets. We must recognize that repentance requires change and we must change if we are to see a fulfillment of the Gospel message.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he speaks of being an evangelist. (2 Timothy 4: 5) To Paul, an evangelist is one who equips and encourages believers to share the Good News. That is what we are asked to do today. If we are to see a new beginning today, we must be the ones who share the Good News that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless will find homes, the naked shall be clothed, and the oppressed shall be freed.

We are called today to begin anew. We are called today to cast aside our old ways and open our hearts so that Christ can come in and we can begin a new life. We are called today to open our hearts and let the Holy Spirit empower our lives. In doing so, we can share the Good News and have that new beginning promised to us when the Gospel message was first heard two thousand years ago. It is a message that echoes through the ages and it will be up to us to see that it is carried further.

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6 thoughts on “A New Beginning

  1. I like the most of your post, however, I think you may have missed the point of McLaren’s book, “The Secret Message of Jesus”. Now I have not read the book, but friends have explained it to me and as I understood this paragraph from your post seems to miss, what I understood as the, point of McLaren’s book:

    “There are many people today who are not going to like this message. They prefer that we blame poverty, sickness, illness and terrorism on sin and say that we must impose God’s kingdom on the people of the earth. Where Jesus called for us to make disciples of the people of the earth, I think that many ministers and preachers would have us make servants of the people of the earth. Christ did not come to establish God’s kingdom here on earth; rather, He came so that those who seek God will find Him through Christ and that the gates of the heavenly kingdom will be open.”

    First of all I think that a message such as the one above neglects the pervasive political and economic which sin enjoys. A large majority of the Western Christian community focus on the vices, and “sins” of the individual soul, while an omnipresent evil continues to prevail. Mark Lewis Taylor expresses this point:

    Sin always has its individual form with its own personal enslavements. This cannot be denied. However, the sin and evil that beset us today are not simply failings caused by individual vices; they rise to meet us in the pervasive, deep-running, cultural-political structures that are with us from our birth and saturate our daily exchanges.22

    Structural sins, the sins that Friedrich Schleiermacher called ‘original sins,’ are always-already with us in our daily lives, in our play, in our work, in our everyday conversations and relationships. This sin pervades our stories because it pervades the very structure and system of our culture. It is easy to understand why Schleiermacher said of “’original sin’ that it is ‘not something that pertains severally to each individual and exists in relation to him by himself, but in each the work of all, and in all the work of each. . . .’”23 Original sin is not, as Augustine suggested, the nature of a person’s failure even at the time of their birth. Rather, original sin is the cooperation and participation in systems and social structures which place contracts on freedom.

    Therefore, the Christian community, as it is grafted into the history and story of God, has (and must) always be in connection with liberation of the poor and the oppressed. The story of God, gives primacy to emancipation and inclusion. The whole story of the God of the Hebrews, Yahweh, is seen as a defender of the poor and the oppressed. In Cone’s words, “ . . . [I]n almost every scene of the Old Testament drama of salvation, the poor are defended against the rich, the weak against the strong. Yahweh is the God of the oppressed whose revelation is identical with their (political) liberation from bondage.”55 The drama of the Old Testament is continued in the New Testament with the coming of Christ, who understood his own mission as an announcement of good news, he proclaimed release of prisoners and freedom for the victimized.56 Our images of Christ are important in creating soteriological understandings. Christology is always in a dialectial play with soterology. Many theologians have discussed that dialectical play between Christology and soteriology. Mark Lewis Taylor describes much of the historical relationship between soteriology and Christology:

    Melanchthon put the matter memorably: ‘Who Jesus Christ is becomes known in the saving action.’ Perhaps Paul Tillich articulated the connection most emphatically in saying: Christology is a function of soteriology.’ I can affirm this language–elements of which were also evident in the theologies of Friedrich Schleiermacher, A.E. Biedermann, and Rudolf Bultmann–provided, first, that we not interpret this as meaning that Christology is a mere reflection of soteriology and, second, that we go on to ask specifically of whose salvific interests is Christology a function?57

    Christology, the way we envision Christ, directly affects those whom our envisioned Christ can save. Therefore, the entire message of the Christian tradition must always give primacy to the emancipation and inclusion of the oppressed, the weak, the poor and the marginalized. In this way, there can be no Christian theology that is not social and political. Such should be the hermeneutical methodology of any authoritative Christian text, weather that is an academic article, a Sunday school meeting, small group conversation, church bulletin, or Sunday morning sermon. In fact, Cone goes as far as to say, “Any starting point that ignores God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed or that makes salvation as liberation secondary is ipso facto invalid and thus heretical.”58

    In this sense Christians
    22 Mark Lewis Taylor, Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis (New York: Orbis, 1990), 156.
    23 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1976 [1830]) section 71, 288, in Mark Lewis Taylor, Religion, Politics, And The Christian Right, 30
    55 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, 64.
    56 See Luke 4.18-19 (New Revised Standard Version)
    57 Philip Melanchthon, Preface to Loci communes (1521), cited in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus–God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), 38. quoted in Mark Lewis Talyor, Remembering Esperanza, 154-155.
    58 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed. 75.

  2. “Rossisthinking” – your comments are interesting but it appears that you cut them off. Also, if you read what else I have written, you will find that I push for the liberating qualities of the Gospel. That is my point in the paragraph that you quoted (I think your answer is missing some words, by the way).

    It is much easier to blame poverty and sickness on sin because we don’t have to do anything about it then. But if poverty and sickness are not caused by sin, then we have to work for the Gospel and people are not quite willing to do that.

  3. Oh I get what your saying now….

    Your saying that the average American Church blames poverty and sickness on the sin of those who are poor thus legitimizing the high poverty rates and other sociopolitical and socioeconomic injustices –a version of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic?

    I like that analysis.. however, visions of salvation, I contend, are the foundation of the Christian communities content and complacency with the status quo. How does one become “saved?” More importantly, what does being “saved” look like in our daily and social lives?

    I guess all in all were saying the same thing… your critiquing visions of hamartiology and I’m critiquing visions of soteriology. It seems that visions of hamartiology and soteriology have a dialectical relationship. That is, how we view sin has a very large influence on how we view salvation and who can be saved.

  4. I would first ask what you mean by harartiology and soteriology. I also added your blog to your comments (it makes things easier).

    I would suggest that one becomes saved when one realizes that one’s life is not what it could be or should be and makes the appropriate changes. For myself, that is a profession of faith in Christ. (Others, who have a different religious foundation, may say otherwise.

    Now, having been saved, what does one do? Having been saved means that you have let Christ into your life and you must show that presence through what you say and what you do. It is not about making others believers, but rather showing them what they must do.

  5. Haratiology is the study of sin and soteriology is the study of salvation. Clearly how one views the former will affect the perspective of latter and vice-a-versa.

    Being saved, I believe one must help the poor, and the oppressed, instead of blaming the victim–which often happens.
    I think this is the foundational message of Christ; salvation–everlasting life–is dependent on orthopraxis (Right action). It is dependent on how we treat “the least of these.”

    As Jesus’ parable declares

    Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

  6. Pingback: Reinventing the Wheel « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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