“The Beginning or the End”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 1st Sunday in Lent, 13 February 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 2: 15 – 17, 3: 1 – 7; Romans 5: 12 – 19; and Matthew 8: 1 – 11.


I used to play a lot of chess when I was in high school; but as time went on, my competitive playing tapered off. Chess is an interesting game, both for the logic and strategy that it teaches as well as the history of the game. But one thing always confused me. In chess, there is an opening, a middle game, and an end game. The only problem is that there is very little differentiation between each of the sections. You start with a particular opening gambit and then before you know it, you are in the middle game. And, if you are not careful, you are in the end game and the game is over.

The same can probably be said about the life of a church or churches in general. Some look around at the world and conclude that we are in the "end times." But are we?

Last year, I was concerned that the end of the United Methodist Church was close at hand. I saw signs that suggested that the General Conference would be the most divisive conference, at least since the General Conference of 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery and slave ownership.

When you look at the history of the Methodist Church, it is amazing that it even exists today. In the early 1800’s, the Methodist Episcopal Church walked a fine line between opposing slavery and allowing its members to own slaves. The African Methodist Church (or A. M. E. church) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church were formed because of the way black parishioners and preachers were treated in the predominantly white churches of this country. In 1830, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed in protest because the General Conference would not grant representation to laity in church matters and permit the direct election of presiding elders (our district superintendents).

In 1844, when the General Conference ordered James O. Andrew, a southern bishop, to either get rid of the slaves that his wife owned or give up his position as bishop, he chose to do neither. The conference voted to suspend him until he did one of the two. In response, the southern delegates to the General Conference walked out. In 1845, the delegates met and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church South. This split lasted until the union of the three branches of the church, the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South reunited to form the Methodist Church in 1939.

It should be noted that many of the churches in the ME South suffered great damage during the Civil War. Most notably was the battle fought at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee on April 6th and 7th, 1862. It is known in the annals of the war as the Battle of Shiloh, named after the Methodist church where the battle was fought. 23,746 men were killed, wounded, or missing after the two day battle on the grounds of a place named for peace.

But the General Conference of 2004 did not split the church. But the issues that threaten the destruction of the United Methodist Church still exist and will not go away until there is a new vision, a new way of seeing things and working together. It is also a problem that is going to plague and haunt most Christian denominations over the coming years.

Many people who need to find Jesus are not willing to come to a church that they perceive does not welcome them, for whatever reason. There is a perception that if you do not fit into the mold of the church, you will not be welcome. I cannot imagine how this is the image of Christ’s ministry described in the Bible. Did not the Pharisees and power brokers of the day criticize Jesus for being with the poor, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and those that they, the Pharisees and power brokers, considered the "scum" of the earth? What images do those outside the church see? Do they think they will find Christ in a place that bans people for any number of reasons?

It comes down to what we say and what we do. Are the words that we say the words in our heart? Are they the words of a true Christian? Consider what we read this morning from the Old Testament.

In the first part of the reading, we hear God say to Adam, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2: 16 – 17) But Eve says to the serpent, "we may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’" (Genesis 3: 3)

Now, much has been made about Eve engaging in this conversation and much has been made about the fact that Adam ate of the fruit of this tree when it was offered to him by Eve. But that should not be our concern today. It is that in response to the challenge of the serpent, Eve did not hold to the obedience to God that was expected of her. In his accepting the fruit, be it an apple or something else, Adam also gave up his obedience to God. Eve’s distortion of God’s command is not the problem; as one commentary points out, what she said would have insured that the command was kept. What is important is that the serpent’s challenge is a challenge to God’s authority; for Eve, it creates a doubt about God’s authority.

We see the same thing when we look at the temptation of Christ. Satan tempts Christ by quoting the Bible. But each time Satan speaks, he puts the context in terms of personal power rather than the glory of God. Satan is challenging the authority of God. Ultimately, Jesus defeats Satan because He, Jesus, will not put the world above God. The kingdom that Jesus seeks in His ministry is God’s kingdom, not a worldly one.

How does this all fit into this time, this season of Lent? Thomas Merton wrote,

"The purpose of Lent is not expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in God’s love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of God’s mercy – a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.

Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. IF we are terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await God’s mercy, or approach God trustfully in prayer. Our peace, our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace. (Thomas Merton, in "Seasons of Celebration" as noted in Sojo mail for February 10, 2005.)

We have allowed ourselves to live in a world of fear. Note Adam and Eve’s response to the knowledge that they had sinned; it was fear, fear that they had offended God. In their fear, they hid from God. And in our sin, we try to find ways of reclaiming God that do not necessarily involve God.

Paul’s words to the Romans offer us the knowledge that sin took away. That life comes from God through Christ. It is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that brings us back into God’s kingdom. As Paul states, "one man’s obedience to God means that many will be made righteous."

As I stated earlier, I worried about the future of the church following General Conference last year, especially since much of what took place was a battle of words, all in the name of God. But I have hope for the future. But it is a hope based on a different vision, not one offered by man but one offered by God.

We cannot offer hope for the future by ourselves; it must come from God. The prophet Habakkuk was a dissenter, a critic, and a voice of the opposition. He was the type of person who spoke out about the problems of society. But at the beginning of his prophecy, he did little to change society. It was when God spoke to him and told him to write down the vision that things began to change. (Adapted from God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, page 27) 

For us, it is the cross that is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism.

It means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power; it is this freedom, justice, and power that break the power of the old age and bring it to death. Without the cross, prophetic imaginations will likely to be as strident and destructive as that which it criticizes. The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one. (Adapted from The Prophetic Imagination by Water Brueggemann (Cokesbury prayer guide)

The crucifixion of Jesus is not to be understood simply in good liberal fashion as the sacrifice of a noble man, nor should we too quickly assign a cultic, priestly theory of atonement to the event. Rather, we might see the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate act of prophetic criticism in which Jesus announces the end of a world of death and takes that death into his own person.

We celebrate Holy Communion for two reasons. The first is to remember that last night before the crucifixion; the second is to celebrate what that crucifixion means for our lives today. We see the world in one way when we live without Christ; when we accept Christ as our own and personal Savior, when we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, the way in which we see the world changes.

Is today the beginning or the end? It is the first Sunday in Lent, so in one sense it is the beginning. But it is also the end of a life lived without Christ, if we will let it be. The beginning or the end, the answer lies in your heart.


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