Monday, November 10, 2014

Revisiting the Articles of Religion-- Part 7 Sin and Free Will

So it has been a few months but I am back with the series of revisiting the Articles of Religion as passed down through the Evangelical United Brethren. Today's stop is the topic of sin and free will. Sin is thought to be one of the most difficult topics in Christianity. Lets see what the article says, then chat about it.

 Article VII—Sin and Free Will
We believe humanity is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a person be born again, they cannot see the Kingdom of God. In their own strength, without divine grace, people cannot do good works pleasing and acceptable to God. We believe, however, people influenced and empowered by the Holy Spirit is responsible in freedom to exercise their will for good.

I am sorry if you have already had a rough day and this is one of the first things you are reading. This is some heavy stuff that on the outside does not seem very encouraging. In many traditions, this is where there is a discussion about original sin. While that would be a fun debate, as to whether there is original sin or not, the point is that if we go back to Adam and Eve, or to this morning we can find evidence for the fallen or broken nature of humanity. Regardless the form it takes, let's just call it good to say that sin is a part of the equation for all humanity. Tragically the established church likes to spend countless hours and dollars focused on sin. Every attempt is made to figure out what is sinful and what is not. Included in this is the gradation of sinful activities, apparently some sin counts more than other sins and therefore some is acceptable and some is an abomination. I cannot help but wonder what might happen if we focused more on the love and grace of Jesus Christ and pointing people to fall head over heels in love with Jesus.

This brings us to the free will side of the topic. Our lives are chuck full of choices. Before we are fully awake for the day we begin the process of making decisions, one snooze push or three? While it feels like there are more choices before us, choice is certainly nothing new to humanity. The greatest challenge and opportunity of our relationship with God is found in that we are free to make choices. It is the greatest opportunity because we can choose to live lives that show evidence of following
Jesus marked by grace and love. This really can only be a choice, we cannot demand it. This means we also have the choice to live however we see fit no matter what we might feel the teachings of Christ and the Scriptures have for us. God's love does not demand that we choose God, we can make another choice. At time God longs for us to choice a life that is faithful to the call of God. It appears that God has opened the door for one of the all-time greatest risks, leaving our faithfulness and embodiment of love and grace to choice.

More often than I'd like to think about it, I have made this choice poorly. There are also times when I have made a choice that allowed me to more fully experience God's love and grace as offered through Jesus Christ. You see that is the Good News of the Gospel. Our sin is not the end of the story, we can choose a different ending. Each person, each day, each moment is given the opportunity to exercise their free will and choose a life of forgiveness, love and grace. What is more, even when we blow it in the choice, we can still make a different choice.

Though the language is dated and archaic in many ways the concept is true and accurate. Sin is part of the equation for all people. We, the church would be much further a head is we stopped trying to quantify and qualify sin and simply pointed to Jesus. In fact many turn away from Jesus because we in the church spend so much time managing the sins of humanity that we cannot do anything about outside the grace, love and forgiveness of the God through Jesus Christ. What would happen if the people of God in the church chose to highlight the grace and the joy in choosing to follow Jesus more than the sin that we see in another person. I wonder if the Bride of Christ, the church, would once again become radiant.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Revisiting the Articles of Religion Part 6-- The Sacraments

Today we turn to part six of our journey through visiting the Articles of Religion that are from the Evangelical United Brethren church and were formed as part of the UMC constitution.

Article VI—The Sacraments: We believe the Sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of the Christian's profession and of God's love toward us. They are means of grace by which God works invisibly in us, quickening, strengthening and confirming our faith in him. Two Sacraments are ordained by Christ our Lord, namely Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.
We believe children are under the atonement of Christ and as heirs of the Kingdom of God are acceptable subjects for Christian Baptism. Children of believing parents through Baptism become the special responsibility of the Church. They should be nurtured and led to personal acceptance of Christ, and by profession of faith confirm their Baptism.
We believe the Lord's Supper is a representation of our redemption, a memorial of the sufferings and death of Christ, and a token of love and union which Christians have with Christ and with one another. Those who rightly, worthily and in faith eat the broken bread and drink the blessed cup partake of the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual manner until he comes.

For many years of my journey the idea of Sacraments was present. The value they held for me was very low. In fact when I was in process of ordination one if the challenges I had was the importance of the Sacraments. If I was going to be an Elder in the UMC, the Sacraments would need to have a fairly high value. I wrestled through and was ordained and I have been celebrating the Sacraments of the church for many years now.

Most helpful to my understanding is viewing the Sacraments as an outward sign of an inward grace. To use the language from the Articles, they are symbols that show the work of God's love and grace found in Jesus Christ. Sacraments are a primary example of inside out living that we are called to as followers of Jesus. Jesus Christ transforms our inner life to the point that the external changes. The Sacraments give us a visible and tangible reminder of this process. 

First is baptism. Whether it is through the sprinkling, pouring or immersion in water, baptism marks an outward sign that we belong to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was baptized, and would continue to encourage the baptism of others. In fact it is named are part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, that we are to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whether it is an infant, child or adult, baptism represents initiation into the family of God, and into the care of the church. For those who are able, this initiation is also associated with a public declaration of being part of the family of God by becoming a follower of Jesus. This outward sign of water and the spirit reveal an inward decision made through the grace of God. Holy Baptism is one of the most important and sacred moments in the life of the church.

Second is the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion. Again this is one of the practices that Jesus himself ordained and instructed for followers to continue. In the celebration of God's grace we remember the suffering and sacrifice Christ made on our behalf as well as remembering Christ presence with us currently in a real and tangible way. 

Deeply rooted in the celebration of Holy Communion is the celebration of the Passover Seder. We are reminded of how God has been in the practice of moving people from captivity to sin and slavery for centuries and our present celebration is the continuation of God's grace and faithfulness. It is with joy that we offer an open table, meaning that anyone is welcome at the Holy Table. Further, the celebration of Holy Communion is what John Wesley called a saving ordinance. Meaning it is possible for someone to decide to follow Jesus from simply by sharing in the celebration of Holy Communion. 

In it all, the Sacraments have become so much more than a dilemma or empty religious activity. For this follower of Jesus, the Sacraments have become vital to my life and journey. There are few greater joys than celebrating baptism, and there is almost nothing more sacred and important than the celebration of Holy Communion. The deeper I engage my journey with Christ the more their importance grows. 

My prayer is that as we develop new ways to celebrate these sacraments. As we use varied methods and materials, may we never forget or become disconnected from the deep meaning and presence offered to us in them. My we continue to be quickened and stirred by God in such ways that we need to show through signs and symbols who God is working with in us.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Articles of Religion Revisited Part 5 -- The Church

After an extended break, I will now return to the regularly scheduled posting of my revisiting the Articles of Religion.

Article Number V-- We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by people divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ's own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world.

I have become fond of thinking about the church as a glorious mystery. At its best there is not other organization or collection of people like it on the face of the planet. At its less than best, it can be just like any other organization that is fully human and obtains a huge capacity to not live to its capacity. Yet, we are left with the church, the "institution" that Jesus initiated through his life, death and resurrection. The quotation marks are necessary because I am not convinced Jesus intended another institution to enter the world. The church can most easily be put as the people of God who are committed to following Jesus, while inviting others to join in the journey. Before getting to that, the first stop is remembering the connection of the church with Jesus. Before worship, discipleship, and evangelism come into focus, first and foremost the church begins with Jesus Christ. As Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus reminds us, Jesus is the Head of the church and all things grow up into him who is the head. The life of Jesus showed the church how to live, the death of Jesus opened the door for the grace-filled reconciliation of the church with God, and the resurrection of Jesus invited the church into new life. If we remove Jesus Christ, and a wholehearted focus on Jesus from the church, then we do not have the church at all it is simply a group of people gathering around an ideology, also known as religion. Not to be lost in this, is the concept of the Lordship of Jesus. Simply put the Lordship of Jesus is remembering that Jesus is over all things, and ultimately we submit ourselves to him.

Once the relationship to Jesus Christ is appropriated, attention can be turned to the actions, or functions of the church. The Article is pretty clear on this, the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world. All of this is done through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Worship can happen in many forms, styles, places and times. All of them are important, and all of them need to connect with at time of corporate worship where the church gathers as the body. It is impossible to live a full life of discipleship outside of the community gathering for worship and other functions of the church. Care must be taken to understand the form and presentation of worship will vary from context to context and from time to time. We must not worship the style, only God to whom we direct our worship. Also the work of edification is needed. This is the ongoing work of transforming our lives to be more and more like the life of Jesus. In order to move in this direction, the gathered people learn and grow together through the Scriptures, prayer, serving and simply doing life together. The church is there to oversee, assist and encourage this growth. Finally the church is in existence to spread the message of Jesus Christ to the very ends of the earth. The language of redemption of the world can be off putting because of the baggage centuries has added to it. Perhaps it is more simply put, the church is about extending the invitation to live in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. For others to join the journey that leads to life.

Before closing, it is important to note what is not a part of the church. It is not a political entity. Yes saying that you are not political is a political statement. However, the church is not in existence to further one political ideology or another. In present terms the church is not a Democrat or Republican, it is not defined by policies and right thinking about hot button issues such as guns, immigration, sexuality and poverty. Certainly these, and more, are all a part of our world and our relationship with Jesus should inform our interaction with them. Yet, the primary role of the church is not ideas and policies rather it is the transforming grace of Jesus Christ being lived in community that worships, grows and invites.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Articles of Religion Revisited-- Part 4: The Bible

Article IV—The Holy Bible
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

Approaching the Bible has long been a delicate and essential activity of those who are in pursuit of God. Essential in that it is impossible to fully understand God, our ourselves without the Scriptures. At the same time it is delicate because of the great harm that has been done in the name of the Bible as well as the challenge of interpretation. We might recall the times when the preacher makes fervent claims being sure to add, "According to the Bible...." For some those words bring comfort, while for others they strike fear and anxiety to the core of their being.

For many years now it seems there has been two options, we either embrace the scripture from to a near literal point, or we minimize the message shared to the point of near irrelevance. Like most things there has to be a middle ground. Some places a middle ground is supported, however it seems with the Bible the middle ground is considered only a holding point until we gravitate to the appropriate ideology. Still the middle ground appears to be the most appropriate place to reside.

Let's be clear, the Bible, Old and New Testaments, contains all truth needed for all of humanity. This includes truth needed for salvation as well as for the ways to live as people of the Kingdom of God. The struggle comes in that we, humanity, do not have the ability to mine all of the truths from the Bible accurately or completely. Without the Bible we are lost as a people, however we cannot think that we understand all the Bible has to tell us. God as found in the Scriptures is some much larger than what our minds can discern or define. The end result is we often make claims about life and how to live it that are biblical in connection and in nature that might not be the complete picture of the bible.

The Bible contains all that we need, and nothing that is needed for life and salvation is found outside of the Scriptures. Too often we add to the scriptures the ideas we wish were there so we could live as we desire. In doing this we make ourselves higher than God, and create a limit to God. An issue with doing this is that we cannot possibly limit God. Or said another way, when we allow our desires to be greater than the desires God has for us we enter into idolatry. The Bible, and the way we interpret and apply it, can easily become the very thing it teaches us to stay away from, an idol. 

In it all, the Bible is the primary source of life for those who follow after Jesus Christ. It sets the boundaries of our lives and calls us to fulfilled Kingdom living. We must be on the lifelong quest to be in relationship with the Bible in such a way that our God is constantly expanding rather than shrinking. We must also be willing to subordinate our desires and ideology so that we can find all of God as possible in the words and pages of Scripture. The key is not to be rigidly fundamental, nor is it to be dismissive of the Bible's authority. Rather there is a middle way that has us in a dynamic relationship with the Scriptures as learners above all else.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Articles of Religion Revisited-- Part 3 The Holy Spirit

So here we go with the third installment of a journey through the Articles of Religion once again. Today we complete our look at the Trinity by looking at The Holy Spirit.

Article III—The Holy Spirit
We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from and is one in being with the Father and the Son. The Spirit convinces the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment, and leads people through faithful response to the gospel into the fellowship of the Church. The Holy Spirit, comforts, sustains and empowers the faithful and guides them into all truth.

The first struggle I had with this article was not directly about theology or understanding. It was found in attempting to update the language some to be more balanced from a gender standpoint. My struggle was not in working to be more balanced, the challenge was to do so while not reducing the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Using pronouns such as he or she, do not help reach for balance, however, they can reduce our ready understanding of the Spirit as more an it.

With that said, the Holy Spirit is certainly not an it, rather a person, the very person that is God. With humanity as the ongoing presence of God as promised by Jesus during his ministry, the Holy Spirit is God's continuing work in us and in the world. You know that little voice that can encourage or convict? You know those situations when you "just have a feeling"? That quite possibly could be the work of the Holy Spirit.

If we view God as the creator of all things, and Jesus as the light of the world, then the Holy Spirit is the power of God made manifest. One of the last conversations Jesus has with the disciples is found in Acts 1:8 where the followers are reminded that they will receive power to be Jesus' witnesses when they receive the Holy Spirit. Shortly after that on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit comes upon the disciples and the world is never the same.

Over the centuries much has been made of the Holy Spirit. Of that understanding, as with all understandings, there are some elements of truth and some elements of invention. Bottom line, for this writer, the Holy Spirit is God revealed to us in an ongoing relationship offering us power to witness, gifts for service, conviction for holy living, and comfort through the trial.

Strangely, most followers of Jesus can all too often live as though the Spirit is not real, or active. We can live as Francis Chan stated it, with a Forgotten God. The person of the Spirit is with us, ready to be our advocate, and ready to led us to greater connection with God. The question is of our willingness to connect.