Sunday, April 29, 2012

2012 Annual Report

My annual report as delivered to Clinton First Church of the Nazarene April 29, 2012.

In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul gives us a taste of the fruit of the Spirit; that well known list of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  We often think of these as a list of Christian virtues, characteristics which good Christian people should strive to exhibit.  To be sure, these are the kind of attitudes and practices we would expect to find among disciples of Jesus.  However, I think we sometimes become so enamored with the list itself that we rush over Paul's chosen metaphor for this list without giving it much thought.  That is to say, I think it is significant that Paul calls these qualities "fruit of the Spirit".

Consider how a fruit tree goes about bearing fruit.  An apple tree doesn't try really hard to bear fruit.  It doesn't just keep working at it until it makes a good apple.  No, making apples is simply what it does by its nature.  It is a natural by-product of its existence as a healthy apple tree.  What an apple tree does work very hard at is seeking the life giving elements which will sustain its existence.  It is continually putting down deeper roots to find water and nutrients.  Its branches actively seek out the sunshine needed to convert those nutrients into usable energy.  One might even say that the apples tree's whole existence is consumed and defined by the search for these life-giving elements.  Without these things, the tree will wither up and die.  With them, it will produce fruit as an effortless out pouring of what it is by its very nature.

I think Paul means to communicate the same thing about these qualities he lists when he calls them fruit of the Spirit.  As Christians, it is not our task to seek the fruit of the Spirit.  We are not called to try really hard to be loving, joyful, peaceful, etc.  In fact, if you've ever just worked really hard at being patient, you may know from your own experience that is one of the fastest ways to make sure you become more impatient.  No, our task as followers of Jesus is not to seek the fruit of the Spirit but to seek the Spirit.  We are to be a people who are continually becoming more deeply rooted in the Word so that we might drink from streams of living water; a people continually branching out in the ways of the Spirit.  One might even say that our whole existence as the people of God should be consumed and defined by this single task of seeking the Spirit.  For without the Spirit, this tree will shrivel up and die.  With the Spirit, it will produce the Spirit's fruit as an effortless out-pouring of what it is by its very nature.

What I'm saying here is nothing new.  In fact, several of you have heard me say this very thing on a number of occasions.  However, my confession to you this morning is that as much as I have recognized this on an individual basis, I have failed to fully grasp its significance for us as a church body.  As I look over the goals and emphases we have had in past years, I recognize that in many ways we have sought the fruit of the Spirit rather than the Spirit.  We have focused on things like outreach, discipleship, serving others, and greater inter-generational fellowship.  These are not bad things.  They are, in fact, very, very good things.  They are precisely the kind of fruit we would hope to exhibit as the Body of Christ.  However, I don't think it is our first task to seek those qualities as a church.  Our first task as the Church is to seek the Spirit.  Really, our only task as the Church is to seek the Spirit.  We are called to seek the Spirit and trust that Christ will build his Church.  Only then will we produce the kind of fruit we were created to produce as the people of God.

So how do we seek the Spirit?  There are a number of ways - what we typically refer to as the spiritual disciplines - things like prayer, meditation, service, study, worship, solitude, and confession.  These all have their place in the Christian life. They all are means of seeking the Spirit so that the Spirit's fruit might grow in our lives.  However, we find in Scripture two disciplines which were often combined when the people of God desperately needed the Spirit of God to move: prayer and fasting.  

Fasting is a way of humbling ourselves before God.  It is a way of confessing that we are completely dependent upon God, that the Spirit of God is our real source of sustenance.  When we fast, we are saying that we hunger and thirst for God's righteousness more than we hunger for our next meal.  

Perhaps you are wondering to yourself how fasting will enable us to be better at outreach, discipleship, service, and all the other things we are about as a church.  How is fasting going to help us grow as a church?  The answer is that it won't.  That's not its purpose.  Its purpose is to confess that we can't grow the Church.  Its purpose is to confess that we can't disciple, reach out, or serve without the Spirit.  We can not be the Church without the Spirit.  Fasting is a confession that if the Spirit of God doesn't sustain us then all of our best efforts will not produce an ounce of fruit.  It is a confession that if we fail to seek out the Spirit then we will be nothing but a tree that withers and dies.

So I wonder this morning how hungry we really are for God's Spirit to move among us?  We say we want God to do miraculous things among us but are we hungry enough to go hungry?  Here is what I would suggest.  We have four weeks until Pentecost; the Sunday on which we celebrate the gift of God's Holy Spirit to us.  Could we engage in a church-wide fast of one meal a week for those four weeks until Pentecost in anticipation of the Spirit movement among us?  I know that some will be limited in their ability to fast due to age or health conditions but I beg you not to use that as an excuse to avoid fasting entirely.  If you can't fast a whole meal, will you pray and seek out advice about what you can fast?  And can these four weeks until Pentecost just be the beginning, a way of jump-starting our spiritual lives together?  I don't believe fasting until Pentecost guarantees anything for that particular Sunday.  This is not a way of manipulating or controlling God.  This is simply a way of getting us started into a new practice together.  It is my hope and prayer that after Pentecost we will continue to engage in regular fasting throughout the year as the Spirit leads us.

As for prayer, there is already no shortage of opportunities for corporate prayer in our fellowship.  Prayer meeting will resume on Wednesday nights next Wednesday (May 9).  We are continuing to have our prayer service on the first Sunday night of each month.  There is also the morning prayer times at 9:30 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for those who don't have to work in the morning.  If we are a church that believes in prayer, a church that believes in the power of the Spirit then let us show it by taking part in the opportunities that are already before us.

One of the most consistent themes of Scripture is the propensity of God's people to rely on their own strength rather than God's.  I believe this continues to be one of the greatest temptations for the Church today as well.  May we be a people who signify our complete dependence upon God through prayer and fasting.  May we hear these words of Jesus from John 15 this morning.

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Internet Grace

A couple years ago, I stumbled upon this blog through another blog I was reading at the time.  Since then I've mostly stopped reading that other blog - a number of other blogs have proven uninteresting over the long haul as well - but I keep coming back to Christine's.   Its the wit, insight, humor, all around excellent writing ,and - as I mentioned in this post - a perspective on the world quite different from my own that keeps me coming back. 

A few months ago, I preached from 1 Corinthians 6, the only sermon I've preached dedicated solely to the topic of sex.  That same week I read this post on Christine's blog and it was formative in the way I went about preparing my sermon that week.  So I invited her to listen in on my podcast.  From that invitation has arisen a continuing email discussion that has been beneficial and enriching; truly a means of grace to me.

A few weeks ago, Christine invited me to join her in a writing project on her blog.  Our collaboration has now been posted and you can read it at this link.  I hope you'll check it out and then spend some time reading some of Christine's other writing as well. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Children of God, Practitioners of Righteousness

Similar to last week's passage of Scripture, this week's pericope from 1 John 3 is filled with a number of dialectical statements; seemingly opposing truths that tug on each other and thereby hold each other in tension and balance.  If this tug of war is decided in favor of one side over the other then the truth is lost.  The truth is in the tension.

On the one hand, John boldly declares that we are already children of God
"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are." v. 1
"Beloved, we are God's children now..." v.2
In these verses we see the theology of the Gospel of John shining through clearly.  There is an emphasis on the world's judgment having already occurred by way of Christ's incarnation.  John describes salvation as something that is available now, in this life.  The light has already come into the world, the darkness is already dispelled, and those who trust in Christ are already children of God.  None of these statements are incorrect but they are incomplete.  Without other statements of truth laid alongside of them, this sole emphasis on the already aspects of salvation easily leads to a Christian faith that is out of balance.

It is difficult to say with any certainty what heresy had arisen in the Johanine community that caused 1 John to be written.  But it is easy enough to imagine the kind of problems that could arise if we believed that our salvation was already complete in this world.  For one, it could lead us to believe that all of our actions, no matter how heinous, already have a rubber stamp of approval of God.  If we are already completely and entirely saved then that must mean that everything we do is God's work.  Or at the very least, if our actions are not good then they are simply of no consequence for God has already saved us and what we do or don't do isn't going to change that.

It seems this is at least part of that to which the writer of 1 John is responding in chapter 3.  He says
"...what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." v.2
"No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.." v.6
"Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous." v. 7
 Some of these statements, verse 7 especially, appear to border on being tautologous; they are so obvious and self explanatory that they don't reveal any new information.  "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous?  Really, John?  Thanks for that gem!  That's sort of like telling us that water is wet."

But this is likely yet another place we take for granted the vast Christian tradition which stands between us and the audience of 1 John for this connection may very well not have been obvious to them. In the ancient world it was usually not assumed that there was any connection between religion/spirituality and morals.  Gentiles regularly worshiped at pagan temples without thinking there was any connection between that worship and how they lived the rest of their lives.  Religion and ethics were simply separate categories that had little if any relation to each other.  When this is combined with a belief that one has already experienced salvation in its entirety, that is one has already been made righteous, it is easy to see how these believers might have thought that being righteous had nothing to do with living righteously.  They viewed it as something accomplished entirely by God because of their trust in Jesus.

Of course, that last line sounds quite a bit like a lot of modern day Protestant professions of faith.  After all, we are saved by faith and not by works.  While I certainly don't want to lose this emphasis of Protestantism, I also think it unnecessarily bifurcates the language of the New Testament, especially terms like faith and righteousness.  As I never tire of pointing out on this blog, the Greek word pistis is the word often translated as faith in the New Testament but it can be just as easily (and often is) translated as faithfulness; in the language of the New Testament the two concepts are inseparable, to have faith is to be faithful.  Much the same thing is true of righteousness.  In many places, this word (dikaosune and its cognates) are often translated as justification which we usually take to mean something like forgiveness.  But in the Greek of the New Testament the word is related to the word for justice (dikaios) and in the Old Testament righteousness (tsedek) often refers to covenant faithfulness (God's, Israel's, or an individual's) by which the world is set in right relationship.  That is, to be made righteous is not merely to be forgiven but also to be transformed and empowered to live rightly and justly in the world.

John's words still speak to us today.  Yes, we are saved.  Yes, we are already children of God.  Yes, we have been made righteous.  And all of this has been done entirely by God's grace and not of ourselves.  But that is not a pass to go on sinning.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It is a call to work for justice and right relationship in our world because what we will be has not yet been revealed, the kingdom is not yet.  There will be a day when "we will be like him because we will see him as he is" but until that day we are called to be a people who practice righteousness in this world.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Darkness, Light, and Entire Sanctification

1 John begins with an abrupt assertion of orthodoxy.  No introduction.  No greeting.  Just a blunt, nearly grammatically incoherent assertion of faithfulness to the Johanine teaching about Jesus.
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life..."  
It is easy for us to forget just how much diversity there was in early Christianity, how many disagreements there were over really fundamental questions like "Who is Jesus?" and "Was he really human?".  But these questions lingered for centuries before the Church worked out what it believed.  It seems likely that the Johanine community was in the midst of debating such a question, though the enigmatic, proverb-like language of 1 John (just think how different 1 John sounds from Paul's very logical, sequential arguments) makes it difficult to discern just what that question might be.  Nevertheless, it is clear that the writer of 1 John (John himself? a disciple of John?) wishes to assert right away that his understanding of Jesus is the one the Johanine community should follow.  He asserts that his teaching is the one that has been since the beginning (thereby implying that the beliefs of his opponents are heretical innovations) and that it is this teaching which has been publicly verifiable (seen, heard, even handled) and passed on to those to whom he is now writing.

This message is that God is light and in him there is no darkness (v.5).  With this summary statement, the writer turns to a series of alternating and escalating statements which describe the relationship between light/truth and darkness/falsehood in the life of the believer.  The writer begins the alternating pattern with a darkness/falsehood statement.
"If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth." v. 6
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."  v.8
"If we say we have not sinned, we make him (God) a liar and his word is not is us." v.10
Each statement escalates in severity.  If we claim fellowship with God but walk in darkness then we lie.  If say we have no sin then we lie to ourselves.  If we say we've never sinned then we make God a liar.

Interlaced between these statements of darkness/falsehood are statements of light/truth, each meant to counter-balance the darkness/falsehood statement that comes before it.  
"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son cleanses us from all sin." v.7
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." v.9 
 These statements are dialectical.  They are meant to stand in tension with one another.  We can almost imagine each sentence tugging on the others.  As long as each statement continues to pull its weight then a balanced view of the Christian life will emerge.  But if we begin to lean on one statement or group of statements too hard then the tug-of-war will be thrown out of whack and we will end up with a distorted view of the Christian life.

On the one hand, v.6 and 7 make plain the expectation that a Christian is to walk in light rather than darkness.  That is to say that being a disciple of Jesus requires a certain kind of living, it requires "practicing the truth" and avoiding sin.  On the other hand, v.8 and 10 tug back the other direction so as to make it equally plain that avoiding sin is not the same thing as saying that we don't sin or have never sinned.  Finally, v. 9 gives another tug back in the direction of v.6 and 7 by reminding us that if we confess our sins God really does forgive those sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This brings into clearer focus what it means to "walk in the light".  It is not sinless perfection.  If it were then confession would be failure.  Instead, the recognition and confession of our sinfulness is the very thing that allows God to forgive us and cleanse us and thereby make righteousness possible.  Confessing our sinfulness allows God to work in us in such a way that further sin can be prevented in our lives.

As a people who believe in a doctrine of Entire Sanctification, we Nazarenes would do well to meditate on these verses day and night, letting them soak into the deepest parts of our existence.  We are a people who are optimistic about the extent of transformation that is possible by God's grace in this life.  When 1 John says that we can be cleansed from all unrighteousness, we take that to mean that God frees us from all of sin's power in this life so that it really is possible for us not to sin, to really live righteously in this world.  However, as these verses remind us, that is not the same thing as saying that we will never sin again once we are entirely sanctified.  Too often in our tradition entire sanctification has been confused for a spiritual plateau, a place where spiritual growth levels off because one has already reached the highest possible state of holiness.  As a result, confession has become somewhat of a lost art in our denomination since there has at times been an implicit expectation that those who are entirely sanctified shouldn't have anything to confess.  This in turn has led to an abundance of legalism and self-righteousness.

This is not to say that we should give up on our hope of transformation, sanctification, and righteousness in this life.  1 John clearly calls believer to "walk in the light" and to be "cleansed from all unrighteousness". It is to say that such sanctification is not a state that we reach once and for all but a path we must continually walk and the means to staying on this path of light is not pretending that we have no sin.  For the concealing of anything will only require that we seek out even more darkness.  But if we remain on the well lit path then even our darkest deeds will be exposed and it is that exposure itself which will eliminate the darkness.  It is the exposure of our whole selves to the light of Christ that makes our cleansing from all unrighteousness possible.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Body Matters

The issue to which Paul is responding in 1 Corinthians 15 becomes clear in v.12.
"Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?"
The Corinthians are denying that there is such a thing as the resurrection of the dead.  To be a bit more specific, they probably are not denying the idea that someone who has died can live again (that being a much more modern objection to the resurrection).  After all, Paul surely preached that Christ had been raised and we can gather from Paul's argument here that Christ's resurrection is something on which he and the Corinthians agree.  Instead, the Corinthians are eschewing Paul's belief that everyone will eventually be bodily resurrected from the dead.  This is what Paul means he speaks of the resurrection: not merely that rising from the dead is possible but that at the end of the age all of humanity will be resurrected.

This denial of the resurrection was likely rooted in the Greek philosophical assumptions that seem to have been pervasive in Corinth.  Among those assumptions was the belief that the material world, including our bodies, is basically evil and that the goal of life is to allow our good spirit to escape our corrupted flesh.  As a result, the Corinthians thought that what it meant to be spiritual had very little to do with with their bodies.

In fact, the Corinthians rejection of the material world in their spirituality can even be seen in the series of issues which Paul addresses throughout the letter prior to chapter 15.  The Corinthians think nothing of a man sleeping with his step mother or of engaging in prostitution because they reason that what they do with their bodies has nothing to do with their spirituality.  They think of spirituality as an individual competition for spiritual knowledge rather than seeing themselves as a part of the Body of Christ and they exalt the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues above simple love and care for one another.  The Corinthians make a habit of denying the physical, whether it be their own bodies or those around them, in favor of what they see as being more "spiritual".  So it is easy to see why they would reject Paul's very Jewish notion of the resurrection of the dead which could just as easily be translated as "the raising of the corpses" (zombies anyone?).  The crude image of a bunch of decaying bodies given life is about the furthest thing from the Corinthians definition of what it means to be spiritual.

It is fitting then that Paul's words concerning the resurrection come as his closing argument in his letter to the Corinthians.  This is probably not an issue about which they have written to him but one about which he has heard reports and sees as foundational to everything else he has addressed.  So Paul reminds the Corinthians that Jesus' resurrection is not an isolated event within history.  Instead, it is the precursor of what will happen to all of us.  We will all be raised with a new kind of body.  Paul calls it a "spiritual body" in v.44, thus combining eternally the very two things, spirit and body, which the Corinthians wish to separate.

The truth is that much of the Church today still struggles to hold those two things, spirit and body, together in the way that Paul did.  Often our ideas and language about our physical world resembles those of the Corinthians much more than they do Paul's.  We speak of our soul going to heaven when we die rather than our hope that God will raise us up and give us an entirely new body.  We struggle to articulate a meaningful sexual ethic that goes beyond a simple list of scriptural imperatives because, like the Corinthians, we're not really sure what sex has to do with spirituality anyway.  We become to busy with our very "spiritual" ministries and gaining our own "spiritual" knowledge to be bothered with lowly, fleshly things like actually loving and serving others.  We fail to challenge greed, consumerism, and injustice because we figure its only a matter of time before God's set this world aflame.

The resurrection forever declares to us that our bodies and this physical world matter to God.  God created this stuff, inhabited this stuff, raised this stuff, and one day God will renew and transform this stuff.  It is not an afterthought in God's work of salvation.  It is this very stuff which is being saved.