Monday, December 31, 2012

Receiving a pastor in the name of a pastor

According to The New Interpreter’s Bible, the phrase εἰς ὄνομα προφήτου found in Matthew 10:41 is a Semitic expression that means “because one is a prophet.”  Wesley’s Notes gives a similar definition— “That is, because he is such.”

Hence the NIV translates Matthew 10:41—“Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward.”

The definition of εἰς ὄνομα προφήτου from Joseph Henry Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament is more expansive and thought-provoking-- “By a usage chiefly Hebraistic the name is used for everything which the name covers, everything the thought or feeling of which is roused in the mind by mentioning, hearing, remembering, the name, i. e. for one's rank, authority, interests, pleasure, command, excellences, deeds, etc.; thus, εἰς ὄνομα προφήτου, out of regard for . . . . the name of prophet which he bears, equivalent to because he is a prophet” (

What, I wonder, is roused in the mind by the name “pastor”?  When a congregation receives you in the name of a pastor what do you hope is being raised in their minds?  What would you like them to receive with open arms and enthusiasm?  What pastoral reward will the hospitable congregation also receive?  What would you add to Thayer’s list?

rank—ordained elder
authority—to serve the mission of the Church and lead members to do the same
interests—Wesleyan spirituality
pleasure—Koine Greek
command—planning worship, preaching and writing
excellences—finishing what I start
deeds—a book and an app
etc.—ongoing research on Greek testament and today’s means of grace especially advocacy as a work of mercy and pastoral leadership as a prudential means

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The least of these-- who are they?

The New Interpreter’s Bible offers a balanced summary of the scholarly disagreement regarding the identity of “the least of these brothers of mine” in Matthew 25: 31-46.  Are the least one “(a) the world’s needy generally or (b) specifically Christians or Christian missionaries”?

The NIB concludes that originally Jesus was speaking about the needy in general, and that later Matthew focused this universal theme to a single point— “the reception of Christian missionaries.”  In order words, both interpretations can be supported.

Reading the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned as itinerant evangelists was an unfamiliar perspective, but the reading rang true as I considered the entire parable with this interpretation in mind.  The deprivations faced by the parable’s least ones were potential hazards risked by Jesus’ preachers.  Doing for (or neglecting) one of these brothers is doing (or not) for the Heavenly Judge.  The nations who care for one of the Gospel-bearers are welcomed into the Judge’s heavenly kingdom.  The nations who neglected the least of these are punished by the Judge.

Wesley’s Notes for Matthew 25: 40 first favors the Christian specific interpretation and then posits a universal implication—“What encouragement is here to assist the household of faith But let us likewise remember to do good to all men.” 

As United Methodists, we should teach the dual-identity of the least of these rather than favoring one interpretation over the other.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Seeing God-- now or later?

The pure in heart are blessed because they will see God.

Future promise is emphasized in The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Matthew 5:8, while a possible present realization is rejected.  This reading differs from the one found in United Methodist doctrinal standards.

According to the NIB, “‘Seeing God’ refers not to mystical vision in this world, but to the eschatological hope (1 Cor 13:12; Rev 22:4).”  Contrast this with Wesley’s comments in his Notes (“They shall see God - In all things here; hereafter in glory”) and in doctrinal Sermon 23--

But the great lesson which our blessed Lord inculcates here, and which he illustrates by this example, is, that God is in all things, and that we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but, with a true magnificence of thought, survey heaven and earth, and all that is therein, as contained by God in the hollow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is, in a true sense, the soul of universe.

These doctrinal statements point to an ability to see God now in the material world and later in the eternal world.  This present ability is not a mystical vision; it is the vision of natural philosophy, the science of Wesley’s day.

I’m going to side with Wesley on this one.  Not the natural philosophy reading of Matthew 5:8, but rather an interpretation that is consistent with the already-but-not-yet nature of the reign of God proclaimed in Matthew, one which I hear in the Beatitudes, as well.  The pure in heart are in a fortunate, privileged position because they will see God.  They will see God face-to-face in the realm of glory, and they will discern God's Spirit at work in the world now.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Your Church Conflict from a Wesleyan perspective

Three paragraphs in three doctrinal sermons from which I draw inferences and then synthesize--

Sermon 21, ¶ I.1, Inference --The Sermon on the Mount lists both the stages of Christian maturation and the principle characteristics of Christians, which means that mature Christians will continue to experience the earlier gifts (i.e., poor in spirit, mournful, meek).

Sermon 23, ¶ II.3, Inference-- Church conflicts can be a means of grace for those at the peacemaker stage.

Sermon 24, ¶ I.1, Inference-- The Christian maturation process requires community.

Synthesis-- Differences of opinion between church members are inevitable.  A church with members at the peacemaker stage of faith can draw upon the spiritual gifts of such members to settle inner-church conflicts.  Instead of avoiding conflict, church members should use it as an opportunity to put into practice the Sermon on the Mount virtues, which will (by God’s grace) help them to reach the higher stages of faith.  The possibility of reaching this state of maturation increases when individuals remain committed to a Christian community instead of abandoning it because of disagreements.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Root of Evil

"Love of money is the root of all evil," Paul warned in 1 Timothy 6:10.  In his commentary on this verse, Wesley concurred and further stated that love of money is "The parent of all manner of evils."

How surprising then to read Wesley's Notes on 2 Timothy 3:2, in which a love of self that is devoid of any love for neighbors is called the first root of evil while love of money is considered the second root.

Surprising, but not without precedent.  The fourth-century monk Evagrius also identified the love of self (τῆς φιλαυτίας) as the source from which the eight bad thoughts sprang. (The Greek word φίλαυτοι translated as "lovers of self" in 2 Tim. 3:2 is an adjective while the word used by Evagrius is a noun, hence the different endings.)

This is why my smartphone game has nine demons to exorcise rather than eight.  In order to be delivered from these temptations, the chief must be overcome first.

Monday, December 3, 2012

How to let go of sin, you all

The Greek word ἀφῆτε occurs twice in the Gospel of John.  In both occurrences, Jesus is speaking to the disciples.  In John 16:32 he tells them that they will ἀφῆτε him, and in John 20:23 Jesus tells the disciples that they can ἀφῆτε sins.

In the case of John 20:23, ἀφῆτε is contrasted with κρατῆτε (note the similar endings thus creating a rhythm that strengthens the correlation of these two terms); the disciples can either ἀφῆτε or κρατῆτε sins.  Jesus is speaking to them as a group--  “You all” collectively, can send away or hold on to the sins of others.

Wesley rejected the notion that the disciples (and those who carry on their ministry) have the power to release others from sin.  In his Note for this verse he repeated his teaching that individual must personally repent and have faith in order to be forgiven. 

The power that the resurrected Christ imparts to his disciples when he breathes the Holy Spirit into them is two-fold, according to Wesley.  They now have the authority to declare the Christian terms of forgiveness, as well as the authority to expel and readmit church members in accordance with those terms.

Wesley limited his interpretation of ἀφῆτε to forgiveness; however, such a Greek to English translation overlooks the earlier use of the word in chapter 16.  Before leaving for Gethsemane, Jesus tells the disciples that they will soon abandon him and return to their homes.  He is not predicting that the disciples will forgive him.

Instead of translating ἀφῆτε as forgive, try reading John 20:23 in light of John 16:32.  In doing so, I think the later verse reads more like a comment on relations within the group of believers.  If we abandon, send away, leave alone, release our collective grip, then the faults, misdeeds, and sins of others are scattered from them (and by extension from the group of believers).  If we tighten our grip on those mistakes, transgressions, and errors, then that sin is retained within the group.

The Holy Spirit gives us the power to free our church from the baggage of old grievances.  Or we can use the power of the Holy Spirit to continue to punish ourselves for past church conflicts.  (When trying to discern which way to use this gift of the Holy Spirit, please keep in mind that the choice your group makes may very well determine whether or not a new person will want to join your church.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gift of the Holy Sprit, a mixed blessing?

We baptized an infant this Sunday, and I used the occasion to reflect on the significance of the congregational vows that are a part of the UM baptismal liturgy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Desire of Ease

Some reflections on another one of the temptations that Wesley urged the Methodists to resist.

Monday, November 5, 2012

next project

Now that the book is finished I can give more attention to my next Wesley-inspired research project.

In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley mentioned that the study of Scripture that he undertook in 1729 convinced him that the goal of religion was self-conformity to the example of Christ.  In A Short History of Methodism, Wesley identified the Greek Testament as the focus of the 1729 Bible study that he undertook with his brother Charles and two other Oxford students.  This study left Wesley with the following impression--
Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having the mind which was in Christ, and of walking as Christ also walked; even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in him; and of walking as he walked, not only in many or most respects, but in all things. And this was the light, wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as an uniform following of Christ, an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master. Nor was I afraid of any thing more, than of bending this rule to the experience of myself, or of other men; of allowing myself in any the least disconformity to our grand Exemplar.
Now I'm studying Greek with the goal of seeing what overall impression I take away from these translations of the Bible (the Septuagint and the Greek NT).  Will the imitation of Christ be the most prominent theme that I notice in my reading of the Greek or will some other theological topic capture my attention?  If this experiment does yield a different result, can I account for this difference? 

That's the main research query.  Others include-- Will my analogy of faith match Wesley's (Repentance then Faith then Holiness) after this study?  Will the conclusions that I draw from my study match any other theologian's work?  Should UM seminaries require courses in biblical languages, and can I offer a rationale for such a requirement based on my experience?

Monday, October 29, 2012

watching against tempters

Wesley's list of the Means of Grace includes this discipline-- "Do you steadily watch against the world, the devil, yourselves, your besetting sin?"  (Doctrinal Sermon 13 says a little more about this discipline, however not much more.)

While working on a sermon about Watching as a means of grace, I consulted Kathleen Norris' book, Acedia, which mentions the temptations that the desert fathers stayed vigilant against.  The desert monks' list of eight bad thoughts was whittled down to seven deadly sins by Western church leaders.  In contrast, Wesley typically warned against only the three temptations mentioned in 1 John 2:16.

Researching my Watching sermon inspired me to create a smartphone app in order to introduce my parishioners to the list of eight bad thoughts through a game format.  A tempter blinks across the screen, one for each bad thought, and the player must tap it to clear it from the screen.

How are you using smartphone technology in your local church?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bridging as a Means of Grace

John and Charles Wesley were adamant about the spiritual benefit of engaging in works of mercy that kept the Methodists in touch with the poor.  A person-to-person interaction that allowed people to get to know one another, one that broke down social barriers, that was the ideal form of a Methodist work of mercy.  The opposite, works that did nothing to reverse class isolation, would be the antithesis of this model.

For several years now I've been pondering the findings of Richard Florida, which suggest that wealth is concentrated in several global cities.  These are the places where economic opportunity exists now; those living elsewhere are being left behind.

His latest map of wealth disparity diagrams salary ranges in the US for several professions that he lumps together into what he calls the Creative Class--
Given these conditions, a work of mercy would be one that put folks from the darker areas on the map in touch with those from the lighter areas.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Going on to Compassion

My church is using The Story this year. The theme of my sermon for Chapter Two was the United Methodist understanding of Christian Perfection. I wanted to emphasize the attainability of a compassionate mindset and give the congregation a prayer practice that they could use while waiting for God's grace to spark this love in them.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Pastoral Leadership as a Means of Grace

I am mulling over Wesley's list of the Prudential Means of Grace found in the 'Large' Minutes, especially the Means of Grace for Preachers and Assistants--
  1. Preacher Means: meet with society, leaders, bands, visit the sick and well, instructing in homes, relative duties
  2. Assistant Means: regulate the societies, bands, and books. hold watch-nights, love feasts, and quarterly examinations. Send Wesley account of preachers’ defects 
The means of grace are supposed to be channels through which we experience God's grace.  In most cases our reaction to grace will either be one of conviction, faith, or love.  Seen from this perspective, I can affirm that as a pastor I frequently feel convinced of my limitations.

This paragraph from doctrinal Sermon 24 helps me define pastoral experiences as a means of grace that convinces--
"There is no disposition, for instance, which is more essential to Christianity than meekness. Now although this, as it implies resignation to God, or patience in pain and sickness, may subsist in a desert, in a hermit's cell, in total solitude; yet as it implies (which it no less necessarily does) mildness, gentleness, and long-suffering, it cannot possibly have a being, it has no place under heaven, without an intercourse with other men. So that to attempt turning this into a solitary virtue is to destroy it from the face of the earth."
Preaching the Gospel and leading others to live out the Gospel within a local church continually provides opportunities to cry out to God for assistance in practicing mildness, gentleness, and patience.  The phrase "herding cats" often comes to mind when I reflect on my ministry.

What a privilege to be able to wait for an experience of grace within this prudential mean.  It builds faith muscles like no other means that I've practiced.  It re-enforces my use of the Instituted Means of Grace.  And it spurs my hunger and thirst for righteousness.

I'll blog later on the pastoral role as a means of grace that justifies and sanctifies.  In the meantime, feel free to add your own testimonials.

Monday, September 24, 2012

χάρις in Luke 6: 32-34

The Greek word χάρις appears in the Gospel of Luke four times.  Wesley translated χάρις as "grace" in Luke 2:40; however, in Luke 6: 32-34 he translated the same word as "thank" in his translation of the New Testament.  

Wesley's translation of χάρις is mostly consistent with the King James version of the Bible.  The word χάρις appears sixty-two times in the New Testament and in every instance but one Wesley and the KJV offer the same translation-- 51 times χάρις is translated as "grace," 5 times as "thanks" (the KJV has "thanked" in one verse), 4 times as "thank," once as "thankworthy" and once as "acceptable."

I am interested in what happens to the reading of Luke 6: 32-36 when χάρις is translated as grace--
“If you love those who love you, what grace is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what grace is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what grace is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.  Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
I keyed on this verse because it is a parallel to Matthew 5:46-48, which ends with the promise that disciples will be perfect, τέλειος, just as God is τέλειος.  Instead of the promise of spiritual maturity, Luke's pericope closes with a command to be compassionate.  (If ever there was a corrective to Christian complacency and self-satisfaction this pericope is it!)

I find that I lose my audience whenever I use the term "perfection," so what about trying to explain the UM doctrine of Christian Perfection in terms of compassion?  Something like "God's grace gives mature Christians the power to extend compassion to their enemies, the sinful, the ungrateful, and the evil" might put the doctrine in terms that United Methodists can grasp.  And once they understand how radical Jesus' command is, maybe they will be convinced that their faith has room to grow.

Of course once we have convinced them, we will have to supply them with means of grace that will encourage this growth. Otherwise, folks will fall into works righteousness in the erroneous belief that they can become more compassionate through willpower instead of through grace by faith.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Fasting as a Means of Grace

Four members of First United Methodist Church, Plattsmouth agreed to try out fasting with me to see if this spiritual practice could become a means of grace for us.  We read a pamphlet on fasting, discussed it at our first meeting, and covenanted to observe the Daniel Fast (vegetables and water) for our evening meal every Wednesday.  We pledged to set aside time in the evening for private devotions and to email each other the next day and describe our fasting experience.  We met once a month to check in with each other and to evaluate whether or not we found fasting to be an effective means of grace.

I define "effective" according to the Wesleyan analogy of faith (Repentance-Faith-Holiness)--  Do I experience God's grace as a result of engaging in this practice?  Am I convinced to repent?  Is my faith strengthened?  Am I inspired to love God and to love my neighbor?

Even this modest attempt at fasting proved to be beneficial for me.  My Wednesday evenings became more low-key as my energy waned.  As a result, I became more aware of the huge amount of time I spend planning and organizing for the future.  At first I felt impatient when I was not able to complete all of my tasks.  I tried to push myself, but I simply could not concentrate on my to-do list.  Finding that my normal tendency was impossible to maintain as my blood sugar level dropped, I instead was forced to focus more on the present moment.

My fasting goal is to slow down and seek God's presence in the present.  My private devotion is meditation because that is all I have the energy to do by the time Wednesday evening rolls around and because meditation enhances my awareness of when I am thinking about the future and when I am resting in the moment and seeking to abide in God's love.

After two months, I felt ready to try an all-day Wednesday fast (only fruits and vegetables).  The result was emphatically not a means of grace experience.  My blood sugar level dropped too low, and I had to modify my fast the next week.  Now on Wednesdays I eat my usual breakfast and lunch, a vegetarian dinner and cut out all snacks.

I am into the fourth month of this experiment, and I've noticed that I can now practice resting and abiding on non-fasting days, as well.  I have an easier time abiding in God's love and feeling the outward flow of that love towards others. 

My meditation practice has also expanded to non-fasting days.  I try to meditate every evening.  I seek to abide in Christ, and if I am not able to do that, I try to notice what's got me agitated.  When I do this I am usually convinced to repent, which in turn opens me up to a fresh experience of Christ's compassion for the sinful.

Meditation has increased my awareness of my internal drama and that in turn has made me more cognizant of how the anxiousness of others hooks me and draws me into their negative mood.  Now whenever I'm around an agitated person, I try to focus on my breath.  On the in breath I remember that I am capable of the same kind of negative emotions.  On the out breath I try to remember Jesus' promise in John 7:38, in which he stated that the Holy Spirit will flow out of the believer and reach out to others.  My prayer is that we will both experience the peace of Christ infusing our interpersonal interaction with grace.

I am humbled to see how much my good attitude depends upon getting enough to eat and enjoying the company of congenial people.  Take either of those away from me, and I am an imperfect, impatient, anxious mess.  To love God and others is a gift that must come from God.  As long as I am in this body, I will not be able to maintain that orientation on my own.

I have come to see my fasting experiment as a way to honor my ordination vow that I would earnestly strive after perfection.  What practice is supporting your effort?

Monday, September 17, 2012

De-Stressing Charge Conference

Another natural corruption reflection, this one on the stress response.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gil Rendle on discipleship

Gil Rendle spoke to the Missouri River District clergy today about the mission of the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Here's what I took away from the meeting--

  • For decades American UMCs have focused on making members not on making disciples.
  • Pastors must lead their congregations in the task of disciple making.
  • The Bishops and the DSs agree that this should be the missional priority of every congregation.
  • The Bishops and DSs do not have a working definition of how pastors should go about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
  • The seminaries have not trained pastors to make world-transforming disciples.
  • Pastors and laity must figure out what the mission statement looks like in their context.

Does this spark your imagination?  Are you energized by the challenge to come up with your own working definition of the mission statement?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The mission statement at charge conference, part 2

My second sermon on the United Methodist mission statement.  I read the phrase "for the transformation of the world" through the lens of the analogy of faith (Repentance-Faith-Holiness) and doctrinal sermon #4, "Scriptural Christianity," in which Wesley argued that an individual's experience of inward holiness will inevitably inspire one to practice acts of outward holiness.

What is helping your church review their ministry and plan for next year?

Monday, August 27, 2012

The mission statement at charge conference, part 1

Part one of a two part sermon that reads the United Methodist mission statement through the lens of Wesley's analogy of faith and Instituted Means of Grace.  (The document begins with the bulletin cover.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Exercise of the Presence of God

Exercise of the Presence of God is the last Prudential Means of Grace mentioned in the "Large" Minutes.  To aid his preachers in the practice of this discipline, Wesley suggested reflecting on two questions--
"Do you endeavour to set God always before you? To see his eye continually fixed upon you?"
In sermon 79, the exercise of the presence of God is briefly mentioned in connection with the goal of Simplicity (also known as Purity of Intention or the Single Intention or Faith working by Love).  Curiously, this exercise is not included as an example in sermon 118 "On A Single Eye."

In par. 19 of sermon 79, Wesley cautioned that the exercise of the presence of God should only be practiced after one has repented and received the gift of faith in Christ.

Compared to the other Means of Grace, the Exercise receives minimal attention in Wesley's writings.  I think this is because Wesley followed this discipline while at Oxford, before his Aldersgate experience, and what little faith he had at that time was undermined by the practice.  His reading of devotional books such as those by Thomas à Kempis, Henry Scougal, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law had given him the impression that if he asserted his willpower he would sense God's presence in his soul. 

Wesley's insistence on Repentance-Faith-Holiness as the analogy of faith grows out of this experience of spiritual frustration and doubt.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Watching . . . for signs of church stress

Some thoughts on one of Wesley's Prudential Means of Grace in relation to his notes on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 and doctrinal sermon #49.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Stir up the χάρισμα

Wesley's homilectical references to 2 Timothy 1:6 are consistent in every sermon but one.  His NT translation "stirring up the gift of God"  is close to the Greek "ἀναζωπυρεῖν τὸ χάρισμα τοῦ θεοῦ" (literally "to kindle the charisma of God") and Sermons 19, 23, 35, 42, 46, 48, 66, and 72 all make reference to stirring up the gift of God by practicing spiritual disciplines. 

Either the gift will be fanned into flame by daily spiritual exercises, or the gift will be dampened if the means of grace are neglected.  There is no middle ground in Wesley's doctrine.  The flame grows brighter or the flame becomes dimmer; it can not hold a steady state.

Sermon 85, "On working out our own salvation," repeats this warning with one notable difference.  In paragraph III.6, Wesley gave this advice, "Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace."

This switch from Gift to Grace puzzled me.  I usually associate charisma with the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.  Wesley's argument in Sermon 85 expands that definition to include grace itself as a gift of the Spirit.  This gift is in us, it requires constant stirring, and we can receive more of it.

What means do you use to stir up the spark of grace while you wait to receive more of this gift from God? 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wesleyan Stages of Grace

 I've created a chart and written descriptions to represent each stage in the Wesleyan Developmental Model of Salvation.  The headings refer to the actions of grace, and the lists contain the characteristics that are typical of those at each stage of grace.  Do the descriptions cover the basics of each category?  Have I overlooked a major characteristic?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Palm-Passion Sunday

Lent 2012 was a build up to Passion Sunday.  I selected Gospel Lessons for each Sunday during Lent that followed a chronological order leading to the Cross.
Feb. 5      Mission of the 70--  Luke 10: 1-20

Feb 12     Cleansing of the Temple-- Matthew 21: 12-17

Feb 19     Anointing at Bethany-- Matthew 26: 6-13

Feb 26     Footwashing-- John 13: 1-17

March 4   Garden of Gethsemane-- Mark 14: 32-42

March 11  Arrest-- Mark 14: 43-50

March 18  Before the Council-- Mark 14: 53-65

March 25  Before Pilate-- Mark 15: 1-20
On April 1, we observed both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  The service opened with the children waving palm branches.  The sermon was interspersed between the New Testament readings and focused on the Cross.  The sermon was influenced by Wesley's Notes for 1 Corinthians 1: 17-2:8.  Below is the order of worship and the text of the sermon.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Prayer of Jesus

John 17: 1-26.  We get to listen in on Jesus' prayer for us.  How cool is that?  In the seventeenth chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus offers a prayer for his disciples and for the people who will come to faith because of the disciples' ministry.

In a recent sermon I asked the congregation what they wanted Jesus to pray for, what request did they want Jesus to talk to God about on their behalf?  Good health?  A comfortable income, nothing extravagant, just enough?  Congenial companions, at work, in the neighborhood, in the family, to be surrounded by nice, decent people?

After making a few suggestions in order to get them thinking about what their request would be, I then invited them to refer to John 17:17 to see what Jesus does pray for-- "Sanctify them."  This is Jesus' primary desire for us.  My guess is that this is not at the top of anyone else's prayer request list.

The Greek verb ἁγίασον is found two other places in the Bible (Septuagint): in Numbers 16:16, Moses challenges rebellious Levities to prove their holiness by sanctifying themselves; in Joshua 7:13 God tells Joshua to sanctify the Israelites by having them get rid of taboo objects.  In contrast, sanctification is an action that Jesus asks God to accomplish rather than a work achieved by humans.

The stories in Numbers and Joshua do not end well.  God kills the unrighteous; they are not allowed to remain in God's presence.  Jesus' prayer, however has a hopeful ending.  He prays that God will abide in him, he will abide in his followers, and they will be with Jesus in glory (vv. 20-24).  Think of it as a supplication that God would make Christians heaven-ready before their death.  This is what is uppermost on Jesus' mind, this is what he is praying for, and asking God to do.

What's your prayer?  Do you share Jesus' priority?  Is this goal reflected in your ministry?  It was reflected in Wesley's.  Wesley interpreted John 17:17 to be a prayer for Christian Perfection, and Wesley's told one correspondent that he considered the teaching of this doctrine to be the Methodists' reason for being.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Vital Methodists

General Conference delegates are being asked to discern which proposal for church renewal would be the best course of action to follow for the next four years during a worldwide economic recession.  How shall we organize our ministry in the midst of a shrinking middle class, the abandonment of inner cities and rural villages, and the pressure to maximize profits at any cost?  As part of the discernment process, it may be of help to review Wesley's "Thoughts Upon Methodism," which contains his evaluation of the state of Methodism and his proposal for maintaining its vitality.

The degeneration of the Methodist revival into a dead sect was a real possibility the founder warned, because the Methodists were becoming wealthy.  As their standard of living increased, Wesley noted a proportional increase in anger, "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16).

The solution to the problem of affluence is a repetition of the advice that Wesley had already delivered in the doctrinal sermon #50 “The Use of Money,”— earn all you can, save all you can, give away all you can.  This stewardship formula for finances was a means of grace that would promote growth and prevent backsliding.

If they held on to the Methodist repentance-faith-holiness Doctrine, the Methodist going-on-to-perfection Spirit, and the Methodist accountability-groups Discipline, then his followers would continue to flourish, Wesley assured his readers.  I see in this combination of Doctrine, Spirit, and Discipline a theological framework for understanding earning-saving-giving as a means of grace. 

Wesley's evaluation points to over-consumption as the root cause of Methodist decline.  Therefore a key characteristic of a Wesleyan proposal for denominational vitality would be a balanced plan to promote the message of the Gospel AND to rebuke the message of the marketplace.

Will any of the current General Conference proposals help local church leaders persuade congregants to earn-save-give as a method for seeking God's grace, maturing in faith, and preventing backsliding?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Faith Of or Faith In?

New Testament scholars debate the meaning of this phrase in Galatians 2: 16—“διά πίστις Χριστός . . . ἐκ πίστις Χριστός”

Should this be translated as “the faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ”?  Scholars who favor the former argue that Christians are justified by Christ’s faithful obedience, whereas the latter translation would mean that Christians are justified by their faith in Christ.

Wesley’s translation of this passage follows the first translation, “Even we (knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ) have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ.”  However, in his doctrinal Notes, Wesley conflates the two translations, “But by the faith of Jesus Christ - That is, by faith in him.”

The Articles of Religion reflect this double translation—
Article IX—Of the Justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.
The Confession of Faith, however, only contains the latter translation—
Article IX—Justification and Regeneration
We believe we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but that penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Do the United Methodist Doctrinal Standards on justification contradict each other?  (I'd love to hear some holy conversations about this question at General Conference!)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In seminary there is no longer Bs and Cs, there is no longer Ds and Fs, there is no longer Pass or Fail; for all of you are A-students in Christ Jesus

Primarily, my article on grading standards, "Designing Seminary Expectation," is based on my experience teaching United Methodist History, Doctrine, and Polity and courses on Wesleyan history and theology.  What resources helped you develop your grading rubric?

Monday, March 5, 2012

When the flesh does not mean the body

"The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."  --Matthew 26:41

In the UM doctrinal standard Notes on the NT, Wesley equated the spirit with "ye yourselves" and the flesh with "your nature."  Maybe the philosophy students in your congregation will understand the distinction, but for most folks the terminology will be unfamiliar.

Here's how I tried to explain the different categories in a recent sermon--
The disciples are human and being human means that in everyone there is a part that is willing, as in eager, excited, passionate.  It is ON and ready to fulfill Jesus’ requests.

But there’s this other part that is weak, sickly, fatigued, disabled.  It draws back from Jesus and falls backwards into temptation.

I’m not sure what to call these two competing parts.  Jesus calls them the spirit and the flesh, but we don’t think in those terms nowadays.  It’s not our bodies that sap our best intentions.  It’s more than skin deep.  It’s in our souls.  Our very nature.  
How are you going to explain the difference when you preach on the Gospel of Mark's version of this passage?

I appreciate the fact that in the Wesleyan tradition the physical body is believed to be a gift from God, and we are expected to be good stewards of this gift.  The fleshy body of skin, bones, organs, and blood is not sinful; it is not the source of sin.  It does not tempt the spirit.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hope for Young Clergy

“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most. Observe: It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord. And remember! A Methodist preacher is to mind every point, great and small, in the Methodist discipline! Therefore you will need all the sense you have, and to have all your wits about you!”
In the “Large” Minutes, Wesley listed the twelve rules that he expected his helpers to follow. The above quotation is Rule 11 on the list, and it reflects two of the steps in the Wesleyan order of salvation (Repentance and Holiness) but it is missing the middle step, Faith.

Ministering to people as they go through these stages was a full-time job in Wesley’s estimation. Explaining to folks the meaning of these terms, teaching them the scripture that supports this definition of salvation, sharing the testimonials of those who have experienced this work of grace, searching for the words that will inspire spiritual maturation, exercising the spiritual disciplines that keeps the minister connected to this grace, listening to the struggles of others as they try to repent, have faith, and live a holy life, and encouraging them to continue to seek God’s grace can fill up the better part of every day.

You have nothing to do but to repent, have faith, and be holy. You have nothing to do but to encourage others to open up to this rhythm of grace. Every other task can wait. The demands of the church building, the church budget, the church hierarchy are secondary. They are to support the process of salvation not supplant it.

Fill in the Blank-- “You have nothing to do but to ___________.” The clergy who can identify their ministry goal and pursue it with discipline will be more effective than those who allow external objectives to dominate their schedules. The clergy who are able to define for themselves what it means to save souls, who are able to explain how that saving process happened for them and how it can happened for others, are the clergy who are more likely to avoid professional burnout.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


This sermon recasts Wesley's order of salvation (Repentance-Faith-Holiness) as Honesty-Faith-Love.  The goal of the sermon is to introduce the congregation to Wesley's soteriology by using terminology and imagery that are familiar to them.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Heavens and New Earth

The order of events in the Wesleyan vision of the Eschaton is--
  1. Cataclysmic Signs and Wonders
  2. Christ Returns
  3. Stewardship Interviews
  4. Verdicts Implemented
  5. Destruction of Old Creation
  6. The New Creation
Wesley's description of the dissolution of the Heavens and the Earth is taken from Rev. 20:11 and 2 Peter 3:10-12; doctrinal Sermon 15 evaluates different theories on the physical mechanics of that fiery end.  This expectation does not lead to a devaluation of Nature.  Though this world is transitory, abuse of the natural world is not sanctioned by Wesley's eschatology rather the misuse of its resources is labeled by Wesley to be a kind of practical atheism (Sermon 23, par. I.11).

The New Creation is briefly described in Sermon 15.  Wesley's non-doctrinal sermons "The General Deliverance" and "The New Creation" go into more detail, and conclude that all creatures, not just human beings, will be present in the New Heavens and Earth.

Sermon 15 concludes with a quote from 2 Peter 3:12 and an answer to the "So What?" question.  So this Creation will pass away, what does that mean for us today?  To explain the relevance of this doctrine, Wesley quotes Peter, "Seeing then all these things are dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness."  And the way to get to godliness the sermon argues is by following the Wesleyan order of salvation (and his hermeneutical rule)-- Repentance, Faith, and then Holiness and eventually Heaven.