Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hope for More

As I was reading Deanna Thompson's memoir of her battle with metastatic cancer -- a memoir that engages her journey theologically -- she speaks of the need to do more work on eschatology. She points out something that I've noticed myself -- there is a strong aversion among progressives/liberals to talk about life beyond the grave. Let's focus on the present, they say!  Talking about the afterlife distracts from engaging the present. There are certainly escapist eschatologies out there, but affirming the possibility of something lying beyond the grave need not preclude being concerned with the present. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Grace in the Media -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Martin Marty's column this week might be an appropriate one for the week, for it speaks of grace. He notes that when we talk about important issues, especially issues that affect human life, we tend to grab for theological language, including the language of grace.  We need some of that right now as we live in an increasingly polarized and uncivil society. Whether it's the debate over same-sex marriage or the violence in Baltimore, we need some grace. Maybe the one place we're seeing it is in the global response to the tragedy in Nepal.  But the question of why we have to wait for disasters to experience grace is best left for another conversation. In the meantime, I invite your to ponder Dr. Marty's commentary.  


Grace in the Media
                                                                Image Credit: Boonroong / Shutterstock creative commons
NOTESightings has a new comment policy. When you email a comment to, if you would like it to be added to the article archived on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece].

Sightings will never lack subject-matter. Each week the media provide a plethora of options which might inspire comment. Usually these relate to hard news, as in “religion and…ISIS, the scrimmaging before the 2016 election, ‘cops’ anywhere, Bruce Jenner in transition, etc. etc.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Vine and the Branches -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

John 15:1-8  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples.


            In John we often hear something about the need to abide in Jesus even as he abides in us. There is in this message of abiding a strong sense of mutuality—a mutual indwelling of Jesus in our lives and our lives in his. In John’s gospel the relationship between Jesus and his disciples (and therefore us) goes beyond intimacy. There is a sense of complete oneness (John 17:20-21) of God’s people that is rooted in our oneness with God in Christ. That is, we are the body of Christ, to use a Pauline phrase. Is it possible that we could even use the theologically charged Greek word perichoresis to describe this relationship? That word plays such a central role in the church’s developing understanding of God and the church’s Christological formulations. This is the word that is used to define the relationship that exists among the three persons of the Trinity as well as the relationship of Jesus’ humanity to his divinity.  Theologically, we can even think here in terms of the relationship of Jesus’ humanity to his divinity – mutual penetration of divinity and humanity.

In reflecting on the meaning of this text theologically, we affirm that Jesus is the one in whom humanity and divinity share full communion. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna puts it: “he is who and what God is; he is who and what we are to become” [God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Lifep. 296]. While this is likely not the only way to read this parable of the vine and the branches, I do believe that it is a legitimate theological reflection on the parable to say that we experience communion with God in and through our communion with Jesus, for we are the branches and he is the vine.

Jesus tells the disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches. He also tells them that the Father is the “vine grower,” but we need to wait a moment before we get to this part of the story. Let’s think more fully about this vine/branches relationship. You don’t have to know too much about agriculture to know that a branch cannot live apart from the vine or the trunk of the tree. Our life—spiritual life—flows out of that vine.  To be in Christ is to draw one’s lifeblood, one’s identity, one’s purpose in life from that relationship. Outside that relationship there is no life—at least if we’re speaking spiritually. Just as the sap runs from the vine to branches, so the Spirit runs from Jesus to us.

The image of the vine invites us to consider how we experience communion with God in Christ. I’ve already shared my sense that theologically speaking we can read this parable as an invitation to envision Jesus to be the one in whom both humanity and divinity dwell (and mutually indwell). This leads to the question of how we should read the phrase that begins the passage: “I am” (egō eimi). This phrase is a favorite of John’s, who has Jesus declare that “I am . . . “the bread of life (6:35); “light of the world” (8:12); “gate for the sheep” (10:7); “Good Shepherd” (10:11); “resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14:6). Then there’s that curious scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus replies to the question of his identity by saying “I am He” (18:6). It’s possible that John thought it a good idea for Jesus to speak clearly about himself and not use that circumlocution “son of man,” which appears so often in the other three Gospels. Perhaps it’s nothing. Or, perhaps it is very intentional and hearkens back to the revelation of the divine name in Exodus (Exodus 3:13-14). Could it be that John had in mind the divine name? Is this John’s way of allowing Jesus to disclose more fully his identity? Consider that John begins his Gospel by identifying Jesus with the Word that is God (John 1:1, 14).  I must confess that long ago I learned that the use of “I Am” here in John was revelatory of Jesus’ divine nature. He is the vine, we are the branches. By abiding in him, and he in us, then God abides in us and we abide in God?

            This, somewhat speculative reading of the passage leads us to the question of fruitfulness. If we are the branches, and Jesus is the vine—should we not expect to produce fruit? When I read vines, I think of grapes, perhaps wine grapes. The expectation of any farmer raising grapes is that the vines/branches will produce fruit. The vines aren’t planted to look pretty. They’re planted to produce a crop. If a branch doesn’t produce then it will be pruned away, so as to make room for new shoots/branches that will produce fruit. I don’t have fruit trees, but I do have a couple of rose bushes. When I prune back the branches that aren’t producing, new branches emerge, and with them new rose blooms. According to John the Father is the vine grower, the one who takes care of the vines, pruning away the dead branches so that the living branches have room to grow and bear fruit. If some branches are cut off and thrown into a fire, what do we make of this? Do we take this as final judgment or divine correction?  Our theology of judgment will likely determine how we answer this. But, what is clear is that God expects us to bear fruit.  

            So the expectation of the Christian life—a life lived in Christ—is that one will bear fruit. One’s life will reflect that mutual indwelling of Christ’s life in our life, and our life in his. God is in us, and we are in God. In this passage the particular fruit aren’t named, but that’s okay. We can look elsewhere, such as Galatians 5, for suggestions. One particular form of fruit that one should expect to be present is love. If we continue reading on in John 15, Jesus says that “the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9). Yes, the command of Jesus is to “love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). More revealing still is the word found in 1 John 4, that God is love, and that if one does not love, one does not know God.

            The branch abides in the life-giving vine, and from that life-giving vine comes the love of God, which is expressed in the life of faith. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

PRE-POST-RACIAL AMERICA (Sandhya Rani Jha) -- Review

PRE-POST-RACIAL AMERICA: Spiritual Stories from the Front LinesBy Sandhya Rani Jha. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2015. 154 pages.

                When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008 many Americans proclaimed that we had moved as a country into a post-racial era. They declared that we had finally crossed the river into a new land where Martin Luther King's vision of a day when people would be judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. For many White Americans, this election meant that we no longer had to deal with issues of race. One more social issue had been crossed off the list. If you've been watching the news over the past six years you may have discerned that we may not have moved as far into this new land as many thought. While we’re not in the same place regarding race as we were in 1963—most of the legal barriers in place then have been overturned—our society remains largely segregated and racial tensions remain strong. This is especially in the church.

When I write on and reflect on issues of race and ethnicity, I must acknowledge my own social location. I am white, middle-class, male, and highly educated.  I benefit from certain privileges that others who don’t share my social location can’t take for granted. At the same time, it is important that I become sensitized about the realities that others do confront every day of their lives. While some proclaim that they are “color-blind,” that they don’t pay attention to the color of someone else’s skin, such is not the case. Besides, color-blindness isn’t seen as a normal/normative condition. It is a malady that some suffer from. As for being a “melting pot,” well isn’t it better to use an analogy that celebrates the gifts of our differences. One of the blessings of living in the United States is our diversity.  Of course, until recently diversity was tolerated by the majority because it was the province of a small minority. But that is no longer the case. We’re moving quickly to a time when European Americans no longer represent an absolute majority. That can be frightening for some.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Word of Healing -- Salvation Sermon Series #3

When we get sick, we may ask for prayers, but we probably will also go to the doctor. That’s probably a smart move. But, according to the letter of James, if you’re sick you “should call for the elders and have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and any one who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was a healer. Morton Kelsey has pointed out that the gospel writers devote 20% of their accounts to Jesus’ healing ministry. When Jesus came to town it’s quite likely that he healed someone. That might make him a healing evangelist like Aimee Semple McPherson.

Friday, April 24, 2015

STEWARDSHIP: God’s Way of Recreating the World (Steve Kindle) -- Review

STEWARDSHIP: God's Way of Recreating the World. (Topical Line Drives volume 18). By Steve Kindle. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2015. 44 pages.

                Every Sunday in my church one of the Elders will invite the congregation to consider their stewardship responsibilities. They may speak of the need to support the ministries of the church (though conveniently most leave out the fact that the pastor is a major expenditure), and perhaps they will expand the definition of stewardship to include our gifts and talents. The latter are non-monetary gifts, but they still largely benefit the congregation. Each year, in the month of November we will conduct a stewardship campaign. Normally I will begin and end the season with a stewardship sermon. I will talk about money but perhaps other elements of stewardship as well. We preachers dread the season of stewardship, because most of us don’t like to talk about money. Perhaps that is due in large part to the fact that we are the predominate beneficiaries of these gifts (that’s not a problem, it just uncomfortable to talk about).  But is this all there is to stewardship?

My friend and Disciples ministry colleague Steve Kindle suggests that stewardship has a much broader definition. The subtitle of this little book (just 35 pages of text that can be read in about 90 minutes) hints at the breadth of this broader definition. Stewardship has to do with “God’s way of recreating the world.”  Stewardship, as a biblical concept, is guided by our prayer to do the will of God on earth as in heaven. While churches are struggling with budgets, declining membership, and identity questions, while individual Christians are seeking closer connections to God and each other, Steve suggests that “stewardship, comprehensively understood and applied, will lead a congregation and individual Christians out of these problems and into mature and effective relationships and significant ministry” (p. 3).  The way to do this is to think globally, to think in terms of our relationship to God in the context of creation.  Rather than being a program of the church, stewardship becomes our lifestyle.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Disciples -- Are We Really Creedless?

I am a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We claim to be a non-creedal church. Our founders were somewhat averse to creedal statements, believing them to be divisive. The "devil is in the details." One of our old slogans was "No Creed but Christ, No Book but the Bible."  It sounds good, but are we really creedless?

I recently finished reading George Lindbeck's post-liberal tome -- The Nature of Doctrine (a book I should have read long ago).  Lindbeck argues for the primacy of a "cultural-linguistic" understanding of Christian doctrine/theology -- in contrast to propositional and experiential-expressive versions. In the Cultural-Linguistic model, which appeals to me, doctrine is understood to be a set of grammatical rules that govern the way we speak of faith. Leaving aside propositionalism, which no one on the center-left spectrum embraces, whereas the experiential-expressivism of liberalism starts with the premise that there is a common religious spirit, which religions express in different ways. The cultural linguistic model differs from this model in that it assumes that Christian faith is formed/taught. Doctrine serves to guide this process.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jesus, Healing, and Salvation

As I continue my sermon series on salvation, I will be turning to the idea that salvation includes healing. In preparation for that sermon, I thought I would share a few paragraphs that I wrote about healing in my book on spiritual gifts (Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening). The idea that God heals and that this is connected to the idea of salvation is not always an easy one to embrace for many modern Christians. When we get sick, we go to the doctor. We pray for healing, but do we really believe that God heals. I invite you to read these paragraphs and then pursue the question more fully in my book on spiritual gifts. This excerpt is found on page 147 of Unfettered Spirit. 


Healing is a sign of the reign of God present among us. Amos Yong, a Pentecostal theologian writes that healing not only leads to the restoring of human bodies, it serves as a sign that Jesus is “representative of the messianic promise to bring about the redemption, reconciliation, and release long associated with the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Yong, Who Is the Holy Spirit? 44.] Jürgen Moltmann suggests that healing serves as “signs of the rebirth of life and herald the new creation of all things.” They are tokens of “the resurrection world which drives out death.” [Moltmann, The Source of Life, 64-65]. Although such healings don’t forestall death as a human experience, they remind us that in ultimate terms the curse of death has been defeated and wholeness is possible.  
Every Sunday we gather in our churches and pray for the healing of our family, friends, neighbors. We pray in the belief that such prayers have an effect at the spiritual level, bringing wholeness to the recipients of our prayers. James told the sick to call for the elders to anoint with oil and pray that their bodies would be healed (James 5:14-15). 
As we see from the Gospels, healing played an important role in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, made the lame walk. A total of forty-one separate instances of healing body or mind can be found in the four gospels. Morton Kelsey has written “that Jesus’ ministry of healing is certainly in line with the constant emphasis in his teachings about compassion and caring about one’s neighbor.” [Kelsey,Healing and Christianity, 42-45]. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

One Flock, One Shepherd

John 10:11-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes[a] it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
                One of the most beloved of Christian images is that of Jesus the Good Shepherd, a metaphor that we see developed by Jesus in John 10. When we read this passage, we do so in light of other shepherding images as well—most especially the words of Psalm 23 (the Psalm for the day): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . .” When we read this Psalm we often think of David, the Shepherd King—the psalm’s traditional author. Since Jesus is seen in Christian tradition as the Son of David, the one who takes up the Messianic throne, the shepherding image has taken an important place in Christian life.  Indeed, the title pastor that many of us in ordained Christian ministry make use of is rooted in this context. That is, the pastor is the shepherd, with the church being the flock.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jesus the Liberator -- Salvation Sermon Series #2

Luke 4:16-21

Jesus was a church-going man. Actually, he was a synagogue-going man, but you know what I mean. So, when he went home for a visit after his ordination by the Holy Spirit and the training exercise in the desert, he went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath “as was his custom.” As is often the case when young adults return home, perhaps from college, they get asked to help with the service. In this case, the leaders asked Jesus to read the scriptures and share a word of interpretation.

Now preaching in your home church can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what you have to say. Sometimes it’s not wise to go home and share everything you’ve learned at seminary. The people back home might not like those newfangled ideas you learned at school and won’t appreciate your message.  That’s what happened to Jesus after he opened the scroll to Isaiah 61 and read about how the Spirit fell on the messiah, anointing him to bring good news to the poor and preach the year of jubilee. Maybe things would have gone differently if he hadn’t told the congregation that this was his mantle and that he had fulfilled the promise of this Scripture. In fact, the congregation got so upset that they tried to throw him off a cliff. Fortunately he escaped to preach another day.  But it was a close call nonetheless! 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Amy Plantinga Pauw) -- Review

PROVERBS AND ECCLESIASTES (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible)By Amy Plantinga Pauw. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xx + 238 pages.

                Every culture seems to produce a form of wisdom literature—sacred words meant to give guidance for daily life. The Bible is no different. While very different in their message, two books of the Hebrew Bible, both traditionally linked to Solomon, who was renowned for his wisdom, exemplify this tradition. Preachers are often wary of taking up the texts of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the two forms of Wisdom Literature, which receive attention in this commentary by theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw. As Pauw puts it in the introduction “until rather recently, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were viewed by many modern Christian biblical scholars as stepchildren of the canon, awkward presences whose concerns were largely alien to the center of Israel’s faith” (p. 1). Torah and the Prophets, along with the Psalms seemed more promising. Nonetheless, Pauw finds treasure in these books, and seeks to that treasure with the reader. 

This commentary appears in Westminster John Knox’s Belief commentary series.  Pauw is not only the author of this commentary, but she is also the editor of the series (originally the co-editor with the late William Placher). It is a series devoted to theological interpretation of scripture. While the interpreters must engage the critical scholarship, this is not the focus of the commentary. Even as I have been impressed by earlier contributions to the series (Placher’s commentary on Mark and Deanna Thompson’s commentary on Deuteronomy), I wasn’t disabused of that view by my reading of this commentary.  It contained the same commitment to bringing fresh insight to the text in a way that is accessible to the non-scholar and having depth of theological insight.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sin, Redemption, and Liberation

I am in the midst of a sermon series that is exploring the concept of salvation (soteriology). In my second sermon in the series, I am focusing on the premise of Jesus as liberator. In the course of that conversation I am working with Liberation Theology, to which I devoted considerable attention during my seminary studies (yes I delved into Liberation Theology at an evangelical institution!). I believe that there is a strong liberationist message in scripture. It is present in the Exodus. It is present in the Prophets, and it is present in the Gospels as well (consider the Magnificat). 

One of the premises of Liberation Theology is that sin is not simply personal, but that it is social as well -- perhaps even first of all social.  Gustavo Gutierrez is one of the founders of the Latin American version of Liberation Theology.  He speaks of sin in this way (and I should note the masculine language present throughout):
But in the liberation approach sin is not considered as an individual, private, or merely interior reality -- asserted just enough to necessitate a "spiritual" redemption which does not challenge the order in which we live. Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men, the breach of friendship with God and with other men, and therefore, an interior, personal fracture. [A Theology of Liberation, p. 175]

He writes further:
Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races, and social classes. Sin appears, therefore, as the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation. [p. 175] 
If sin is a social experience, then what of salvation or redemption?  Gutierrez declares that due to the radical nature of sin, then there needs to be a radical form of redemption, which he sees as being a gift of Christ.  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus redeems us from sin and its consequences. That is, he brings about justice in our lives. Liberation has three forms -- political liberation, liberation of humanity in history, and liberation from sin and admission to communion. They are different, and yet they are interrelated. Political liberation is linked to liberation from sin, such that "any effort to build a just society is liberating. And it has an indirect but effective impact on the fundamental alienation. It is a salvific work, although it is not all of salvation."

As we discussed in the first sermon of the series, focusing on reconciliation, the work of salvation affects both the divine-human relationship, and the inter-human relationships. Love of God and love of neighbor are linked together. Thus any work of salvation will have implications on society.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Billy Graham -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

We have been watching as an era passes on. Marcus Borg, Fred Craddock, Lyle Schaller, and more have passed away recently. We rightfully remember their contributions. Few persons, perhaps no one has put a greater stamp on American Christianity over the past half century than Billy Graham -- whatever your feelings about him. Now in his 90s, as Martin Marty notes here, he has been turned over to the historians and sociologists who will examine his legacy. In this essay, distinguished American historian and observer of things public and religious, Martin Marty, takes note of Grant Wacker's recent largely appreciative biography of Graham. I invite you to read and consider the legacy -- pro and con!


Billy Graham
By MARTIN E. MARTY   APR. 13, 2015
At 27, Billy Graham resigned his pulpit to go on the road for Youth for Christ    Credit: Richard Bromley/ flickr creative commons
Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation is the subtitle of the book, America’s Pastor,an acclaimed sort-of-biography by acclaim-worthy Duke University historian Grant Wacker. Last weekend Wacker discussed his book at the Cushwa Center of the University of Notre Dame with a crowded, hall-full of historians of American Christianity who have been invited to enjoy the hospitality of that Center for now three decades.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Joy, Disbelief, and Opened Minds -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3B

Luke 24:36-49 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”[a] 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.[b] 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[c] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[d] of these things.49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
                The season of Easter calls for us to wrestle with things that lie beyond the grasp of our minds. Resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Without it there is no Christianity. We might not agree on the particulars, but there is a common confession that the one who died on the cross is now alive, and because of this we have life. Each of the resurrection stories involves an element of surprise. While Mark ends without a resurrection appearance, which means that in year b of the lectionary cycle we must turn to other gospels for texts that speak of resurrection, he at least gives notice that resurrection has occurred. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Story of Narrative Preaching (Mike Graves) -- Review

THE STORY OF NARRATIVE PREACHING: Experience and Exposition: A NarrativeBy Mike Graves. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. X + 234 pages.

Like beauty good preaching is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. Depending on your background and expectations good preaching may come in a variety of forms. You may like the old three points and a poem. It was simple and straightforward. You may like stories.  Perhaps you believe that preaching should exposit the biblical text, and that to deviate from that path is dangerous. If you happen to be a preacher you may look to the lectionary for the source of your sermons or you might decide to go topical and preach a series on a particular subject. Whatever direction you take, as a preacher and as a listener to sermons, the expectation is that something of value will be communicated. You might even expect to hear a word from God in that sermon. 

Several decades back, preachers and teachers of preachers began to despair at the state of preaching. It was stale and failing to communicate effectively.  Out of this feeling of angst, came a new vision of preaching, one that looked to the Bible itself for inspiration. Realizing that much of scripture is narrative, a new homiletics emerged that emphasized this form. Among the most important practitioners and teachers of this new homiletic, which is also known as the inductive method of preacher, were Fred Craddock and Eugene Lowry.  Among those who have embraced this method, and mastered it, is Mike Graves, who succeeded Lowry as preaching professor at St Paul School of Theology. In The Story of Narrative Preaching Mike introduces us to this method, including the values and principles of the method, in a very appropriate manner – through narrative.  In many ways this is a text book on narrative preaching, but the material is presented in a rather unique fashion.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Gift of Salvation -- Salvation Sermon Series #1

2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

Paul declared that “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the Day of Salvation!” That may be true, but what does it mean to be saved or to proclaim Jesus as savior?  This is a question that many struggle with. We sing about it and pray about it, but we’re not sure what salvation really is. 

That’s the impression that Mark Love got from his interviews and surveys. We have a strong sense of the presence of God in the world, but we’re not quite sure how that relates to our own lives. He found that there’s a lot of discomfort with traditional understandings of Jesus being our “personal savior,” despite all the salvation imagery present in our hymns and prayers, including the prayers at the Table. 

Could it be that we’ve been overly influenced by an atonement theory that many of us find problematic? The idea that Jesus died on a cross as a sacrificial victim to satisfy God’s need for blood as atonement for our sins no longer makes sense. The traditional Protestant vision of salvation tends to be very individualistic. I sinned; I’ve been judged guilty by God; God demands justice; Jesus pays the penalty. It’s quite simple and it works for a lot of people, but is this the only option?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Unity, Theological Debate, and Christ

Efforts have been long made by Christians to bring unity to the Christian community.  My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) claims it as our prime directive.We have been regular participants in almost every ecumenical endeavor. It's in our DNA, you might say.   But on what basis do we unite?  Is it just good feelings and a lowest common denominator theological foundation?  

I found intriguing these words from Karl Barth, which form part of his little book The Church and the Churches (Eerdmans). When it comes to unity, Barth encourages the different traditions to continue to pursue the issues that are most fully calling to them. Don't let go of your distinctive identities just for the sake of peace. Pursue the study, but do so by listening to Christ.  I found these words intriguing and challenging:

For my part I am convinced that true unity was more of a present and visible reality in the Marburg discussions of 1529 -- which it is fashionable to decry -- or in the polemics of later Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy -- for which no one has a good word -- than in certain doings of our own day, in which there was so much profession of charity that no one had courage enough left to esquire with serious honesty about the truth, or to allow thesis and antithesis well thought out to meet each other face to face. But to esquire into the truth of Christ is always hopeful, always a work of charity; i is always in all circumstances a service to tthe union of the churches, even when its first result is that no one moves an inch from his thesis, and so the act of division is at first accentuated.  [Church and the Churches, p. 58]

The reference to Marburg here is intriguing as it was at Marburg that Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther had a rather rough and tumble debate about the real presence n the Eucharist. Is "This is My Body, " merely a memorial symbol or something more?  The debate was rather fierce, and yet Barth sees this as preferable to a meeting where everyone agrees, believing that the former better exemplifies our unity.  It may seem like division is present, but in the pursuit of truth together we are drawn together more fully. Once again the path to unity isn't a mechanical one, but rooted in the pursuit of Christ. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Saved from What?

Are you saved? That's a question that gets asked by some Christian groups.  The rationale behind the question is rooted in the belief that humanity lies under divine judgment because of our sins. Using the penal substitution model of the atonement, the belief holds that because we are under a divine death sentence, the only way out is if someone else takes our place. And, as to who that person is -- it must be Jesus, the God-Man (using Anselm's term). Only the death of the God-Man has the plenitude of power to cover everyone's sins.  Therefore, if you accept Jesus as your savior, you get the benefit of Jesus' blood, and you will be saved (you get to go to heaven). That's a fairly simplistic way of putting it, but that gets the point across.  

At bottom of this question is guilt.  I need to be saved because I am guilty of sin, and as Paul says the "wages of sin is death." while God's free gift is eternal life (Romans 6:23).  Now this all requires us to accept the premise of guilt.  While we might accept the idea that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), have we really acted so badly that we deserve a death sentence?  How, we might ask, does this fit in with the idea that we serve a loving and gracious God?  No wonder many mainline Protestants have issues with traditional atonement theory.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

150 Years Ago Today -- Civil War "ends"

On April 9th, just days before President Lincoln was assassinated, General Ulysses S. Grant received General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.  The were would be a few more small battles to be fought here or there, but this act of surrender effectively ended the war that had taken the lives of thousands of Americans on both sides of the conflict.  It would be nice if we could say that everything worked out perfectly thereafter. It is true that slavery was essentially ended across the nation. Lincoln's statement that the nation could not remain together if it was half free and half slave had borne fruit.  The union was preserved at great cost and slavery ended.  Of course, the end of slavery did not mean that everyone lived happily ever after. The attitudes of White Americans in both north and south regarding Black Americans changed little. Even Lincoln, the Great Emancipator didn't believe that the two races were equal.  Still, he opposed slavery and that opposition triggered a war that was already simmering, for Lincoln was right about the inability of a nation to stay together half slave and half free.  The southern states, which had put the interests of slaveholders at the forefront, chose to separate themselves, launching an attack in 1861 on Fort Sumter, SC.  After thousands died, Lee surrendered and the war ended.

Jim Crow, segregation, and the Klan would soon emerge. Racial and ethnic tensions continued to erupt, and do so this day.  But the war ended, and hopes for a new era for the nation came into play. We still have a ways to go on fulfilling those hopes, but it is good to stop and remember that day in history, and commit ourselves to a better future for all.   

 I'll note that the above picture by Tom Lovell hangs on my study wall, so you can probably tell which side of the conflict I stand upon, but in the end we must mover forward as one nation pursuing justice for all, where slavery is not defended or excused or celebrated.    

40 Days with the Holy Spirit (Jack Levison) -- Review

40 DAYS WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT: Fresh Air for Every DayBy Jack Levison. Foreword by Eugene H. Peterson.   Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015. Xx + 153 pages.

Christians are people of the Spirit.  Since the day of Pentecost, we have acknowledged that the Spirit of God plays a central role in the Christian faith. It is true that the Holy Spirit seems marginalized in the creeds, and great effort has been undertaken by church authorities to keep the Spirit under wraps, but without the Spirit Christianity is simply a gathering of dry bones. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit stands as a reminder that we are not alone in our journey through life. God is with us, breathing divine life into our human lives.   

Jack Levison is a biblical scholar who has focused significant attention on the Holy Spirit. His day job may involve teaching the Hebrew Bible to seminarians, but through a number of books he has explored and exposited on the Spirit. Having read a number of his pieces, I was when Paraclete Press sent me a review copy of his latest book—40 Days with the Holy Spirit. Since it is set up in the form of a forty day devotional, I decided to use the book as my primary devotional resource during the Lenten season, reading one chapter a day. Each of the forty brief chapters begins with a text of scripture, a meditation, a space for reflection, and a prayer addressed to the Spirit.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Who's Right about the Bible -- A Conversation

Christians affirm the Bible to be the authoritative text for Christians. But after we make that claim, what do we do with it? When we come to the Bible we need to recognize the lenses through which we read the Bible. Last night Henry Neufeld, the publisher of Energion Publications, hosted a conversation between Steve Kindle and me.  Steve and I have recently published brief books with Energion on the Bible.  My book is titled The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age: Some Help from Karl Barth (Topical Line Drives Book 9).  In this book I share how Karl Barth can help us engage Scripture as revelation, as a word of God, without having to embrace a narrow inerrantist vision of that text.  My friend of fifteen years and like me a Disciples of Christ minister, has written a book that speaks to the question of interpretation -- and the lenses through which we read the text.  Titled I'm Right and You're Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it (Topical Line Drives Book 16), Steve invites us to wrestle with our disagreements so we might come together as Christians. My review of the book can be found here on the blog.   

It was an interesting and lively conversation to which I would like to invite you to share in.  The conversation lasts an hour, but I think you'll find it intriguing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Easter Isn't Over Yet -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2B

John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, [c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

            The late radio commentator Paul Harvey would pick up his message after the commercial break with the words, “now for the rest of the story.” In many ways that is what we have here in the closing section of John 20 (let’s forget for a moment the presence of John 21).   

Monday, April 06, 2015

I'm Right and You're Wrong (Steve Kindle) -- Review

I'M RIGHT AND YOU'RE WRONG: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it (Topical Line Drives Book 16) By Steve Kindle. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2015. 44 pages. 

                Why are there so many different Christian denominations and sects?  The easy answer is that while Christians generally affirm the authority of the Bible they disagree among themselves as to the meaning and the application of that text. While Billy Graham would often declare that "the Bible says" in reference to something he was trying to say or prove. The fact is, whatever it was he was trying to say it reflected not what the Bible “says” but his interpretation of the words of the Bible. Issue after issue has come up through the centuries and Christians have appealed to the Bible against each other.  Paedobaptists (those who baptize infants) have their texts, while believer Baptists (those who baptize persons upon confession of faith) have their texts.  Since I’m part of a denomination that practices the later, I’m a bit biased toward the biblical defense of believer baptism.

So, why do we disagree?  We can’t we just all read the Bible and agree to its meaning and move on?  Life isn’t that easy—just look at the different ways in which Americans read the U.S. Constitution. If you think that the Supreme Court simply reads the Constitution and applies it as it was originally intended without any bias present, then you may find it difficult to understand why we have all these 5-4 decisions that tend to be decided along ideological/partisan lines.  What is true there is true of the Bible. 

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Unfinished Story? -- Sermon for Easter Sunday 2015

Mark 16:1-8

The TV show M.A.S.H. ran for eleven years. It first went on the air when I was starting high school and it ended the year Cheryl and I were married.  In between, we hiked into the M.A.S.H. set on our first date.  The series ran nine years longer than the war it portrayed. There were numerous cast changes over the years, but those of us who loved the show enjoyed them all.  It was fitting then that the show closed by bringing the war to an end, and the parting of ways. It was a celebration of peace and the bittersweet nature of going one’s separate ways. The final episode gave the writer
s the opportunity to bring closure to the story and tie up loose ends. 

One by one, beginning with Father Mulcahy, the characters depart for their new lives. In the final scene, after Colonel Potter rides off one more time on his cavalry horse Sophie, only Hawkeye and BJ remain. Hawkeye is frustrated that B.J. won’t say goodbye. In the final moments, Hawkeye boards a helicopter and B.J. heads off on the motorcycle that once belonged to a group of Chinese soldier musicians.  As the chopper rises into the air, Hawkeye looks down on the hillside, where B.J. had written with rocks the word Goodbye.   With that the show that so many of us loved went off the air.    

The finale offered us an opportunity to say our goodbyes. While the ending might have been bittersweet, this is the way we prefer them. But, sometimes shows just go off the air, leaving the story hanging. You want to know how things end, but that isn’t in the cards.  Of course, you might try to finish the story in your mind, but you’re always left wondering how the writers would have ended it.