Monday, October 16, 2017

The Path of Christianity (John Anthony McGuckin) -- A Review

THE PATH OFCHRISTIANITY: The First Thousand Years. By John Anthony McGuckin. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. Xviii + 1207 pages.

The history of Christianity is filled twists and turns that need to be documented, explored, and interpreted. One cannot understand church history outside the flow of history itself, because every religious act occurs within the broad stream of world history. That means even those of us who approach the history of Christianity from within, may believe that God’s providence plays a role in the story, but we still use the same principles and tools that any historian might use.  As a church historian myself, I appreciate those persons who write from within the faith community, but also have an appreciation for the complexity of the story and take their task as a historian seriously. Such is the case here with The Path of Christianity, written by John Anthony McGuckin.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Disciples Witness - A Sermon

John 8:31-36

What does it mean to be a Disciples of Christ Church in Michigan in the 21st Century? Who are we as a people, and what is our witness? I must confess that I am not a lifelong Disciple. My faith journey began in the Episcopal Church and it took a few twists and turns before the Spirit led me to a community of Christians that prizes unity, freedom, and the life of the mind. In the years that I’ve been a Disciple, I’ve come to believe that we have an important witness to share. I’d like to share a few words this morning about our witness as a community of faith. I’ll begin with our witness in unity, and then move to our witness in freedom and covenant. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality (Tim Stead) - Review

MINDFULNESS AND CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY: Making Space for God. By Tim Stead. Foreword by Eden Koz. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xvi + 144 pages.

                How do we make space for God? Most of us living in the Western world always seem to be on the run. Americans are known for their “doing” not their “being.” As for Christians, it has been said that most of us are “practical atheists.” We say we believe in God, but we operate without giving much thought to God. I must confess, I am guilty of this myself, and I am a religious professional. So, how do we make space for God? What disciplines might help us focus our lives better?

                Although the practice of "mindfulness" is often seen as a Buddhist practice, many Christians have found that the principles of “mindfulness” can be of help to the spiritual life. It can help us make space for God. Tim Stead, an Anglican priest, serving a congregation in Oxford that once welcomed C.S. Lewis a member, has written a helpful guide to the use of “mindfulness” within the Christian community. He acknowledges the Buddhist connections, but suggests that many of the principles of “mindfulness” are deeply rooted in Christianity. Even as he is an Anglican priest, he is a teacher of mindfulness for the Christian community.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Who Is God? Part 2 - A Disciple Conversation about God's Triune Nature

Today, I am sharing part two of a two-part conversation about the nature of God. I take up what might be controversial in Disciples circles --- the doctrine of the Trinity. We are not of one mind on this topic, but the majority of our ecumenical partners embrace it. So, it's important that we be conversant. I will state up front that I am a Trinitarian, so much of what I share below reflects my own perspectives. I invite your contributions to the conversation. For that is what this is intended to be, a conversation starter about the key elements of Christian theology. 


                The Christian understanding of God has been largely defined in Trinitarian terms.  The Trinity is the way in which most Christians have named God.  We maybe monotheistic, but Judaism and Islam have a much more consistent and narrow understanding of monotheism. While the majority of Christian traditions are Trinitarian, the Disciples have been largely ambivalent about the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, as Ronald Osborn notes:
The Disciples regarded themselves as neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian.  Alexander Campbell would not use the term Trinitarian because it did not appear in scripture.  He even changed one line in the great Trinitarian hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” so that instead of saying “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” people would sing, “God over all, and blest eternally. [ Ronald Osborn, TheFaith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979), p. 52.]
One could say that among Disciples affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity is not a test of fellowship.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Make gods to lead us - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19A (Exodus)

 Exodus 32:1-14 Common English Bible (CEB)
32 The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.” 
Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate. 
The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. 10 Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”  
11 But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” 14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.

                Many of us are visual people. We need to see it to believe it. Moses may have seen the burning bush, but the rest of the people only saw Yahweh through the eyes of Moses. Now, Moses seemed to have disappeared. He had gone up the mountain to talk with God once again, but hadn’t returned, so the people became afraid. They needed something to reassure them that God was with them on this journey from slavery to a new life in the Promised Land. Yes, they had experienced God’s provisions, but how long would they last without some sense of guidance. What they needed, or so they thought, was a visual image of Yahweh. They needed tangible proof that God was with them. So, they asked Aaron, the brother of Moses, to create an image of Yahweh. Aaron, seemingly without giving any thought to the matter, agreed. Aaron instructed the men of the community to gather gold rings from their wives, sons, and daughters. He told them to bring these items to him, so he could create an image that would serve to reassure the people that the LORD was with them. He created a golden bull calf from the gold he collected, set up an altar on which he sets the image, and then tells the people—here is the Lord who led you out of Egypt. Yes, this golden calf is Yahweh, or so Aaron wanted to believe.  

Monday, October 09, 2017

Who Is God? Reflections for Disciples - Part 1 (Nature of God)

This week, as part of my effort to stimulate theological conversation among Disciples, I post the first of two reflections on the nature of God. I wanted to put forth some foundational issues, and will follow up later with a conversation about the Trinity. It should be noted that the Preamble to the Design places the conversation about God after the statement about Jesus, signalling that one encounters God first of all through the encounter with Jesus. But, with that said, who is God?


                Having attended to the one Christians affirm as revealing the face of God, the person of Jesus the Christ, we come to the question asked for millennia: “Who is God?”  It is a question that has been pondered by many, with many an answer offered.  The answers include "the ground of being" (Tillich), the "soul of the universe" (pantheists), and “unmoved mover" (Aristotle). For some God is wholly other, distant and transcendent. For others, God is close at hand, immanent and relational. In popular culture, God is often referred to as the “Man Upstairs,” an image that conjures in our minds the picture of an old man with a long white beard. On the other hand, one can refer to God as the “womb of being.” While it’s quite understandable, we tend to envision God in our own image, with human traits and characteristics. 

                While Disciples, as a rule, do not treat the Preamble to the Design as a creedal statement, it does offer a confession of faith God, who is described as “maker of heaven and earth.” We are bound to this God and to each other through a covenant of love. Disciples traditionally look to the witness of scripture to discern the nature and character of God. While eschewing official creeds, the way Disciples understand God has been influenced by church tradition as well as philosophical insight. Many of our foundational beliefs have been influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. Many of the terms we use to describe God come from these philosophical traditions, terms like omnipotence, omniscience, possibility/impassibility. Each generation of theologians has engaged the philosophical systems of the day.  In other words, there is no purely New Testament understanding of God to be had.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Fruit of the Realm - A Sermon for Pentecost 18A

Matthew 21:33-46

Once again we find Jesus in the Temple. It’s Holy Week. Good Friday is on the horizon. We listen as Jesus continues to describe the realm of God through parables. Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell the parable of two brothers. One brother told his father he would go work in the vineyard, but never did. The other resisted, but finally went off to work. Which of the brothers did the will of the father, who asked them to tend the vineyard? Jesus then told another parable of the vineyard. In this parable, a landowner planted a vineyard and then rented it out, hoping to reap a profit from the renters’ produce. Unfortunately, when the time came to collect this produce, the renters violently resisted these efforts. Finally, in desperation, the landowners sent his son, hoping they would respect him. Instead of respecting the son, they decided to kill him and try to take his inheritance. How do you think the landowner will respond? Won’t the landowner respond in kind by punishing those who resisted? 

I expect that many of us struggle with the idea of divine judgment. It doesn’t fit our vision of a loving and merciful God. Yet, here we have a parable of divine judgment. God’s realm will be taken from the original renters and given to others who will produce good fruit for the realm. Those who reject the cornerstone of the realm of God, will be crushed on it. 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Freud and Other “God-Killers” Are Here to Stay - Sightings (Martin Marty)

Over the past two centuries a number of "God-killers" have arisen. They have challenged our belief systems. Over time we have discovered that there are holes in their visions, but these people or their identities don't go away. Freud might be a problematic figure, but he remains a point of debate to this day. The same is true of Darwin and Marx and Nietzsche, among others. Martin Marty takes up the topic in this week's Sightings post. He speaks of the need to engage critically, finding those places that provide fruitful conversation. I tried to do this very thing with Darwin in my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin.  I invite you to enter into the conversation with the "God-Killers," but do so with care!

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Freud and Other “God-Killers” Are Here to Stay
By MARTIN E. MARTY   October 2, 2017
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian psychoanalyst, in his office in Vienna, ca. 1930.
Darwin-Marx-Nietzsche-Freud—dubbable, and sometimes dubbed, “the four bearded god-killers”—who framed now-classic, career-long attacks on God and gods and religion and religions, enjoy and suffer successions of varying critical fates. We will save Nietzsche and his “death of God” for some future column. What prompts this week’s look at these titans is the headline—typical of many in recent weeks—“Why the Freud Wars Will Never End” in The Wall Street Journal. In a recommendable review by Adam Kirsch, Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion and its subject’s ever-changing fate get full attention.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Christological Titles and their Meaning for Disciples of Christ

Note: This is part 2 of a chapter on Christology, which forms a chapter of a book on theology for Disciples that I have been writing for a number of years. I offer this and the other posts as a way of encouraging theological conversation among Disciples, but also across the Christian community and beyond.


            Being that the Disciples have always focused on the biblical testimony, it would be helpful to consider the titles given to Jesus in the biblical text. As we ponder these titles we can ask what they say to us about who Jesus might be for us.


            The Greek word Christos is simply the equivalent of the Hebrew word masiah (anointed).  This word has a variety of meanings that refer to one who is anointed.  During the period following the Jewish Babylonian exile, the term Messiah took on a new identity.  It expressed the hope that Davidic monarchy might be restored (Hag 2:20-23; Zech 9:9-10; 12:7-13:1). Even here there seems to be some diversity of understanding.  The community of Qumran, the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, appears to have expected two "anointed ones," one apparently royal and the other priestly, with the latter outranking the former. While there are a variety of images available the primary focus was on deliverance of the Jews from Gentile domination.  

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Covenant Rules - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecoste 18A (Exodus 20)

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Common English Bible (CEB)20 Then God spoke all these words: 
2 I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 
3 You must have no other gods before me.
4 Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.
7 Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.
8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks,
12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 Do not kill.
14 Do not commit adultery.
15 Do not steal.
16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking, the people shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.” 
20 Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.”
                God is not my buddy. We need not be afraid of God, but we should stand in awe. Maybe it would be better to kneel or lay prostrate before God, our Creator. Be in awe of God, Moses declares, so that you don’t sin. What does this mean?  How does this call for us not to sin relate to God’s covenant with Israel? How does it relate to me, a Christian? In this reading from Exodus, designated for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the covenant-making God sets forth some rules that should define the relationship between God and God’s covenant partners.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Jesus for Disciples of Christ

For Christians, God’s identity is revealed in the person of Jesus. He is the one who defines for us God’s nature and purpose.  He is, the “human face of God,” or in John’s reflections, he is the Word of God incarnate. One might expect to find a discussion of the nature of God to precede a discussion of Jesus and his identity. But this placement isn’t unique. The Preamble to the Design, a brief confessional statement that introduces the governing document of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) begins with the confession that Jesus is the Christ. In the Preamble, we hear these words of confession:
We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the World . . .
Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of lifeand are made one with the whole people of God.

Therefore, question for Disciples is this: Who is this Jesus whom we confess to be the Christ, the Son of Living God, and our Lord and Savior? 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

By What Authority? A Sermon for Pentecost 17A

Matthew 21:23-32

Aimee Semple McPherson was a famous Pentecostal evangelist during the first half of the 20th century. I love talking about her because she was a pioneer in so many ways. I might not agree with her theology or her politics, but I have always admired her persistence in answering a call to ministry when very few women were given permission to preach. Not only did she preach, but she launched a radio station in the early days of radio, a denomination, and a college. When the religious authorities questioned her right to preach, and demanded she show them her “credentials,” she simply responded that God had called her, the Spirit had empowered her, and she had no choice but to preach. If the religious authorities had a problem with her call, then they should take up their concerns with God. 

After Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday to shouts of adoration from the crowd, he went to the Temple and began to teach and to heal. The religious leaders approached him and asked for his credentials to preach and teach. By what authority have you taken up residence in this holy Temple?