We Believe in the Coming of God’s Realm and Reign to the World

I’m very much enjoying being back in the pulpit on a weekly basis.  At Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, we are entering “The Great Fifty Days of Joy” that is Easter.  With all Christians, United Methodists proclaim Christ’s resurrection as the point of our faith, the hope of the world.  Here are some Easter thoughts on Christ’s resurrection along with some citations (in bold italics) from the UM Book of Discipline that show what resurrection means to us.

 

We Believe in the Coming of God’s Realm and Reign to the World

            We pray and work for the coming of God’s realm and reign to the world and rejoice in the promise of everlasting life that overcomes death and the forces of evil. 

            It’s time for end talk. That’s what the Christian word “eschatology” means – talk about the end.  United Methodists consider that our life in the church is preparation for, and a foretaste of, the end.  In daily speech, we use that phrase “the end” in at least two ways. The word means final – the end of the game, the last chapter of the book, the ultimate ticktock of time.  The end in this sense is when it is all over and done with, finis.

            In another sense, end also means purpose – the result of the work, the meaning of the movie, the point of it all.  “End,” in this sense means how it all finally adds up, where it all eventually leads, telos. An early Protestant catechism asked, “What is the chief end of humanity?” to which the new Christian exuberantly answered, “to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”  Our purpose, our end, is for no more utilitarian reason that the glorification and enjoyment of God.  We were made, body and soul, for praise.

To be sure, we shall end.  Nothing about us goes on forever.  Plato taught that we have an immortal soul, an inextinguishable spark within. Though most Americans seem to believe just that, United Methodists don’t.  You can write it over the lives of your wisest and most noble women and men, the years of youthful exuberance, our greatest human achievements and grandest attainments: This too shall pass.

Here’s a psalm we often read at funerals:

            You turn us back to dust,

            And say, “Turn back, you

                        mortals.”

            ….You sweep them away; they are

                        like a dream,

                        like grass that is renewed in the

                                    morning;

                        in the morning it flourishes and is

                                    renewed;

                        in the evening it fades and

                                    withers. (Psalm 90:3, 5-6)

Scripture tells us the truth: No nation, no institution (including the United Methodist Church!), no person goes on forever.  Work out at the gym, eat oat bran and wild rice until you pop, you will still, in the end, be a corpse. We are finite. Everything always ends at a cemetery. To know that we are mortal, bounded and finite, to see that this world — as stable as it may seem at the moment — is passing, this is wisdom.  Surely this is what the psalmist means by, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  (Ps. 90:12)

But we just can’t bear to live within the limits.  Unwilling to be finite, we crave the infinite.  How can creatures so wonderful as we be content with mortality? Just eat this food, only believe this set of principles, follow this regimen twice daily, take this pill, give your life to this ideal, work hard for this boss, endow this institution — you will live forever.  The satanic promise to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (“You will be like God.”) is the lie of immortality.  One of the major tasks of Christian theology is to unmask our idols; and the promise of most false gods is godlike imperishability.

Wherein is our hope? Christians are enabled to be so brutally honest about the lethal human situation, so pessimistic about prospects for ultimate human betterment, because we are so honestly optimistic about the power of God in Christ.  We stand confident in the promise of everlasting life that overcomes death and the forces of evil.  Much of what we mean when we say “God” is ultimate vitality, eternal life, that state of being where something’s always and forever happening because God is life. If we hope to have life anywhere beyond the limits of this passing life, then we must somehow hitch on to God’s eternal life.

We believe that Jesus was not only raised from the dead but also, in an amazing act of love, reaches out and takes us along for the ride.  Determined not to defeat death alone, God raises us up for the mutual enjoyment of eternity. As John Calvin put it, “Christ rose again that he might have us as companions in the life to come.”[1] This is what we mean by “eternal life” — to be welcomed by God into God’s existence, to be subsumed into God’s story, to have a place in God’s reign.  And whenever God does that, then that is eternal life. Here. Now.  This is why God made us in the first place and what God has in store for us in the end.

Today, as the world seems to shake on its foundations and the future of our civilization is imperiled, many are curious about the end.  Yet those spurious Left Behind books were not written by a Wesleyan.  We’ve never been much on speculation about how or when the world shall end, hearing Jesus say, “About that day and hour no one knows.” (Matt. 24:36)   We take the words of the risen Christ seriously, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7)  At our best, we’ve tried to fix our attention on the hopeful things of Christ here, now and leave tomorrow in the hands of a God who is not only the Alpha but the Omega too.

But that doesn’t mean that we Wesleyans believe nothing about the end – the end as point and purpose rather than as finality.  The Christian church begins in a cemetery, in God’s great surprise move on death in the resurrection of the body of the crucified Jesus. The Book of Revelation comes at the end of the Bible and the beginning of the church.  The Revelation seems to be the vision of a person whose world was coming apart, whose horizon was bleak.  It is a book of strange, even disturbing images and blood and battle and much pain.  Yet as so often happens in Scripture, St. John turns the pain into an occasion for hopeful singing and celebration.  St. John the Divine poetically says to a persecuted, struggling church: when our trials and tribulations are over, we will find in resurrection that it has been worth the effort and we will know the One who has led the way.  The Lamb — the slaughtered, crucified and bloody Lamb — will be positioned at the center of heaven, ruling from a throne.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is

among mortals.

He will dwell with them as

their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be

with them;

he will wipe every tear from

their eyes,

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain

will be no more,

for the first things have

passed away.”

And the one who is seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”   (Revelation 21:1-5)

It’s a poetic, visionary, celebration of the theological claim — God has triumphed.  God has at last got what God wants when“every knee should bend,…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil. 2:10-11)  Jesus shall not only return, triumph, and be revealed, He shall reign.  And what about us? The glorification and enjoyment of God, for which we were created, which has been only a momentary and episodic pastime here, shall there be our fulltime job.  We shall forever whoop it up in the choir (see Rev. 19).

—  Will Willimon, from United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007.

 

[1] Calvin, Institutes 3.25.3.

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Good Friday Meditation

 On this, the holiest day of the Christian year, we stand before the mystery of the cross of Christ. This week the United Methodist News Service released a story on the meaning of the cross, a story in which two Duke Memorial members were quoted. I send this to you for your reflection in the hope that you will be with us tonight (Organ prelude, &7:00, Service 7:15, childcare provided) as Duke Memorial worships in the solemn Service of Tenebrae (Darkness). Come hear some of the church’s greatest music, sit in the darkness of our beautiful church, and ponder the deepest of Christian mysteries.

                                                                                    Will

Why did Jesus have to die?

By Heather Hahn
April 16, 2014 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Christian theologians wrestle with how best to explain the meaning of the cross and why Good Friday is good.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23-25, the Crucifixion — “a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” — makes Christianity a tough sell. But as Paul also writes, preaching Christ crucified is an essential part of the faith.

“Christ’s willingness to suffer and die is equally remarkable with his ability to conquer death,” said the Rev. Randy L. Maddox, associate dean and William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School. He is also an ordained United Methodist elder.

“If one seems to challenge his divinity, the other challenges his humanity. One task of Christian doctrine through the ages has been to hold these two together with their full force.”

The importance of the cross

Make no mistake: Crucifixion was a horrific and ignominious way to die. Roman authorities reserved this public form of execution for particularly heinous crimes such as treason and for certain classes of people, namely non-Romans and slaves. Perhaps appropriately, the Latin verb crucio — torture — shares a root with crucifixion.

Yet, the cross tells us something significant about God, said Will Willimon, former bishop of the North Alabama Conference and now a professor at Duke Divinity School and interim pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C.

“God is the God who achieves what God wants through suffering, self-sacrificial love (the cross),” Willimon said.

The New Testament uses a variety of metaphors and models to explain how such sacrificial action redeemed humanity. In Scripture, Christ is described as giving his life as ransom, as acting as the Lamb of God who carries away sin, and as serving as the ultimate high priest who uses his own blameless life to purify the populace.

For many theologians, the cross reconciles two attributes of God — divine justice and divine love.

One of the more influential explainers of atonement was Anselm of Canterbury, who lived in the 11th century. Anselm argued that human sin dishonored God and corrupted creation. By suffering as a substitute for humankind, Christ provided satisfaction to restore God’s honor and purpose for creation.

But over the centuries, Anselm’s theory has drawn plenty of detractors. Many theologians have accused Anselm of treating Jesus’ death almost as a business transaction. Others see Anselm’s portrayal of God as abusive rather than loving.

Willimon said it’s a mystery why Jesus endured such a violent death, but it also makes sense given the nature of human sin.

“We have the cross because humanity is a violent, brutal species,” said Willimon. Among other books, Willimon has written “Thank God It’s Friday” about the seven last words of Jesus from the cross, and “Thank God It’s Thursday” about Maundy Thursday.

“Any God who would love us, must not be a God who shirks from some blood and pain for that’s how we treat our enemies and our saviors!”

What the Wesleys taught

Both John Wesley, in his sermons, and Charles Wesley, in his hymns, used a variety of images to explain what Jesus achieved on the cross — including substitionary atonement. Methodism’s founders also emphasized God’s wondrous love.

“Both John and Charles Wesley set a precedent for Methodists of refusing to limit themselves to only the ‘penalty satisfaction’ model,’” said Maddox, the Duke professor. The Wesleys used a range of biblical allusions, he said, “to stress that Christ not only dealt with the ‘penalty’ of our sin but also brought healing power to deliver us from the ‘captivity’ of sin and enable us to walk in newness of life.”

The Wesley brothers considered one aspect of atonement nonnegotiable, and it is still an essential part of the movement they founded, said the Rev. Jason Vickers, president of the Wesleyan Theological Society. He is an ordained United Methodist elder and professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at United Methodist-related United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

“Whatever it is Christ undertakes in his death and resurrection, however Christ’s death accomplishes salvation,” Vickers said, “we’ve always said that Christ undertakes his saving work for all — not just for the elect, not just for the rich, not just for certain people. He died for all.”

Perhaps the greatest comfort the cross offers is the knowledge that there is no sorrow, pain or despair humans can undergo that God does not know and walk through with us. And because of the Resurrection, we know that sorrow and death do not have the last word.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

Cruciform Preaching: Implications of the Cross for Preaching

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that our faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corin. 2:1-5)

This is probably our earliest, most explicit statement on the peculiarity of Christian preaching, and one of the few places in the New Testament where a preacher turns aside from the task of proclamation to discuss the nature of proclamation now that God has come as a crucified Messiah.

Paul says that he attempted to preach the gospel to the Corinthians in just that way.  Rather than base his proclamation on human reason, common sense, or artful arguments, he spoke in halting, hesitant “fear and trembling” so that if they were to hear and to understand, to assent and to respond, it would have to be solely through “the power of God.”

Those who would preach cross are forced to live with the homiletical implications of a crucified God:

  1. Luther was fond of contrasting a “theology of glory,” in which the cross was seen as avoidable, optional equipment for Christians, a mere ladder by which we climb up to God with a “theology of the cross” which, according to Luther, calls things by their proper names and is unimpressed with most that impresses the world.  A theology of glory preaches the cross as just another technique for getting what we want whereas a theology of the cross proclaims the cross as the supreme sign of how God gets what God wants.  The cross is a statement that our salvation is in God’s hands, not ours, that our relationship to God is based upon something that God suffers and does rather than upon something that we do.  To bear the cross of Christ is to bear its continual rebuke of the false gods to which we are tempted to give our lives.  Autosalvation is the lie beneath most theologies of glory. When self-salvation is preached, reducing the gospel to a means for saving ourselves — by our good works, or our good feelings, or our good thinking – then worldly wisdom and common sense are substituted for cruciform gospel foolishness and blasphemy is the result.
  2. The cross is a reminder that there is no eloquent, rhetorically savvy way by which we can ascend to God. All of our attempts to climb up to God are our pitiful efforts at self-salvation.  God descends to our level by climbing on a cross, opening up his arms, and dying for us, because of us, with us.  Paul’s thoughts on the foolishness of preaching that avoids “lofty words of wisdom” suggests that Christian rhetoric tends to be simple, restrained, and direct – much like the parables of Jesus.  The Puritans developed what they called the “plain style” of preaching out of a conviction that Christian speech ought not to embellish, ought not to mislead hearers into thinking they there was some way for a sermon to work in the hearts and minds of the hearers apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes sermons work.
  3. Christian theology has always affirmed that the cross is not only a window through which we see the true nature of God as the embodiment of suffering love but also the truthful mirror in which we see ourselves.  Cruciform preaching can’t help but speak of our sin.  Jesus was nailed to the wood on the basis of a whole host of otherwise noble human ideals and aspirations like law and order, biblical fidelity, and national security. Preaching offers the grace of God along with a good dose of honesty about the human condition, honesty that we would not have had without the cross.  After Calvary we could no longer argue that we are, down deep, basically good people who are making progress once we get ourselves organized and enlightened. The cross is also a reminder that Jesus’ preaching was brutally rejected and if our preaching is about Jesus, then it will often be rejected as well.  There is no way to talk about gospel foolishness without risking rejection. Preachers therefore ought to be more surprised when a congregation gratefully understands, receives, and inculcates our message rather than when it misunderstands, rejects, and ignores our message.  “We are fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10).
  4. Preaching Jesus can be a perilous vocation. One of the first great Christian sermons was that of Stephen who, for his homiletical efforts, was stoned to death (Acts 7-8).  Christian preachers not only talk like Jesus but sometimes suffer and die like Jesus. Jesus was upfront in saying that the cross is not optional equipment for discipleship: “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it”  (Mark 8:34-35). When this episode is reported by Luke (Lk. 9:18-26) Jesus goes on to relate cross bearing to “me and my words” (v. 26). Sometimes, the particular, peculiar cruciform burden that preachers must bear is the words of Jesus. The cross is not some chronic illness, not some annoying person.  The cross is that which is laid upon us because we are following a crucified savior and, for us preachers, having to proclaim the words of this savior can be quite a burden.  For Paul, the cross is not only something that God does to and for the world, unmasking the world’s gods, exposing our sin, forgiving our sin through suffering love, but also the cross is the pattern for Christian life.  He could say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20, as translated in the NRSV footnote). And yet, the good news is that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, which is to say as burdensome and difficult as Jesus and his words can be, they are less burdensome and more fun than most of the other burdens the world tries to lay on our backs.
  5. The cross is a story about the obedience of Christ, obedience even unto death.    A faithful preacher’s life will be characterized by obedience to the task of proclaiming a foolish (by the world’s standards of wisdom) gospel. Preachers must discipline their lives so that there is no time in the pastoral week when a sermon is not in process, when the pastor is not wrestling with the biblical text and the demands of the congregational context.  Preaching is hard work, requiring the cultivation of a host of skills that are difficult to develop.  If we are called to preach (and who would take up this task without being called to do it?) then we must be obedient enough to the vocation to work at it.  I believe the roots of clerical sloth are theological rather than primarily psychological.  We become lazy and slovenly in our work because we have lost the theological rationale for the work.

Yet to take up the cross of Christ, to be willing to assume a yoke of obedience upon our shoulders, oblivious to the praise or blame of our congregations, this is also the basis of what it means to have life and that abundantly, to live one’s life in the light of true glory come down from heaven in the person of Jesus the Christ. As gospel preachers, preaching in the shadow of the cross, we get to talk about something and someone more important than ourselves.  We get to proclaim Christ and him crucified, a rebuke to the world’s means of salvation, the great promise to a world dying for the truth.  We get to expend our lives in work more significant than the lies by which most of the world lives.  Working with a crucified God is a great adventure, a risky, perilous, wonderful undertaking and so much more interesting than mere servility to the wisdom of the world.

— Will Willimon, Theology and Proclamation, Abingdon, 2005.