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Sunday, April 13, 2014 — Palm Sunday

Preparers of the Way

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Resurrection Now

As we move through Eastertide at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church we are continuing to explore some of the implications of Resurrection. Our belief in Resurrection is not only a future hope; it is a present reality.  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.

Resurrection Now

With other Christians we recognize that the reign of God is both a present and future reality. The church is called to be that place where the first signs of the reign of God are identified and acknowledged in the world. Wherever persons are being made new creatures in Christ, wherever the insights and resources of the gospel are brought to bear on the life of the world, God’s reign is already effective in its healing and renewing power.

When I begin to read a book (except for detective novels), I usually read the last chapter first. If you know where the author is headed, you will be better able to appreciate how the author gets you there. Knowing the conclusion of the drama, the ultimate end, gives us hope in our present actions as individuals and as the Church.  This expectation saves us from resignation and motivates our continuing witness and service.

Hope for the end empowers us now.  When I asked the director of an inner city United Methodist mission how on earth he kept going against all odds, working for thirty years among the city’s poorest of the poor, he replied, “How on earth?  Because I know who will finally win the war.  God is not forever mocked.  There’s a kingdom being prepared there for those who’ve had next to nothing here, on earth, and I’m eager to show them what it looks like.”

I can’t think of any food pantry for the poor or shelter for the homeless that’s been initiated by a group of secular-Nietzchean-rationalist-postmodernists, though just about every United Methodist church participates in such ministry.  Our eschatology, our faith in the ultimate triumph of God drives us to participation in a new heaven and a new earth right now. We believe that when Jesus said, “I came that they might have life,” (John 10:10) that Jesus meant both now and then, here and there, his will done on earth as it is in heaven. Mark says that Jesus’ first sermon began with the announcement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” (Mk. 1:15)  Because we know and expect that time, that place when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever,” (Rev. 11:15) we do not lose hope. Salvation is the name for our adoption into that kingdom without end: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19).  Affirmation of God’s triumph, of the gift of eternal life, of a final judgment for all, these are among the most politically charged and economically relevant of Christian doctrines.

As conversionist, transformationist, sanctificationist Christians, United Methodists – having experienced God’s dramatic transformation of us in our own lives – think it not too much of a leap to imagine God’s transformation, sanctification, and conversion of the whole cosmos.  The person who said to me, after her experience of personal conversion, “It’s like the old me is over and there’s a whole new me,” is just the sort of person who thinks it conceivable that God could do that to the whole creation.   Just as in my baptism, the old has been and is being put to death, so in our baptism, a new me is being raised for new life in Christ.  Church is a lifetime of dress rehearsal for the move that God will make in us in eternal life.

We believe that Jesus defeated death, triumphed and, in an amazing act of grace, intends to take us along with him, through this veil of tears that sometimes is this life in the present world, all the way to whatever realm awaits us in eternity. And we believe this on the basis, not of some naïve wish for the future, but on the solid evidence of his love as we have experienced it here and now.  Because God in Christ has gone to such extraordinary lengths to get to us in this life, we cannot believe that God will not continue to reach out to us in death.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?…  Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…   No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Rom. 8:1, 31-32, 35, 37-39)

When it comes to anyone’s ultimate destiny, our fates are in the hand of a just and merciful God who is God of the just and the unjust, who makes his sun to shine upon the undeserving heads of both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). In his mature thought, Wesley seems to have a wider hope for those who do not know Christ.  Though to be sure, even when those who do not apparently know Christ are saved, brought into eternal life, this also is through Christ since, as we noted earlier, any human response to God is possible only because of the resourceful grace of God that works in us through the saving work of Christ – even when we don’t know it. Wesley really believed that God will get what God wants and, in Scripture and in his experience with the People Called Methodist, it is clear that God wants the world.

The church is called to be that place where the first signs of the reign of God are identified and acknowledged in the world.  Wherever persons are being made new creatures in Christ, wherever the insights and resources of the gospel are brought to bear on the life of the world, God’s reign is already effective in its healing and renewing power.

            Just after the Discipline speaks about “Christ’s universal church,” it moves immediately to talk about the “coming of God’s realm and reign” and “everlasting life.”  After all, what is the church but an expression of, a foretaste and a present experience of eternal life?  The church is where we are taught the hope-filled experience of God’s eternity now as well as to keep taut the tension between the way things are here in our kingdoms of this world and the way God means for things to be in the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are not permitted to bed down, settle in, and rest content with the injustice, the tragedy, and the limits of this world.  The church keeps telling us that there is a new world coming and we are meant to be part of it. Church is where we learn to sing the hopeful first notes of that song that we shall one day sing for all eternity:

“Hallelujah!

For the Lord our God

the Almighty reigns.

Let us rejoice and exult

    and give him the glory,…”  (Rev. 19:6-7)

What we only experience here and there, on Sundays, as special and extraordinary in our life together in the church shall one day be as typical as Monday.  Our occasional celebrations of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion shall be our normal fare as we feast forever at the Banquet of the Lord. We shall, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn, be “lost in wonder, love, and grace.”  Our social pronouncements condemning present evils shall be vindicated in the new world order that is God’s final act of grace. Church is practice for eternal life.

The night before a racist, assassin’s bullet brought his life to an end, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached to the Memphis garbage workers. In his sermon he said,

It’s all right to talk about long robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here.  It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis.[1]

The Book of Revelation, at the end of the Bible, says that in Paradise, when the Kingdom of Heaven is come in its fullness, there will be no church (Rev. 21:22), not even a United Methodist church.  Why? Presumably we won’t need church to train us to be in peace with God and our neighbors.  We won’t have to content ourselves with glimpses of eternity. We will have arrived. The people of God shall shine like the sun.  We shall see God, not as through a mirror, dimly, but face-to-face (1 Cor. 13:12).  We shall know.  The veil of mortality shall be lifted.  That stunning, glorious light which is God Almighty and the Lamb (Rev. 21:22), shall effusively shine upon us.  We shall then fully see God and ourselves as we have been created from the beginning to be.  Perfected, washed and raised, at the end, we shall be home.

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

 

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: HaperSanFrancisco, 1986), 282.

Resurrection: Getting What God Wants

At Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, we are joyfully moving through “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.  What we believe about Easter is the core of our faith.  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.

Resurrection: Getting What God Wants

The philosopher Sǿren Kierkegaard went about the streets of Copenhagen asking people if they really believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Almost everyone did. Then he asked them what difference that belief made in the way they went about their business. Kierkegaard concluded that it had not the slightest import.

Though Kierkegaard was a Lutheran, his was a very Methodist sort of question. As we have said earlier, we are not only interested in the orthodoxy of beliefs, but also in their practical force. What difference does the resurrection make?

ETERNAL LIFE

We also look to the end time in which God’s work will be fulfilled. This prospect gives us hope in our present actions as individuals and as the Church.  This expectation saves us from resignation and motivates our continuing witness and service.

We also look to the end time in which God’s work will be fulfilled. This prospect gives us hope in our present actions as individuals and as the Church.  This expectation saves us from resignation and motivates our continuing witness and service.

“Eternal life,” “everlasting life,” or “heaven,” are synonyms for that time, that place, that confluence of events whereby God gets what God wants.  A reticence to speak about such matters may be due more to our present economic circumstances than our modern, progressive world view. People like me, people in power, people who are reasonably well fixed tend not to expect much of God. Again, as Jesus said, we have our reward.  Our lives could only be made more difficult by a God who in some future shall ask, “What have you done with what you have been given?”  — especially if that happens to be a God who loves the poor and holds the rich to account!

But other people, the sort of people whom the old Methodists once treasured and to whom they felt an obligation — those on the bottom, the powerless and the miserably futured — if there is not a God who actively rights wrongs and works justice and holds to account, then they are without hope.  Modern notions of progress, naïve ideas of innate human goodness and smug complacency about the present order wilt in the face of true tragedy and deep, systemic, eradicable injustice.  That’s one reason why we United Methodists think it important for every church to be engaged in ministry to and with the poor and the dispossessed. Wesley taught (I count 86 references) that there wasn’t much wrong with any Christian, rich or poor, that couldn’t be cured by more regular visits to those who were sick or in prison. Such ministry rubs our noses in the need of the world and confronts us with our responsibility in Christ. Wesley taught that all Christians have a responsibility to help those in circumstances worse than theirs, that the poor can be empowered to love others who need them and that the rich could experience the grace of God when they did something good with their wealth.

In his commentary on Jesus’ “the poor you shall always have with you” (Matt. 26:11), Wesley exclaims, “Such is the wise and gracious providence of God that we may have always opportunities of relieving their needs and so laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven.”[1]

To be honest, many churches in mainline Protestantism in the U.S.A. (including too many United Methodist churches) can be unhappy places these days of membership decline and malaise.  We console ourselves with, “Every church is losing members,” and “Nobody around here is religious anymore.”  We resign ourselves to slow death by attrition, deny the decay and plaster over the cracks in the wall.  You would think, to watch this sort of morbidity, that we lied when we stood and said with the Creed, “I believe….in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” making a mockery of Easter.

Such are some of the implications of believing in Resurrection.

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

 

[1]John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, 42.