Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Have You Noticed the Irony?

Have you noticed any irony about all the folks who have been making so much noise about the alleged “War on Christmas”? The folks at Fox News and Republicans in congress who are put off  when stores proclaim “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” while simultaneously giving enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq and cutting Medicaid and Food Stamps for the poor. Does this strike you as just a little bit ironic?

It seems they are more concerned with preserving some cultural vestiges of civil religion than with actually giving any credence to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. How could they truly celebrate the One who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), who taught his disciples to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) while at the same time acting as cheerleaders for an unnecessary and unjust war and would like the CIA be free to use torture against suspected enemies.

It’s ironic to me that these same folks get exercised about a Christmas tree on public property being designated a “Holiday” tree and then turn around to vote in favor of making Federal budget cuts on the backs of the poor while making tax cuts for the wealthy permanent. All this supposedly in the name of celebrating the Christ who came to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).

What a strange world we live in.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Mary of Nazareth - The First Disciple

Luke 1:26-38; 46-56

Mary was just a girl; about fourteen years old when she was betrothed to Joseph. She lived in a dusty little town in Galilee called Nazareth. It was an unremarkable place populated by very ordinary people.

One day, as the Scripture tells us, a messenger from God came to Mary and offered her an extraordinary proposition. The messenger informed her that God had chosen her to conceive and bear God's Son who she would name Jesus (which means "God saves"). Naturally, this came as a great shock to Mary.

After all, she was just a simple Jewish girl who was recently engaged to be married to the town carpenter. Her first response was fear. The presence of this divine messenger scared her. Then, she probably began to wonder: How would she explain this to Joseph?

Why did God choose her? What would her parents think? What would the community think? Mary looked the angel in the eye and asked: "How can this be since I am a virgin?" The angel's reply touched her humility and faith: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God."

This reply must have convinced Mary that this messenger really was from God and that God was serious about this baby stuff. The messenger's last sentence must have helped convince Mary: "For nothing will be impossible with God." Her response was immediate: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Mary's response was faithful cooperation with God's plan for saving the world and everyone in it. Mary said "Yes." to God. She took a step of faith and trusted that God knew what God was doing. Mary trusted God enough to place her life and her future in God's hands.

It is unfortunate that Mary has been virtually ignored in our tradition. She has been pushed to the edges of the story of salvation. But the reality is that Mary plays a very key role in God's work of saving the world. Not only is she the one who bore God's son, she is also the one who nursed, mothered and raised Jesus. Mary helped to form the person whom the man Jesus became. Like any mother, Mary played an integral role in the life of the One who would save the world from the powers of sin and death. Had it not been for Mary, God's plans for Jesus, and you and me, would have been very different. God chose wisely when God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus.

Mary serves as a model of true faith, accepting God's will despite her lack of comprehension and even reservations in relation to the angel's message of God's saving work. Mary is the first disciple. She responded to God's call in her life by saying "Yes" to God. In saying "Yes!" to God's divine initiative, Mary became a living channel of grace for the world. For it was through Mary that God became flesh and lived among us. It was through Mary that God came into the world as one of us. It was through Mary that God came into the world as the Jew from Nazareth, Jesus Christ; the one who lived for the world, the one who suffered for the world, the one who was crucified for the world, and, the one who rose again for the world. All this became possible because of Mary's faith and her willingness to cooperate with God. Because of Mary, we know that grace became flesh and grace is at work in history, among us, and in us.

Finally, Mary is a model of the Church as the people of God who are called to be Christ-bearers in the world. In other words, each of us are called by God to be like Mary. When we look at Mary we can see that God wants to give birth to Christ in each of us. As Christ is born in your heart, you bear him in the world and offer him to others. As Mary bore Christ in the water of her womb, we bear him in our hearts. And, like Mary, God comes to us with the assurance that nothing is impossible with God. With God, our fear and anxiety about the future can be overcome. With God, we can step into the future and deal with whatever it holds for us.

Steven Manskar

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Glory to God on High

The following is a hymn by Charles Wesley that beautifully expresses the meaning and power of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ we celebrate in Christmas. I found it in the British Methodist Hymnal, Hymns & Psalms, #101. I wish it had been included in The United Methodist Hymnal.

Glory to God on High

Glory to God on high,
And peace on earth descend:
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears:
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourn in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.

Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled
LordThey now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shown,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!

See the eternal Son of God
A mortal son of man
Dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.

We, earth’s children, now rejoice,
The Prince of Peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.

(may be sung to AMSTERDAM)

Monday, December 05, 2005

What If Christians Celebrated Advent?

Many will be surprised to learn that the season of Advent is not intended to be four weeks of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The purpose of Advent is for the church to worship, prepare, hope, and wait for the Christ who is coming again.

Laurence Hull Stookey describes the meaning of Advent beautifully in his book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church:

"The first Sunday of Advent is regarded in the Western Church as the beginning of the liturgical year. But Advent is first of all about the end of time. Because the term itself means “coming” or “arrival,” and because is precedes Christmas, many have misunderstood Advent to be exclusively a time to get ready to celebrate the coming of a child at Bethlehem. In fact, the primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called “the second coming.” Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil. Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God; the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of this destruction of the powers of death, the inauguration and anticipation of what is yet to come in fullness. As such, the opening Sundays of Advent bring to sharp focus themes that in the lectionary system have been accumulating for some weeks; for as the lectionary year closes, the Gospel readings, in particular, deal with signs of the end." (page 121)

Therefore, the beginning of the liturgical calendar focuses on the end of time. It calls us to contemplate and celebrate history’s destination. It is in the promise that God wins in the end that we can live in hope and anticipation.

A cursory reading of the lectionary for the first two Sundays of Advent reveal that looking at the coming again of Christ shows us the lives we are to live now. If the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the One born in Bethlehem is a God of righteousness and justice, ought not those who claim the same One as Lord and Savior to live lives that reflect that same righteousness and justice?

For example, look at this passage for the Second Sunday of Advent:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home
(2 Peter 3:8-13, NRSV).

As the first two Sundays of Advent look forward to the future of Christ’s coming kingdom and reign, the closing two Sundays look backwards to the past; to Christ’s birth. We see in these texts that in that birth God begins the process of turning the world upside down:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on
the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all
generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done
great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made
to our ancestors,
to Abraham and
to his descendants forever.”

(Luke 1:46b-55, NRSV)

What would happen if the church celebrated Advent as preparation, waiting, and hoping for coming again of the One was born in Bethlehem? How would such an observance change the church? How would it change the people? What if Christians actually entered into a time of repentance, confession, prayer, and worship as a way of preparing themselves and their world for the coming again of Christ? How would the church and the world be changed if Christians fasted and prayed and engaged in acts of justice and compassion during the weeks of Advent as their witness to and way of preparing for Christ’s coming again? What would happen if Christians resisted the market cultures rush to Christmas and waited until December 24 to begin their celebration of Christ’s birth?

Steve Manskar

Who Is A Disciple?

The English word, disciple, is derived from the Latin, discipulus, meaning “a learner or pupil; one who accepts and follows a given doctrine or teacher” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1:845). A disciple of Jesus Christ, therefore, is a person who accepts and follows his teachings. All who are baptized in the name of the Triune God and confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are Christians and, by definition, disciples.

Our Wesleyan tradition gives some further help answering the question “Who is a disciple?” A disciple is a person who has faith in Christ and their faith bears fruit through keeping the General Rules (see The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004, pages 72-74): doing no harm by avoiding evil, doing good to all as often as possible, and practicing the instituted means of grace (prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and hearing Scripture, fasting/abstinence). Christian faith is exhibited by a life that strives toward holiness of heart and life (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 4:1-3; Philippians 2:12-13); perfection (maturity/ wholeness/ completeness) in love (Matthew 5:48; 1 John 2:3-6); “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). A disciple is one whose life in the world is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). A disciple’s life seeks wholehearted love for God through loving service in the world, especially with the poor, those who are sick, prisoners, lonely, tired, and lost (see Matthew 22:37-39; 25:31-46).

The General Rules are for all Christians. They are a simple, general, guide for living in the world as followers and friends of Jesus Christ. They are a rule of life intended to help Christians to be mindful of the basics of loving God, loving neighbors and loving one another. They help disciples to attend to all of the teachings of Jesus and not only those that suit their temperament. A disciple, therefore, is a Christian who does his or her best to follow Jesus’ teachings every day of the week.

Two Kinds of Disciples

John Wesley provides some help with identifying types of discipleship in his sermon, “The More Excellent Way.” Here he reflects on the nature of Christian discipleship. He acknowledges a long held belief that there are two kinds of Christians:

The one lived an innocent life, conforming in all things not sinful to the customs and fashions of the world, doing many good works, abstaining from gross evils, and attending the ordinances of God. They endeavoured in general to have a conscience void of offence in their outward behaviour, but did not aim at any particular strictness, being in most things like their neighbours.

The other sort of Christians not only abstained from all appearance of evil, were zealous of good works in every kind, and attended all the ordinances of God; but likewise used all diligence to attain the whole mind that was in Christ, and laboured to walk in every point as their beloved Master. In order to this they walked in a constant course of universal self-denial, trampling on every pleasure which they were not divinely conscious prepared them for taking pleasure in God. They took up their cross daily. They strove, they agonized without intermission, to enter in at the strait gate. This one thing they did; they spared no pains to arrive at the summit of Christian holiness: 'leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, to go on to perfection'; 'to know all that love of God which passeth knowledge, and to be filled with all the fullness of God'. (§5)

The first group composes the vast majority of Christians. They attend worship in varying degrees of frequency, give money to the church, may attend a Sunday school class, send their children to Sunday school, and do their best to be good, decent people. Their appearance and behavior is virtually indistinguishable from that of their non-Christian and non-religious neighbors. These are the majority of disciples present in any given congregation.

The second kind of Christians described by Wesley are those women and men who have made an intentional, deeply personal commitment to following and serving Jesus Christ in the world through loving obedience to his commandments. They are more disciplined in practicing the means of grace, both the works of piety and the works of mercy. These disciples are deeply committed to Christ and exhibit a way of life that leads to holiness of heart and life.

Wesley is very clear in this sermon to say that both groups are equally “saved.” They all are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Each is following Christ in the way that best suits them at the time. That being said, Wesley also asserts that it is the responsibility of the community of faith and its leaders to encourage and equip the first type of Christians to desire to mature and move toward the second.

I would be far from quenching the smoking flax, from discouraging those that serve God in a low degree. But I would not wish them to stop here: I would encourage them to come up higher, without thundering hell and damnation in their ears, without condemning the way wherein they were, telling them it is the way that leads to destruction. I will endeavour to point out to them what is in every respect a more excellent way. (§ 7)

He wants them to know that there is more to Christian discipleship and that God wants them to become fully the persons God created them to be. The “more excellent way” is the way of whole-hearted love that leads to holiness of heart and life, to having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5), which is perfection in love (1 John 4:17-21).

The Apostles & The Crowd

Is there Scriptural support for this two-tiered discipleship? We find it in the gospel accounts of Jesus and his relationship with the disciples and the “crowd.” One of the clearest examples is found in the accounts of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Look, for example, at Mark 6:30-44.

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

We see in this story the two types of Christian discipleship. The first is represented by the crowd who were drawn to Jesus and his disciples. They came to be healed and to hear the good news of the coming kingdom of God. They need to hear the good news that sins are forgiven, that God loves them unconditionally, that God will give them the faith needed to heal them of their brokenness (body, mind, spirit, and relationship). Jesus has compassion on them. He gives them all that he has to offer. They come to him with an emptiness in their lives that the world cannot fill. Only Jesus can satisfy their longing for hope, healing, and meaning in their lives.

The second type of discipleship is represented by the “apostles.” They are the ones who have committed their lives to walking with, following, and serving alongside Jesus in the world. They are also the ones whom Jesus equips to feed, care for, and heal the crowd. Jesus takes what they give him and multiplies it in order to meet the needs of the others who come for healing, forgiveness of sins, and to hear the good news of the coming kingdom of God.
Baptized & Professing Disciples

This model of discipleship is also found in our understanding of baptism and church membership. We now have two types of members in The United Methodist Church: Baptized and Professing. The roll of the Baptized contains all those persons who have received and accepted the sacrament of Baptism. God has marked them as God’s own children and welcomed them into God’s household, the Church. The Church, in turn, promises to surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness. It promises to all in its power to increase their faith, confirm their hope and perfect them in love.

The Professing members are those persons who have accepted God’s gift of forgiveness, acceptance and faith. They promise to follow and serve Christ in the world as his faithful disciples and to support the ministries of the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, and service. The expectation is that Professing members are those persons who are regularly present and participating in worship, Bible study, and other ministries of the congregation. Ideally, they are in a small group with other professing members for mutual support and accountability for following and witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world.

The task of the church, of course, is to welcome all people who are seeking a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, to nurture them in that faith and life, and to support and equip them for growth in holiness of heart and life. In this ministry the church helps persons to grow and mature in faith, hope and love that they may live as professing members and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.


A disciple is a person who has been baptized in the name of the Triune God and welcomed into the fellowship of the church. A disciple is any person who responds to the eucharistic invitation:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

A disciple is one who comes to the Lord’s table with open heart and hands, receives Christ’s body and blood and goes into the world to live as a servant of love and justice. A disciple goes into the world to live the prayer after communion:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

A disciple believes that “to know [God] is eternal life and to serve [God] is perfect freedom” (from the Collect for Peace found in The Book of Common Prayer). Disciples renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of their sins. They accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they encounter. And, they confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 34).

Discipleship is a journey. It is a deeply personal experience of self-discovery, struggle, service and growth. While it is personal, the journey of discipleship is not private. Disciples do not walk alone with Christ. They walk with him and the others he chooses for them (see John 15:16). Some are more seasoned while others are new, fresh disciples. Christ brings them together to teach them how to become like Christ to one another. As they become more and more like Christ for each other, they become able to be like Christ to their neighbors in the world. The writer of the Gospel according to John puts it this way, “… to all who receive [Christ], who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). The journey of discipleship, therefore, is a process of “becoming” the human beings God created them to be; fully human in the image of Christ; channels of grace for the healing and redemption of planet earth.

The journey of discipleship has a destination. The Wesleyan tradition believes this destination to be, “perfection in love,” “holiness of heart and life,” and “having the mind of Christ.” Disciples of Jesus Christ take responsibility for one another as they strive to live out his commandment:

… love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).

Jesus gives disciples the grace they need to encourage one another through mutual support and accountability for believing, obeying, and loving him and his commandments. In the process they help each other along the way towards maturity, or “perfection in love.”

What does this “perfection in love” look like? Paul describes the marks of Christian maturity in Galatians 5:22-23

… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

and Colossians 3:12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

All this is God’s gift and work in, with, and for those who desire to be and live as disciples of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciple’s task is to participate and cooperate with the work that God is doing and promises to do through the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, a disciple is a person who strives to live into the Covenant Prayer. Knowing that few are there yet, but that, with much love and support, all are seeking and running toward the goal trusting in the grace of God given to all through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And not, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

Come, let us use the grace divine,
And all, with one accord,
In a perpetual covenant join
Ourselves to Christ the Lord.

Give up ourselves, through Jesu's power,
His name to glorify;
And promise in this sacred hour
For God to live and die.

(The United Methodist Hymnal, #607 & #606)
Steven W. Manskar