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 15, 2006

Cheap Grace is Killing the Church

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).

During these weeks of Advent I’ve been thinking a lot about repentance. In this season of anticipation and preparation for the coming again of Christ repentance is a major topic of the appointed Scripture lessons. It is, of course, a major emphasis of Jesus’ preaching. His mission is to bring people into the reign of God. In order to get them into God’s reign requires that they turn away from the ways and expectations of the world and turn towards the ways and expectations of God and life in God’s household.

The call of John and Jesus to repentance is for both individuals and communities. My concern today is for the church’s need for repentance; in particular, The United Methodist Church. For what does the church need to repent? In my travels and observation and growing up in this church I believe that if The United Methodist Church is really serious about its stated mission of “Making disciples of Jesus Christ” it must repent of its propensity to be a purveyor of cheap grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it best when he wrote in his masterpiece, Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without price, without costs. …

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby confers grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. …

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of the community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

This is a fairly accurate description of most United Methodist congregations today. If you are shocked by this, I invite you to consider the expectations of membership in your local congregation. How does the congregation equip and help its members remain faithful to their baptismal covenant? Is there an intentional system to help members grow and mature as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? Is there even an expectation that each member will be taught and equipped for the practices of discipleship (prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Scripture, small groups, fasting/abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, seeking the common good, and witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world)? My experience, as a life-long Methodist/United Methodist, is that we have very low expectations of membership. We give little more than lip service to the baptismal covenant. The result is that most local congregations are little more than social clubs with a religious veneer. There is no expectation that faith will increase, hope in Christ will be confirmed, or that you or I will be perfected in love.

In spite of what the Baptismal covenant states, the real expectations of membership are that a person attend Sunday morning worship when it is convenient and, most important, that they make regular financial contributions to the church’s budget. Consequently, membership in the church is seen more as a benefit than an obligation; more as an entitlement than as a commitment to service and obedience.

Cheap grace is killing the church. If we ever hope to turn around decades of decline we must repent of this insidious way of “doing church.”

Stir up your power, O Lord,
and with great might come among us;
and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let your bountiful grace and mercy
speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen

(Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of
darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of
this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit
us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come
again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the
dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen

Advent, AIDS, & Sen. Barak Obama

Advent is a season for repentance and preparation for the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ. We read those texts from the prophets and in the Gospels that tell us of the coming of God's messiah who will judge the living and the dead. These texts tell us that we will not be judged on the orthodoxy of our theology. The standard, the "plumb line" agains which we will be judges will be love. Have we loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? And, most important, have we lived our love for God by loving those whom God loves--our neighbors and our enemies?

Of course the Biblical understanding of "neighbors" is anyone and everyone who is suffering, sick, imprisoned, oppressed, and marginalized anywhere in the world. The question put to us on the day of judgment will not be "What do you believe?" but we will be asked "How well have you loved your neighbor as yourself?"

The AIDS crisis in Africa presents the Church with a critical test of the quality of its love. The Church will be judged according to how it responds to this crisis of love and compassion. A church leader who has recognized this fact is Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church. He hosted a major conference on World AIDS Day last week. One of the speakers at the conference was Sen. Barak Obama. In this season of repentance and preparation, I encourage you to read Sen. Obama's remarks as an Advent meditation and call to action: The Race Agains Time

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Meaning of the Season

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

“Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him,
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.”

“’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:4-8).

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28).

These texts reveal to us what this season is really about. It’s a time for self-examination and repentance. It’s time to remember that Christ is coming again as the Son of Man who will judge the Church and the world according to their fruits. He’s not going to be looking at the purity of our doctrine and orthodoxy. When Christ judges us he is going to look at the way we have lived our lives. He’s going to look at how well we have loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He’s going to look especially at how we have lived out our love for God through the way we have loved those whom God loves: our neighbors, our enemies, and ourselves. Love will be the measure against which Christ will judge the Church and each person.

Christ will look to see if our love is Cross-shaped. Is it a reflection of his love for the world? Is our love self-giving and willing to suffer? Is our life together characterized by compassion and justice? Do we love one another as Christ loves? Do we love our enemies and those who persecute us?

Advent helps the Church to remember that the Triune God is Lord of the universe who seeks those who will give themselves completely and unreservedly to him and his self-giving, suffering love.

Here’s a powerful Advent hymn from Charles Wesley:

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand, thousand saints attending swell
The triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

The dear tokens of his passion still
His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation to
His ransomed worshipers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
High on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Resist the Rush to Christmas

Advent is the lens through which the Church sees, celebrates and understands Christmas. When we seriously encounter the Christ revealed in Advent we find a Christ who will not be domesticated. He is not a soft and cuddly baby. He is an eschatological prophet, messiah and Lord. He is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). He is “Alpha and Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). He is “The Lord is our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16).

Advent helps the church to see who Jesus really is. He is the prophet who is baptized by John whose mission and message is

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

He is anointed by the Holy Spirit to
“bring good news to the poor, …
proclaim release to the captives and
recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Advent begins by looking to the future and the coming day of the Lord when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. It reminds and encourages us to repent and prepare for that day when the great banquet of Christ will begin. Worship, prayer, and reflection during the weeks of Advent help to orient Christians to the future and the life into which Christ calls us. David Lowes Watson beautifully describes this Advent orientation:

“In plain words, it means that God’s redemption of planet Earth is more, much more, than the salvation of individuals. It means that God’s salvation in Christ cannot and must not be reduced to piecemeal soteriological transactions. Any attempt on the part of individual Christians to announce that they are saved is altogether premature. Christians know they are going to be saved; they know they are being saved; and in one sense, a very limited sense, they have a foretaste of their salvation. But the fullness of God’s salvation, the culmination of God’s saving-righteousness, the new heavens and the new earth, all of these lie in the future. No one has that fullness; not yet.

“And when, by contrast, even a cursory thought is given to the countless millions in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who languish under injustice, or are ravaged by war, the prospect of anyone celebrating personal salvation becomes even less tolerable. In fact, it borders on the obscene. There are still too many of Christ’s little ones who are hungry, too many who lack clothes, too many whoa re sick and in prison. There are still too many empty places at the parousia banquet table. The appropriate attitude for guests who have already arrived, therefore, is to nibble on the appetizers (the ‘firstfruits’), and anticipate the feast which is to come. To sit down and begin to eat would be an unpardonable lapse of good manners, especially since the host is out looking for the missing guests, and could certainly use some help” (God Does Not Foreclose: The Universal Promise of Salvation, page 65).

This is a helpful and much needed reminder to Christians and congregations to resist the rush to Christmas. Let’s resist the market-driven culture of consumption and self-indulgence. Let’s stop to pray, worship, repent, and come to the Lord’s table to be fed and filled with the grace the compels us into the world to be his witnesses. Rather than simply being a reflection of the surrounding culture, albeit with a veneer of religion, let the church be a sign community of the coming reign of God. Then we will be ready to truly celebrate the Christmas that is centered in Christ in all of its radical fullness.

Here’s another song by Bob Dylan that is will help us reflect on the meaning of this season and help us begin another liturgical year: When He Returns