Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Only One Thing

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

It was pointed out to me recently - and my wife affirmed it - that I have a bad habit of using a $20 word when a $2 word would work just as well. I have to admit that if I discover anything that will annoy my wife, it is not likely I'll give it up anytime soon! It's my "dignified" way of flirting with her! Still, as a preacher who does not always proclaim the word to Ph.d types, it is important that I am more careful in the words I choose to make the same point: that the Gospel of the Lord is Light and Life. Live the Gospel, share the Gospel, preach the Gospel; and live in Light and Life Eternal.

The other night my son-in-law told me that he and my daughter had recently had a visit from the local Mormon missionaries, so he began asking me questions about the Latter-Day Saints, the Book of Mormon, and Mormonism in general. I cannot say I can speak the lingo, but there are some unique features of the Mormon faith I'm at least familiar with. Whether I agree with these particular features, however, is another story and far beyond the point.

The last visit I had at my home from two young missionaries began as simply as it could possibly begin. They smiled, looked me in the eye, and asked if I was aware that Jesus had died for my sins. That's it. It really was that simple - and genuine, I think. There was earnestness about them, their facial expressions, and the way they stood, but it was not the earnestness of a "recruiter" who was trying to make a quota. It was the enthusiasm of a genuine disciple who really wanted to be sure I was aware of my redemption.

That opening line alone caught me off guard because the typical door visits I've gotten from other groups usually begins with asking me if I'm "saved" or if I'm aware that the world is coming to an end. The word "saved" seems simple enough and it is fairly common Protestant language most Christians understand, but there is a difference here that I had not really appreciated until the Mormons knocked me off my balance and out of my comfort zone.

We had a very nice visit. I invited them in to sit for awhile, and we talked about religion, faith, orthodox Christianity (a very general description of American Christianity), and Mormonism; and they were as inquisitive to me as a United Methodist pastor as I was to them as Mormon missionaries. Though there were obviously some finer points of doctrine we differed on, there was no real "disagreement" in that one tried to correct or persuade the other. Their message was simple and inarguable: Christ Jesus died for the sins of mankind.

St. Paul was obviously answering a question that had been put to him by the Corinthian church he had established. Paul's answer indicates that within the church in Corinth (more likely several church "houses") there were more points of division rather than points of unification - and misguided loyalties. It is not unlike the many churches of Magnolia AR in which one church may belong to Pope Benedict, others may belong to Martin Luther, while still others may belong to John Wesley or John Calvin.

The doctrines and practices we have embraced over the years - actually, over the centuries - came to us from one source or another and usually as various interpretations of the same scriptural text. Within any given text there is this opinion or that perspective, and we often mistakenly refer to someone in the historic past as the ultimate authoritative figure. Worse than this, we make demands of those who do not agree with us, causing further divisions and doing little more than alienating people from the Church.

Now there does not seem to be any real harm in such human, historical references. Over time we have pretty much insisted that our clergy be reasonably educated not only in the Bible and church doctrine but also in history and philosophy. All these disciplines combine with others to offer a perspective that can help to restore a soul to the Lord or to re-energize the complacent souls of the faithful. Either way will bear the same fruit - as long as we keep the main thing the Main Thing.

The missionaries who came to my door were not asking if I was aware of a generic religion that taught about and worshipped some generic "god"; these missionaries wanted to know specifically if I was actively and actually aware that it took the tortuous death of Jesus to make possible my spiritual reconciliation with the one, true, and living God of all creation. They wanted to know if I was aware not of their church but of OUR GOD and Holy Father. They wanted me to know that a Sacrifice had been made specifically in my behalf and in the behalf of so many others.

Even when I identified myself as a United Methodist pastor, they did not try to challenge Methodist doctrine or my personal beliefs. It was, purely and simply, only about Christ. And when it became clear there were points of doctrine in which we disagreed, they made sure the main thing remained the Main Thing: salvation through faith.

There is no more "eloquent" message that can be shared. Divisions, dissensions, and debate all have their proper places and can serve as useful tools to more fully engage non-believers in active conversations about the Lord, but if these points of doctrinal disagreement become the primary focus of the engagement, then it is as St. Paul fretted about with the Corinthians: "The cross of Christ might ... be emptied of its power".

It is the Good News, Life-giving power of the Gospel of the Lord that is - and must always remain - the Main Thing whether we are talking to fellow Christians from other denominations, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, or non-believers. It does not really matter much where we or they come from; it matters much more where we are all headed and whether we will choose to persevere together in one common purpose: "to proclaim the Gospel" - regardless of the cost.

It does not require an educated mind or "eloquent wisdom" to make sure people are aware of the Gospel, and I'm not so sure we are required to make sure folks "believe" the way we think they should "believe". We need only to help them to "knock" as Jesus tells us to "knock" so that the Holy Spirit will open the door for them. From there the Lord will make sure they know what He needs them to know - rather than what we think they ought to know. We need only to make the introduction, by way of His Gospel, to that which we do know to be true: that Christ has died, that Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again. To the glory of God the Father and for the sake of our immortal souls.

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