Sunday, August 23, 2015

Does someone have to be wrong before we can be right?

1 Kings 8:22-26
Hebrews 4:14-16
John 14:22-31

“Not all those who wander are lost.”  J.R.R. Tolkien

In the United Church of Canada there is a situation brewing between church authority and an ordained clergy accused of atheism.  Rev. Gretta Vosper is accused of rejecting “the god called God” (her words) and the authority of the Holy Scripture.  Of course the issue is how Rev. Vosper can possibly preach and teach Christian doctrine if she does not even trust the Scripture from which doctrine ultimately comes.  

It seems a no-brainer that she cannot continue in her capacity as a minister of the very Gospel she seems to deny – except that what seems to be the source of this clergy’s “atheism” is not strictly doubt or even disbelief, though there is a measure of that.  Rather she’s having trouble with the profound divide between the movement of the 1st-century Church we read of in Acts and what has become of that Church especially since the Council of Nicaea in the 4th-century – when the Church became an institution.

There can be no reasonable doubt the Holy Spirit was involved in the movement awakened in those early days after Pentecost.  We find an “ekklesia” that is not so much concerned with “creeds” (articulated doctrine) as they are with community, fellowship, the well-being of one’s neighbors, worship of The Lord, and study of the apostles’ teachings (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-34). 

The “ekklesia” (assembly) became so intimately connected that we are told “There was not a needy person among them” (4:34), so filled were they with the Spirit of The Lord.  Think about it: how else can we possibly explain people willing to dump all they owned into a “community pot” administered by the apostles (whom the “ekklesia” barely knew) for the well-being of everyone, the entire “ekklesia” (assembly, congregation, community)??  Those who were once “needy” no longer lacked for the essentials of living.  No real wealth to speak of, but no one went hungry.

Rev. Vosper seems to insist those days are long behind us, but it isn’t that she does not believe this reality cannot be recaptured.  Indeed to the congregation she currently serves, she insists it must be recaptured and embraced once again – for the sake and the well-being of the “ekklesia”.  But what seems to be under the skin of those who want her removed from the pulpit is her lack of orthodoxy – that is, “right beliefs”; orthodox creeds that define doctrine but do not necessarily inform the “ekklesia” or develop the character of a believer in the matter of orthopraxy – that is, “right practice”. 

In the contemporary Church there seems to be a profound disconnect between the two, between what we profess to believe and what we show to believe.  This divide is attested to by a substantial generation of millennials who have not exactly rejected faith and religion in general (though many have) but have rejected those who “profess” a belief that finds no practice in the “ekklesia”.  I submit that this shift in doctrinal thinking leading to the disconnect between “right belief” and “right practice” may be due in large measure to the 16th-century Reformation from which “works” came to be regarded as a doctrinal dirty word.

I shared recently about a church that was on the brink of self-destruction due to a particular “clique” that demanded a rigid orthodoxy and an equally rigid “litmus test” for clergy and laity to determine fitness for church membership - according to this “clique’s” own narrow standards.  It was even demanded of my pastor friend and mentor that he submit his sermon manuscripts prior to Sunday’s service for approval!  Lest there be any questions, my friend did not comply.  Whether his predecessors did submit is unknown, but what is known is that more than one clergy and many laity were utterly destroyed and driven away altogether by these self-appointed guardians.  Those driven away were not convicted of sin; they were convinced of hatred from the “ekklesia”.

I guess there was a time when I might have likely been a part of that group – except I would probably have been as easily dismissed as any other because, as you have surely come to know, I like to think outside the “orthodox box” even though I often keep one hand safely on that box.  As when we played “chase” when we were kids, that “orthodox box” is a safe haven, the “base” as we called it.  It is my default option whenever I approach the end of the pier and find myself running out of pier and running headlong into water that may be too deep!

So it isn’t that orthodoxy is not important, of course.  The controversy leading up to the Council of Nicaea had to be settled because there was a substantial camp of “Arians” (not to be confused with Aryan) who questioned the divinity of Jesus; that is, whether He is “eternally begotten of the Father”, as expressed in the Nicene Creed, or was a created being like the rest of us. 

Articulating a coherent doctrine is necessary, but the doctrine must go beyond a written belief as in a creed.  That is only a matter of having pen and paper.  What the Church must be concerned with is doctrine that finds life in flesh and blood and Spirit … and, yes, “works”.  “Right belief” cannot have real meaning for the “ekklesia” – nor for those outside of the Covenant which binds the “congregation” - if those “right beliefs” lack discernible and tangible “practice”.  “Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). 

We must not take the word of a Reformer over the Word of our Lord!

This is the very reason why vows taken when joining a United Methodist Church involves not only an affirmation of “right beliefs”, but also requires a vow of “right practice” of service to the Church in “prayers, presence, gifts, and service”.  These are vows freely taken; and as it is written in the Scripture: “If you make a vow to The Lord your God, do not be slow to fulfill it; for The Lord your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 23:21).

The Social Principles and General Rules of the United Methodist Church are informed largely by the intimate doctrinal connection between “beliefs” and “practice”: “Our struggles for human dignity and social reform have been a response to God’s demand for love, mercy, and justice in the light of the Kingdom.  We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners … The Book of Discipline and the General Rules convey the expectations of discipline (order) within [the “ekklesia”] … [but] Support without accountability [to discipleship] promotes moral weakness; [and] accountability without support is a form of cruelty.  A church that rushes to punishment is not open to God’s mercy, but a church lacking the courage to act decisively on personal and social issues loses its claim to moral authority.  The Church exercises its discipline (remember “order” rather than “punishment”) as [the “ekklesia”] through which God continues to ‘reconcile the world to Himself’” (2012 Book of Discipline, ¶102, pg 53).

In all of this, it is not strictly a matter of who may or may not be “wrong” in any particular belief.  Rather it is primarily about the “ekklesia” offering to an unbelieving world what is truly righteous.  Not everyone can claim a rigid belief in a particular doctrine that lacks a discernable moral code.  That is, a discernible Gospel that is as personal as it must be social.  And that fundamental Gospel must surely be not only that Messiah Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father” but that He is also “the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us”. 

Our faith and our witness is not at all about being “right”, for we are human beings with human minds and limited human understanding about the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This in no way means we need not search, but we are as capable of being wrong as being right – especially in a rush to judgment.  This in no way, however, can be used as an excuse for being anything less than “righteous” – that is, merciful and with a profound sense of fundamental justice due to all of Creation.  Our Lord did indeed – and does still through His Holy Church – redeem and justify and sanctify souls; but perhaps as much as anything else, our Lord also stands for the dignity and well-being of the human person – even those who do not yet trust in Him.

Our Lord Jesus said, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so the world may know I love the Father.  Rise, and let us be on our way” (John 14:31). 

And so I say to you, let us “rise and be on our way” to go about the business of The Lord – to be the “Light” we are all called to “be”; the “Light” we are all called to “do”.  Amen.

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