Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Cornerstone of Faith

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Acts 4:1-12
John 14:1-7

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.”  John Wesley

What do we mean when we say we have faith in Christ?  I think that in order for the Church to experience genuine spiritual revival, as Wesley worked for in his day and as our bishop insists must happen today for the sake of the Gospel, this question must be answered honestly - because to ‘believe’ as a simple creed is not quite the same as having the ‘faith’ necessary to please The Lord, “for one who comes to The Lord must believe He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6 NKJV). 

This depth of faith not only leads to our justification before The Lord; it is the manifestation of what it means to “diligently seek Him” as we “go on to perfection”.  As John Wesley believed and expressed, one who is not “going on to perfection” purposefully and intentionally and, yes, “methodically” is no better off than the demons who “believe … and tremble”!

Too often we insist having faith means it is not necessary to explain ourselves because our faith is ‘personal’, maybe even ‘private’ and thus ‘no one’s business but mine’ (and the social liberals would much prefer it that way!), but Wesley nor our United Methodist principles and doctrine will allow any such notions as strictly ‘personal’ faith that lacks meaningful, outward social expression, for “Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than ‘holy adulterers’.” We are necessarily connected one to another in the Body of Christ.

We do not all have to be church pastors or street preachers, but The Lord has a unique claim on our lives that cannot – must not – be ignored.  Our faith cannot be relegated to only a portion of our being on Sunday morning nor can it be delegated strictly to paid church staff.  The fullness of the life we are called into is expressed in doctrine outwardly in and through this abiding faith which can indeed “please The Lord”.

Doctrine binds us as United Methodists (not just ‘Methodist’!), but it is a mistake to believe John Wesley’s “think and let think” concept applies so much so that UM doctrine can be summarized as ‘whatever’.  It isn’t true, of course.  It never was true even in Wesley’s context, and it never will be true. 

However, we must also understand the usefulness of doctrine as much more than distinguishing us as United Methodist Christians.  The doctrine of the United Methodist Church is entirely about informed, purposeful discipleship and spiritual leadership in mutual accountability, the fullness of which is not only in what we believe but, perhaps more importantly, in how we express outwardly what we believe inwardly as the Body of Christ. 

Without that expression in our living and in our doing for “the least of these” (not just family and close friends), the doctrine falls flat and is rendered meaningless – as is the Church.  It is the “form of religion” when we go through the motions only on Sunday morning and yet is “lacking the genuine power to transform lives” Monday through Saturday.  This is paper faith that is incapable of “pleasing The Lord”.

It is as true in understanding a portion of United Methodist doctrine known as the “General Rules” in which we are admonished and encouraged to 1) Do no harm, 2) Do good, and 3) stay in love with The Lord through the Sacraments of the Church and the means of grace at our disposal – including regular Bible study and worship with one another.  We may not cherry-pick one or another of these General Rules to fit particular circumstances and still consider ourselves faithful United Methodist Christians – especially if we will not be bothered with worshiping with United Methodist Christians.

These General Rules go together in conjunction with the whole of United Methodist doctrine in the fullest expressions of the Great Commandments to “love the Lord our God with every fiber of our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves”.  The fullness of United Methodist doctrine helps us to understand the depth of faith necessary to strive toward sanctification, that state of spiritual being in which we finally desire nothing but The Lord.

Let us not become confused by the depth of this desire to the exclusion of all else.  Rather, in the fullness of faith and life, we become better spouses, better parents, better siblings, better friends, certainly better disciples than we would otherwise be.  Why?  Because without doctrine we know, understand, respect, and even admire limits.  We love fully – but not quite as fully as The Lord because we also know, understand, respect, and even institutionalize conditions; cultural conditions, personal conditions … within the overall human condition which is less than holy. 

Faith that truly “pleases The Lord” knows no limits and places no conditions on love.  We love even our enemies; and if we are unwilling to love even these (and I think we all struggle with this), Christ may have no place in or use for us.  We lack the faith necessary to “please The Lord”.  We might believe “He is” (as the demons do), but we cannot say we are also “diligently seeking Him” if there are conditions and limits on the love we choose to share and express.

Why is doctrine so important?  I once believed doctrine serves no more useful purpose than to divide the people of The Lord as Catholics or Protestants, Baptists or Methodists, Jews or Gentiles.  There is much more to a better understanding of doctrine than what may divide us; doctrine defines us.  It is expressed in the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, “Whenever United Methodism has had a clear sense of mission, The Lord has used the United Methodist Church to save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world” (¶121, pg 92).  It begins in the local church in that part of the world in which we are actively engaged.

Within our present society we are compelled to ask ourselves: is what we are witnessing a foreordained degradation of society – OR – an unmotivated and ill-informed Church?  Looking at the world in which we currently live, a world in which our mission seems unclear or unimportant, we see quite the opposite of an ideal society precisely because we have forgotten or have dismissed altogether the importance and usefulness of doctrine. 

So before United Methodism and any United Methodist Church can have a clear sense of mission, United Methodist Christians must regain a clear sense of self in her doctrines rather than to be guided by a garden variety of opinions and emotions, human instincts, or a shallow notion of “personal” salvation which lacks social expression and, consequently, stunts our spiritual growth. 

United Methodist doctrine is entirely about Christ Jesus as “the Way”.  Our doctrine is about understanding, embracing, living, and even becoming for the world the very Cornerstone of our faith.  We are the Body of Christ in the world today.  The doctrine we embrace is how we convey to an unbelieving world trapped in its own darkness “the Way” out of that condemning darkness and into the Light of Christ. 

What do we mean when we say we have ‘faith in Christ’, then?  Doctrine helps us to articulate what we mean and understand being connected to Christ.  Doctrine gives voice to what we sometimes have a hard time expressing.  So when sound doctrine is expressed outwardly, Christ is lifted up, The Lord our God is glorified, and lives are transformed – and The Lord our God is pleased.

Doctrine is the “Way” of the United Methodist disciple, doctrine is the “Truth” of the Word made Flesh, and doctrine is the outward expression of the “Life” of the Church in the world today.  And it matters.

Glory to the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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