Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians VIII: Practical Divinity, Practical Faith

Genesis 25:19-28
Romans 9:6-13
John 7:25-36

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”  Carl Jung (father of analytical psychotherapy)

Conversely it must be said that, unlike chemical substances which lack independent will, if there is no reaction in the meeting of two personalities, neither will be transformed; not the one who needs to be transformed nor the one who claims to have been transformed.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:14 CEB): “People who are unspiritual don’t accept the things from God’s Spirit.  [These things] are foolishness to them and cannot be understood because [these spiritual things] can only be comprehended in a spiritual way”. 

It might even be considered that too many within the Christian faith do not quite understand – or even really care to understand - the Christian religion apart from that often wide gulf between claiming to “believe in Jesus” and “going to heaven”.  Consider that there are about 7.3 million Americans who claim to be “members” of the United Methodist Church, but only 2.9 million of these attend worship (39%).  Of the 2.9 million who attend worship and the rough formula for those who attend any small group or discipleship development study, including Sunday school (35%-45%); that number drops to 1.3 million. 

So of the 7.3 million Americans who call themselves “members” of the United Methodist Church, only 17% are engaged in the full life of the Church.  For the other 83%, Christianity in general may have no meaning for them beyond that single moment of “membership” when their names were recorded in the church rolls.  If Christianity has been reduced to nothing more than a single “burning bush” moment but with no real transformation, no life-altering response, something is missing.

The United Methodist Church holds that “Our theological task is essentially practical.  It informs the individual’s daily decisions and serves the Church’s life and work.  While … theoretical constructions of Christian thought make important contributions to theological understanding, we finally measure the truth of such statements in relation to their practical significance.  Our interest is to incorporate the promises and demands of the Gospel into our daily lives” (¶105, 2012 Book of Discipline, pg 80).

We cannot claim to accept the promises of Christ if we reject the demands of Christ.

In other words, the theology and doctrines of the United Methodist Church are not only theoretical but must become practical and applicable to our daily living.  As has been shared and emphasized so often during this doctrinal series, and as is expressed in our Book of Discipline, a doctrine which lacks outward expression and practical significance can have no real meaning.  If our doctrine cannot inform practical living, the doctrine lacks substance and remains only theoretical.  This includes a benign statement that we “believe” in Jesus.

But when St. Paul is referring to “the message of the Cross as foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18), what exactly is he referring to as “the message”?  What does the Cross itself reveal?  That Jesus died?  Yes, but why?  Because of His love for, and complete submission to, the Holy Father’s purpose? 

Of course, but there are other elements of “the message of the Cross”, not least of which is the loud-and-clear message received from those who rejected Jesus and His claims to the point of being willing to deliberately (with “malice aforethought”!) testify falsely so this innocent Man personifying the “message of the Cross” could be executed.  We have to remember Jesus referred to the necessity of the “message of the Cross” in our daily living long before He was nailed to that Cross (Matthew 16:24).  You must take up your Cross and follow Me – IF – you want Eternal Life.  The Promise – AND – the Demand of the Gospel.

At no time did Jesus ever suggest that we need only to say His Name.

That narrative of rejection is as much a part of “the message of the Cross” as is Divine Love.  It cannot be glossed over or ignored because that narrative reveals something written of extensively in the Scripture but is all too often ignored by scriptural (those claiming to be Bible-believing) Christians – just as the Law of Moses (the Scripture, the Torah) was ignored by religious leaders and the mob demanding Jesus’ death. 

That narrative of rejection is the tension between the Promises and the Demands of the Gospel and the tension between our two personalities; who we think we are in “real life” (the life we define strictly on our own terms according to the Promise), and who we are called to be in the “fullness of life” offered to us in Christ according to the Demand (John 10:10).  You see, when “church life” becomes or remains theoretical and compartmentalized rather than practical and complete, the Church itself becomes marginalized and is ultimately deemed useless and therefore easily rejected – even by those who insist upon being referred to as “members” of the very Church they reject.  That 83% of the 7.3 million in the United Methodist Church alone.

There is a matter of whether the Bible can have any significance beyond its literary value for those who do not believe in its Divine Inspiration.  So it falls to disciples, “witnesses” willing to “take up their cross”, to attest to the practicality (rather than the theory) of what is revealed to us. 

This begs the question, then: what has been revealed to us practically?  This, I think, is the essential component of the very existence of Christianity and very being of Christ Jesus as Lord of the Church – because if it is only theoretical, it has yet to be proved as true ... even for those who claim to believe it.

So what is proved?  Circumcision proves only that a circumcision has taken place.  Baptism in the Church proves only that a baptism has taken place, and Holy Communion proves only that the practice took place.  A profession of faith proves only that a profession of faith has been spoken aloud, and confirmation proves only that we put our youth through a process. 

Yet what has been proved to those for whom all this is all just “foolishness” or superstition if these practices end with the benediction?  These who call us foolish or superstitious are the ones who need to know exactly what has taken place transformationally – and they need to know from we who claim to have been transformed; because apart from our practical divinity, practical discipleship, they may never come to know that what we practice, what we do transcends theory.

I mention circumcision because in some circles Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is known as the book of circumcision.  Almost everything Paul writes in this Letter seems to center around his objection to circumcision.  Yet this is not quite what Paul is getting at.  If we were to look more carefully at the principle to which St. Paul defaults, it cannot be strictly about circumcision - for us, anyway – because circumcision is not a practice of the Church.  There must be something for us today, something practical.

Baptism, however, is an important and necessary practice of the Church.  And as important as baptism is as the sign of the New Covenant, it can still be reduced to a meaningless practice if it does not serve as a means to something greater, one of the many means of grace we actually practice as important to us.  So to take a small snippet of Paul’s letter, let us read this: “In Christ Jesus baptism avails nothing; but faith working through love avails everything” (5:6).

“Faith working through love”.  This is the practical component of the Christian faith and practice which takes us beyond a theoretical doctrine or creed and moves us toward the very practical nature of being Christ in the world today as His Body the Church.  This is what it means to “take up the Cross and follow” Jesus daily.  Ridding ourselves of the world’s encumbrances that only weigh us down, we practically put faith into action by our unselfish acts of love. 

Is it “works” that sanctify us?  YES!  But “faith working through love” in a practical way as our daily testimony to what we have long claimed to be true.  It is the Church which takes a doctrine and moves it from theoretical to practical.  It is our “real life”, for it is the only life we have.

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