Monday, September 05, 2016

Finding our Identity

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

“How can we live in harmony? First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.”  St. Thomas Aquinas

It has often been said that believing a thing is not the same as living a thing.  In the Church this would necessarily challenge the notion that simply believing in Jesus Christ – that is, simply believing He exists as the Son - is sufficient for faith; but as I have maintained and as I believe the Bible and our United Methodist heritage bear out, there is a profound difference between belief and faith

A willingness to believe is the beginning, of course, but this profession must also lead us somewhere other than where we are.  Indeed, as Jesus teaches, we must be prepared for the fact that we will be led somewhere.  Even then, we must be careful about where we allow ourselves to be led – and by whom – “testing the spirits” as we must (1 John 4:1). 

In the early Church, catechumens (candidates for baptism and subsequent membership) were required to study the doctrines (beliefs) of the Church in preparation for membership.  They had to be sure they were fully on board.  Although I cannot say with certainly that today’s portion of Luke’s Gospel was the basis for this requirement, I can confidently say this principle had to be taken into consideration.  People needed to know (and still need to know) what they are getting into, what is expected of them as members of the Church, and what they can reasonably expect as members and disciples.

In many larger United Methodist Churches (and in all Roman Catholic Churches), there are regular required classes for interested guests as well as for those who have expressed an interest in joining the Church – and for good reason.  The ideal requires we all move beyond the “basic teachings” and prepare ourselves – and one another - to “go on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1).  The historic doctrines of the Church – and Methodist doctrine in particular – must at least be acknowledged and wrestled with, for this is the only way new disciples can be shown exactly what is in store for them.

For decades, however, the path to full membership even in some Confirmation classes I’ve witnessed (2-3 weeks in some cases) has taken substantial short-cuts over the years.  Children have idea what they are buying into, and adults enter the Church with low or no expectations.  Strictly for the sake of numbers, too many churches have gutted almost entirely the real meaning of “membership” in the Holy Church (which is not, incidentally, a position of privilege), have watered down substantially the meaning of discipleship so as not to lose any potential members, and have almost completely pushed doctrine aside, allowing, perhaps even encouraging a “whatever” approach to doctrinal understanding. 

You’ve likely heard the old joke about how easy it is to be a Methodist because it doesn’t matter what you believe.  It isn’t even close to the truth, of course, but the accommodation and appeasement by the Church over the past decades has made this lie a truth.

As a result, accountability for spiritual growth and for the well-being of the Church is virtually non-existent, and the constant demands from “this” faction or “that” individual threatens the unity of the UMC as we are witnessing from the Western Jurisdiction and nine other Annual Conferences, all having chosen to go their own way while still claiming to be United Methodist Christians. 

Ultimately it may be said – because of all this - the Church today has lost all sense of its identity as the fullness of The Lord’s Presence in the world today, and the “chickens are coming home to roost”.

Churches and pastors today are under enormous pressure from all sides to “keep up with the Joneses” in terms of what the pop culture - or individual members - demand.  In this upside-down equation, then, our children and other potential disciples are not being taught or shown what it means to be followers and students of Christ Jesus.  Rather it is the Church allowing itself to be led around by the nose according to the fickle demands of the ever-shifting culture.  Needless to say, clergy burn-out is at an all-time high because it is impossible to know what people want from one generational moment to the next – yet churches and clergy desperately try to keep up.

The Lord, on the other hand, “is the same yesterday, today, and forever”, so we must not allow ourselves to be “carried about with various and strange doctrines” (Hebrews 13:8-9a).  Our Holy Father made Himself clear to His people Israel when He stood firm Himself on the foundational integrity of His very Being: “I am The Lord; I do not change” (Malachi 3:6).  And for this reason – for our sakes - The Lord stands firm: “Therefore you are not consumed”.  Consumed by what?  By the constantly shifting standards of human demand.

Yet because we are constantly trying to live into standards imposed upon us instead of embracing the Kingdom standard into which we are invited, we as the Body of Christ have no sense of our identity as the Body!  We have no idea who we are as a people.  We think we have “Jesus loves ME, this I know” down pat, but even that simple hymn has no meaning if we do not have a sense of who we are – indeed who we must be – as the Whole and Holy Body of Christ. 

We are a bunch of individuals who happen to go to church on Sunday (if we feel like it), toss a few bucks into the collection plate (if we can spare it), and happily confront the pastor before and after worship if our individual standards and demands have not been met.  We enter into the sanctuary of The Lord with low – or no – expectations of encountering The Lord because we have our own individual expectations, our own demands of what should or should not happen in worship and in the life of the Church.  Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, the very Head of the Church, does not even factor into our personal demands!!

As a result, once worship is done, we’re done.  We have largely fulfilled an obligation and have reduced any notion we may have of Sabbath (that great and wondrous Gift we spurn!) to one hour, maybe two if we are also engaged in some Bible study class. 

Part of our United Methodist doctrinal standard and theological task states: “While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum” (2012, ¶104, pg 78 BoD). 

This may seem to encourage us to consider other theologies, other doctrines than our own, but it cannot be ignored that our Discipline, our Order first requires that we have a strong sense of self lest we be tempted to be carried about in any and every direction.  The restriction of “official changes” means the General Conference AND the many Annual Conferences must first jump through a lot of hoops if there is an attempt to change the essentials of our unique identity as United Methodist Christians in the Church universal.

Jesus Himself teaches hard Truth, but the only reason it is considered “hard” is that His Truth – the very nature of His being as the Truth itself - does not allow individual interpretations to be settled as “personal truth”; not because our Lord wants to restrict our freedom to think independently but because swaying whichever way the cultural wind happens to blow on any given day will inevitably break us.  And I dare say – “broken” may be exactly where we are today as the Body.

The Lord our God, our Creator, is the “molder” and “shaper” of what He needs us to be – even when we, as Israel was, are at our worst.  This is to be engaged in His Eternal Word and allowing ourselves to be “shaped” and “molded” for His use and for His mission rather than trying to reshape and remold the Word or the doctrines and practices of the Church to fit our own demands.  Even St. Paul appealed to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, who was a legitimately owned slave, to allow Onesimus to grow as The Lord needed him to grow – not as Philemon would demand of him but as The Lord would have need of him.

These principles of identity in The Lord fit very neatly into what Jesus teaches about preparation, getting a real feel for what the “mold” is about and what purpose it intends to serve.  And hear this: I guarantee you some measure of “pain”; but as with physical therapy or intense study, there is no gain without some measure of pain.  It may be spiritual or social or cultural discomfort to an extreme, but our God and Father means for us to grow more purposefully and intentionally into that Perfect Image in which we were created in the beginning. 

This, I think, is the overriding principle of Philemon.  From a spiritual standpoint, it could be considered the demand of our Holy Father to the “ruler of this world” to let go of us – as He demanded of Pharaoh – not strictly for the sake of our personal freedom and license to do as we please, but more for the purpose of growing into what our Lord and God desires for us … as … His … people. 

We celebrate the Food prepared for us in the Eucharist as we must be prepared to go from this Altar in The Lord’s Name and for His purposes; for it is in this that we come to know who we really are.  We are the Body of Christ redeemed by the lifeblood of the Eternal Word which became Flesh for our sake!  Now we must resolve – TOGETHER - to live for His Sake.  Amen.  

No comments: