Jesus is a dangerous idea (or, why reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a subversive act)

Jesus is a dangerous idea.

That was the answer Peter Hitchens gave at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in 2014. They’d gotten their theme, I’m sure, from The Edge, an online think tank for academics and scientists. Every year The Edge offers a question and invites responses that are then anthologized into a book. The question for 2006 was, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

Hitchens, participating in a panel discussion at the Australian conference, is a well-known journalist in the UK whose brother was an even more well-known atheist (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011). Asked to respond to the question of the day, Peter’s fellow panelists offered ideas that spanned from disappointing to shocking. A famous feminist said her dangerous idea was freedom. From a famous atheist the answer was to make abortion mandatory for thirty years to control the population.

And then there was Peter Hitchens. When they asked for his most dangerous idea, he said, “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”

The guy hosting the discussion followed up: How could the resurrection be dangerous? Hitchens said, “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”

Hitchens’ response is a reflection of his own remarkable story. He was raised in the Anglican church, left Jesus behind when he was about fifteen, and then came back to Christ after marrying a Marxist atheist who eventually found Jesus on her own road of discovery. When Hitchens became a Christian, he was already a respected journalist. Acknowledging faith in Jesus was a bit of a risk for him; colleagues wondered what he was doing. For years, he lived his faith under the radar.

Because Jesus is a dangerous idea.

Jesus himself said so. He said he would set people against each other, even those who love each other. If this idea of Jesus as life-giving, sin-defeating redeemer of the universe is a lie, then think of the billions — literally billions of people — who have been deluded. But if it is true, that changes everything. And if it is true, then when we confess that publicly, vocally (think of Christians around the world who weekly stand to declare one of the three historic creeds) we are participating a divine conspiracy to alter the course of the world.

And that is how a creed ought to be handled. The words we use to describe Jesus in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a statement of subversion. Carved out by people who died for those words, they have altered the course of humanity. They have blasted through atheistic regimes and changed the character of countries. Those words (and more specifically, the truths they represent) have won wars and cast out demons and angered infidels and confounded scientists. For more people than not, they make no sense but for billions they make everything else make sense.

This thing we believe? It is a dangerous idea. So how dare we stand up casually on a Sunday morning and lazily roll through the creed as if we’re scrolling through the credits at the end of the movie. How dare we treat them with such routine indifference that they no longer mean anything even to the ones reciting them week after week. How dare we allow anyone to speak the creeds without some sense that they are participating in the welcome and advance of the Kingdom of God, and indeed have that responsibility if they utter those words as if they are real.

And this is how I believe the historic words professing faith in Jesus Christ ought to be voiced when they are voiced: as if you are standing for truth and justice and everything good and the whole human design and God’s plan. And as if you intend to walk out of that moment and change the world.

Pastors, when you stand to lead your people in the recitation of the Creed on Sunday morning, for God’s sake, please shake your people awake and help them understand just what bold conspiracy they are committing.

Otherwise, why bother?

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Belonging, Believing and Behaving: The Sense of a Faithful United Methodist

The Babylon Bee, a satirical website that pokes fun at Christian culture, recently posted a marvelously ironic “news piece” with this heading: “Pastor Surprised to Learn His Church Has Statement of Faith.”  Surely this piece was inspired by the current Methodist conversation. In my own interactions with those reading my posts, I’ve received comments like, “Who are you to decide what ‘orthodox’ is?” The same has been asked about Wesleyanism, Methodism, and even truth in general. I hear echoes of Pilate’s question to Jesus: “What is truth?”

In fact, these terms have accepted meanings. Our Articles of Religion define what it means to be Methodist. Wesley’s sermons interpret those articles into practical living. We have a doctrine that reflects the thinking of generations; this is the substance of Wesleyan orthodoxy. It is not purely theoretical but the kind of religion James discussed: the capacity to serve others without letting the world get the best of us (James 1:27).

To allow a non-theological culture to redefine our terms would be foolish and yet this is the plague that has befallen United Methodism and the root cause of our severe sickness. We have forgotten that we are creedal, doctrinal and covenantal, and that our beliefs are to be lived out for the transformation of the world.

Hear that: we transform the world, not vice versa.

What makes Wesleyanism so attractive is its insistence that its doctrines remain married to its practice. Wesley preached what he called a “practical divinity” or an “experimental divinity.” A Latin term — consensus fidelium, or “the sense of the faithful” — holds in tension the Spirit-infused experience of the believer with the scripturally-grounded doctrines of the Church.

Don Haynes has written eloquently on this theological vision of Wesley in a piece entitled “Wesley’s Consensus Fidelium” and it is my privilege to share Haynes’ good word here. I encourage you to read on and recommit yourself in this season to becoming a student of the Articles, sermons, notes and creeds that form our theological foundation as a people called Methodist.

Wesley’s consensus fidelium

In Dr. Robert Cushman’s book, John Wesley’s Experimental Divinity, he reminds us with much sadness that somewhere during the late 19th century, Methodism lost touch with the doctrinal foundation laid by Wesley’s Sermons and Notes. Cushman notes that the earliest Form of Discipline was most certainly doctrinally substantive — an “experimental divinity” rooted in scripture but lost by “a failure of memory.”

Cushman points us through consistent references by Coke, Asbury, Whatcoat and McKendree to a common canonical history of American Methodism. This paragraph appeared originally in the Form of Discipline published immediately following the Christmas Conference:

“Far from wishing you to be ignorant of any of our doctrines, or any part of our discipline, we desire you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the whole. We know you are not able to purchase many books; but you ought, next to the Word of God, to procure the Articles and Canons of the Church to which you belong.”

For Wesley, and somewhat uniquely so, “doctrine called for or presupposed an appropriate discipline by which its truth might be nurtured and become a biographical reality.”

Consistently combining “doctrine and discipline” sets us apart from those who concentrate only on belief.. For Wesley and the next generation, Methodism was marked by a tri-fold commitment: belonging (to a Society or class meeting), believing (in the Edwardian Homilies doctrines), and behaving (in accordance with the General Rules).

To the generation of Calvinists who excommunicated Jacob Arminius posthumously by the Council of Dort for his belief in a modicum of free will. To that generation of Calvinists, behavior meant little or nothing; orthodox belief was the summon bonum of being a Christian. For Wesleyans, our received doctrinal tradition is a “living faith”—a “practical divinity,” an “experimental divinity.” (“Living faith” is a term Wesley lifted from the Edwardian Homilies of the early 1550’s Protestant Era in England.)

A significant dimension of what Cushman has uncovered as “consensus fidelium” was what Wesley called “holy living.” He never let that go even after Aldersgate brought the “strangely warmed heart”– forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God issued forth in a divinely supplied “blessed assurance” that “Jesus is mine.” As United Methodists, we must not let go what Paul articulated irrevocably in Romans 8:16 —“the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God….” These are the foundational beliefs that constituted our consensus fidelium — our common consent to be shared in faith, hope, and love. This the preachers called “Wesley’s little body of divinity” or his “Scriptural Way of Salvation.”

Until 1808, the Methodist Episcopal Church had no constitution. When that was adopted, there were Restrictive Rules limiting what Cushman called a “dimming, or decline, or erosion of that consensus fidelium.” He wrote further, and prophetically, that such changes would create a “negative prognosis for the survival of that church, particularly in modern secular society.”

Cushman then wrote, “It is then to be pondered in the absence of a consensus fidelium (that is a common sum of doctrines and discipline acknowledged by most), whether a Christian community can attain to or retain a manifest identity and self-understanding, or convey a recognizable or enduring message or indeed, survive at all.” The obvious intent of the First Restrictive Rule of 1808 was to secure the aforestated consensus fidelium as the normative faith for the “Scriptural Way of Salvation,” vivified through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. What some call Wesley’s unique contribution to Christian journeying is the sanctifying or perfecting grace that follows one’s experience of saving grace. Wesley called this a walk of faith that became “inner and outward holiness in heart and life.” It was basic to that early consensus fidelium.

In Wesley’s sermon, “The Way To The Kingdom,” he preached, “For neither does religion consist in orthodoxy or right opinions… which are not of the heart. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God. He may assent to all three creeds—the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian—and yet ‘tis possible he may have no religion at all, no more than a Jew, Turk, or pagan. He may be almost as orthodox as the devil…and may all the while be a stranger as he is to the religion of the heart.”

After asking, “If not orthodoxy as the criterion of faith, what was?” Jason Vickers has written that Wesley’s response would be “the testimony of the Spirit.” Wesley wrote, “We must love God before we can be holy at all. We cannot know his love for us until his Spirit witnesses to our spirit.” Then he cautioned that the “testimony of the Spirit” must be held in conjunction with the fruit of the Spirit, and he then quotes from St. Paul’s list of fruits.

Cushman taught his students that “We have a consensus fidelium that we call ’rule of doctrine and discipline.’ It is two-fold. We must always distinguish between fides quae creditor (faith that is only believed) and fides qua creditor (living or saving faith). This latter dimension, Wesley called “taking the cure” as he loved to call Jesus, “the great physician of souls.” If we can no longer encourage the work of the Spirit in taking the cure, we are, in Dr. Cushman’s words, “precisely where Wesley found the churches in the 18th century—possessing “a form of godliness, but lacking the power thereof.” This, Wesley thought, was the peril of orthodoxy. It is certainly also the peril of progressivism.

“By the end of the 19th century,” Cushman wrote, “Wesley’s ‘experimental divinity” had lost currency. By the third quarter of the 20th century, a consensus fidelium was not regarded as essential, and affirming it was often received as controversial. Meanwhile the spectacular decline of the past decade and more may suggest that many have wearied beyond endurance with a church that manages mainly, ‘the form of godliness’ that is doctrinally shapeless.” Those prophetic words were printed in 1989, after Dr. Robert Cushman’s death.

Perhaps God is calling the Wesleyan Covenant Association to bring us back to the consensus fidelium. If this is true, October 7 could be a “tipping point” in the recovery of Wesley’s insistence on belonging to a redemptive fellowship, believing in the “Word of God for the people of God,” and behaving like those who “have the mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.”

— Dr. Donald W. Haynes, retired WNCC/UMC clergy, author of former column, “Wesleyan Wisdom,“ author of On the Threshold of Grace

September 1, 2016

 

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What grace feels like (or, what I learned from a roomful of missionaries)

I spent seven days in Costa Rica with about 95 missionaries and assorted others who support them through The Mission Society. I had the great pleasure of teaching daily on themes from the book of Ephesians. Anyone could have done what I did so I recognize and deeply appreciate the grace that placed me in that room with such a Spirit-filled community. I’ve rarely felt so undeservedly blessed.

The missionaries came mostly from countries in the southern hemisphere but there were also missionaries from Tanzania, Kenya, China, India, the Philippines and a few other places. This was a global snapshot of God’s work in the world.

Here are a few things I learned from my time with these folks:

costa-rica-4The Kingdom of God comes through obedience. What I found most refreshing about this group was their quiet yet firm obedience to God’s call on their lives. These aren’t rock stars; they are ordinary men and women with a rare sense of what it means to obey God. Some of the folks I met have moved thousands of miles away from children and grandchildren, sometimes over their families’ strenuous objections. Others have taken small children into dangerous areas to live and serve. They do so not because they are naive or foolish but because they have sensed the strong call of God into this work. Their children, I might add, are some of the most remarkably flexible, faithful and fun of any kids I’ve been around.

Humility is cultivated through challenge. The most striking difference in my opinion between acosta-rica-3 roomful of missionaries and a roomful of preachers is ego. I don’t want to throw my own tribe under the bus, but the fact is that a roomful of American preachers will spend a lot of time measuring and posturing. A roomful of missionaries — that roomful, anyway — will spend time in more transparent conversation. My sense is that there is something uniquely humbling about being in another culture, mostly alone, having to figure out language, strategy and friendships on the fly.

costa-rica-1Missionaries know how to have fun. In the week I was with them, I laughed more than I have in a long time. We played simple games, watched silly skits, danced with silly cartoon figures, and told great stories. We also shared deeply, worshipped richly, and learned attentively. These guys were just plain easy to be with. I appreciated the spirit cultivated by our hosts, the staff team of The Mission Society. It was most definitely a spirit of joy, simplicity and rest.

The body of Christ is a beautiful thing. I loved the structure of this gathering. There were Bible teachers, counselors, strategic thinkers, musicians, creative minds, organizers, story-tellers, culture watchers, innovation managers and prayer warriors all gathered together and all encouraged to share their gifts. Each was able to contribute or receive as they were led. The result was a gloriously restful time of sharing, learning and growing.

I spent the first half of my life exploring different organizations and offering my support where I was able. In this season, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on three: Asbury Theological Seminary (and its publishing house, Seedbed), The Mission Society and Mosaic Church. Seeing the heart and soul of The Mission Society as I met and mingled with its missionaries, I am left with a deeper commitment to this fine organization. Since many of those missionaries spent time at Asbury, I’m all the more impressed with the kind of servant heart incubated at that school. And the trip itself was possible only because the gracious community of Mosaic has so generously embraced my speaking ministry as part of their contribution to the Body of Christ.

I am blessed indeed to be associated with such greatness. This must be what grace feels like.

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Isn’t this supposed to be fun?

When you’ve seen one, the next one becomes easier to spot.

That’s how C. S. Lewis begins to describe (in his seminal work, Mere Christianity) a new kind of person — a breed, he says, that begins where most of us leave off:

“Their very voices and faces are different from ours: stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. … They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ … They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. … They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. … they recognize one another immediately and infallibly … In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.”

It is that last line that most stuns us, that is too often overlooked in this pursuit of holiness. To become holy must be great fun.

How have we missed this detail (which is not a detail at all)?

How have we come to define holiness as all the things we don’t do, rather than the rich treasure of possibility it is?  This is the yearning of one who orients toward life from a desire to live a more holy existence. It is the cry to be something more — more love, more joy, more peace, more Presence, more perfect. Not in the sense of gaining perfection on our own strength, but in the sense that this life can be more.

As Lewis also says, “The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. … He meant what he said. Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect — perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality.”

I’m reading this and thinking about my own spiritual disciplines.  The great surprise, I’m discovering, is just how easy it is to master the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 13 (“If I have prophetic powers … if I have faith so as to move mountains …”) , without sufficient attention to the heart of that poem (“Love is patient and kind …”).

It is humbling (and a little deflating) to admit just how much easier it is to be spiritually disciplined than it is to pay sufficient attention to the goal of love. Paul has warned me over and over that without love, all the rest of it is senseless noise. He teaches me that as I orient my life toward love privately, it will show up publicly. How can I reorient my spiritual life so that more love is exposed?  So that I begin to take delight in letting the love flow — in my prayers, in my serving, in my reading, in my journaling?  I ask this question recognizing just how far I have to go.

So then, that is my prayer for the coming season: that I will become one of those people who is easy to spot — so infused with patience and kindness, so obviously lacking in jealousy, envy or pride, that they will say of me, “Doesn’t she love well?”

And just as often, “Doesn’t she seem to be having fun?”

 

*From Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity.

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