Friday, January 18, 2019

The Confession of St. Peter

In the Christian calendar, the church observes the Confession of St. Peter on January 18.  Matthew, Mark and Luke each report (with varying degrees of detail) the time in which Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him.  He then asks the disciples themselves about their opinion.  At that point Peter makes his Confession – his affirmation – of the Messiahship of Jesus.  The synoptics variously report Peter’s words as:

Matthew 16:13-20 -- “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Mark 8:27–30 --  “You are the Messiah.”
Luke 9:18–20 --  “The Messiah of God.”

It is Matthew alone who reports Jesus’ response, both in terms of revelation and in passing Kingdom responsibility along to Peter.  But for all of the synoptic writers this is clearly a watershed moment not only for Peter, but for the church as well.

In modern times The Confession of Peter has been related to The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  The Faith and Order Movement of the World Council of Churches and the Anglican Friars of the Atonement have each advocated a time of uniting prayer since the early 20th century.  The week has moved around the calendar a bit, but it the church now designates the week as taking place January 18 – 25.

Peter’s profession is that of all Christians.  No matter what their views on other ideas and doctrines great and small, it is the affirmation, “(Jesus is) the Christ,” that gathers Christian believers together.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Did you know that January 18-25 (from Friday through Friday [?]) is The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity?  Neither did I.  If you don’t have a resource like the United Methodist Program Calendar, you may not have had any way of knowing.  I haven’t received anything from the denomination, the conference or my district promoting it in any way.  I can remember in the past receiving all manner of items related to this time.  There would be bulletin inserts and wall posters.  I would get suggested orders of worship and children’s activity books in the mail.  Clergy meetings would have time set aside to interpret this week to pastors.  It was as regular as clockwork.

Then, in THIS year, we don’t hear anything?  When fightings without and fears within threaten to rend The United Methodist Church asunder we don’t hear a whisper regarding prayer and unity?  What are the Powers That Be thinking?

It is true that the Week of Prayer has its origins in ecumenical concerns.  I don’t mean to diminish the importance or the urgency of these issues at all.  But, how do we not take advantage of a built-in apparatus for unifying prayer to encourage United Methodists to bring our concerns regarding agreement before the Throne of Grace in an organized – dare I say methodical – fashion?

So, pray for Christian Unity.  And United Methodist unity. 

You can see all that the UMC has to offer on the subject this year here.

The World Council of Churches has some info here.

The United Methodist Church Official Site links to a Roman Catholic resource for the week under the title “Ecumenical Sunday” (January 20) here.

More on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

This (click this link) came over the transom late yesterday.  A little more lead time would have been helpful.  As it is, this link was on the Memphis Conference Facebook page.  The rank and file who are not of the Facebook persuasion still have had no information or contact.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Ordinary Time

Monday was the first day following the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  As such (by most reckonings) it was the first day of Ordinary Time.  This is the liturgical season that begins immediately following the Baptism feast and it runs through Shrove Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday (March 6 in 2019). 

The church calls this time after The Epiphany Ordinary Time.  (I addressed those unusual days between Epiphany and The Baptism in a post dated January 11.)  This period gets its name from the way that we number the days during this time.  We do not designate this stretch ordinary because we label this time as somehow common or dull.  Rather, the church employs this designation because of the nature of the numbering of these days.  Instead of using cardinal numbers (one, two, three) it utilizes ordinal numbers (first, second, third).  So, we call this coming Sunday, February 20, The Second Sunday After The Epiphany.

Because Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast (an observance that does not occur on the same date each year), ordinary time will be of varying duration from year to year.  Ash Wednesday can fall anywhere between February 4 and March 10, though the two extremes of the range are very rare.  The last time Ash Wednesday was on February 4 was 1818 and will next occur in 2285.  The most recent time Ash Wednesday fell on March 10 was in 1943 and will next occur in 2038.  So, the duration of ordinary time is between four and nine weeks.  In the modern liturgical usage, the first Sunday in Ordinary Time is The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the last Sunday is The Feast of the Transfiguration.  Obviously, there are two more days in the season before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Ordinary time carries with it emphases on mission (begun with the narrative of the Wise Men visiting the infant Jesus) and spiritual growth.  The liturgical colors of the season are white (for the feast days) and green (signifying new, eternal and abundant life) for the rest of the season.  The New Revised Common Lectionary (NRCL) offers gospel texts that reveal the nature of Jesus Christ (in keeping with the Epiphany theme).  The epistle readings address the topics of spiritual gifts and the character of the church (in an examination of spiritual growth).

We can be deceived by looking over our shoulders at Christmas and ahead to Easter so that we think that ordinary time is a “down time,” a respite between major occurrences where nothing of significance takes place.  But it can be an extraordinary time, where the church addresses some of its most formative ideas. 

What a great time.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Of action and reaction

In these pages I stay away from secular politics.  That is both a matter of personal preference and of professional survival.  I believe that a pastor is not only allowed to speak but is bound to talk about issues of justice and the common good.  But, to jump into issues of partisan politics is inappropriate at best.

But I would make the following observations to my friends who are currently members of The United Methodist Church.  Looking at the last fifteen or so years – the Trump, Obama, Bush and even Clinton administrations – have you absolutely agreed with every policy and action of our country?  Were there instances when you disagreed strongly with a given administration, on the left or on the right?  If so, how did you respond?  Did you leave the United States, renounce your citizenship and pledge your allegiance to some other flag?

If not, what is moving you to give up on our connection?  I know that the upcoming General Conference of February 2019 is addressing issues that push a lot of hot buttons.  But, is any resolution that may come about something over which you would leave your church? 

Church affiliation is not like razor blades.  It is not meant to be disposable.  Membership vows in this communion ask, “Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and uphold it with your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service (and, more recently, with your witness)?  Those who are in good standing in the church have unanimously answered “I will” at some point in their lives. 

No matter what General Conference 2019 does, how can Methodist people not show a little faith and a little patience and see how all this shakes out at General Conference 2020?  Is this how people live their lives?  Do they throw away or abandon everything with which they do not agree one hundred per cent?  I have my differences with the UMC and the way it sometimes does things.  I have a list as long as my leg.  But, in those times when I have been at odds with the church, I have never been tempted to take my jacks and go home.  I am not lifting myself up as an example or some paragon of virtue.  I am merely saying that I don’t get it. 

Our Confirmation Ritual says, “Dearly beloved, the church is of God and will endure until the end of time…”  I know that it is not particularly saying that The United Methodist Church will persist for eternity.  But I do so hope that this is not its death knell.

Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Further thoughts on Baptism

In meditating on The Sacrament of Baptism and on The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord recently, I confess to one glaring omission.  In the midst of observing on (and lamenting over) the various disputes that arise related to these subjects I skated right past one of the crucial facets of the day.  The second reading for Sunday contained in The New Revised Common Lectionary (NRCL) is instructive.  That reading is Acts 8:14-17:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

The reading reminds us that central to our understanding of Christian Baptism is the concept that it is at the moment of Baptism that the God confers the Holy Spirit on the person(s) being baptized.  This may not be a Pentecost-type moment for some, but it is the understanding of The United Methodist Church and others that this is the moment in which God acts. 

The reading from Acts 8 nods to some of the complexities that surround the church’s dealing with the Samaritan believers.  It is important for us to remember that these are the fledgling days of the Christian Faith.  Doctrine and practice would be worked out and refined as time went along.  But, even allowing for this, the text is careful – even precise – in its language.  Some people in Samaria had come to faith.  That profession had led to their baptisms.  But their baptism was in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Whether this is an irregularity or a misunderstanding on the part of those administering the baptisms, we cannot say.  But, the church even in that day was careful not to re-baptize these believers.

Now, one could make the argument that, since these Samaritans did not receive Triune Baptism – baptism in the name of The Father, and The Son, and The Holy Spirit – that their baptisms were not legitimate.  But Peter and John did not take that position.  Instead, they administered a kind of remedial grace in laying hands on the Samaritans.  In that act, the Holy Spirit came upon them. 

The details of early baptismal practice are a bit murky.  It is legitimate to point out that when the gift of The Holy Spirit initially came upon the church at The Day of Pentecost that baptism was not involved.  Within that context it is probably safe to say that at least some of the inhabitants of the Upper Room on that day had been baptized already.  According to John 4:2 (although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized) baptism was an early part of the ministry of Jesus and his disciples.  Yet, we would hardly expect to have a description of those baptisms as being Triune.  Nor would we anticipate that accounts of these acts would include the bestowing of the gift of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit as a gift to believers was not a part of the narrative at that time.  This is to say that the action of baptism in Jesus’ lifetime was worked out in time and experience in the days that immediately followed Christ’s Ascension.

In our day it is the understanding of the church that, in the act of baptism, The Holy Spirit comes to abide in the heart of the individual.  There is no perfect scheme that takes into account all situations.  In John’s Gospel, the 22nd chapter for instance, Jesus imparts The Holy Spirit by breathing on the disciples who assembled in the upper room.  

But, as the church and its members rely on our common experience as an authority in working out our understanding of God, experience teaches us that it is in baptism that God commonly chooses to give this gift.

Perhaps if we accentuated this facet of baptism more, the matters of “how much water” and “when in the life of a person” would fade away, and that the matter of grace would move front-and-center in our understanding.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Baptism of the Lord -- February 13

You would think that this Feast Day would be straightforward.  Jesus goes to the Jordan.  John baptizes him (with or without a lot of dialog, depending on which gospel account you are reading), the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends in (some sort of) bodily form and a voice speaks.  It is the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry.  Celebrate!  Give thanks!  End of story.

And yet, almost from the very beginning there were teachers who were proclaiming Christian baptism in the exact same terms as the baptism offered by John.  Their call was to John’s baptism, not that of Jesus and the church.  There are people within the larger church who do this same thing today.  They use John language to talk about what they call Christian baptism. 

But what was John’s proclamation?  “Repent!  Renounce your sins!  Make way for the coming of the Lord.  Prepare yourselves for the Messiah, the Christ, the one who will save you from your sins.”  Let’s be clear: “get ready” is not the same thing as “Have faith.”  There are those who claim that their belief system can trace its lineage all the way back to John the Baptist.  They say that with pride.  I don’t get it.  What has John done for them lately?  John’s baptism?  You can have it I say.  John didn’t save You.  You are not John’s disciple.  Nowhere in scripture do you hear a call to proclaim, “John the Baptist is Lord!”  Why then would you want to embrace John’s baptism?

It is true that the larger church has muddled the significance of this Sacrament through the years.  To this day there is no uniformity of opinion as to what the Rite means.  Some communions see baptism as a literal washing away of the stain of sin.  Others see it as an act of professing faith in making ready to join the church universal or a particular congregation.  This is what is meant by “believer’s baptism.”  Some congregations won't even recognize  the baptism performed by other congregations within their fellowship.  The idea is, "If we haven't baptized you, then no one has baptized you!"  

The United Methodist Church (and others) define baptism as an initiation into the Body of Christ and a claiming of the individual into the family of God.  Again, like many other groups the United Methodist Church practices the baptism of infants, with parents or sponsors taking the vows on behalf of the candidate until such time as the individual can affirm those promises for themselves.

I have a book in my library with the provocative title Baptism: The Water that Divides by Donald Bridge.  The work itself is a bit murky, but what a great title!  That which designs to unite believers is in fact one of the great points of contention within the church.  For something that Christ commanded, and that the church has normatively required from its beginnings, there is no consensus among the major faith groups as to what this means at all. 

I won’t enter the discussion about the amount of water that constitutes baptism.  I leave that issue grieving that people will split families and even congregations over what amounts to a measuring cup.

So, owning that this action of the church has no foreseeable resolution, I simply commend the day as an extraordinary one in the life and ministry of The Lord Jesus. It is worthy of our notice and our commemoration.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. –Ephesians 4:4-6

Lord, haste the day…

The Confession of St. Peter

In the Christian calendar, the church observes the Confession of St. Peter on January 18.   Matthew, Mark and Luke each report (with varyi...