Division

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “A Straightforward Declaration.” It will be based on Mark 8:27-38. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text:

Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”


By Chuck Griffin

Yesterday, we considered the very exclusive claim Jesus made regarding who he is. That exclusive claim obviously can cause division, something Jesus made clear in our reading from Luke today.

After a reading like that, I suppose I should begin with some comforting words.

Yes, God is love. Yes, grace is freely given. Our God is a patient God, doing all he can to draw lost people to him. Forgiveness and the gift of eternal life are being poured out on us in buckets, despite so many people standing under umbrellas of cynicism.

That said, at this point in Luke, Jesus has clearly gone apocalyptic on us. He uses language designed to remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice necessary to make all that grace and love possible. And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to choose sides in a great cosmic battle, with no regard to what our choice may cost us in this life.

Jesus’ apocalyptic language forces Christians to consider our core beliefs. Fire and baptism are purification words. Jesus was saying that despite his lack of sin, he would go through the purifying fire of crucifixion for us, and that ultimately all of creation will be purified through this act. Humans can actually choose where to stand in all of this—with what is pure and what will remain forever, or with the dross to be burned away.

The great gift of the cross is that we now have a choice. Before, we were all just dross, lacking the purity to be in God’s presence.

I think even Christians struggle with some of this tough language because we confuse adherence to the truth with being judgmental. Clearly, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. My own personal approach to this is to be as laissez-faire (libertarian) in my approach to the secular world as possible, while at the same recognizing that the church in which I choose to live establishes higher standards based on Christ’s teachings. Included in those teachings is a demand that we clearly tell others who Jesus is.

This approach doesn’t satisfy everyone who claims membership in a church. As we discussed yesterday, some would like to dilute or explain away Christ’s very exclusive claims in Scripture regarding his identity, along with related concepts like the importance of a literal resurrection.

This approach does, however, let us focus on messages that have helped Christianity spread cross-culturally for nearly two millennia. Let’s consider those messages:

Christ is the answer. By that, we mean Christ stands at the apex of a sweeping story that answers all the big questions in life, questions like “Is there meaning to life,” “Why do we suffer,” and “Is there more than just this life?”

Being Christian makes you different. Welcome to a great countercultural movement, the one that challenged the most powerful empire on earth and continues to challenge worldly thinking today. It is a movement that truly changed the world, declaring early on that people are the same under Christ regardless of gender, color or social status. Yes, the body of believers can behave like clusters of big institutions, and yes, Christians often fail to act like Christ, but this differentiating truth remains.

There is clear guidance from God available to us. People are craving something to help them steer their lives.  They want something they can trust, something not likely to blow about in the ever-changing social wind. The Bible is God’s long-standing revelation to humanity. Even the newest material in it is nearly 2,000 years old. Its truths about God and how God wants to relate to humanity have served people well in a wide variety of eras and cultures.

Not everyone will agree with these basic messages. Some people, maybe people in your own homes, will become angry upon hearing them, turning on you or at least turning their backs on you.

That’s okay. Jesus said it would happen. He also said he would make it all right in the end. Look it up.

Lord, help us to establish peace wherever we go, unless that peace would force a denial of who you are and what you are doing in this world. Amen.

On Task

Acts 15:36-41 (NLT)

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.


There’s no real way to determine who was right in the argument Paul and Barnabas had about taking John Mark along on a second journey. In searching for an answer, I could spend all day discussing topics like immaturity, loyalty, grace, forgiveness and unity, and I would never get to the important point.

The mission of the church comes first.

The disagreement these two apostles had was so sharp that their basic tasks of growing the church and encouraging continuing discipleship were imperiled. Remember, there were vast territories needing to hear about Christ and infant churches full of questions, but very few apostles to do the work.

Rather than letting the disagreement slow them further, they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking his cousin John Mark, and Paul choosing Silas to travel with him.

I have no doubt both men felt great pain as they separated. They had, after all, been through much together.

But again, the mission of the church comes first.

Why the Holy Spirit did not intervene in some way in a dream, a vision or a miracle, I cannot say. In some ways it is comforting to know that in the earliest days of the church, God sometimes left people to experience their emotions, think matters through and come up with difficult answers on their own. In terms of kingdom building, something about this process must be valuable.

It’s not hard to see how this passage relates to the current situation of the United Methodist Church and its internal argument over scriptural authority and application. We are at an impasse, sometimes a sharp one. And the mission of the church still has to come first.

Be encouraged, however. What we’ve heard from Acts today is not the end of the story. Christ somehow managed to bring Paul and John Mark together later in life.

Writing from prison in Rome nearly two decades later, Paul asked Timothy, “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11.) This brief request is clear evidence something changed as John Mark grew up and Paul grew old.

As painful as conflict can be, people genuinely dedicated to the mission of the church will find themselves restored in their relationships, in this life or the next. I feel certain this is true.

Lord, may we always remain dedicated to the Great Commission, the need to lead people to a belief in Jesus Christ and grow them as disciples. We give thanks for all who make this their first priority. Amen.

Witnesses

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV)

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.


People who doubt the validity of the core Christian message often ask something along these lines: “Okay, what proof do you have other than the Bible?”

The question, however, dodges a consideration of the key evidence. We’ve gotten used to the Bible’s existence, treating its details as if they need to be re-proven. But the Bible in and of itself is astonishing in regard to what it offers in the form of witness accounts and narratives generated by people who had direct access to those witnesses.

Yes, the accounts differ somewhat in detail, but oddly enough, those differences should encourage rather than discourage us.

To recapture how astonishing the Bible is, we first have to remember that it is not one document. Instead, it is a library of writings, tied together with some common themes: God is outside all things and the creator of all things; creation turned against God; God still loved his creation so much he immediately went to work to bring it back into conformity with his will; Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection mark how the work ultimately is completed.

Thought Experiment: An Alternate Timeline

Imagine all these texts had been completely lost. Centuries later, in our day, they are found sealed in clay jars. After a long period of validation, translation and sorting, I think the world would be amazed upon their publication at the radical ideas within, ideas including a loving God who teaches deep, abiding forgiveness.

They also would be astonished at the sheer number of documents and the millennia they span—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, assuming we were to count and sort them like Protestants.

And yes, thoughtful people would be encouraged by the minor differences in the accounts, in particular the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These variations would be clear evidence the documents were written from different perspectives, with no collusion by conspiratorial authors.

The most intriguing revelation, however, would be the repeated, unchanging assertions in the gospels. God came among us in flesh and died for our sins. He was buried, he was raised from the dead, and then he was seen by a remarkable number of witnesses. Who knows, a whole new religion might form around these ideas.

The Joy of Reality

We are so blessed to have the story of Christ before us now, scrupulously translated and searchable, with nearly 2,000 years of interpretive work to aid us. In fact, we would be fools to ignore what is available.

About two decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians the progressive way the risen Jesus availed himself to witnesses before ascending into heaven. Focusing first on the male witnesses—in Paul’s day, only men had legal standing—he went on to note how eventually more than 500 women and men saw and interacted with the risen Christ. Many of them remained alive in Paul’s day, available to repeat their testimony!

Not that we need absolute proof. We do, after all, practice a religion based on faith. As Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And yet, to believe, it helps to have astonishing evidence we can initially trust, a word from witnesses who seemed to have nothing but our best interests in mind.

The Bible is that evidence.

Lord, may we grow in our faith as we trust the witnesses you have given us. Amen.