“He descended to the dead.” We say those words almost every Sunday as part of The Apostles’ Creed, but what do they mean? My explanation has always been that they signify that Jesus was really dead. But now you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Oxford scholar Allister McGrath in his book I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed:
“He descended to the dead.” What does this mean? It is a statement of the belief that Jesus really did die. For the New Testament writers, Christ was not raised “from death” (an abstract idea) but “from the dead.” . . . The Greek term literally means “out of those who are dead.” In other words, Jesus shared the fate of all those who have died. . . . Jesus really was human like us. His divinity does not compromise his humanity. Being God incarnate did not mean he was spared from tasting death. He did not merely seem to die; he really did die and joined those who had died before him. 
He descended to the dead. Jesus really did die, but, of course, that was not the end of the story.
 Allister McGrath, I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1997), Kindle, 61.
In my sermon yesterday, I preached on Matthew’s account of the transfiguration and talked about mountaintop experiences. I spoke with only a few notes and forgot to mention what to do if you haven’t had a mountaintop experience. I would like to address that oversight in this blog post.
Perhaps you haven’t had a mountaintop experience, but you’ve had what might be called a hilltop experience. You’ve felt or sensed an encounter with God that was meaningful to you, just not very dramatic. You’re good to go. God works in different ways in the lives of different people. Just take your experience and apply what we talked about yesterday. Let that experience be a source of energy and encouragement in your daily walk with Jesus.
Perhaps you haven’t had a mountaintop or a hilltop experience. In that case, I want to ask you to do three things. 1. Remember that God works differently in different people’s lives. 2. Be open to the possibility of God granting you such an experience. You won’t need to force such an experience, but being open to the possibility of one will hope you perceive it when and if it happens. 3. Either way, rest secure in the knowledge that God loves you. Jesus preached “The Sermon on the Mount,” but he also preached “The Sermon on the Plain.” Regardless of whether or not you’ve experienced God’s presence in a dramatic and memorable way, God’s love has been, is, and will be at work in your life.
In our lenten devotional book, A Way Other Than Our Own, Walter Bruegemann, the renowned Old Testament Scholar makes an interesting point about God, human beings, and creation:
“God brings into existence that which does not exist. Did you know that the Bible never uses the word create with a human subject? We may “make” or “form” or “fabricate,” but only God creates, only God works a genuine new possibility, a new thing beyond our expectations and our extrapolations. It belongs to the mystery and holiness of God to call to be that which is not yet. Because this is God’s world, the world is not closed, either by our hopes or by our fears.” 
 Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), Kindle, 62-63.
I’ve titled this post “Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” because I want to emphasize something that is often overlooked or obscured in our celebration of today’s national holiday. What is commonly overlooked or obscured is the religious nature of the civil rights movement; the way that faith in general, and Christian faith in particular, undergirded and provided the foundation for what was accomplished. Before he was a civil rights leader, before he rose to national prominence, before he had a federal holiday named after him, Martin Luther King was a pastor. For that reason it seems appropriate to share this quote from one of his many sermons:
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,”
delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama, November 17, 1957.
N. T. Wright gets straight to the scary and stupendous part of the incarnation:
This is the really scary thing . . . not that Jesus might be identified with a remote, lofty, imaginary being . . . but that God, the real God, the one true God, might actually look like Jesus. . . . a shrewd Palestinian Jewish villager who drank wine with his friends, agonized over the plight of his people, taught in strange stories and pungent aphorisms, and was executed by the occupying forces. What does that do to Christian belief? The Christian doctrine is all about a different sort of God — a God who was so different to normal expectations that he could, completely appropriately, become human in, and as, the man Jesus of Nazareth. To say that Jesus is in some sense God is of course to make a startling statement about Jesus. It is also to make a stupendous claim about God. 
 N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 68.
Unfortunately, there has long been a strain of anti-semitism in Christianity. But I’ve noticed that the anti-semitic folks who call themselves Christians have gotten louder lately (at least in the U.S.A.). Christian anti-semitism makes no sense. It is contrary to reason. It is contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the story scripture tells us. Below are just a few examples why.
- Jesus was born a Jew (Luke 2:1-15), circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), raised a Jew (Luke 2:22-52), was in ministry as a Jew (Luke 4:14-22) and died a Jew (Luke 23:26-43). He was the embodiment of Israel through whom God accomplished all that had been promised to Abraham. You can’t take the Jew out of Jesus.
- As Christians, we were grafted onto God’s Abrahamic project through Jesus Christ. What God is doing in us has not replaced Israel; instead we have been attached to Israel. The apostle Paul warned us not to get cocky. (Romans 11:11-24; 15:12).
- God made promises to Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Rachel; David and countless others. God made promises to Israel as a whole, as a people. (And those promises included their descendants living among us now.) Finally, through Jesus Christ, God made promises to us. If we believe God is true to God’s promises, that means God is true to all of God’s promises, not just the promises made to us. Who are we to try to hinder God?
Now, one of the counter arguments that might be made is that Jesus often disagreed with, argued with, and ran into trouble with Jews. Well, I have often disagreed with, argued with, and run into trouble with Christians. None of that makes me any less a Christian. None of that made Jesus any less of a Jew.
Christian anti-semitism is senseless, but it is not harmless. It does great harm to Jewish victims. It does harm to non-Jewish bystanders. And it does self-inflicted harm to its perpetrators. It is long past time for those who call themselves Christian and yet perpetrate anti-semitism to repent and return to the arms of the King of the Jews who died for them.
I don’t have any special insights into the mass shooting at Club Q (an LGBTQ+ nightclub) in Colorado Spring last Saturday (November 19, 2022), but here are a few things from my theological perspective.
I’ll start with Guns. America’s idol worship of guns is what made it possible for one assailant to kill five people and injure another eighteen. Some ancient gods demanded human sacrifice. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not. The way the Second Amendment is currently being misinterpreted by many people in the United States (including a majority on the Supreme Court) makes guns into idols. And they are idols that regularly result in human sacrifice. The death of human beings made in the image of God: our siblings. I’m not opposed to hunting; I’m not opposed to shooting sports; I am opposed to the way we have allowed the weapons of war to make our communities into war zones.
Another obvious factor is the rise of hateful anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric out of the mouths of people who should know better. I had a woman (not a member of College Avenue UMC) come into my office raging about the possibility of the UMC becoming LGBTQ+ affirming in our doctrine and discipline. She then asserted that school teachers are “grooming” children to make them trans. I don’t believe this woman had any actual contact with Manhattan schools, but someone in the news had convinced her that teachers—teachers like my mother and my parishioners—were grooming kids.
That utterance is in the running for the most inane thing I have ever heard. It would be hilarious if it were not for the potentially deadly consequences. There are mentally ill people who hear these things, who don’t realize that the folks on the TV are simply lying for ratings or votes. (I do think that some of the folks who are lying for ratings or votes have lied so long or become so full of hate that they have come to believe their own lies.) Whatever the motive of the liars, some people fall for them. And then the lies become deadly.
The man who went into Club Q must account for his sin. But those who egged him on, those who lied for ratings, and those who lied for votes have also sinned. They all need to accept responsibility, accept the consequences, repent, and “come to Jesus.”* And those of us who have said little or nothing must take courage and speak up.
*Please note I’m not condemning people who hold traditional beliefs about human sexuality in general. I’m talking about those who hold such beliefs and spew hate and lies. Unfortunately, there are LGBTQ+ affirming people who are also full of hate and willing to embellish the truth to achieve their ends—they also need to repent and “come to Jesus.” Regardless of our theological beliefs, we who claim to follow Jesus are called to always speak and act out of love (as best we can) and truth (as best we understand it).
Railing against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, John Wesley made an important point for the interpretation of scripture.
“[The doctrine of predestination] destroys all [God’s] attributes at once. It overturns both his justice, mercy and truth. Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil. . . . But you say you will ‘prove it by Scripture’. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture? That God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this. . . . There are many Scriptures the true sense whereof neither you or I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense at all than to say it had such a sense as this. . . . No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works.”
— John Wesley 
 John Wesley, “Free Grace,” in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, ed. Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville, Tenessee: Abingdon Press, 2013), 28-29.
I originally posted this on July 3, 2018. Given recent developments, I thought it was worth reposting now and I added a few recent thoughts at the end.
This past Sunday I tried to speak faithfully to the intersection of our love of our country and our love of God, putting emphasis on the dire importance of placing our love of God above everything else including our rightful love of country (despite its flaws, there is a lot to love.) Roger Olson comes at the same topic from a different viewpoint in a recent blog post.
Patriotism is love for one’s country without blinders about its flaws and defects. Patriotism seeks to actualize the highest and best ideals of one’s country which can sometimes look like disloyalty to nationalists.
Patriotism is honest about the country’s failures and urges leaders to push on toward better achievements of its founding ideals. Nationalism rejects all criticism of country as almost (if not exactly) treason.
Patriotism regards America as a gift from God and thanks God for it, but it equates “America” with ideals such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression and equal justice for all. It is realistic in knowing that government and society do not always live up to those ideals. When patriots wave the flag they are fully aware that it symbolizes and represents wonderful ideals and not every decision and actions government makes. When nationalists wave the flag they are using it as an idol to sanctify whatever America does.
Patriotism looks to the future and hopes for and works toward the country’s achievement of its ideals. Nationalism looks to the past and defends everything the country has ever done as necessarily good and right just because the country did it. Thus, patriotism loves the country for what it can be; nationalism loves the country for what it has done–regardless of morality. Nationalism exempts country from moral accountability; patriotism holds country morally accountable because it loves it.
Under these definitions, I am a patriot who agrees that nationalism inevitably slides into unfaithful idolatry.
A few additional thoughts in 2022.
- Since Christ is and will be Lord over all Earth, “Christian nationalism” is not only unavoidably unfaithful, but an inherent contradiction in terms.
- Patriotism includes things like paying your taxes, casting informed votes, and serving on juries. Nationalism includes things like storming the Capital building, threatening elected officials of both parties, and wounding and killing Capital police when you don’t like the results of an election.
- Christians must take great care to ensure their patriotism doesn’t slip into nationalism.
Olson, Roger E. “Remembering the Difference between Patriotism and Nationalism.” Patheos.com—Roger E. Olson: My Evangelical Arminium Theological Musings. July 01, 2018. Accessed July 3, 2018. http://bit.ly/2KGR5ms.
In response to the current splintering of The United Methodist Church and the misinformation proliferating during this time, the Great Plains Annual Conference has produced a two page handout highlighting core United Methodist beliefs. You can find it at the link below.
Tomorrow morning (Sunday, October 9, 2022), I’ll be preaching on Luke 17:11-19. The sermon title is “Gospel Medicine.” We’ll be looking at how the phrase “your faith has made you well” has been misused over the centuries and how salvation can be understood as the healing of our sin-sick souls. The adult choir will be singing “Deep, Deep, Love.” Brad Shaw will be the worship leader. Worship starts at 10:30.
At Wednesday night Bible Study we’ve been studying the attributes of God found in Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” In our most recent study, we looked at some quotes from Abraham Heschel that I want to share with you:
“The prophets had no theory or ‘idea’ of God. What they had was an understanding . . . To the prophets, God was overwhelmingly real and shatteringly present. . . . To the prophets, the attributes of God were drives, challenges, commandments, rather than timeless notions . . . They disclosed attitudes of God rather than ideas about God.”
“To the prophet . . . God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He [God] does not simply command and expect obedience; He is moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner. [God is moved, affected, grieved, gladdened and pleased by what people do.]”
“This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God. “
God is not indifferent to injustice, but God is slow to anger. (In the King James Version the Hebrew word for slow to anger is translated as longsuffering). That’s why, in the Bible, we continually see God giving people chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity, to repent and turn back to God. It is why, I believe, the years between Jesus’s first and second comings have stretched so long. Like the loving father in the parable, God is ever ready to abandon all dignity and rush down the road to welcome us home.
It is to our benefit that God is slow to anger, but it is also to our benefit that God will not allow injustice to stand forever. The world will be set right and all will be well in the end. No matter what we have done, it is not yet ever too late to turn to God. It is also never too early, and sooner is better than later.