Going through my email inbox today, I found these words of wisdom and hope from the late Frederick Buechner:
“The Final Secret, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that . . . we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us.” 
I’ve shared this quote with you before. But re-reading it today, it occurred to me that John Wesley had expressed the same sentiment. I heard it in seminary in a lecture on John Wesley’s theology by Dr. Hal Knight. I looked it up and confirmed that two centuries before Frederick Buechner, John Wesley wrote:
“‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,’ is not only a direction what I shall do, but a promise of what God will do in me.” 
Christ not only commanded us to love God and neighbor, he promised us the power to do so. Ultimately, it is not so much that we have to love but that we are allowed and enabled to do so. That indeed is good news.
 Frederick Buechner, The Final Secret, June 19, 2017, http://www.frederickbuechner.com.
 John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity” cited in Henry H. Knight , “The Promises of God,” Catalyst Resources, accessed November 16, 2023, https://catalystresources.org/the-promises-of-god/.
I just finished Flame of Love by Clark H. Pinnock. He closed the book with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. That prayer was a hymn written by Charles Wesley (John Wesley’s brother) in 1762. It’s found as #501 in The United Methodist Hymnal. I wanted to share it with you here:
O Thou who camest from above,
the pure celestial fire to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
upon the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return,
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my hearts desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up thy gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete.
Renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, responding to a question about what he would say to his children about Jesus on his deathbed:
If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. . . . And go on looking until you’re not just a spectator, but you’re actually part of the drama which has him as the central character. 
You can watch the entire video here.
 N. T. Wright, “Film: Look at Jesus,” The Work of the People, accessed July 28, 2023, https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/look-at-jesus.
In an episode titled Let’s Talk About Changes and Explanations in a Small Town, YouTube personality “Beau of the Fifth Column” recently said: “If you don’t look back at the person you were five years ago and cringe, you wasted five years.” My first feeling was relief because My first thought was, “good, I’m not the only one.”
But a later thought was how very Wesleyan that comment was. United Methodists believe that, with the essential and all-sufficient help of God’s grace provided by the Holy Spirit, we can grow and become better people over time. People who better reflect the love of God into the world. People who better love their God and their neighbor.
The quote is toward the very end, about 7:15 minutes into the video.
“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.