When the Church Needs to Confess
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
"When the Church Needs to Confess"
So it’s been five weeks since General Conference…
and it’s been painful.
I’ve touched each one of Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.
from Denial to Anger
from Bargaining to Depression
What about acceptance? Is acceptance possible?
How can we accept the unacceptable?
Well, acceptance is not the same as acquiescence.
Acceptance means getting to a healthier place.
I’ve been struggling with this the past five weeks, and I want to think about that struggle with you today.
Let me start here.
Fixating just on those three terrible days in St. Louis doesn’t get us anywhere, and neither does lamenting the past forty years of General Conferences.
We need to see this in a broader context.
Simply stated, this is how human beings behave.
People with power tend to use their power to further their agenda. People with power use that power to get their own way, to do their own will.
If a group has the votes, it’s got the power, and it will tend to use it.
That’s how the world works, and too often, that’s how the church works. After all, the church is made up of fallible human beings.
Now as Merrie read, the church has a higher calling.
We’re not called to use brute force to accomplish our mission.
We are called to be reconcilers.
in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.
God was calling the church to a ministry of reconciliation.
God was entrusting to the church the message of reconciliation.
But we have generally not done such a good job of this. The pattern was set pretty early in our history.
Let me take you back to the year 325 AD.
The leader on the world stage was Constantine.
Constantine was the Roman Emperor.
In one of the most unfortunate accidents of history (or so the legend goes),
Constantine was converted to Christianity.
It may or may not have been a sincere conversion.
Sincere or not, Constantine had an agenda for the church
and he’s not the only politician who ever exploited religion to consolidate his political power.
Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire,
and the church’s alliance with Empire fundamentally changed the church.
Up until that time, Christianity had been a quite diverse movement. There had been…
no central authority,
no official doctrine,
many diverse ways of thinking about Jesus
and following Jesus.
Constantine’s purpose was to use the Church to unify his Empire, and to accomplish that, he thought it needed a unified faith.
So he called a conference.
The bishops and the theologians assembled in Nicea.
The Emperor himself presided over the opening session. He gave his marching orders:
debate the issues, discuss your differences,
work out what is “true,” and come up with a definitive statement of faith.
Without going into all the dreary details,
the major conflict was between two christologies,
One side insisted that the Son had co-existed with the Father from the very beginning and was “begotten” by the Father.
The other side believed that the Son was created at one point in time, in the person of Jesus, and was “made” by the father
It’s John vs. Mark, but I won’t bore you with the details.
Long story short: the Council debated,
they brought it to a vote, the “Begotten” side won, the “Made” side lost,
and the result was imposed on the church and the Empire.
It was published in a creed, the Nicene Creed.
It became part of the church’s official liturgy.
It’s even printed in The United Methodist Hymnal at # 380.
People in the pews began to recite those words Sunday after Sunday, year after year, century after century.
You know how it is when we recite a creed?
We really don’t pay that much attention to the words; we just say them.
We don’t really notice the logic of the language…
but language we repeat over and over again shapes us. It shapes our minds. It shapes how we think about faith.
Now, one phrase in the Nicene Creed epitomizes what I’m talking about. ... God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…
It’s the phrase “begotten, not made.”
I submit that language like that doesn’t belong in a creed.
Language like that is the winning side rubbing it in:
We won, you lost. We’re right, you’re wrong. We’re orthodox, you’re heretics.
Begotten, NOT made.
That’s not language that describes a god of grace who dwells in mystery.
That’s the language of Empire.
That’s the language of control.
That’s the language of graceless winners imposing their will on heartbroken losers.
That’s the legacy of Constantinian Christianity.
And that’s what happened in St. Louis …
That’s what happens when the Church succumbs to the ways of Empire.
And that, by the way, is a pretty good illustration of the theme of our Winter Bible Institute: Theology and Empire.
So that’s my wide-angle interpretation of what happened in St. Louis.
So how do we respond?
How do we get to acceptance?
How can we find a healthier place?
Here’s what I’m working with.
If the Traditional branch of the church wants to consider us heretics, I say “Fine!” I proudly accept that title.
For if Orthodoxy would outlaw the ministry of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,
then I’m proud to be a heretic.
If Orthodoxy would withhold the church’s blessing from two people who love each other and want to spend their lives together,
then I’m proud to call myself a heretic.
If Orthodoxy will not fully embrace each person, no exceptions, as a beloved child of God,
then I’m proud to be a heretic.
But more than that … spoiler alert … I’ve always been a heretic.
I’ve always enjoyed thinking outside the box. My motto … there’s a box?
Heretics play a vital role in the church
When the church gets too comfortable with the way things are, it’s heretics who unsettle it.
When the church closes its mind to new ideas and new discoveries (like … there were moons actually orbiting Jupiter), it takes heretics to question settled truth.
When the church closes hearts and minds and doors to people on the margins,
it’s heretics who remind us that no one is beyond the love of God, everyone is welcome to God’s love — everyone, no exceptions.
Were it not for faithful heretics, Christianity would have grown cold and dead centuries ago.
In fact, without heretics, there wouldn’t even have been a Christianity.
Who was Jesus?
Jesus was a first century Jewish heretic
who rejected orthodox notions of clean and unclean,
who crossed boundaries,
who embraced outsiders,
who ate with sinners, healed lepers, associated with tax collectors,
who taught us that the neighbor we’re called to love is the very person our culture may teach us to hate and fear.
And by the way, I don’t see any of this about Jesus in the Nicene Creed.
And, in fact, without heretics, there wouldn’t have been a Methodist movement.
Who was John Wesley?
Wesley was an 18th century Anglican heretic
whose heart was drawn to the people
who’d moved to the cities to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution;
who saw with his own eyes how hard their lives were;
who felt God’s call to bring God's love to these outsiders forgotten by the church,
probably because they didn’t enter its doors on Sunday morning.
But that didn’t mean God had forgotten those people.
Wesley reinvented ministry.
His innovation: street preaching.
He took the gospel outside the beautiful formal sanctuaries and preached the love of God wherever he found people willing to listen —
in town squares, at race tracks, outside coal mines, anywhere.
Wesley’s heresy was to draw the circle wide, to include everyone who wanted to come to the love of God,
and these are our roots as Methodists.
So I’m proud to call myself a heretic, I’m in pretty good company, and we’re all in pretty good company.
That’s the healthier place that I have found for myself, and that’s what I offer as a place you might find helpful.
So where do we go from here?
Is reconciliation possible?
Well, it’s not possible if all you do is call a conference and run it by Roberts Rules with no plans to get people talking and listening to each other.
A close friend shared what he does when he disagrees with someone.
He asks a question:
Tell me a story about what led you to this conviction. Then he listens.
Often he gets the same question in return.
When the goal is not to tell the other person all the reasons you’re right and they’re wrong
but first to get in touch with your common humanity,
reconciliation becomes possible.
Can we hope for that?
Loving and gracious God,
In the words of the hymnist,
We need new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on.
Grant your church those new eyes,
those outstretched hands,
those open hearts,
that your love might fill us,
that your world may be healed.