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Tradition tells us that St. John the Apostle lived to a very old age among the church he founded at Ephesus. In his dotage, he grew so frail that he had to be carried into worship, and lowered gently into a seat of honor. Then the assembled congregation would beg their bishop:

“Please, tell of us of the mighty things you have witnessed, the great deeds of power and glory, stories of the Lord and his apostles you saw with your own eyes.”

And John replied:

“Little children, love one another.”

They persisted, saying:

“Teacher, please, preach the Word to us, transform us and dazzle us, say great things to us.”

And John replied:

“Little children, love one another.”

Just as the years had boiled down the body of this Son of Thunder to pure bone and skin, so had they reduced everything he had seen, everything revealed to him-the Transfiguration, the Resurrection-down to this one thing. It was all he would say. It was all he had to say.

And so the community that looked to John put in a letter:

“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”

(1 John 4:7-12)

Jesus did not have an Immaculate Conception. Jesus had a Virgin Birth. Do not refer to the Immaculate Conception of Jesus.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to the birth of Mary. It is the idea that while Mary was conceived in the normal fashion, through sexual intercourse, God shielded her from the inheritance of Original Sin. The effect was purely metaphysical. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is held only by the Roman Catholic Church; it is not accepted by any other Christian denomination.

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth refers to the birth of Jesus. It is the idea that Jesus was conceived without sexual intercourse, by the work of the Holy Spirit. The effect was physical. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is held by all Christian denominations, although not necessarily by all individual Christians.

I have seen this error many times. I think it’s because “Virgin Birth” is a short, unimpressive phrase, and when folks want to sound highfalutin’, they gravitate toward the polysyllabic rolling cadence of “Immaculate Conception.” But it’s inaccurate. Even if one doesn’t believe in either idea, one has a responsibility at least to understand what they are.

 

 

So this morning I preached my first sermon. To be able to preach was a great blessing to me, and I hope my words, by God’s grace, were a blessing to others.

Texts:
Romans 16:1-16
Acts 20:36-38 and 21:1

Brothers and sisters, today, for the first time, I step into a Methodist pulpit to preach, as did my father and grandfather before me. I am the product of two generations of Methodist ministers. Which means I have seen a lot of moving.

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Theologically speaking, Christmas is a celebration of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. See that “carn-” in there? It’s the same root as in “carnivore.” Meat. Today is about meat.

Jesus had a placenta, a big, red, dripping hunk of placenta. He had meconium, the dark, extremely sticky (though thankfully odorless) feces that results from ingested amniotic fluid in the womb. He grew. He ate. He got sick. He walked. When Christians say “the body of our Lord Jesus Christ” in Communion, we’re talking about mucous, blood, spit, semen, piss and shit.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has joined us here in the dirt. He has come to eat his own dog food and walk among us. God is meat. This is the core of the Christian revelation. Glory be to God.

Have a meaty, bloody Christmas. May it ooze and spew. And, as the hippies used to say, may the Baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind.

If you every see anyone saying “The Council of Nicaea created the Bible/edited the Bible/censored the Bible,” know right there and then that the person in question does not know what they’re talking about. The Council of Nicaea formulated the Nicene Creed and considered a number of other issues. At no point was the canon of scripture considered.

The actual assembly of the canon of the New Testament was a long and distributed process, to the extent that it is not actually possible to point to any one event and say “This is the creation.”

This morning the greeter at church said “We’re singing ‘Oh God, We Yearn for Safety’ again. I wish we didn’t have to sing that one so much.”

And we did. But we also sang:

“God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the major pioneering voices in Christian liberal thought. He staked his soul and his career on the ideas that Scripture should not be taken literally and that the Church must change with the times. After years of constant friction with the Presbyterian Church, John D. Rockfeller, a big fan, suggested that Fosdick should have his own pulpit, beholden to no one. The result was Riverside Church, an enormous Gothic edifice overlooking the Hudson in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. It was intended to be a cathedral church for Christian liberalism.

“Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.”

But something changed between Riverside’s conception in 1927 and its completion in 1930. The years from the Crash to Roosevelt’s inauguration were one of the most terrifying periods in American history. The economy imploded and society itself seemed about to unravel. Suddenly the mission of Riverside became not so much over whether Adam & Eve actually existed or whether the Resurrection was a physical fact, and more about how to preach hope in a time that had no promise of tomorrow.

Under this shadow, Fosdick sat down to write a hymn for the church’s dedication service. What he produced was “God of Grace and God of Glory.”

“Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.”

The first fifteen years of Riverside’s existence saw the spark lit by the Depression burn down the fuse of the Thirties and finally explode in the cataclysm of World War II, the single worst event in human history. The people of Riverside Church kept singing the hymn Fosdick gave them. The Cold War, the Sixties, crisis after crisis, and yet that song was still there. The church was still there. They were still there. The hope they had been promised turned out to be as valid as the fear it had answered. And while the darkness never went away, the light shone yet, and the darkness could not extinguish it.

“Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore.”

It is the promise of the Christian faith that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (literal or not!) means that “life, not death, is the final word.” This fallen world is soaked in evil; it always has been. Through the swampy depths of that evil, the power of human good can and does shine forth. Perhaps Fosdick doubted, when he wrote the hymn, whether there’d be anyone to sing eight decades later. There is. We sang it this morning. We will keep singing it.