Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Cup of Love Poured Out

A Good Friday Meditation
(and critique of Ransom and Substitution Theories)

I have a communion chalice that I keep on my shelf. It’s my favorite chalice, aside from the ones given to me as gifts. I found it at a local pottery shop in North Carolina and was completely captivated by it. I thought this earthy, blue chalice was the most beautiful one I had ever seen.

It occurred to me one day a few years ago that the purpose of this chalice is not to sit pretty on my shelf. It was made for so much more, yet I leave it on display most of the time. I suppose we are like that at times. We are created in the image of our gracious and loving God for more than we can possibly imagine, yet sometimes we find ourselves sitting pretty in church, as if that’s what’s important.

Reflecting with my chalice in hand that day, I began to think that the real purpose of this chalice is not to sit there; it is to be filled. We come to a place in the Christian life when we discover that we are called beyond the ministry of showing up. This longing is evident in our prayer and praise, as we sing “Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord.” We yearn to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to be completely saturated with the love of God.

Yet upon further reflection on the cup in my hand, I realized that this is not the ultimate purpose of the chalice either. As I tipped my wonderful blue chalice over on its side in my hands, I began to see that the purpose of this chalice is not to be filled. The ultimate purpose of this chalice is to be emptied. It is to be poured out.

This is our spirituality of Good Friday. The cross is the intentional, redemptive, self-emptying love of God poured out.

There have been many teachings throughout history on the atonement, the work of God for our redemption through the cross. These have taken shape in a few different ways over the centuries. Perhaps the most prominent theories are “ransom” theory and “substitution” theory. I am at a place in my journey where I am not a fan of either.

Ransom theory was developed fairly early in Christianity. It’s my understanding that for the first thousand years or so, the idea prevailed that the blood of Christ purchased our forgiveness from Satan. But for me, the idea that God “paid off” the devil falls gravely short of capturing the truth of the cross.

In later history, the idea was transformed to the theory that God purchased our pardon not from the devil, but from God’s very self. Similar to this later development is substitution theory, the idea that because of God’s righteousness and justice, God had to place judgment on somebody. So God substituted Jesus for us, who took the punishment for our sin. Again, this falls short because it is hard to imagine a God who needed a “cosmic punching bag” to settle his internal issues.

Here’s the thing. The ideas of ransom and substitution are definitely scriptural, as the early church began to unpack the meaning of the cross. In some ways, they are rooted in Christ’s transformation of the temple sacrificial system, for he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But I believe ransom and substitution are best seen as metaphors and illustrations, for they fall short of giving us a comprehensive theory on how the cross reconciles us with God. In the end, placing all our eggs in one of their baskets just doesn’t make sense.

So what is the fullest meaning of the cross? What better place to go than Jesus’ first words about it, the first Christian sermon about it, and the first Christian hymn about it.

The first thing Jesus said about the cross in the book of John was “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John notes that he was indicating the kind of death he was to die. The first time Jesus spoke of cross should carry some weight. The cross was intended to draw all people to the heart of God, “for God so loved the world (“cosmos” in the Greek) that he gave his only Son” … “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

That means there is something cosmic, something earth shattering and game changing about the cross. Whatever it is, it’s not just an “example to follow.”

If Jesus’ first words about the cross carry weight, what about first sermon and first hymn? In a recent Bible study, we were reading Paul’s sermon in Acts 13. Someone in the group remarked “this is the first Easter sermon.” I was intrigued.

Knowing this was not the first sermon in the early church, a distinction that would go to Peter, I looked back at the texts. This was indeed the first sermon that contained what I would consider theory of atonement. After reciting salvation history in Hebrew style, culminating in the cross and resurrection, Paul continued “Let it be known to you therefore … that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

This cosmic event is one that frees us from sin, yes indeed. But I noticed there there was no purchase language here, and no substitution language either. By the incredible love of the cross, all who respond are freed from the bondage of sin.

What about first Christian hymn we have record of? That would be in Philippians 2. Scholars agree that in verses 5-11, Paul is reciting the words to an ancient Christian hymn, which makes it the first one we still have record of.

It’s incredible in its expression of the atoning work of Christ, singing “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” This is why he is exalted and lifted up.

These three sources give us a pretty good understanding of the outpouring of love expressed in the cross. Who can beat Jesus’ first words, the first sermon, and the first hymn about the cross?

So my theory of the atonement is this. The cross is the ultimate, redemptive expression of God's intentional, self-emptying love. It was not something that happened when God wasn’t looking, sort of a “cosmic fumble” after which God returned the ball in the last second of the game. And it is a comprehensive mystery that can’t possibly be fully explained with a metaphor such as a financial purchase or a substitution for a sacrifice.

It was not just given to us as an example to follow. It completely changed the game. It brings forgiveness to all who would be drawn to the cross. And it calls us to a new love, with the way of the cross guiding us. As the hymn Paul shared reminds us, “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

So it turns out the overturned chalice in my hand a few years ago gave me a pretty good understanding of the cross. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s the meaning of what love is, and life is not about being filled up but about being emptied out.

That’s the meaning of the cross. That’s the meaning of Holy Week. And that’s the meaning of life.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

There's So Much Drama in my Church!

This column was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

Usually when I hear someone talk about all the drama in their church, it’s not a good thing.

Maybe they got their feelings hurt or a decision didn’t go their way. Maybe they caught wind of the occasional gossip or internal politics. Maybe someone spread a rumor or jockeyed for a leadership position.

This kind of drama can sting, and I’ve seen it happen over the years. While this is not part of the nature of what it means to be the Church, it’s definitely part of the nature of what it means to be human. And last time I checked, everybody in the church is human.

Nobody likes drama in their church. Or do they?

This next week, we’ll see some of the best drama the Church could ever have. Holy Week is the most dramatic week imaginable.

It begins with Palm Sunday, a day full of children, grand processionals and palms, and acknowledging Christ as king who reigns in glory and honor. During many churches’ Palm Sunday services, our thoughts and prayers progress toward the passion of Christ, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. We begin to fathom the wondrous love it is that would pour itself out for others.

During the week, our thoughts move toward the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made his boundaries crystal clear - cultural and commercial religiosity is not at the heart of God. When Jesus got angry, it’s good to pay attention to it.

Then there is the betrayal and denial of the week. Talk about drama! I can’t imagine the sorrow Jesus felt when he was betrayed and denied by such close friends. It’s the people you care about that can hurt you the most, not the people you don’t know.

It has occurred to me that out of twelve disciples Jesus spent three years closely working with, one betrayed him, one denied him, and two couldn’t see past their own noses, which were sniffing out status and position. In the end, a third of the disciples let him down.

Later in the week, Maundy Thursday rolls around, when Jesus shared Passover with his disciples, dramatically changed the symbols of the night to become about his body and blood, instituting our precious meal.

Despite their protests, he washed the feet of his disciples, and gave them a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.

Then we arrive at Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and gave himself for you and me. How strange that we should call it “good” when it is a day so full of darkness. Yet we call it good because it is holy darkness; this is how God chose to save and redeem the world.

We pause for the darkness of the tomb on Saturday. Then as a community of churches, we will gather for Sunrise service and breakfast on Easter.

We are always (and have always been, and always will be) people of hope. All of our church activities lead us through all this drama. I hope you will participate in your church as much as you can.

But the drama of the story itself is greater than anything we can possibly dramatize. Let the week move your heart and deepen your soul. Let it bring you to tears and cause you to struggle. Let it be dark night of the soul, which brings us to the joy of Easter light.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of drama in your church. That’s just what the world needs to see.

---

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Prayers for the Persecuted Church


Our beloved bishop in North Alabama, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, released this prayer which we used in worship yesterday at the church I serve. It is a prayer for the persecuted church.

She has invited all United Methodists in North Alabama to a week of prayer for our brothers and sisters who face persecution for their faith. Whoever and wherever you are, please join us in this prayer. In today's world, there are those in our Christian family who are losing their lives and livelihood because of their belief in Christ.

I try to pray prayers not clouded by the language of politics, but purely for the sake of the Body of Christ. It is not the first time in history that the blood of the martyrs has been part of the painful struggle of carrying the cross of Christ.

Steve

---

Prayer for the Persecuted Church

God of us all, You love us so passionately that you sent Your Son to help us experience the fullness of divine love. And while we love you, we are not often asked to risk our lives because of our faith.

This is not true for many of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Our hearts break as we see more of them suffering and dying simply because they are living as disciples of Jesus. We pray for their safety and sanctuary. We pray that you will give them grace in suffering. We are humbled by the witness of these martyred for their faith. We pray for their persecutors, and that acts of violence and persecution will cease.

Help us to grow in our commitment to live as Jesus' disciples. Remind us that we are the One Body of Christ: when one member suffers, all suffer. Stir us to pray unceasingly. And empower us to speak boldly.

We pray all of this in the name of our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Kiss of Peace


This devotional was written by Pastor Steve for the "Night Watch" at Discovery Weekend.

John 14:27 says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I went to see “Bye Bye Birdie” last weekend at Arab High School. What an incredible show! I had seen it before, and knew a few of the songs. But I had never seen it performed so flawlessly. I’m so proud of the talent in our community.

“Bye Bye Birdie” is about a huge rock and roll star of the 60's who was drafted for the army (I assume it’s based on the true story of Elvis Presley). His assistant thinks he can make a fortuneand marry his girlfriend, if he gets Conrad on the Ed Sullivan show to kiss a high school girl goodbye. So it’s all about that kiss.

Have you ever thought about how God has given us a BIG kiss? Obviously, it’s not the kind of kiss you can get from Conrad Birdie. It’s more like the kiss my mother used to give me on the cheek to wish me goodnight. It’s the kind of kiss that makes you feel warm and safe, the kinds of kiss that makes you feel special.

This kiss is called the peace of Christ. He gave it to his disciples when he was saying goodbye. He knew he was going to die and that they would miss him, at least until he rose again. So he gave them one last kiss, the kiss of his peace.

The reason am calling it the “kiss of peace” is because in the ancient church, people actually did that. They puckered up and kissed each other during worship, and called it “the kiss of peace.

For obvious reasons we don’t do it anymore … we shake hands and give hugs! But it still means the same thing. We pass the peace of God to one another.

So let God “kiss you goodnight” tonight. His gentle presence brings you a “peace that passes all understanding.”

PRAYER: Dear God, you promised us a peace that passes all understanding. That means it’s a peace that makes no sense. Sometimes we don’t feel a whole lot of peace in our lives, but you said you do not give it to us as the world gives. Tonight, help melt away the trouble in our hearts and take away our fears. Help us feel your presence. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Religious Freedom Wasn't Free

This is my column that includes the story of Rev. Thomas Maxwell, my fourth great grandfather. It was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, February 28, 2015.


As I reflect on the last few weeks of supercharged political and religious energy in Alabama, my mind can't help but wander back to a precious memory from my family's chronicles.

My fourth great grandfather was active in the fight for religious freedom in America, a freedom we hold dear. Carrying the name Rev. Thomas Maxwell, he was in the ministry of the gospel during the formative days of our nation.

Maxwell grew up Anglican, when the Church of England was the officially sanctioned faith of his home colony of Virginia. A few years before the Revolutionary War ignited, he was "born again" into the Baptist faith.

He fought as a patriot in the war for independence. After that, he began following his calling as a Baptist preacher.

The nation was brand new, but some colonial law hadn't changed. He was jailed several times in Culpepper County for preaching without a license. It may surprise you that licenses to preach were granted by the local courthouse, and in the infant state of Virginia, a license was only granted to those who were Anglican. Period.

Family stories include the fact that he had a large, protruding nose (that's good confirmation that he is related to me). He developed a scar on his nose from rubbing it raw, preaching through the bars of the prison to anyone who would hear it. It is reported that at least one jailer and his family came to know the Lord.

Records show that early American orator and attorney Patrick Henry defended Thomas Maxwell, and Henry had Maxwell released from jail in the 1780's. Patrick Henry was taking up the cause for religious freedom in times when it was considered a value, but certainly wasn't automatic.

Thomas Jefferson, the "silent congressman" who had penned the Declaration of Independence, spent the 1780's making its words reality in Virginia. He wrote Virginia's bill, enacted into law in 1786, which guaranteed religious freedom and allowed Grandpa Maxwell and others to preach without restriction.


By 1791, this freedom was guaranteed for the posterity of the nation by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is easy to forget that the reason the constitutional amendments included in the Bill of Rights were needed was that these freedoms weren't necessarily granted in those first 25 years.

Perhaps it is ironic that years later Jefferson, now serving as our third president, was denying a request of Connecticut Baptists to have the president proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer, when he coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state", referencing the First Amendment. The freedom my ancestor, Rev. Thomas Maxwell, and so many others fought for was a differentiation of church and state that worked both ways.

In 1792, just one year after the First Amendment passed, my ancestor moved to North Georgia and founded a number of Baptist churches there. Though he was Baptist and I am a Methodist, the fire of his spirit - and a deep appreciation of the distinctive roles of religion and government - are part of the fabric of who I am.

A few years ago, I took my Dad on a trip through North Georgia to climb up the family tree. After finding directions scribbled in the back of a locally published history book at the Elbert County library, and a considerable amount of searching, we found the grave of Rev. Thomas Maxwell, this Revolutionary War veteran and early American preacher I had grown to admire.


The grave was on the side of a dirt road, embedded in a picturesque, ivy covered oasis in the middle of a dairy farm.

As Dad and I reverently approached the well-marked grave, about two dozen cows slowly and deliberately made their way from across the field in hopes of being fed.

I hated to disappoint them, for we were empty handed. But our hearts were quite full.

The complex wrangling of religion and culture is nothing new, and I guess it will continue until the cows come home.

But that's the price of religious freedom. It's part of the healthy rub of what it means to be faithful in America. I hope I never forget how much of a gift it is.

---

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Acts of kindness are seeds of Christ's love

This was my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, January 28, 2014.

Another version of it was published in the Faith and Values section of The Huntsville Times on Friday, March 25, 2011.

When my wife and I got married, it was a church wedding of church weddings.

We were in seminary and both on the part-time staff at the church where we were wed. Naturally, a large group from the church came.

The experience was complete with choir and hand bells, a car decorated by the youth group and lots of bird seed tossed.

The wedding was on Saturday, and we happily went on our honeymoon to Gulf Shores. But by Tuesday, I was feeling a strange, niggling, little itch in my left ear.

I started complaining to Sandy about it. It got worse and worse every day.

By Thursday, in desperate need of relief, I was scratching inside my ear. Lo and behold, my fingernail caught on something. I pulled it out.

There it was - a piece of bird seed that had lodged in my ear. And it had sprouted!

It had become a tiny little plant. Not only that, it was growing inwardly. No wonder it had been driving me absolutely crazy.

One year, I preached on the parable of the sower and proudly told the story of the seed sprouting in my ear. Though some seed falls in places where it won't grow, I made the conclusion that "seeds take root in fertile ground," referring of course to my head.

The church found that a bit humorous.

Yet, I never will forget the man who came up to me after the service and said, "You know what fertilizer is made of don't you? Manure!"

Then he just walked off. I deserved that.

At my going away party upon leaving that church, he gave me a dentist's mold of an ear with a little plant growing out of it. He wrote on the side, "Hear the Word, Plant the Word, Do the Word."

What a gift.

I keep it in my office to remind me that God can do great things with one little seed, no matter how unlikely the place is that it is planted.

Jesus said that if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. An entire forest begins with one seed.

No matter how small it is, each act of kindness, each word of grace, and each demonstration of Christ's love is a seed.

Do we trust in this mystery? God provides the growth.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

All is calm, finally

This is my column that appeared in "The Arab Tribune" on December 27, 2014.

Here we are, just a couple of days after Christmas.

There are leftovers in the fridge and crumbs in the cookie jar. Trash bags stuffed with wrapping paper lay next to a stack of shirt boxes, and my tummy is full and happy (maybe the word is bloated). An ornament has fallen off the tree and this time, I didn't pick it up. I wonder if I will.

Our family is settling into a post-Christmas lull, enjoying a few days off together. I think of Julian of Norwich’s saying “All is well, and all manner of things are well.” That’s how I feel after Christmas. It feels like all is calm after the storm.

It’s funny how our celebration of Christmas has evolved. Until recent history, no one started celebrating until Christmas Eve, when the tree went up and the festivities began for a holiday that went all the way to January 6. This ancient Christmas tradition is the origin of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Nowadays, the Christmas craziness seems to start after Thanksgiving. There is lots of music, and there are classic movies on TV. The parties go all month. In church life, the pastor gets to go to lots of them. I always say it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

There’s a reason we love to sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, because by the time we get there, we are desperate for one.

So for most people these days, December 26 means we are done. Whew. We are dog tired, and Christmas is over.

But not for me. This is the best part.

I have grown to love the twelve days of Christmas, and it’s not just because it’s the pastor’s most common week for vacation (okay, that might be part of it). There is a certain stillness after our winter flurry. Even when I didn’t lose the season to too much stress, it is very nice to have some post-Christmas rest.

After all, it’s still Christmas. And Christmas is about peace on earth.

It occurred to me that by the time Joseph and Mary got to the manger to lay the baby down, all was calm and all was bright. Finally, they could give it a rest.

But getting ready for that day? No rest, only stress.

If we think our days leading up to Christmas were tough, think about Mary. She was about 14 years old, barely old enough to have a child and certainly unprepared to raise one. And though it makes us uncomfortable to use the words, she was an unwed mother. She was engaged, but not married. The angel had cleared up any potential misunderstanding about her pregnancy with Joseph, but others were undoubtedly talking.

Then Caesar orders everybody to go to their hometown. They were of little means, otherwise they would have had connections to get a decent room in Bethlehem. It was an 80 mile trip, and tradition says she rode on a donkey.

A donkey? I’ve certainly never been pregnant, but I do have an imagination. If she was great with child, this 80 miles was a long and bumpy ride. It could not have been pleasant.

By the time they got to the manger, they needed a silent night all right.

Maybe today's Christmas insanity is not just the result of the influence of commercialism. Maybe, just maybe, it evolved because our contemporary experience connects us with theirs.

If we believe in the mystery of the incarnation, this strange claim that Christians have, we have embraced the idea that the Word became flesh to dwell among us. Now that he is here, we could dwell on it a while ourselves.

So rather than succomb to post-traumatic stress, let’s give it a rest - a really good one. Let Christmas be calm and bright.

It's not too late. We're just getting started.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First UMC. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.