Here’s the pop quiz that I had to take this last week. Is it a bear? I mean, is it really a bear? And, if it is a bear, should I be worried that bear? And, again, if it truly is a bear, what should I, or even, can I, do about it?
Those are the questions I asked myself as I tried to sleep in a tent on Lake Mary up in Mammoth on Wednesday night. Earlier in the evening, I had seen a bear, a little one, walking through my campsite, but now it was 2 a.m. and I was hearing a loud, what I can only call ‘snuffling’ noises outside of my tent. Then the snuffling turned to growling, turned back to snuffling, and then turned to an intense kind of snarling as a dog from the next campsite over began barking loudly at whatever was outside of my tent.
So, it’s 2 a.m. and I am asking, in the midst of all of this chaos, “Is this a bear? Is this really a bear? Should I be worried? What can I do?”
These are the core questions when we’re in a state of crisis. It’s also at the heart of what John is asking the Church to consider in 1 John, chapter 4. Not, specifically, “Is this a bear?,” but, “Is this Christ?” Is this Christ? Is it really Christ? Should we be worried that it’s not Christ? What can we do?
See, the problem with having a new way of ‘doing’ faith, doing religion, like in the early days of Christianity, is that it opens the doors to teachings that we, as a Church, as a people of God are highly uncomfortable with. That is, how do we know that the teachings that are coming out of the pulpit, out of our small group leaders, out of our Sunday school teachers – how do we know that any of it is from Christ?
Moreover, how can we know that when we’re discerning in our decision making, that it’s the Holy Spirit and not our own wishes or understandings that are speaking and moving us?
For a thousand years, the Church remained one, united. The whole world was the Church. There were no denominations (not Baptists or Lutherans or Methodists) as we understand them today. And, as a result of being one church, the way that we did this work of discernment, the kind that John alludes to, in this first book of John, was to gather as a worldwide council to consider the theological issue at hand. Church leaders came together and decided whether something was of God or not. If the theology or practice that they considered was deemed to be of God, then it was canonized, made official, so to speak. But if it was deemed to be our humanity or a false teaching, it was made heretical. That is, to be called not compatible with official Christian teaching.
This is literally the way we received the Bible that we use today. Up and through the fourth century, Church leaders met and argued, in these councils, about which writings were going to be used by the Church. They listened to each other, fought with each other, vehemently disagreed with each other, but came up with the Bible that we have today, more or less. Some books they called sacred, others they called heresy, but they came to a conclusion as the global Church.
Well, in the year 1054, the Church split in two, the east was divided from the west, and we were left with two churches. Leaders had been having their disagreements for over seven-hundred years, but the east and west mutually excommunicated one another in 1054, calling each other heretics – that is, that the other was no longer compatible with Christian teaching. Beyond that, what happens next, you know the history: that two churches turned into three churches, turned into hundreds and thousands of churches, and this all happened to the point that we find ourselves with at least seventeen different Methodist denominations worldwide. Methodist denominations alone – seventeen.
Now, to get to the conversation that I have had in small groups with many of you – a conversation that needs to be understood at the whole-church level. Sadly, our United Methodist denomination (United Methodist being the largest of the Methodist denominational churches) may be heading for a split due to our inability to agree about what we are going to do about the language in our Book of Discipline concerning homosexuality which states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” These words found in the pages our book were written in back in 1972 and some want those words to remain included while others want them removed. Others still want each local church to decide for themselves.
At our Annual Conference back in June, Tim, Susan, and I were in the audience as our Bishop shared the potential changes to our global United Methodist Church as a result of these decisions. There will be a special General Conference in which delegates from all over the world will decide whether we remain one church or not. He said that though there are many options, one of these three options are likely. The first option is that we could allow for each regional area to have their own Book of Discipline, to be revised as each region sees fit. Since most, but not all, the disagreement seems to be along geographical lines, one book might keep the language, while the book of another region would not. To oversimplify, for example, Africa wants to keep these words in the book and the Western United States wants them removed. Again, an oversimplification. But if each region could change the book for themselves, a church split could be avoided. A second option is that these words could be removed from the book and any local church that felt like it cannot remain a part of the whole denomination, as a result, would be allowed to leave. The third option was that the words remain in place, in the book, and local churches that are more ‘progressive’ would be allowed to leave as well. For most of you, this is not news, we’ve heard that it was coming.
It would be easy to point fingers and scapegoat people as a part of this process, but I believe this problem is bigger than the issue at hand and it’s much older than 1972. I believe that at the core of our possible church split is this notion that we hear from John of asking: “How do we know that what we decide is the spirit of Christ speaking and not from our own understanding?”
This is the question John seeks to flesh out first. Here in verse 1, John asks those first readers to begin questioning everything they hear. The Message Bible version of this passage says, “My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. [Good start, right?] Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.”
So how can we know that it is the spirit of Christ speaking and not another one of those lying preachers? Well, here’s the problem for us: John says that anyone who confesses Christ is from Christ. The one who claims that Christ is Lord and came as a flesh and blood person is of Christ.
Well, that’s a big problem because we’re all saying that. All sides of this debate, and other debates, within the United Methodist Church are saying that: Christ is Lord.
So, as we begin our own discernment, as individual Christians, as a local congregation, and as a global church, how do we know that it is the spirit of Christ speaking? A different John might be able to help us: John Wesley used four particular criteria himself for making theological decisions: 1) Scripture; 2) Tradition; 3) Reason; and 4) Experience. Though scripture always remained primary for Wesley, he understood that everything that we read has to go through our brains. That as we read words like John writes, “for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4), the way John explains why the one who claims Christ is from Christ – John Wesley knew that there is no way for us to understand it without our brains (reason).
But, more than that, we should know all of scripture (do you?). He said we cannot just pick and choose verses to prove a point. We have to use what he called the spirit of “the general tenor of scripture.” That is the whole Bible. Like, what does it say when you read it all together as the one story of God? Or, in the same way that we scripture through the lens of Jesus saying that the two greatest commands in the whole of scripture are to love God and love neighbor. We have to read the whole thing to even begin thinking theologically.
But, even still, we have to listen to what our Church’s leaders have said in generations past. That’s our tradition, it’s at the heart of who we are. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. And doesn’t it seem like it could be the year 1054 again, church torn from church? But we cannot rely upon “we’ve always done it that way” alone to settle our thinking. We have to realize that God is still speaking and that we are still asked to discern the spirit of Christ in our own lives every day.
Because God will bring us experiences to shape our hearts and our thoughts. We will meet people who will break our hearts and who will change our minds. And grace upon grace will be poured out and the person we are today, Lord willing, will not be the person we are tomorrow.
As a result, scripture, though it’s always primary, has to be read with the tradition, with our own minds, and with our experiences as a guide. There’s a saying that you never read scripture alone. We always read it together.
And so, how can we know the authentic spirit of Christ in our lives and in our theological reflection and in the setting of direction for our churches? How can we know? First is going to be Christ. The one who claims Christ is from Christ. And, how do we know Christ? Through the scripture. How do we read the scripture? We never read alone. Not only do we read with each other, we read with the tradition, with our life experiences, and with minds God gave us. To turn those things off is to ignore the ways God can bring grace and creativity into the world. Because Christ is still speaking – in my heart and in yours. Christ is still speaking. Listen up.
What does that mean for the United Methodist Church? Who knows? I’m asking us to commit to pray for our church and its leaders leading up to our 2019 General Conference where, just like at those councils over a thousand years ago, people will listen to each other, fight with each other, and vehemently disagree with each other, but maybe, God’s grace going with them, we will receive one church, a church to serve generations to come.
What does it mean for Trinity, this church? I don’t think that this is the end of the discussion for us. These conversations will have to continue from me to you and in small groups where we can discern the spirit of Christ together. This fall, I think that we will have a couple such events where we can talk about this kind of discernment because there will be some decisions that we have to make as a local church. [pause, reset]
So as I got out of my tent the following morning, I saw paw prints with long claws as a part of them and campsite neighbors who had seen what I couldn’t bring myself to, unzip my tent and look out and see – they saw a big bear. So is it a bear? Yeah. Is it really? Yeah. Should I have been worried? Yeah. What should I do? That’s what I really didn’t know. So, yes, it was a bear and I probably should have worried and I should have done something about it.
My hope for us, as we enter into a new time of discernment, is that we will look for the challenges that will face us not with worry, but with clarity, seeking unity, but more than unity, seeking Christ, and understanding that God is going to work in this world – with or without us. So, please, let’s make it with us.
The grace of God in all things; the grace of God in us.