Embracing God’s Disruptive Grace

As pastors and leaders, we often long for peaceful, calm waters with as little disruption as possible. It is disruptive to see the culture in chaos, the church in crisis, and challenges at every turn. But when we look at the Bible, we regularly see how God moves in that liminal space which we call “disruption.” The old saying, “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable” is more true than we sometimes care to admit. But all through the Scriptures we see God taking ordinary people, with their sometimes limited vision, and calling them forth to become full participants in His mighty acts of salvation. Every pastorate and every ministry position is an expression in seed form of this great truth.

Consider this truth as a pattern that can be observed in Scripture. Abraham left his father, became a homeless wanderer, and ended up being the father of a new nation. Joseph was sold into slavery and left in the pit of forgetfulness. Yet, in God’s time (and that must have seemed like a long, long time), Joseph was used to rescue his own people. Moses fled to Midian as an escaped murderer, and ended up unexpectedly in the presence of a burning bush with a call from God. Naomi and Ruth returned to their home empty, but ended up discovering the providence of God in fresh ways through Boaz, their kinsman redeemer. Gideon stood fearful in the winepress and ended up being called to lead an army. David was tending sheep and suddenly found himself slaying a giant and being promised a throne. Jeremiah was thrown into a pit, but in the process rescued the exiles with a word of hope. Jonah was scared and running away from God, but ended up preaching to the Ninevites and becoming the exemplar of God’s heart for the nations. The Widow of Nain was on her way to a cemetery, and instead she was given a resurrection party! Zacchaeus climbed a tree in hope, and found far more than he ever bargained for—a changed heart and divine acceptance. A bunch of fishermen were sitting one day by the sea of Galilee mending nets and ended up with a mission to the nations!

This is how God works. God takes ordinary people and He does extraordinary things. This day, may the presence and grace of God meet you in your own personal version of the pit of Joseph, the desert of Midian, the heartbreak of Naomi, or the fear of Jonah—in the moments before your eye catches a bush on fire. It is precisely in these moments of disruption, fear, and heartbreak that God comes to us in fresh ways.

What Has Happened to the People of One Book?

We are less than five months from the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Conference will be held in St. Louis, Missouri, and has been especially called to “examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and exploring options to strengthen the unity of the church.” Since our last General Conference in 2016 the Commission on a Way Forward has spent over two years seeking to resolve our differences and has presented three pathways forward. Of the three options, the one adopted by the Council of Bishops is known as the One Church Plan. This plan would remove all prohibitive language regarding sexual identity from the Discipline. This would represent a dramatic departure from historic Christian teachings because it would authorize a new definition of marriage as being between “two adults.”

We should be encouraged that nearly 40% of our Episcopal Leaders courageously opposed the One Church Plan. But, tragically, the majority of our bishops are promoting the oxymorically named “One Church Plan” hoping to obtain sufficient delegate votes to pass this legislation in 2019. However, before this proposal is brought before the General Conference we deserve to have the following question answered: What is the biblical basis for this re-definition of marriage?

Our Discipline still endorses the Bible as the final authority in the life of the church. Historically, John Wesley declared that he wanted to be a “man of One Book.” The phrase “a man of One Book” goes back to the thirteenth century Latin phrase homo unius libri (man of One Book) and refers to our solid historical commitment to affirm the Bible as the Word of God, the revelatory foundation for all church faith and practice. Therefore, every delegate deserves to hear the biblical rationale for the One Church Plan. I have read several of the episcopal letters which have been posted online to various conferences, as well as a half dozen or more articles written about this subject by our episcopal leaders, or those serving on the Commission. However, not a single one provides any careful biblical exposition to support same sex marriage. Not one. This should alarm us all. None have explained to the wider church their understanding of a range of biblical texts which appear to condemn homosexual behavior. We need to ask, what is their understanding of the meaning and usage of porneia, akatharsia, malakos, komos, and arsenokoites in the New Testament? Is their argument that all of these words refer to either general non-specific immorality, or the very narrow practice of pedaststry? Is their view that these prohibitions are culturally bound and no longer apply to us today? Has any exegetical work been presented to any annual conference? If so, could this be shared with the wider church? Doesn’t the church deserve to see a biblical exposition of Genesis 19:1-11 and Lev. 18:22; 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7, and Matthew 19:4-6, and so on?

The tone of the letters we have received is pastoral. I want to say that I agree with our leaders that we do need to develop better pastoral care towards all people, including gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, and asexual persons.  However, we should never use pastoral care as a tool to normalize sinful behavior. Nor is pastoral care a substitute for a sound biblical argument based on good exposition.

Why are so many Methodists prepared to accept a plan which has not yet been convincingly demonstrated as consistent with biblical revelation? Over history the church has attempted to chart a course away from biblical revelation dozens and dozens of times. In every case it was attempted as way of breathing new vitality into the life of the church, helping people escape from the so-called “backward world-view” of the Bible, helping to make the church more “culturally relevant,” or attempts to get the church “on the right side of history.” These are all the same arguments we are hearing today. Well, those attempts over the centuries have all failed. In every case, the church which charted a course away from biblical revelation has withered. Those who returned to biblical revelation and embraced the gospel afresh have experienced renewal and revitalization.

We have a big decision to make in St. Louis in 2019. Will we, as a denomination, return to historic Christian faith, or will we press forward with another cycle of decline by moving further away from historic faith? Let me encourage the beleaguered faithful here: If we are given a clear path to orthodoxy, we can reverse all of the declines of the last 50 years in 25 years. Our denomination can return to vibrancy. However, if we are not given a path to orthodoxy then we will continue to wither. If we accept the One Church Plan without any accompanying, well-thought out biblical and exegetical argument, then the real tragedy is that February of 2019 will be remembered as the historical moment when the People Called Methodist went from being the people of “One Book” to the people with “No Book.”

My 2018 Opening Convocation Address: A Spirit-filled and Sanctified Community

This is my tenth convocation address to the Asbury Theological Seminary community. Each Fall, I have sought to focus on different phrases in our mission statement, or, some aspect of our history or heritage which gave rise to our mission statement. This year, we look at the phrase “sanctified, spirit-filled.” This is surely one of the most daunting and humbling aspirations which we set forth at the core of our mission. It is not enough, we have said as a community, to graduate students who are “theologically educated”—as central and important as that is. That is, of course, being done in seminaries all across the world. But, we have also determined that ministry effectiveness must always connect what we know with who we are. Our mission, therefore, is not merely intellectual or cognitive, it is deeply formational. The whole phrase goes, “to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, spirit-filled, men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.”

I have gone onto the websites of some of our sister institutions to see what their mission statements say in comparison with ours. This is not intended to be a critique of other institutions’ mission statement. I have served joyfully under two of these non-Asbury mission statements. But, a comparison is a helpful way to explore what, if anything, differentiates Asbury from other institutions, at least in our own missional aspirations.

The mission of Fuller Theological Seminary is “forming Global Leaders for Kingdom Vocations.” Gordon-Conwell declares that it is “an educational institution serving the Lord and His Church. Its mission is to prepare men and women for ministry at home and abroad.” Denver Seminary exists to “prepare men and women to engage the needs of the world with the redemptive power of the gospel and the life changing truth of Scripture.” Trinity Divinity School—part of Trinity International University—declares that their mission is “To educate men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world by cultivating academic excellence, Christian faithfulness and lifelong learning.” Reformed Seminary’s mission is “to prepare students to serve Christ and His church through biblical, experiential and practical ministry.” Duke Divinity School’s mission is “to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy and the world.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary states that “under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the mission of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is to be totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God, to the Great Commission as our mandate, and to be a servant of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention by training, educating, and preparing ministers of the gospel for more faithful service.” Nike’s mission statement, is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” That has nothing to do with the others, but I just threw that one in for the fun of it.

Those are all beautiful and well-crafted statements. But, Asbury Theological Seminary has this remarkable phrase, “sanctified, Spirit-filled.” This is a gem for us. I love our mission statement. I could spend ten years expositing all the reasons why I find our mission so compelling. Oh yeah, I have! But, for those who may not know my background, I am the first President of Asbury who had no prior connection whatsoever to Asbury Theological Seminary, Asbury University, or Wilmore, Kentucky. I always loved Asbury from afar, but my first real engaged encounter with the seminary was to read the mission statement. I was a professor at another institution and I went on the web and I typed in “Asbury Theological Seminary mission statement,” and it popped up. Let me say, I was very impressed.

It is such an evangelical and thoroughgoing Wesleyan statement. I love that it begins with the affirmation of community. We are a community deeply rooted to our heritage, our mission and to one another. I love the explicit Trinitarian framework of our statement (through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father). I love that it is framed by the missio dei. We are a community “called.” It emphasizes God’s prior action. With one word it acknowledges that it is He who planted this community, He who calls us forth, and He who ultimately sends us out. Of course, I love the emphasis on theological education, because that is what I have given my life to. I love the historical nod to JohnWesley with that great phrase of his “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land/world.” But none of those are the phrases that first captured my attention as I looked at my computer screen years ago and said, “Oh Wow!” It was the phrase “sanctified, Spirit-filled.” Brothers and sisters, this is what rings out as the distinctive phrase in our mission statement as compared with so many others.

My role as president, among other things, is to assure that we as a seminary are vibrant and moving in the right direction. I oversee our 2023 Strategic Plan. I am responsible to make sure that we are economically viable, and so forth. However, no role of mine is more sacred than guarding and joyfully promoting our mission statement. Will you, our beloved students, and those who have gone before you, truly go forth to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world? Are you becoming theologically educated? Are you “Spirit-filled and sanctified”? If you don’t know already, every phrase of this is repeated on graduation day and all graduates are asked to publicly declare that this is exactly what has happened while you were here. But, is it truly descriptive of who we are, or is it merely aspirational? Let me say it again, the phrase, “sanctified, Spirit-filled” is what sets us apart from the vast majority of the 250 or so other institutions who belong to the Association of Theological Schools. Therefore, it is vital that we as a community never allow the phrase “Sanctified, Spirit-filled” to become mere dead letters, or mere historical markers, which only point to our beloved founders, or some earlier embodiment of our community. Rather, they must continue to be descriptive of who we are and what happens to someone who becomes part of this community of faith and learning. You have not been “prepared” unless you are becoming both “theologically educated” and “sanctified/Spirit-filled.”

I would like to ask two key questions. First, are the words, “sanctified” and “Spirit-filled” redundant expressions, saying the same thing in two ways? In other words, is it kind of like a strophe of Hebrew poetry where parallel phrases are used for beauty and for emphasis, but both carry essentially the same message. If so, we shouldn’t try to distinguish greatly between “Spirit-filled” and “sanctified.” Or, are the two words capturing different aspects of our Christian experience? Second, what does it mean for you to be Spirit-filled and sanctified? How do these words or phrases connect with our history and our current practice? What can we do to more fully live into these great missional aspirations? Let be begin by saying that the two phrases are not redundancies even if we are not precise about what distinguishes them. Both words were carefully chosen by our founders to say something about the process of discipleship which lies at the heart of Wesleyan identity.

Sanctification as the “Grand Depositum”

On Wednesday, September 15, 1790 John Wesley wrote a letter to his dear friend, Robert Brakenbury. Brackenbury was a Methodist preacher who established and led the movement in Lincolnshire and was one of Wesley’s 100 top advisors. Wesley wrote him 18 letters and the one I want to highlight is his 17th. When Wesley wrote this letter it had been 52 years since his famous Aldersgate experience where his heart was “strangely warmed” back in 1738. As Wesley lifts his quill to write his dear friend, he is 87 years old. In six months Wesley would be with the Lord. Let me read you the first part of this letter:

“Dear Sir, Your letter gave me great satisfaction. I wanted to hear where and how you were; and am glad to find you are better in bodily health, and not weary and faint in your mind. My body seems to have nearly done its work, and to be almost worn out. Last month my strength was nearly gone, and I could have sat almost still from morning to night. But, blessed be God, I crept about a bit, and made shift to preach once a day. On Monday I ventured a little farther, and after I had preached three times, (once in the open air), I found my strength so restored that I could have preached again without inconvenience. I am glad brother D___ has more light with regard to full sanctification. This doctrine is the grand depositium which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up . . .”

Brothers and sisters, John Wesley is looking back over his entire ministry and this remarkable Methodist movement which God unleashed. Historians would later call this period the Great Awakening. Wesley looks back at this, and if I can borrow the phrase from Jonathan Edwards describing these same revivals, “surprising work of God.” And Wesley declares that the doctrine of sanctification is the “grand depositum” of what we preach. In fact, he says, it is the very reason that God raised up this movement. This is the great doctrinal deposit (that’s what grand depositum means) the great doctrinal deposit—for the people called Methodists. The 16th century Reformation under the amazing ministries of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Latimer and all the rest had restored the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. But, it was the 18th century which restored the doctrine of sanctification more fully to the church. It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that Wesley would have said this as clearly in 1738 as he did in 1790. The so-called “grand depositum” was surely the result of what I would call a “grand journey” of the Wesley brothers, and Peter Bohler, and Zinzendorf and Christian David and John Fletcher, and amazing women preachers like Ann Cutler, Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet—and so many others who were all part of this. They all, despite their differences, gradually realized that the doctrine of sanctification was the grand depositum. This was, in fact, the great contribution of the 18th century revivals to world Christianity.

Of course, all authentically Christian movements embrace the doctrine of sanctification. That is not in question. However, what became increasingly clear to the Wesleys and to those who became co-laborers in this movement is that the church was debilitated and diminished by equating the word “salvation” with the word “justification.” As John Wesley and others re-examined the apostolic and patristic writings they saw that this doctrine had been neglected and had become disconnected from soteriology. Salvation had become reduced to a transactional event, and the longer process of biblical soteriology needed a full recovery. They saw that the church needed to be more intentionally pneumatologically focused—making the shape of our theology more natively Triune, as our mission statement also reflects. Compare, for example, some of the classic Reformed systematic theologies such as Henry Thiessen or Louis Berkhof with the Wesleyan theologian Thomas Oden. The former place the Holy Spirit as either a subset of Christology or as a subset of the doctrine of the church. Oden, in contrast, frames his entire three volume systematic theology around the persons of the Triune God. This grand depositum of sanctification was the holy reminder that the reception of grace is not merely an event, but an ongoing process in the life of the believer. Prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, and finally, in the New Creation, glorifying grace are all part and parcel of a grand, unfolding story of grace and redemption which was not fully restored in the 16th century. We shouldn’t be overly critical of the Magisterial Reformers on this point. They never claimed that they had completed the Reformation. So, Wesley extends the Reformation. If I may quote a beautiful sentence from Kenneth Collins’ writings: “Wesleyan theology is optimistic about the capacity of God’s grace to transform a person.” (Put that on your screen saver!) We don’t deny total depravity. We just believe that God’s grace is greater than our sins. We believe that the “Yes” of Jesus Christ is greater than the “No” of the Devil! We believe that becoming a Christian is not the same as being a Christian. We believe that holiness is not an optional accessory for a few, but God’s plan for every believer. Every single person in this room can be made holy and can live a victorious life in Jesus Christ.

What is quite clear in Wesley’s writings and preaching, and ultimately why the phrase “sanctified, Spirit filled” eventually found its way into our mission statement, is the belief that there are works of grace, subsequent to justification, which are crucial for your Christian life and the effectiveness of your future ministries. The writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley are filled with many different words they employ to capture this work of grace we call sanctification. I have made a list – by no means comprehensive – of some of the terms which have appeared either in the writings of John Wesley or the hymns of Charles Wesley to describe sanctification: “second blessing” “second gift” “farther grace” “personal Pentecost” “fullness of the Spirit” “Spirit of holiness” “going on to perfection” “baptism with the Holy Spirit” “Seal of the Holy Spirit” “effusion of the Spirit” “wrestling Jacob” from the hymn, “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown,” “inward baptism” and one of my favorites, “uninterrupted holiness.” Some may want to argue about the best word for us to use, but the NT itself models for us a wide range of terminology for the indwelling empowerment of the Spirit. There is also no precise pattern in which people receive the Spirit. No one makes this point better than Craig Keener in the first of his four volume commentary on Acts where he says, “Luke allows for a diversity of pneumatic experience and presumably invites his audience to show the same courtesy” (Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic, 2012). So, we are in good company. But, let me say, brothers and sisters, I don’t care what you call it, or even how it happens, just make sure you don’t leave here without it! The re-directed, sanctified heart is at the core of our message, our identity and our contribution to global Christianity—“don’t leave home without it!”

Being “Spirit-filled”

I am indebted to the writings of Larry Wood for pointing out to me that John and Charles Wesley, and several of the other leading writers in the 18th century revivals, relearned from the New Testament and patristic writings that the baptismal liturgy of the early church was a symbolic uniting of Easter with Pentecost. Going into the waters of baptism is, of course, a clear recapitulation of the cross and resurrection as we die with Christ and are raised with him through the waters of baptism. That is fairly standard across almost all Christian movements. But, what has been often missed, is that baptism was coupled with the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit which was a recapitulation of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is why in Acts 19 they asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” It turned out that they only knew John’s Baptism which was a baptism of repentance, but was not, in fact, the same as Christian baptism. Therefore, they baptized them and they laid hands on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. We had already seen this in Acts 6, Acts 8, Acts 9 and Acts 13. In John’s gospel, we have Jesus breathing on the disciples and Jesus saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” demonstrating a coming together of the Resurrected Lord with Pentecost in that profound post-resurrection encounter found only in John’s gospel. The liturgy could have called for us to breathe on our parishioners but the liturgy was developed before the age of tooth paste and mouth wash!

John Wesley recovered this, as seen in a letter to William Law when he said, “‘baptized with the Holy Spirit’ implies this and no more, that we cannot be renewed in righteousness and true holiness any otherwise than by being overshadowed, quickened and animated by the blessed Spirit” (Works, vol. 9, p. 495). We must restore as part and parcel of our pastoral ministries the laying on of hands for men and women to receive the Holy Spirit. We must resist with every fiber of our being the noisy gong or clashing cymbal of minimalistic Christianity. We must embrace a full soteriology which is fully Trinitarian and orients believers to both Jesus Christ as our glorious Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as our blessed Sanctifier.

Five Appropriations of the Holy Spirit in the Lives of Believers

I will now highlight five major appropriations of the Holy Spirit which we need in our lives. The list could be ten, but because of time I going to limit it to five which all arise from the New Testament and from our own tradition. This is your test to know if you have been filled with the Holy Spirit. For you new students, this is your first test. Because if you can respond favorably to these five marks, then you are going on to perfection, I don’t care what you call it. And if you cannot, you are not yet sanctified.

First, the Spirit gives us the assurance of our justification. We believe that every believer should have an inner witness of the Spirit that they are a child of God. Wesley is very clear that the moment a person exercises faith in the justifying work of the Son, you should receive a witness of the Spirit that God loves you, that he has pardoned you through the good news of the gospel, and that you exhibit joy and peace through the reconciling work of Christ which is confirmed through the Holy Spirit. This is not only confirmed inwardly in your own heart, but it is confirmed through the community of believers and through the means of grace which you receive in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There is a lot of pastoral work here for you in your future ministries. I cannot tell you how many times when I have inquired of one of my parishioners about their spiritual state, some on their death beds, they could only say that they hoped that they were going to heaven.

Second, the Spirit grants us bold confidence in the Word of God and we are enabled to proclaim the Word of God boldly. We are experiencing a crisis today of confidence in the Word of God. But, the Spirit of God attests to the authority of God’s word. Wesley understood that when you read Scripture, you do not read it alone, but you read in the presence of the Risen Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit inspired the Word of God and He enables us to understand it and to appropriate it into our lives. Once understood, we are empowered by the Spirit to preach it and teach it with boldness. Wesley uses as an example the text in Acts 4 where the elders and scribes are amazed at the boldness of Peter and John—who after being rebuked, returned to the church and prayed that they might preach the Word of God boldly. Then, they were filled with the Spirit and for the third time in this chapter it states that they spoke the word of God with boldness. This is repeated in chapter 9:27 with the newly converted Saul of Tarsus, and again in chapter 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8, 26:26 and 28:31 where Paul and his various companions are said to have preached boldly. Today, preaching across all of our traditions has become tentative, tepid, fearful, and, at times, almost apologetic. We seem to think that the Word of God is boring and people would rather hear our stories and our opinions than the Word of God. This should be seen as a real sign that we have not been filled with the Holy Spirit with the measure we should be when it comes to our preaching. You can preach a lot of sermons in the flesh, but transformative preaching occurs out of the overflow of the Spirit of God working in you and through you.

Third, the Spirit enables us to live in ever-increasing holiness. The contemporary church has turned discipleship into sin management programs, without addressing the redirected heart which only happens through an encounter with the Holy Spirit that is just as real as the encounter we insist one must have with Jesus Christ. If you are struggling with persistent or re-occurring sins in your life, you need to be filled and keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. This comes to us both as an event, as well as process and appropriation. We need clear moments where the Triune God acts and fills you with the Spirit—through the laying on of hands—that is an event. But, we also need ongoing growth through disciplined membership in band meetings—that is a process. This is why, I believe, our mission statement distinguishes between “spirit-filled” and “sanctified”—because we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and yet we continue to need more of the Holy Spirit as we move towards full sanctification. The terms are not interchangeable. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit” is both a command and an ongoing process. Pentecost is not like the Resurrection. It is not a one-time event, but one which happens over and over again in the book of Acts. The early church kept getting filled with the Holy Spirit, even as they were “going on to perfection” with the goal of entire sanctification. Both are “event” and “process” but the purpose of being filled with the Spirit is so that you might be sanctified.

I exhort every student—indeed everyone at Asbury Theological Seminary—staff, faculty, administration, students—everyone – to be part of a band meeting. Kevin Watson’s book, The Band Meeting published by Seedbed is probably the best introduction to the nuts and bolts of being part of a Band if you need more guidance. Seedbed has a special App—Band Together—which is dedicated to helping facilitate band meetings. This will also be facilitated by our Community Formation team here at the seminary.

The fruit of the Spirit should be manifest in our community in an ever-increasing way. We live in a culture which has become degraded and crude. We live in a culture which is shockingly deficient in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Therefore, to bear these fruits is to shine like bright lights in a culture filled with hatred, sadness, warfare, profanity, anxiety, impatience, faithlessness and being out of control—the anti-fruits of the Spirit—or the fruit of the flesh. We want to see the end of all bondages to sin in our community, whether it be pornography or gaming addictions or opioid use, or drunkenness, or hating your body, or shaming, or any other signs of brokenness which would creep into our community.

We also joyfully recognize the gifts of the Spirit as available to the church through all time. I am indebted to Thomas Oden for setting forth so clearly in his multiple volume work on Wesley’s theology, that John Wesley established a clear via media between, on the one hand, a cold, rationalistic kind of Christianity which was closer to Deism than it was the New Testament, and, on the other hand, emotional extremism which is focused more on experience than on the cultivation of holiness. Properly ordered, Wesley believes that the gifts of the Spirit should be fully operational in a truly renewed church, as his lengthy letter to the skeptic Conyers Middleton makes abundantly clear. In fact, Wesley even envisions a church whereby a dead person could be raised up or demons be cast out, experiences foreign to much of our western contemporary Christian experience.

Fourth, the Spirit calls us to be agents of societal transformation. We reject a truncated, post-Enlightenment form of the gospel which turns the whole enterprise into a privatized faith disconnected from the world we live in. The modern world is content with our being Christian as long as we keep it in our heads as nothing more than personal preference. The New Testament understands that holiness has implications which are personal as well as societal and structural. The church is helping to foster the in-breaking Kingdom when we work for justice for the poor, hope for the disenfranchised, and desperately needed racial reconciliation. The church celebrates recovery for addicts and mercy to the immigrants. The church holds up truth in morality and righteousness in a culture which has lost its way. There is no part of creation which we do not work to see under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, as we become his co-laborers in redeeming the world! Does your heart ache for all this?

Fifth, the Spirit empowers us to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth—to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.” We are those who are burdened—our hearts burn like fire—for those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is the primary function of the Spirit in Acts; namely, to witness to the nations. There are thousands of people groups in the world with no gospel witness and no one to bring them the gospel unless the church acts. There are thousands of biblical nations (i. e. people groups) with not even John 3:16 translated into their language. There is an entire rising generation of young people in this country who have no Christian memory.

Brothers and sisters at Asbury Theological Seminary, we are called to go into all the world precisely because God’s prevenient grace has already beat us there. That prevenient grace becomes embodied in modern flesh and blood versions of the Macedonian Man who continues to call and beckon us to new places of ministry.

Conclusion

When H. C. Morrison founded Asbury Theological Seminary in 1923, he called this community to be “sanctified and Spirit-filled.” To be Spirit-filled and sanctified is not some sectarian doctrine, but is at the heart of the gospel “once for all delivered to the saints.” This is basic “scriptural Christianity.” Scriptural Christianity is what the early Apologists defended in the second century. This is why Athanasius wouldn’t budge as he fought the Arian heresy in the third century. This is the legacy of the Cappadocian fathers in the fourth century. This is at the heart of Aquinas’ Summa in the 13th century. This is part of the Puritan and Pietistic struggle of the 17th century. This is Wesley’s grand depositum of the 18th century. The mantle has now passed to us. It is now our turn to keep remembering the faith. Let us not believe too small, or be found with tiny prayers, stunted faith, or powerless lives. Let us not lose our courage when it comes to standing in the truth of the Word of God. Let us embrace with boldness the full inheritance which is ours through the full ministry of the Triune God. May each of us be “spirit-filled and sanctified.” Amen.

The “Second Half” of the Gospel

At Asbury Theological Seminary, one of the ways we try to frame the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification is to refer to it as the “second half of the gospel.” As I recall, I first heard the phrase from my colleague and friend, J. D. Walt, who serves Asbury’s Seedbed publishing and New Room network. The phrase immediately resonated with me. The idea behind it is that “justification” is the first half of the gospel, which was so wonderfully renewed at the time of the Reformation. We are saved by grace, through faith. But the “second half” is what happens after you become a Christian. This is the good news not just of our forgiveness, but of our complete deliverance from the bondage of sin and our victorious life in holiness. So much of the church has been focused on “getting people into the door of faith,” we can be at a loss as to what to do once they are in the door.

In the last few weeks I saw another way of looking at this as my wife and I have been reading the book of Acts aloud to one another. I was struck by how many times the early apostolic community laid hands on people to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Water baptism was followed by the laying on of hands. The sacrament of baptism we know quite well, because it is associated with the “first half” of the gospel. It is like the “doorway.” When we are baptized we are following Christ in His death and resurrection. When we go down into the waters of baptism, we symbolize our dying with Christ, and when we come joyously up from the waters of baptism we are symbolizing the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

But, in the book of Acts they didn’t stop there (though sometimes God had to act first to give the early Apostles the nudge they needed! See, Acts 10:44). They would lay hands on baptized men and women and pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit (See Acts 6:6; 8:17; 9:17; 13:3,4; 19:5,6). Just as water baptism is a symbolic re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ, so the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit is a re-enactment of the Day of Pentecost when God sent His Spirit. The Day of Pentecost is re-enacted multiple times in the Book of Acts (Acts 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13 and 19). We should assume that this is a precedent that the Day of Pentecost should not be regarded as a one-time event, but as an ongoing experience in the life of the believer, since the Spirit not only helps us to appropriate the good news of our justification through Christ, but to live in the power of the Christ as we witness in the world and live in holiness.

For too long we have come to accept the collapse of holiness and the invasion of evil and sinful activities into the life of the church. Our culture has become increasingly marked by crudity, vulgarity, profanity, and the embrace of unspeakable evils. The church has, at times, turned a deaf ear to the plight of the immigrant. We have, at times, been indifferent to the rising time of racial bigotry and the need for racial reconciliation in our land. The indwelling Holy Spirit will help us to identify and to eradicate these sins in our lives, as well as produce the fruits of the Spirit which are so desperately needed to be manifest in our culture today.

So, perhaps an even better way of talking about “justification” and “sanctification” is to not talk about “first half” and “second half,” but water baptism and laying on of hands. The first we know quite a bit about, the latter not so much. The result is that often our Christian experience is diminished, powerless, and lacking boldness. Too often our Christianity is “in our heads” and “nominal” rather than vibrant and moving through our hearts, feet, and hands. Today, as much as ever, we need the infilling of the Holy Spirit in our lives and throughout our churches. We need to have that full, Trinitarian salvation which orients us not only to Jesus Christ as our glorious redeemer, but to the Holy Spirit as our blessed sanctifier.

My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Graduating Class of 2018: Three Gospel Phrases

Leslie Newbigin, in his classic book, Foolishness to the Greeks, speculated as to what would it mean if seminary students like you graduated and actually conceptualized the Western world as a mission field. He speculated what it would be like if the West was no longer the Christian center, but a culture in spiritual decline. How prepared are we, he mused, to send students out to people who believe matter is self-originating and self-organizing? What would it be like to send students out into a world where there is no assumption of a creator God, and an increasingly dim Christian memory? How prepared are we to send students into a world where morality is nothing more than shared societal conventions, and where truth is socially determined—or, as Newbigin put it, truth has been degraded from public facts, to private preferences?

Well, we no longer need to muse about what it might be like, because you are facing precisely that world. You enter a world not framed by the truths of revelation, but by the perceptions of social media. Graduates of 2018, welcome to the mission field. In this, we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters, many of whom are also here poised to graduate and who come from parts of the world long considered the mission field, but are now the new center of gravity of world Christianity. As a whole, Christianity is growing more dramatically around the world than at any time in our history. However, as Andrew Walls has long pointed out, it has always been true that the advance of the gospel in one part of the world often happens at the very time when the gospel is receding in another. This is part of the story of Christian history. The need for all our graduates is to learn how to do cultural exegesis and understand profoundly the world you are called to engage with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are three phrases which I want to briefly share with you which have long guided the church in the midst of troubled times. These three phrases reflect three great truths for every generation of Christians. These phrases represent foundation stones which can be used to, once again, re-present the gospel in an hour of crisis. The three phrases are, “He spoke,” “He breathed,” and “He entered.”

He spoke” reminds us that God is the creator who spoke this world into existence. We know that God also speaks in His word, which is the great doctrine of revelation. We affirm the authority and power of the Word of God for a lost and fractured world. We believe in “He spoke.”

Second, “He breathed.” We believe that God has breathed his life into all of humanity. Every person on the planet is created in the image of God. We live in a world that is divided and conflicted, and the lines of hostility are drawn. But, the image of God is stamped on all of us. All people are objects of His love, His grace, and His redemptive actions. We are called to announce to the world the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Third, “He entered.” At the heart of the Christian gospel is that God so loved the world that He entered into it. In the incarnation He has stepped into this world. God’s entrance into the world is the great singularity which frames the whole of human history. We are the ambassadors of that good news.

He spoke, He breathed, He entered.  There is enough good news in those three phrases to fuel your entire ministry. “He spoke” reminds us that the world is not without purpose and meaning, but is the result of divine design. “He breathed” brings dignity to the whole human race and reminds us that every person, if I can quote those timeless words of Augustine, “is restless until they find their rest in Him.” “He entered” brings us the whole gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as the entrance of the Holy Spirit, and our anticipation of his coming again. These three foundational truths remind us why we came to seminary in the first place, and why we must leave this place, and get to work. God, through His grace, invites us—even us—to participate with Him in His redemption of the world. We go forth with joy, knowing that this is His work, and that there are no challenges or barriers, or bastions of unbelief, which can put this light out. Because the light shines in the darkness and has not put it out, for it is God himself who  has spoken, has breathed, and has entered. Thanks be God. Amen.

Seven Reasons Why the “One Church” Plan Should Be Rejected

For several years now United Methodists have been living in expectation that in 2019 we will finally resolve our long struggle over the issue of human sexuality.  A special General Conference has been set for February, 2019 to resolve the issue.  The Commission on a Way Forward has worked diligently since 2016 to provide various options, though the Council of Bishops has endorsed the “one church” option, which is a renaming of the previously rejected “local option.”  This “solution” would remove any references to sexuality or gender identity norms in our Discipline and allow local churches to make their own decisions regarding membership and pastoral appointments of LGBTQ persons, and annual conferences would make decisions regarding ordination. It is highly unlikely that this option will pass for the following reasons:

First, the “One Church” option creates a moral equivalency between Christian marriage and same sex marriage which has been consistently rejected by the entire church through all time. Even the United Methodist General Conference has rejected it multiple times. Why the Bishops would endorse a plan which has been rejected over and over is mystifying to many of us. Western culture is, quite evidently, in a state of moral collapse, and it has been exceedingly difficult for mainline churches to accept a new role as a cultural outsider, rather than their long-standing position as a cultural insider. It is long past the time to realize that many of the values of contemporary western culture are no longer consistent with historic Christian faith.

Second, by creating a moral equivalency between Christian marriage and same sex marriage, we violate the clear teaching of the New Testament which teaches that while all sinners are objects of God’s love, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith. The General Church has no authority to regard as holy and sacramental a behavior which is repeatedly condemned in the New Testament. (For more on this, see my earlier piece, “Is homosexual practiced condemned in the New Testament?”)

Third, the “One Church” option creates an even wider latitude and moral equivalency than we were originally led to believe. It is now no longer about normalizing “gay” and “lesbian” behavior, but a whole range of new sexual identities, including “bi-sexual” “a-sexual” “intersex” and “queer.” As I have said in previous articles, we have spent 45 years arguing about homosexuality, but we have not spent 5 minutes discussing any of these other sexual identities.

Fourth, the “One Church” option promotes a completely false idea of church unity. It confuses our structural, organizational unity with the unity which can only be found in Christ and the gospel. Our problems are spiritual and theological, not pragmatic and structural.  This is our agreed upon definition of church unity:  “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task). Church unity is not fundamentally about whether or not the bureaucratic and administrative structures of the United Methodist Church remain in-tact. It is ultimately about our unity in the gospel itself.

Fifth, the “One Church” option is a major concession to a Gnostic view of the body which the church has opposed since the first century. The proposal not only affirms gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but it also blesses a whole new view of the body, represented by transgenderism. The church has never accepted the idea that our gender identity is socially, rather than biologically, determined.  The theological implications for this are enormous and, once again, we have not discussed this for five minutes as a church, it has just been rolled into the “one church” plan under the “catch all” LGBTQ. However, these letters refer to much more than sexual practice. They also refer to gender identity, attitudes about the human body, and so forth. (For more on this, see, my earlier piece on the “new gnosticism”)

Sixth, by endorsing the “one church” option, the Council on Bishops have, tragically, and with the most far reaching implications, unwittingly endorsed a post-modern view of truth. The council is offering us two completely different “orthodoxies” – one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One Methodist church in town would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other Methodist church down the street would teach that it is a sacrament. One church would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other church, a sign of wholeness. The fact that the document actually proposes this without blinking just might be an indicator that we have now embraced a post-modern view of truth. Indeed, this just might be one of the clearest examples of a truly post-modern document in the United Methodist Church. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become, in their view, a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known.

Finally, let us not be lulled into thinking that this is merely a cultural debate, reflecting the regional tensions present in the country as a whole. I have had the privilege of pastoring large churches in New England, most right in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country. Yet these churches are all solid stalwarts of orthodoxy. Likewise, there are many churches in the southern jurisdiction who are committed to heterodox views of human sexuality and the nature of the human body. Brothers and sisters, this is not merely a cultural problem, but a deeply theological challenge.

All those who remain committed to historic faith, biblical orthodoxy, and a view of truth which is based on biblical revelation, must unite and vote “no” to the “One Church” option.

Fire from Heaven: The Rededication of Estes Chapel

This sermon was delivered on May 8th, 2018 at the rededication of Estes Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

We are gathered on this sacred day to re-dedicate this space of worship known as Estes Chapel. We say re-dedicate because Estes Chapel was first dedicated 64 years ago on January 27, 1954. In fact, while we have several here tonight who were present in this room 64 years ago when Estes chapel was dedicated, we wanted to select one alumnus who would come this afternoon as representative of all alumni, many of whom were not able to travel here today, but would represent the legacy of those who gone before us. I would like to recognize Richard and Barbara Barker. One cannot come to a glorious day like this without recalling Solomon’s dedication of the Temple as described in our text. What must it have been like to be there in 953 BC as they sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep to mark the occasion! The Temple was filled with multiple signs and symbols of God and of the covenant, just as our space points in so many ways to God’s redemptive work in our lives, and the covenant we are privileged to live in. Let’s begin by pausing and remembering the place where Solomon’s Temple was built, as well as the seven great signs which would have met you had you walked through that sacred sanctuary of the first temple (though these signs would have been found in the earlier tabernacle, as well as the later Second temple.)

The place: Mount Moriah. There is no more sacred place in the Old Testament than that place where Abraham met with God and brought his son Isaac to the top of the place called Moriah. There in Genesis 22 we meet one of the greatest emblems of substitutionary atonement in the Old Testament. I love that Word from God which crashes into the text: “Abraham, Abraham, do not harm the boy . . . Now I know that you fear God,” and a ram was brought out and sacrificed in the place of Isaac. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, and that place was called Yahweh Jireh – God will provide. The whole history of redemption is there in seed form on Mount Moriah.

This is the place – the very spot where they built the Great Temple of Solomon. Some even believe that the holy of holies was situated directly over the spot where this substitutionary transaction was enacted. It is estimated that it was the most expensive structure ever built – in today’s money it would cost 62 billion dollars, because every surface was laden with gold. It took 30,000 laborers to construct the temple, even more than the 22,000 who built the Taj Mahal. Its walls and ceiling were built with carved cedar boards. The floor was cypress, and all surfaces gilded or sheathed with gold: 90 feet long, 33 feet wide, 45 feet high. Estes Chapel is roughly 90 feet long, the Temple was about 15 feet wider (the Temple was 48 feet wide), and our ceiling here is about twenty feet lower than the highest portion of the Temple. Our ceiling is 26 feet, the Temple was 45 feet high. Just imagine it.

If we were allowed to walk through that amazing place of worship, you would have witnessed seven signs of the covenant. These seven signs marked it out as the place where God met His people for worship, atonement and instruction. These seven signs were symbols of God’s commandments, his mercy and compassion and His covenant love: misphatim, emet, and hesed.  What are the seven signs?

First, in your mind walk with me through the beautiful gate and through the expansive outer court of the Gentiles and up the stairs into the inner court. There in the south east corner you would encounter the first sign, the bronze sea. This was a magnificently large basin of water – eight feet high and fifteen feet wide, supported by twelve bronze bulls. This water was meant to symbolize the water of Red Sea which they had crossed coming out of Egyptian bondage. The water would flow out into a lower basin where it was used for ablution in cleansing the priest before the daily sacrifices.

The second sign you see is the brazen altar for the daily sacrifice. It was a 7 1/2 foot square altar for sacrificing animals in the daily sacrifice. It was here that the priest would lay his hands on the head of the animal and transfer the sins of the people onto the animal prior to sacrifice. Thus, it is here that the daily reminder of sins was made visible, and the daily reception of grace made possible. It is here that we see both sign and symbol of both the holiness of God which declares us sinners, and the grace of God, which declares us forgiven, all bound together in the symbolism of the altar.

Then we climb more stairs and enter the holy place. As Gentiles we would have no access to this area, as it is reserved only for the priests. But imagine entering into that sacred space where we find the third, fourth and fifth signs and symbols of the Jewish Temple. There is the table of showbread, with fresh loaves placed on the table. It is a table of acacia wood completely overlaid with pure gold. It was also called the Bread of Presence, as it was a sign of God’s daily provision, the sign of fellowship, and a reminder of his provision in the wilderness. He was their sustenance. Bread is a symbol of strength, of fellowship, and of God’s grace. Fourth, you would see the great seven-branched candlesticks which would burn day and night as a perpetual sign of God’s presence. It was a sign of God’s guidance, reminding them of the pillar of fire which led them through the wilderness and into the promised land. Fifth, you would see the altar for the incense offering. It was also completely overlaid with gold with four horns on each corner. Incense would be offered every day and be perpetually burning day and night as a sign of the prayers of God’s people going up to the throne of God without cease.

Then, you would look up and see a great and beautiful ornamented curtain 15-20 feet high separating the holy place from the inner sanctuary known as the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter and only on the Day of Atonement – Yom Kipper. There as you move behind the holy curtain you would see what very few would ever have seen as it was reserved only for the high priest. Less than twenty people ever saw this sight in Solomon’s Temple – the final two great signs of God’s covenant – the sixth and seventh symbols. There at the center of the holy of holies is the Ark of the Covenant – a box a little over 4 feet long and 2 ½ feet wide. This was the central sign of God’s covenant. Inside the ark were the two tablets of Moses containing the Ten Commandments. It represents the Law of God. There was also a jar of manna reminding the people of God’s provision in the wilderness, as well as Aaron’s budding rod, the symbol of God’s election of the Levites to serve as his great mediators and intercessors of redemption. The final, seventh, and greatest sign was not anything inside the ark, but the lid itself, the Mercy Seat. This was the most imposing part of the ark of the covenant. On the lid were two impressive cherubim, completely overlaid in pure cold – towering over the ark with radiant faces and wings pointing to the seat – yes this is the seventh and final sign: the Mercy Seat. This is the place where God met his people, blood was offered, prayers extended, and atonement secured. Brothers and sisters, wouldn’t you just love to go back in time and walk through that great and sacred Temple with all of its amazing signs?

We come now to Estes Chapel. First, the place. Wilmore, Kentucky may not seem to have the spiritual clout, historical muscle, or covenantal prestige of a place as sacred or holy as Mt. Moriah. But, the fact that this sanctuary was built here in this place, along with sanctuaries however humble or grand all over the world says something great about the gospel of Jesus Christ, doesn’t it? No longer is there any single place where God meets his people. No longer do we have to make our way to Jerusalem. No longer do we have to go to the Temple. I have been to that holy spot called Mt. Moriah. But, for the Christian, we are reminded that Wilmore is now no different than Moriah – for through the gospel a new and living way has been opened up. Indeed, wherever two or more are gathered in His name, His blessed presence is promised. Thanks be to God. The gospel has turned the whole world into a Mt. Moriah. Praise be to God! And the seven great signs of Solomon’s Temple: (1) the Bronze Sea, (2) the Brazen Altar, (3) Table of Showbread (4) the Candlesticks, (5) the Altar of Incense, (6) the Ark of the Covenant and (7) the Mercy Seat have all been replaced by seven new and living signs which we re-dedicate this day.

1) Baptismal Font

As you walk into this sacred space, the Bronze Sea of our Jewish ancestors has been replaced by the gospel with a stoup, or baptismal font. The waters of the Red Sea have been replaced in Christian architecture with the baptismal font. As you walk in you dip your fingers into the water and you recall your baptism. You recall your own crossing of the Red Sea – out of the bondage of sin, and into the promised land of redemption and grace. As great as the Red Sea was, the waters of baptism are better, because they guarantee an even greater deliverance.

2) Eucharist Table

In Christian worship, the table of showbread has been replaced by the Eucharist Table. A greater bread is here, thanks be to God! Here we see not merely the manna from heaven, or the daily bread of God’s provision, but the bread of Christ’s body, broken for us. The blood which once poured over the horns of the altar of ancient Israelite sacrifices now stands in a cup, recalling the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you and for me. There is no more need for the blood of bulls and goats. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed – once and for all. His blood for the redemption of the world, broken for us, and His blood shed for us. Here in Estes, we have replaced the phrase Do This is Remembrance of Me on the Eucharist table. We replaced that phrase, not because it was wrong, but that there was so much more to be said. Do This is Remembrance of Me only speaks of our remembering something in our heads, remembering a past act, remembering Christ’s passion. But we do more than remember in this place; we encounter the Risen Christ! Here we have placed the words, “Remember Christ Jesus Risen!” The Risen Lord meets us at this Table. As Luther said about the ascension, he rose from here to everywhere, because he re-assumed his omnipresence, and he promised to meet us at this table as the Risen Lord. As Robert Stamps, a former chaplain here at Asbury used to tell us, “Jesus Christ would never throw a feast in his own honor, and then not show up.” This feast is always tethered to His divine presence. We take the bread in His presence – we take the break in the Presence of Him who alone is the Bread of Life. Brothers and sisters, a Greater Bread is here!

3) Candle of the Presence

Asbury Theological Seminary has kept a Candle of Presence lit in this chapel for many decades. It never goes out. When we closed the chapel for renovation we processed it over to McKenna, and today it was brought back in at the head of the procession. J. D. Walt, another former chaplain in this place, once told me that the only capital crime which could be committed on this campus would be to let that candle ever go out. It is a sign of the perpetual presence of Christ, just as the candlesticks in Solomon’s Porch represent the light of God’s guidance, this light represents the light of Jesus Christ who said, “I am the light of the world.” Brothers and sisters, a Greater Light is here! That first light – the pillar of fire – lit up the desert of Sinai and guided the nation of Israel to the promised land. This light lights up the whole world and draws all of humanity through all time and space into the blessed presence of Christ. A greater light is here!

4) Pulpit

This pulpit was a gift from the 1948 graduating class of Asbury Theological Seminary, making it is six years older than Estes Chapel itself. We estimate that approximately 10,000 sermons and addresses have been preached from this pulpit. Men and women of God from all over the world have stood at this pulpit. Pulpits have been central to the people of God in both testaments. In the Old Testament, we mainly remember Nehemiah as the one who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but chapter eight Nehemiah tells us he also rebuilt the pulpit. The pulpit had also become part of the rubble of exile, not just the Temple and the walls. Nehemiah had a great pulpit built. In Nehemiah 8 verse 4 we are told that “a high wooden platform was built for the occasion.”  The great priest of God, Ezra was called upon to deliver the word of God in uncertain times. He opens the word of God and begins to read. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest appointed thirteen Levites to instruct the people in the Law while it was being read. We don’t find a list of mega-stars, or any 5th century BC version of Christian celebrities. These are not household names, then or now. We find a list of Levites whose names you have never heard of: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub , Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah. These are Levites you’ve never heard of, but God put their names in the Bible. Listen to Nehemiah 8, verse 8: “they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” We have already had the entire Bible read in this chapel, beginning April 30th until today.

This is what this pulpit in Estes stands for today – the proclamation of the Word of God – the whole Bible for the whole world. It is now known as the J. Ellsworth Kalas pulpit, in honor of his preaching legacy. Here in this solemn assembly we give to the world a whole new generation of Banis and Sherebiahs and Jamins and Akkubs and Kelitas and Azariahs! This is the need of the hour. Men and women called to faithfully teach people the Word of God in the midst of the rubble of our post-modern world. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. They understood the times they lived in. If you had gone around the broken walls of Jerusalem, every one of them would have preferred to live their lives with a tambourine in their hand like on the day of the Exodus, with Miriam leading worship. But, instead, they were called to live with a trowel and a sword.  They were called to live in a time of rebuilding, a time of remembering, a time of hope. There is no greater need today than a rediscovery of the power of the Word of God to transform this nation and to love this broken world. There is a greater pulpit here, because it not only recalls the Law of God, but it proclaims the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who walked among us, full of grace and truth.

5) Hymn Books

Worship has always been central to the people of God.  This is why God put a worship book at the very center of the Bible.  During the entire time the remodeling of Estes was unfolding, there was another great project at work here – The Asbury Hymnal. It wasn’t built with carpenters, trowels or sheet rock, but with word processing, Finale files, and prayer. It is probably one of the greatest collections of Wesley hymns and one of the greatest collection of theologically rich hymns in our tradition that has ever been collected. When you walk into Estes Chapel in our own version of the outer court you are met by a statue of Charles Wesley who taught us that theology must be sung if you want to grow a movement. Theology must be sung if it is to reside in our hearts, not just our heads. We have always been a singing people – a worshipping people. Once you have sung And Can it Be? in Estes Chapel, you are getting fairly close to the New Creation, let me tell you! There is something glorious about the people of God at worship. The Jewish Temple was a place of worship. Worship in the first Temple was mediated by a select few who were set apart to lead. But here, all of God’s people engage in worship – we honor God and we celebrate who He is and what He has done.  We sing our theology. The cantor songs of the Old Testament were glorious.  But a greater song is here, because He has put a new song on our lips, the song of the Lamb, the songs of redemption, the songs of great and glorious work of Jesus Christ.

6) The Cross of Jesus Christ

There is no greater or more enduring sign in Christian worship around the world than the cross.  We have found the cross scrawled on the walls of the catacombs at the dawn of this great gospel.  It is the cross which stands as the new mercy seat for the people of God.  It is at the cross where God meets his people in the ultimate fulfilling act of redemption.  The sacrifices of the Old Testament and the sacred blood spread upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant by the High Priest was the highest and holiest moment of the Old Covenant. But a greater sacrifice is here. The sacrifice of the Old Covenant was with bulls, goats, and lambs, and had to be repeated over and over again.  But this Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, came, and in one great redemptive act took away the sins of the world. It is not repeated annually by sinful priest, but accomplished once and for all by the only True Unblemished Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. A greater blood is here, not the blood of bulls and goats, but the blood of Jesus Christ, our great Passover Lamb. Notice that there are no heavy curtains in Estes Chapel, separating the worshippers from the presence of God. At the death of Christ that curtain was ripped in half from the top to the bottom. It was one of the greatest miracles of the New Testament, but which we rarely talk about in the church. A 15 to 20 foot curtain, which no person could possible rip in two from top to bottom. But, that is exactly what happened at the death of Christ. Jesus cried out “it is finished” and Matthew 27:51 says that at that moment the veil of the Temple separating the holy place from the holy of holies was rent in two from top to bottom! The cross has opened up a new and living way. Christ has already shown up in the marginal places—a stable in Bethlehem, with a Samaritan woman at the well, at the table with Zacchaeus, in the presence of sinners, and touching lepers.  But nowhere has God identified more with a hurting and broken world than in the cross of Jesus Christ.

God was in Christ, not counting against us our trespasses, but nailing them to the cross. Indeed, all the signs of the Old Testament point to Jesus Christ.  This is why the New Testament is not afraid to proclaim that Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 53:6-9; I Peter 2:21-25); He is the Rock out of which water came in the wilderness (Ex. 17:6; I Cor. 10:4); He is the stone the builders rejected which became the cornerstone; He is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20); He is the Lord to whom David declared all enemies would be placed under his feet (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:41-46). The list could go on and on, but this is the great truth of Jesus Christ. He fills the whole frame. He fulfills Law, Priest, King, and Sacrifice. We cannot easily partition off the old covenant from the new.  Once God in Jesus Christ enters the world, then all revelation bows down to him and is ultimately fulfilled by him!

7) Seventh Sign

There is a seventh and final sign. But, it is one we could not contract builders to construct here. There is a seventh sign, but it cannot be produced through a Comprehensive Campaign. There is a seventh sign, but no one can set it up, or put it in place. It is the fire of God falling down. In 2 Chronicles 7 when the Temple of Solomon was dedicated, the fire of God fell down upon the people, and upon the sanctuary, and upon the sacrifices. The fire of God! It was glorious. It must have been breathtaking to see the sacrifices consumed by the holy fire of God. But, we cannot help but remember on that Day of Pentecost, when 120 believers were gathered in the upper room, and the Day of Pentecost had come, and the fire of God fell upon the church of Jesus Christ. A fire must fall in this place, and it must be the Person of the Holy Spirit. Brothers and sisters, a greater fire is here – not merely the powerful anointing presence of God, but the third person of the Triune God manifest in His people. Because, in the end, there is no point in sacralizing any holy place if it is not filled with God’s Holy Presence.

For 70 years this Chapel has stood at the heart of our campus. Originally, the library was in the floor beneath us symbolizing the bringing together of study and worship. You could literally be sitting in the library and hear worship unfolding above you. We have also recaptured that. At our Asbury Theological Seminary Wilmore campus, our recently renovated Advanced Research Programs and PhD study carrels are located just below us here. The highest academic degree we offer is juxtaposed with our worship, all in one building. Generations of students have experienced the fire of God in this place. They have been filled with the Spirit in this place. They have been called into ministry in this place. They have been healed in this place. Countless weddings have happened in this place. All because the fire of God fell on this place, at these altars, and throughout this sanctuary.

Because our students are like an ever flowing stream through this place, we count every three years as an academic generation.  We have already had 21 generations of students worship here. We pray that twenty one more generations of Asburians will experience the fire of God in this place. Not the fire of God falling on earthly sacrifices, but the fire of God falling on you and on me as living sacrifices. The fire of God which fills our students with the spirit. The sanctifying fire of God! May the fire of God fall down here and ignite our students with the power of God to go into all the world as His witnesses! The seventh sign is the sign of the Holy Spirit. May the fire of God fall down on this place.

  • In this place, may the sound of sin be silenced by that louder sound of forgiveness.
  • In this place, may the weight of guilt be lifted by Him who carries our burdens.
  • In this place, may the yoke of Law, be broken by the divine measure of grace.
  • In this place, may the word of condemnation be overturned by the greater word of God’s love.
  • In this place, may the idols of this world be consumed by the presence of the true & living God.
  • In this place, may darkened hearts become redirected hearts to the greater gravity of holy love.
  • In this place, may those who are deaf to God’s call hear afresh the call of God.
  • In this place, may those who are broken, find healing and wholeness by the Spirit of God.
  • In this place, may the food & drink of this world be as nothing compared to the gift of His bread & cup.
  • In this place, may the ambitions which fuel this world be consumed by the greater ambition to know Christ and to make Him known.

This is our prayer on this sacred day, and we celebrate this day with joy. We thank God for this place, and for the seven signs of His Presence and redemption – who He is – and what He has done. May this day, in the end, be remembered not for a re-consecrated building, but about Him. May the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be praised! Amen.

Communion as Spiritual Journey

Communion, or Eucharist, is one of the most ancient and defining practices of the Christian faith.  Yet, in talking with Christians around the world, it seems that we have not always provided an adequate explanation of Communion because historically we have focused our arguments on what may or may not happen with the elements of this sacred meal, rather than what happens to the worshippers who come forward.

This article will focus on three (there are others) lenses through which we might help Christians understand the Eucharist. The three lens show that when we take Communion there is a past lens, a present lens, and a future lens. Let’s look briefly at each of these.

Communion Past

The first Eucharist took place at the Passover. Therefore, it is a dramatic reminder of God’s deliverance of the people of God; and not just remembering God’s dramatic rescue of his people out of Egypt, but our own greater deliverance out of the bondage of sin and the final judgment of eternal death.

We, of course, enter this amazing story of redemption through our baptism, but we look back and remember our baptism and our deliverance every time we come to the Table. So when Jesus “took, blessed, broke and gave” we remember that He has taken us out from our broken past, He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, He has broken the power of sin in our lives, and He has given us to the world as living signs and seals of His redemptive power.

Communion Present

Communion also celebrates Christ presence with us at the Table right here and now. We accept the declaration of Martin Luther when he declared that at the Ascension of Christ he rose from “here” to “everywhere.” This means that at the Ascension of Christ He re-assumed his omnipresence and He can be present with us here and now. He has promised to meet us at the Table and, indeed, “wherever two or more are gathered in His name” (Matt. 18:20). Robert (Bob) Stamps, a former dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary, used to say that “Jesus would never throw a party in His own honor, and then not show up!” We meet the real Presence of Jesus at the Table. This is why Wesleyans do not “fence the Table,” but instead invite everyone forward, because the very act of coming forward and meeting Christ is a “means of grace” and can bring someone to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

When prisoners get released from prison, they are often asked what they are most looking forward to in their new life of freedom. The most common response is that newly released prisoners are looking forward to “a hot shower and a meal.”  This is precisely what happens to those of us who have been set free from the imprisonment of sin and death. The Lord Jesus, through the gospel, gives us a shower (baptism) and a meal (Eucharist) as a sign of our new life in Jesus Christ.

Communion Future

The Lord’s Supper is also a sign of our future inheritance at the Return of Christ when God sets all things right and brings our deliverance into its full fulfillment. Our world is full of sin and fallenness and we eagerly await the visible, bodily return of Christ. Paul himself testifies about this when he says in reference to the Lord’s supper in I Cor. 11:26  “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We look forward to the Blessed Hope of His Return and the great marriage supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist elements are like the hors d’oeuvres of the that future Banquet.  We take the bread and cup in anticipation of that day when we eagerly run to that greater Feast when we sit down at Table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We will also sit down with sinners, prostitutes and the poor who have also been joyfully received at this wonderful Table of forgiveness and grace.

In conclusion, at the Lord’s Supper we look in three directions: past, present and future.  This is why one of the great liturgical declarations embedded in the Eucharist is the statement: Christ has died (past), Christ is Risen (present), Christ will come again (future). All three directions are gloriously captured in that single declaration. So, brothers and sisters, let us keep the Feast—and keep it well.

Where Have the Three Million Gone?

It is rather odd that so many United Methodists leaders speak and blog about their fears of a split in the United Methodist church. Apparently, some cataclysmic split is in mind, rather than an acknowledgement that we have already been in schism for decades, and millions have already left the church. I read an article recently by Collin Hansen from The Gospel Coalition titled, “Why I Am No Longer a United Methodist.” In the article, he makes an observation which I have found true in my experience. He says that wherever he goes in renewal circles and meets with people who are committed to historic orthodoxy, he finds former United Methodists. It is not a small number; it represents hundreds and hundreds of Christian leaders who were born and raised United Methodist, but who have left to join other movements (and around three million in general membership decline). He says, “every evangelical group I’ve known since 2000 has been stocked with former United Methodists.” That, in itself, is not why I am bringing up this article. It is the why they left which I find so fascinating. They did not leave United Methodism because they became disenchanted with the theology or practice of John Wesley, but precisely because of it. Hansen writes that he left to “find the theology of George Whitfield and Howell Harris.” I left, he writes, “to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with the established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal as cancer ravaged his body. I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.”

This observation needs to be heard by United Methodists across our land. We have a spiritual treasure that is in jeopardy. We have lost our connection to our own vibrant heritage. There has never been a movement which so powerfully united evangelical fervor rooted in historic orthodoxy with social engagement and societal witness. What is at stake is not merely a resolution of our struggles over human sexuality, though that has become the presenting issue before us. What is at stake is nothing less than the apostolic witness. What is at stake is our commitment to Scriptural Christianity. What is at stake is our own vibrant heritage of vibrant evangelism, church-planting, travailing prayer, ardent discipleship, and our identity with the poor.

Hansen has spoken to hundreds of former United Methodists who said that “to find their Aldersgate experience of love for God who justifies sinners, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To hear preaching that stirs the mind and affections with unshakeable confidence in the Word of God, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To find theology that would steel them to stand with Jesus and not be swept away by theological fads, they had to leave the United Methodist Church.” He acknowledges, as I do, that there are thousands upon thousands of United Methodist pastors who still stand for all of these things and who faithfully minister the gospel week in and week out. He acknowledges that there are millions of current United Methodists who still stand in hope that this great heritage can be restored. I am among those. But, we should not be naïve. There are powerful forces aligned firmly against our own heritage of Scriptural Christianity. There are powerful forces who are determined to re-shape our heritage into something unrecognizable to the vision of our beloved founders. There are powerful forces who want us to normalize what the New Testament explicitly forbids. We must rise up and say “no” to anything which would trade our sacred history for the latest mess of cultural pottage.

As the February 2019 General Conference draws closer, there will be attempts to suck us deeper into the dead sect pit we have been digging for so many decades. There will be a steady array of leaders lining up to tell us that our best hope is in the moral abyss known as the “Local Pption.” When that is voted down (for the third time, in case anyone is counting) the backup plan will be to find a way to “kick the can” down the road another four years. Perhaps . . . appoint another group to “study the issue.” Neither option is acceptable. I have spoken to dozens and dozens of evangelical United Methodist leaders across the country and I hear this over and over again: The local option is not acceptable. Kicking the can down the road is not an option either. This is the time for a decisive shift towards, not away, from our biblical heritage. We’ve been trying to accommodate the surrounding moral chaos of our culture for fifty years and it has been a total disaster. Why not reverse course? This is the time to be summoned back to our own history and vibrant faith. We are still the only Christian movement in American history which has planted a church in every county in the country. We can be that movement again. We truly can. We have a fierce struggle ahead of us. Looking at the forces arrayed against us, it is humanly impossible. But, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).

Billy Graham: Three Lessons He Taught Me

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed thousands of tributes from around the world expressing admiration for Billy Graham and his evangelistic ministry which had such a profound impact on the world. I would like to share a few memories and how Billy Graham helped shape my life.

1) The “Boston Photograph”

One of my favorite pictures of Billy Graham is one I saw at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I once served on faculty (1998-2009). It was a picture of Billy Graham preaching in the Boston common in January, 1950. This was after the Los Angeles breakthrough revival which went on for weeks. But, his critics said, “anything can happen in southern California.” If Billy Graham was truly anointed by God, he had to prove it in a hard, cold place like Boston.

Preaching in the open air Boston commons during January was truly a test of faith. Remarkably, over 50,000 people gathered to hear the gospel preached. This crusade was before they had the organizational team fully in place, so there was no “center aisle” or roped off areas for people to come forward to respond to the gospel. So, Billy Graham told those gathered to wave their handkerchiefs as a sign of surrendering to God. It is that moment which is captured in the photograph—thousands of people waving handkerchiefs as they gave their lives to Christ. (Historical note: In 1950 men and women in the professional world all carried handkerchiefs. In fact, it is truly amazing to see this picture from 1950 with everyone wearing suits and ties, etc.).

That picture, for me, represents the life of faith. It has inspired me to step out in faith. If Billy Graham was willing to preach the gospel in the open air in Boston during January, then I can step out and trust God in my life.

2) Preaching in the Soviet Union

Billy Graham spoke at a peace conference in the Soviet Union in 1982 and later returned in 1984 for a full slate of revival services where he preached in dozens of churches and in Red Square. It is hard to imagine today how controversial this was. Rather than rejoice, the media was filled with bitter accusations that Billy Graham was being used and co-opted by Soviet propaganda to prove that there was “religious freedom” in the soviet-bloc countries.

I had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham when he flew back from the Soviet Union, because his first stop was in Boston where he spoke at Gordon-Conwell where I was a student at the time. The media was everywhere. I will never forget his response when asked about his being used as a part of Soviet propaganda. He said, “I don’t care about Soviet propaganda. All I know is that I preached the same gospel in Red Square that I have preached all over the world.” This was a defining moment for me. It taught me to not worry about all the naysayers and critics who will inevitably be there to discourage you. We must keep our eye on the mission. We must keep our eyes on Jesus. I have attended Billy Graham crusades. I have served in the “phone center” and had the privilege of leading dozens to Christ who called in on the telephone during his crusade. But I think his fearlessness in preaching in the Soviet Union despite all the critics did more for me than I can fully express in this short tribute.

3) Billy Graham’s Funeral

I was honored to receive an invitation to Billy Graham’s funeral which took place on Friday, March 2. We had to arrive early at the Samaritan’s Purse headquarters and go through security before being transported by bus to the revival tent on the grounds of the Billy Graham library in Charlotte, just a few miles from where Billy Graham was born. As I sat there and listened to the service I was reminded that Billy Graham had been intimately involved in the planning of his own funeral. The funeral was clearly not a tribute to Billy Graham. It was a tribute to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Every speaker—including all of his children—emphasized the gospel. It reminded me of the saying which my mother always had (and still does) on the wall of the kitchen in the house where I grew up: “Just one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” This is the legacy of Billy Graham. It will soon be the test of our legacy as well.

It doesn’t matter what we do, or what we accomplish. What finally matters, is the glory of Jesus Christ. Even at his funeral, Billy Graham was still teaching us that great lesson. Praise God for a life well lived. Praise God even more for Jesus Christ, our Savior!