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A Re-orienting Letter
Jesus is the center of our faith. Community is the center of our life. Reconciliation is the center of our work. Jesus, be the center… [PRAYER]
The letter of First Timothy addresses practical matters of a church community that was in a rut of division, neglect of the poor, and confusion about administration, leadership, teaching and ministry. The center was not holding. The reputation of the church in ancient Ephesus was suffering because in the church women were flaunting fashions, teachers were making obscure speculations, men were getting drunk, nobody was caring for the poor. Talk about a struggling church! So, this letter is written to Timothy, one of the Apostle Paul's colleagues, to help him get the church in Ephesus out of a rut and back on track for living the gospel with Jesus as the center.
The letter's overarching critique is against self-serving wealth accumulation and leadership that lacks integrity. Does First Timothy have something to say to our society? Does our society suffer from self-serving wealth accumulation and leadership that lacks integrity? Yes. It's all around us. It's sometimes among us. Scripture is relevant for today. By including this letter in the New Testament our faith ancestors testify that church struggles that have distracted us from our mission, can be transformed, so that we better represents Christ in the world. One of the surprises in this epistle is that scattered among the general and specific counsel for how to tidy up the messy church scene in Ephesus, are hymns, songs. Here's one from the first chapter:
To the King of the ages,
immortal, invisible, the only God,
be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Here's another hymn from chapter 3. It's called 'the mystery of our religion'
who was revealed in flesh
vindicated in spirit
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
And another hymn to Christ that was in the reading this morning:
He who is the blessed and only Sovereign,
the King of kings and Lord of lords.
It is he alone who has immortality
and dwells in unapproachable light,
Whom no one has ever seen or can see;
To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
The deep wisdom of the New Testament is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the source of the undivided life we seek through the spiritual community of the church. Even when, especially when, church life is in a rut, we sing praise to the one who is our source, our center, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is Lord
Most of us are introduced to God and to Jesus with metaphors of a divine parent and companion. We might learn that God is a loving father. We sing–What a friend we have in Jesus. When these images help us love and trust the Divine One then they are fitting, even essential for our faith development. As we mature–individually and as community–we encounter additional images for the Divine, including Lord. We are not casual about this matter of confessing Jesus is Lord. People have died with these words on their lips. Yet, some of us struggle with the language of "lord," so let's consider where it comes from.
In the first century Jews were this minority group who believed in just one God. Rather than uttering the divine name revealed to Moses in a burning bush, Jews used the term 'Lord' when they spoke of God. And it was a matter of daring faith that followers of Jesus began to call him Lord. Christians calling on Jesus as Lord were aligning themselves with the one true God of Jewish faith revealed in Jesus the Messiah. At the same, but from another direction entirely, Roman emperors trying to establish themselves beyond human critique called themselves 'Lord' and 'Savior' or were regarded this way by their followers. So when Christians spoke of Jesus as Lord, they distinguished themselves from the false securities, bad leadership and social injustice of Roman authorities. They were loyal to Jesus and his kingdom.
Jesus is Lord! While practically addressing a struggling church, the writer of this letter seems to counsel Timothy: sing hymns to Christ, let them reverberate in your chest; sing them together or alone; with instruments or voices. Spiritual-political-social movements–like the church then, and the church today–need good music that connects our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our whole selves with the Divine One who came as a whole self–revealed in the flesh, as the hymn says. So an ancient and primary confession of faith is simply: Jesus is Lord!
Now I recognize that 'Lord' is no longer a trending word. No matter how arrogant a public leader, no one puts himself, or herself(?), forward as 'Lord' these days. And, that's another matter. 'Lord' is masculine and calling upon Jesus with this title may feel like another patriarchal trap in our spiritual formation. Furthermore, to call someone 'Lord' is to humble ourselves, to submit. We know that humility and submission can target us for manipulation or abuse. In response to past harms we've experienced, some of us guard against anyone being our master or Lord. In a recent pastoral conversation I found myself saying that some CMCers might be more ready to say that Jesus is the center of our life, than to say Jesus is Lord of our life. I want to offer a way of holding this Christian confession: Jesus is Lord, especially for those of us who may struggle with it.
Christian Confession & Consent
To say that Jesus is Lord is a political, social and personal confession. It is, at depth, less about our intention and more about our consent to the Divine One. This is true at individually and as a body. The life of the church is not about falling by historical happenstance or hardwon effort on the right side of theological argument, but consenting to the current work of God's spirit through us. Jesus is Lord of a living church, a struggling church. According to scripture, Timothy's ministry to Ephesus is no fool's errand. And neither is our shared struggle to be the church today. Jesus is still Lord.
One of my spiritual disciplines is Centering Prayer and rather than a discipline primarily of intention, it is a discipline of consent. The action–the doing of the discipline–is simply consenting again and again and again to the action of the Divine One within us and through us. Consent. Our yes. This is the posture from which we confess Jesus is Lord. We give our consent to Jesus Christ to lead us, to be the center, to teach us, to comfort us, to heal us. Jesus does not impose himself over us or against us. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is always "for us and for our salvation." Sometimes in the life of faith we struggle to assert ourselves–to choose, to act, to claim our voice, to express our faith. Sometimes in the life of faith the invitation is to simply give our consent, our yes.
Möbius Loop Limerick
A mathematician confided|
That a Möbius band is one-sided,
And you'll get quite a laugh,
If you cut one in half,
For it stays in one piece when divided.
Last week we learned the outcome of our congregational decision regarding conference affiliation. For those of you who don't know, Community Mennonite Church belongs to Mennonite Church USA and our denomination is organized through 17 area conferences across the country. Our church, CMC, began in Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1972. Recently, after a substantive spiritual discernment process we decided by a vote of just over 89% to transfer from Virginia Mennonite Conference to another MC USA conference. We'll decide that together in November after Church Council and Pastoral Team make a recommendation for either Central District or Allegheny. On Thursday evening Pastor Jason, Lee Good, Lonnie Yoder and I attended the Harrisonburg District Council meeting as representatives of our congregation. We shared CMC's decision to transfer. Here's some of what I said:
Back in 2012 Community Mennonite Church completed a discernment process with a decision to become more inclusive of LGBTQ persons… We are still living into that decision and grateful that most of the people who were minority voices in that decision have remained with the congregation. We are also grateful that more individuals who identify as LGBTQ have begun attending or joined our congregation or have come out in a community in which everyone is orienting our lives toward Jesus Christ. [Then I described our timeline, process, and decision.]
We see this transfer as an act of forebearance, so that VMC will not have to engage a disciplinary process with a credentialed leader over this area of divergent Christian ethics if Jason or I or a future CMC pastor would officiate at a wedding for a same-sex couple. We see this transfer as a potential opportunity for the conference to continue its efforts to reform its polity and consider whether there is sufficient margin for congregations who differ from one another in important ways. Tonight I'm grieving aspects of this decision because it represents real loss. [BEGIN CUTTING MӦBIUS LOOP LENGTHWISE.] At the same time, many of the ways that we have shared gospel ministry with you and your congregations will continue. We are pleased to collaborate through VMM sending workers, supporting mission and being part of the Kids Club movement. We will continue to support faculty, staff and students at Eastern Mennonite School. Highland Retreat, MDS, VA Mennonite Relief Sale and many other shared ministries are still part of our congregation's vision for local collaboration in Jesus' name…We are also grateful that the transfer process is measured and proceeds from the district to the Faith and Life Commission to Conference Council and is then acted upon by the VMC delegate body at a conference assembly. Until such action by conference delegates, we will be active in Hburg district and VMC. We appreciate your walking with us as brothers and sisters in Christ, as colleagues in ministry and as a district for support and accountability. [FINISH CUTTING & RELEASE MӦBIUS LOOP.]
I hope that if you are angry or irritated by CMC's decisions that you will consider reframing what is happening in some way. The larger theological-ethical and church polity conversations continue among Mennonites. We are not foreclosing on relationships or real engagement in these conversations. But, as Loren Swartzendruber shared with me, there are times when for particular groups–institutions, congregations–a decision is timely, so that mission can advance. The current leadership of Community Mennonite Church believed we had reached such a time and now we will live with our congregation's decision believing that there is more fruitful ministry ahead for CMC and for all of you.
Lee shared about his work with the CMC task force; Lonnie said change includes both loss and opportunity. Pastor Jason shared about the privilege of working with youth and young adults in a welcoming congregation. I was flooded with a sense of peace about our decision.
Confessing that Jesus is Lord is relevant for these kinds of decisions. When we act as a body, we are not to see ourselves as the righteous majority or the righteous minority. We are not winners or losers. Rather Jesus is Lord of us all, Lord of the church. We have struggled with our district and conference and our relationship will change, yet we belong to one Lord. Now we consent to how the Lord Jesus will work within us and through us in these new circumstances. The personal counsel in this letter takes the form of a song: As for you, beloved of God, pursue justice, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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