The Church Is at Its Best When: When it is a Discerning Community” John 16:12-15; Acts 15: 6-21

God Said itYears ago well meaning people of faith wore a t-shirt that said, “Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it!”  They were reflecting what has been true since the reformation; the church’s source for authority is the Bible.  Then, we read these biblical words.  Jesus tells his disciples three nights before his death, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  Let’s not pass to quickly over these words; defaulting to a familiar position-the Bible is the sole place to look for all truth. 

These words of Jesus are consistent with what he practiced in his entire public ministry.  Jesus possessed the authority to interpret scripture.  In the Sermon on the Mount he says: “You have heard it said, but I say to you; revealing to his disciples he informed the truth.  He challenges the former writings of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, saying, “not to resist an evildoer.”  He forbids the tribal ways of retaliation, which were recorded in biblical law; insisting we turn the other cheek.  When Jesus said, “I have come to fulfill the law” he is telling us that scripture is the first thing we look to; but not the last thing when discerning the revelation of God.  Word Became Flesh

What Jesus means when he says Christ’s Spirit will lead us to truth is he is Lord over all, including scripture.  After all it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God… and the Word became flesh.”  Jesus is the Word that became flesh.  Now he is leaving the flesh, so he leaves his Spirit of Truth to aid us in discernment.  Christ’s Spirit is Lord over the community of faith; especially as we discern together what God desires for our church and how we shall carry out our mission to the world. 

Our United Methodist heritage gives us the Quadrilateral as one way to keep Christ’s Spirit Lord over scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  Christ’s Spirit is the Lord over scripture; helping us apply it to our lives.  Christ’s Spirit is Lord over tradition; showing us the former things we should preserve.  Christ’s Spirit is Lord over our reason; guiding our minds to what new things we need to embrace. Christ’s Spirit is Lord over our experience; engaging us in meaningful times that confirm our faith. 

Christ’s Spirit speaks to us in the context of personal prayer, conversation with others, and paying attention to what’s going on in the world.  This is a demanding process that no one can do alone; it takes all of us to mine the mind Christ’s Spirit.  When a faith community is shaped and led by Christ’s Spirit we are at our best at discerning the ways of God. 

QuadtrilateralThere are communities of faith that place a unhealthy degree of trust in their own ability to discern what God wants.  They believe they can pull themselves up by your own bootstraps; feeling if God’s work is going to get done it is up to them.  A church anchored too firmly in their own ingenuity tends to do nothing more than repeat the same practices from the past.  They end up feeling of frustrated because of the ebb and flow of fate that brings good and bad times despite their best efforts.  This isn’t the best way to be a discerning community of faith.

There are communities of faith that live so high up in the world of the Spirit, they are rarely grounded in trusted traditions and best practices.  These communities tend to be swept away by fanciful flights of faith.  A church so loosely connected to the real gifts of this world can be washed away by the whimsical waves stirred up by the latest trends.  They end up chasing dreams that rarely become difference makers in God’s kingdom.  This isn’t the best way to be a discerning community of faith. 

A community of faith is at its best in discernment when it holds in balance the glorious tension between the ways of this world and the power of the Spirit.  This kind of church is able to consider how the former things can be wed to the new thing God is doing.  Mixing past with the future will make for a recipe that can enable a community of faith to do good discerning work.  Balance

Marrying the past with the future in the discernment process can be called traditioned innovation.  Traditioned Innovation honors tradition; but isn’t a slave to it.  A discerning community of faith doesn’t run from tradition, like an adolescent rejecting all they were taught.  A discerning community of faith innovates on tradition, like an adult child exceeding her family expectations. A discerning community of faith is courageously conservative or prudently progressive, depending on your default point of view.

We have a vivid example in Acts 15 of a discerning church at its best.  After Jesus’ resurrection, the church was composed of only Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.  At the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the good news of forgiveness and abundant life that comes by grace and faith and not by works of the law spread to the Gentiles.  Jew and Gentile who came to believe in God through Jesus, were together in the church; sharing the message with all who would listen. 

Acts 15Traditionalists said if Gentiles were to join the newly formed Christian fold, they would have to become Jews too, obeying the Law of Moses and accept the mark of circumcision.  The traditionalists appealed to the law (Bible), others said God is doing a new thing.  Leaders gathered in Jerusalem to listen to traditionalists, led by Peter and the progressives, led by Paul.  They heard the testimony of Gentiles who professed faith and served side to side with believing Jews.  Jews reflected on their experience; knowing they’re no different than these believing Gentiles; both came to salvation by the mercy of God in Christ Jesus and not by their works of the law. 

They arrived at traditioned innovation; not wanting to weigh down the new Christians with former ways; causing them to lose the winsomeness of the Spirit, which was born anew in them.   They also maintained continuity with what God has been doing through Israel for centuries by adding provisions all must not eat meat offered to idols and abstain from fornication.  Idolatry and sexuality concerns of the law were preserved.  In the end, they accepted the Gentiles as they were; allowing converts to live by the Spirit in the newness of life Christ had brought to them as long as they held onto some former fundamentals that would benefit all.  Seeing Differently

Later, some of what they decided at the Jerusalem Council faded as the church discerned that kosher wasn’t necessary for making or marking a Christian.  This change in discernment doesn’t prove the prior discernment wrong.  Instead, the change shows we’re always discerning.  Faithful discernment was needed before, during and after scripture was penned.

Discernment requires the right balance between the faith handed down and the faith coming to be.  This requires us to study scripture, listen to what God is doing in people’s lives, praying together with the help of Christ’s Spirit.  Finally, we arrive at consensus about what is fitting for all; not blindly following the pastor or thinking the majority rules.  

FutureOur HCI Team is doing necessary discerning work so we might be at our best. They worked four hours yesterday on the book Remember the Future; learning from each other and with persons in other faith communities.  The book asks the question whether we love Jesus enough to change.  It reminds the reader to remember the changes our predecessors made.  Remembering the future means building on what our forbears did and make similar changes to remain faithful for the sake of the future.

Some of you can recall times when you remembered the future.  It may have been at time of crisis or a time of necessary discernment.  You gathered, listened to each other’s stories, looked for biblical reasoning, and eventually came to a consensus that this is the way the wind of the Spirit was blowing you forward.  You made changes for the future by building on the past for the sake of this community of faith. 

This is a critical time for FUMC Irving.  We are doing some necessary discernment in listening for the current call of God for our community faith for the coming years.  I didn’t say this is a crisis time; it’s a good time to imagine what God might be calling us to next and how the Spirit’s wind might blow us there.  We will listen for God in each other’s understanding of scripture and tradition.  We’ll take note of the activity of God in each other’s understandings and experiences.  Together with the help of the Spirit of Christ we will discern our own version of traditioned innovation; deciding how we can cooperate with God in extending Christ’s kingdom in Irving.  Spirit blows

When the pilgrims boarded their ship in Europe to head for the New World in the year 1620, their pastor, John Robinson, commissioned them with these words: God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.  Their task was not to plant the old world in the new, but to plumb the mind of the Spirit as they traveled to this new land.  Just as God spoke to them; God is still speaking to us.  The church is at its best when it’s a discerning community of faith.  What might we discern in the coming years?

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Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 8:55 am  Leave a Comment  

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