William Easum's article in your April issue [Circuit Rider], "The Connection Is Precarious," caught my attention. He suggests that many (most?) United Methodist ministers shy away from the mere mention of Jesus in their pulpits. Why? Embarrassment lest they be viewed as weak academically, or as a "far right extremist." Is he right? I can only speak for myself ...
My academic background must be similar to most of those who read the Circuit Rider. I graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1950 and from the Perkins School of Theology in 1957. Having spent four years in military service I entered seminary with what I thought to be a no-nonsense approach. I had a love of God and a passion to see social justice flourish. Although drawn to many of the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus, I was troubled by what I considered the "far out" claims of the New Testament as to who he was. I saw myself, then, as entering seminary through the back door, and was a bit fearful lest I be uncovered as an impostor. But I found myself thoroughly at home with the "neo-orthodoxy" and skeptical existentialism that prevailed at Perkins in the mid-fifties.
Shortly after graduation I met and married the woman of my dreams. The fact that she was a divorced mother of two young children posed no obstacle. Not only were my wife and I open-minded and "non-legalistic," so, too, were the congregations we served. As the years passed, so, too, were the children we raised.
Nonetheless, problems began to creep into what I felt at first was an almost perfect marriage and ministry. My continuing passion for social justice, especially in racial and poverty issues, and especially in the deep south, brought me into conflict with congregational leaders. And that conflict, in turn, kept me from giving the quality time my growing family deserved. Without backing down from the "social justice" ministry to which I felt God called me, I became the workaholic UM minister, spending long hours mending dikes and trying to find replacements for disgruntled members.
After 17 years of marriage, payment time came. The divorce was hard to handle, especially since I loved my wife, yet felt stubbornly "right" about my social-justice oriented ministry. Confused and depressed, I took a two year leave of absence. Humbled, and with a new emphasis upon the importance of the "inner life" that Jesus stressed, I returned to serve some of the smallest churches in the United States.
In the lonely and isolated high desert country of Jordan Valley, Oregon, I served a church of 26 members. In that austere environment I had plenty of time to read, think, and pray. I prayed especially for my three grown daughters, all walking in the "broad-minded" footsteps of their parents, all facing, without church connections, the rigors of single parent life. An ancient Hebrew proverb seemed to underscore my own complicity: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."
Within that heavy conviction of my own poor parenting, my own sinfulness, God finally brought a book to my attention that changed my understanding of Jesus Christ and the Bible, and forever altered my life.
The out-of-print book that I discovered back in 1990, just three years before my retirement, was The Person and Place of Jesus Christ by P.T. Forsyth, a man whose thought anticipated Barth. The book is a compilation of lectures Forsyth delivered to theology students in England in 1909. I was drawn to Forsyth because his strong allegiance to the "historical-critical" movement was coupled with an equally strong insistence that Jesus had to be God in the flesh, the long awaited Messiah, else He couldn't have forgiven sins, as only God can.
Forsyth held that the cross (with its concomitant resurrection) is not only central to the Christian faith, but pivotal for all human history. He believed that the Apostolic interpretation of that saving event was itself divinely inspired -- a part of God's two-fold redemptive/revelatory action in human history (the cross and its interpretation. ... Forsyth, a former liberal, spoke persuasively of the "inerrancy of the Gospel," and warned of the demise of a liberalized church that substituted it's own modern "understandings" of Jesus in the place of the Pauline and Apostolic writings of the New Testament. That demise has presently settled upon all of the mainline churches.
I am convinced that unless and until our United Methodist pulpits again resound with a strong proclamation of the "blood of the Lamb" shed for the sins of all people, it will flounder. Such an evangelical emphasis would do nothing to undercut our concern for social justice. It would simply place our social actions on the only tenable foundation, Jesus Christ -- just as it was for John Wesley -- and perhaps compel us to rethink some of our present goals. Our nation desperately needs mainline churches where the Gospel rings true, and social justice wells up within the lives of people who gratefully, and daily, remember that their sins -- past, present, and future -- have been nailed to Christ's cross.
You can write John Skien with your comments.
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