Valentine’s Day and a “New Baptized” Church

I love the church, particularly the United Methodist Church, though I am reminded of Juliet’s words to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” It’s as if Juliet is saying it doesn’t matter if one is called Montague or Capulet if they love one another. To which thought, Romeo responds by saying to Juliet, “I take thee at thy word: Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; henceforth I never will be Romeo.” I can love a church, a particular church, and wonder the same thing: Does it matter what the name is? My mother belonged to Edgefield M.E. Church, South as a little girl. Then in 1939 she became a member of The Methodist Church. In 1968 she found herself as a member of the United Methodist Church, and the irony of the matter is that she belonged to all three denominations and never had to change buildings. It matters not what’s in a name if the people matter more than the steeple.

Approaching this Valentine’s Day, it strikes me that the words of Revelation 2:4-6 to the church at Ephesus are appropriate as I ponder my relationship with our denomination and the potential of yet another name change: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

Our theology is great, as it includes wonderful teaching and doctrine about the Christian faith, but how are we doing in honoring our “first love” for Jesus? There are some in our ranks that have switched the order of the two great commandments to love God and neighbor, and have put neighbor before God. Apparently, there is nothing new about this. The author of Revelation plainly says, “You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” It is a hating of practices, not people. Practices are the “which” God hates, not the “whom.” We have switched that up and condone and bless everyone’s practices along with the whom of identity-politics and theologies. We have worshipped the Creature more than the Creator. Changing our focus away from God feels a bit like rewriting your wedding vows, or losing your first love.

An example of losing our first love will be on full display at the meeting of the Commission on the General Conference that begins February 20. Decisions will be made as to whether an in-person General Conference can be safely held this year, or whether or not it can be done virtually. As a denomination that makes conciliar decisions, and values everyone’s opinions, it should be apparent that a virtual General Conference will disenfranchise many people around the globe. After postponing the spring 2020 one, what makes it so critical to get it done now? Why can’t we wait another year or more? Again, it makes one wonder whether or not we have forsaken our first love. What or who do we value more? How US-centric are we? Is it important to have everyone’s voices at the table, or only a select few?

When it comes to genuine love, doesn’t that require that we say what we mean and mean what we say? If our values as a denomination are to hear all voices, the question of holding a General Conference is moot. Since Jesus prayed in John 17:21 for the church to be one, then it makes sense not to exclude people of other cultures, time zones, or those without internet capability. As much as I would like to move on to whatever our future is going to look like as a denomination, I am willing to take it slow and easy for the sake of good face-to-face conferencing that honors both God and others. The issues before us are too important to rush things. In spite of its horror, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to pause and ponder. If, for the sake of love, I’m willing like Romeo to be “new baptized,” and seek a name change, then why the compulsion to hurry things. We have a great opportunity to slow everything down and do our best work, in love!

Is it the End of the World?

Everyone experiences the “end of the world” at some point in their lives. It may be through the horror of a typhoon, a disaster in space as the movie “Gravity” portrays, learning that a cherished friend or family member has cancer, or through our own mortality that the end is near. As a new Christian in the midst of the Jesus Movement of the early 70’s it was semi-required reading to digest Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, aka the Premillennialist’s Guide to the End of the World.

Little did I know back then that there were at least three interpretations of the end times: Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism and there are huge differences between them. Pretty quickly over the years I have embraced Amillennialism as the standard for me. I believe the millennium described in Revelation 20 is a figurative way to describe the time between Jesus’ First Advent and His Second, and, simply put, that’s where we are right now. We’re in the millennium where the forces of evil are at least checked by Christ then the end comes and all hell literally breaks loose. In the end times Christians will suffer horribly, but Christ will come back to set things straight.

Premillennialism suggests that Jesus comes back before all hell breaks loose and raptures the faithful so they don’t have to go through the tough times.  Instead of a figural view of the end times, it’s pretty literal and lends itself to figuring out times and signs. Amillennialists, on the other hand, see signs of Christ’s appearing in every generation and look forward to Christ’s Second Coming as victorious over all evil, sickness, and calamity. Postmillennialists are a whole other breed entirely. They believe that the millennium means that we can make the world a better place during the 1000 years, and then Jesus comes back and basically says, “Thank you!”

The “A” in front of “Millennial” doesn’t mean the same as in “a” in front of “sexual,” or “a” in front of “gnostic,” or an “a” in front of “theist.” “A” usually means “not,” as in “not sexual – asexual,” or “not knowing – agnostic,” or “not a believer in God’s existence – atheist.” It’s not that Amillenialists don’t believe in the millennium, but, like most of Revelation, the numbers are all code. For instance, there are 56 “7”’s in Revelation which is code for the 7-day completion of creation. One thousand is especially meaningful. There are numbers like 144,000 in Revelation 7 which when you break it down to 12 X 12 X 1000 it makes perfect sense. It’s code for Believers of the Old Testament (12 Tribes representing Israel) times the Believers of the New Testament (12 Apostles representing the Church) times 1000 which is perfection at its very best and equals 144,000. It’s not a literal number meaning that Jesus is only going to save 144,000 and get to 144,001 and say “That’s it!” The number 10 or its permutations are in the Book of Revelation a total of 10 times. That’s not an accident. Ten is a great number because it means penultimate perfection. It is 7 + 3 = 10, 7 days of Creation plus 3 of the Trinity and, voila, 10! One thousand is even better because it’s 10 to the third power! So, any time you see the number “1000” in Revelation it means: “Wow! Like forever and ever, countless, ultimate.”

So how does our view of the 1000-year millennium affect the way that we live? If Premillennialism is right and Jesus is going to come back before things get tough for Believers and beams us up in the rapture, then that can lead to either a hurry-up offense of witnessing to people, or a laissez-faire attitude of doing nothing while waiting on the fireworks. Posmillennialism is an optimistic view that purports that the world is going to keep getting better and better then Jesus comes back, and, according to most theologians, it died as a viable option in the horrors of World War I. Things are not getting better, but they’re not as bad as Premillennialists wish. Premillennialists seem to welcome bad news because the worse things get the better chance Jesus comes back. Amillennialists believe that Jesus has already been in the world and continues to be here through the Holy Spirit and the Church, and that we need to act like it, share the Good News, and prepare for Jesus’ Second Coming via personal accountability and in mission to the world.

When it comes to movies like “Gravity” and our experiences of mortality, the question arises, “What’s going to happen to me?” This is the crux of the whole matter of millennialism and the end of the world. Whether our end occurs before the end of the world or we’re around when Jesus’ parousia occurs, we see in the Second Coming a glimpse, a foretaste, and a preview of what will happen to us whenever our time comes. In other words, how we view the end of the world can help us view our present circumstances, too.

For instance, look at Revelation 11 and the two witnesses, one like Elijah (11:6a) and one like Moses (11:6b). These two are the same that met with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They are the two that represent the law and the prophets that Jesus said he came to fulfill. Moses was the greatest lawgiver and Elijah was the greatest prophet. It strikes me that these two figures in Revelation 11 represent the church since we are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

Read what happens to them in Revelation 11:7-12. They offer their “testimony” and then they’re killed. Isn’t it interesting that the Greek word for “testimony” is “martyrios” from whence we get our word “martyr” or “someone willing to die for what they believe in?” The whole message of Revelation is repeated in Luke 21:5-19, this week’s Gospel lectionary text. In Luke 21:19 it says, “By standing firm you will gain life.” In verse Revelation 11:12 it says of these two witnesses who are emblematic of the Church, “they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” Their rapture wasn’t pre-death but post-death. I dare say that is the message of all this for me. I need to hang in there and when my time comes to meet Jesus either when I die or when he comes back, I better be a faithful witness.

Therefore, the message, however obfuscated by the code language that’s found in all apocalyptic literature or the differences between each view of the millennium, is simple: Jesus wins! No matter how much trouble we have in this life, there’s going to be a payday someday, and faith in Jesus makes all the difference. Never giving in or giving up, we have hope in Christ. Through death and resurrection we find life that is truly life. Jesus wins! I am going to cling to that promise and live in the millennium today while I look forward to Jesus’ coming – “By standing firm you will gain life.”