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So John MacArthur is challenging N. T. Wright. He calls Wright’s writings “a mass confusing ambiguity, contradiction, and obfuscation.” (Extra credit to MacArthur for using the word obfuscation). He credits Wright with “academic sleight of hand.” In the end, MacArthur accuses Wright of propagating a false gospel. You can watch the video here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZJEZiLfYHk

Regardless of whether one takes sides in this situation, we ought to ask ourselves how disagreement should be handled in the church.

MacArthur may come across as funny or clever when he makes a statement like “N. T. Wrong.” Still, to vilify our sisters and brothers does not communicate that we are one body. Even in our differences we are to communicate unity not division. Anything else hinders our witness.

I wish we could see disagreement as an opportunity to demonstrate how we are different than the world. Can we not talk to one another rather than about one another? There will be disagreement. Of that we can be sure. But the way we disagree becomes very important.

I admit to be influenced by a book I’ve been reading this past month. Perhaps I should send MacArthur a copy. Maybe he has read it. The title is I Corinthians. This book has had it with division. Every page is seeking unity. Throughout I Corinthians we are reminded that in a context of disagreement we will learn much about who we are. I Corinthians may not be against the world, but it is against bringing the ways of the world into the church. I Corinthians wants us to know the church is a different way to live. Why would the world be interested in what we say or do in our disagreements if we disagree the same way as everyone else?

Even our disagreements should insist on unity. The way we disagree matters much to not only our unity, but also our public witness.

“I’ve got a tiger by the tail its plain to see…” Not the lyric you might expect to hear in Sunday School. But there I was in front of the class belting out the lyrics. The way the story was told to me, the teacher asked if anyone in the class had a special song they wished to sing. While older me can’t imagine myself agreeing to sing in public, apparently five year old me thought it was a good idea. Buck Owens would have been proud. My parents – not so much.

We began to attend another church soon afterward. Hopefully that decision was not related to my singing.  But from early on I was part of a community called church. I had no idea what that meant at the time. I had no idea how belonging to church would shape me or where it would take me.

It is time to begin thinking about church for what it is – an adventure. As with other adventures, this requires direction. Without direction it is a guarantee that we will be all over the place. Probably more of us singing Buck Owens songs in Sunday School. That is why we read the logs of those who have gone on before. They help us navigate territory by reminding us where we’ve been and they help us understand what to expect along the way.

This becomes our primary literature. It invites us into its story and takes us on a canonical adventure. Sometimes I explore this literature alone. This can be enjoyable and a reasonably helpful exercise. This allows me to move at my own pace. I can reread parts that I like best. I can turn the page if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.

But this literature is intended to be relational. It is written for a group. It is best explored in community. It is to be read in twos and threes and even larger gatherings. It prompts conversation about what this adventure should be like. It encourages hearers to continue some practices and to change others. It expects our gatherings to become enactments of a new reality that is to spill over into other parts of the journey.

The primary literature reminds us that this adventure is not one that is safe. One does not join this narrative in order to stay out of trouble. The journey will take you to slave camp, through deep water, into the wilderness, and into battle with giants. Those who have traveled this adventure have suffered stoning and imprisonment. The narrative explicitly calls us to follow one who was sentenced to execution. If safety is what you desire, then maybe this journey is not for you. It is safe to say that when five year old me stood in front of a Sunday School Class and sang, there is no way I could have known what I had gotten into.

Each time I send in my quarterly taxes I can hear the Beatles singing in the background. “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street, If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet. Don’t ask me what I want it for, If you don’t want to pay some more. Cause I’m the taxman…” It makes me want to cast my line in the lake and hope to catch a fish with the coin I need in its mouth.

At the same time, I hear a question asked Jesus “Do we pay taxes or not?” This reminds us that politics were alive and well in first century Palestine. The fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this episode reminds us that the gospels have an interest in politics as well. And Jesus was right in on the political discussion. This is good for us to be reminded of. Especially those of us who want to believe religion is private and separate from politics and that Jesus only talks about spiritual things.

Considering the song his mother sings during her pregnancy, I suspect her lullabies may have been a little political as well. If that is the case then it is no surprise that when Jesus began ministry he began with a political announcement. A new kingdom is here!

The context we are given for Jesus birth is Caesar’s decree. At his death he is charged as a rival king. And then in between he is asked the question “Do we pay taxes or not?” There is simply no way to avoid the idea that to follow Jesus puts us in a political story.

Caesar has coins stamped in his image. Jesus asks for one of these and says something along the line of “Caesar can stamp his image on as many of these as he desires. But do not let Caesar stamp his image on you. You do not belong to Caesar.” Jesus wants to be sure we do not confuse God with Caesar. We are in a political story. And following Jesus complicates politics.

I am struck by the amount of time the church spends talking about world leaders. Even more, I am struck by the division of Christians as they talk as if their allegiance is with one leader or another or one party over another. Still, after reading the New Testament, I cannot find the parts where the church becomes preoccupied with such conversation. If the first century Christians were debating who would succeed Tiberius as emperor, the New Testament does not show much interest. If the church divided its loyalties for and against the incoming Caligula, there is no mention of it.

Four years later, after Caligula was murdered, where is the talk about Claudius replacing him? And when Claudius banned Jews from Rome and made other important policy decisions, were there some Christians defending him and others asking for his removal? When Claudius was poisoned, did anyone in the church become obsessed with what Nero’s economic or foreign policy would be? Perhaps such conversations occurred, I cannot claim to know. But, if they did, the New Testament does not consider them worth mentioning.

Instead, the New Testament uses a lot of space to repeatedly focus on things like the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Rome appeared to rule and Caesars came and went, the New Testament remained interested in other news. I suppose conversations about emperors are not in the New Testament for a reason. It is possible the New Testament writers are only interested in the political changes that came with Jesus of Nazareth. It is possible the Christians in the first century were already aware that Caesar did not rule the world. It is possible they already realized that neither Julio-Claudians nor Flavians nor democrats nor republicans held the answers. It is possible that early Christians were convinced that if Jesus was risen the rest of this conversation was a sub point at best.

The first Christians knew their identity as Roman was not their primary identity. They knew that Rome was not the primary kingdom. They knew Caesar was not the true king. And they knew that Roman politics were not their politics. Instead, they were convinced that God had become flesh and sent the Spirit to make a new politic possible. A politic that, in our more faithful moments, we call church.

Every Wednesday during the months of June and July, the local Lutheran Church serves spaghetti to hikers who may be passing through the borough. It’s not only spaghetti. I am pretty sure they make their own sauce, and meatballs, and salad, and desserts, even homemade ice cream. They replenish supplies and listen to stories and make hikers feel important.

I join them for dinner because I love trail stories. (It was pointed out that I was the only one present who was neither a hiker nor a Lutheran). I listen as hikers talk about gear and fears and weather. I listen to stories about bears and barred owls. I look through pictures that hikers have taken along the way. I ask them what they hope to find during their journey. I ask the story behind their trail name. I meet people from literally around the world. I ask what it is like to have a homemade spaghetti dinner after weeks on the trail. Nearly every time they tell me this is the best meal they have had. One hiker said when he learned of this meal, he pushed extra hard to arrive in Duncannon on Wednesday. The blisters were miserable but he claims it was worth it.

I think of the tendencies and temptations churches can have. How we might choose not to minister to some who will not be able to give back or even join us on a Sunday morning. How we might not want to support the Lutherans because they are competition. How we might think about force feeding a watered-down message down hiker’s throats along with spaghetti.

I am so glad these Lutherans do not seem worried about such things. I am convinced they love to serve. I am convinced they recognize hikers not as transients but as neighbors. The fact is, I support this ministry because the kingdom wins when Lutherans host hikers, when Lutherans offer kindness, when Lutherans serve the hungry and thirsty.

I learn that Bill was at the laundry mat one Wednesday afternoon and overheard a hiker there announce she would be spending the night in Duncannon because the Lutherans were offering free spaghetti and she wanted a home cooked meal on her birthday. Of course, Bill made sure she had a birthday cake that night when she arrived. It was emotional. I’ll bet whenever she remembers the summer she hiked the Appalachian Trail that this will be one of her favorite memories. Thank God for Lutherans.

 

One morning Alf and I went for a walk. On another day Roger and I walked through the woods with his dog Charlie. And yet another day, Mike and I walked a trail along Sherman’s Creek. Every Sunday, Joann walks a half mile to church.

None of this is by accident. Walking the areas around Duncannon is an enjoyable exercise. The streets and sidewalks, the waterways and forests all bring pleasure. But this is more than pleasure. It is also a good metaphor for what we are trying to do. We are walking together as a community called church. And we are walking this journey in and around this place called Duncannon.

Interestingly, Duncannon sits along the Appalachian Trail. In fact, it is one of the few communities the trail actually passes through. There is even an Appalachian Trail Festival held here. It is even more interesting to me that we gather to worship on the trail. Our building is located on High Street and to walk on High Street is to literally walk on the Appalachian Trail. You did read that right. The white blazes that carefully mark the trail from Georgia to Maine pass directly in front of the church building. Anyone who enters the front door must step onto the trail before entering.

I rather like this. A church on a trail. While we all may not be on our way to Maine or to Georgia, we are all on our way somewhere. My suspicions are that all hikers are interested in spirituality on some level, whether intentional or not. There is something about the trail that calls to the soul. To hike the Appalachian Trail is a pilgrimage

To gather as a people of God is also a pilgrimage. I cannot help but remember that God has always called people to go out on a journey. We are a people who belong to the Way. Walking together as a people called church. When we say we belong to the Way, we are being very intentional. This is not a generic spirituality. We are following One who claimed to be the Way. This is truly an adventure.

 

One of God’s biggest moves was the formation of a people who will demonstrate His ways in the world. Although this is one of God’s primary moves, we have relegated it to a secondary role by over-personalizing and over-individualizing the gospel. This has permitted us to think of the church as something different than a body to join in order to participate in God’s redemptive work. Instead we have convinced ourselves that church is a place to go for help in our personal relationships with Jesus. Church has become a convenience stop, like a Jiffy Lube for Jesus.