Connectional and-or Catholic

United Methodist identity is bound up, in part, with our understanding of the word “connectional.” In ordinary speech, a connection is “a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.” (Oxford Dictionary). Almost every Christian church is connectional in the ordinary sense of that word.

When United Methodists use the word, however, we are describing our particular manner of being connected with other members of the United Methodist Church. According to the Book of Discipline, we are connected by our historical standards of faith, our polity, our ethos, our distinctive way of doing things and our working together in mission (¶132).  The connection is “experienced” through our systems of episcopacy, itinerancy, property, annual conferences and agencies. (¶701) The Book of Discipline is the cornerstone of our unique way of being connectional.

For many United Methodists, the word “connectional” is not merely descriptive; it evokes our sense of religious identity. On more occasions than I can count, I have heard United Methodists utter their own version of Luke 18:11: “God, we  thank you that we are not like other people. We are connectional!” The connection is who we are. And as the place where we meet God, it is a holy thing that should not be trifled with.

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The Staurogram and Ancient Christian Reverence for the Cross

StaurogramThe current logo  for this site is called a staurogram, and it is evidence of ancient Christian reverence for the cross of Christ. When I first saw it, I thought it was simply a tilted version of the popular Chi-Rho symbol, but in the words of David S. Pumpkins, it is “its own thing.”

Larry Hurtado, professor of New Testament, Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, has written extensively about the use of the staurogram in ancient Christian texts. You will find the symbol in many of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament where the noun “cross” (σταυρός [stauros] in Greek) or the verb “crucify” ought to appear.

It was a common practice for scribes to use a kind of shorthand in ancient texts to write sacred names (nomina sacra). Commonly, the shorthand consisted of two or three letters of the name with a line drawn over the letters. The practice wasn’t primarily about saving the scribe time and effort. Rather, it indicated the scribe’s reverence for the name being written.

The staurogram is a pictograph that served the same function.  The symbol (⳨) combines two Greek letters, tau (Τ) and rho (Ρ), but the letters don’t stand for anything. Instead, it is the resulting picture that matters. The staurogram is a kind of stick-figure drawing, visually representing a person hanging on a cross. The closed loop at the top is the person’s head.

For the scribes, then, the cross is not just an object but an act. When they envision the cross, they picture Jesus on it. The word receives reverential treatment because of the sacred place Jesus’ self-offering had in early Christianity. The staurogram is a scribal form of bending the knee before the one who gave himself for us.

Did the Men Cook?

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Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked. He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.” They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. Luke 22:7-13

Sometime back I was sitting in the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville when my mind wandered off the chapel activities to the carving behind the altar. It is a representation of Jesus’ last supper before his crucifixion, a copy of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting.

Luke says that the “apostles” – the sent ones – reclined at the table with Jesus, a group Luke identifies with the twelve. In renaissance style, DaVinci’s apostles sit with Jesus; they don’t recline. Still, it’s just the twelve and Jesus – all men. And the question came to my mind, “Who cooked the dinner?”

Did Luke intend to say that Peter and John cooked the meal when he said, “they prepared the Passover?” Were there others, perhaps some women included, behind the scenes who prepared the actual meal?

It’s amusing to think of the great apostles of the church standing beside the oven baking bread, washing vegetables and roasting lamb. Maybe Peter washed the dishes and John set the table. We should not think it beneath the dignity of the princes of the church to do the work of  servants. Even an apostle can put on an apron and get to work. The disciples may not wash feet in the synoptic gospels as they do in the Gospel of John, but Jesus still calls them to the ordinary task of setting the table.

Whoever performed these mundane functions, the supper had to be prepared before the table could be shared.

Does not the apostolic church still set the table for Jesus, so that he can offer himself anew to every new generation of believers?


The Shadow Side of Wesley’s World Parish

It was on this day (March 28) in 1739 that John Wesley wrote John Clayton a letter that would give Methodism one of its enduring slogans: “The world is my parish.”

It’s a slogan that has both blessed and plagued the Methodist movement and the Christian Church. While recognizing all the good that issued from the Wesleyan movement and the birth of Methodism, I would also like to acknowledge the shadow side of Wesley’s self-confident proclamation.

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Christian Chaplains and God’s Promise to Abraham

The Apostle Paul said, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).  And what was that promise?

  • Descendants and land. A people and a place.
  • Greatness and blessings in general.
  • Justice. Holding the world accountable for its treatment of God’s covenant people.
  • And lastly, that “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3)

In the Christian view, the church stands in continuity with the people of God from Abraham to Moses to the kings, priests, prophets and sages of the Old Testament. The various threads of the Old Testament story begin with Abraham and come to full maturity in Christ Jesus, who continues to exercise his many offices in the church until he comes again.

God is fulfilling – in a small way – part of his promise to Abraham through Christian chaplains, spiritual heirs of the patriarch who bless the world beyond the local church. Christian chaplains are a gift from the church to the world. Just as the church’s committee on relief unconditionally feeds, shelters and nurses the hungry, the sick and the injured, so our chaplains care for those with inward hungers and wounds.

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