Theological Orientation of the UMC, great. Tell me about Samaria

This report has been making its way among the internet the past several days. The two main talking points are from the opening line of the report which reads:

The United Methodist Church is a big tent theologically, and people with conservative or traditional religious beliefs make up the largest group under that spreading canvas.”

This has been used to augment different arguments around the denomination about different positions. Conservatives/Traditionalists (C/T) argue that this is proof that there are more C/T and thus the church should move lightly if embracing anything that is progressive. Progressives/Liberals (P/L) say that this study also shows that we are a big tent and majorities are not always the measure of what God desires.

age structure of religions in the usa - pew research.png

Of course we forget that the average age of an United Methodist is 57 … and this was in 2014 (which was the latest that I could find in the time that I allowed myself to research this question). At the same time the clergy are getting older and there are fewer younger people in the pews and pulpits.

All I want to point out is that it is far more interesting (and relevant) to the future of the church to determine the theological orientation of non-members of the UMC.

Who really cares what the self reported theological orientation of those already in the Church is? If scripture has shown us anything it is that the theological orientations of the people of God are often wrong, misguided and susceptible to sin and corruption. One might imagine the people in the desert identifying as traditional as they desired to go back to Egypt. While others might have self identified as progressive as they melted down the gold to form their idol.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to go to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth”, then it is of greater interest to know what those in “Samaria” believe so that the Church can reach to “the ends of the earth.”

Why did God kill the people who stole in the early church

Acts 5:1-10 reads like this:

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9 Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

This story is troubling for many Christians. It is troubling to think that God would kill you if you steal from the church but would not kill others who commit ever greater sins. For the most part the interpretations I heard in my life focus on why these two deserved to die - they deserved it because they lied and stole. This interpretation goes on to talk about how important it is to not lie and steal and turns this text into a moral lesson like an Aesop Fable, all the while downplaying the idea that God killed two people. 

So I would like to submit an interpretation of the story that might help us make sense of this text.

First of all it is helpful to understand that prior to this story there is a story about the early church and the great community that existed. No one was without and everyone had their needs met. This was a community that had found a way to eradicate the potential for envy and coveting things from their neighbors. In a community where there is no envy or covetous behaviour then you have a community that is able to avoid what is called mimetic rivalry.

Mimetic rivalry is a term from Rene Girard which is essentially the idea that we desire things because other people desire things. Mimetic rivalry leads to tension and unresolved tension leads to what Girard calls "scandal". Scandals need to be resolved and humans have learned that if we can scapegoat a victim the scandal will go away. While a scapegoat may abate the scandal the scapegoat cannot remove the cause of the scandal - mimetic rivalry - and so soon there is another scandal and that requires another scapegoat. This cycle of peace, tension, scandal, scapegoat, peace is what Girard identifies as Satan. Satan can only exist if we scapegoat others. Which is why when Jesus tells his disciples to forgive without limits, Jesus is showing us a way to banish the Satan from our world.

Now back to Acts. 

Notice in the story that it does not say that God killed either of these two people. There is a character in the story that has a reputation in fact can only exist on the blood of victims - Satan. 

Could it be that Satan is struggling for survival in this new community. Because there is no mimetic rivalry in the community Satan is at a loss for how to create scapegoats. The cycle of Satan is dying and, in a final clever bit, Satan comes up with an idea - kill someone. The person Satan kills is the one who, like all victims, everyone believes is guilty of some wrong. In this case the justification is the victim is a liar. Just as the authorities thought they were right to think of Jesus as a trouble making heretic so to the early Church saw Ananias as a trouble making liar. The struggling Satan gasps for a breath and gets energy from the tension in the group. Satan pulls the trigger and kills Ananias in order to impose the cycle of Satan on the group an try to convince the group that scapegoating is the way to live. 

When Ananias dies, the community is seized with fear because they know that Satan has gotten a toe hold in the community. So in order to address this unwelcomed guest of Satan, the community takes the body of Ananias away quickly so that the power of scapegoating does not spread among the Church. 

Satan is frustrated. So Satan kills another. 

The community is stuck with fear and wonder as they begin to realize how powerful the cycle of Satan is. How easy it is to be okay with the killing of someone who we think did something wrong. How easy it is for us all to be blind to the cycle of Satan to the point that we begin to think that it was God who killed the people who stole in the early church. 

Salvation within the Church community

The following is taken and slightly adapted from a sermon delivered on October 5, 2014 at Saginaw United Methodist Church.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
— Acts 2:42-47

Traditionally we read Acts 2:42-47 and think that the early church was experiencing rapid numeric growth. That is to say that everyday the Lord added new people to the church community.

I am sure the early church grew in numeric "metrics".

But could it also not be the case that all this face to face time with their neighbor and face to face time with God that more people who were already in the community were being saved?

If you did not have to worry about food. If you had a group of people you could count on to be there for you when times were difficult. If you feel the Peace of Christ in your life every waking moment. If you did not have to worry about paying rent when you lost your job because a community would help you out in your time. If you did not need to worry about your medical bills because you had a community that would sell what they owned in order to ensure you were treated. If you had all these things and more, would you not be saved?

Saved from anxiety, worry, fear and isolation.

Sometimes we talk about the world needs to be saved as though we are not the ones we are talking about. We need to save those people out there by getting them in here. And if we did that then the Lord would add to the number of people being saved.

I would argue that all of us need salvation (aka: health and wholeness). All of us need a community. All of us need meaningful relationships. All of us need face to face time in the relationships that nurture healing and wholeness.

Pentecost as a capstone?

In the opening chapters of Genesis (1-2) we read about Adam and Eve. We then move into a story of temptation (3). The next chapters (4-5) we hear about the first murder and how Abel's blood cried our for vengeance. Genesis 6 has the story of the flood, where there is death for all. Genesis 11 we read of the tower of Babel where language divides the nations. 

Could it be that the gospel writer Luke uses this framework to structure his story of salvation?

Luke 3 there is the genealogy of Jesus that goes all the way back to Adam - thus implying Jesus is a new Adam.

Luke 4 there is Jesus' temptation. And where Adam failed Jesus prevailed.

Luke 23 Jesus is murdered, but unlike Abel who cries out to God for revenge, Jesus cries out to God for forgiveness and mercy.

Luke 24 tells the story of the resurrection where the world is not destroyed but is resurrected through the life of Christ.

Finally, where language was the cause of division of the nations in Genesis, in Acts 2 language becomes that which unites the nations.

Here is a chart I made for those who want this in a liner fashion.


Could it be the story of Luke/Acts (in case you are unaware it is believed these were really one story broken into two "books" written by the same author), is also a story of new creation? Not just in a spiritual sense, but in a very real sense, could it be that like Genesis, Luke/Acts tells a creation story.

Could it be that the story of Pentecost is a capstone to a set of stories that count-balance Genesis?