given on Sunday, 31, 2011: the final sermon in a series of three
This week I have witnessed two individuals with extremely different lifestyles who confronted the ultimate choices. One was a centurion who lived a lifestyle following Christ. The second was a young adult who has failed to find Christ. The extreme contrast in these two lives has given me volumes to think about, especially since we are discussing theology.
Remember that our customary definition of theology is the study of god/God; but Carl Holloway’s definition of theology as a conversation with God has been the basis of our discussion. Holloway’s three divisions of theology have broken the topic into even more thinking: having theology—knowing the precepts of beliefs, doing theology—putting beliefs into action; and finally, living theology.
I can look at theology through a teacher’s eyes and see that the three levels follow a clear developmental process. Developmental growth implies that there is an obvious sequence in which one acquires knowledge. Developmental means learning the content, practicing the concept, and then having the concept internalized into automaticity within one’s life.
Living theology is that final stage of faith development. Living theology is all about lifestyle, a lifestyle that requires no planning or thinking. It simply is a way of living that comes automatically. For instance, suddenly the sound of sirens reaches your ears. What is the first response:
- Oh my, I hope no one is hurt.
- Dear God, –a flash prayer for those in need, and those in service
- Oh oh! I wonder who the police are after.
- I sure hope that is not coming my way because I am in a hurry.
- Dear God, thank goodness it isn’t me.
The list of possible responses easily grows, but it is those who first thought is for the safety of the victims and the emergency personnel have found a lifetime lifestyle that follows Christ.
Naturally that is an oversimplification of life theology, but it illustrates how our minds are programmed. Where is self in the response? Where are others? What action does the siren trigger in us? Living theology is conversing with God in a 24-7 style of thinking. Living theology is reached when we put God first in our thoughts, not second, not third, not last. God is first in our hearts and souls. Our daily lives are directly connected to God, through Christ, with the Holy Spirit fueling us.
Our instruction manual is the Bible. Needless to say it is not an easy read, but it does continue to tell us how to live from the first book of Genesis to the final book of Revelation. Still, we are familiar enough to know where to look for answers. The book of Proverbs has long given us the classic two-line axioms we can easily remember, especially in the chapters under the title “Wise Sayings of Solomon,” and today’s excerpt is a general statement about living a God-centered life (Proverbs 4:10-15, from the NRSV):
Hear, my child, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.
I have taught you the way of wisdom;
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
When you walk, your step will not be hampered;
and if you run, you will not stumble.
Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life,
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evildoers.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
And that excerpt is in chapter 4. . . out of 31 chapters. The advice is all there and much of it is familiar. We have heard the words from so many sources, but the foundation of such advice is in the Bible. Even Proverbs was a foundation piece for Jesus as a boy. He may have known it as God, but as a boy he went through the developmental process just like we have.
How to live our lives is a personal decision, true, but we all know the wide range of people who have tried to guide our lives in one way or the other. There are your parents, the teachers, your peers, your neighbors, your kids, and even the media. The rules are shouted out at you day and night, but the challenge is to stay centered on the theology of your belief.
And, knowing what you believe is of little value unless you practice it or do theology. In the Wesley Study Bible, there is a core term, “Character of a Methodist.” He wrote a small treatise or essay in 1742 trying to describe what being ‘a disciple of Christ perfected in love:’
. . . It is a striking portrait of noble simplicity, deeply rooted in Scripture, and dominated by the image of growth in grace and love. Wesley reflects a realistic attitude about the limitations of the human condition, but displays an even more profound optimism in what God’s grace can accomplish in the life of any child desiring to walk with greater integrity in the way of the gospel. . . . Thos perfected in Christ “love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength” and they “love their neighbors as they love themselves.” . . . (p.1227)
Wesley’s definition of grace and the division into four levels–prevenient, justification, sanctification and perfection—are almost aligned as Holloway’s theology of having, doing and living theology.
Not once in my memory have I ever had anybody place a specific timeframe on how one develops faith. Some are so fortunate that they are born into a Christian family who know how children learn and how to introduce them to faith. The developmental process of faith is completely unique for each individual. Growing up in a family that practices or is doing theology provides many a natural transition into the faith. But, even those who are born and raised in a Christian environment do not always figure out what their faith is and depart from practicing their faith.
As the decades continue and the culture makes adjustments, being born into faith is the exception rather than the norm. In fact the term normal is virtually absent from our society, therefore, more individuals are not introduced to Christ and the development of faith does not happen at any specific point in ones life. It can literally happen any day in any one’s life anywhere. Maybe that is why Wesley felt so much urgency to do all that we can for all that we can whenever we can.
For many of us sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, faith developed because we grew up in Christian homes. The hymns taught us the lessons. Sunday school kept us learning. Sermons told us what to do. And the various church groups, projects, and mission trips continued growing us into the Christians we are today. And we are still doing theology, fortunately we are still doing theology because we have stepped into living theology.
Holloway’s living theology is an answer to Wesley’s concern about “almost Christian,” another one of his core terms spelled out in the Wesley Study Bible.
The spiritual experience of almost troubled John Wesley. He longed for the destruction in himself of the “whole body of sin.” . . .
In contrast to almost is real. Real Christians are those for whom the grace of God has truly transformed their inward and outward lives. The movement of new life is from the self to God, a movement resulting in a life in God through faith, and a life through love on behalf of the neighbor. For the real Christian, every almost should be increasingly resolved by seeking the fullness of God’s transforming Grace. (p. 1363)
Wesley saw the developing of one’s faith as a process. Born into prevenient grace does not take work; God just freely gives it to us. When we consciously become aware that we have faith, we reach Wesley’s justification grace where we acknowledge that we have theology, and realize that we must do theology. Justification leads to sanctification in Wesley’s developmental process. Doing theology leads to living theology. Sanctification is living theology.
Holloway stops with his process, but Wesley adds a fourth level—perfection. The Christian who has been practicing his theology and continues those practices automatically is living theology. Wesley’s fourth level of perfection leaves room for discussion. Is perfection only found when the human body dies, passes judgment in order to enter heaven? Or is it possible to reach perfection while still living on earth? Holloway does not provide another level, Wesley does. Wesley’s perfection is neither required for eternal life, nor is it reserved for eternal life.
Obviously there is no clear answer to these thoughts, but living theology certainly establishes a lifetime lifestyle. The Christian lifestyle is the goal. The result provides us a joy-filled life: a life in which challenges are simply accepted as part of our journey. Living theology makes a tremendous difference—no almost Christian, only real Christian.
Today’s hymns are ones some have identified as providing a major influence in living their own theology. As we depart from each other, think about the Bible verses that first explained faith to you. Think about the hymns that have come to mean so much to you in your journey. Think about what in your Christian life is the result of doing theology and living theology. What would you share with a new Christian? What would make a difference to the new believers? What can we do to share our faith? If you are doing theology, are you living theology?
Dear Loving Father,
How difficult it is to understand this world in which we live.
Help us to clearly define our having theology.
Help us to practice our theology so that we may do for others
as you would have us do.
Help us to reach automaticity in living our theology.
Use us to model Christian lifestyles to others we meet in our daily life.
Use us to find the young-in-faith new Christians and teach them the practices.
Use us to share with others the joy we find in living our theology.
Thank you for those Christian thinkers who practiced their theology.
Thank you for friends who practice theology together regularly.
Thank you for the gift of your Son so that we may live our theology freely
May each of us here, find the joy of grace and a lifetime lifestyle following Christ.
Special note: The final portion of this sermon was written late on Saturday evening. I expect I could have added a fourth sermon to compare and contrast Holloway’s and Wesley’s theology, but it was time to wrap it up and it was too late in the evening to write.