In honor of this weekend’s Reformation Sunday celebrations commemorating the 500th anniversary of the the posting of the original 95 Theses on the cathedral door at Wittenberg, I’ve written a Methodist version of 95 Theses. Taking the form and structure of the original, these attempt to address the need for reform and renewal in contemporary United Methodism. I’ve tried to stay true to a few of Luther’s original themes. Why? Because the need for “reform” is timeless.
Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Richard Lowell Bryant, Master of Divinity and ordinary pastor therein at Ocracoke, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter, email, tweet, or fax. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “This do in Remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19), he willed our lives to be examples of life, ministry, and work.
2. These words, “doing” and “remembrance” cannot be understand as referring to the creation of an Anglican Church by Henry VIII or a Methodist Church as a response to spiritual failures of the Anglican Church some two hundred years later.
3. Yet it does mean we are to follow Jesus and continue his ministry in contextual, cultural, and appropriate means.
4. Sin is anything we let separate us from the love of God, whether that love is made manifest in family, friends, work, school, church, or anywhere. We cut ourselves of from God.
5. It’s important to forgive ourselves. Forgiveness starts with us.
6. No one person can make anything right with a cosmic being.
7. Religious leaders help us understand the power of forgiving each other and God’s redemptive love.
8. Always give the dying and their families the benefit of the doubt.
9. The Holy Spirit forgives in ways we never understand. Step out of the Spirit’s way.
10. No one can say anything definitively about Heaven, Hell, or anything in between. None of us have been there.
11. We make up rules; rules which none one reads, and enforce them when no one is looking. We call this “Christian Conferencing”
12. In order to get people to follow our rules, we wait until they’re on their death beds, in tough jams, and use guilt to see how Christian people really are. That’s wrong.
13. Dead people aren’t Methodist, Anglican, Wesleyan, Catholic, or anything. They are God’s. There are no United Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostals in heaven. We’re all the same.
14. Allow space for God to work out what’s going on between the living and the dead.
15. Don’t make things worse for people who face serious illness, the loss of loved ones, or stare death in the face. Life stinks for them already. Be present, as Christ would be.
16. Again, we don’t know eternity. We know grace. Focus on that.
17. As fear decrease love increases. Make love greater than fear.
18. Love is not a meritocracy.
19. The assurances we have now are all we’ve got.
20. No one, no identity group, spiritual leader, pressure group know the answer to solving sin, guaranteeing salvation, or filling pews.
21. Those who make such promises are wrong.
22. Those who condemn in this life will probably be proven wrong in the next.
23. If human administered forgiveness is all we’ve got, only the perfect people would be absolved. And no one is really perfect. Thus, forgiveness is worthless.
24. The high sounding promises made by purists about holiness are really deceptions and illusions. Their guesses are as good as mine.
25. The power of the purists, self appointed popes of Methodism, is really in the freedom lay people and local congregations have handed over.
26. We can pray for anyone. Forgiveness and what constitutes sin is God’s business. It’s ultimately not even in God’s book what defines a sinner. It’s what’s in God’s mind. No one knows the mind of God.
27. More money doesn’t guarantee more holiness or freedom from Sin.
28. Money leads to greater greed.
29. Can I say it again, the Purgatory is a joke? Eternity, the afterlife, is God’s business? Let’s focus on the here and now.
30. All we have is the spiritual integrity we possess at this moment.
31. The people who pray constantly to get themselves out of Hell are really less concerned about doing right by the people they are sitting by in church.
32. If you think you can pray yourself out of Hell but then treat people like dirt, you’re probably going to end up in Hell anyway.
33. God is doing great things in the lives that many want to remove from Christian fellowship.
34. Grace is never about penalties and punishment. Grace is about love and a desire to be better than we ever imagined.
35. Coming to terms with our own mistakes as individuals and institutions is part of growing and living. Grace helps us learn from our blunders. Guilt forces us to live in fear and make them over and over again.
36. We don’t need to permission to encounter God and receive the grace we’ve been given.
37. There isn’t a formula or litmus test for salvation or forgiveness. God works and exists beyond the structures we’ve established.
38. Still, we come to Christ’s table to proclaim to each other, each week in Church that we are forgiven. Church is the best place, in the body of Christ, for the priesthood of all believers to share this message with each other.
39. Sometimes, the smartest church people in the world don’t understand the obstacles they create toward freely and easily encountering God’s grace. That’s on us.
40. People of faith who know they’ve done wrong have no problem asking God and each other for forgiveness. We create an environment of grace and love where the asking and the living make reconciliation easy. We have a structured time where each week we “pass the peace” and bring God’s shalom into our lives. No one else does this.
41. When we pray we also pray that we will put our prayers in to action.
42. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. We need to do things. Acts of mercy and sacrifice make our prayers a reality.
43. Giving to the poor and needy are crucial to Christ centered discipleship.
44. Love builds on love. The more love you show, the more people see the love of Christ in the world.
45. The more we look past ourselves and see the needs of others, the better off we will be.
46. Always keep back something to give away. You never know when the next hurricane or tragedy is around the corner.
47. Give to the things you choose to support.
48. Prayers matter, money buys water and food; God can do something with whatever we offer.
49. Trust that our stewardship, mission, and ministry are a partnership with God.
50. We are not building anything for our glory.
51. Our glory is not seen in the work we do but in the lives we’ve impacted.
52. We don’t trust in endorsed Bible studies and DVD teaching sets.
53. It’s better to listen to our own stories and trust the experiences of the people around us.
54. In stewardship season, we talk a great deal about the needs of money but we rarely talk about the corrosive impact money has on our society as a whole.
55. We celebrate our need for money and what money can accomplish but rarely ask “Why has the church afraid to talk about health care costs, student loan debt and the real financial issues that touch our congregations?”
56. People know very little about the state of the church finances and the best we’ll offer them on how to manage their own is a Dave Ramsey course. We can do better.
57. We should do a better job talking about the church’s role in the global economic system.
58. It’s easy to assume that the church’s investments (say in fossil fuels) make sense and are ethical. This is not always true.
59. John Wesley had a commitment to working with the poor and treating them as ministry priorities. Do we share the same financial priorities consistent with our time?
60. We may make the same declaration in words but do our deeds consistently match a Wesleyan ethic of helping the poor.
61. It’s clear in the social principles and the Book of Discipline our hearts are in the right financial and ethical direction when it comes to spending and service. Has this message reached the local church? I don’t think so.
62. The most valuable gift we possess is the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must keep giving this away.
63. It’s a hard gift for some to accept. It calls the world and dominant power structures into question.
64. It makes the last first and the first last.
65. The Gospel calls into question wealth, power, position, and privilege.
66. We are caught up in a net which forces us to examine our own lives.
67. Demagogues, dictators, and fascists have little room to stand in the light of Jesus’ clear teachings about loving one’s neighbor.
68. When the world is placed in the light of the simple beauty of the cross; the clarity and contrast become apparent. The world goes one way and Jesus goes another.
69. Those who want complacency with the world are guilty of collusion with evil.
70. If you preach Jesus; the risk is greater, the break is permanent, and there is no return.
71. Once you speak this truth, there is no going back.
72. Methodism is a house divided.
73. The strain upon our pre-fabricated Tudor timbers is great.
74. Within that house are many rooms with many ideas.
75. Ideas thunder around the rooms. Those who contrive futures rooted in dreams from God they cannot verify seek sin and find it.
76. If John Wesley and his brother Charles were now to be found among the United Methodists, they would find the class meeting a relic 18th century practice and themselves too progressive for many in their own denomination.
77. I say on the contrary that greater graces come from love not division.
78. We have placed a greater emphasis on the Book of Discipline and its precepts than the Holy Bible.
79. We have disregarded centuries of universally accepted higher criticism and Biblical scholarship in favor of 19th century Biblical literalism to inform our debates on key matters such as human sexuality and nationalism.
80. Therefore, the United Methodist Church is making policy decisions by using interpretations of scripture and policy documents written with interpretations that do not reflect the broadest spectrum of academic or religious opinion.
81. The result has led the United Methodist Church to adopt policy which discriminates against gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans. Couching this discrimination in religious “culture war” language and flawed translations of scripture, the church has made this issue as emotive as possible and virtually guaranteed a schism between conservative and liberal elements in the church.
82. Why does the church not simply change the language? Institutions are slow to change. When churches split, it’s usually seen as a failure. When a bad marriage ends, it’s usually seen as a good thing for everyone involved. The church thinks it’s better than the people they minister to. That’s irony! Until we realize we’re not, we’ll suffer and the LGBTQ community will suffer most.
83. Since same sex weddings are legal in the US for all couples, weddings should be legal for all couples in United Methodist Churches. We are above the law. That sends an awful message. We look unwelcoming and arrogant.
84. Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors is a joke. It’s a lie. We didn’t mean it when we ran the campaign and we sure don’t mean it now. I would love it to mean something.
85. I try for it to mean something but for me to really put that program to practice, it would get me in a great deal of trouble.
86. We spend too much time patting ourselves on the back and giving awards to Methodists for the things we should be doing as a matter of course.
87. There’s such a thing a self-promotion and shameless narcissism. We cross that line far too often.
88. What a blessing it would be for every United Methodist to really do the Three Simple Rules.
89. Stop living in fear of Schism. Do ministry today.
90. However, don’t live with your head in the sand. Confront reality head on.
91. Comfort the laity in these times of uncertainty.
92. Bring peace where there is no peace.
93. Point to the Cross.
94. Don’t argue with zealots. “But Jesus said,” Is always a better reply than “John Wesley said”.
95. This is more than any of us can handle. However, we’re not alone.
Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant
On the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation