Paul the Pastor

I’ve been giving some thought to Paul as a pastoral theologian (or maybe a theologically-oriented pastor, or, more likely, a pastor who theologically interprets community conflict and offers counsel in accordance with resurrection realities). At any rate, this passage in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God struck a chord:

Wright, Paul

Paul was a pastor. He tells the Thessalonians that he had been like a nurse with them; the Galatians, that he is like a mother going into labour once more. We can safely deduce from these, as we can from 1 Corinthians 13, that Paul really was that sort of person; and, as back-up evidence, we can see his personal concern writ large in the paragraphs about Timothy and Epaphroditus in Philippians, and above all in the letter to Philemon. He was a pastor, and a pastor’s pastor. It shines through: an armchair theologian would have told the Corinthians that it was better to be strong than to be weak, and that the weak should get over it, or get used to it. They should come into line. Paul, the ‘strong’, held all the cards, all the theological high ground. But the pastor’s insight, shaped and informed by the message of the cross, insists that human beings do not change their deep worldview-praxis (such as not eating certain foods) overnight. Conscience matters, and Paul will not squelch it. He might of course have learned that ‘principle’ from a book (which one?). Far more likely that he knew it in his bones, from years on the road, in the market-place, in the little room behind the tentmaker’s shop, agonizing with this person and that about what it meant, in real, practical terms, to follow Jesus the Messiah, to be part of the new monotheistic community, to live within a newly redefined worldview after the disappearance of most of the previous symbols, which would have helped one get one’s bearings (452-53).

St. Patrick’s Prayer

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.

Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.

Prayer for the First Weekend of Lent

Cross-bearing Lord,

Come to all those places where the power of death would hold and force its way and say a redemptive word:

Where there is human wreckage, like those precious children of yours bombed out and foreclosed;

Where refugees and immigrants wonder where next they will sleep and if anyone wants them anymore:

Where folks just like us on the world’s other side are named enemies and who, like us, covet our mutual prayers;

Give us, in this holy and repentant time, a new vision of your weeping over our groaning creation, and stooping to our weakness of courage, offer surely as always your unconditional love and renewing Spirit.

And we will sing again the glory of the cross.

* From Arthur A. R. Nelson, A Book of Prayers (IVP, 2012).

The Lord’s Supper & the Unity of God’s People

I’m doing some work on the unity of God’s people in Paul’s letters while also preparing a discussion on the significance of the Lord’s Supper for this Sunday.


While reading this morning in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, this section jumped out at me.

The Lord’s Supper should be a moment of symbolic unity; and this requires, as does the delicate situation of chapters 8-10, that the Messiah’s people ‘wait for one another’ (11.33). Though the normal meaning of ekdechomai is simply temporal (‘waiting’ for something to happen or for someone to arrive) the sense here seems to be slightly more than that: waiting, perhaps, in the sense of having regard for one another, not just that ‘everyone has now arrived, so we can start the meal’, but that everyone should be aware of everyone else, with their social and cultural particularity, their needs, their vulnerabilities. We should not miss the significance of this within the tightly hierarchical world of a first-century Roman city, where everybody knew that the rich and powerful would always eat first and everybody else would wait, deferentially, for them (p. 395).

I’ve heard 1 Corinthians 11 read in churches for decades. Most commonly, we read only vv. 23-26, though sometimes the reading extends to v. 29 and once in a while to v. 32.

I must say that I hardly ever hear vv. 17-22 read, and almost all readings miss out the main command of the passage, found in v. 33 – “wait for one another.” I think we neglect to read the entire passage because it doesn’t make sense to our individualized conceptions of being Christian. It’s so mundane, so unremarkable.

Paul conceives of a corporate reality, however, involving individuals-in-community. His fundamental concern is for the unity of God’s people. After all, if God’s people are unified, then God is truly seen to be the one true Creator God who rules over all and has the power to unite all in Christ.

Prayer for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

O God, who before the passion of your only-­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Was the Early Church the Ideal Church?

A few weeks ago I posted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about the ideal church. It doesn’t exist, it’s idolatrous to pursue it, and it’s an ultimately oppressive quest.

We were discussing the first generation church in class today and noting how Luke tells the story in Acts. He writes of the sharp dispute between the church leaders in Antioch and the visitors from Jerusalem in Acts 15, giving rise to the Jerusalem council.


“Two Old Men Disputing (Peter and Paul in Conversation),” Rembrandt

We go on to read of the split between Paul and Barnabas over the inclusion of John Mark on the journey later in that same chapter.

And surely there were many Christian Jews (being misinformed about the nature of Paul’s ministry to the nations) among the group that tried to kill Paul in Acts 21-22. After all, he speaks of Jesus in his defense in v. 8 with no objection arising from his hostile audience. They only object and go after him when he speaks of Jesus sending him to the nations (v. 21).

These are just a few of the things to keep in mind if you ever hear someone complain that the church today isn’t like the early church in Acts.

Well, if you’ve got arguments in your church, splits and factions, and perhaps even some folks who have tried to kill one of your leaders, then your church is an awful lot like the early church in Acts!

On Literalism & Meeting Other Christians

I’m enjoying Ronald Osborn‘s excellent new book, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic). Its title explains the book’s basic thrust.


Before exploring the possibility of animal suffering and death before the fall in the last third of his work, Osborn critiques a reading of Genesis 1-2 that demands that the text speak in modern scientific terms. In addition to a number of other problems, this view of Genesis is often accompanied by rhetoric that demonizes those with other views.

Perhaps the most widely deployed auxiliary theory in the protective belt that encircles strict literalism on Genesis is the claim that only young earth or young life creationists take seriously the authority of Scripture. Yet if the lives and witnesses of actual believers matter at all to our thinking, this claim is demonstrably false. Numerous believers with unimpeachable credentials as scientists, as theologians and as biblical scholars, hold very high views of the Bible’s authority while embracing nonliteralistic readings of Genesis. What they have challenged is not the inspiration or authority of Scripture but the appropriateness of rigid hermeneutical approaches to the Bible that treat the creation narratives as a scientific-historical record. There is always, of course, the possibility that these individuals are mistaken in their readings. No one’s ideas should be treated as being beyond thoughtful criticism. But the fundamentalist insistence that these committed Christians can only be one of three things – mentally feeble, morally suspect or spiritually deficient – is perhaps the most depressing illustration of how degenerating the linear equation of literalism on Genesis with belief in biblical authority has become in much creationist discourse. This hypothesis can only be sustained if we cloister ourselves behind very high walls lest we encounter the actual lives and thinking of others. (A fundamentalist can never be too careful what she reads or whom she befriends!) (p. 73).

Indeed, I have witnessed the redemptive dynamics God generates by his Spirit when we encounter well-meaning Christians who hold opposing views.

I was part of one such encounter last summer hosted by The Colossian Forum. Their mission is to provide a “safe place for the riskiest questions.”

They brought together two scholars who held divergent views on human origins for several days of prayer and vigorous dialogue. The result was not universal agreement, but it certainly removed the factor to which Osborn refers in the paragraph quoted above — the demonization of a fellow Christian.

I’ll never forget the reflective words spoken by one of the participants at the conclusion of the forum. He said that he was completely unprepared for his conversation partner to be someone who loved God’s word, who loved Jesus and the church, and who prayed passionately. To that point, he could only imagine that someone would hold another view because he was either misguided or committed to undermining Scripture.

The existence of groups like The Colossian Forum is a hopeful sign. But it remains a tragedy that professing Christians maintain group loyalty and ideological purity by demonizing other Christians.

U2 & the Music of Inclusion

U2 appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s first night hosting The Tonight Show earlier this week. They played “Invisible” on the roof of 30 Rockefeller Center and then performed “Ordinary Love” acoustically in the show’s studio.


I’m working through several New Testament texts on gospel inclusion, and running through my mind over the last few weeks is the repeated line in “Invisible” that “there is no them; there’s only us.”

My favorite moment of the night was a small and very simple gesture that instantiated this reality.

Bono, at the end of “Ordinary Love,” calls out Questlove, the drummer for The Roots. Watch how it makes Questlove smile. It’s a beautiful moment of connection and inclusion.

Meals in Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s Gospel is filled with eating.  There are 19 meals in Luke, 13 of which are unique to his account.  If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel!

Meals are occasions for Kingdom dynamics, for the experience of redemptive realities.

They are occasions for healing and hospitality (9:10-17; 10:5-7) for fellowship and celebration (13:29), for worshiping Jesus and receiving forgiveness (7:36-50), for prophetic confrontation (11:37-54), and for reconciliation and the celebration of redemption (15:6, 9, 23-24).

Luke closes his Gospel with one final meal, the climax of a fascinating episode on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35).


“Supper at Emmaus,” Caravaggio

Jesus’ identity is hidden from these two disciples as they travel along the road.  When they stop for the night and sit down to eat, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (v. 31).

The two disciples immediately take off for Jerusalem to tell “the eleven” what had happened:

Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread (v. 35).

They don’t remark about Jesus’ amazing lecture or his miraculous disappearance.  They note their recognition of Jesus when they ate.

At the dramatic conclusion of his meal-filled Gospel, then, Luke emphasizes twice that the disciples recognize Jesus’ life-giving presence in the sharing of the meal.

Luke uses meals as a metaphor for church life.  The patterns of life and the community dynamics that should characterize God’s people are the things that take place at meals in the Gospel of Luke.

And when the church gathers and shares life together, Jesus is present.

Luke’s meals put the question to contemporary churches: Do your church’s corporate dynamics resemble a celebratory meal?  Do the habits and practices of your community bring about mutual refreshment and communal celebration?

When your church gathers, do disciples recognize the presence of Jesus?

Gospel Perception

In this episode — the call of Levi — Mark clearly contrasts Jesus’ and the Pharisees’ perception.

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:13-17).

Jesus sees Levi. The Pharisees see a category.


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