The Seduction of Worldly Political Power

Alan Storkey, in his very interesting book, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, reads Jesus’ temptation through a political lens. It’s a fascinating study and a very interesting take on the historical Jesus.

The following passage regarding Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation helpfully exposes why Christians ought to be wary of the seductions of earthly political power.

The third temptation is even more centrally political. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this will I give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matt. 4:8-9). This is . . . the ultimate political temptation of world rule. . .

The temptation requires a total ambition of the kind only present with Alexander the great, the Caesars, and a few others. It also requires the kind of arrogance that believes, “I am good for the world. If I ruled the world . . .” Among candidates for benevolent dictatorship, Jesus would of course, rank top. But his response to the devil shows that all of this is misconception. Jesus insists: “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10; Deut. 6:13). This is the crucial political lesson. Many politicians assume that their getting to power is the answer: then they can do good. Jesus understands that getting to power is not the answer; instead, unqualified submission to God is required to do anything good. The beginning, middle, and end of politics is obedience to God.

Moreover, what the devil offers is worldly power – control plus splendor – the kind of flaunted dominion present within the Egyptian, Macedonian, and Roman empires. The premise is that power is possessed, in this case handed over by the devil to Jesus, if he agrees. Along with the possession of power goes self-glorification and splendor – palaces, rich clothes, servants and slaves, gold, hanging gardens, and women. This is the idiom of possessing power and its rewards, found throughout history from Babylon to Peking. Jesus rejects it all in favor of the unconditional worship and service of God. This is not an apolitical principle, but one that changes the inner meaning of political rule. Since the time of Moses the servant of God, a service rather than the possession of power has been an alternative way of approaching office. Because of our Christian heritage, this perspective has become stronger in democratic politics. The fulcrum on which the whole change of conception turns is found here in this temptation. Jesus turns his back on the possession of worldly power and unreservedly toward the service of God. Of course, the “possession” of such power is a chimera, our vain self-construction, but it persists in much political activity and philosophy, East and West (pp. 77-78).


The Impossibility of the Ideal Church

I’m doing a little writing project on Paul’s conception of the church and have been reflecting on some recent online discussions about the church – its virtues, its faults, its necessity, and its possible dispensability.

I’m struck by how I resonate with people who write critiques of the church. And I tend to agree with those who write pointed responses.

There’s clearly much to be said about the church and our experiences with communities of God’s people.

All Saints Icon

I was reminded of this passage in Life Together in which Bonhoeffer reflects on the clash between our imagined ideal church experience and the actual communities we encounter:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (emphasis added).

He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

Thanks to my friend, Kyle Bos, for alerting me to this passage.  Cited from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), pp. 14-15.


Lectio Divina (for Skeptics)

We had a fun discussion in hermeneutics class a few days ago. Surveying interpretive strategies throughout church history, we touched a bit on lectio divina (“divine reading”).

In our course textbook, Mark Strauss discussed this reading strategy and noted that many evangelicals may be suspicious of it because it seems “too Catholic.” I think he’s right, frankly, and they’re not the only skeptical ones.

Many biblical studies people who are trained in objective interpretive methods to look for the historical meaning of the text may cringe when the text is read in ways that seem unmoored from history and unregulated by context and various structural features.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew

“The Calling of St. Matthew,” Caravaggio

I’m convinced, however that, lectio divina can be employed fruitfully and responsibly (I hope saying so publicly doesn’t result in having my SBL membership canceled). And it can be done in a way that is governed by the historical meaning of the text.

The method consists of reading the text, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

One first reads the text carefully and repeatedly – or, hears it read aloud. Then, one meditates on the text, entering into it fully, inhabiting the text in an effort to encounter the living God.

The third element is prayer, the response of the human heart that has heard from God in his word. Finally, contemplation, a communing with God in the midst of the realities encountered in the text.

It’s one thing to describe this method and another to try it out. So, I led our class through this brief meditation on the calling of Matthew. You’re welcome to use it in a group setting or to pray through this passage alone.

I think you’ll see that it’s a way of reading the Bible as Scripture but in a way that respects the shape of the text.


Jesus’ Offensive Meals

In Mark 2:13-17, Jesus eats a meal with Levi the tax collector and a number of other notorious sinners.

Sieger Köder

This is offensive to the Pharisees in the narrative – and likely to modern readers – because to share a meal is to embrace others in the familiarity of kinship. Further, there is no indication that Jesus eats with these characters because they’ve satisfied a requirement of repentance.

The force of Mark 2:17 must be felt. According to Clifton Black:

Jesus does not pay house calls on the healthy. That is just what “the scribes of the Pharisees” find so disturbing: not that Jesus would encourage righteousness, but that he would apparently sanction wickedness by profligate forgiveness of sins (see 2:5-7) or association with relentless sinners without first demanding their repentance.

. . . Jesus has come to call not righteous folk, but sinners. Such a calling necessitates not distance from, but intimacy with, the flagrantly unrighteous (C. Black, Mark, p. 93).


Thinking about Immigration as Christians

I don’t have considered opinions on the policy specifics of immigration. I’m struck, however, by how often discussions are driven by corrupted values — parties gaining seats in upcoming elections, crafting proposals to please this or that angry voting group, etc.

Our contested cultural climate shapes the way many Christian people to consider this issue, unfortunately. We think from values that don’t come from the gospel, but from this or that economic theory, this or that party platform, or simply from grasping selfishness.

Flight Into Egypt

Jesus & his family fleeing across the border (“Flight to Egypt,” Rembrandt)

Russell Moore argues that regardless of policy specifics, Christians must think about immigration as Christians. A few paragraphs from his blog post:

The larger issue is in how we talk about this issue, recognizing that this is not about “issues” or “culture wars” but about persons made in the image of God. Our churches must be the presence of Christ to all persons, regardless of country of origin or legal status. We need to stand against bigotry and harassment and exploitation, even when it’s politically profitable for those who stand with us on other issues.

And, most importantly, we must love our brothers and sisters in the immigrant communities. We must be the presence of Christ to and among them, even as we receive ministry from them. Our commitment to a multinational kingdom of God’s reconciliation in Christ must be evident in the verbal witness of our gospel and in the visible makeup of our congregations.

Immigration isn’t just an issue. It’s an opportunity to see that, as important as the United States of America is, there will be a day when the United States of America will no longer exist. And on that day, the sons and daughters of God will stand before the throne of a former undocumented immigrant. Some of them are migrant workers and hotel maids now. They will be kings and queens then. They are our brothers and sisters forever.

We might be natural-born Americans, but we’re all immigrants to the kingdom of God (Eph. 2:12-14). Whatever our disagreements on immigration as policy, we must not disagree on immigrants as persons. Our message to them, in every language and to every person, must be “Whosoever will may come.”

See his entire post here, reprinted here.


Receiving & Sharing in the Gospel

*A homily, originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Feb. 7, 2009.

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

2 Kings 4:8-37
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39
Psalm 142

We are in the season of the Christian year between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  As we’ve said over the last several weeks, this season focuses on the church’s mission to make God known to the world.

How might this look?  What are some of your initial impressions when you hear this?  What sort of sense does this leave you with?  We might think like this: We’ve got work to do.  It’s up to us to make God known, so we’ve got to get some initiatives going.  We need to make a plan, get organized, get motivated, get mobilized.  We need to get everyone excited to evangelize, get some flashy lights, loud music, put up some banners, and come up with a slick motto that we can put on the marquee out front.  And right when all the momentum starts to die and we get a bit worn out, then we’ll have to start using guilt as a motivator.  “God did so much for you, the least you could do is . . .”  It’s pretty familiar and we all know the drill fairly well.

But how might these passages re-shape, re-form, and re-configure how we think about our task of making God known to the world?

As a reminder, at Midtown we follow the church lectionary.  We don’t focus on just one passage of Scripture, a method which has a lot of value—there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  We focus on a number of passages set together, because often in comparing passages, there is a deeper Scriptural logic that emerges into view.  We look across these texts, taken together, to note their contours and the basic shape that Christian discipleship is to take.  And we’re always asking, “what are the ways of God with his people?”  “What is God like, and what does he want from us?”

As we do that, therefore, with these texts, what is the Scriptural logic that informs how we make God known?

We can ask the question of our texts in this way: What does God require of his people, in calling us to make him known to the world?  Our texts provide us with this answer: God wants his people to be needy, to be in the position of receiving from God, and from one another.  We make God known to the world by being and becoming a community of weakness, always returning to the reality of our dependence on God.

Let’s see how this works in our passages.

The 2 Kings passage tells a very interesting story, and there is this wild exchanging of roles between Elisha and the Shunamite woman.  Elisha is in the position of receiving from the woman and her husband.  He’s been traveling and he often passes through Shunem, so this woman comes up with a creative way to provide him with hospitality.  After regularly feeding him a meal on his occasional passage through town, she says to her husband: “Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God.  Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”

Well, there we have it!  We could stop right here and talk about how this is all about using our resources to come up with creative ways to meet concrete needs.  After all, this is no small thing that this couple has done – they build a spare room and set it up nicely so that Elisha has a place to stay when he comes.

But that isn’t the point because the story doesn’t end there.

Elisha wants to give back to her, to repay her kindness, but here’s where the complications are introduced.  Elisha’s gift creates both a blessing and a curse.  Not only this, but there’s an obstacle: The woman is a giver, not a receiver.

Elisha inquires how he can do her good, but he is rebuffed.  “I’m sorry, Elisha, you don’t understand, I’m the one who helps, not the one who receives help.”  She says to him, “I live among my own people.”  Translation: “I have no needs.”  She’s very likely an upper-class woman who has resources and can make things happen.  She’s decisive and strong, as she demonstrates throughout the story.

As it happens, Elisha finds out that she has no child, so he summons her and announces that she will have a son.  But, surprisingly, the woman is resistant.  “Don’t deceive me,” she says.  It is interesting to note that she does not ask for this, we are never told in the passage that she actually wanted a child in the first place, and she never gives thanks to Elisha for the boy.  I’m not sure that she’s at all happy with having received this gift from Elisha.  She’s not comfortable having been put in the position of receiving a gift.  She’d much rather be in the driver’s seat in a relationship.

As it happens, however, she bears a child.  A son.  And then tragedy strikes, as it does.  That’s sort of how life is, and I wonder if this is the posture from which the woman is operating.  I wonder if this is how she lives her life.  If you never receive from others, you’ll never be hurt.  If you withhold your commitment from people, if you never send out your heart, you’ll never experience tragic loss.  If you’re only a giver, you can always be there when others have pain and loss, but you’ll never really have to experience it yourself.

But now she has a son.  And over time she’s grown to love him.  And the child dies.

Now she is in need, and she doesn’t like it.  It’s worth asking whether or not she’s really pleading for her son’s life when she comes to Elisha.  We are not told that this is her intention.  As I read this story, I think she wants to “have a word” with the prophet.  It may be that she’s angry at Elisha for putting her in this position of having lost something she’s come to love.  Look at her words.  She never asks for anything, but only scolds Elisha for putting her in the position of having to receive and then experiencing tragic loss.

What is interesting, though, is that having been put in this position of need, she embraces it fully.  Elisha sends his servant to see to the situation back in Shunem.  But the woman tells Elisha, “I’m not going anywhere unless you’re coming with me.”

Elisha is now again in a position of extreme need and he pleads with God, first through Gehazi, then through the extended process of bringing the boy back to life, which seems fairly drawn out.

All this is to say that the major characters in this story are all put in a position of weakness and need, both from each other and from God.

This reading of the story is corroborated by the other passages.

The Psalm runs along the same line – pleading with God.  The psalmist is in desperate need and calls out to God, brings his complaint before God.  This is also a sort of honesty before God that we’re not comfortable with.  We often imagine that we’ve got to have our lives sorted out before we go to God, rather than just bringing to God our contradictions and complexities, our trouble and our turmoil, and dumping them before him.

We see this same logic revealed in the NT passages, but only if we look carefully.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul notes how it is that in his own ministry, he became all things to all people in order to share in the blessings of the gospel.  Notice what he does not say.  He does not say that he went to all people with the gospel.  He did not go to the weak with the gospel.  Look at his words.  He became weak in order to share in the blessings of the gospel.

He does not say that he marshaled all his resources to bring the gospel to as many people as he could.  That is exactly how we would say it if we were to put this in our terms.  That is, if we were to tame the gospel and own it and pervert it so that it fits our own conceptions of how we make God known.

Paul did not become the dispenser of the gospel to various sorts of people.  If he did, he would not be able to share in the gospel.  This is a discussion of absolute and extreme sympathy.  Paul went to people and became along with them a person who needed the gospel.  For those who need the gospel, we must make ourselves people who need the gospel and receive it, and share in it along with them.

Notice that precisely the same pattern is at work in the Gospel text.  The disciples are receivers from Jesus, and then they help others receive from Jesus.  They are not in the position of power, they are not in the driver’s seat as they go with Jesus.  In fact, it’s wrong to say that they first receive and then give, or that they first receive and then preach the kingdom.

Note the order of how things unfold.  This brief episode begins with them being blessed by Jesus, as Jesus raises up Simon’s mother in law.  She then begins to serve them.  They then begin to bring others to Jesus, and finally it is Jesus—not Jesus and the disciples—who begins to go and preach the kingdom.  They are with Jesus, but it’s interesting that they don’t become givers, they are recipients along with others.

So, what do these texts teach us about life in the Kingdom of God and the gospel?

The gospel is not a message that we bring to people.  The gospel is not a package that we happen to possess, and which we dispense.  It is a reality that is lived, and it is a gift that is received.  And we cannot give it unless we are also at the same time receiving it.

Paul does not say that he wants to “share the gospel.”  He wants to “share in it.”  We share in the blessings of the gospel, we participate in the reality of the gospel and experience it only as we become weak and put ourselves in the position of being receivers.  If we ever become the patrons, the ones who have arrived and are now deciding to bestow good gifts on others, we put ourselves outside the gospel and we do not share in it.

The gospel calls us all to become weak, to become recipients.  We are called to tell the truth about ourselves and our situation.  That we are often confused or depressed.  That we are in need of help or rescue.  We all need each other, and we all together need God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think that when we read the story of the Shunamite woman, we immediately identify with what she does for Elisha.  It makes perfect sense.  She gives!  She builds a spare room!  Wonderful!  That’s the lesson–we need to be givers.  We’re good with that.  We’re not always consistent, but that makes a lot of sense to us.

And that’s good—there’s nothing wrong with that.  But I think that especially for those of us who have so many resources, there’s a temptation to play to our strengths and not invite the gospel in to show us where God wants to heal and restore.  We can become so used to providing for others that it becomes difficult to ask for help from others.  It becomes difficult to admit that we’re in need and may need a break, or some help.

I don’t care to give our church a label, but if we are any “kind” of church, we’re a missional church.  And the missional question is, “how can we help?”  But we also need to be willing to say to one another, “I need some help.”  And we, as a community, need to make sure that we as a church are always putting ourselves in a needy and receiving posture toward God.  As Paul says, we need to make sure that we are always becoming weak so that we may partake in the gospel.

And this is what is meant by the collective prayer: “Set us free from the bondage of our sins and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”  In this prayer, the gospel is revealed to us.

So, in conclusion, it is very interesting—and perfectly in keeping with God’s upside-down logic—that the way we make God known to the world is to make sure we are the kind of community where God is always making himself known to us.

We do not finally or exhaustively or completely know God.  That is, we do not possess or own God, having him figured out so that now all we have to do is turn and pass him out as if we were handing out a product.  The way we make God known to the world is to confess that we are the ones who need to repent from our strengths, who need to receive, who need to come to know the grace and goodness of God anew.


Taking Genesis 1 Seriously

I used to teach evangelical undergrads who were not only well-versed in a scientific reading of Genesis 1 but were thoroughly saturated in the highly-charged rhetoric of the culture wars.

In one course I included a few sessions that focused on the text of Genesis 1-2.

I’d typically begin by noting that I was really tired of being at a school that didn’t take Genesis 1 seriously. That usually got their attention.

“Honestly,” I would say, “I look around at this campus, at many faculty, and most of you students, and it seems to me that no one has any regard for what God says here.”

They all eyed me with shock by the time I carried on like this for a few more minutes. This was a culture that, if anything, imagined that it stood alone for the integrity of Genesis 1.

I would then distribute copies of the text and give students 10 minutes or so to read through it quietly. I would tell them to make note of what they saw in the text, the details that the narrative seemed to highlight as important.

I would then ask them what they saw and what the text seemed to be emphasizing. Here’s some of what they’d usually catch:

God creates in six days. He takes his time. He has the capacity to create all at once, to simply command everything to exist. But he doesn’t. He takes his time. He’s deliberate. Everything has its time and its place. There’s a patience to the task. A steadiness. An intentional order.

I would usually ask students if they felt that their lives matched this pattern (I knew that the answer from this culture of questing high-achievers would be “no”).

Students were always struck by the rhythms in the text. The repeated “there was evening and there was morning.” There are days and seasons and years. There are six days of work and one day of ceasing from work.

Speaking of which, they would then notice the emphasis on the day of rest. Six days to work and one day to not work. Six days of work to produce and one day of activity not designed to produce – play, leisure, rest, exploration.

I would ask students at this point if they were intentional about carving out space in their week for play, for delight, for “wasting time,” for enjoyment of activity that doesn’t produce anything – activity that doesn’t pad the resume in anticipation of applying for grad school. I would usually get silence. Many of them had lives packed so full that they hardly slept, let alone took a day to participate in God-ordained creational rhythms.

Here I would note what I meant about taking Genesis 1 seriously. I would ask if we have any right to insist on others reading Genesis 1 literally when we have no intention of obeying it as God’s word.

Turning back to the text, we would note that God loves his world! He keeps saying it’s good! It’s a wonderful environment for all God’s creatures and it brings God delight.

I would ask students if they were deliberate about getting out of their not-terribly-natural environments (dorm rooms, libraries, classrooms) and exploring God’s world that brings so much pleasure to God. When was the last time they took a walk in the woods?

Further, we’d note that God’s world is a world of plenty. There’s more than enough! Everything keeps producing after its kind and there’s a sense in which God’s world is obnoxiously super-aboundingly full of life. The waters are “teeming” and “swarming” with creatures and the skies are filled with everything that flies and there’s just life everywhere.

It’s a world of plenty. It’s a world of more-than-enough.

So, I’d ask students if they were striving to live in that world. Do they live in a world where there’s more than enough? Or, do they live in a world of scarcity? Do they live with open hands? Do we share our stuff and our resources, or do we hoard and grasp and lock up our stuff because it’s ours?

We noted many more exciting features of the text (there’s loads there when you read it with your eyes open!), but my point in this exercise was two-fold:

First, Genesis 1-2 is there to teach God’s people about God, his world, the character of humanity, and how God wants us to inhabit the place in which he delights. We need to read it for the purposes of having our communities oriented toward more faithfully being God’s people.

Second, in doing this exercise, I tried to help students to see that if they fell captive to reading the text for political purposes or to score points in the culture wars, they’d be missing so much of what is actually there.

They wouldn’t be taking Genesis 1 seriously.


Scattered Post-Debate Thoughts

Many have weighed in already on the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. The issue, probably because of the social and cultural implications, arouses intense passions. I don’t claim to have the last word, but I’ll just offer here some scattered thoughts and perhaps they’ll serve as an explanation for why I said the other day that I just don’t think much good can come from encounters like this one.

First, the debate may leave the general public with the impression that there is only one way that Christians configure the relationship between science and Christian faith. This isn’t the case. There may indeed be one view whose proponents are most vocal, but there’s a range of conviction among good Christian people on how science relates to faith.

Second, the debate probably left many Christian people with the impression that they must choose between scientific conclusions and the Bible. That is, one either believes in what God has said or in the opinion of humans.

This isn’t quite right.

More accurately, a certain interpretation of Genesis 1 is set against a certain interpretation of phenomena in the world (i.e., “science”).

That is, a human interpretation of God’s word is set against a human interpretation of God’s world. Two rival human interpretations are set against each other. This is not a situation in which God stands against scientists or the Bible can be set in opposition to science.

The consequences for getting this wrong have been tragic among many young people who have had their consciences loaded up with the overpowering notion that they must choose between God and science. And many young people, if they become convinced of certain scientific conclusions, imagine that they must reject the Christian faith in order to avoid intellectual suicide.

Third, I cringed at the notion of this debate because in my opinion Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are wrong about how Christian people ought to encounter the wider culture. There’s much more to say here, but I think their posture represented by this billboard is unfaithful to the way of Jesus.

AIG Billboard

It is sadly the case that because of our conflicted American culture, many people imagine that Christians are rude, confrontational, abrasive, combative, and unkind. I worry that the debate and its subsequent discussions may stir up an already agitated culture, reinforce a negative perception of Christians, and turn people away from the faith.

In my opinion, God is not made known in the world through people who behave in such abrasive ways. God is faithfully made known in the world through his people taking on the cross-shaped character of Jesus to engage joyfully in patterns of self-giving love for one another and humble service to those outside the church.

I don’t think the debate the other night had anything to do with that mission.


Creation in Genesis

It isn’t easy to read Scripture faithfully in the midst of a conflicted and contested culture. When Scripture is put to use to endorse this or that contemporary cause, the church loses the ability to hear what the Lord of the church is saying to his people.

John Walton has done a great service to the church, helping God’s people to read Scripture rightly by setting Genesis 1 in its ancient context.

His book, The Lost World of Genesis One is immensely helpful and an easy-to-read introduction to reading the biblical text without being bound by questions of modern science.

Walton

Walton gave a series of lectures at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary last year. They’re excellent and can be found here.

See also this basic video presentation of his perspective.


Post-Super Bowl Semantic Snobbery

Well, the game was a shocker to most people, though not to the very few who predicted a blowout by Seattle.

Because of his behavior at the end of the NFC Championship two weeks ago, Richard Sherman garnered loads of media attention leading up to yesterday’s game. Understandably, he’s making the rounds today on various radio and TV programs.

Educated at Stanford, he’s an unusually well-spoken athlete. But he couldn’t avoid this mixed metaphor while describing Russell Wilson’s calm demeanor:

“In his DNA, he’s got ice water running through his veins.”

Priceless.


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