Monthly Archives: February 2012

Paul’s Prayer for Philemon

Paul’s prayer for Philemon in Phmn 6 is very interesting.  It’s seldom translated well, however.

The new NIV is an improvement over the older rendering.  The 1984 version made it seem that Paul was praying for Philemon to be a more effective evangelist: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”

The recent update has this: “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.”

The ESV leaves things a bit ambiguous, which isn’t necessarily wrong, in what Paul is praying for Philemon: “and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”  Just what does “the sharing of your faith” mean?  Is it Philemon’s sharing a common faith with Paul, Onesimus, and the other named Christians in the letter?  Or, is it Philemon’s evangelistic practice?

I think the CEB also does a nice job with this verse: “I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ.”

I would translate Paul’s prayer as follows: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith might become effective in the knowledge of all the good that is in us unto Christ.”

Paul emphasizes throughout the letter how everyone in the faith belongs to one another in the richest possible sense.  He employs a number of rhetorical strategies to demonstrate this, not least the pervasive familial language.  The named Christians in the letter are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

He stresses the belonging-to-one another character of our sharing in the faith.

Paul is praying that this reality would become actualized–that Philemon would fully recognize this reality and maximize it, living from it and making his decision in this matter with it in mind.  That’s what he means by “fellowship of the faith,” or “partnership in faithfulness.”

This letter is a powerful instance of Paul’s ministry of “imagination transformation.”  He leads his reader(s) into a compelling consideration of the faith so that their vision of all things is reshaped according to the gospel.  He prays that they will see things anew, be renewed in how they conceive of all things, and live accordingly.

Wonderful Advice for Risk Takers

“What I like to tell people is that the things that you get fired for when you’re young—the things that run against the grain, that are not common or logical, that don’t fit into the standard approach—are the exact same things that you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old . . . the things that get you into trouble are the things that are often remembered as being exceptional.”

Francis Ford Coppola

Part of a very interesting interview with the Harvard Business Review (audio available here).

U2’s 2002 Super Bowl Halftime Show

The Giants and Patriots played an excellent game last night.  The Super Bowl is the biggest football game of the year, but there have been many disappointing games.  This one was a thriller that came down to the very last play.

The halftime show was typical—overblown and uninteresting.

Sports Illustrated lists their top ten Super Bowl halftime shows.  They list U2’s performance in 2002 as number one, and it’s easy to see why.

That was the first Super Bowl since the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the country was still getting to grips with what had happened.

It’s only 12 minutes, but it was absolutely powerful.  Bono had a special jacket made up with football stitching and an American flag for the inside lining. 

Just after a brief bit from the haunting “MLK,” you can hear Bono praying a line from Psalm 51: “Oh Lord, open my lips that I might show forth thy praise.”

What I love is that the performance unmistakably gathered the emotions of the country, but did so in a way that didn’t endorse any particular political viewpoint or foreign policy agenda.

It’s hard to believe it was ten years ago.  Check it out.

Being a Gospel-Receiving Community

*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 woman 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.  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 sympathyPaul 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.

Prayer for the Weekend

God of storm and rain cloud
of wind and biting cold
of hail, thunder and flood.
In darker days, loud and fearful days
we see something of your awesome power
and recognize our own weakness,
our own inability to control the elements.
God of sunshine and birdsong
of calm mists and warm breezes
slow moving streams, and blossoming trees.
In lighter days, fun-filled brighter days
we see something of your overwhelming love
and recognize our own unworthiness.
Help us to recognize you within the elements
of your created world,
and be grateful.

John Piper, Masculine Christianity, & Hidden Ideologies

Last night our class discussed the Jewish generation within which Jesus conducted his ministry.  Though diverse, the broader culture was thoroughly saturated in a biblical worldview.  They were passionately seeking the glory of God, the vindication of his name, the arrival of his promised one, and the return of God’s presence among his people.

Corrupted ideologies, however, distorted their biblical vision in various ways.  That generation took a three-year long look at Jesus of Nazareth and, with the exception of a handful of followers, concluded that the best course of action was to deliver him over to their foreign occupying oppressors and have him subjected to an excruciating and humiliating death.

It’s important to remember that it’s easy to use Scripture and be passionate about God’s glory and yet get it wrong. 

It’s easy to miss the corrupting and distorting ideologies that determine one’s use of Scripture.  This is especially the case when interests of power and control are in play.

A few days ago, John Piper stated that Christianity has a masculine feel to it and that this is by God’s design.  Further, this is for the flourishing of all humanity, both women and men.

I think that John Piper’s claim is oriented by destructive ideologies, distorting his conception of Christian gender relations.

The pattern of his claim follows that of the paternalistic dynamics of imperialism.  To simplify, imperial powers, sustained by an unshakable faith in the rightness of their cause, arrive on foreign shores with the best of motives—to “enlighten” the benighted natives. 

They know what’s best for these people and have come to bring culture and civilization—to bring them up to speed.  “This is for your good.  You’ll thank us.”

Hidden from view, however, are the many ways that arriving contingents consolidate and maintain power, usually backed by military resources.

The legacy of imperialism is one of disaster, devastation, exploitation, and oppression. 

As it happens, the ideology of imperialism also shaped the strategies of the early modern missionary movement.  Missiologists have come to recognize that missionaries were inappropriately exporting and imposing Western culture when they thought they were spreading the gospel.  They assumed they were doing good, doing the will of God, bringing about the flourishing of those on “mission fields.”

But they were unwitting agents of cultural imperialism.

Piper’s claim matches the dynamics of imperialism: “It is God’s will that power is consolidated in our hands, and this is for your good.  We know what’s best for you, and we have the best of intentions.”

Such moves are usually followed by exploitation, oppression, and domination.

It makes perfect sense that Piper would draw upon J. C. Ryle, who advanced through England’s elite institutions during the glory days of the British Empire.

Piper’s claim also resonates with fundamentalist impulses.  Fundamentalist leaders typically hearken back to a “golden age” when “things were as they should be.”

Piper’s culturally-constructed vision of masculinity and the complementary roles for women and men come straight out of an idealized vision of the Victorian era.  Once again, the reference to J. C. Ryle plays a strategic role.

Further, because fundamentalists long for clarity and order, scholars note that a common feature across all forms of fundamentalism is the suspicion of women and the perceived necessity of guarding against women exercising power.  Fundamentalists seek very clearly delineated boundaries between femininity and masculinity.

Again, the results of such postures toward women are exploitation, oppression, and domination.

I think that John Piper believes that he has the best of motives, that he’s being sincere, that he believes he’s advocating a vision of gender roles that brings about universal flourishing. 

But he does not realize that his use of Scripture is oriented by these corrupted ideologies.  His distorted vision of Christian gender relations can only bear bad fruit.

John Piper & “Manly Christianity”

John Piper spoke about the “manly” ministry of J. C. Ryle the other day and stated that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”  You can find the full text here, and a news item on his statements here.

Rachel Held Evans called for men to respond to Piper here, and Scot McKnight summarized Piper’s comments here.

I’ll say more about this later.  For now, I’m just wondering what you think about the social-rhetorical, ideological, and biblical-theological moves that are involved in what Piper said.  That is, how does he move from biblical data to theological formulation?  Are his moves “ideology-free,” or are there other things going on as he moves from biblical text to theological vision?

The Thrill of Victory

I was up early this past Sunday morning.  After reading for a while and enjoying my coffee in the early morning quiet, I went downstairs to check on the Australian Open men’s final.  It was 6:45 a.m.

Novak Djokovic was playing Rafael Nadal and I figured I could catch the end of it before waking my family and making my not-very-famous but seriously reality-altering, life-changing, and spirit-elevating chocolate chip waffles.  They’re that good.

The match ended up being the longest final in the modern era.  It ended nearly three hours after I turned it on.  It was some of the most compelling tennis I’ve ever seen.  I woke my boys up with my increasingly loud shouts of astonished acclamation—watching sports in my home is loud and totally interactive.

It reminded me of the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Nadal, which Sarah and I watched on a warm summer evening in a café in Paris.

A few things struck me about the Aussie final and its aftermath.  I loved Djokovic’s outrageously wonderful and thoroughly appropriate celebration.  He embraced Nadal and then just let loose with emotion-fueled joy.

Such exultant rejoicing seems completely appropriate and stands in contrast to other reactions to victory.  I noticed a few players speaking of “relief” after winning their matches.  I wonder if that indicates something corrupted about their motivation for playing.  Are there pressures or expectations they are trying to meet through their performance?

Such motivations prevent us from receiving sport and games as God’s good gifts and enjoying them whether we win or lose.

I also thought that both Nadal’s and Djokovic’s reactions were indicative of true sportsmanship.  They embraced after the match and spoke very kindly about one another, giving each other honor and respect.

Nadal’s words were especially striking.  He was disappointed to have lost, but appreciated having been part of a wonderfully dramatic contest:

I think we played a great tennis match. I enjoyed being part of this event and this match.  I am not happy to lose the final, yes, but that’s one of the losses that I am more happy (about) in my career.

That’s such a wonderful perspective on things.

N. T. Wright on Why Jesus Died

At the end of his chapter on Jesus’ death in Simply Jesus, Wright has a brilliant summary of God’s triumph over evil–and the evil one–in the death of Jesus.

Somehow, Jesus’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom was established (p. 185).

How is this so?

There is of course much more that could be said on this subject.  But trying to boil it down and keep it simple, I think we can and must say at least this.  In Jesus’s own understanding of the battle he was fighting, Rome was not the real enemy.  Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin.  The terrible thing is that this charge is true.  All humans have indeed worshipped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’s image into the world.  They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death.  At this level the Accuser is absolutely right.

But the Accuser is wrong to imagine that this is the creator’s last word.  What we see throughout Jesus’s public career is that he himself is being accused—accused of being a blasphemer by the self-appointed thought police, accused of being out of his mind by his own family, even accused by his followers of taking his vocation in the wrong direction.  All the strands of evil throughout human history, throughout the ancient biblical story, come rushing together as the gospels tell the story of Jesus, from the demons shrieking at him in the synagogue to the sneering misunderstanding of the power brokers to the frailty and folly of his own friends and followers.  Finally, of course, and this is the point in the story to which the evangelists are drawing our attention—he is accused in front of the chief priests and the council and in the end by the high priest himself.  He is accused of plotting against the Temple; he is accused of forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar (a standard ploy of revolutionaries); he is accused of claiming to be king of the Jews, a rebel leader; he is accused of blasphemy, of claiming to be God’s son.  Accusations come rushing together from all sides, as the leaders accuse Jesus before Pilate; and Pilate finally does what all the accusations throughout the gospel have been demanding and has him crucified.  Jesus, in other words, has taken the accusations that were outstanding against the world and against the whole human race and has borne them in himself.  That is the point of the story the way the evangelists tell it (p. 186).

This is “the extraordinary story of Israel’s Messiah taking upon himself the Accuser’s sharpest arrow and, dying under its force, robbing the Accuser of any further real power” (p. 188).