Monthly Archives: June 2012

Salvation at the Turn of the Ages

I’m speaking this weekend about salvation as cosmic realm transfer and sanctification as learning to inhabit the new creation.  Among a few other Pauline texts, I’m making reference to Galatians 2:20-21.  Here’s my expanded translation:

I died with Christ to that old realm so I don’t live there anymore, and I have been raised to life in the new realm so that I might really and truly experience the fullness of life lived in the presence of God . . . and all of this happened because God plunged me deeply into Christ by the Spirit so that everything that happened to Christ happened to me.  Christ lives in that new realm, so I live in that new realm.

And now all of my life is empowered by, upheld by, directed by, shaped by, oriented by Jesus’ own faithfulness to God–that life of self-giving love and servanthood–the one who loved me and gave himself for me.

God has brought all of this about by the self-giving love of Jesus, so I will experience more and more of the power and life-giving presence of Jesus as I gain the resurrection-powered skills of embodying self-giving love, learning its practices and developing its habits and relational patterns.

This reality that I’m describing is truly the grace of God—God has brought us into this existence by his grace, not by coercion, violence, manipulation, or accumulating social credentials.

That old way of manipulating God and judging one another and trying to establish a social identity by living to please others–that is not the way to the new creation.  If it was, then Christ died for nothing!

That isn’t how the new creation came about and those aren’t pathways into the new creation.  Being plunged into the death and resurrection of Christ is the only way it happens.

Scattering to Worship

Scripture casts the whole range of human behavior in terms of worship.  Humanity is in the Creator God’s image, so their relating, their spreading over the whole earth, their overseeing creation’s flourishing, their exploring creation’s beauties, their creating and enjoying new aspects of culture—any of these and all of these constituted their worship of the one true God.  Worship was not a separate or distinct activity that was reserved for a special day. 

At the fall, humanity’s worship was perverted so that all of this was done to image something else or someone else. 

Salvation, then, is about the recovery of the full range of human relating, imagining, and behaving—a holistic recovery of human worship.

“Worship,” then, does not refer primarily to the activity of the gathered people of God.  It’s not necessarily inappropriate to use worship language to speak of what we do when we gather as church.

But “worship” is what happens when the people of God scatter, when we carry out all sorts of other activities—our service to others, our exploring God’s good world, our playing games, our listening and speaking, our resting, our working to produce, our bringing order to chaotic situations.

God’s aims in Christ are holistic and totalizing; God intends to reclaim the whole of our lives to remake us into holistic worshipers whose entire lives are worship.

Since that’s the case, how might we re-frame our language to more faithfully and fruitfully represent what we do when we gather and when we scatter?

Salvation as Renewed Worship

Paul and the writer of Hebrews both frame Christian discipleship in terms of worship.

Hebrews may address some sort of crisis whereby the community will be separated from the temple.  How will they be able to maintain their relationship to God without participating in regular sacrifices?

Hebrews assures them that holistic lives of doing good and offering praise to God in Jesus constitute sacrifices that please God.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.  And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:15-16).

In Romans, Paul frames humanity’s fundamental problem in terms of a worship malfunction.  Rather than being the image of the one true God, humanity has become the image of something within creation (Rom. 1:23).

God’s work of salvation reclaims this vital role, transforming humanity into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).

Participating in God’s salvation, therefore, involves carrying out a transformed worship:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom. 12:1-2).

Putting holistic discipleship to Jesus in worship terms resonates with deep impulses that run through the biblical narrative.

From the beginning, Adam and Eve are God’s “image,” which is worship or temple language (Gen. 1:27).  Just as pagan temples have images of pagan gods in them, all of creation is the temple of God, and only humanity properly images the living God.

And God was to be worshiped as humanity pursued its tasks of filling the earth and overseeing the spread of creation’s flourishing.

Worship of the one true God, then, is the original responsibility of humanity.  Biblical writers depict the sinful condition of humanity as a perversion of humanity’s worship.  Humanity hasn’t merely refused to worship the one true God, they have become idolatrous, embodying the worship of a range of false gods through various behavioral perversions.

And biblical writers frame salvation as the restoration of humanity to its original intention.  God restores humanity so that the whole of our lives once again become worship of the one true God.

This has loads of implications for reimagining faithful discipleship to Jesus, and I’ll mention just one tomorrow.

Professional Sports: Corrupted but Compelling

It’s been a silly season for sports enthusiasts, especially here in the States.  The NBA playoffs have been unusually compelling, as have been those of the NHL.  The first third of the baseball season has been typically unpredictable and exciting, and we’re well into the tennis and golf seasons of major championships.

It’s easy for the corruptions of professional sports to distract from how compelling they can be.  Timothy Egan writes in today’s NY Times about how schadenfreude–the sense of delight at the calamity of others–can ruin our enjoyment of games.  It’s interesting that he was pulling for the Heat because of the departure of the old Supersonics from Seattle (the franchise that is now the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Many basketball fans across the country were pulling in the opposite direction because of LeBron James’s departure from Cleveland.  Schadenfreude, ironically enough, was at work on both sides.

What I love about sports, however, is the open-endedness of it.  How’s it going to turn out?  How will this game end?  What turns will the game take that prove decisive?  As Egan notes, so much of contemporary public life is scripted and predictable.  Games break into the predictability of life and introduce unexpected high drama.  In addition to this, I’m amazed at the precision and skill of modern athletes.

Egan has words of wisdom, in my opinion.  Don’t be caught up in schadenfreude (hear me, Cleveland!?), and don’t be distracted by the corruptions of modern sport.  Appreciate the beauties of our games and the joys they provide.

“Worldliness” According to Paul

I’ve been busy the last four weeks teaching summer intensive courses on NT Biblical Theology and the Letter of Ephesians.

I’m struck again by the priority the NT places on the unity of God’s people.

In fact, this is one of the unique features of the church.  God’s people are “holy”—unlike the world—and their holiness is constituted largely by their pursuit of unity and love for one another.  The church is the gathered people who gain skills in practices of restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

This New Testament vision of the church determines Paul’s language of “worldliness”—when churches fail to manifest their character as God’s people and instead conform to patterns of community life that are just like any other group of people.

But the rhetoric of “worldliness,” like other biblical language, is often misused.  It is typically taken out of its context(s) and used according to what this or that Christian community likes or doesn’t like.  In evangelical culture of the last century, “worldliness” had come to signify entertainment or lifestyle choices with which many conservative Christians weren’t comfortable.

When Paul, however, accuses the Corinthians for their “worldliness,” he has in mind the divisions in their community.  They have broken up into competing groups that have turned early church leaders into “superstars” around which various groups are rallying and finding their identity.

Paul hears about this and calls it “worldly.”

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)?

It seems to me that the parallels between the “worldly” Corinthian community dynamics and contemporary American tribalized evangelicalism are endless.

How (Not) to Have the Perfect Church

The final clause in Gal. 5:17 is notoriously difficult.  Paul exhorts his readers in vv. 16-17:

And I say walk by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another in order that you may not do the things that you wish (hina mē a ean thelēte tauta poiēte).

Paul’s statement has baffled commentators.  The best suggestion I’ve seen is from John Barclay in his Obeying the Truth.  From what I recall he argues that Paul is saying that the flesh and the Spirit are set in opposition to one another “so that you can’t just do whatever you please.”

I’ve been re-reading Galatians lately, however, and am wondering if perhaps Paul is elucidating something along the following lines.  I may be reading some church experience back into the letter, but there are some contextual factors that point in this direction.

There are competing factions in the Galatian churches arguing about how these communities ought to embody their discipleship to Jesus.  They have been taught by Paul that they are followers of the one true God by their faithfulness to Jesus.  But some are endorsing their conversion to Judaism, which has caused no small disturbance.

There are competing visions over how to be the church, and that’s an essential part of the problem.  In the heat of debate and sharp disagreement over theological articulation and ecclesial practice, positions have hardened and highly-charged accusations are flying back and forth.  The fighting has grown intense because everyone perceives that much is at stake.

Each side is convinced that if their vision carries the day, God’s eschatological blessing will reside on these fledgling communities.

According to Paul, they’re both wrong.

The larger context of vv. 16-17 is all about fostering communities of unity by the power of the Spirit.  No matter their position, anyone agitating forcefully and divisively for one vision and against another is advancing the cause of the flesh.  The flesh is in opposition to the Spirit, so it is impossible to bring about Spirit-oriented ends through fleshly means.

I think that’s the force of Paul’s words: These two realms and these powers are at odds, so if you try to foster eschatological blessing through the means of the flesh (power-grabbing, factional competition, division and judgment of others, etc.), “you’ll never bring about the ends that you’re desiring” (v. 17b).  You’ll never acheive the sort of church you want through factionalism and the promotion of this side over that side.  Using those means only promotes the cause of “the flesh,” which is discouragement, division, and a broken-down community.

They all need to get in step with the Spirit, who is present among them and is empowering them to foster love, peace, unity, reconciliation, forgiveness, deference.

How to get the perfect church?  Give up the quest for it, stop fighting, warmly receive one another as God’s good gifts, and pursue faithfulness working itself out in love.

A Great U.S. Open & A Worthy Champion

The U.S. Open lived up to its character in every way.  This championship is supposed to be contested over the year’s toughest layout, producing a champion who is tested in every way over four rounds of golf.

Olympic is one of the toughest of the Open courses, known as the “Graveyard of Champions.”  The game’s greats have had their hearts broken there, eventually losing after leading the tournament going into the final round.

In 1955, Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan.

In 1966, Arnold Palmer lost to Billy Casper.  Scott Simpson won over Tom Watson in 1987, and Lee Janzen beat Payne Stewart in 1998.

This year, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, and Bubba Watson missed the cut.  Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk couldn’t avoid costly mistakes down the stretch.

Tiger Woods had it going well over the first two days, scoring well while not actually playing as well as he scored.  The flaws in his game were exposed over the final two rounds, however, when he shot 75 and 73 to finish in a tie for 21st.

Webb Simpson may be unknown to casual fans, but he’s had a great run over the last few years. 

He played well, kept his nerve, and hit tough shots in key moments.  On his final hole of the tournament, Simpson’s ball landed in an awful spot in the rough to the right of the green. 

He hit a great shot and made the putt to put the pressure on McDowell and Furyk who were finishing behind him.  That’s the sort of play that wins Opens, and Simpson proved himself the best player of the week.

I’m a Happy Dad on Father’s Day

I’ve got a wonderful father and I get to be the dad of these three:

Jesus’ Indifference to the Poor?

I’ve heard Jesus’ statement in Mark 14:7 cited to brush off the importance of ministry to the poor.

This is entirely inappropriate, since Jesus is not uttering an economic truism—that on any measure of a society there will always be the poorest 20%.  Nor is he saying, “look, I do realize there will never be a final solution to the problem of poverty, so don’t knock yourselves out serving the poor.”

Far from endorsing complacency about looking after the needy, Jesus is contrasting his imminent death with the fact that there are always going to be opportunities to serve the poor—opportunities that his disciples ought to jump all over!

I’ll cite Mark 14:1-11 in full to give the sense of what’s happening in the context.

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”  While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.  “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.  She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.  They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over (Mark 14:1-11).

Jesus is responding to those who have rebuked the woman for anointing Jesus.  He knows that those who object are insincere.  In fact, just after Jesus speaks, Mark mentions Judas’ actions in going to the chief priests.  It was probably Judas who objected to the waste of the valuable perfume, but only so that he could make money from it himself.

Jesus is defending and dignifying what the woman has done.  In fact, she, unlike other actors in the immediate and wider contexts, sees clearly who Jesus is and what he’s about to do.  The others are blind to his identity and mission.

This is an act of profound worship in view of Jesus’ journey to the cross.  Jesus receives it fully and brushes aside manipulative rhetoric by urging that while this act must be dignified and welcomed, his disciples ought also to be faithful to create opportunities for service to the poor.

Bruce Longenecker on Luke’s Narrative Style

Bruce Longenecker has a fascinating new book out on the narrative dimensions of Luke’s Gospel.  It’s called Hearing the Silence: Jesus on the Edge and God in the Gap–Luke 4 in Narrative Perspective.

He addresses the problem of the “under-narrated” episode in Luke 4:16-30.  Just after Jesus gives his Nazareth Manifesto in the synagogue, Luke portrays the enraged townspeople dragging Jesus to the brow of the hill to throw him off.  The drama loads up with tension, but just as it reaches a climax, Luke draws it to a close by seemingly letting all the air out:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.  But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4:28-30, NIV).

Longenecker begins his exploration at this point.  What to make of this gap in Luke’s narrative?

Good writers often do leave gaps in their narratives, intending to provoke their readers’ imaginations to fill in what’s missing.  But good writing only meets its appropriate ends when good readers are involved–those who attend carefully to trajectories and impulses throughout the larger work so that they fill in gaps in ways that are both creative and constrained by the text and its author’s intentions.

As Longenecker notes, there are better and worse readings of texts:

In a hermeneutical circle in which the auditor engages with a text in ever-improved cycles of understanding about the text’s “various markers and signals,” the narrative itself sets up parameters regarding the live interpretive options an audience might entertain in its quest to appreciate the full dimensions of a narrative gap (p. 40).

What makes this book quite unusual is that Longenecker then explores a range of possibilities for filling in this “narrative gap” with what may have happened.  He examines a number of Jesus-novels to see how fictionalized accounts of Jesus’ life account for this episode, evaluating how well they have attended to Luke’s literary parameters.

He then offers his own proposal for how Luke leads his readers to imagine the dynamics of Jesus’ miraculous rescue from the hands of his angry townfolk.  Along the way, Longenecker discusses Luke’s narrative style and creativity and describes more fully what is required of good readers of Scripture.

There’s so much to say about this fascinating and impressively creative book.  Longenecker touches on a variety of topics, bringing them together to provide a close and fascinating reading of Luke.  And he does it all in 123 pages–and that includes three appendices.

This is a great book for use in an undergraduate hermeneutics course, since it gets at how biblical narratives work, and does so in a lively and highly readable way.  It would also generate great discussion if used by church groups, especially those embarking on a study of Luke.