Monthly Archives: May 2013

Trinity Sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; you are worthy of praise; glory to you.

Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.

Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.

Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.


Living Between the End and the End

*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, October 9, 2010.

I’ve always been deathly afraid of passages like Mark 13.  I grew up in an evangelical culture that would read passages like Mark 13 as wild and woolly predictions of end-times cataclysms, assigning biblical significance to contemporary events.  Back in the 1980’s, the big fear was the Soviet Union and of course we all knew that America enjoyed Most Favored Nation status with God, so in some way biblical prophecies of gloom and doom were involved in current international relations.  “This passage right here in Revelation has to do with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and this one in Matthew probably refers to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.”

Such interpretive moves never sat well with me.  Why would Jesus be talking to a bunch of illiterate fisherman about global politics 2,000 years down the road, and why would the Apostle John be concerned with Cold War stand-offs when writing words of comfort to the churches of Asia Minor?

I didn’t really have answers to all this, but when I come across passages like ours for this evening, I start to get really nervous and agitated and would just rather not deal with them at all.  Perhaps Don feels the same way and so he dumped Mark 13 in my lap so he didn’t have to talk about helicopters with the heads of grasshoppers and armies of locusts coming west from Siberia to begin a world takeover.

What brought me a measure of comfort was the fact that the disciples ask Jesus the same question that many would have asked in the church where I grew up.  “This is all so fascinating, Jesus, how will we know that it’s all about to happen?  Do you have any charts that we could use to map all this out and trace it as it unfolds?”

Jesus doesn’t bother to answer their question, but instead in v. 5 begins to exhort them regarding what they should be concerned about.  And again, in v. 32, Jesus admits that the Son of Man has not been informed about when this will all take place.  Only God the Father knows this, so don’t worry about that, says Jesus.  In the meantime, you have some responsibilities.  And here they are.

Let’s walk through this passage a bit in order to understand the situation that Jesus’ disciples are in and what he tells them to do.  That way we can invite Mark into our life together as a community and discover together what Jesus wants us to do.

For a while now in Mark, Jesus has been predicting the end of his life and the destruction of Jerusalem.  God has rendered his verdict on Jerusalem and the temple as an institution.  It is not functioning at all as God had intended, and Jesus has already condemned it to eventual destruction.  This was pictured earlier in Mark by Jesus cursing the fig tree.  Back then, Peter, after seeing the fig tree withered, had said, “Look, Teacher, the fig tree you cursed has withered.”  Mark, the master storyteller, has one of the disciples open up Mark 13 with an almost exact quotation, “Look, Teacher, what massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!”

Good readers of Mark are supposed to take the hint—the fig tree is the Temple; the temple is the fig tree.

Yes, impressive stones indeed!  They will share the same fate as the withered tree.

Jesus goes on, in fact, to predict the temple’s destruction—not one stone will remain upon another.  He is referring to the coming of the Romans to completely devastate Judea and Jerusalem.  And when you read the history of all of this, it is stomach-turning.  Much of what Jesus predicts happens, and even worse—pervasive cannibalism, people cooking dung in order to survive.

But Jesus’ instruction here is to be on guard.  Watch out that you are not deceived by false Christs.  Further, when you are persecuted, take comfort because the Holy Spirit will empower you to know how to act.  When accused, just say what comes to mind and it will be God himself who will be giving you the words to say.

But this wave of persecution and intense suffering is not yet the end of the world, says Jesus in v. 7.

In fact, says Jesus, when you see something like what Daniel spoke about—the abomination of desolation—you need to get moving.

What’s going on here?  Well, about 200 years previous to Jesus’ day, Antiochus Epiphanes defiled the temple with pagan sacrifices—the abomination of desolation, as Daniel talks about.

This is going to happen again, but this time it will be the Romans who come into the temple and defile it.  The Roman emperor Caligula had a massive statue of himself set up in the temple and before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the defilement of the temple is again imminent.

Jesus says that when this happens, it would be wise to flee to the north.  For Mark’s readers in Jerusalem in the late 60’s, this would have been taken as an endorsement of the prophecy given in that church that they were to flee north to Pella in order to survive the coming destruction.

But Jesus again makes the point that these events are not the end.  Before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all the nations.

The instruction in Mark 13, therefore, is how Jesus’ disciples—including us—are supposed to live between the end and the end—the end of Jerusalem and the end of the world.

Certainly the end of Jerusalem must have felt like the end of the world for Jesus’ first followers.  For thousands of years, the Jewish people have always had Jerusalem.  How can you even conceive of following the God of Israel without God’s favorite city around?  How can you even maintain the existence of the God of Israel, if his home city is destroyed?  Usually if that happens, you’d have to assume that he’s not strong enough to defend it.

So, the end of Jerusalem actually would have really shaken up the first followers of Jesus, and it would literally have felt like the end of the world.  It would have thrown them into confusion and turmoil.

Without Jerusalem and its temple—without the singular defining piece of real estate that oriented everything about their lives and their community self-understanding—how do we even go on from here?

That’s what Mark 13 is all about.  And Jesus tells them to be on guard and watch out for false ways.  Jesus has showed them the way—self-sacrifice; service to others; cultivating a community of cross-shaped social dynamics; self-giving unto death for the sake of others.

If anyone tells you otherwise, especially if they want to take up arms and overthrow Rome, do not listen.

He also tells them to remain faithful to their gospel task.  The gospel must be preached, so keep at it.  Remain faithful even in the face of persecution for the sake of Christ.

And thirdly, be wise.  There is no virtue in staying in Jerusalem as it is surrounded by the Romans and finally completely destroyed.  In fact, Jesus says they’re going to need to leave the city at some point, and if they wait too long, it’s going to be rough.  What if some women are pregnant and it’s winter!?  This is very unspiritual counsel that Jesus gives—but very practical.  The cash value of this instruction is simply this—be wise.  Don’t be foolish.  Read the signs of the times and be ready to move if you need to.

So, while Mark 13 is loaded with all sorts of bizarre-sounding stuff, it’s actually a chapter loaded with practical counsel about living wisely when the world is coming apart.  Even if it feels like all you know is coming crashing down—beware, because that’s not yet the end.  The end will come, but only God knows when it will come.  Just make sure he finds you being faithful to what you know you should be doing.  Do that, says Jesus, and you’ll be doing all you need to worry about.

That’s Mark 13 for Jesus’ first followers.  What about us?  Let’s now invite Mark 13 into our community and let it do some work here.  What does this crazy passage have to say to us?

Our world is not coming apart—at least for most of us.  Sure, times might be tough, but none of us are yet resorting to cannibalism . . . so far as I know, anyway.  Our lives are pretty comfortable, and our stresses don’t come from needing to survive, but from striving to get ahead or to ensure a comfortable future for ourselves and for our children.

Jesus keeps repeating himself throughout Mark 13—don’t get caught up in curiosities, and don’t worry about figuring out the end-times, but “be on guard,” “watch out for false Christs,” “watch out for anyone claiming to show you another way,” and finally, “watch!”

So let’s talk about this, and here are some questions to guide our discussion: What are our temptations?  What are the ways we are tempted by false Christs?  What are some alternative voices out there that call to us?

And what about possible ways our community needs to think about being wise?  We’re considering a move to a new place—any wisdom for that?  Is there anything else we need to keep in mind as our community is in transition?


Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 5

Yesterday I cited a comment I’ve heard occasionally that indicates how some evangelical Christians regard the Bible.  They seek to understand the Bible primarily so that they can tell others what it says.

Those with this sort of anxiety need to understand that the gospel sets them free to enjoy open-ended conversations with others.  They can be fully genuine and even receive others’ questions as invitations to examine Scripture more closely for themselves.

This corrupted posture toward Scripture can also be driven by a desire to argue and demonstrate the superiority of one’s understanding.

I once had a conversation in which someone asked me how I regarded a certain passage in Ephesians 5 that stands at the center of controversies over gender among evangelicals.  I gave him a succinct summary of how I thought about it.

He then asked, “well, what are the implications of that sort of reading of the text and for an evangelical understanding of Scripture?”  I knew he wanted me to speak to a conflict in which he was involved, supplying him with ammunition for his next engagement.

I told him that I could only speak to how our family appropriates this text, how it works out in our home.

That didn’t satisfy him, and then he asked the magic question: “No, what I mean is, what would you say to someone who has a different understanding of this issue and how it should be applied today?”

I told him I would find something else to talk about.

I think he was disappointed.  He wanted me to supply him with arguments, responses, and counter-responses so that he could triumph in an ongoing conflict with some folks at his church.

That’s a perverted and destructive posture toward Scripture.

We don’t have the Bible for the purpose of fighting and squabbling, strategizing so that “our side” might dominate “their side.”  God gave his word to his people that we might gain a heart of wisdom, that we might love and serve God, loving and serving one another with gladness and singleness of heart.


“Holy War” & Christian Morality

Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan have edited a very fine book called Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem.

It deals with the troubling appearance of God-endorsed warfare in Scripture from a biblical-theological, philosophical, and ethical perspectives.

Check out the promotional videos from IVP, one that features editor Heath Thomas, and another with a random person found walking the halls of the convention center in Chicago last November.

 


Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 4

A month or two ago, I wrote about the relationship between a recurring comment and evangelical postures toward the Bible.

I’ve been struck by something else I’ve occasionally heard.  I wonder if it, too, reflects an inappropriate posture toward Scripture and how Christians ought to relate to other people.

While discussing biblical or theological concepts with evangelical folks, I occasionally hear a question put in this form: “Well, what would you say to someone who says that . . . ?”

For example, when teaching on election, I made a case from Scripture that God does indeed set his love upon distinct people from eternity past to pursue them and draw them into his love.  In the midst of my explanation, a student asked, “well, what would you say to someone who thinks that God chooses someone based on his foreknowledge that they will choose to be Christian?”

What struck me as odd isn’t the question but its form: “What would you say to someone . . . ?”

When I first began teaching, I would just respond to the question, thinking little about how it was asked.  But I began to suspect that students who framed questions this way were misconstruing their responsibility toward Scripture.

I wondered if students were imagining that their task with regard to Scripture was to convince others about its content.

I was struck that some students weren’t necessarily trying to understand notions in Scripture and integrate them with aspects of lives.  Their first concern was to know what to say in conversations or debates with others.

This was confirmed to me in a private conversation with a very anxious student whose assumptions about what the Bible said were being unsettled.  She visited my office quite regularly with loads of questions, but her spirit of inquiry wasn’t driven by the joy of discovery.  She seemed more burdened than excited to learn.  She remarked once that she was trying to be as equipped as possible to be ready to respond when people had questions about what she was saying.

That struck me as misguided and we had a conversation about the priority of being a faithful student before becoming a teacher.

After that I began to respond differently to questions put in this form.  I would first say that I didn’t know exactly what they should say to someone who had a certain sort of question.  It was their responsibility to grow in wisdom and to be sensitive to each situation.  I also suggested that they should consider this response: “I don’t know.  That’s a great question.”

While I couldn’t anticipate every interchange they would ever have, what could do was to give them some thoughts on better understanding the concept we were discussing.  The posture toward Scripture I find inappropriate is the assumption that one is responsible learn Bible content in order to tell others what it says.

Christians ought to engage Scripture in order to first understand, and then to give extended consideration with the further aim of strategic, glad obedience.

More on this tomorrow.


Paul’s Narrative of God’s Saving Grace

I’ve picked up for my summer reading Frank Matera’s God’s Saving Grace: A Pauline Theology.  For Matera, three implicit narratives underlie Pauline theology:

The first is the narrative of Paul’s own life.  It begins with the experience of God’s saving grace in Christ that was revealed to Paul at the moment of his call and conversion.  It was in light of that experience that Paul developed the second narrative, the narrative of what God had done in Christ.  On the basis of the narratives of what happened in his own life and on the basis of the narrative of what God had done in Christ, Paul proclaimed God’s saving grace to others, thereby forming communities of believers with their own narrative that can be summarized in this way: having been rescued from a past defined by sin and rebellion against God, believers presently live their lives within the eschatological people of God as they wait for the return of their Lord, when they will be conformed to his resurrection.  Thus we can speak of three narratives: the narrative of God’s saving grace in Paul’s life, the narrative of God’s saving grace in Christ, and the narrative of God’s saving grace in the lives of those in Christ (pp. 10-11, emphasis added).

I find this narrative dimension very helpful in framing Paul’s theology, which is dynamic rather than static, future-oriented and not determined only by what God has done in the past.

Many commentators and theologians note that Paul’s theology is pastoral, dealing with “on the ground” realities, but then elucidate a static theology of “Paul’s beliefs.”  Shaping his “thought” (all we have are his letters, mind you, not any “works of theology”) narratively is more organic to how we encounter Paul and what we find him doing in his letters to churches.


Thoughts on Teaching in a Seminary

A few weeks ago, Peter Enns reflected on his move from teaching in a seminary to teaching Bible at a Christian college.

I moved in the opposite direction after teaching undergrads for seven years.

I loved teaching college students.  Undergrads have lots of energy and are always up for a laugh.  They have great sensitivity to inauthenticity and pretension, and that helped me not take myself too seriously.

Further, their questions were pretty undisciplined—and I mean that in a good way.  They weren’t the polite or safe questions one hears in church settings or predictable ones that come in academic contexts.  They really made me think and I enjoyed the challenge of going over familiar material in fresh ways.  A few research projects got their start from questions that made me go back to my office and look at the text more closely.

I also had my eyes opened about college students.  Many of them have been hurt deeply, few of them have illusions about life, lots of them are lonely, and they’re desperate to be known by adults they respect.

Things are quite different in seminary, and I’m having a blast.

Rather than adopting a posture as “the expert,” I see myself as the “first student.”  I’m sort of the lead learner, directing class discoveries and the communal journey through the material.

My main frustration teaching undergrads was that I wasn’t able to grapple with aspects of the academic discipline at a level that was satisfying.

Teaching seminary gives me that opportunity and I love it.  I hate to admit it, but I’m teaching seminary a bit selfishly—I’m exploiting my job for my own enjoyment!  I love regularly revisiting NT Biblical Theology, working through various Pauline letters, and engaging other aspects of the discipline even as I further my own research projects.

And seminary students for the most part are my peers.  Many of them are in ministry and most are my age—I’m just a bit older than our average student.  We’ve had similar life experiences and sharing all of this together makes for rich classroom conversations.

I’m grateful for what I learned teaching undergrads and I’m seriously enjoying myself teaching seminary students.


Summertime

I’ve taken a bit of a sabbatical from the blog over the last week or two.

I’ve just completed my second year of teaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and it’s been a supremely fulfilling season.

I’m in the midst of the transition from the school year to a summer schedule and am anticipating some fruitful months of research and writing.

I’m hoping to make progress on a few long-term writing projects, finish some book reviews, and prepare two papers—on Philemon and Romans 7—for summer conferences.

Complicating matters somewhat are my ongoing negotiations with a front yard that has discovered new frontiers in dormancy.  We’re hoping to see death and resurrection dynamics at work agronomically even as I reflect on them theologically.

Just to say, I’ll be busy.

But I hope to get back to the blog shortly, reflecting on a range of topics, and especially to revive my reflections on Romans.


Wisdom for Seminary Graduates

Stanley Hauerwas delivered this wonderful sermon last month for the Duke Divinity School Closing Convocation.

I love his plainspoken counsel, appropriating Jesus’ question to Peter for those headed into the ministry, “do you love me?”

Do you love me?  The question cannot be avoided.  The question certainly cannot be avoided by those in the ministry.  For as I think you will discover, the ministry is a playground of manipulative games derived from distrust and envy that too often produces lives of self-destructive self-hate.  If you do not love Jesus you will find it almost impossible to survive in the ministry.

 


On Student Evaluations

It’s that time of year again—student evaluations.  In colleges and universities, students are evaluating their professors and the classes they’ve taken.

This is an essential part of quality control and offers students an opportunity to help professors evaluate their performance and improve their classes.

Some thoughts on making the most of this exercise:

First, when making comments about a class, be specific.  If an aspect of the course was helpful, note how it was helpful and how it enhanced learning.  If parts of the course were unhelpful, note how and why.  If you can, cite a specific example or two.

Second, make practical suggestions.  If something about the course needs improvement, do you have a thought about how that might happen?  Feel free to offer some ideas.  Many of us are interested in concrete ways our classes can be made more effective.

Third, don’t be mean.  Professors are people, and sarcasm, rudeness, and unkindness can be tremendously hurtful.  Positive comments don’t erase the one or two harsh comments we receive and those tend to be the ones that stick with us.  And because comments are anonymous, we wonder who would have written such a thing and why.  Be kind.

Fourth, if you had a bad experience in a class, write out your experience plainly and directly.  Record why it was a bad experience and what might be done to change things in the future.

Fifth, on the other hand, if you had a good experience, be plain and direct about it.  Take a moment to note why it was a fruitful experience, beyond, “this class was great!”  Those comments are certainly positive, but they don’t really affirm why the course worked well.

Sixth, envision yourself blessing future generations of students who will take the course.  At the end of the semester, everyone is tired and worn out and it’s easy to blow off evaluating a course thoughtfully.  Resist that temptation and see this as a great opportunity to serve your professor and fellow students.