Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Riches of the Church

The biblical texts in the lectionary for today have to do with riches and poverty:

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Our rector, Stephen Holmgren, told this story that resonates with the trajectory of these passages:

At the center of the ancient Forum in Rome are the remains of a large Roman Temple with an inscription to the Emperor Antonius Pius.  The Temple is preserved because it was incorporated into a Christian Church.  The name of this church derives from events following a persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Valerian, beginning in the year 257.  It targeted the clergy and lay leaders of the Christian community.  Christians were rounded up, their property was taken, and gatherings for worship and fellowship were banned.  Though some details are disputed, in August of 258, Bishop Sixtus II and some of his deacons were found meeting for worship in the catacombs, and were arrested.  They may have been executed immediately, following the imperial edict.  But they may also have been brought to the Forum, and commanded to offer pagan sacrifice at the temple.  Either way, their insistence on remaining faithful to Jesus led to their execution.  All except for one, a deacon named Laurence.

The Roman prefect overseeing the matter knew that Laurence was in charge of the church’s money and valuables.  So he promised to spare Laurence if he would surrender the church’s treasures.  Laurence said he would, but that he needed three days to gather them.  After entrusting the money to dependable stewards, Laurence set to work assembling the poor and the sick, and the widows and orphans, from the church in Rome.  On the third day, he brought them to the temple, and presented them to the prefect.  He said, simply, “Here are the treasures of the Church!”  Feeling betrayed by Laurence’s deceit, the prefect ordered him to be executed in the most painful way—roasted alive over hot coals, chained to a gridiron.  It may be legendary, but Church tradition remembers Laurence’s calm and faithful endurance, as well as a cheeky comment he made to one of his executioners: “You may turn me over; I am done on this side.”

Read the entire sermon here.


Two New Books on Paul & the Law from IVP

Discussions of Paul and the Mosaic Law have bogged down over the last several years as the sun has set on what might be called “the new perspective era.”  Two new books have appeared, however, that treat the issue from new angles of approach.

Preston Sprinkle, my former teammate on our world championship softball team (well, intramural champs, but we were unstoppable) has written Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation.

Sprinkle

He takes up and advances Francis Watson’s approach in his book Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, applying Watson’s proposal to a comparison between Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The second book is by Brian Rosner, called Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God.

Rosner

Most studies on this issue traverse the same territory–Romans and Galatians–but Rosner focuses on 1 Corinthians.  This very well may bring a new dimension to the discussion, which would be warmly welcomed.

From the book’s page at IVP:

Understanding “Paul and the law” is critical to the study of the New Testament, because it touches on the perennial question of the relationship between the grace of God in the gift of salvation and the demand of God in the call for holy living. Misunderstanding can lead to distortions of one or both. This fresh and valuable study is something of a breakthrough, bringing neglected evidence to the discussion and asking different questions of the material, while also building on the work of others. Brian Rosner argues that Paul undertakes a polemical re-evaluation of the Law of Moses, which involves not only its repudiation as law-covenant and its replacement by other things, but also its wholehearted re-appropriation as prophecy (with reference to the gospel) and as wisdom (for Christian living).


The Gospel of the Kingdom, Pt. 5

I wrote the other day that Christians should learn to think from and talk from Genesis 1-2 and Israel in conceiving of and talking about the gospel.  Thinking from Genesis 1-2 reminds us of God’s original intentions for humanity and for creation.  This is crucial because these shape Scripture’s depiction of what God seeks to recover in salvation.

We begin to see this in God’s relationship with Israel.  God responds to human rebellion and the inevitable loss of the knowledge of God among humanity (Gen. 3-11) by calling Abram (later, Abraham) and promising to restore all things through him and his family.

God’s commitment to Abraham eventuates in his rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  God calls Israel to be the unique recipients of his love and to be the agents of his redemptive pursuit of the nations.

Israel is important in understanding “the gospel of the kingdom” because here we see God’s initial move to set things right (“salvation”).

God calls a nation to embody in all aspects of their national life the rule of the Creator God over them.  In their practices of justice, care for the poor, and mundane behaviors of neighborly love, they were to inhabit a way of life that recalled God’s original intentions for creation.

And they were to draw the nations into that love, too, leading them to worship the Creator God of Israel through repentance and cultivation of renewed habits of life.

In short, Israel was called to enjoy God’s shalom and oversee the spread of that shalom throughout creation.  In Israel, God revives his creation intentions for humanity from Genesis 1-2.

Tragically, Israel failed.  They became like the nations rather than being a light to the nations.  God sent them into exile but promised to return and gather them and to bring to completion his purposes for them.

When Jesus comes preaching the gospel of the kingdom, therefore, he comes announcing the arrival of God’s restored order of flourishing—shalom—with his arrival.  He calls Israel to inhabit that restored order by taking up life-giving practices of restoration, confession of sin, forgiveness, justice, and love for one another.

Jesus calls Israel to become a people that embody in their corporate life the reign of the Creator God.  This entails also renewing the mission to the nations to draw them into God’s love through repentance and discipleship.

In thinking about the gospel, then, we should imagine the set of language that describes God’s creation of a people who embody the gracious reign of the Creator God in Christ through practices of joyful self-sacrifice, service, justice, love, compassion, care for the poor and for creation itself, confession of sin, and forgiveness.  And God’s creation of a people who embody God’s passionate pursuit of the whole of creation.

In the New Testament, “the gospel” is the news that God is currently doing this.

Now, I’m not necessarily talking about including all of that in a “gospel presentation.”  But when we think about the gospel of the kingdom, we should start with God’s intentions for creation and his aims in calling a people that embody on earth his rule and his love for his world.


The Gospel of the Kingdom, Pt. 4

Last week I noted that the New Testament Gospels refer to “the gospel of the kingdom” and don’t contain the sort of gospel presentation with which many of us may be familiar.  We may be used to hearing about the mechanics of a personal transaction that begins with the problem of sin and separation from God, includes the provision of God in Christ of atonement, and lets us know how we can be forgiven and restored to fellowship with God.

Now, it’s one thing to acknowledge that “the gospel” in the Gospels has to do with a broader announcement of a larger reality—the arrival of God’s long-awaited restored order of creation’s flourishing with the advent of Jesus, God’s appointed ruler of that realm.  But how do we talk about that?  How do we move from talking about the gospel-as-tidy-presentation to speaking about the gospel according to the Gospels?

Beyond what I wrote last week, here’s a further consideration:

When it comes to the gospel, Christians should learn to think from and talk from Genesis 1-2 and Israel.

These two orienting points in the biblical narrative should loom increasingly large in our imaginations in order to understand the New Testament gospel.

I think that the problem for most of us is one of starting in the wrong place.  We start with Genesis 3, forgetting that this isn’t where the Bible starts.  And we jump directly to Jesus, consigning the rest of the Scriptures—including the story of Israel—to utter irrelevance.

If we mention Genesis 1-2 at all, we do so only briefly, noting that Adam and Eve were in a perfect environment when they disobeyed God.  This is terribly unfortunate, since “perfection” is highly misleading here and sets things on a wrong trajectory.

And if we mention Israel at all, it’s only to indicate that they were a people who got the gospel wrong or didn’t believe it or tried to earn salvation by works.  Israel is more or less dispensable or functions as a foil for talking about the gospel that arrives in the New Testament (and especially with Paul).

But if we think from Genesis 1-2, and let our biblically-sanctified imaginations settle there for a while, we’ll get a good grip on God’s original intentions for creation.  God wanted his creation to flourish and to grow and develop so that creation’s thriving would keep abounding and super-abounding.  And this could only happen if creation had someone to oversee that project.

This is where humanity comes in.

God put humanity on earth to oversee the spread of flourishing (shalom) throughout the entirety of creation, so that humanity and the creation itself shared in the wonder of being fully alive in God’s good world.

This involved humanity’s relationship to the creation itself and to one another—and our worship of the one true God was our fruitful and faithful conduct in these relationships.  We were to know and enjoy the Creator God in the endless variety and the countless dimensions of these relationships.

But humanity blew it.  Beyond the fact of humanity’s rebellion, it’s important to note the form of the original sin.  Humanity refused to oversee creation (i.e., the serpent) on behalf of God.

After this, the relationship of human to human is badly broken and the relationship of humanity to the creation is perverted.  Human conduct now does not look like knowing and enjoying God.

It looks like the absence of God.

There’s more to say about this and I’ll have to continue this in a subsequent post, but in thinking about “the gospel,” we must first understand God’s original intentions and how Scripture speaks of them.  Only then do we move to how it all went wrong.

In the beginning, God wanted his rule over creation to be embodied and depicted by humans enjoying one another in community and overseeing creation’s flourishing on his behalf.  We won’t get the gospel of the kingdom right if we don’t start there.


On Hearing & Not Doing

Mark 1-3 is filled with random characters responding to Jesus in various ways.  Mark 3:31-35 is something of a concluding episode, where Jesus notes the sort of response that indicates participation in the kingdom of God.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

What constitutes membership in Jesus’ family?  Listening to Jesus’ teaching and doing what he says.

One of the unsettling responses to Jesus is that of the crowd in 1:21-28.  After a dramatic exorcism by Jesus in the synagogue, everyone was amazed and they spread the word about Jesus throughout Galilee (vv. 27-28).  This certainly seems commendable!

But Mark doesn’t report this response positively.  In fact, the form of their response echoes the forceful provocation of the demon in v. 24.  They express their amazement with the question, “What is this?” while the demon opposes himself to Jesus with the expression, “What is there between us and you?”

Mark seems to be indicating that the response of the crowd, while enthusiastic, was inadequate.

This reminded me of Ezekiel 33:30-33:

“As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.

James and Paul both have discussions along this line (James 2:14-25; Romans 2:13).  Appreciation for God’s word, regular hearing of sermons, and professions of faith are irrelevant if obedience is absent.

I find passages like these haunting because I’m all too familiar with reports of amazing sermons and awesome times of worship where the Spirit of God was so obviously present.  Without dismissing those reports, I would just note that subtle dangers lurk in those moments.  We may have the illusion that the job has been done if our hearts have been warmed or if we’ve shown some appreciation for God and his word.

Several biblical authors indicate that such responses are inadequate.  Mark goes a step further and hints that such responses—without enacted obedience—put us in the company of demons.


The Gospel of the Kingdom, Pt. 3

In answer to the question of how to communicate the gospel of the kingdom, I wrote yesterday that increasing familiarity with the biblical storyline is a necessity.  I don’t mean that this is the first step in a process that leads to making “gospel presentations.”  I’m referring to a long-term endeavor to continually orient our imaginations by the narrative shape of Scripture, to grapple with the overarching story and press it into all areas of life so that we intuitively grasp “how it works” in communities, relationships, family dynamics, and behavior in the marketplace.

The fact that this is a long-term and open-ended task of God’s people means that we might do well to look critically on the desire to package a tidy gospel presentation.  It may be that formulating a gospel presentation that looks awfully like a sales pitch invites into conversations the sinister dynamics associated with sales pitches (suspicious listener, manipulative speaker, relational dynamics of coercion, etc.).

In thinking about communicating the gospel of the kingdom, consider that in Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus was with his “disciples” and gave them the commission to “make disciples” as they were going out into the world.  “Disciples” are learners, those who are being trained.

According to the Great Commission, learners are to invite others to become learners.

Jesus’ words should affect how we think about communicating the gospel of the kingdom.  From this perspective, Christians are people who are constantly learning and growing in familiarity with the Christian story.  And the task of communicating the gospel of the kingdom to others is to invite them into the process of being learners.

If we are learners who are seeking increasing familiarity with the narrative logic of Scripture and the realities of the kingdom of God, then we may have much to say to others about it, based on our current understanding (more specifics on this to come).

But our posture as learners should affect how we approach others.   We don’t need to manipulate others or engage in coercive conversations to bring about an intended result.  We encounter fellow learners who are also on journeys of discovery.  We can share what we know and we can appreciate questions as opportunities for us to probe the narrative more vigorously from new angles.

This sort of posture fosters patience in our own growth in understanding and in our relationships with others.  It also fosters humility before the life-giving Word and in relation to others.


The Gospel of the Kingdom, Pt. 2

I indicated yesterday that I’ve had a recurring conversation about the character of the gospel.  When the topic arises of the larger, broader, more robust and holistic gospel of the kingdom found in the Gospels, this question typically follows: How do I talk about that?  How do I communicate that to someone?

I suspect that this question comes from a familiarity with the far-easier-to-communicate personal transaction version of the gospel—a “gospel presentation.”

You are a sinner and stand in need of forgiveness from God.  God sent Jesus into the world to die for sinners and make forgiveness possible.  If you pray to God, asking for it, you can appropriate that forgiveness and be reconciled to God.  You now have no need to fear judgment, but have only eternal life to anticipate in the future.

This is simple, easy to remember, and easy to communicate.

This may be why we’re unsettled when we find that in the Gospels, Jesus and his disciples proclaim the gospel of the kingdom.  This is a much larger reality that is only rightly understood within the biblically-shaped set of expectations in the first century Jewish culture.

How on earth do we communicate that?  How can we “share” that gospel in a way that people can immediately understand?  What’s the personal dimension of that sort of gospel?

There is much to say about this and I won’t necessarily prioritize any considerations over another.  But the first notion that comes to mind is that if the gospel as it is encountered in the Gospels sounds foreign, this should provoke Christians to embark on a long-term pursuit of getting to know the Scriptures better.  We ought to seek to understand the biblical narrative as it unfolds and sets the context within which Jesus’ proclamation makes good sense.

Gaining increasing familiarity with the narrative over time helps us understand God and his intentions for creation; the relation of humanity to God, to each other, and to God’s world; the fall and how that corrupted humanity and God’s good creation; and the aims of God to reclaim his world and restore humanity to himself, to one another, and to creation.

The church’s ongoing task is to probe the Scriptures over time and to enter the Scripturally-rendered world so that the biblical narrative shapes our imaginations.  As this takes place over the long haul, Christians gain wisdom and discernment as how the gospel might encounter and transform various aspects of life.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all gospel “presentation.”

As Jesus encounters a range of people in the Gospels, he speaks a “word on target” that is appropriate for each situation.  We are pursuing the sort of wisdom that can determine where confrontation is needed, or a word of tender comfort, or the offer of hope to a crushed soul, or the start of a long-term conversation for someone who needs greater understanding and who must then count the cost.

To faithfully communicate the gospel of the kingdom, Christians need to be patient and diligent students of Scripture, becoming conversant over time with the Christian story so that we have the discernment to speak a life-giving word that meets the moment.

This may challenge an evangelical urgency and the impulse for immediacy, but it just might be that these require greater scrutiny.


The Gospel of the Kingdom

I’m heavy into the Gospel of Mark these days and thoroughly enjoying it.  In Mark, Jesus preaches the gospel of the kingdom.  That is, the subject matter of his preaching is the kingdom of God.  God’s long-awaited salvation in the form of God’s restored order of creation’s flourishing has arrived with the advent of Jesus, God’s appointed ruler of that realm.

Over the last several months, I’ve had several conversations about how the Gospels’ language about “the gospel” should shape how Christians conceive of the gospel.  Whereas the New Testament mainly envisions a broader announcement of a larger reality, many evangelicals associate “the gospel” with a brief presentation, or information about the mechanics of an individual transaction that can secure divine forgiveness and the establishment of a personal relationship with God.

In talking to friends, students, and colleagues, I’ve encountered some common questions: “How do I talk about that?  If the gospel is the announcement of this larger reality, how do I communicate that to someone?  What are the essential points I need to emphasize and how do I make it relevant to that person?”

I completely understand these questions coming from evangelicals who feel the burden of doing the work of evangelism.  Recognizing that something more profound is going on in biblical gospel proclamation is good, but it unsettles familiar notions of what communicating the gospel looks like.

I’d like to start a conversation around these questions and roll out some of my own thoughts over the next few days.

By the way, Scot McKnight hits this theme in his book, The King Jesus Gospel.


A Prayer for the New School Year

We prayed with our new students this prayer to begin the school year:

Father, we praise you for your grace to us in Christ.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you for calling us to yourself.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you for making us new, for transforming us by the power of your Spirit.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you for your word, for speaking your life-giving truth to your people.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you for your instruction, for giving us your wisdom.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you that you have called us to minister to your people.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you for equipping us for future ministries.
Lord, we give you thanks.
Father, we praise you for bringing us here, for making this possible.
Lord, we give you thanks.
 
Father, we ask for grace to be diligent in our studies.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, we ask for perseverance as we grow weary.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, we ask that you cultivate in us humility as we pursue our studies.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, we ask for aid against pride, complacency, and arrogance.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, we ask for aid against judgmentalism and the fear of others.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, give us grace to be good classmates, to put away a competitive spirit, and to help our sisters and brothers.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, give us humility to ask for help when we need it and to receive it with thanksgiving.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
Father, cleanse and purify us from the sins that destroy our souls and corrupt this community.
Lord, empower us by your Spirit.
 
O God who empowers us to persevere, you caused all holy scriptures to be written for our instruction;
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that by steadfastness, and by the encouragement of your holy Word,
we may embrace and ever hold fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.
 Amen.

Study as Worship, Pt. 2

A second thing to consider: Study is vitally related to worship in that a well-prepared minister is a blessing to God’s people.  Churches need fit and faithful servants.  God’s people need to hear from God’s word.  They need to hear from competent counselors about how to navigate life in the fear of the Lord.

One theologian has compared the task of theology to map-making.  Before you set out on a journey—say, an extended camping trip into the wilderness of the U.P.—you make a map, or even a set of maps; a topographical map, a map of where water stations are and where some towns are located.  You may make a map of elevation changes so that you can anticipate how tired you’ll be as you journey.  Making these different maps requires skill, study, research.  The more work and preparation you put into this, the safer you’ll be, the more you’ll enjoy the journey, the less risk you’ll run of getting yourself into trouble.  This sort of preparation is all the more important if you’re leading a group of people who haven’t camped in such conditions before.  It doesn’t do anyone any good when you run into trouble to rely on vague notions of something you may have heard from someone at some point, or pious platitudes.  You need to know what you’re doing in order to be of actual help.

In the same way, churches need skilled ministers who are well-versed in theology and in study of the Scripture and its various genres in order to be reliable guides, helping people navigate the storms and stresses of life.  And it’s not the point to learn big truths in order to impress people with your knowledge.  You need to penetrate into the core of Scripture’s great truths here in the classroom so that you can speak to people in their own language, translating the faith for everyday pilgrims on the sojourn of discipleship to Jesus.

You need to learn about walking faithfully with God when life hurts from Jeremiah and the Psalms.  You need to understand the subtle threats of life from Proverbs.  You need to grasp the surprising character of Jesus in Mark.  You think you know Jesus?  So did the disciples, and Jesus rebuked them time and again.  Maybe you need to take a closer look and see that you are really devoted to your idea of Jesus, and not the actual person.  Get to know Mark, and that Gospel will shake you to your core.  But that’ll be good for you and you’ll be good for the church, but only if you study.  Only if you apply yourself to your work, immerse yourself in the text of Scripture and grapple with the theological notions that your professors introduce to you.

There are loads of common-sense teachers out there.  If we want to hear from Dr. Phil we can just turn on the TV.  But God’s people need to hear from God.  And not just platitudes about God ripped off from Christian greeting cards.  Some of the most crushing and damaging things that come from the mouths of Christian people are empty platitudes that sound like wisdom, but are actually false counsel.  If you have a vague idea of what Scripture says, you’ll be of no use to the church.  But if you study diligently, you can be a gift to God’s people and skillfully invite them into the wonder of God’s blessing.

A third consideration: Do not imagine that study is the enemy of worship.  Pride is the enemy of worship.  Arrogance is the enemy of worship.  Presumption is the enemy of worship.  Disobedience is the enemy of worship.

But study fuels worship.  Study is worship.  When we study Scripture to make sure we’re understanding God rightly and faithfully, we’re worshiping.  When we study Greek and Hebrew so that we look more closely at texts that reveal to us God and his ways, we’re worshiping—we’re honoring God.  And this process ought to point us in the direction of fruitful and faithful living, which brings us joy and invites into our lives the blessing of God.  And we are seriously privileged and blessed when we are called to minister to others, to speak to them in life-giving ways, to point them to the good God of all creation, to exhort them to obedience, and to bring them comfort in times of sorrow and distress.

I hope that you can see that study is not an obstacle to worship.  Study is worship; study fuels lives of worship; and study drives a life that is shaped by the Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I hope that you are excited to embark on this journey of discovery of the richnesses contained in Scripture and the rich store of Christian reflection through the centuries.

And now, may God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who called us out of darkness into light, the God who spoke his life-giving word and who has given us an inheritance that will never perish or be taken away, the God who called us into ministry and who promises to never leave us or forsake us, may this God empower us, go with us, guide us and sustain us, throughout this semester and beyond. Amen.