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A Challenge to See

A Challenge to See

This past Sunday I was invited to preach in my home church, Chumuckla Community Church. It’s a real privilege to speak on the last Sunday of the year, hopefully rounding up where we have been and presenting a challenge for the future.

I was offered the epiphany scriptures, and used Matthew 2:1-12. I’m not going to summarize the sermon. My message was simple: We need to learn to see Jesus in people and respond accordingly. I contrasted the “god made manifest” of an Antiochus Ephiphanes, as opposed to the baby in Bethlehem. Where is it that you see Jesus?

Even further, how to you pursue the mission of Jesus? Is it according to the power-seeking ways of human politics, or is it in the giving ways of the Bethlehem story? Do you see God working when the powerful make power plays, or when servants serve?

I referred to Matthew 25:31-46. There are many debates about this passage. Years ago I read it as a performance based righteousness, and as identifying the specific type of righteous performance required. (I still think it identifies righteousness for a follower of Jesus.) I later realized that nobody who thought they were going to heaven actually were doing so, and those who were, didn’t realize it. (I understand the varying views of just what is involved in this judgment. I’m not concerned with that difference at the moment. The good guys don’t realize they’re good; the bad guys think they’re good.)

In the last couple of weeks, however, I became aware of a tragedy in the story. I’m not in any way presenting this as an interpretation of the parable. The blessing of a story, however, is that it can convey many things. The tragedy I see is that nobody at all was aware of the fact that they were seeing Jesus as they looked into the faces of people they either helped or didn’t. Not one recognized what they were seeing. This isn’t a question of salvation, but rather of the joy of living this life.

We can argue that we should help the homeless, as an example, on the basis that we ought to do good things. We ought to help those less fortunate. Unfortunately, this can result in condescension. We look at the person as a way to punch our “good person” ticket. Or, perhaps, we perform whatever act we do out of a sense of duty. “It sure is annoying, but I suppose Jesus wants me to help this person.” This leads, for example (and I’m guilty!) to looking the other way when we don’t have cash, or don’t intend to give to a particular person.

I’m not arguing that we need to give money to each and every person who asks. There is stewardship. There is the need to actually help. But what we do need to do is treat every person first as a human being, as one Jesus came to save, as bearing God’s image, and as a way in which we can see the face of Jesus. Hopefully, the other person will have the opportunity to see Jesus in us at the same time.

This is not a New Year’s resolution. I expect to fail at it many times. But my challenge to myself, and to you, is to see Jesus much more frequently, and not turn away from the faces in which he is trying to show himself to me.

And yes, you may see Jesus in the face of someone in need, someone that society might consider less than you. But you also might see Jesus in the face of one of the world’s elites. They also have a need to be treated as people.

As I asked the congregation of Chumuckla Community Church: Did you see Him? Will you?

Slippery Slopes

Slippery Slopes

There are a few terms that are quite true and yet misleading in many actual uses. I like to cite “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.” Precisely true, but in common use very likely an excuse for ordinary bad behavior. Whatever the intent, it ends up sounding like, “I’m a Christian, so I can do whatever I want to. If you question my actions, nobody’s perfect.” They’re not perfect; you’re not perfect. In this case, however, the true statement is being used as a bad excuse.

Or there’s the great “I’m an adult, so I’m not offended by your political views.” Just so! An adult will not be offended by the political views of others. Disagree, yes. Be offended, not so much. Though I’ll confess that some political (and religious, for that matter) views are quite offensive. But in practice this line is most frequently used by people who want to behave in an offensive manner. When someone objects, they have the passive-aggressive response. “Adults wouldn’t get offended.” So of course you’re not an adult because you get offended when they behave like toddlers. It’s true you shouldn’t get offended. What good does it do? But they’re really using it as an excuse, and as a way to manipulate you.

And then there are slipperly slopes. Slippery slopes are real. That’s because one idea leads to another. In fact, unless you start learning, you live your life on slippery slopes.

My particular brand of moderate, or passionate moderate as I like to call myself, celebrates being all across the slopes of various ideas. I like to identify the extremes on any particular idea or topic and then find all the ground between. Where is the best place to be? If the correct place to be is poised on the slippery slope, that’s where I want to be.

But “slippery slope” is more commonly used as a scare tactic against certain ideas. It is quite true, for example, some some people have gone from conservative Christianity, through moderate or mainline Christianity, then progressive Christianity, and then to atheism. It’s a slippery slope. Once you start thinking, it’s hard to be certain where you’ll go. It’s also true that many people have reacted badly to their conservative or fundamentalist upbringing and have then jumped straight to atheism.

Others have turned to Christian faith and then gotten narrower and narrower and harsher and harsher and ended up as dangerous cultists.

Yet others have turned to Jesus and slid right down the slippery slope to living a life of sacrifice and commitment to Jesus. Some of these have ended up doing mission work on the street.

I have named none of these, but there numbers are quite substantial.

You live in a world filled with slippery slopes. It’s not only likely you’ll make mistakes and find yourself sliding somewhere you don’t want to go. It’s likely someone else has taken a step similar to one you’ve just taken and then continued on to somewhere you don’t want to go.

My suggestion would be to always remember where you have been, and to always consider the foundations of what you believe. That will help you measure your movement and decide whether you really want the changes taking place or not.

Or, alternatively, you can anchor yourself where you are, and live in fear of the slippery slopes all around. It’s not all that likely you’ll be right or safe.

You might even avoid slipping into some beautiful new truths!

Beware of the fear of slippery slopes.

Reading, Studying, Discussing, Teaching, and Proclaiming but not Practicing

Reading, Studying, Discussing, Teaching, and Proclaiming but not Practicing

I was struck by Dave Black’s note on Hebrews 4:14-16 from Wednesday on his blog. I extracted it to jesusparadigm.com, as Dave’s blog is a journal that doesn’t offer links to individual posts. (I have his permission.)

I highly recommend his post. It struck me because Hebrews is such a central part of my reading and study. There are those who claim I can’t get through an hour of study, no matter what the subject, without referring to the book of Hebrews. Within Hebrews, 4:14-16 has to be one of my most quoted passages in the book.

Dave talks about not going to our great High Priest first. That really struck me, because I think I don’t either. The other day I woke up in a cold sweat because I had dreamed about something critical going wrong. Now I’m working through quite a number of things that can justify worry, in a normal sense. I was telling Jody about my “awakening” and she just said, “Next time you wake up in a cold sweat, just remind yourself that Jesus has it all under control.” Jesus says, “Can anxious thought add a single day to your life?” (Matthew 6:27 REB).

I don’t intend to do less. But I’d also like to worry less. None of the problems I’m facing have been alleviated by my worry. Not one.

Can We Have a Commitment to Biblical Truth?

Can We Have a Commitment to Biblical Truth?

We now come to the third mark of a New Testament church, and that is its commitment to biblical truth. One of the weakest aspects of Western Christianity is our failure to give proper teaching to new converts. As a result, biblical illiteracy plagues the church in America. This is a weakness in some mainline churches, and often in evangelical churches too. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 17)

I discussed this to some extent when I worked through this book, but now I want to place the question before my readers for some discussion. With the wide variety of beliefs that we claim are biblical, one wonders just what biblical truth is and how we discern it. Are all those who disagree not listening to the Holy Spirit? Are they ignorant?

Read my previous post, which also quotes from Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations.


 

Video Interview for Quit Christianity

Video Interview for Quit Christianity

Their title may not tell you precisely what they’re up to, but I’ll let you figure that out by visiting.

I was asked to answer a few questions for a video, with a key text of Romans 4:3. Here’s the video. It’s nice when someone truly skilled puts the final result together!

There’s lots of interesting stuff on their channel, which you can find by clicking through on the video link.

Grace and the Book of Hebrews

Grace and the Book of Hebrews

In my experience, Hebrews has provided a wealth of texts for sermons that call for works and human effort. Pride of place, perhaps, should be held by the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, for which one of the central texts is Hebrews 6:1. No matter how many times Wesley affirmed Christian perfection as a gift of grace, he was unable to prevent this becoming a basis for performance based salvation, judgment, and self-righteousness. (While I believe in sanctification, and will mention it below, I don’t accept the idea of perfection in this life.)

Hebrews 6:4-6 follows, which is often treated as teaching that if we commit some particular sin or other, we will lose our salvation for doing so. I’ve written about this recently, and I disagree, but I’ve heard it preached.

Then there’s Hebrews 10:26-31, starting with the warning against continuing in sin and ending with what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God.

Or Hebrews 11, so often preached as a litany of great accomplishments and presented against the lack of accomplishments in the congregation. We must, of course, become faithful like these heroes of ancient times and hold up our end of the deal. After all, God needs us and demands our service.

Hebrews 12 starts with the clouds of witnesses, which I’ve heard preached as the “encouragement” of having all these wonderful people watching you from heaven, so you had better not mess up. Don’t want all these holy people watching you mess up, do you?

Of course, you aim to accomplish all of this in fear of the God who is a devouring fire (12:29).

James may be seen as an epistle of works (not an accurate portrayal, in my view, but Hebrews may well have been the source of more sermons on performance righteousness.

But is this approach justified by the text of the letter itself? I don’t think so.

Let me make a couple of assertions that I’m not really going to justify. Knowing that I believe these may help you understand the rest of what I’m saying. The first is that there was never a plan for salvation presented in scripture that did not have as its goal the creation of a holy people. From the invitation to the first couple to walk in the garden with God, to the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, to Jesus asking disciples to follow him, to Paul inviting everyone to put their faith in Jesus, the anointed one, all the plans are part of one plan aiming at that point. The second is that grace is one of the, of not the, most difficult things to accept, because if grace is true, we are not in control. We humans like to be in control.

Hebrews is a book about God making a holy people, and it’s a book about how none of us are in control.

Hebrews starts with the description of God’s gracious gift, himself, in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-4 lays out this presentation. The one who is sent is sufficient to the task. As we move through the book, we see Jesus presented as one of us, tested as we are, and sharing in our experience. I have been asked whether I see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement. If this is a question of whether Jesus died for us and for our sins, then the answer is surely “yes.” But if we mean “penal substitutionary atonement,” as in Jesus taking our punishment in a judical context, I think the answer is “no.”

In Hebrews, Jesus is presented as becoming one of us. The necessary elements of the sacrifice is that it must be perfect, i.e., fully connected to God, and also fully ours. Then the form of “dying for” is incorporation. We are in Christ who is our king, our parent, and our priest, and we are incorporated in his death. He dies and we die “in him.” It is not a judicial substitution, but rather that the one dies for the nation (John 11:50) as one of the nation, indeed, as the king. The key here is that we become incorporated into that kingdom, that community, and are thus buried in his death and raised into his life (Romans 6). I think Hebrews is closely aligned with this Pauline theological presentation. Everything we are called to accomplish in the book is accomplished in Christ. That’s why Christ is presented first in the book and his superiority is established. (Refer again back to my post on Hebrews 6:4-6 for some backup for this idea.)

So when we are called to perfection, we are called to be carried on to perfection. This is not the perfection of a person who lives a perfect life, and certainly not something we accomplish on our own. That’s clear through the arguments on why Jesus is the perfect high priest. In order to make that argument, one must establish that we are not capable of this on our own. The perfection to which we are called and to which we are carried is not ours, but the perfection of Jesus (Hebrews 5:9). He, Christ, is the source of salvation.

Of course it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but we can instead be in the hands of the living God through the high priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses. Of course, there is no more sacrifice for sin. If Jesus has opened a “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:19-20), then the only options are to go through it or not. If we are offered complete access to God and incorporation into his redemption and sanctification, what other option is needed? What other option could possible work?

Then there’s Hebrews 11, which I think provides the key to the view of the message of Hebrews I’m presenting here. Contrary to those who preach Hebrews 11 as a triumph of the saints, it is, in fact, a triumph of grace in action. We err if we read this without adequate consideration of the stories from the Hebrew scriptures of these great heroes. Moses doesn’t fear the wrath of the king in Hebrews 11, but he flees in terror in Exodus. Sarah is rewarded for faith, but in Genesis she laughs. These people were not those who tried to obtain perfection, but those who were carried on to perfection. In 11:40 we are told that God’s plan was that they should attain perfection “with us.”

That perfection, I believe is found in Jesus, and only in Jesus.

These are the witnesses of Hebrews 12. We are being watched as we are carried on by those who have been carried before us. The question is truly simply whether we will truly be carried on. We can miss this both by thinking that we are going to do it ourselves, or by missing that it needs to be done at all. I’ve used the metaphor of a train for the theme of Hebrews. Get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination. You can equally fail by sitting at the train station by never getting on the train, or if you set out to run alongside the train on your own power. Neither one will work. But if you get on the train you’ll move forward. (As with all metaphors, this one has its weaknesses!)

In this view of grace, it is not put against faith. It is not faith vs. works, as though there were two approaches and one was better. It’s not a balance between faith and works. No amount of running, even combined with train-riding attempts, is adequate. But sitting in the station is also not a real option.

What I think Hebrews makes clear is that the grace is available. Jesus opens the way to God. This is grace in action. But rather than being the enemy of true works, works of faith, grace is what opens the door and makes any works, any holiness, and any approach to God possible. Sanctification occurs only on the train, i.e., only when we are being carried on toward perfection in Jesus, our brother, our sacrifice, our high priest, and our king.

That’s why I see grace as the critical key to the entire book of Hebrews, but I also see the book as providing a critical view of grace, a grace that is active, even more, that is God’s action taken in our lives.

In this post I have not provided nearly enough scripture and logic to back this up fully. This is just an introduction. My recommendation is that you consider these ideas while reading the entire book to see what you find.

(Feature image credit: Openclipart.org.)

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

Dave Black writes about spiritual gifts and natural abilities. (Link on jesusparadigm.com, to make a permanent link available.) I like what he said. I want to add a note. You can find more of my comments on 1 Corinthians 12-14 under the 1 Corinthians tag on this site.

The problem that I see commonly with our reading of 1 Corinthians 12 especially is that we assume that Paul is setting out to explain spiritual gifts. I don’t think that’s what he’s up to. Rather, he is using the variety of spiritual gifts as a means to talk about Christian unity, and as a way to teach discernment of all of our activities.

Everything is a gift of God. There are gifts that God places in the body of believers for the purpose of carrying out ministry. Whether these gifts are “spiritual” or not is not a function of whether they are received from God or not. All gifts come from God. The issue is under whose authority we place these gifts. If you take a look especially at 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and then focus on 11, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit,” you will start to get the picture, I think. This isn’t a list of “approved” spiritual gifts, and it isn’t a question of what gifts come from God and what gifts occur naturally. Nature itself belongs to God. The natural is divine by gift of its creator.

Acting under one Spirit, however, is an excellent test. The gift, whether designated spiritual or not, that is used to tear down rather than to build up is distinctly unspiritual in this sense.

Another error we often make is to extract 1 Corinthians 13 from the passage of 12-14. (Of course, the structure of the entire book is important as well.) I recently read an article, and I now can’t recall the source, that mentioned this wasn’t a wedding passage, and indeed it isn’t. Nontheless I will say it’s fine at weddings, because scripture uses the marital relationship as a metaphor to tell us about the divine relationship and also about the body of Christ. But here it is Paul’s principles for the use of God’s gifts in a spiritual way. He in turn makes those principles explicit in detailed action in 1 Corinthians 14.

We shouldn’t be complacent in reading 1 Corinthians 14. We sometimes read it as a corrective to raucous or disorganized worship services, but the worst problem we have is that we don’t have the problems that the Corinthian church had in worship. We don’t have everyone showing up with each having “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (14:26, NIV). We each show up only with a backside to plant in a pew.

We need first to put our gifts into God’s hands for service, and then we can start talking about how to best use them in an edifying, i.e. building, worship service.

These three chapters are powerful, and I think incredibly relevant to the church today. We should have problems like the Corinthian church!

 

Thoughts on James 2

Thoughts on James 2

Our Sunday School lesson, which I’m not teaching this week, is from James, focusing on chapter 2. I’m not teaching, but in studying, I looked at a book I publish, Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James.

Bruce Epperly makes a number of important comments. I’m going to do a bit of quoting from his chapter 3, pp. 15-21.

One of my great joys is my first glimpse of the steeple of South Congregational Church, when I round the bend toward home. In earlier times, the church’s steeple guided mariners safely to shore. Today, the bells andsteeple serve a reminder that the church’s mission is to be a light on the hillside and, as our congregation’s motto proclaims, “to learn, love, and live the word of God.” (p. 15)

I like that motto, “learn, love, and live.” I think it may go the other way as well, we learn from what we live, especially when we’re trying to live the word of God.

Faith means nothing unless it lights the way of pilgrims and seekers, providing guidance, comfort, and nurture. (p. 16)

Here Bruce combines faith in action and faith in witness (and our action is, I think, our best witness) in a way of which I think James would approve. We are not Christians, or Jesus people, for our own benefit alone. We receive grace to share grace. That’s why grace cannot be a passive thing. It erupts in action.

… The Apostle asserts that because God loves us, our vocation is to love one another, even if this means crossing the barriers of race and ethnicity. Grace makes us all first-class Christians, worthy of respect regardless of ethnicity or economics. This is the essence of James’ message as well.

James believes that a holistic faith brings together belief and action. In the spirit of the Quakers, what is important to James is to “Let your life speak.” … (p. 17)

I think that the tendency of many interpreters to see James and Paul as opponents is misguided. They do have a different emphasis, but it is not because Paul hated or devalued action or that James thought beliefs were unimportant. Each had an emphasis, but these emphases are compatible or complementary.

Loving Jesus means loving your neighbor. And if James is right, it means standing aloof and becoming counter-cultural in
relation to socially-acceptable, but life-destroying, values – “being unstained by the world” – that put profits ahead of people, neglect the needy, and blame the poor for their poverty. We are all created in the image of God and we all deserve to be loved, to have a place to call home, and an opportunity to live out our gifts and talents as God’s beloved daughters and sons. (p. 19)

That’s were it will start to get with us. Sanctified wallets are the hardest of possessions to acquire. Or, looked at the other way, the wallet is the hardest thing to give up. How much stuff must we have? What is first in our life? Putting God first will result in also putting our neighbor first.

But what can you do? Maybe all you have to spare is coins in your pocket.

In the realm of God, no deed is too small, for with one action at a time we can become God’s companions in healing the world. Let your life speak. (p. 20)

This is a great little book, just 40 pages of text from Energion’s Topical Line Drives series, for accompanying a study of James. It might just be, as the subtitle suggests, life transforming!

Read Now

 

Following the Path of Jesus

Following the Path of Jesus

On January 1 God called two texts to my attention as themes for the year. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. I haven’t said a great deal about this, though the theme of those texts has shown up in a number of posts. Then yesterday I saw Dave Black’s latest translation of Philippians 1:27-30, which I like a great deal, and I wanted to mention it. Reading a text in a modern, clear, might I say dynamic, rendering brings it home. Here’s the translation:

Now the only thing that really matters is that you make it your habit to live as good citizens of heaven in a manner required by the Good News about Christ, so that, whether or not I’m able to go and see you in person or remain absent, I will be hearing that all of you, like soldiers on a battlefield, are standing shoulder to shoulder and working as one team to help people put their trust in the Good News. Don’t allow your enemies to terrify you in any way. Your boldness in the midst of opposition will be a clear sign to them that they will be destroyed and that you will be saved, because it’s God who gives you salvation. For God has granted you the privilege on behalf of Christ of not only believing in Him but also suffering for Him. Now it’s your turn to take part with me in the life-or-death battle I’m fighting — the same battle you saw me fighting in Philippi and, as you hear, the one I’m fighting now. (emphasis mine)

This emphasized line led me to a quote from Bruce Epperly’s book Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide:

Even now in our time, we can take confidence in Paul’s assertion that God is with us and that, in life and death, and celebration and persecution, Christ sustains us. We are resurrection people. But, our lives are also cruciform or cross-shaped. The Risen Jesus is known initially by his wounds, and we too may experience suffering and loss as a result of our relationship with Christ. Still, at the end of the day, integrity, fidelity, and the promise of resurrection life far outweigh any trials of this lifetime. – p. 19

Bruce also quotes the song “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It’s a good song, but it’s one that should be very hard to sing. No, not musically, but due to meaning.

(I must note here in passing that I love to use materials that come from very different theological streams. It is especially important, I think, when people from opposite sides of the spectrum agree fully on the meaning of a text, even more so when that text says something people would often rather not hear.)

On the night when Jesus was betrayed, there were twelve people (at least) who had decided to follow Jesus. One betrayed him. One denied him publicly. The rest “advanced in the opposite direction.” We can take hope from the fact that so many found their way back!

Ephesians 5:2 similarly gives us a hard call “walk in love.” Now we like that, because we often call very unloving things “love.” But the verse goes on “just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. We have a very clear pattern for what love actually means. I’m a love proclaimer. I believe in the power of love. The reason love so often seems wishy-washy, that it so often fails, is that what we call love is often partial. It is not commitment, but rather a sort of generic liking. That’s why the key to following Jesus is not the experience of miraculous physical acts, or wealth, or healing for everyone in sight, or healing of all our emotional ills. The key to following Jesus is the willingness to take up the “privilege” of suffering for him.

This, I must confess, is not the true story of my life. Nonetheless, just as I can travel northward by using the pole star as a guide even though I’ll never reach it, so I will keep facing this way, and trust in the grace of the One who gave himself first.

(Allow me to call attention to two previous posts: God Perfected through Suffering and Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?)